Young, Hip and Worshipping Shiva in India

A man dressed as Hindu God Lord Shiva performs during Maha Shivratri Celebration in New Delhi. Image by Rohit Gautam. Copyright Demotix (10/3/2013)

A man dressed as Hindu God Lord Shiva performs during Maha Shivratri Celebration in New Delhi. Image by Rohit Gautam. Copyright Demotix (10/3/2013)

Is Shiva the cool god of the younger generation? The Hindu deity appears these days on television, in books, movies and even on tattoos. 

Popular Indian cricket star Ravindra Jadeja, who has more than 112,000 Twitter followers, tweeted this earlier this year:

Even major magazines run cover stories about Shiva and the new-found obsession for him among India's youth. Weekly magazine India Today covered this phenomenon in April 2013. In an Editor's Note, Aroon Purie, editor-in-chief of the magazine, wrote:

For generations of Indians over millennia, Shiva was a God to be feared. People worshipped him because he alone, among the holy trinity of Hinduism, possessed the power to destroy. Like in several other spheres, young, urban India is rewriting the conventional wisdom. For them, Shiva is cool, an ancient icon given a contemporary twist, fit for consumption in the 21st century.

The “Shiva” phenomenon seems to have grown stronger since Purie's observation. Popular television show Devon ke Dev Mahadev, which covers various stories from the Shiv Puran, is still going strong after two-and-a-half years. And author Amish Tripathi's in demand Shiva trilogy of books was picked for a movie deal by Bollywood director Karan Johar. An American producer soon followed suit, purchasing rights for the English version of the movie.

Tripathi takes a guess at what lies behind Shiva's popularity. During an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said:

I’m certainly not surprised by the passion of the youth for our myths. Mythology is almost a part of an Indian’s DNA. I really didn’t think it would die down so easily.

Devdutt Pattanaik, author of several books on Shiva and a consultant for Devon ke Dev Mahadev, has a more radical view about Shiva's popularity. Pattanaik suggests that Shiva's popularity goes hand in hand with a perception that he is macho. Looking at several factors that might contribute to this idea of Shiva's machismo, he relates that the latest is probably the influx of comics from the stables of the American publishers DC Comics and Marvel:

At its heart is a new form of misogyny that rejects everything remotely feminine, where even feminism becomes all about embracing the masculine as in the film Gulaab Gang. It celebrates the violence of the alpha predator who sits on top of the pecking order and dominates the pack. Not surprisingly, women are increasingly feeling increasingly unsafe in Indian cities.

Another perspective is offered by Sadhguru, Indian yogi and founder of Isha Yoga. Looking at Shiva as the first yogi who introduced humanity to spirituality, he writes on Facebook:

Breaking the laws of physical nature is spiritual process. In this sense, we are outlaws, and Shiva is the ultimate outlaw. You cannot worship Shiva, but you may join the gang.

aghori smoking cannabis

An aghori ascetic, follower of Shiva, smoking cannabis. Image by Alewis2388 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY

This “outlaw” image seems to be one of the factors that resonates with young Indians. Bollywood actors Ajay Devgan and Sanjay Dutt, known for their roles in action movies, have tattoos of Shiva on their bodies.

But clearly these are not the only factors that draw youth to this enigmatic figure. A blogger on the Indian website Boloji points out why Shiva is so cool from his point of view:

What appeals to me about Shiva is the fact that he embodies so many contrasts. A married man who can also be a celibate ascetic; a wild dancer who can sit absolutely still in meditation; his grief knows no bounds when Sati dies, yet he casually lops of ganesha's head. He embodies every aspect of human nature. If you can make your peace with this bewildering multidimensional individual, you've made your peace with the existence and everything in it.

Whether it is his machismo, his wildness or his all inclusive nature, interest in Shiva is holding steady. A look at Google Trends shows that he has steadily gained popularity over the last five years, after a dip between 2006 and 2009. Whatever the reason, the books, movies, TV shows and tattoos don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.


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