14. august, 2023

Śiva - The Great Universal God

In the bewildering galaxy of gods of the Hindu pantheon, Lord Shiva stands out as one of the oldest and best loved. The universe resounds with his presence. He is both sound and echo.

He is intangible vibration as well as infinitesimal substance. He is the rustling of the withered leaves and the glossy green of the newborn grass. He is the ferryman who ferries us from life to death, but he is also the liberator from death to immortality. He has innumerable faces and eleven forms as described in the Vedas. The sky and the seasons vibrate with his intensity and power. He grips, supports, releases, and liberates. He is both the disease and the destroyer of the disease. He is food, the giver of food, and the process of eating. His divine majesty and power are depicted through symbolic, yet highly realistic descriptions of an awe-inspiring figure, far, distant, and cold in his remote Himalayan fastness as well as close, kind, and loving, a living, throbbing symbol of the Divine.

He was worshipped as the divine shaman by wild tribes that roamed across the subcontinent before the dawn of history. They contacted him by the use of certain psychoactive compounds and various esoteric rituals. Later we see him on the terra-cotta seals of the Indus civilization. There he is shown as Pasupati, Lord of beasts, surrounded by the wild creatures of the jungle. He is also shown as the yogi sitting in various meditative postures. The rishis of the Vedas looked up at the Himalayas and saw in them his hair; they found his breath in the air, and all creation and destruction in his dance—the Thandava Nritta. The Rig Veda, the oldest religious text known to humankind, refers to him as Rudra, the wild one, who dwelt in fearful places and shot arrows of disease. Sacrifices were constantly offered to appease him.

At that time religion was dominated by female deities, so the cult of Shiva soon fused with that of the great Mother Goddess Shakti, who later came to be known as Durga, Uma, Parvati, and so on. Male and female are but complementary halves of the whole truth, and some images portray Shiva as Ardhanareeswara, a form half male and half female.

He is also mentioned as lswara, the enigmatic first emanation from the Brahman. Thus he is the Great Lord, Maheswara, and the Great God, Mahadeva. He is one of the Immortals, Unborn and Deathless. The Shiva Purana equates him with the Supreme Brahman of the Vedas.

He is also the endearing personal god, Shambunatha, and the innocent Bhola with a naive nature. On the other hand he is Dakshinamurthy, the supreme teacher who gave the teachings of the Vedas, the Shastras, and the Tantras to the rishis. He is also master of every art, the supreme dancer, Nataraja, the supreme musician, composer of the Sama Veda. Though normally pictured in his fierce aspect, he can also take the form of Sundaramurti, the handsome one, and entrance anyone. To the wicked he is Bhairava, or Rudra of fierce aspect. Depending on the needs of the devotees he is capable of taking on many forms.

His forms, attributes, decorations, weapons, attendants, and activities are given in great detail so that he becomes a living reality. As Rudra he is full of wrath and destruction, but as Shiva he is filled with all auspiciousness. He has two natures—one wild and fierce, the other calm and peaceful. Of all the deities, he is the one most easily propitiated. Moreover, in compassion there is none to compare with him. He is the friend of the unfortunates—the blind and the lame, the goblins and the ghouls.

Those who are despised by others find a place in his entourage. Demons, vampires, ghosts, and goblins who are feared by all are his close attendants. Snakes, which usually people dread and run from in horror, wind themselves lovingly round his neck. His companions are the deformed and the ugly; he is averse to none. He does not belong exclusively to the gods or the sages. His greatest devotees are Kubera, king of the yakshas (demigods who guard the treasures of the netherworld); Ravana, king of the rakshasas (demons); and Shukra, guru of the asuras. Wizards, sorcerers, witches, and magicians also worship him. Every spirit, malefic or compassionate, seeks Shiva’s grace. His attendants are the ganas, a wild bunch of hooligans and social misfits. They are ugly, deformed, and misshapen. They drink intoxicating liquor and take drugs such as bhang (a cannabis preparation). They are a totally lawless set of beings that only Shiva can control. Instead of curbing their eccentricities, Shiva joins in their wild revelries and sings and dances with gusto to the accompaniment of their cacophonous music. But he also keeps them in check. Because of him they are forced to desist from doing too much damage in the world. He is the supreme yogi, uncaring of material wants, ever immersed in the immensity of his divine bliss. Death stands in dread of him. Bedecked with skulls and bones, Shiva wanders in cremation grounds dancing to the light of funeral pyres, smearing his body with the ashes of the dead. Dangerous forests infested with cannibals and wild beasts, as well as the icy, inaccessible peaks of the Himalayas, are his favorite haunts.

The unorthodox and the casteless, outside the traditional fold, saw in him the nonconformist who sought ultimate truth beyond ritual, beyond society, beyond matter. He was the first tantric (follower of  Tantra), as well as the first siddha (one with supernormal powers). The casteless ones sought his blessings before dabbling in their magic rites, their sorcery, and their alchemy.

The Brahmins, who were the orthodox priest caste, thus found it difficult to accept this wild and fearsome god. As the priest-king Daksha did, they held him in contempt. They refused to offer him any portion of their yajñas, or sacrifices, given to the other gods. The story of the Daksha yajña shows how by the sheer power of his truth, which is the truth of all creation, Shiva came to be accepted as the Great God. He transcends the duality of good and evil, right and wrong, auspicious and inauspicious. The Sanatana Dharma, which is the actual name of Hinduism, forces the human mind, time and time again, to accept the fact that the Divine is all that exists, both clean and unclean, pure and impure, auspicious and inauspicious. The same code that gave us the caste system also gave us the image of Shiva, the nonconformist, who challenged all social codes and sought a truth that lay beyond all apparent dualities. There is nothing and no person who can be said to be unacceptable to society. The Divine accepts every creature, however ugly or malformed. All the rites and rituals that are employed by the human being groping a path to godhead have to be accepted by the Divine, for that also comes from him alone. Shiva is a symbol of this all-inclusive universality of the Hindu view of the deity, thus the Brahmins were forced to accept him into the fold of their conservative beliefs. By the time the Upanishads were written, Shiva had become a most important deity. Although initially considered to be inauspicious and impure, he eventually came to be known as Shiva, the auspicious one. He became the inspiration for theatre, dance, and drama and was a favorite figure for painters and sculptors.

In the Hindu trinity, or Trimurtis, Brahma is the Creator; Vishnu, the Sustainer; and Shiva is the Destroyer. The divine trinity thus ensures the cycle of existence. The Shaiva Siddhanta School of philosophy, however, does not accept Shiva as being just one of the Trimurtis. To them he is the Supreme Brahman to whom both Brahma and Vishnu offer obeisance. He is called Pati, or Master, with the five important functions of godhead: creation, maintenance, destruction, veiling, and grace. The human soul is called paśu, or creature, which is tied with the pasa, or rope of bondage. This bondage consists of three types of impurities: The first is avidya, or primordial ignorance. Next comes karma mala, the bondage accruing from our actions. Last is maya mala, or impurity caused by attachment to the world of maya.

To eliminate the last two impurities, four types of approaches are prescribed: The first is the way of the servant, or dasa marga. This consists of performing external acts of worship, such as gathering flowers for worship, cleaning the vessels used in worship, sweeping the temple, and so on. This leads to salokya, which means the devotee will be taken to the abode of Shiva at the time of death and reside there forever. The second way consists of intimate service to God by conducting rituals, having intimate communion with him, speaking about him, writing about him, and so on. This is called the satputra marga, or the path of the good son. This leads the devotee to samipya, or close proximity to God. The third way is called sakhya marga, or the path of friendship, and includes internal worship, such as meditation and communion, which leads to sarupya; in this the devotee attains the form of the deity at the time of death. The last is jñana marga, or the path of wisdom; by following this, the devotee attains sayujya, or union with God.

As said before, these disciplines can remove only the first two impurities caused by action and attachment to the world—karma mala and maya mala. The bondage of ignorance, or avidya, can be removed only by the grace of God. Thus Shiva is known as Paśupati, or the Lord of all human creatures who are bound by these impurities. Shiva accepts all those who are despised and rejected by others. He destroys the negativity in all and purifies them. He is the regenerator and reformer. He destroys pomposity by his simplicity and prudery by his defiance of orthodoxy. He is the destroyer of the ego, which is what traps the human being in the ocean of life and death. He can also destroy sorrow, pain, and misery.

Though he seems a fearsome figure, he is the one who can remove all the fearful influences that threaten our lives. Just as the lotus, rising from the slime of the pond, is still the symbol of purity, so Shiva is the symbol of purity despite dabbling in impurity.

His physical body, clothing, and ornaments are also unique. He is white as camphor and wears his hair in matted locks, coiled in the shape of a shell. He has a blue neck because he drank deadly poison in order to protect the world from it, keeping it in his throat rather than swallowing it, and it made his neck turn blue. He has three eyes, He is Triyambakam. The third eye on his forehead denotes him as the Lord of yoga. This inner eye distinguishes truth from illusion and conquers lust. He is Chandrachoodeswar (wearer of the moon), for he wears the crescent moon as an adornment for his hair. Like the waxing and waning of the moon, he is in tune with the rise and fall of the cosmic rhythm.

He is Krittivasa, wearer of animal hides. His upper body is covered with the skin of the black antelope, the elephant hide covers his loins, and the tiger skin is his seat. By wearing the male kundala (a man’s earring) in his right ear and the female tatanka (a woman’s earring) in his left, he reveals his androgynous nature. He wears a garland of skulls and carries a skull in his hand as his begging bowl, and often drinks out of it in order to show the frailty of mortal life. He also bedecks himself with rudraksha beads, seeds from a medicinal tree. His vehicle is the bull Nandi, which represents restrained power. The bull also represents dharma, or righteousness. In his right hand he holds the antelope representing all creatures under his protection. Verminous mongrel dogs scorned by all chase after him in his wanderings. Snakes slither up and down his body. His weapon is the trident, with three prongs representing the trinity. He also carries a staff and a noose—the pasa that binds all creatures to mortality. His two bows are known as Pinaka and Ajagava. He is the source of the primeval sound, Om, and carries his drum, damaru, while dancing. The boom of the drum represents the vibrations of cosmic energy. He is the master of music and plays on the rudravina, or lute, designed for him by Ravana. He also carries a bell. He is prepared to make enormous sacrifices for the protection of the world. Though depicted in the trinity as the Destroyer, he is the one who protected the world by swallowing the dreaded poison that the serpent expelled. He is the one who contained the fall of the divine River Ganga when she tumbled down to earth from heaven, thus saving the earth from being deluged by her waters. There is no end to his mercy and his kindness; he is prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of the world.

Modern physics describes matter not as passive and inert, but as continuously dancing and vibrating. Physicists speak of the continuous dance of subatomic particles and use the words “dance of creation“ and “energy dance.” When we look at a sculpture of the dancing Shiva, the Nataraja, this description of the physicists comes forcibly to mind. The Nataraja is the personification of this cosmic dance.

Modern photographic techniques have been able to project the particle tracks emanating from the dancing image of Shiva. This image is a concrete symbol of the great principle that the seers tried to portray—that life is a rhythmic interplay of birth and death, creation and destruction. Scientists have shown this in their particle accelerators. Shiva’s cosmic dance depicts the mad gyrations of energy particles. His damaru beats to the rhythm of the cosmic vibrations, and his energy, or shakti, is activated by the Divine Mother, personified by many goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, including Durga and Parvati. The Divine Mother is the enchantress who creates and nourishes and gives suck to all beings, human and subhuman. All are infants of this Divine Mother.

The Greeks who came to India around 300 BC saw in Shiva a reflection of their own god, Dionysius. He was the rebel who opposed their classical divinities and sought salvation in esoteric rituals. By the time of the Christian era, the cult of Shiva had captured the minds of all and had spread from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari at the very tip of the Indian subcontinent.

O head of mine, bow down to the Head (of the universe) who wears a crown of heads on his head. Who receives alms in a skull, O head of mine! Bow down to him!


“O Destroyer! By that supremely peaceful form of yours, which is auspicious and blissful and destroys sin, give us the knowledge supreme.