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 Table of Contents    
Year : 2017  |  Volume : 59  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 119-122
Siva - The mad lord: A Puranic perspective

1 Department of Psychiatry, Madras Medical College, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences, Puducherry, India

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Date of Web Publication12-Apr-2017


The eccentricities of Lord Shiva, especially His attire, behavior - particularly the midnight dance at the cremation grounds surrounded by various strange beings, fondness to remain naked, and love for strange pets such as snakes and fawn, have attracted the loving and devout attention from His various adiyargal (devotees). This has resulted in the outpouring of their love for their Lord in the form of Thevaram and Thiruvachakam of Sambandar, Appar, Sundarar, Karaikal Ammaiyar, and Manickavachakar. Along with these writings, the background Puranic myths are mentioned. It is suggested that these ideas could be utilized to destigmatize mental illness among the sufferers and their carers.

Keywords: Psychiatry, Religion, Saivism, Siva, Tamil literature

How to cite this article:
Somasundaram O, Murthy T. Siva - The mad lord: A Puranic perspective. Indian J Psychiatry 2017;59:119-22

How to cite this URL:
Somasundaram O, Murthy T. Siva - The mad lord: A Puranic perspective. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2017 [cited 2021 Jul 30];59:119-22. Available from:

Oh madman on whose locks rests the crescent moon
Sovereign Lord of grace abounding never more will I forget you
You are enshrined in my heart and in my mind!
In the holy temple of Arul Turai in the heart of Vennai Nallur
On the south banks of the Pennar You do abide.[1]

This first Saivite hymn of Saint Poet Sundarar is probably the strangest devotion paid by the so-called vanthondan (”aggressive slave”) addressing the Lord Siva in the second person when the marriage of Sundarar arranged by his orthodox Brahmin relatives were obstructed, and he was prevented from entering the samsara bond by the Lord in the guise of an old eccentric man claiming that the saint and his family were his hereditary slaves according to the document executed by his grandfather.[2]

They call Him beggar, they speak ill of Him
They have fallen from the Path, those Buddhists, those erring Jains
But the Divine One who came to earth and begged for alms
He is the thief who stole my heart away
The elephant charged, bore down on Him
Oh wondrous sight! He tore its skin and wrap't it round
Some call Him madman – He is our Lord of Brahmapuram.[1]

This is how the first child prodigy (probably alluded to as Dravida Sisu by Adi Shankaracharya) of Thevaram, Thirugnanasambandar, addresses the Lord as mad and exemplifies His behavior variously in his native town of Sirkazhi (Brahmapuram).[2]

Appar, the grand old Saint poet of Thevaram, describes His strange behavior toward the wives of rishis of the Tarukavanam (”pine grove”) in the following verse:

Bearing the axe, the skullbearer came
Riding on a swift bull;
Making sweet speeches, He entered our homes;
He won't take alms from us, nor will He leave.
Instead, He speaks only deceptions and wiles,
As if to seduce all who look at Him.
The Lord of Aamaatthoor, Who will neither accept
The petty alms we offer Him,
Nor reveal His designs,
Is a handsome man, indeed![3] (chap 4, poem 39.3).

Saint Manickavachakar, the author of the much loved melodious Thiruvachakam, is more forthright in describing the bizarreness of the Lord as follows:

I shall call you madman
Madman draped in elephant skin, poison-throated madman
Madman sporting midst the fires of the burning ground
Madman clad in tiger skin, madman who enslaved even me
Tell me friend what strange man is this?
His form is smeared with ashes while a serpent rears upon His hand
In cryptic speech He seems well-versed, what manner of man is He?
Why look at His ashes or fear His serpent
Or heed His elusive Vedic talk? All you need to know is this
He is the Essence– the God of all that lives and moves.[4],[5]

The main purpose of this article is to describe the murti (physical form) of the Lord Siva, which makes His devotees call Him “mad” affectionately.

Great attention is paid to His matted hair by the various devotees. The matted hair is flame colored (jataimudi), mostly portrayed in movement. This is indicative of Siva as the great Yogi (ascetic). The matted braids are adorned by flowers and leaves of konrai (Indian Laburnum Tree) and oomattai (Datura). The hair also holds the much described agaya gangai (Heavenly Ganges) and the crescent moon. The other adornments of his locks are skulls and snakes.

His throat is black/blue, entwined with a snake, and a string of rudraksha seeds.

His figure usually has four to eight hands in which He holds a flame, a fawn (a young deer), a small drum and a trident, and sometimes a snake.

He is attired with tiger skin on the loin, elephant skin on the chest, and sometimes with a snake as His belt. His body is coral red (or fire-hued) in color and is smeared with white ash. Skulls, snakes, and the sacred thread (symbol of brahminhood) adorn His chest.

On His feet are ringing anklets and the hero's or warrior's band (kalal). The dwarf Muyalagan (demon of ignorance) lies under His feet.

The various legends associated with this typical murti are to be found in the myths described in the Sivapuranam. The oral tradition of the puranas was available to the followers of Siva from ancient times, and the common folk knew this purana along with 17 other puranas. They were (as usual) ascribed to Veda Vyasa and compiled much later, probably in the later part of the 2nd millennium CE in Sanskrit and translated into various regional languages of India. There are numerous variations in the regional versions. The Sivapuranam is available in a modern English version.[6] The authors have followed a Tamil version.[7]

  • The legend of agaya gangai being brought down to bhooloka after the penance of Bhagiratha to purify his sinned forefathers is well known to most. Lord Siva to control her aggressive and proud descent holds her on His matted hair
  • With the churning of the milk ocean by the devas and asuras, so many desirable and beautiful things came out, along with the deadly halahala poison. Vishnu takes Lakshmi as His consort, and the crescent moon went to adorn the head of Lord Siva. The poison, with its utmost destructive effect on the cosmos, was swallowed by Siva to protect the worlds. Parvathi, on seeing the danger about to happen to Her dear husband, grips tightly His neck and stops its further progress into His body. From that time, Siva's neck becomes dark giving Him the descriptive epithet, Neelakantan (blue-throated)
  • About the story of how Siva came to be clad with elephant skin, it goes that after slaying the demon Gajasura, Siva draped Himself with his hide, dripping with blood, and danced vigorously
  • The visit to the Tarukavanam (”the pine tree grove”) by Siva in the form of picchadana murti (beggar) is described in another legend. He goes there stark naked with the skull as the begging bowl. The wives of the rishis residing there are seduced by the beauty of the Lord. The enraged rishis attack the Lord in various ways. A tiger is set upon Him, which He kills and uses the tiger's skin as another attire around His waist. The rishis throw a trident at Him, which He catches in one of His hands. They throw a ball of fire at Him, which once again He holds in another of His hands. Then, they throw an hourglass-shaped (double-sided) small drum, which makes terrible noise and rushes at Siva. He catches it in another of His hands for further use
  • The numerous snakes which cover His body probably symbolize Life. The snakes and the fawn are His pets.

One of the foremost and beautiful descriptions of His form is found in one of the songs of Thevaram by Appar:

On strong shoulders like coral hills
Lie coils of matted hair
Like branching sea-coral.
Around the hair a hooded snake
Winds like a streak of coral.
With the snake my Father bears
The coral red eye,
And the young moon
Is a white flower on his crest.[3]

Another of Appar's poems goes thus:

If you could see
The arch of his brow,
The budding smile
On lips red as the kovvai fruit,
Cool matted hair,
The milk-white ash on coral skin,
And the sweet golden foot
Raised up in dance,
Then even human birth on this wide earth
Would become a thing worth having.

Appar IV.81.4 Koyil (Tillai)

Sambandar's description of the Lord in one of his poems:

When our lord who is both end and beginning
Dances to the deep sound of the mulavam drum,
Holding blazing fire in the hollow of his hand,
As the mountain's daughter watches,
The Ganga's murmuring stream with foaming waves
Flows over the cool crescent moon.
He who smears his body
With ash from the burning-ground
Is our Lord who dwells
In Vetkalam's fine town.

Campantar 1.39.1 Vetkalam (Tiruvetkalam)

The most important aspect of His cosmogenic dances performed for various purposes has awed the imagination of His most famous devotees and the common folk of India and the world over. Different dances represent the various aspects of Siva's nature: creation, protection, and destruction. The saivites also attribute two more functions: maraittal (concealing) – two aspects, good and bad; and arulal (bestowing grace) to His other dances. The five functions are incorporated in the sacred five lettered sacred words in Tamil: namasivaya. The various descriptions of these sacred and symbolic activities are performed in various sacred places and sculpted in minute detail by the old masters of sculpture.[8]

The famous dance at Chidambaram is called the anandathandavam (”blissful dance”). It is composed of the various aspects of the Lord and extensively discussed by Ananda Coomaraswamy and others [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Nataraja - Siva performing His Cosmic Dance Courtesy -

Click here to view

The bizarreness of the dance at the cremation grounds at midnight surrounded by His ganas, ghouls, and weird shaped demons lend to the well-known identification of Siva with madness. The description of the early saivite saint poetess Karaikal Ammaiyar (c. 3rd Century CE) is remarkable:

Retrieving the cooked rice thrown into the homa-pit
A fox eats it. “Alas, why did we not eye the food
Ere the fox beheld it?” So cry the ghouls in wrath
And run about in the crematory clapping hands.
This crematory is indeed my Lord's theatre
Where He dances the ullaalam-dance forming
A mandala; then our Father stands erect,
His uplifted foot grazing the heavens,
And dances! Behold Tiruvaalangkaadu![9]

It is noteworthy that Lord Siva is given to prolonged periods of deep trance-like meditation which is not very different from stupor for the casual observer. Furthermore, the extreme violence expressed by Veerabhadra (whom Lord Siva creates from His hair, when He comes to know of the death by self-immolation of His beloved consort, Sati, in the sacrificial fire of her father Daksha Prajapati's penance, following the humiliation of her and her beloved husband by Daksha) comes across as unbridled beastly aggression. In his rage, Veerabhadra not only severs Daksha's head but also creates lot of collateral damage in the form of cutting one hand of Agni (the Fire God), breaking a tooth of Surya (the Sun God), and cutting the nose of Goddess Sarasvati (the Goddess of Learning and Knowledge). However, this cannot be looked upon as a pathological behavior as it is in line with the inciting incident. Hence, the various such bizarre behaviors and eccentricities of Lord Siva make His devotees fondly call Him as the Mad Lord.

There is a story, in which three asuras (demons) turned themselves into castles of gold, silver, and iron, respectively, and became invincible. They then started to trouble devas (celestial beings) and humans. To put an end to their tyranny, Lord Siva killed them using Mount Meru as His bow, the divine serpent Adishesha as bowstring, and Lord Vishnu as His arrow. He later burnt down the three citadels by fire emanating from His third eye on His forehead.

Another legend is of His great devotee Markandeya. When the lord of death, Yama, came to take away his life, Markandeya hugged the sivalinga and would not let go. At that time, Lord Siva came to his rescue and directed Yama to spare the life of Markandeya.

On a concluding note, let us look into the history of the persona of this greatest God (Mahadeva) of the Hindu Pantheon. There is ample historical evidence that Siva is a pre-Aryan god, probably Dravidian. The worship of a form resembling the linga and a divine figurine popularly known as Pasupati (Master of Animals) was found in the various indigenous tribes of India and in the Indus Valley Civilization much before the recurrent incursions of the Aryans from the northwest. The major religious texts (rather an oral tradition) of the Aryans, the Vedas, have multiple references to Rudra, the Vedic counterpart of the pre-Vedic Siva, Who gradually assimilated to form the Lord Siva of the Puranas. Over the ages, Siva was incorporated as one of the major gods of the Vedic-Puranic people, in the form we know Him today.[10],[11],[12] For further information about the legend of Lord Siva, especially with respect to Tamil culture, one may refer to the following three classics – Tirumantiram by Tirumular et al.,[13] Balasubramanian and Sivagnana Botham by Meikandaar,[14] and Sivagnana Siddhiyaar by Arulnandhi Shivachariyaar.[15]

It is beyond the competence of the authors to go into the deeper philosophical understanding of the essence of Lord Siva. Furthermore, we have not ventured to describe the various schools of Saivism such as Veerasaivism and Kashmir Saivism. Readers might wonder as to why the authors have only confined themselves to describing the eccentricities of Siva, but it only reflects the narrow psychiatric viewpoint while looking into this topic.[16] The greatness of Mahadeva can be summed up wonderfully in this poem by Appar:

Appar VI.301.1

See the god!
See him who is higher than the gods!
See him who is Sanskrit of the North
And Southern Tamil and the four Vedas!
See him who bathes in milk and ghee,
See the Lord, see him who dances, holding fire,
In the wilderness of the burning-ground,
See him who blessed the hunter-saint!
See him who wells up as honey
In the heart-lotus of his lovers!
See him who has the unattainable treasure!
See Siva! See him who is our treasure
here in Civapuram![17]

(Translated by Indira Peterson)[3]

His names are chanted and hailed by Brahma who is
Ensconced on the Lotus rich in petals, Vishnu,
The sovereign of the immortals and others.
He is the Light transcending words and their import.
He is the ripe emblic, honey, milk, the sweet
And abounding nectar and its savour.
Oh, for the day when I must hug Him, My unpierced
Ruby-, and be yoked to Him in connubial felicity.[18]

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Conflicts of interest

Both the authors belong to the Saiva tradition.

   References Top

Dehejia V. Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal; 1988. p. 206.  Back to cited text no. 1
Bharathi YS. The Grand Epic of Saivism. Madras: The South India Saiva Siddanta Works Publishing Society; 1970.  Back to cited text no. 2
Peterson IV. Poems to Śiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers; 1991.  Back to cited text no. 3
Navaratnam RM. Tiruvachakam: The Hindu Testament of Love; 1963. Available from:  Back to cited text no. 4
Balasubramaniam KM. Tiruvachakam of Saint Manickavachakar: The Tamil Text of the Fifty-one Poems with Translation in English Verse and Introduction, Notes and Comments; 2012.  Back to cited text no. 5
Menon R, Menon R. Siva: The Siva Purana Retold. New Delhi: Rekha Printers; 2006.  Back to cited text no. 6
Ramanathan S. Shree Siva Puranam. Chennai: Giri Publishers; 2009.  Back to cited text no. 7
Venkatasami MS. The Seven Types of Dances of The Lord. Chennai: Vasantha Pathipagam; 2003.  Back to cited text no. 8
Ramachandran TN, SA. The Hymns of Karaikal Ammaiyaar. 2nd ed. Chennai: Sandhya Publications; 2008.  Back to cited text no. 9
Sen K. Hinduism. London: Penguin; 2005.  Back to cited text no. 10
Pillay KK. Historical Heritage of the Tamils. Chennai: MJP Publishers; 2008.  Back to cited text no. 11
Subramanian KR. The Origin of Saivism and Its History in the Tamil Land. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services; 2002.  Back to cited text no. 12
Tirumūlar, Natarajan B, Mahalingam N. Tirumantiram: A Tamil Scriptural Classic. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math; 1991. p. 465.  Back to cited text no. 13
Balasubramanian SM. Sivagnana Botham. Chennai: Narmadha Pathipagam; 2013.  Back to cited text no. 14
Mutaliysar V. Lectures on Saiva-Siddhanta. Chidambaram: Annamalai University; 1953.  Back to cited text no. 15
Tagare GV. Śaivism, Some Glimpses. Contemporary Researches in Hindu Philosophy and Religion. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld; 1996. p. 161.  Back to cited text no. 16
Raasamanickanar M. The Growth of Saivism. Chennai: Poompuhar Pathipagam; 2011.  Back to cited text no. 17
Ramachandran TN. Tiruvaachakam. Chennai: International Institute of Tamil Studies; 2001.  Back to cited text no. 18

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DOI: 10.4103/0019-5545.204441

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