Shiva Worship Around the Ancient world

Shiva lingas and snake worship are found all over the ancient world. As far back as 9000 BC, in a place now called Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, there is a sculpture of a man’s head with a snake rising up his neck to the top of his head (The 8th image in this gallery). Could this be a depiction of Shiva, who always has a snake around his neck, and who is considered to be at the peak of evolution, with his kundalini having risen to his sahasrar?

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Gundestrup Cauldron – Antlered Figure | CC-BY 2.0

Indians are probably aware of the 4500-year-old depiction of Shiva as Pashupati, on the seals and icons of the Harappan civilization. But almost the exact same depiction is found in Europe too, around 200BC, in what is known as the Gundestrup cauldron, a large silver vessel, excavated in Germany.

The worship of lingas also seems to be present in ancient Roman Empire. Coins depict lingas standing beside a tree, as can often be seen in rural India even today. Stones of this type, when found in Europe, are called baetyls, rather than lingas, by archaeologists. Some of the stones were carried to Rome from roman colonies, by the Roman Emperors. One such Emperor was Elgebalus who took a stone to Rome, built a temple for it, and spent most of his time worshipping the stone. He was assassinated soon after.

There is a passage written by a Syrian writer in the 3rd Century AD which records the writer’s talks with a group of Indian holy men travelling to Rome, to meet Emperor Elgebalus. Many of the stones and temples were destroyed by the Roman emperors when the Roman Empire turned Christian around 330AD.

Lingas and snake-worship are also found in Southeast Asia, where the influence of Indian culture was quite widespread. And in Japan, Indian gods and goddesses are worshiped even today – with names that sound Japanese, but still remain rooted in their Indian origin. For example, the Shoten-cho area of the Japanese capital, Tokyo, is famous for its many temples and shrines. Shoten, a Japanese god, is none other than Ganapati. And there are temples to Sarasvati and Shiva to be found amid these crowded streets. In the 1830s, say scholars, over 100 Ganapati temples could be found here.

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“A majority of Japanese gods are actually Indian gods,” was a common line of the former Japanese Ambassador to India, Yasukuni Enoki. Hindu deities were imported wholesale from the 6th century onwards. Thanks to the centuries and translation hurdles, the names and appearances of the gods have become localized to the point of anonymity.An example is Shichifukujin, the popular Japanese sect of the Seven Deities of Fortune. This pantheon includes Sarasvati, Shiva and Vaisravana – under their Japanese names of, respectively, Benzaiten, Daikokuten and Bishamonten. Some names are direct Japanese translations. Daikokuten means “great head god”, a direct translation of one of Shiva’s names, Mahakala. Shiva I also known as Makeishura and Ishanaten, both of which sound familiar to Indian ears.

9th Century, Jammu and Kashmir or Afghanistan Linga | Public Domain Image

Linga worship was of course quite prominent in the Indian subcontinent, prior to the Islamic invasions starting from the eight century AD. From Afghanistan to Burma, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, there were thousands of Shiva shrines. Some of the most famous have now disappeared. For example, Mulasthana, a powerfully consecrated space, has now become Multan in Pakistan.

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