Shiva, in Sanskrit: “Auspicious One” is the creator and supreme being of Hinduism, also known as the supreme god, god of the god. The common nicknames of Lord shiva are Shambhu, Shankar, Mahesha, and Mahadev, Shambhu signifies as benign, Shankar signifies as beneficent, Mahesh signifies Great Lord, and Mahadev signifies Great God.
Shiva (or Siva) is one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon and, along with Brahma and Vishnu, is considered a member of the holy trinity (Trimurti) of Hinduism. A complex character, he may represent goodness, and benevolence and serve as the Protector but he also has a darker side as the leader of evil spirits, ghosts, and vampires and as the master of thieves, villains, and beggars. He is also associated with Time, and particularly as the destroyer of all things. Nevertheless, Shiva is also associated with creation. In Hinduism, the universe is thought to regenerate in cycles (every 2,160,000,000 years). Shiva destroys the universe at the end of each cycle which then allows for a new Creation. Shiva is also the great ascetic, abstaining from all forms of indulgence and pleasure, concentrating rather a on meditation as a means to find perfect happiness. He is the most important Hindu god for the Shaivism sect, the patron of Yogis and Brahmins, and also the protector of the Vedas, the sacred texts.
The lord Shiva is represented in different forms: in a pacific mood with his consort Parvati and son Skanda, as the cosmic dancer (Nataraja), as a naked ascetic, as a mendicant beggar, as a yogi, as a Dalit (formerly called untouchable) accompanied by a dog (Bhairava), and as the androgynous union of Shiva and his consort in one body, half-male and half-female (Ardhanarishvara).
Shiva is both the great ascetic and the master of fertility, and he is the master of both poison and medicine, through his uncertain power over snakes. As Lord of Cattle (Pashupata), he is the kind-hearted herdsman—or, at times, the merciless slaughterer of the “beasts” that are the human souls in his care. Although some of the combinations of roles may be explained by Shiva’s identification with earlier mythological figures, they arise primarily from a tendency in Hinduism to see complementary qualities in a single ambiguous figure.
Shiva’s female consort is known under various manifestations as Uma, Sati, Parvati, Durga, and Kali; Shiva is also sometimes paired with Shakti, the embodiment of power. The divine couple, together with their sons—Skanda and the elephant-headed Ganesha—are said to dwell on Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas. The six-headed Skanda is said to have been born of Shiva’s seed, which was shed in the mouth of the god of fire, Agni, and transferred first to the river Ganges and then to six of the stars in the constellation of the Pleiades. According to another well-known myth, Ganesha was born when Parvati created him out of the dirt she rubbed off during a bath, and he received his elephant head from Shiva, who was responsible for beheading him. Shiva’s vehicle in the world, his Vahana, is the bull Nandi; a sculpture of Nandi sits opposite the main sanctuary of many Shiva temples. In temples and in private shrines, Shiva is also worshipped in the form of the lingam, a cylindrical votary object that is often embedded in a yoni, or spouted dish.
Shiva is usually depicted in painting and sculpture as white (from the ashes of corpses that are smeared on his body) with a blue neck (from holding in his throat the poison that emerged at the churning of the cosmic ocean, which threatened to destroy the world), his hair arranged in a coil of matted locks (jatamakuta) and adorned with the crescent moon and the Ganges (according to legend, he brought the Ganges River to earth from the sky, where she is the Milky Way, by allowing the river to trickle through his hair, thus breaking her fall). Shiva has three eyes, the third eye bestowing inward vision but capable of burning destruction when focused outward. He wears a garland of skulls and a serpent around his neck and carries in his two (sometimes four) hands a deerskin, a trident, a small hand drum, or a club with a skull at the end. That skull identifies Shiva as a Kapalika (“Skull-Bearer”) and refers to a time when he cut off the fifth head of Brahma. The head stuck to his hand until he reached Varanasi (now in Uttar Pradesh, India), a city sacred to Shiva. It then fell away, and a shrine for the cleansing of all sins, known as Kapala-mochana (“The Releasing of the Skull”), was later established in the place where it landed.
Shiva in Mythology
As with any major god, Shiva was involved in many adventurous episodes which illustrate his virtuous character and offer instruction on how to live correctly. For example, self-sacrifice is emphasized when Vasuki, the king of Serpents, threatened to vomit snake venom across the seas. Shiva, assuming the form of a giant tortoise or turtle, collected the venom in his palm and drank it. The poison burned his throat and left a permanent blue scar, hence one of his many titles became Nilakantha or Blue Throat.
Another celebrated episode describes how Shiva became associated with the bull Nandi. One day, Surabhi, who was the original mother of all the world’s cows, began to give birth to an untold number of perfectly white cows. The milk from all these cows flooded the home of Shiva, somewhere in the Himalayas. Angry at this disturbance to his meditation, the god struck the cows with fire from his third eye. In consequence, patches of the cows’ hides were turned brown. Still angry, the other gods sought to calm Shiva down by offering him a magnificent bull – Nandi, the son of Surabhi and Kasyapa – which Shiva accepted and rode. Nandi also became the protector of all animals.
Shiva is closely associated with the Linga (or Lingham) – a phallus or symbol of fertility or divine energy found in temples to the god. Following the death of Sarti, and before her reincarnation, Shiva was in mourning and went to the Daru forest to live with rishis or sages. However, the wives of the rishis soon began to take an interest in Shiva. In jealousy, the rishis first sent a large antelope and then a gigantic tiger against the god but Shiva swiftly dealt with them and wore the tiger skin thereafter. The sages then cursed Shiva’s manhood which, in consequence, fell off. When the phallus struck the ground, earthquakes began and the rishis became afraid and asked for forgiveness. This was given but Shiva told them to forever after worship the phallus as the symbolic Linga.
shiva in Art
In Asian art Shiva may be represented in slightly different ways depending on the particular culture: Indian, Cambodian, Javanese, etc. but he is most commonly depicted naked, with multiple arms and with his hair tied up in a topknot. He often has three horizontal stripes and a third vertical eye on his forehead. He wears a headdress with a crescent moon and a skull (representing the fifth head of Brahma, which he decapitated as punishment for the god lusting after his own daughter Sandhya), a necklace of heads, and snakes as bracelets. In this guise, he usually represents Nataraja and dances the Tandava within a circle of fire which represents the never-ending cycle of time. He holds the divine fire (Agni) which destroys the universe and the drum (Damaru) which makes the first sounds of the creation. One hand makes the calming abhayamudra gesture and another point to his left foot, a symbol of salvation. He also stamps one foot on the dwarf figure Apasmara Purusha who represents illusion and who leads men away from the truth.
Shiva may also be depicted standing on one leg with the right leg folded in front of the left knee and holding a rosary in his right hand, the typical posture of ascetic meditation. Sometimes he also rides his white bull, carries a silver bow (Pinaka), holds an antelope, and wears a tiger or elephant skin, all symbolic of his famed prowess as a hunter.