Shiva in Hindu Tradition — The God of Destruction

Shiva in Hindu Tradition - The God of Destruction

Who is Shiva?

Shiva is one of the principal Hindu deities who, together with Vishnu and Brahma, forms the Trimurti, or triad of great gods. He is believed to have developed from Rudra, a minor deity who appears in the Rig Veda, the collection of ancient Hindu hymns dating from between 1500 BC and 900 BC. Although Shiva brings death, he also conquers death as well as disease and is invoked to cure sickness. He is sometimes depicted as half-male, half-female. Even Shiva’s name, which means “Auspicious”, is intended to reconcile, and propitiate the dark aspect of his character, which caused him to be known as the god of destruction, or the “Destroyer”.

The Roles of Shiva

The Role of Shiva in Hindu - Shiva Meditating
A statue of Lord Shiva meditating in the Padmasana

Considered to be a member of the Holy Trinity in Hinduism, Shiva is most certainly a complex character who represents both goodness and benevolence, as well as maintaining the darker side as the god of destruction.

Many, however, believe that Shiva’s destructive nature is not malicious but is born out of necessity that to create something new, the old must first be removed.

In Hinduism, there is a belief that the universe exists within cycles and at the end of each cycle, Shiva destroys everything in existence; though not despite them, but to allow for the creation of something new.

Shiva is also thought of as a good role model to base one’s life on, as he is known to abstain from all forms of indulgence and deviation and chooses instead the path of meditation and inner development to find peace.

He is also considered to be the protector of Rig Veda, a collection of hymns and ancient religious texts that were written in India.

Shiva, as you might imagine, has many layers and complex nature. While many believe he destroys out of necessity alone, he’s also depicted as being evil, given that he is associated with haunting cemeteries, wearing a headdress full of snakes, and keeping the company of bloodthirsty demons.

But this evil streak helps to serve the balance of the universe, given that Shiva is often called to act as divine judge and serve as a form of karma. He holds justice in high regard and shows no mercy to the wicked when judging them.

Shiva is perhaps a direct reflection of ourselves, that can represent our own darker temptations—the ones we say we would never give in to, though, continue to entertain in our heads.

Shiva, One of the Triad of Great Gods

Shiva One of the Triad of Great Gods

As I mentioned, Shiva is a member of what you might say is the Holy Trinity in Hinduism, alongside the god of creation Brahma and the preserver god Vishnu.

As the tales go, Brahma and Vishnu were once having a heated argument as to which one of them was more powerful, when suddenly, a great blazing pillar shot out from the ground, soaring up into the sky.

It was said to be so tall that neither Brahma nor Vishnu could see where it went, nor could even one of them explain what it was or how it had appeared. Intrigued, they put their argument on hold where Brahma transformed into a goose to fly to the top of the pillar and Vishnu transformed into a boar and dug into the ground to find the base of the pillar.

But no matter how high Brahma flew or how low Vishnu dug, neither one of them were able to find the ends of the pillar. They return to the surface to report to each other what they had found when suddenly, the centre of the pillar began to open and there emerged a powerful being, one that had gripped their attention.

The powerful being was of course Shiva, who appeared to be so formidable to the other two gods that they immediately recognized his power. They had no choice but to accept him as the third ruler of the universe.

How did Shiva Become the Most Powerful God?

While Shiva uses meditation to ground himself and show us that he is capable of resisting not only the urges of flesh but also the impulses of power, he also shows us that like humans, he’s not always successful.

In one story, the gods were threatened by demons and so turned to Shiva for assistance. He agrees to help vanquish the demons but only if the gods lent him their strength. They agreed but once Shiva destroyed the demons, he gave in to the temptation of power and fuss refused to return the strength he had borrowed.

As a result, he became the undisputed god of all gods and the most powerful being in the entire universe.

It shows us that despite being a god, Shiva like many of the Greek gods, shares the appetites of everyday humans and that his omnipotence is not without regular human impulse.

The Story of Shiva and Nandi

Shiva and Nandi - the sacred bull

Shiva’s bad temper and is likeliness to our inability to sometimes control what we are feeling is also illustrated in the tale with Nandi, the sacred bull.

In this tale, Surabhi (also known as Kamadhenu) the mother of cows began to give birth to many of the animals. The milk that was produced from these cows was so vast that it flooded Shiva’s home in the Himalayas.

So annoyed that his meditation had been disturbed and that his home was now soaked in milk, Shiva destroyed the cows with fire. His anger was only sated when the other gods pulled together and brought him a magnificent bull named Nandi.

It was only this gift that appease Shiva and would become his vehicle in the days after.

Nandi is also known as the protector of animals and for producing music for Shiva to dance to in his better moods.

Compassionate Tales Shiva Appears in — Saving the Gods

Shiva and Durvasa

A painting depicting Durvasa cursing Shakuntala.

In more pleasant and positive tales about Shiva, he is portrayed as a hero and one who is not shy of sacrificing his health and safety to protect.

In one myth, Shiva saved all of the other gods from destruction when Durvasa, a powerful sage known as a Rishi, was able to curse the gods and render them powerless.

Shiva and the Halahala Poison

In a more popular version, the gods would turn to Vishnu for advice, who told them that to return to their former glory they would need to drink the nectar of immortality, which could be created by churning the ocean.

Unable to complete this themselves, the gods made the truce with their enemies, the demons, in hopes that their combined efforts would see to their success.

In some versions, the gods promised the demons a sip of the nectar for their help but would go on to betray them in the end and deny them of their reward. With the demons on the side, the gods summoned Vasuki, the king of snakes, the same snake commonly known as Shiva snake, as he’s often draped around Shiva’s neck.

Vasuki would serve as a churning rope, while Mount Mandara would serve as a churning staff. Vishnu would even take form as a tortoise and sink below Mount Medora to support it as the gods churn the ocean.

The demons held Vasuki by the head while the gods held the tail and together, they were able to churn the ocean which gave birth to many great gifts including precious stones. With these gifts came, the poison is known as Halahala, a poison that could wipe out all of creation.

Shiva drinking the Halahala Poison
Shiva drinking the Halahala Poison

The poison terrified both demons and the gods and neither knew how best to contain it. Therefore, the gods turned to Shiva for help.

Shiva is known here for his self-sacrifice and compassion as he willingly swallows the poison through no benefit of his own but solely to save the other gods.

In one version, he squeezes his throat so tightly that he’s able to store the poison in his throat, preventing it from descending into his body. This would cause his neck to turn blue and is also responsible for the common depiction of Shiva having blue skin.

In another version, it is Shiva’s wife Parvati, who pinches Shiva’s throat to prevent the poison from descending further into his body. This tale symbolizes the union between man and woman, which seeks to remind married couples that despite the poison, their cooperative efforts are enough to overcome any evil.

Interestingly enough, some say that the reason why shiver now where’s Vasuki, the snake, around his neck is that the snake’s skin is cold and therefore, it is a means to keep shivers neck from burning up from the poison.

In another more simplified version of this tale, it is Vasuki who remits the poison into the ocean

Shiva and Ganga

Another example of Shiva’s self-sacrifice and compassion for all living things is when he met Ganga, the goddess personification of the river Ganges.

She was once one of the three wives of Vishnu, along with Lakshmi the god of fortune and Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom.

But because they bicker to no end, Vishnu grew tired of them. Therefore, he cast Ganga out and offered her up to Shiva. As she fell to the earth, Shiva realized to her impact would cause the river to cause havoc on nearby civilizations. Therefore, he caught Ganga in his hair topknot to protect both the goddess and the living things that she would have inadvertently destroyed.

Another idea has it that Shiva was more concerned with Ganga’s destruction outdoing his own, or that he was concerned with Ganga stealing his fame, as the one who destroys, and so catching her when she fell was more so to protect his reputation than anything else.

Consorts of Shiva

Regarding marriage, Shiva is often remembered as being married to Parvati, a woman who’s often incarnated as the goddess of violence and sexuality, Kali, or the warrior goddess Durga.

However, according to the text, Parvati is a reincarnation of the one known as Sati, the daughter of the god Daksha.

The Tale of Shiva and Parvati (Sati’s Reincarnation)

In the beginning, Daksha did not approve of Sati’s marriage to Shiva, and to spite him, he went ahead and held a special sacrificial ceremony to all the gods except Shiva. So offended by her father ceremony, Sati threw herself on the sacrificial fire.

Shiva learned of the death almost immediately. He was so overcome with grief and anger that he spawned two demons from his hair. The two demons would swarm the ceremony and ultimately decapitate Daksha.

Again, it’s here we see a more human side to the god Shiva, who despite being an all-powerful being, still succumbs to the emotional response in the same way we might. Despite being a god, grief and the urge for revenge are not beyond him.

The other gods begged Shiva to call off his demons and to find some peace where possible. After calming down, Shiva did in fact resurrect Daksha but gave him the head of a goat. Unbeknownst to Shiva, Sati would also be resurrected but in the new form of Parvati.

Parvati’s father, king Himavant (also known as Parvat), would become very concerned about her marriage prospects, given that he did not believe anyone was worthy of her. It was not till a visit from sage Narada, a wandering god who brought news and wisdom, prophesized to King Himavant that his daughter would marry Shiva.

But King Himavant didn’t see how this was possible given her after Sati’s death, Shiva had confined himself to an internal meditation and had not gazed upon another woman since. Eager to have his daughter married though, King Himavant took Parvati to Shiva and offered her as a servant to which Shiva accepted.

While Parvati began falling in love with Shiva, Shiva remained loyal to his meditation and did not appear to reciprocate her feelings. Meanwhile, Indra, the god of the heavens witnessed Parvati’s unrequited love and felt bad that Shiva did not appear to feel the same way.

Perhaps, he knew it would be a shame if Shiva did not marry Parvati because of his undying love for Sati, when in actuality, Parvati was her reincarnated form. If only Shiva could give her a chance, he would no doubt achieve the same happiness and joy he once had.

But Shiva was stubborn and so Indra took it upon his own hands to visit Kama and Rati, the god and goddess of love.

He tasked Kama with putting a spell on Shiva so that he would fall in love with poverty and fuss, the pair could live happily ever after.

Kama and Shiva
An Illustration to a Shiva Purana Series, Kangra or Mandi, India. Tempera on paper Circa 1810 – 1820

Kama agreed and approached Shiva during his meditation. Using a bow, similarly to Cupid, Kama aimed at Shiva, but for some reason, he was unable to release the arrow. Hearing Parvati approach, Kama hid behind the tree and watch Shiva proceed to reject Parvati’s advances.

Saddened by this, Kama got the courage to fire the arrow which hits the mark and cause Shiva to momentarily fall in love.

But in the next moment, Shiva overcame Kama’s spell and realized he’d been shot by the god’s love arrow. He turned violent, outraged by the fact that someone had not only disturbed his peace but had tried to violate him too.

He glanced upon Kama hiding behind the tree and with one mere glare, he burned Kama to ashes.

Seeing this, Parvati fled from Shiva and returned to her father, but during this absence of her love, Parvati began to miss Shiva. She began to pray to him, giving up all her humanly duties and dedicating her life to worshipping him.

So impressed by her devotion, Shiva began to feel something for Parvati. He would seek her out to marry her and the two would live thereafter in peace and happiness.

Parvati would go on to produce several sons for Shiva including Ganesha, Kartikeya the god of War and Ashokasundari (According to the Padma Purana).

The Worship of Shiva

A Shiva Lingam worshipped at Jambukesvara temple in Thiruvanaikaval (Thiruaanaikaa)

In terms of worship, there exists an organized religious practice known as Shaivism, where worshipers devote themselves primarily to Lord Shiva.

On the topic of worship, some of you may know of the Linga or the Lingam, a phallus often associated with Shiva as a symbol of fertility or divine energy, it is commonly found in temples of the god.

As details go, this came about when Sati died and before her resurrection as Parvati. Shiva was in mourning and went to a forest to live with the sages to seek comfort, but the wives of the sages began to feel a little too sorry for Shiva and soon found themselves more and more attracted to him.

The sages were naturally jealous and gave in to their jealousy by sending a large antelope to kill Shiva. When Shiva overpowered it, the sages sent a Giant Tiger to kill him instead.

After defeating the tiger and wearing its skin for a time afterwards, the sages curse Shiva’s manhood. As a result, his man had fallen off and hit the ground. This would send shockwaves through the earth, as earthquakes wandered throughout the land. So afraid of the consequences, the sages begged for forgiveness.

Shiva granted them mercy but only on the condition that they worship his dismembered phallus, which went on to become the symbol that is the Linga.

The Various Depictions of Shiva

As I mentioned earlier, he is often depicted with blue skin, which was a side effect of having drunk the Halahala poison.

Other interpretations show Shiva with only a blue throat to show exactly where the poison is trapped. He is commonly depicted naked, usually with multiple arms and with his hair tied up in a topknot which, as we know, he used to catch Ganga during her fall to earth.

He’s seen with three horizontal stripes upon his forehead, which stands for his potent nature, his superhuman strength, and his wealth. He also possesses a third vertical eye on his forehead. It’s this eye he used to gaze upon Kama after he’d been shot by his love arrow, as well as the same eye he’d used to gaze upon the cows who had flooded his home.

As the tales go, his third eye is what brought forth the flames for which he used to burn both parties.

Shiva also wears a headdress of a crescent moon, a symbol which was said to give Parvati her strength when she was a servant to him, that whenever she gazed upon it, she would feel rejuvenated and thus required no sleep.

Shiva is also seen wearing a skull on his headdress, which is to represent the fifth head of Brahma, the god of creation, which he had decapitated as punishment for lusting after his daughter Sandhya.

In other depictions, he holds the divine fire known as Agni, which he uses to destroy the universe as well as the Drum Damaru, which is said to make the first sound of creation.

In other depictions, he’s seen standing with his foot placed upon a defeated dwarf, named Apasmāra, who represents the illusion that leads good men away from the truth.

Sometimes, he is depicted with his bull Nandi, and other times, he is depicted with an antelope or a tiger to represent the sages he had overcome in the forest.

Not to be forgotten is his Trident, a three-pronged weapon that represents the three functions of the Trinity gods. Funnily enough, despite his destructive nature, Shiva is often depicted as smiling, alluding to the idea that with successful meditation and proper introspection, even one such as he can achieve peace.

Shiva Dancing
A 10th century Chola dynasty bronze sculpture of Shiva, the Lord of the Dance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The last note to make about Shiva is how he’s referred to as the lord of the dance. Along with his meditation, he is said to be a Master of Dancing and Rhythm, which is used as a metaphor for the balance of the universe. It’s understood that as Shiva destroys the universe, he does so in a sacred dance known as the Nadanta, to mark not the death of the world but the beginning of a new one.

According to one legend, Shiva began this sacred dance when he discovered that Sati had killed herself. To prevent him from completing his dance, the gods threw Sati’s ashes over him, which managed to pacify him until we entered his meditation.

Shiva joined with Parvati

Shiva is also frequently partnered with his wife Parvati. Many believe that he and she are the same. As one, they are considered to be the perfect example of marital bliss and the ideal union between man and woman.

Art Sources: Bhargav08

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