Shiva holds the power of destruction, but often, he destroys so that new life can grow. He destroys both the cosmos as well as people’s imperfections so that the world can be reborn and people can become perfect. He also shatters illusions to give people clarity and vision. As such, his acts of destruction are often viewed as ultimately constructive and as something to be embraced.
Because he destroys, Hindus see him as a source of much of the evil that we see in the world today. However, his destruction often comes with the purpose of bringing new life, meaning that he is also the source of good. This concept is one of many paradoxes surrounding the beliefs and worship of Shiva.
Shiva continually shifts back and forth between extremes. Sometimes, he is a hedonist who cannot seem to get enough pleasure for himself. At other times, the god is an ascetic to abstains from all desires. He both avenges people and shepherds their souls. He has wild passions that are untamed, leading him to acts of destruction that often seem to be arbitrary and futile. However, he is often depicted as being tranquil and serene, usually meditating in a lotus position.
36. In Early Hinduism, Shiva Was Not a Distinct God
The earliest Hindu texts are known as the Vedas, and he is not directly mentioned in them. Instead, he is an aspect of another god known as Rudra. Rudra brought the heavy rains that typify the monsoons of India; the Shiva aspect of him brought new life from the torrential flooding. He brought balance to Rudra by recycling the destructive energy into a constructive force for good. From this narrative, he came to be seen as both the destroyer and creator.
Out of 1,028 hymns in the Rigveda, one of the oldest and most important of the Vedic texts, only three are dedicated to Rudra. Though feared, he was considered to be a minor god, one among many atmospheric deities who had control over the weather. That Shiva should become so crucial in Hinduism all across the subcontinent is likely the result of a confluence of factors and possibly mergers with other Hindu gods and goddesses.
In the Vedic texts, which date back as far as 1100 BCE, Rudra and Shiva are considered to be aspects of the same personality, discernible from each other but both necessary to fulfill a divine role. Now, Shiva has taken on Rudra’s part of a destroyer, as well as retained his position as creator. To this day, Rudra is still sometimes used as a name for Shiva. By the time Shiva became significant among Hindus, worship of Rudra had been all but forgotten.
33. Traditions Involving Shiva Stretch From India to Indonesia
Depictions and stories about Shiva have been found in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and even Bali, an island in Indonesia. Scholars believe that the figure Hindus now recognize as Shiva is an amalgamation of many different local deities. For example, in the state of Maharashtra, Khandoba, the god of farming became assimilated into Shiva worship by coming to be seen as one of Shiva’s incarnations or avatars. By absorbing so many different deities, each of whom represented various aspects of life, he came to embody many extremes and contradictions.
32. Depictions of Shiva Date Back to At Least 10,000 BCE
Scholars have found early paintings show figures that seem to have some resemblance to Shiva that dates back more than 12,000 years. The statues may be seen as dancing, holding a trident, or sitting in a lotus position, all of which are characteristic of Shiva. However, there are disputes as to the actual nature of the paintings. They may provide additional evidence regarding the origin of Shiva, such as local deities that he absorbed, as Hindus currently see and worship him.
31. The Ramayana and Mahabharata Gave Him His Current Characteristics
The Ramayana and Mahabharata are ancient Hindu epics that began to take shape hundreds of years after the writing of the Vedas. In the Ramayana, Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, must rescue his lover, Sita, from the demon-king, Ravanna. In the Mahabharata, Krishna, an avatar of Shiva, supports the Pandava brothers in their struggle to attain the throne. The Ramayana and Mahabharata helped shape Hinduism as it currently exists today, much as the Iliad and the Odyssey helped develop Greek mythology.
30. Some Scholars See Shiva as a Hindu Version of Dionysus
Dionysus was the Greek god of pleasure, the grape harvest, wine, ecstasy, theater, and ritual madness. He was seen as androgynous, similar to Shiva, who is often depicted as half-man, half-woman. The two gods have much in common, leading some scholars to suggest that they developed in tandem with each other via trade routes in which people from Greek civilization encountered those of the Indus Valley.
Parvati is the Hindu goddess of marriage, love, fertility, beauty, devotion, children, and divine strength and power. She is a calming influence on Shiva that helps bring balance to him and, by extension, the universe; she is actually considered to be the mother goddess or mother of the universe. Because of their relationship, he can rein in his passions and act more in the role of an ascetic, a lover, and a creator.
In Eastern mysticism as well as Jewish Kabbalah, the “third eye” figures prominently as a source of divine wisdom, allowing for a greater scope of vision and clarity in discerning matters. Shiva is usually depicted has having a third eye, thought it is often closed, as he is looking inward. When he does open his third eye, fire may gush forth out of it and engulf whatever he is looking at. This fire doesn’t just destroy but also breeds new life from the ashes.
The cobra necklace represents several things. One is his strength and potency as a supreme god; he is invincible and immortal. Another is that the snake periodically sheds its skin so that it can grow a new one, symbolizing the death and rebirth that Shiva gives. A third reason for the cobra necklace is that it shows Shiva’s power over even the most dangerous creatures on the earth.
26. He Has Lines on His Forehead Known as “Vibhuti”
Covering Shiva’s third eye is three horizontal white lines that are drawn across his forehead in ash. They represent his wealth, power, and pervasiveness. Faithful Hindus often draw the vibhuti lines on their own foreheads to indicate their devotion and identification with Shiva. These lines serve as personal lingams; a lingam is an object that symbolizes Shiva without using anthropomorphic (human) features.
Known as a “trishula” in Hinduism, Shiva’s trident is a significant weapon that he has always possessed. He used it to cut the head off of the elephant-headed god, Ganesha. Each of the points has a unique meaning that is critical to Hindu belief, such as past, present, and future; or creation, maintenance, and destruction. Shiva’s Trishula serves both as a weapon and as an instrument of creation. It remains a powerful symbol among Hindu communities; in Nepal, it is a symbol of the communist party.
24. He is Usually Tranquil and in the Lotus Position
Despite Shiva’s intense and sometimes violent personality, he is often depicted as a meditating yogi, serene and with his legs in the lotus position. This image is usually because his wife, Parvati, has such a calming influence on him that he reverts to a calmer, more tranquil state of self-reflection and meditation. Though other gods may be pictured as lavish and hedonistic, Shiva – still the destroyer – is austere and ascetic.
23. But Sometimes, Shiva is Dancing in a Fiery Ring
One of the best examples of Indian art is that of the Nataraja, in which Shiva is depicted dancing in the middle of a fiery ring while trampling underfoot a demon. In a Nataraja depiction, he typically holds fire in his left hand and a snake in his right, showing his control over even the most violent and sinister forces. He is dancing so energetically that his hair, which is usually matted from an ascetic lifestyle, is whirled around his head like a fan.
Some Hindus believe that Shiva has come to earth multiple times by being incarnated as a god-like person, known as an avatar. One of those avatars is Hanuman, the monkey-god who helps Rama – Vishnu’s avatar – in the Ramayana. However, not all worshipers of Shiva have adopted the idea of him having avatars. Devotees of Vishnu look to the god for salvation and therefore recognize the need of avatars to show them the way. Devotees of Shiva, however, look for their own salvation within themselves.
Parvati is one of many avatars of Devi, the supreme goddess in Hinduism. One of those avatars is Kali, a demon-like monster with an insatiable appetite for destruction. Kali is an essential aspect of Shiva worship; depictions of her often show her trampling him. She also has cults of followers devoted to her, particularly the Kali Kula sect and groups in West Bengal. In addition to being a goddess in her own right, Kali is often viewed as a concept of free female energy.
20. Shiva’s Dances Destroy and Recreate the Universe
The Tandav is a cosmic dance of death that destroys the universe, which Shiva performs at the end of each age. Originally Rudra performed a tandav, which was violent, but Shiva’s is depicted as rigorous and joyful. Parvati responds with a dance known as the laysa. After the present universe is destroyed, Shiva recreates it. In addition to cosmic destruction, the tandav also represents the cyclical nature of birth, death, and rebirth.
19. Parvati is an Incarnation of Shiva’s Lost Wife, Sati
According to Hindu legend, Shiva was married to Sati, also an avatar of Devi, against the wishes of her father. One day her father held a prayer ceremony, to which he invited all of the gods except for Shiva. Out of anger at her father’s rejection of her husband, Sati jumped onto the fire burning at the ceremony. Shiva was overwhelmed with grief until she was reincarnated as Parvati.
18. The Hindu Practice of Sati Derives From Sati’s Legend
Sati is a practice in which a widowed woman is expected to cast herself onto the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, thereby dying alongside him. She symbolically dies of grief, just like Sati in the legend. The practice probably derives from the story of Sati, Shiva’s previous wife. It is now outlawed, but there are still accounts of sati happening, particularly in more remote villages.
The Mahabharata and Ramayana tell of a sage whose deep meditation is disturbed by the 60,000 sons of King Sagara. In his anger, he reduces all of them to ash with his fiery gaze and banishes them to the netherworld. One of the descendants of these sons is anxious to bring them back, so he calls on the goddess Ganga to come to earth and restore them. Because the fall from her home on the Milky Way would shatter the planet, she broke her fall in the tangled knots of Shiva’s matted hair.
The majority of Hindus see Brahma as the supreme god, Vishnu as a lesser god, and Shiva as third in the triumvirate. However, some devotees of Shiva, known as Shaivists, see him as the supreme god. Aside from Shaivism being in itself an example of the diversity within Hinduism, there exist Shaivism numerous different sects and beliefs.
15. Shaivism Has Merged With Buddhism in Some Places
On the Indonesian island of Java, before the arrival of Islam, people viewed Buddhism and Shaivism as distinct but very close religions. By the Medieval era, devotees regarded Buddha and Shiva as the same god, along with Vishnu. Today on Bali, a predominantly Hindu island in Indonesia, the faithful believe that Shiva is the younger brother of Buddha. In pre-Islamic Iran, the Zoroastrian wind god had an appearance that strongly resembled that of Shiva.
In Hindu thought, a guru is more than a gifted teacher; he or she is someone who is a master of wisdom who dispels darkness and can point people towards the light. Many Indonesian Hindus refer to Shiva as “Batara Guru,” meaning “noble guru.” As another example of how the Shiva figure is an amalgamation of other deities, Batara Guru has special characteristics in addition to those that he has in India.
Shintoism, along with Buddhism, is one of the major religions of Japan; in fact, many Japanese people are both Buddhist and Shinto, either simultaneously or at different parts of their lives. One of the Shinto gods is known as Okuninushi, who rules the unseen world of magic and spirits. The Buddhist version of Shiva merged with Okuninushi to create the god Daikokuten, the god of wealth and the household.
Mount Kailasa, also known as Mount Kailash, is in the Tibetan region of the Himalayas. Hindus believe that it is the home of the gods, similar to Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. The Karnali River, which flows into the Ganges, originates on Mount Kailasa. On top of the mountain, Shiva and Parvati reside in a state of perpetual meditation.
Hindus believe that Shiva’s body is composed of five different mantras, the most important of which has five syllables. These mantras each form one of Shiva’s five faces and are associated with the five perceptual organs, the five senses, and the five action organs. Additionally, some Hindu theologians view him as one aspect of the fivefold nature of Brahma.
Every lunar month, from the 13th night into the 14th day, is a festival dedicated to Shiva known as Shivaratri. “Shivaratri” literally means “night of Shiva,” and the festival falls on the darkest night of the lunar calendar to honor the destruction and recreation that Shiva brings. The faithful commemorate the night by chanting mantras, visiting temples, and performing rituals known as pujas.
Maha Shivaratri, which occurs in February or March (depending on the lunar calendar), celebrates the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. “Maha Shivaratri” means “the great night of Shiva.” Rather than engaging in hedonistic celebrations, faithful devotees stay awake the entire night praying, trying to purify themselves, and meditating. The goal is to overcome darkness and find inner light through Shiva.
CERN, located in Geneva, is home to the most expensive science project in history, the Large Hadron Collider. In 2004, the Indian government gifted the institution with a Nataraja statue of Shiva dancing the Tandava dance in a ring of fire. The figure is seen as symbolic of the union between modern physics, ancient mythology, and religious art, all of which converge at CERN.
Shakti is a goddess who represents the cosmic energy that moves through the entire universe. Hindus often view her as the “Great Divine Mother” and see her as the personification of feminine energy. Shakti sects worship her as the supreme being, while others view her as the divine energy that flows through Shiva and as Parvati herself. Some see Parvati as one of Shakti’s avatars.
Shiva is frequently shown with only two arms, but he is sometimes depicted as having four, sometimes even more. The four limbs are believed to represent each of the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. Further, each of his upper two hands holds something symbolic. The upper right hand holds an hourglass drum to represent the beating rhythm of the cosmos, and the upper left hand hold fire.
Images of Shiva usually show him to have an androgynous, if not feminine, appearance, yet he is a male god. Sometimes, he is actually pictured as being split down the middle, one half being the male god Shiva, the other half being his wife, Parvati. While earlier beliefs about Shiva saw him as a rough-and-tumble he-man, Hindus now see him as neither male nor female. In fact, many Hindu gods are androgynous and neither classified as male nor female.
The elephant-headed Ganesha is the Hindu god of success and destroyer of evil. As his father, Shiva, is the destroyer and creator, Ganesha is the god of beginnings and is often revered at ceremonies that commemorate something new. Though not generally considered as necessary as Shiva, Ganesha is one of the most widely worshiped gods of the entire Hindu pantheon. He probably emerged around the second century CE, a few hundred years after Shiva came to be viewed as a god.
Like his brother Ganesha, Kartikeya is a destroyer of evil. He is also the god of war and victory. Surprisingly, Kartikeya appears in Hindu thought during the Vedic period, much earlier than Shiva even became a distinct figure. He rides on a peacock or rooster and carries a slew of weapons that he uses to conquer his enemies. He figures prominently throughout South Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and even as far as South Africa and Mauritius.
Ashoka Sundari is less significant in Hinduism than Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, or Kartikeya. According to Hindu legend, Parvati asked Shiva to take her to the most beautiful garden in the world. A tree in the garden could fulfill any wish; since both of her sons were grown, and she was now lonely, she asked for a daughter. The tree fulfilled her wish, and she gave birth to Ashoka Sundari. Her story is told in the Padma Purana.
Although Shiva is inextricably linked to Hinduism, people worship him far outside of India’s borders. Faithful devotees to Shiva can be found in large communities in Sri Lanka, throughout South Asia and into Indonesia, in Japan, and as far-flung as South Africa – even Guyana in South America. With mass immigration in the modern age, large Shaivistic communities are cropping up in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. The qualities associated with him will probably continue to evolve as people across more considerable distances pay homage to him.
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