Pashupata Cult and the Ancient Temples of Bhubaneshwar

During 1980s, I visited Bhubaneswar regularly and as a child one thing that always fascinated me were its numerous Shiva temples. Richly adorned with sculptures of Hindu divinities, mythical beasts, foliage and ordinary men and women, the child in me wondered why there were so many temples dedicated to a single deity? As I grew older, one particular sculpture never failed to fascinate me and that was – Lakulisha, a Shaivite teacher who closely resembled Gautama Buddha.

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Rajarani Temple

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Parasurameswar Temple, Rear View

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Parasurameswara Temple, Front View

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Vaital Deala

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Lingaraj Temple

7th century CE heralded an era that marked the beginning of temple building activity in Bhubaneshwar. It was an interesting time period in history as dynasties like the Mauryas and the Guptas were no longer extant and there was no pan Indian empire. But thanks to their contribution of bringing India together in the preceding centuries, there was a high degree of mobility among people from north to south and east to west. This led to the proliferation of cross-cultural ideas that would eventually lead to form the foundation of India.

Bhubaneshwar, situated at the heart of Kalinga kingdom, had become a melting pot of ideas with influences from north and south and east and west. The introduction of Lakulisha cult around this time is a testimony of such cultural interactions.

Lakulisha, literally meaning the club bearing deity, is shown in temples of Bhubaneswar as seated cross-legged in dharma-chakra-pravartana mudra with a lakuta (stick) held between one arm. He is either shown single or with his four disciples – Karushya, Garga, Mitra and Kushika.

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Lakulisa – Parasurameswara Temple

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Lakulisa – Parasurameswara Temple

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Lakulisa – Vaital Deula

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Lakulisa – Sisereswara Temple

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Lakulasa – Rajarani Temple

Lakulisha, a Brahmin from Kayavarohan near Vadodara in Gujarat was the founder of Pashupata sect of Shaivism. The Pashupata sect finds mention in the Mahabharata. According to the Vayu Purana and the Linga Purana, Shiva revealed that he would make an appearance on earth during the age of Vishnu’s incarnation as Vasudeva (Krishna). Shiva indicated that he would enter the dead body of a Brahmana and incarnate himself as Lakulin (or Nakulin or Lakulisha, lakula meaning “club”).

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Kayavarohan, Gujarat – Lakulisa Temple

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Lakulisa Deity, Kayavarohan

Shaivism according to some historians and archaeologists is a pre-Aryan cult and its origin can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. However, with the spread of Vedic religion, early Shaivism had lost its importance. Considered the 28th incarnation of Shiva, Lakulisha revived and propagated the ancient cult of Pashupati worship. He bought the various Shaivite sects under the umbrella of Pashupata, meaning the followers of Pashupati, the Lord of Beasts. Lakulisha opposed Vedic religion, Jainism and more particularly Buddhism. He is also said to have restored the practice of Haatha Yoga and tantrism.

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Pasupati Shiva, Padri, An Indus Valley Site, Gujarat (?)

Soon after its establishment in the 1st century CE, the Pashupata cult spread all over North India with Mathura becoming a major centre. Pashupata Shaivism was an ascetic movement and its followers were required to liberate themselves from worldly affairs by practicing the Pashupatavrata. Their path was tough, a path of ruining the ego, annihilating the physical self for nourishing the spiritual self.

Their Sadhana (spiritual practice) usually begun with the deepening of an ethical code (yama and niyama), the accent being laid on Brahmacharya (abstinence, continence), Ahimsa (non-violence) and Tapas (austerity). The discipline was practiced in stages. In the first stage they would take various vows, and practice releasing techniques.These techniques included laughing, singing, and dancing.

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In the next stage, they became a part of the society and lived incognito. Here, they would practice various shocking actions, with the purpose of attracting people’s disapproval and condemnation, gossiping, making strange sounds while in public, snoring, walking about as if they have been crippled, and so on. They would bathe their body three times a day in sand and lie in ashes while singing bhajans in praise of Lord Shiva.

The Pashupatas believe that when a person is firm in his or her virtue then that person is capable of taking any abuse or insult serenely and is well placed on the path of the ascetics. According to the Pashupata Sutra, a Pashupata Yogi must appear as a lunatic, beggar, with the body dirty, grown beard, long hair and nails, with no care shown whatsoever to the body. By such means, the devotee cuts off his or her access to fortunes and possessions of the physical world.

According to archaeologist, late Prof K.C Panigrahi, an expert on Bhubaneswar’s history, some of the earliest temples in the city have been named after the famous teachers of the Pashupata sect. For example, Parasurameshwar Temple, built in the 7th century CE, was earlier named as Parasavara after the Pashupata teacher Parasara. Kapileshwara is yet another temple named after a Pashupata teacher, Kapila who was one of the successors of Kushika, a disciple of Lakulisha. The temple of Mitreswara, which stands in the vicinity of Yameswara Temple, has been named after Mitra, who was one of the four principle disciples of Lakulisha. The naming of shrines after the names of dead teachers was an established custom in the Pashupata sect.

A lingam representing a dead teacher was planted and a temple was erected for the same. This may have been one of the reasons for the large number of Shiva lingams in Ekamra Kshetra, as was the holy city of Bhubaneshwar earlier called. According to Ekamra Purana, there were 10 million such Shiva lingams in Bhubaneswar. However, this can be taken as an exaggeration.

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A Panel in Lingaraj Temple

A close observation of early images of Lakulisha in Bhubaneswar reveals an uncanny resemblance to the images of the Buddha. Odisha, during this period, was a major Buddhist establishment under the patronage of Bhaumakara rulers. Some of the early temples of Bhubaneshwar were deeply influenced by Buddhist art and architecture. The practice of erecting a stupa enshrining the relics of a dead may have influenced the Pashupatas to erect lingams for their dead teachers. In Ratnagiri, the largest among all Buddhist sites, excavations have unearthed a staggering number of votive stupas suggesting the magnitude of the practice.

Though it is still not established how this cult reached Bhubaneshwar, archaeological sources suggest that Ekamra Kshetra continued to attract the followers and teachers of the Pashupata cult for a very long period of time. Even today at Bharati Math, in the old city, miniature temples are being erected to enshrine fresh lingams and its courtyard is full of a large number of lingams representing generations of teachers beginning from 7th century CE.

In the modern cosmopolitan city of Bhubaneshwar there are no followers of this ascetic cult. In fact the youth may find it hard to believe that once scores of Shaivite monks roamed its streets carrying out strange rituals such as bathing their bodies in ashes, singing loudly in praise of their lord, dancing in any manner, curling their tongue and roaring like bulls. The only traces of this ancient cult are now found in the sculptural panels and the medieval temples that populate the city.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

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