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Sharabha (Sanskrit: शरभ, Śarabha, Kannada: ಶರಭ) is a creature in Hindu mythology that is part lion and part bird. According to Sanskrit literature, Sharabha is an eight-legged beast, mightier than a lion and elephant and which can kill the lion. Sharabha, can clear a valley in one jump. In later literature, Sharabha is described as an eight-legged deer.
Shaiva scriptures narrate that god Shiva assumed the Avatar (incarnation) of Sharabha to tame Narasimha - the fierce man-lion avatar of Vishnu worshipped by Vaishnava sect - into a normal pleasant form representing harmony. This form is popularly known as Sarabeshwara ("Lord Sarabha") or Sharabeshwaramurti. In Buddhism, Sharabha appears in Jataka Tales as a previous birth of the Buddha.
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Evolution of character and iconography
In Sanskrit literature, Sharabha is initially described as an animal that roared and scared other animals in the hills and forest areas. Similies compare warriors to Sharabha. In the later epic Mahabharata, this form of Sharabha was exaggerated as a lion-slaying monster with eight legs, eyes on the top; living in the forest and which ate raw flesh. It is also mentioned as residing on Mount Krauncha but not as a monster but as an ordinary beast along with lions and tigers on mount Gandhamandana. The epic also includes Sharabha in the list of edible animals - the mrigajatis- the animal group of antelope, deer, hare, bear, ruru deer, sambar, gayal, boar, and buffalo - which was offered as part of food at dinner to guests. Sharabha also appears as a name of a monkey-king in the epic Ramayana, also as a proper name of heroes, apes, demons (danavas) and serpent Nāgas and one of the names of god Vishnu as well as Buddha. In defining the ecological theme in Hindu medicine related to jungle and the aroma of meats, Sharabha has also been listed among the deer natives of Kashmir, Nepal, and Sikkim. However, the features explained are of an eight legged animal of the size of a camel with huge horns and conjectured as a large Himalayan goat.
In Puranic literature, Sharabha is associated with god Shiva, who incarnates to subdue fierce manifestations of Vishnu. The legend of Sharabha fighting Narasimha - the man-lion form of Vishnu - brings to fore the overt rivalry between the devotees of Vishnu (Vaishnavite sect) and those of Shiva (Shaivite sect), which exposes the gory blood-letting aspect. According to Roy, the Narasimha-Sharabha encounter may be a shaivite version of Vedic tale of Vishnu piercing the boar. Shiva Purana describes Sharabha as thousand-armed, lion-faced and with matted hair, wings and eight feet. Sharabha Upanishad portrays Sharabha with two heads, two wings, eight legs of the lion with sharp claws and a long tail. Kalika Purana which mentions Shiva as Sharabha subduing Varaha - the boar form of Vishnu - describes Sharabha as black in colour, with four feet downwards and four feet uplifted, with an enormous body. It also has a long face and nose, nails, eight legs, eight tusks, a cluster of manes, and a long tail. It jumps high repeatedly making a loud cry.
The iconography of Sharabeshwaramurti (Shiva as Sarabha) is specifically defined in texts such as Khamikagama and Sritattvanidhi. In Khamikagama, Sharabha is described in the form of a bird with golden colour, with two uplifted wings, two red eyes, four legs in the form of a lion touching the ground, four legs with claws upwards, and with an animal tail. The top part of the body is shown as human but with the face of a lion with an ornamented crown; side tusks are also depicted giving an overall frightening sight. It also shows the Narasimha beneath Sharabha’s legs as a human with anjali (hands folded prayer). (See Infobox image)
In the Sritattvanidhi, the depiction prescribed for Sharabeshwaramurti is of thirty arms; arms on the right are to hold thunderbolt, mushti, abhaya, chakra (discus), sakti, staff, goad, sword, Khatvanga, axe, akshamala, a bone, bow, musala, and fire; and the left hands to display noose, varada, mace, arrow, flag, and another type of sword, a snake, a lotus flower, skull-cup, pustaka, plough, and mrudanga with one hand encircling Durga in a hug. This form is extolled to usher good luck, cure all diseases and destroy all enemies.
The Chola dynasty in Tamil Nadu was particularly favourable to the beliefs of Shaiva sect. It is said that the sectarian aspect got highlighted during their reign. This is evident from the four Sharbha images, the earliest at the Vikramsolishwaram temple near Kumbakonam built by Vikrama Chola (1118–35). The other images are at Darasuram and Kampahareshvarar temple, Thirubuvanam built by a Chola ruler, Kulottunga Chola III where Sharabha's image is housed in a separate shrine.
A sculpture of Sharbeshwaramurti in the Tribhuvanam temple, a Shiva temple in Tanjore district, in Tamil Nadu is seen with three legs, with body and face of a lion and a tail. It has four human arms, the right upper hand holds axe, noose is held in the lower right hand, the deer in the upper left hand and fire in the lower left hand. Narasimha is shown with eight arms, flaying and struggling under Sharbeshwaramurti’s feet. In the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram, a rare image of the Chola period, in black basalt, depicts Shiva as Sharabha. It is deified in an exclusive small shrine, as part man, beast and bird, destroying the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu, Narasimha. This highlights the hostility between the Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects. In the Chennakeshava temple of Belur (1113), Karnataka, Gandaberunda (2-faced bird identified with Vishnu) depiction is a carved scene of "chain of destruction". Initially, a deer is prey to a large python, followed by being lifted by an elephant and a lion attacking the elephant, and the lion shown as devoured by Sharabha. The last scene depicted is of Gandaberunda destroying Sharabha.
In iconographic representations of the myth of Shiva vis-à-vis Vishnu, Sharabha form has been built around Narasimha but substantially embellished with wings to represent Kali and Durga to denote the female powers (shaktis) of Shiva; Sharabha is also shown with a bird head and a serpent in his beak head.
In Hindu scriptures
The Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic, narrates: a dog, with the help of a Rishi (sage) assumes various animal forms - starting from a dog to a tiger then to an elephant followed by a lion and a sharabha - terrorized every one in the hermitage of the Rishi. Eventually, Sharabha assumed a further fiercer form. In this fierce form he wanted to devour the Rishi. The Rishi then narrating the process of change in Sharabha’s evolution, as a result of his benevolence, cursed Sharabha to go back to his original form of a dog. The epic does not relate Shiva to Sharabha.
The legend of Sharabha as an incarnation of Shiva is narrated in many Hindu scriptures and each presents a different version to suit one’s religious beliefs. But one common refrain in all these depictions is that Sharabha is a combination of a huge animal-bird beast with enormous strength manifested with the purpose of taming similar ferocious avatars of Vishnu such as Narasimha (man-lion) or Varaha (the boar).
The Narasimha-Sharabha legend is linked to gods assuming mythical animal forms to slay or subdue as the case may be. First, Vishnu assumed the form of Narasimha to slay Hiranyakashipu, an asura (demon) king, who was terrorizing the universe and devotee of Shiva. The Shiva Purana mentions: After slaying Hiranyakashipu, Narasimha’s wrath was not appeased. The world trembled, fearing what he might do. The Devas (the gods) requested Shiva to tackle Narasimha. Initially, Shiva brings forth Virabhadra, one of his terrifying forms, in order to calm Narasimha. When that failed, Shiva manifested as the human-lion-bird Sharabha. Shiva then assumed the Sharabha form. Sharabha then attacked Narasimha and seized him up until he was immobilized. He thus quelled Narasimha’s terrifying rage. Narasimha became a devotee of Shiva after being bound by Sharabha. Sharabha then decapitated and de-skinned Narasimha so Shiva could wear the hide and lion-head as a garment. The Linga Purana and Sharabha Upanishad also mention this mutilation and murder of Narasimha. After the mutilation, Vishnu assumed his normal form and retired to his abode, after duly praising Shiva. It was from here on that Shiva came to be known as "Sharabeshamurti" or "Simhagnamurti".
The Skanda Purana considers Narasimha as a mere irritation and not a threat to the world, contrary to what was brought out in the Shiva and Linga Puranas. The perception was that Vishnu may permanently adopt the fierce form of Narasimha, which would be detrimental to his role of doing good deeds. Hence, the purpose of Shiva assuming the form of Sharabha was to ensure that the lion body of Vishnu was discarded and he got united with his original divine form. Narasimha struck Sharabha with his body, it was Vishnu who groaned in pain and not Sharabha who was in an "adamantine body". It was then that Vishnu realised that Sharabha was none other than Shiva and bowed and praised Sharabha. Shiva then blesses Vishnu and gives him a boon to kill demons. A Purana ends the story with gods fearing that Sharabha may not be able to control his rage and thus urging Shiva to give up his Sharabha form. Thereafter, Shiva dismembered Sharabha’s form; his limbs were given away and his torso became a Kapalika. The Vamana Purana too discusses the tale, ending with Narasimha becoming the calm Vishnu again and Sharabha becoming a lingam, the symbol of Shiva.
In the Kalika Purana, Varaha - Vishnu’s boar avatar - had amorous dalliance with the earth goddess. He and his three boar sons then created mayhem in the world, which necessitated Shiva to take the form of Sharabha, to kill the Varaha form.
Vaishnava followers including Dvaita scholars, such as Vijayindra Tirtha (1539–95) refute the portrayal of Narasimha as being destroyed by Sharabha as they consider the Shaivite Puranas as tamasic - and thus not authoritative - based on their reading of Sattvic Puranas and Shruti texts. The refutation of the Sharabha legend along with ten other Shaivite legends is discussed in a text by Vijayindra Tirtha called Shaivasarvasvakhandanam.
The Sharabha Upanishad mentions that shara means jiva ("soul") and Hari (Vishnu) is gleaming in the form of Sharabha, and that Hari has manifested as Sharabha who is capable of granting moksha (salvation). There is a reference to Sharabha in the Vishnu sahasranama, the 1000 names of Vishnu, and the literal meaning seems to suggest the praise of Sharabha (the lion-killing animal).
Narasimhan Krishnamachari, a scholar on Vishishtadvaita philosophy, states that the name "Sharabha" has been interpreted in two ways namely; the first interpretation means “the Destroyer (of those who transgress the bounds of ethics),” as given by the Sri Vaishnavite commentator, Parasara Bhattar and the second interpretation as given by Adi Sankara, among others. The former is based on the Sanskrit verb SR, which means "to injure to destroy". According to C. V. Radhakrishna Sastri, "Sara" also refers to an arrow, and the perishable body shines if it is aimed at Bhagavan, because He shines in that body."
Adi Shankaracharya, as with the reference in the Sharabha Upanishad, refers to this 356th name of Vishnu sahasranama as not mentioning the lion-killing animal at all and instead interprets the name to mean, "As the Lord shines in the body as the indwelling Self, He is called Sharabha, while the body is sara (perishable)." As these commentaries on the Vishnu sahasranama suggest, none of them refer to the avatar of Shiva.
In Buddhist scriptures
In the Jataka tales of the Buddha's previous lives, there is narration related to his birth as Boddhisattva in a forest as a Sharabha, the eight-legged deer. This story is of one compassion of the deer shown towards the King who wanted to hunt the deer. The King, while trying to hunt the deer, fell into a precipice with his horse. The deer instead of abandoning the king to his fate rescued him. The King was deeply touched by the compassion shown by the deer and thereafter promulgated a decry stating that hunting was an illegal activity in his country.
In Tibetan Buddhism, sharabha is represented as a beast with a goat's head and horns, a lion's mane and horse's body and legs. It symbolizes determination, strength and speed. Sometimes, it is represented additionally with horns of an antelope and claws of an eagle. Sometimes, the goat head is replaced by a lion's, horse's feet by a lion's and horns can be of a ram. A common feature of all representations is the horse's body. It is often depicted as mounts of young Devas or dwarfs in a Torana – a six-level archway behind an enlightenment throne of a Buddha or Boddhisattva. Together with the devas, they symbolize the perfection of effort (virya).
The Government of Karnataka, the University of Mysore and the Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited (KSDL-an industrial unit owned by the Government of Karnataka) have adopted Sharabha, with modifications and also appropriate justifications, as their emblem or logo.
Gandaberunda (Gun-daa-bhae-rundaa, from Kannada) is the emblem of the Government of Karnataka. It is an Indian mythological bird, depicted with two heads, and believed to possess magnificent strength. The interpretation provided for adopting Ganduberunda as the emblem, is that Shiva - the best friend of Vishnu - took the mythical animal form of Sharabha, with his wings identified with goddesses Durga and Kali. Sharabha hugged Narasimha and pacified him. In this process, Narasimha (Vishnu) emerged in the form of Gandaberunda. The two fought for 18 days which resulted in Vishnu getting control over his fierce nature. The fight ended with Sharabha tearing the two-headed bird. Vishnu attained his peaceful image and Shiva came back to his normal form. The emblem, as evolved, shows red maned yellow lion elephant Sharabha.
In Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited logo, Sharabha is depicted in the form of a body of a lion with the head of an elephant to represent the virtues of wisdom, courage and strength. The Royal Emblem of Mysore has also been adopted by the University of Mysore as their logo too. This logo displays Gandabherunda flanked on either side by the lion-elephant Sharabha - stronger than the lion and the elephant and defender of uprightness, surmounted by a lion.
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