The doctine of incarnation (Avatar) is one of the most widely known of Hindu beliefs. A common question many ask, after learning of the many incarnations of Vishnu in Vaishnava theology is whether Shiva also has incarnations (Avatars), and if not, why not? The answer to this question is quite complex and technical. Obviously as one might expect, the answer will also depend on the person answering - whether it is a "general” Hindu person who speaks from a Smarta perspective, or if it is a Shaivite Hindu who speaks from a Shaivite perspective. The perspectives presented below are from Shaivite schools of thought.
What is Incarnation (Avatar)?
The Sanskrit term avatara (derived from ava + tarati) literally means “descent” or “to cross/come down”. The doctrine of Avatar can be loosely summarized as the belief that from time to time God specifically descends down or takes a birth in a certain form, usually human, to accomplish an intended purpose, and then quits that form after fulfilling that purpose. This doctrine is an essential part of Vaishnava belief, which elaborates various types and grades of Avatars. The most famous of the Vaishnava Avatars are obviously Rama and
The doctrine of Avatar may be traced back to Tantric texts of Vaishnavism called the Pancharatra Agamas, which elaborate the five forms of God, including the Avatar form which is technically called the Vibhava Rupa (form of might or magnanimity). This early teaching of the followers of the Pancharatra system was summarized in the Narayaniya section of Shantiparva (book 12) of the Mahabharata epic. Following the Mahabharata, the Avatar doctrine received further structuring with the composition of the Puranas. This is the basis of the incarnation doctrine known in Hinduism today, which is Vaishnava in origin, but also accepted by Smartas with certain philosophical twists.
Agamic Shaivism does not recognize Avatars
From the standpoint of Shiva-Shasana (Agamic Shaivism), God has no Avatars (incarnations). What do we mean by Avatar (incarnation) here? As used here, Avatar or incarnation specifically means the idea that God takes a birth in a certain family, fulfills the intended purpose, and then gives up that form – this sort of teaching is absent in Shaivism and the Shaiva Agamas.
Now, what about all the instances in the secondary literature - Puranas and Itihasas - where Shiva appears in one form or another: are these legends completely rejected by Shaivites? No, these legends are not rejected by Shaivites, but put into perspective. These various appearances of Shiva in mystic visions, in various legends, stories, Itihasas, Puranas, etc. are referred to as forms or manifestations (not Avatars or incarnations), and technically termed Maheshvara Murtis (forms of the Great Lord). In fact, Agamic Shaivism recognizes 64 of these Maheshvara Murtis, and considers 25 of them as primary. These forms, however, are not to be termed Avatars.
“Avatar” in Agamic Shaivism
Within Shaivism, one finds that the term avatara (i.e. “descent”) has a different connotation altogether. The descent in Shaivism is not of God’s form, but of God’s knowledge. Some of the earliest of Shaiva Agamas begin with chapters called Tantra-Avatara Patala (Chapter on the Descent of Tantras). The most famous one of these comes from the first Agama text of Shaivism, the Kamika-Agama Mahatantra, which explains that Shiva alone is the source of all knowledge – Vedic, Agamic, philosophical, secular and even heretical. Since all knowledge is considered descended from Shiva Himself, Shiva-Dakshinamurti is the primal Teacher, the Guru of all gurus.
There is nothing greater than the Guru, nothing greater than the Guru, nothing greater than the Guru, nothing greater than the Guru. Shiva is Guru. Shiva is Guru. Shiva is Guru. Shiva is Guru. (Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati V:63)
Any human Guru or Siddha who is fully realized and perfectly embodies the divine knowledge of Shiva is therefore identified with Shiva Himself. This is why we find the most famous Sages, Siddhas and Satgurus like Dattatreya, Durvasa, Agastya, Lakulisha and Gorakshanatha identified with Shiva. Similarly, the most famous of Shivacharyas of Kashmiri and Tamil Shaivism, Abhinavagupta and Manikkavacagar respectively, have also both been called Shiva in human form because they were perfectly absorbed in the knowledge of Shiva. It is entirely possible that Adi Shankaracharya came to be originally identified with Shiva by his followers (Smartas) for the very same reason.
Avatars in the Linga Purana and Pashupatism
The identification of the true guru (Satguru) with Shiva is a very old tradition dating back to the ancient Pashupata religion. Around the first century CE, the Pashupata religion was reformed by the great yogi-master, Lakulisha, and came to be called the Lakulisha-Pashupata system. One of the key beliefs of the Lakulisha-Pashupatas was that in every dvapara and kali yugas, a great guru of mankind arises who so fully embodies the divine knowledge of Shiva that he is to be considered a veritable incarnation of Shiva. According to this system, such a guru who appears in the dvapara yuga is called a Veda Vyasa, and one who appears in the kali yuga is called a Yogeshvara. This teaching of the Lakulisha-Pashupatas is found in the Linga Purana, which identifies Krsna-Dvaipayana and Lakulisha as the most recent Veda Vyasa and Yogeshvara respectively. In fact, the Linga Purana goes on to list 28 Veda Vyasas and 28 Yogeshvaras that have thus far been. This doctrine, although well-known, has not been inherited by Agamic Shaivism and is not generally accepted, except possibly through the interpretation that fully realized gurus may be equated with Shiva Himself, but not as special descents of the Lord.
Once again, it must be stressed that in Shaivism, there are multitudes of forms and manifestations of the Lord that are recognized and worshipped, but the doctrine of Avatar as defined above is absent. The idea that certain beings may actually see/experience a form of God is definitely part of Shaivite theology. What is not found in Shaivite theology is the teaching that God especially takes a birth in a certain family, lives as a human being to fulfill a certain purpose, and then quits that form after fulfilling that purpose. It is not, however, contrary to Shaivism to believe that great beings may be born on this earth to uplift mankind spiritually. Shaivite theology calls them Siddhas or Sages, and not special descents (Avatars) of God. Certainly from a non-dualistic sense it may be said that every being is an “incarnation” of God; but it must be stressed that systems which truly teach of Avatars hold them not to be realized ordinary mortals, but special descents of God Himself.
Aum Namah Shivaya.
© Agnideva, 2007. All rights reserved.