This paper considers the limitations of the Śaivas’ prescriptive literature as evidence of the reality of their religion and stresses the benefits of reading it in the light of inscriptions and other forms of non-prescriptive evidence. It utilizes these other sources to address a number of questions that the prescriptive texts do not or cannot address. The first is that of the early history of Śaivism between the Mauryas and the Guptas. It concludes that when initiatory Śaivism achieved its dominance, as it did after the Gupta period, it did so on the basis of a widespread tradition of popular devotion that goes back at least to the second century bc, and that while the ingenuity and adaptability of the emerging Śaiva traditions were instrumental in this rise, a more fundamental cause may have been that in investing in these traditions their patrons were adopting an idiom of self-promotion that would be efficacious in the eyes of an already predominantly Śaiva population. It then presents evidence of this rise to dominance, explains the contradiction between the power and wealth of the Atimārga’s pontiffs seen in inscriptions and the ascetic disciplines prescribed in its literature, shows that the Āmardakamaṭha, the Mantramārga’s earliest monastic centre, at Auṇḍhā, was already active in the sixth century, argues that it was the initiation of rulers, seen in inscriptions from the seventh century on, that enabled the Mantramārga to spread throughout the subcontinent, and demonstrates that already in the seventh century Śaiva initiation had become routinized as a calendrically fixed duty imposed on temple-attached officiants as a condition of their tenure, thus illustrating how inscriptions can reveal mundane realities that the high-minded prescriptive literature is designed to conceal and transcend.