These forms of Shiva show the way to pluralism, justice and peace

Nikhil Mandalaparthy-

Nikhil Mandalaparthy

Nikhil Mandalaparthy is advocacy director at Hindus for Human Rights and a board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. The views expressed are his own.

Shiva, like many gods and goddesses across South Asia, is known by a staggering variety of names and forms. Some of these names are popular: Ardhanareeshwara (half-woman lord), Maheshwara (the great lord), Gangadhara (bearer of the Ganga).

Some names are unique to sacred sites: at Ujjain, he is Mahakaleshwar (great lord of time), at Varanasi he is Vishwanath (lord of the universe), in Tiruchirappalli, he is Thayumanavar (lord who came as a mother).

This Mahashivaratri (Mar 1), I would like to draw attention to a few names and forms of Shiva which are less popular. Rather than originating in elite texts or well-known pilgrimage centers, these names of Shiva were coined by individuals whom we can describe as coming from the margins of what we now call “Hindu society”: a 12th-century sex worker in Karnataka, the anti-caste activist and educator Savitribai Phule, and a community of Sindhi refugees in Gujarat.

At a time when Hindu deities and traditions are being weaponized by the intertwined forces of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) and caste oppression, I suggest these forms of Shiva offer us an alternative vision of peace and justice for all.

Nirlajjeshwara, Lord Without Shame

For Soole Sankavva, a sex worker who lived in modern-day Karnataka around 900 years ago, Shiva was her beloved Nirlajjeshwara, ‘lord without shame’. She was a member of the Lingayat/Virashaiva tradition, founded in the 12th century CE by Basavanna and characterized by the monotheistic worship of Shiva and its rejection of caste practices and hierarchies.

The vachana is a free-verse poetic form in Kannada that was developed by poet-saints of this tradition, most famously Akka Mahadevi, Basavanna, and Jedara Dasimayya. Today, we know of only one vachana attributed to Soole Sankavva. In it, she boldly names the violence she faces at the hands of men — threats of bodily mutilation and death. Centuries later, we know that sex workers like Sankavva continue to face deadly violence, not to mention deep-rooted social stigma and discrimination. A 2015 survey found that on average, a fifth of female sex workers in India were attacked four times a month, and a 2013 report noted that 37 percent of female sex workers in India reported being physically abused by police.

Given the ostracism and violence that Soole Sankavva must have faced in her life, it is striking that she addresses Shiva as Nirlajjeshwara, meaning ‘lord without shame’. Based on her sole surviving vachana, it seems she chose to take refuge in a deity who rejects notions of shame, thus affirming her self-worth and dignity. In India and across the world, men in positions of power use ideas of “shame” and “honor” to police women’s bodies and choices.

What would it look like for each of us, no matter our gender identity, to reject shame itself? To both reject internalized shame, but also challenge ourselves not to shame others?

A world in which people of all genders are able to enjoy autonomy and dignity may sound like a far-fetched dream today; but Shiva in the form of Soole Sankavva’s Nirlajjeshwara encourages us to aspire towards this reality.

Savitribai Phule’s Destroyer of Ignorance

Centuries after Soole Sankavva, in the neighboring region of present-day Maharashtra, another remarkable woman invoked Shiva as the destroyer of ignorance. This was none other than Savitribai Phule (1831-1897 CE), a key figure of the modern anti-caste movements and India’s first woman teacher.

Savitribai was born into the Mali caste, today classified among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in India. Along with her husband Jyotiba Phule, she was a pioneering social reformer, committed to girls’ education, women’s rights, and equal rights for Dalits and other oppressed castes.

In 1848, when she was just 17, Savitribai, her colleague Fatima Sheikh and Jyotiba opened the first girls’ school in India.

In 1854, at the age of 23, Savitribai composed a collection of Marathi poems titled Kavya Phule. In one of these poems, ‘Shiva Prarthana’ (a prayer to Shiva), she expresses heartfelt devotion to Shiva.

In this poem, Savitribai includes common epithets of Shiva: Neelakantha, the ‘blue-throated one’ and Trilochan, ‘the three-eyed one’. However, she also addresses Shiva in a more unexpected way: as the destroyer of ignorance. Near the end of the poem, she declares that “He bestows complete knowledge on the ignorant” (ajñānīs jñān deṇe pūrṇa) and in the final line, she calls out to him: “Bless us with the boon of annihilating our ignorance. This is Savitri’s prayer” (ajñān naṣṭ kārī, var sarva lābho / prārthanā hī sāvitrīcī).

Hindu theologian Anantanand Rambachan writes that “it is easy and tempting… to represent ignorance as an abstract, distant and ethereal phenomenon, disconnected from the concrete realities of human life”.

Throughout her life, Savitribai challenged ignorance in the forms of caste oppression and patriarchy. The consequences she faced were anything but abstract: ‘upper’ caste Hindus would pelt her and Fatima Sheikh with stones, mud and cow dung as they walked to school, to the point where they had to carry clean saris to change into once they reached the school premises.

With this in mind, Savitribai Phule’s prayer to Shiva to “annihilate our ignorance” takes on a concrete dimension, serving as a call to action for each of us to do our part in pushing back against caste and patriarchy.

Shri Nirvasiteshwar, Lord of Refugees

Around 100 years after Savitribai wrote her poem to Shiva, a group of Sindhi refugees created their own vision of Shiva. Displaced from their homeland Sindh by the violence of Partition in 1947, a group of Hindu refugees settled in the Kutch district of Gujarat. In 1951, they constructed a temple to Shiva in the town of Adipur, where he is worshiped as Shri Nirvasiteshwar, Lord of Refugees.

These refugees found solace in the story of Shiva after the death of his first wife Sati, when he roamed the universe as a grief-stricken wanderer. Seeing parallels to their own situation, they decided that they would worship Shiva as the god of all displaced peoples.

To this day, there are plaques displayed outside the Shri Nirvasiteshwar temple in Hindi and Sindhi, which historian Uttara Shahani translates as saying: “This is a special manifestation of Shiva who expresses the feelings of crores of uprooted people in these times who have no homes and have had to scatter themselves hither and thither.”

According to U.N. estimates, there are over 80 million displaced people all over the world. India is one of the few countries to have not signed the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, meaning that the Indian government sees “no legal obligation to recognize or shelter refugees”.

Despite this, India is home to nearly 200,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet and other locations. Sadly, even as some Indian communities have welcomed refugees, Hindu nationalist politicians and leaders have vilified Muslim refugees such as the Rohingya while also weaponizing the plight of Hindu and Sikh refugees from neighboring countries to further animosity toward Indian Muslims.

As India continues to see an influx of refugees from Myanmar, and countries around the world prepare to welcome Ukrainian refugees, the example of Shiva as Lord of Refugees — not just Hindu refugees, but all “uprooted people” — feels more poignant than ever.

The hosts of the podcast Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion argue that “religion is what people do”. Concretely, this means religion is, and always has been, political. Our gods and goddesses, prayers, customs and festivals have been shaped by the unique social, economic and political contexts in which they arose.

Thus, it would be inaccurate to claim that the politicization of Hindu traditions under the Modi government is a new phenomenon. And the long history of caste oppression within many Hindu religious traditions is undeniable. But it is safe to say that over the past few years, Hindu identity and practices are being transformed into tools of majoritarian violence at an unprecedented rate. Add to this the shameful silence of most Hindu religious leaders when it comes to caste violence and religious hatred, and we arrive at a rather bleak picture.

What does this mean for ordinary Hindus today? What does it mean to celebrate Mahashivaratri when Narendra Modi campaigns from Shiva’s sacred city Varanasi and broadcasts his worship of Kashi Vishwanath on national television?

Hindus who are religious and believe in social justice and peace have a choice. Either we can give up on our traditions, leaving them in the hands of the BJP and RSS; or we can get creative. To me, this latter option means to follow in the footsteps of Soole Sankavva, Savitribai Phule and the Sindhi refugees in Kutch, each of whom imaginatively infused their devotion with their progressive values and politics – even if they may not have phrased it that way.

Let’s continue to celebrate Shiva in his forms of Ardhanareeshwara, Nataraja and so many others. But let’s also take time to remember him as Lord Without Shame; as the Destroyer of Ignorance in all its forms, primarily caste and patriarchy; and as Lord of Refugees, lover of all displaced peoples.

Let these names and forms inspire us to fight for pluralism, justice, and peace for all beings.


[Republising with author’s permission. The article first appeared in The Wire.]