Lord Shiva is perhaps the most fascinating of all the characters in Hindu mythology. In the West, he is often seen as the god of destruction, who works in conjunction with Brahma the creator, and Vishnu the preserver to ensure the proper birth, functioning and dissolution of creation. But this is only one aspect of his multidimensional nature. He embodies many seemingly contradictory elements. Shiva is the Adiyogi, the first yogi, who first transmitted yoga to humanity. This transmission to the Saptarishis was the first exploration of the yogic sciences. So he is the Mahayogi, “the Great Yogi.” As the teacher of the ancient techniques of meditation, he shows us the way to uncover the wellsprings of our inner life. Yet he is also a Dionysian figure and the most passionate lover.

Ascetic and Householder

As Nataraja, he is the “Lord of Dance,” as Akhileshvara, he is the Lord of Stillness. He creates the universe in a wild dance of frenzied joy, his hair streaming out behind him like the rays of the sun. He destroys the universe with his Rudra Tandava, bringing one cycle of creation to an end. As Maheshvara, “the Great Lord,” he is worshipped as creator of the world and the giver of esoteric knowledge, while as Mahakala, “Transcendent Time,” he represents both the irresistible march of time and the eternal present that nullifies it. He is the supreme ascetic whose body is smeared with ashes, meditating in the Himalayas, indifferent to the world. Yet he is a husband and householder as Parvati’s companion and Ganesha’s and Karthikeya’s father.

Fierce and Beautiful

BhairavaShiva as Bhairava, who ripped of Brahma's fifth head.

Lord Shiva also has his fearsome aspect. He is the wrathful Bhairava, “the Terrible,” garlanded with serpents and the skulls of his sacrificial victims, with glaring eyes and pointed fangs. Bhairava haunts the funeral pyres and cemeteries in search of devotees, to whom he teaches occult secrets of left-hand tantra. Shiva is the supreme aghori, living a life beyond terrible. Yet he is Sundareshwara, the most beautiful one.

In his form as Bhuteshvara he is “Lord of the Elements,” who has complete mastery over the Pancha Bhutas, the five elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space. He is considered the origin of the ancient Indian martial art form of Kalaripayattu, and also of the medicinal system of Siddha. Lord Shiva, in fact, embodies the limitless possibilities of existence, reconciling life's complementary aspects into one dynamic whole. In the Mahabharat, Shiva is praised: “You are the origin of the worlds and you are Time, their destroyer.”

Shiva is the personification of the process of dissolution and re-creation that is constantly at work from moment to moment. He is life itself. He embodies the dynamism and change inherent in life. “All flesh is as grass” – even the things we consider permanent such as the mountains, the oceans, our own personalities, all are in reality transient. Thus, as God of Destruction, he also represents the possibility of new birth. Thus, Shiva is also worshiped as Maheshwara, in which aspect he encompasses Brahma and Vishnu, and their functions of creation and maintenance.

Shiva’s Form

Shiva is portrayed in many forms, depending on which aspect is being represented. Generally speaking though, he is often portrayed with certain items that have symbolic significance. He may be depicted with four arms, signifying universal power and the four directions of space. He is usually shown seated upon a tiger skin, either naked or with an animal hide to cover his body. The crescent moon adorns the left side of his matted hair. He holds his trishul or trident that symbolizes the essential nature of life - masculine, feminine, and the nirguna (attribute-less) nature of the divine. His damaru, a drum shaped like an hourglass represents the union of purusha and prakriti, the male and female principles, from whose intermingled rhythms all the vibrations of life spring forth. He has a noose, called pasha, to catch and hold his devotees, and a number of weapons: a bow – pinaka, an arrow – ajagava, a spear – pashupata, an axe – parashu, a staff or danda, and a club in which a skull is set, named khatvanga.

Shiva also has a cobra around his neck. This represents the kundalini, the life energy present in every human being, rising to its peak, having been set free by yoga. Kundalini literally means “the Coiled Serpent.” Thus Shiva is the fount of all yogic knowledge. In the yogic lore, he is said to have first transmitted this "inner technology" to the Saptarishis, the seven sages who were his first seven disciples. Yogi and mystic, Sadhguru, says that this event occurred about 15,000 years ago, on the banks of the lake Kantisarovar (the one that burst its banks during the 2013 Uttarkhand flood tragedy) above the temple of Kedarnath.

The worship of Shiva

The worship of Shiva is as diverse as his many manifestations. Devotees may offer flowers, vilva leaves and milk. Yet the aghoris also offer feces and urine to him! Usually, the focus of the worship is the linga, an ellipsoidal form, generally crafted out of stone, that is properly energized and consecrated. Applying sacred ash or vibhuti is also part of the worship. The vibhuti may be prepared from the cremation ground ashes, burnt cow-dung or burnt rice husks, depending on the purpose for which it is to be used.

The festival of Mahashivratri, the “Great Night of Shiva” is celebrated in his honor and is one of the most spiritually significant festivals in India. It falls on the lunar month of Magha, which corresponds to February and March. Mahashivratri is a time when the planetary positions create an upward surge in the energies of the human body, making it a very conducive night for spiritual evolution.

Guru Purnima is another festival celebrated for Shiva as the first Guru. The festival falls in the lunar month of Ashada in July and marks the day when Shiva observed the Saptarishis, and decided to become a Guru to them.
NatarajaShiva as Nataraja, the aspect enshrined in the Chidambaram Thillai Nataraja Temple.

Several temples where Shiva is enshrined in various aspects are among the most important sacred sites in India. The Chidambaram Temple for instance enshrines Shiva as Nataraja. The Kedarnath temple enshrines Shiva as Kedareshvara, and the Ujjain temple enshrines Shiva as Mahakaleshvara. Kashi or Varanasi, one of India's holiest cities, is known as Avimukta, or "never forsaken" by Shiva. It is said to be his winter place, while Mount Kailash in the Himalayas is his summer place.


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