By Jayaram V
If Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva is
the quintessential destroyer. His duty is to destroy all the worlds
at the end of creation and dissolve them into nothingness. Modern
theories of space do suggest the possible ending of the physical
universe after some billions of years through the expansion of a
gigantic black hole devouring the matter from endless galaxies.
Perhaps Shiva would be the black hole performing this task.
However this does not mean that Shiva would remain idle till
the arrival of that time. Before the worlds really come to an end,
Shiva has many things to do to keep the worlds going. His first
and foremost task is to destroy many things in order to ensure the
Rta or the order of the universe. Shiva's destruction is not negative.
It is a positive, nourishing and constructive destruction that builds
and transforms life and energy for the welfare of the world and
the beings that inhabit it. He destroys in order to renew and regenerate.
His destruction is the destruction of an artist, or a surgeon or
a cook. Through destruction he facilitates the smooth transitions
of things and events from one stage to another.
He destroys our imperfections in order to ensure our spiritual
progress. He destroys our illusions, desires and ignorance. He destroys
our evil and negative nature. He destroys our old memories, so that
we can move on with the movement of time. He destroys our relationships,
attachment, impurities, physical and mental wrong doings, the effects
of bad karma, our passions and emotions and many things that stand
between us and God as impediments to our progress and inner transformation.
And in the end when we have made sufficient progress, when we are
ready and prepared, and when we are willing without any inner conflict,
he destroys death.
There is no reference to Shiva in the Vedas, except as a quality.
There are some hymns addressed to Rudra, a fierce storm god, the
father of Maruts, who heals with his thousand medicines. (For more
information about Rudra please refer the Vedic pantheon). It is
said that the practice of worshipping Shiva was a non Aryan practice
which was slowly incorporated into Vedic religion as an ongoing
process of reconciliation with the non Aryan tribes.
Shivaling literally means the body of Shiva. Next to the symbol
of AUM, it is perhaps the most potent, powerful and popular symbol
in entire Hinduism. In almost all the Shiva temples, worship is
generally made to Shivalingas only. Very rarely we come across his
images in the sanctum sanctorum of any Shiva temple. A Shivaling
is usually a round or cylindrical and protruding object. The cylindrical
part is held firmly by a circular base.
On the physical plane, the object resembles the male sexual organ,
suggestive of the creative power of Shiva. The circular base resembles
that of the female, suggestive of his consort Parvathi. Physically
a Shivaling is a phallic symbol, representing the male and female
sexual organs in a state of conjugal bliss. Mentally it symbolizes
the union of mind and body. Spiritually it represents the union
between Purusha and Prakriti, the highest principles of the manifest
The Shivaling is also symbolic of the Supreme Self. It is verily
Maheswara Himself, the Highest Self and the Lord of the universe.
In this aspect it has three parts. The lower part represents Brahma.
The middle part, which is octagonal in shape, represents Vishnu.
The upper part, which is cylindrical in shape, represents Rudra
and is also called Pujabhaga since it receives the actual offerings
of milk and other substances.
The Shivalingas are normally found installed in the temples .
But many devotees of Shiva keep them in their houses and offer regular
worship. People are however cautioned not to keep Shivalingas in
their houses without offering worship, since they are believed to
be powerful sources of divine energy. Shivalingas are either naturally
found or made artificially. Different materials are used in their
making, such as clay, gold, crystal, glass, diamonds, precious stones
and wood. The round and smooth stones found in the river beds of
the Narmada or the Godavari are considered to be the most ideal
for worship. Sometimes Shivalingas are made temporarily with clay
or sandal paste and disposed of after worship. Some devotees wear
Shiva lingas on their bodies or around their necks. When Shiva lingas
are found fortuitously in the river beds and desolate places, it
is considered to be a great omen. They are housed in temples or
houses and offered regular worship.
Description of Shiva
Unlike Vishnu who is depicted as dark blue, Shiva is white in color,
except for his neck which is dark blue. Images of him in dark blue
color is however the norm. He leads a life of severe austerities.
But in the images we find him tall and well built. His body is usually
besmeared with ashes, denoting his frequent rounds to the cremation
grounds. He has three eyes. The third eye rests between his eye
brows. It is the eye of wisdom, by opening which he destroys our
false selves and our myriad illusions. In contrast to Brahma who
is generally depicted as old, Shiva is usually shown either as a
young or middle aged god.
Though he is described in the scriptures as god of anger, in
the images we generally find him in his cheerful and jovial mood.
Sometimes he is depicted with a lot of innocence in his demeanor
as Bholenath. He is generally shown sitting cross-legged in a yogic
posture, with his eyes closed and deep in meditation. When he is
shown with his eyes open, his face expresses love and compassion.
The images of Shiva evoke in us deep emotions. Those who are inclined
to worship god are naturally drawn to him as they hold him in their
Unlike Vishnu, who leads a luxurious life, surrounded by opulence,
Shiva and his family lead austere lives in simple surroundings.
He is a god of utter simplicity, exemplary humility and austerity.
A tiger skin and an elephant skin serve as his garments. His long
matted hair is normally tied into a knot or left flowing. He has
four arms. With one he holds his weapon the trident. With another,
he holds Damaru, a small drum. The remaining two are held in abhaya
and varada mudras (postures).
The tiger and the elephant skin symbolically signify his ability
to control and transform animal nature. The trident represents the
three qualities, namely sattva, rajas and tamas. The damru denotes
his connection with the primal sound AUM, the creation of alphabets,
languages, grammar and music. His long matted hair denotes his spiritual
life and his great powers. It is also compared to the night sky.
He wears a garland of snakes around his neck. Sometimes we see more
snakes: one across his body like a sacred thread and two acting
as bracelets around his muscular hands. The snakes symbolically
represents his control over desire and sensuality. Sometimes in
his ferocious aspects, he is shown wearing a garland of skulls.
The crescent moon adorns his hair like a silver diadem. And the
Ganges flows from his head down into the world below.
Though he is an ascetic, he lives with his family. He is very
fond of his consort, Parvathi, whom he married after subjecting
her to a lot of tests. While Vishnu is shown as being served by
Lakshmi sitting at his feet, Shiva and Parvathi are being shown
as equals sharing the same seat on the snowy heights of Kailash.
Parvathi is literally described as his better half sharing half
of his body. This earned him the title ardhanariswara (half female
half lord). Normally we find her always by his side, especially
when he is seated in Kailash, sharing with him all the honors that
He seems to dot on his two children, Skanda or Kumara and Lord
Ganesha or Vinayaka. The Bull Nandi is his vehicle. Nandiswara is
humility personified. He is very knowledgeable also. Nandi taught
Hanuman the secrets of Vedas and lessons in humility! Another important
member of his retinue is Bhringi, the zealous devotee who was not
inclined to worship anyone other than Shiva and refused to worship
even Parvathi, till he was made to realize his mistake. Although
a mountain dweller, he is not attached to anything and true to his
ascetic nature, keeps wandering from place to place. Mount Kailash
is his abode, where live his family, his devotees who attained liberation
and his great army of goblins, imps and ghosts.
We have already explained some aspects of symbolism associated
with Shiva in the previous paragraphs and in our other articles
on Shiva and Trinity. Shiva symbolically
represents the tamasic quality. Because of this he is called
Pasupathi, (the lord of the animals). His body color which is white,
denotes his purity (Shivam) and association with the snowy mountains.
His three eyes represents the three worlds, the sun, the moon and
the earth, the three paths of liberation and the triple nature of
creation. The third eye is actually the eye of wisdom or occult
knowledge. The moon that adorns his head represents the movement
of time and also his cosmic proportions. With the
moon there, his head becomes the night
sky, for which he earned the name Vyomakesa (one who has the sky
or space as his hair). His association with the moon is in contrast
to Vishnu who is associated with the Sun as a solar deity. The moon
also symbolizes his association with the occult and the tantras.
Shiva is generally a seated yogi, a posture with which most Hindus
are familiar. However we also come across Shiva as Nataraja or tandavamurthi
in a dance posture. With his hair flying in all directions and hands
and feet in dynamic motion, the image of Nataraja is a symbol of
harmony and rhythm. Among the objects which are associated with
him popularly, apart from the trident and the Damaru, are battle
axes (parasu), rosary (aksamala), pasa (noose), khatvanga (magic
wand) and khadga (sword).
Followers of Saivism are familiar with three words: pati, pasu
and paasa. Pati is Shiva himself, the lord and husband. Pasu is
the deluded self that is caught in the cycle of birth and death.
Pasa is the bond that binds the pasu to this world and it gains
liberation through devotion and surrender to pati.
Aspects of Lord Shiva
Shiva is known by several names and worshipped in various forms.
We are mentioning below some of his most famous aspects:
Panchanana Shiva: In some temples Shiva is shown with five faces.
Each of the faces has a name and represents a specific aspect. These
five faces are Isana, Tatpurusa, Aghora, Vamadeva and Sadyojata.
Isana faces south east and represents Iswara aspect of Shiva known
as SadaShiva, or the Eternal Shiva. Tatpurusha faces the east. He
is Shiva in his aspect as a deluded purusha or ego. Aghora faces
the south and represents the destructive and regenerative aspect
of Shiva that, like fire, first devours life and then prepares the
ground for its renewal. Vamadeva faces north. He is healer and preserver.
Sadyojata faces west and represents the creative power of Shiva.
Anugrahamurthy: This is the milder or peaceful aspect
of Lord Shiva when he is in the company of his beloved devotees
or his family members.
Ugramurthy: Also known as Raudra , Bhairava, Kankala or
Samharamurthy, this is the ferocious or angry form of Shiva, generally
associated with the events during which Shiva assumed his terrible
form to slay the demons or the wicked. The following are his well
known terrible forms:
- Kankala-bhairava: The form which he assumed after
cutting off the fifth head of Brahma
- Gajasura-vadha-murthy: The form he assumed while
killing a demon named Nila
- Tripurantakmurthi: The form he assumed while destroying
the three cities of gold, silver and iron built by the three
sons of Andhakasura
- Sarabhesa-murthy: The form in which he allegedly
fought and killed, Narasimha, the incarnation of Vishnu.
- Kalari-murthy: the form in which he fought and defeated
Yama to save his devotee Markandeya.
- Kamantaka-murthy: The form in which he destroyed
Manmadha, the god of lust, for disturbing him while doing penance.
- Andhakasura-vadha-murthy: The form in which he defeated
Andhakasura, who subsequently joined his forces as his commander
and became popular as Bhringi.
- Bhairava-murthy: The form generally found in connection
with the secret cults of Tantricism that involve his worship
in the cremation grounds and grave yards.
Tandavamurthy: Lord Shiva is a master of dance forms.
He is the
author of all dance forms. The science of dance ( Natyasasthra)
dealing with the 108 types of classical Indian dance forms said
to have originated from him just as all the yogic postures. In case
of Lord Shiva all dance is a form of expression, which he uses either
to relieve the tensions in the world or alleviate the sufferings
of his devotees. Sometimes he also entertains the gods or his wife
or his devotees with his dance. About nine forms of Shiva in dancing
mode are described, of which the most popular form is Nataraja (the
king of dance). Though we have a number of icons of Shiva as Nataraja,
he is rarely worshipped in this form either in the temples or in
the households. His other dance forms include, Ananda-tandava-murhty,
dancing in a pleasant and cheerful mood, Uma-tandava-murhty, dancing
in the company of Parvathi, Tripura-tandava-murthy, dancing while
slaying Tripurasura and Urdhva-tandava-murhty, dancing in the air.
Symbolism of Nataraja:
Nataraja literally means lord of the dance. Shiva is the lord,
the ultimate and effective cause of all creation and the dance is
his act of creation, a dynamic rhythmic movement. His dance is a
guided action, under his complete mastery, not an act of chaotic,
random movements. The lord and the dance together constitute the
projection of the ParamaShiva, the highest eternal and formless
Nirguna Brahman on the canvas of his own awakened state as Saguna
Every aspect in the image of Nataraja represent an aspect of
creation. The lord is surrounded on all sides by a circular ring
of fire. The ring represents the whole of creation. It is finite,
cyclical and filled with energy or shakti shown here as flames.
It ensues from the hands and limbs of the Lord suggestive of the
fact that he is the primal and effective cause of creation.
Nataraja holds a tongue of flame in his upper left hand. The
fire represents the energy that is responsible for creation and
also the dissolution of the worlds at the end of creation. As a
creator he creates, upholds and also destroys the worlds.
The upper right hand holds a drum or damaru which is a musical
instrument that produces rhythmic sounds. It is suggestive of the
sound of breath, the sound of life, the vibrations underlying all
currents of creation and manifestation. It also represents the vibrations
that arise from our thoughts, emotions, mental activity, movement
of the senses and the very samsara in which the jivas continue their
existence till they find an escape.
The lower left hand is held in an assuring mode (abhaya-mudra)
suggesting that the jivas need not have to despair and that they
can escape from the impurities of samsara (anava, karma and maya)
and achieve sameness (saujya) with Shiva through his grace (anugraha)
and intervention. The second right hand is shown pointing towards
the downside with the palm upside drawing our attention to the figure
lying beneath his feet suggesting that the lord is not holding anything
back but revealing the knowledge of creation and the secrets of
our bondage so that jivas can find means of escape through the assurance
they find in his lower left hand.
The matted hair of Shiva is shown as flying high and flowing
in all directions. These are the symbols of divinities or the higher
gods who live in the higher realms and participate in the cosmic
dance enacted by Lord Shiva. The tiger skin worn by the deity suggests
that even God has respect for the rules of right conduct and the
dharma he has established in the manifest creation for the guidance
of the souls. The snake around his waist enjoying the dance with
a raised hood is suggestive of the kundalini-shakti that remains
ever awakened in Shiva and is in unison with him.
The dwarf lying at the feet of the dancing Nataraja is known
as apasmara-murthy. It symbolically represents the jiva that has
forgotten about its own infiniteness and its Shiva nature because
of the impurity of anava which makes it believe it to be a dwarf
or anu (atomic or minute or finite being) and become a subject of
the dance of creation.
Thus we can see that the image of Nataraja is an iconic representation
of the whole Saiva Siddhanta philosophy one of the most ancient
schools of Saivism. The various aspects of the image represent the
nature of Shiva, the act of creation, the state of the jivas and
the means of liberation. By creating it or serving it or by contemplating
upon it one can initiate the process of liberation through the grace
Dakshinamurthy: This is Shiva in his aspect as the universal
teacher, teaching the secrets of yoga, tantras, yantras, alchemy,
magic, occult knowledge, arts and sciences, ancient history or knowledge
of the future to the sages and saints, gods and goddesses and his
highly qualified devotees. He is called Dakshinamurthy, because
he does his teachings sitting on the snowy mountains of Himalayas
and facing towards the Indian subcontinent, which is in the southerly
direction. The images of Dakshinamurthy, depict Shiva in his pleasant
mood, seated on a high seat, with one leg folded while the other
rests on the Apasmarapurusha, the deluded self. Two of his arms
hold a snake or rosary or both in one hand and fire in the other.
The snake is a symbol of tantric knowledge and the fire symbol of
enlightenment. Of the remaining two one is in abhayamudra (posture
of assurance) and the other holds a scripture in gnanamudra (posture
of presenting knowledge).
Lingodhbhava-murthy: This image signifies the importance
of Shiva in the form of Linga as the Supreme Self, without a beginning
and without an end. According to Hindu mythology, Shiva once revealed
his infinity to Brahma and Vishnu in the form of a pillar of fire
that could not be scaled by either of them from one end to the other.
As Lingodhbava-murthy, Shiva appears seated in the heart of a Linga,
with four arms, while Brahma and Vishnu adore him from the two sides.
Bhikshatana-murthi. This is Shiva in his ascetic aspect,
wandering from place to place, with a begging bowl made of human
skull, doing penance or lost in his own thoughts. Even today we
can see some followers of Shiva going around the villages in India
in this form. Some of them even do a little magic to attract our
attention or scare away the trailing children.
Hridaya-murthy: This is Shiva in a mood of reconciliation
and friendship with Vishnu. Also known as Harihara or Sankaranarayana.
The images show the right half of Shiva on the right side of the
image and the left half of Vishnu on the left side.
Ardhanariswara: This Shiva and Parvathi together in one
form signifying the unity of Purusha and Prorate. The feminine left
half of Parvathi is fused with the masculine right half of Shiva
in one continuous form, sometimes standing with the Bull Nandi in
the background, or sitting on a pedestal and blessing the worlds,
with eyes open or closed.
Minor Deities of Shiva
The minor deities are part of Shiva's Retinue. Among them the
most important are Nandi, Bhringi, Virabhadra and Chandesvara.
Nandi: It is interesting to note that unlike the Vedic people
who regarded the cow as sacred animal, the followers of Shiva venerate
the bull! It is because Nandi, the Bull, is Shiva's vehicle. Nandi
is invariably found sitting right infront of the sanctum sanctorum
in every Shiva temple facing the image and looking at him all the
time. In fact no one is supposed to see the chief deity in a Shiva
temple without paying homage first to the seated Nandi and looking
at Shiva from afar through the space between the ears and the top
of his head. There are some temples in India which are exclusively
built for him like the famous Nandiswara temple in Karnataka. Nandiswara
in his anthromorphic form appears just like Shiva, with three eyes
and four hands of which two are permanently dedicated to the veneration
of Shiva while the other two carry his weapons. Symbolically Nandi
represents the animal or the tamasic qualities in man which Shiva
rides and transforms with his energies. As we have already noted,
Nandi is well versed in all scriptural knowledge and spiritual knowledge
and imparted knowledge of devotion to Hanuman. It is a tradition
in many parts of rural India to let a Bull roam free in each village
as a mark of respect to Nandi and to inseminate the cows in the
Bhringi: He was originally a demon named Andhaka, who
was transformed by Shiva into a humble devotee and admitted into
his force as a commander of his armies. Bhringisa was so loyal to
Shiva that in his state of devotion he would not offer his worship
to any one including Parvathi. It is said that when he saw once
Shiva in his Ardhanariswara form, he tried to bore through the middle
of the body in the form of a bee to complete his obeisance to only
the Shiva side of the form, much to the annoyance of Parvathi. Bhringi
who got his name thus was made to realize his mistake and change
his behavior by Lord Shiva.
Virabhadra He is Shiva in his ferocious mood. Shiva manifested
himself as Virabhadra, when Daksha, his father in law, ill treated
and insulted his wife Sati, Daksha's own daughter, infront of a
large gathering. Unable to cope with the insult, Sati immolated
herself. This angered Shiva so much, that he descended upon the
place of Daksha with his large army and beheaded Daksha's. The images
of Virabhadra depict the anger and ferocity of Shiva in that destructive
mood, wearing a garland of skulls, and with four arms holding four
different kinds of weapons. Virabhadra is a warrior god who was
worshipped during wars in ancient and medieval periods. He is also
the principal deity of Virasaiva movement and still worshipped by
many in the Karnataka region of India.
Chandesvara He is an aspect of Chandi in human form later
elevated to the status of divinity, to signify the connection between
Shiva and Chandi, or Durga. Chandesvara is a ferocious god, holding
weapons of war and ready to do battle for a divine cause. His images
are generally found in a corner in all the Shiva temples. As in
case of Nandi, devotees usually visit him and pay their respects
before going to see the Shivaling in the sanctum sanctorum.
Suggested Further Reading