Sharabha: Mythical Marvel of Hindu Lore

Sharabha: Mythical Marvel of Hindu Lore

Sharabha, a captivating creature from Hindu mythology, possesses the body of a lion and the wings of a bird. Renowned for its immense strength, surpassing even that of lions and elephants, it is said to be capable of leaping across valleys in a single bound. According to Shaiva scriptures, the god Shiva transformed into Sharabha to pacify Narasimha, the fierce man-lion avatar of Vishnu revered by Vaishnavas. However, Vaishnavas refute this portrayal, considering Sharabha as a form of Vishnu himself. Some texts even suggest Vishnu assumed the form of the Gandabherunda bird-animal to defeat Sharabha, akin to Narasimha’s victory over Hiranyakashipu.

In addition to Hinduism, Sharabha appears in Buddhist tradition, featured in Jataka Tales as one of the Buddha‘s previous incarnations. Tibetan Buddhist art often depicts Sharabha, symbolizing the perfection of effort. Its representation as a symbol of power and majesty has led to its inclusion in various emblems throughout history.



In early Sanskrit tales, Sharabha was depicted as a fierce creature, causing fear among animals in the hills and forests with its intimidating roar. As time progressed, particularly in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Sharabha took on a different form, described as a fearsome monster with eight legs, eyes atop its head, and a penchant for consuming raw flesh. It resided in the forest, notably on Mount Krauncha, though it wasn’t always depicted as a monstrous being. Other accounts portray Sharabha as an ordinary creature coexisting with lions and tigers on Mount Gandhamadana. Surprisingly, the epic even lists Sharabha among edible animals, categorized within the mrigajatis group, alongside antelopes, deer, hares, bears, and other fauna, suggesting it was served as food to guests at dinners.

Throughout Sanskrit literature, Sharabha’s role varied widely. It was seen as an incarnation of the god Shiva, a monkey-king in the Valmiki Ramayana, and even a name for heroes and serpent Nagas, as well as associated with Vishnu and Buddha. Additionally, Sanskrit texts often employed similes likening warriors to Sharabha.

Exploring the ecological themes within Hindu medicine, Sharabha was mentioned in Dalhana’s 12th-century commentary on the Sushruta Samhita as part of the fauna native to Kashmir. Interestingly, descriptions in this context diverge, depicting Sharabha as an eight-legged creature the size of a camel with massive horns, possibly resembling a large Himalayan goat.

Shiva’s Incarnation

In ancient Hindu scriptures, there’s a fascinating tale involving Sharabha, an incarnation of the powerful deity Shiva. This tale revolves around a legendary clash between Sharabha and Narasimha, the ferocious man-lion manifestation of Vishnu. This clash symbolizes the deep-seated rivalry between the followers of Vishnu (Vaishnava sect) and those of Shiva (Shaiva sect), highlighting the intense theological debates of the time.

Described in various texts like the Shiva Purana, Sharabha is depicted as a formidable being with distinctive features. He’s often portrayed as having the face of a lion, matted hair, wings, and an imposing stature with multiple arms and legs. The descriptions vary slightly across different scriptures, but they generally emphasize Sharabha’s intimidating appearance, which includes features like a long tail, sharp claws, and a fearsome roar.

According to texts such as Kamikagama and Sritattvanidhi, Sharabha is depicted as a bird-like creature with golden feathers, lion-like legs, and a human-like upper body crowned with a lion’s face. His thirty arms are adorned with various weapons and symbols, symbolizing his immense power and ability to overcome obstacles.

During the rule of the Chola dynasty in Tamil Nadu, the worship of Shiva, particularly in his Sharabha form, gained prominence. Several temples, including Vikramsolishwaram temple, Darasuram, and Kampahareshvarar temple, featured images of Sharabha, underscoring the sectarian rivalry between Shaivism and Vaishnavism. Notably, the Tribhuvanam temple in Tanjore district showcases a unique sculpture of Sharbeshwaramurti with three legs and four human arms, further emphasizing his divine attributes.

In various temple carvings and sculptures, the narrative of Sharabha overpowering Narasimha is vividly portrayed, reflecting the ideological conflicts between different sects. Sharabha’s form is often embellished with elements representing female powers such as Kali and Durga, highlighting the multifaceted nature of Shiva’s divine manifestations.

Overall, the tale of Sharabha serves as a captivating allegory for theological debates and sectarian tensions within Hinduism, while also showcasing the rich symbolism and iconography present in ancient Hindu mythology.

The Legend of Sharabha in Hindu Scriptures

Mahabharata and Sharabha

In the Mahabharata, amidst the tapestry of its sprawling narrative, there exists a fascinating episode involving Sharabha. Here, a seemingly ordinary dog assumes a sequence of increasingly ferocious animal forms, escalating from a dog to a tiger, then to an elephant, followed by a lion, and finally transforming into Sharabha. Each transformation adds to the tension and intrigue, ultimately leading to a confrontation with a sage. However, the sage’s benevolence and intervention result in a curse that forces Sharabha to revert to its original form as a dog.

Shaiva Views

Within Shaiva traditions, particularly in scriptures like the Shiva Purana and Linga Purana, the legend of Sharabha takes on a distinct significance. Here, Sharabha emerges as a divine manifestation, born out of the need to pacify the ferocious avatar of Vishnu known as Narasimha. The narrative unfolds with Shiva sending various divine entities, including Virabhadra, to tackle Narasimha’s wrath. However, when these attempts prove futile, Shiva himself manifests as Sharabha. This formidable form of Sharabha confronts Narasimha, eventually immobilizing him and quelling his terrifying rage. The legend further elaborates on the symbolic act of Shiva decapitating and de-skinning Narasimha, symbolizing the triumph of Shiva’s divine power over Vishnu’s formidable avatar.

Vaishnava Views

Contrary to the Shaiva perspectives, Vaishnava followers, including scholars like Vijayendra Tirtha, reject the portrayal of Sharabha as found in Shaiva scriptures. They argue that Shaiva Puranas lack authority and consider them tamasic. Instead, in Vaishnava traditions, Narasimha assumes the form of Gandabherunda, a two-headed bird-animal, to combat and defeat Sharabha. This reflects the theological diversity within Hinduism and the varied interpretations of its rich mythological narratives.

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