The Truth About Shiva's Essential Nature

Lord Shiva

Lord Shiva, the light that shines in the darkness of the mind

by Jayaram V

One of the misconceptions about Lord Shiva is that he embodies tamas and is a tamasic god. This erroneous view gained acceptance mainly due to the popular belief that among the Trimurthis (triple gods), he acts as the destroyer. It gained further credence as Shiva has both pleasant and unpleasant forms, which are feared as well as revered.

His association with Tantra vidya and his fierce manifestations as Kala, Rudra, Bhairava, Veerabhadra, etc., are well known. They present Shiva in both positive and negative light according to the faith of the devotees and reinforce the belief that he is a composite god who does not easily fit into a particular, stereotype, pattern or definition. Our understanding of him is further complicated by the fact that he is worshipped not only by gods and humans but also by the asuras (dark forces) with equal reverence. Shiva is the only god who unleashes anger and stormy fury on occasions to accomplish specific objectives. His associate Shaktis also follow the same pattern.

In popular Hinduism, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the triple manifestations (Trimurthis) of manifested Brahman. As the first gods of creation, representing Brahman in their purest aspect, they occupy the most exalted position in the Hindu pantheon. Brahma, the creator, is said to be a rajasic god. Vishnu, the preserver a sattvic god and Shiva, the destroyer, a tamasic god. This is the historical and popular view, which puts Lord Shiva in somewhat a negative shade, especially in the minds of those who do not worship him but other gods.

Of the triple modes (gunas) of Nature, sattva represents purity. From the spiritual perspective, it is superior to the other two and most desirable. Rajas represents the qualities that are essential for our survival and success. From a worldly perspective, it promotes self-interest, fighting spirit, dynamism and leadership. Tamas is a negative and dark mode. It is responsible for indolence, inertia, violence, delusion, anger, animality, cruelty, brutality and so on.

The influence of the triple gunas upon our behavior and states of mind is well explained in many of our scriptures, including the Bhagavadgita. They play an important role in inducing desire-ridden actions which lead to sinful karma, bondage and suffering. If you are aiming for liberation, you are advised to cultivate the predominance of sattva through yogic and transformative practices.

Although they have limitation, householders cannot perform their obligatory duties or pursue the four aims of human life (dharma, Artha, kama and moksha) or lead a fuller life without the three qualities. Each of the gunas plays an important role in some aspect of human behavior. Sattva is helpful in spiritual and religious practice. Rajas is helpful in worldly life to be active and keep going with hope and courage like a warrior in the face of adversity and difficulties. Tamas is helpful to experience passions and emotions and realize the importance of balance, moderation and stability and the need for self-control.

However, it is also important for devotees not to become stuck in any of the gunas or modes because they induce desire-ridden actions and keep them bound. In the end, one has to transcend all the three gunas or suppress them to achieve oneness with the Self.  To the seekers of liberation, the gunas present a problem. The Bhagavadgita recommends karma sannyasa yoga, or renunciation of the fruit of actions as the best solutions to avoid karmic consequences which may arise from them.

The association between gods and gunas leads to the rather mistaken notion that some gods are better than others. For example, gods such as Brahma, Indra, Varuna, Soma, etc., are considered Kshatriya gods because of their association with rajas. Agni is considered a sattvic god because of his purifying nature, and Pusan is considered a tamasic god because of his association with the earth and fertility.

However, the truth is that gods are pure beings. While they may perform different functions and associate with different modes and shaktis, their essential nature is purity only. As beings of light and delight, they are completely devoid of the gunas. They may be present in the microcosm and macrocosm or in the field of Prakriti to perform their duties, but the tattvas and modes do not exist in them.

They are made up of only one mode or reality, known as Isvara tattva or divine reality. Because of their purity, the gunas do not have any influence upon them, nor can they taint them as in case of other beings. Instead, the gods control the gunas and use them to perform their duties in creation as God’s eternal forces. It is why even if they engage in questionable actions, as in case of Indra or Agni, their actions do not lead to their bondage or rebirth.

Thus, Vishnu is the presiding deity of sattva. He enhances sattva in creation and helps his devotees work for their liberation through devotion and sacrificial actions. Brahma is the presiding deity of rajas. He controls and directs his thought force to help beings lead active lives, pursuing Dharma and fulfilling their obligatory duties as householders with their knowledge, power and intelligence. Lord Shiva is the presiding deity of tamas. He protects his devotees from the forces of evil and darkness by removing their ignorance, delusion, attachments, animal nature, negativity, anger, pride, lust, greed, envy and so on.

Thus, gods are associated with gunas just as they are associated with certain Shaktis, but they are not touched by them. Although Lord Shiva is the presiding deity of tamas, he is completely free from it. He is shivam, purity personified. He is pure because he is completely free from the three gunas. Nature is made up of 23 finite realities (tattvas), whereas Isvara is made up of one, indivisible, eternal, infinite, indestructible reality, known as Isvara tattva. Prakriti tattvas are impure and unstable. Isvara tattva is pure and fixed. In some scriptures it is called suddha sattva (purest sattva).

Although Shiva is projected in popular Hinduism as the destroyer, in truth he is Brahman himself. As the creator and upholder of Dharma, he has five primordial, universal aspects or functional forms, namely the creator, preserver, destroyer, concealer and revealer.  Through them, which are known as his panchanana forms, he ensures the continuation of the worlds and progression of time from one point to another through the recurring phases of renewal and destruction.

As Isvara (Saguna Brahman), he is supremely pure (parama pavitram). Although he is the lord of the mind and body and established in Nature as the hub and support, he is free from all forms of materiality, corporeality, duality and objectivity. Just as darkness cannot touch light but can be dispelled by it, impurities cannot touch him but become dissolved by his grace. He is the infinite ocean upon which worlds and beings may appear and disappear as waves. He pervades and envelops all the materiality and objectivity, but is not touched by them.

Shiva is the absolute, supreme Brahman, the lord of the manifested worlds, the source of all knowledge and sciences, who casts the net of maya upon all beings and keeps them bound, until they awaken to the truth of Self and pursue liberation. As the concealer and revealer, he plays hide and seek with his devotees, making himself known in moments of deepest silence. He is purity personified. By bestowing upon us knowledge and wisdom, he removes darkness and evil from our minds and bodies and illuminate our consciousness.

Shiva is the means to attain Kaivalya or indistinguishable oneness, which is also his eternal and essential state. Hence, he is also the highest goal for the seekers of liberation, upon attaining which they will never return.  As the Svetasvatara Upanishad declares, “He who is hidden in the faces, heads and necks of all, who resides in the inner cave (heart) of all beings, he is the all-pervading Lord. Therefore, he is Shiva, the omnipresent.” By knowing him one becomes liberated. He is Agni, Aditya, Vayu, Soma, Indra, Brahma, Prajapati and all other gods. He is not maya, but wielder of maya. By knowing him as pure and auspicious (shivam) one attains peace forever.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page