Among the theistic philosophies of Hinduism, three topics are of prime importance: the nature of the Divine Being, the nature of the individual soul, and the nature of the manifest universe. Different schools of philosophy deal with these topics using different technical terms. In the Vedanta school, which is by far the most famous, the technical terms used are Brahman (Ishvara), Atman (Jiva) and Jagat (or Maya). By comparison, the Shaivite school of thought, while accustomed to the Vedantic terms, has its own unique triad of Pati, Pashu (Paśu) and Pasha (Pāśa).
The triad of Pati-Pashu-Pasha is known as the Essential Triad (Padartha Traya or Tattva Traya) because it is the essence around which Shaivite philosophies are constructed especially in the knowledge portion (jnanapada) of the Agamas. The conception of the Essential Triad is set upon an ancient, yet still quite applicable, pastoral image. The imagery these terms invoke is that of a cowherd, who at dawn lets his cattle out to graze. During the bulk of the day, the cattle freely graze without thought of their herder, who nonetheless is always with them, watching over them, though seemingly distant. At the end of the day, the cattle again become conscious of the herder and look for the cowherd to drive the herd back home. The cowherd in this analogy is the Pati, the cattle are the Pashus, and that which keeps them bound to the pasture (hunger, thirst, etc.) is the Pasha. In fact, in the literal sense, Pati means “master” or “owner”; Pashu means “beast” or “cattle”, and Pasha means “bind” or “fetter”. The philosophical ideation that emerges from this trite analogy relates that at the beginning of the day (creation), the Pati (Lord) has allowed the Pashus (individual souls) out to graze (i.e. experience the transient world or Pasha). The pleasures and pains of the transient world (Pasha) have bound them, and kept their thoughts away from the Pati, though He is always with them. Toward the end of the day (dissolution), the Pashus again long for the Pati, for only He can drive them back home, so they can be united with Him yet again.
Per Shaivite philosophy, then, Pati is a technical term for the Lord (Shiva), the supreme Creator, Sustainer, Dissolver, who eternally watches over and is inseparable from the Pashus. Pashus are the individual souls, beings that experience limitedness of the Pasha, which represents the transient world(s) of subjective experience. The Essential Triad of Pati-Pashu-Pasha is a Shaivite alternative for the Vedantic triad of Brahman-Atman-Jagat. Just as in Vedanta, where both monistic and dualistic interpretations exist, so also in the schools of Agamic Shaivism. The varying interpretations deal with the relationship between Pati, Pashu and Pasha. Monistic branches argue that essentially there is but one reality, the reality of Shiva. Multiplicity of Pashus and the multi-facted Pasha, though real, are non-different from the Pati’s reality, and are in fact part of His universal experience, willed upon Himself by Himself. Pluralistic branches argue that essentially there are three eternal realities: the reality of the Pati, that of innumerable Pashus and that of the Pasha. The reality of the latter two is held, supported and modified by the reality of Pati.
Seal of Pashupati
It should be clear from the above discussion that while the word Pashu-pati, a composite of two of the terms from the Essential Triad and one of Shiva’s many names, means in a literal sense “Master of beasts,” theologically and philosophically it implies “Lord of souls”. The term and image of Pashupati (meditating ascetic Shiva in lotus position) go back far into history, perhaps as far back as the Indus-Sarasvati civilization or even earlier. One of the most famous seals discovered in the Indus-Sarasvati excavations is the seal of Pashupati shown on the left. Note that the sitting Pashupati is surrounded by men and beasts. He is the Pashupati, and they are His Pashus residing in Pasha. The ancience of the Essential Triad is also reflected in the fact that the first historically identifiable sect of Shaivism called itself the Pashupata, taking its name after Pashupati, the Lord of souls. Finally, the icon of Lord Shiva enshrined in arguably the oldest living Shaivite temple is called Pashupatinath. Not surprisingly, the site of the temple of Pashupatinath in Kathmandu (Nepal) was once a major seat of Pashupatism, and has retained its strong connections with descendents of Pashupata ascetic lineages.
Aum Pashupataye Namah.
Agnideva © 2007. All rights reserved.