Final Fantasy games like to use a lot of religious references in their worldbuilding. From summon spells, monsters, plot, themes, and even to character names, they take a lot from numerous religions around the world. We’ve got Norse mythology, Shintoism, Abrahamic religions, and others all wrapped up in these games. Unfortunately, especially when it comes to monsters and summon spells, they don’t always use these references very well, and in some cases, they completely alter religious figures in order to make them suit a particular purpose in the story.
Because the games take from so many religions and use them in so many ways, it’s hard to get a good grasp on whether or not they have a positive or negative portrayal of religion. As such, they end up with a grab-bag of religious themes—some of these are neat, others not so much. Falling into that latter category is Shiva, one of Final Fantasy’s more popular summons.
Probably one of Final Fantasy’s defining traits is its use of summon spells. The games allow the characters to summon different powerful entities to come aid them in battle, and these entities are almost always religious in nature. The summons are also where the games’ religious references are the most problematic—we’ve got Odin, Ifrit, Ramuh, Leviathan, Bahamut, and many more, and very few of them have anything in common from the religion or belief systems they’re borrowed from. Let’s take a look at Shiva, though, a summon who always appears in the form of a woman and who unleashes devastating icy attacks. Shiva shows up in just about every Final Fantasy game out there. I am not a follower of Hinduism, and so my knowledge on the matter is somewhat limited, and I welcome more information if any of you know more about it than I do. Needless to say, what I do know is that she is not an accurate representation of the god she is named after.
Shiva is one of the main deities in Hinduism—the supreme god within Shaivism, one of Hinduism’s four sects—and is also known as Mahadeva, which means “Great God”. The most obvious difference between Shiva the deity and Shiva the summon is gender. In Hinduism, Shiva is male. He is seen as limitless and even formless. Often, he is depicted with a third eye on his forehead and a snake wrapped around his neck. Shiva’s extra eye—which is also known as the inner eye—is related to the idea of chakra, an energy within a person’s body. A person’s third eye is mystical, and as such it provides a person with sight beyond the physical. Often people associate the third eye with clairvoyance, out-of-body experiences, precognition, or higher forms of consciousness.
As for the snake Shiva wears, one of his incarnations is Pashupati, who is the lord of all animals. Shiva wears the snake around his neck to let the world know that not only does he rule animals, he also controls fear and death. Snakes are, after all, dangerous and fearful creatures. The snake also wraps around Shiva’s neck three times. This can represent future, present, and past, since Shiva is independent from time and can control it as well. Mostly, though, the snake is there to show us all the evil in the world. But since evil fears and bows to Shiva, by wearing the snake, he lets his followers know that they themselves don’t have to fear evil and demonic natures.
As Hinduism is just as complex as any other religion, there is a lot more to the snake and the third eye than what I just mentioned. But it’s worth noting that these are two very important features when it comes to Shiva. Shaivas believe that Shiva is “All and in all”—Shiva is the destroyer, preserver, and creator of all that is.
I was first introduced to Shiva through Final Fantasy, and I think I can safely say that the game does nothing to give an accurate representation to this deity. To start off, while some of the games’ versions of Shiva have marks on their foreheads, references to the third eye are not something the franchise is committed to keeping up. I also wasn’t even aware that Shiva had any connection to snakes and animals from playing the game. Or even that Shiva is supposed to be male. According to Final Fantasy, Shiva is literally nothing more that a vengeful ice spirit who exists to serve our main characters. At the very least, to Final Fantasy X’s credit, Shiva, like all the other summons, or aeons as this installment calls them, are more than just powerful spells the characters can cast. Yuna can only call Shiva and the other aeons because she prays to them and forms an emotional connection to them. As such, Shiva is less of a one-note spell and more of an ally and friend. Even then, though, X doesn’t do a whole lot to really expand on who Shiva is. She might be Yuna’s friend, but she’s still just an ice spirit.
In terms of gender, though, how much of a problem is this really? Well, as someone who readily accepts characters like Yuna and Aerith as female Christ figures, I readily accept a female Shiva as well. However, as someone who does not practice Hinduism and constantly worries about the lines between appropriation and appreciation, I am a little hesitant to support what Final Fantasy has done. I love the Shiva summon as much as any other Final Fantasy player—she’s a destructive force of nature who lays waste to my enemies—but her use in the games doesn’t really expand or delve into the religion she’s borrowed from.
Aside from summons, Final Fantasy has proven time and time again that it can use religion well, and you can see that in games like VII and X, which is why it’s such a disappointment that the games fail here. I honestly wouldn’t think this was a problem if the games delved more into Shiva as a summon and did more to present her as a homage to an incredibly interesting and diverse faith practiced by a great number of people, but that’s not what Shiva is to the games. As it is, the Shiva in Final Fantasy is related to the Shiva from Hindusim in name only. The way she is presented is purposefully inaccurate to the religion she’s borrowed from.