The god Shiva is one of the most important figures in the Hindu belief. His name literally means “the auspicious one”, but his most common epithet is “the destroyer”. He takes on many forms in Hindu scripture and is said to have 1008 names. One of the most common names for him is “Mahadeva”, meaning “great god”. Most commonly, he is seen as one third of the trimurti, the three holiest gods. He is one of the most complex and mysterious gods in the Hindu tradition because of his paradoxical nature.
Shiva is generally thought to have originated from Rudra, a god worshipped in the Indus Valley during the Vedic period. Rudra was a hunter and a storm god, and was very fierce in his ways. He was one of the main deities in the Vedic pantheon. Rudra’s father was the Lord of Beings and his mother was Usha, the Goddess of the Dawn. When he was born, he was not given a name, so he began to cry. He begged his father for a name and was granted “Rudra”, from the the word rud, meaning to weep or howl. Because of his tremendous powers as the storm god, “Rudra” is often translated as “the howler.” He was sometimes called “Shiva”, an adjective meaning “kind” as a euphemism. Gradually, the name Rudra became interchangeable with the name Shiva, and the modern Shiva was born.
Shiva has many titles and forms, and can be seen differently by every one of his worshippers. He is a part of the trimurti, a triad of the three most powerful Hindu gods. Brahma is “the creator”, Vishnu is “the preserver”, and Shiva is “the destroyer.” Together, they make up the cycle of the universe. While in Western thought, destruction is generally seen as a bad thing, “destruction in Hindu belief implies reproduction” (Iyengar). To Hindus, destruction is just a holy act necessary for new birth. It is often contested whether there is one member of the trimurti who is the most powerful. Some say it is Brahama, since he created the universe, and there are some legends that claim Vishnu to be the most powerful, but many argue it is Shiva, since he the power to destroy the universe. In one story, Brahman and Vishnu were arguing over which of them is the supreme god. Suddenly, a pillar of fire appeared before them. Brahman flew up to try and reach the top of the pillar, while Vishnu tunneled underground to find the base. When they met again, Brahman lied and told Vishnu that he had reached the top. Out of the pillar appeared Shiva, who reprimanded Brahman and declared himself to be the true god. This pillar symbolizes Shiva’s never-ending power and omnipresence in the universe. Some sects of Hinduism believe that Shiva himself is the Supreme Lord of reality, and he may be likened to Brahman.
One of Shiva’s other major titles is Nataraja, the god of dance. There are many icons of Shiva in his Nataraja form. He is usually depicted dancing alone inside a ring of flames, called a torana. This dance is the tândava. It is the angry dance of destruction that paves the way for creation. In depictions of this dance, he has four arms—one holds a damaru, or drum, that “emanates the creative energy of the universe”, while the another holds the flame of destruction (Cush). With the upper two arms, he offers abhaya, or protection, and he indicates salvation with the lower two. He stands with his left foot suspended while his right foot is standing on the demon of ignorance, Muyalaka. This is his dance of anger with which he has the power to destroy the universe. Shiva is also associated with the Lasya natana, a couples dance of peace and love. He performs this dance with his wife, Parvati. Both the tândava and the lasya natana make up “the cosmic dance of Shiva” (Williams).
One of Shiva’s unique characteristics is the fact that many of his forms and powers are paradoxical. He is known as the Mahayogi, an ascetic who dwells and meditates on Mount Kailasa, in the Himalayas. From there, he looks down upon all of humanity. In this form, he lives a celibate life and bears a beggar’s bowl made from a human skull. He holds the key to the highest spiritual knowledge and miracles. However, he is also the god of sexual energy and can represent fertility. He has a certain erotic quality and some of his forms are very suggestive. This is one of the reasons he is worshipped in the form of a lingam and yoni, which represent the male and female reproductive parts. He represents destruction, but also regeneration, and he has both male and female forms. Shiva is both feared and venerated, and he contains all opposites within him.
Though Shiva can take many forms, he has certain physical characteristics that remain consistent. His most iconic attribute is his third eye in the middle of his forehead. This eye is associated with his ascetic form and is used to look inward instead of outward. With it, he has the power to grant wisdom or to ultimately destroy. He famously incinerated Kāmadeva, the God of love. Kāmadeva had been trying to get Shiva to break his vow of chastity so that he would marry Parvati. He planted arrows of lust into Shiva’s heart while he was praying and when Shiva awoke, he opened his third eye and Kāmadeva was destroyed. Together, the three eyes of Shiva represent the sun, moon, and fire. Another unique mark of Shiva is his blue throat. He drank halāhala, a poison made when the gods and demons started to churn the ocean. To keep this poison from destroying humanity, Shiva drank it and held it in his throat, so that it would not reach his stomach, where three worlds dwell. Shiva is usually depicted wearing an animal skin and holding a trident, which represents the trimurti. He wears his hair in a matted bun, and it is said that the sacred river Ganges flows from his head. He also wears a cobra and sacred beads around his neck. The cobra represents Shiva’s dominance over the world’s most powerful animals. The beads are called rudrāska and represent “the eyes of Rudra” (Cush). The rudrāska is made from seeds and represents celibacy, since Shiva strung them together instead of letting them plant in the soil. In many paintings and icons, his bull Nandi stands behind him. Nandi serves as the gatekeeper and protector of Shiva and Parvati. Shiva is often also associated with evil spirits. He is said to be followed by a retinue of goblins and spirits, called ganas. They are uncivilized beings who are described as deformed. Whenever Shiva needed to exact revenge, he called upon an army of ganas to fight alongside him. He even named his son Ganesha, meaning “king of the ganas”.
Shaivism, the worship of Shiva, is a sect of Hinduism. Although it is a sect, Shaivism is actually a precursor to Hinduism. Shaivites hold the belief that Shiva is the supreme god and does not depend on the trimurti to complete the cycle of the universe. This sect formed over 8,000 years ago, to a time that even predates the Vedic time period. Shaivic cults have also come about in some parts of India. These groups stress certain attributes of Shiva. For example, some groups live in extreme asceticism or practice naga (snake) worship to appease him. Shiva worship is most common in southern India and in Kashmir, a city in the far north region of India.
Though Shiva is a central figure in Hindu art, he is rarely worshipped in this form. In most temples, he is worshipped in the form of a shivling, which consists of a linga and yoni. The sage Bhrighu cursed Shiva so that he could only be worshipped like this, instead of in his true form. This curse came about when Bhrigu tried to visit Shiva but was turned away by Nandi, the gatekeeper, because Shiva and Parvati wished to be left alone. Although the shivling does represent Shiva’s role as the god of fertility, it has more than sexual connotations. The word linga literally means “mark” or “characteristic” and it represents the “formless divine” (Pattanaik). Since the linga is just a simple shape, it may be interpreted to take any form. Since Shiva contains all forms, he cannot take just one. Lingas can also be used in the form of a small oval stone and carried in pockets or worn as necklaces. Sometimes, a mask is placed on the linga to make the form more accessible to worshippers. It can also represent the pillar of fire that Shiva emerged from when he claimed supremacy over the rest of the trimurti. Commonly, during worship, cow’s milk is poured over the shivling to release positive energy. This act symbolizes the bathing of Shiva and will result in good luck for the devotees. While this is the most common form Shiva is worshipped in, this is not the only one. Shiva can also be worshipped in his Nataraja form as the god of dance. Since this is less common, it is mostly found in temples dedicated specifically to Shiva. When worshipped alongside Parvati, he is seen as a family man. Together, they are the divine couple that Hindu men and women aspire to. As the great ascetic, or the Mahayogi, Shiva is called upon for strength during meditation. He is sometimes said to have five faces that represent five mantras. Depending on one’s needs or desires, devotees pray to a different one of Shiva’s faces. Shiva holds a special place in Hindu tradition because he is thought to be humankind’s first teacher. He taught through silent meditation and served as an example of how to achieve moksha. Some even believe that moksha is the real marriage of Shiva and Parvati, because it is when the two energies of universal consciousness and universal bliss will come together.
Shiva’s evolution can be seen in many works of Hindu literature. In the Vedas, he was referred to as Rudra. Many hymns in the Rig Veda are directed towards him, and he is seen as the protector of the Vedas. In the Puranas, Shiva emerges as a supreme god. The Shiva Purana is the supreme book of the Shaivites, and acts as a guide of worship.
Shiva is also at the center of many Hindu celebrations and holy days. Monday is considered to be the holy day of Shiva, and many unmarried women take part in the Solah Somvar Vrat, a fast dedicated to Shiva. Every Monday for sixteen weeks, a woman will fast and pray to Shiva for a good husband. This fast can be done anytime of the year. Shivatri is the main festival of Shiva, and takes place in January or February. On this day, Hindus observe a strict fast. Shiva lingas are bathed in milk, curd, ghee, and honey and offerings of fruit are left to Shiva. Devotees cover their bodies in ash to represent Shiva’s role as the Great Ascetic, and some bathe in the holy Ganges river. There is some discrepancy as to what event the Shivratri celebrates. One legend claims it be the the day that Shiva drank the poison to save mankind, while another claims it be the wedding day of Shiva and Parvati.
Hindus say that Shiva is “anand”, which means that he was neither found born or found dead. His power is endless and his wisdom is all-knowing. This mysticism is what has made Shiva such a revered and heavily worshipped god. His mystery and paradoxical nature only add to the idea of his power and omnipresence. Shiva was and continues to be one of the most central figures in Hinduism, and the devotion that he has inspired will continue to shape the history of Hinduism for centuries to come.
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