Hindu God Lord Shiva (Siva) - the Destroyer
Shiva in his pleasant aspect as the graceful lord (Anugraha Murthy)
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 or its creator performing that task.
However it does not mean that Shiva would remain idle until 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 which 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 life forms and facilitate the transformation, evolution or modifications of Nature. His destruction is the destruction of an artist, 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 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 to become transformed into light and wisdom without any inner conflict, he destroys death itself. Since he is so vital to life and existence, Shiva is synonymous with life and Shava (the absence of Shiva) with death. Shiva is existence and Shava is nonexistence.
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 sacred symbol in Hinduism, which is worshipped, meditated upon and worn on the body by many devotees. 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 universe. Universally, it stands for life and existence, the coming together of matter and consciousness, of gross bodies and subtle bodies to create the miracle called life.
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. It is also called Pujabhaga, since it receives the actual offerings of milk and other substances.
The Shivalingas are normally found installed in the temples. Many devotees of Shiva also keep them in their houses and offer them regular worship. However, people are cautioned not to keep Shivalingas in their houses if they do not offer regular worship, since they are believed to be powerful sources of divine energy and should not be neglected or disrespected. Shivalingas are either naturally found or artificially made. Different materials are used in their making, such as clay, gold, crystal, glass, diamonds, precious stones and wood.
The round and smooth stones which are found in the river beds of many rivers such as the Narmada or the Godavari are also considered ideal for worship. Sometimes Shivalingas are made temporarily with clay or sandal paste and dissolved after worship. Some devotees wear Shiva lingas on their bodies or around their necks for protection, proximity or to keep their vows. When Shivalingas are found fortuitously in the river beds, forests, mountains and desolate places, it is considered a great omen and the will of Shiva. Hence, they are considered sacred and housed in temples or houses for worship.
Description of Shiva
Shiva personifies beauty, serenity, spirituality and stability. He is also earthy and very much human like in his attitude. Unlike Vishnu who is depicted as dark blue, Shiva is white in color, except for his neck which is dark blue because of the poison which he deposited there to save the worlds from destruction. Images of Shiva in dark blue color are however the norm. Again, unlike Vishnu he is an ascetic god, who leads a life of austerities and penance. However, in the images we find him tall, sinewy and well-built.
Because of his frequent visits to the cremation ground and proximity to the burning pyres, his body remains covered with ashes, which denotes his indifference to worldly life and social conformity. He has three eyes. The third eye rests between his eye brows. It is the eye of wisdom, by opening which he destroys not only fierce demons but also our false selves and our myriad illusions. In contrast to Brahma who is mostly depicted as an elderly god and a wise old sage, Shiva is usually shown as a fatherly god in his middle ages.
Though he is described in the scriptures as a god of anger, in the images we generally find him in his pleasant and graceful mood. Sometimes he is depicted as Bholenath, with a lot of innocence and simplicity in his demeanor. In most images he shown in a yogic posture, sitting cross-legged on a tiger skin, with his eyes closed in meditation or open to bless the devotees. When he is shown with open eyes, his face expresses love and compassion. The images of Shiva evoke in us deep emotions, both positive and negative according to his forms and his own state of emotion. Those who are inclined to worship the god are naturally drawn to him as they hold him in their esteem as their beloved god with whom they can communicate with ease through their hearts and minds..
Unlike Vishnu, who leads a luxurious life, surrounded by opulence, Shiva and his family lead austere lives in simple surroundings. He is a transparent god, whose actions speak for themselves, unlike Vishnu who can be at time secretive or tactful as a part of his divine play. He is also a god of utter simplicity, exemplary humility and austerity. Despite that he is the lord of the universe, he leads an austere life like a true ascetic. His possessions are few. 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 appears with either two or four arms. With one he holds his weapon the trident. With another, he holds Damaru, a small drum. The remaining two, when they are shown, 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 represent 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 River goddess Ganga flows from the heights of heaven in his head down into the world below.
Although he is an ascetic, he is fond of his family and prefers to be in their company. He is very fond of his consort, Parvathi, his inseparable half, whom he married after subjecting her to many tests. He also treats her with respect as his equal. While Vishnu is shown as the Lord served by Lakshmi sitting at his feet, Shiva and Parvathi share the same seat as equals on the snowy heights of Kailash. Parvathi is literally his better half, since she shares half of everything he has, including his body. This earned him the title Ardhanarisvara (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 he receives. Symbolically, Shiva is the Cosmic Male (Purusha) and Parvathi or Shakti is the primal Nature (Prakriti). Creation is possible only when they are together as one inseparable reality.
Shiva also personifies fatherly love. He is fond of his two children, Skanda or Kumara and Lord Ganesha or Vinayaka and assigns them tasks according to their nature. 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, until he was cursed by her and 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 Tantrism 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 Brahman.
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 of Shiva.
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 in front 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 anthropomorphic 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 village.
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, in front 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.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Hindu Gods - Lord Ganesha
- Lord Shiva in Ancient Historic Traditions
- Ten Reasons Why You Should Worship Shiva
- Aspects of Lord Shiva
- The Panchanana Aspects and Forms of Shiva
- Significance of Lord Shiva
- Purusha, The Universal Cosmic Male and Prakriti, The Mother Nature
- The Svetasvatara Upanishad, An Introduction
- History of Shaivism, Lord Shiva in Vedic Literature and Recorded History
- Books on Saivism or Shaivism
- Mahanirvana Tantra the Tantra of the Great Liberation Chapter Index
- Symbolic Significance of Trimurthis or The Hindu Trinity
- About Goddess Parvathi or Shakti
- Quotes on Religious Tolerance in Hinduism
- Sects and Sectarian Movements in Hinduism
- Hinduism - The Role of Shakti in Creation
- Hindu God Murugan, Kumaraswami, Skanda or Ayyappa
- Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism
- Rudra, Rudras the Gods of Hinduism
- The Meaning and Significance of Pashupata or Pashupatha
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