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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