Essays About Shaivism

History, Philosophy, Beliefs and Practices of Shaivism,

Depiction of Lord Shiva in Hindu Religious Literature

Sada Shiva


Shiva is described in religious literature with various epithets which denote not only his prowess and exalted status in the order of Creation but also his significance in the spiritual evolution of beings in all parts of the universe and in the liberation of mortal beings who are subject to the impurities of egoism, desire ridden actions and ignorance. He is depicted as one with three eyes (tri netradhari), wearing large locks of matted hair (jatadhari), a crescent moon adoring his head, the Ganga flowing from his hair (gangadhari), white in color (shivam), wearing a garland of snakes (sometime also skulls) around his neck, which is blue because of the poison he holds in his throat, and with ashes (bhasmam or vibhuti) smeared all over his body suggestive of his connection with death, destruction and cremation. At times he is shown alone immersed in deep meditation or in the company of his wife Parvathi and children Lord Ganesha and Lord Kartikeya, with a seated Nandi (bull) by his feet. some times he is also shown riding the bull, alone or with his entire family. Being the Lord of the mountains, he is also shown with the mountains in the backdrop. Trident is his weapon, with which he slews troublesome demons. At times he uses damaru to awakens the worlds or the individual beings who are ready for salvation. The third eye of Shiva is symbolic of his awakened nature, his transcendental state and his ability to liberate individual beings by destroying their ignorance and their karma. The word Triambaka, which is used to describe Shiva, means having three eyes as well as the lord of the three goddesses (ambas), who are collectively known as Ambikas.

Since Shiva wears a crescent moon on his head, He is described as Chandrasekhara. The moon denotes the extent of his dimensions, his association with the sky and his universal Lordship. It may probably also suggest his early Vedic connection with the Vedic god, soma and his connection with magic and esoteric mind altering shaman rituals involving intoxicants, some of which found their way subsequently into the tantric cults. Shiva is also the Lord of death, who frequents cremation grounds (shmasanavasin) and wears the ashes collected from there all over his body. The ashes symbolize his fearless nature and his deep connection with both death and liberation. The matted hair strands of Shiva stand for his spiritual energies and his control over both material and spiritual world.

The Ganga, the most sacred river of Hindus, flows eternally from his hair. It is said that the river actually flows in the heaven and a part of it descends into the earth consciousness, through the head of Shiva to purify the earth and help the people liberate themselves. The river symbolizes spiritual consciousness and its association with Shiva signifies his transcendental state and His status as the world teacher.

Shiva being an ascetic by nature, is shown wearing a tiger skin, which is suggestive of his control over animal passions. His association with his vehicle, Nandi, the bull, also suggests the same symbolism. Shiva is popularly known as Pasupathi. According to the tenets of Saivism, every living being, including humans, who are bound to the bonds of egoism, desire ridden action and ignorance are but pasus (animals) and Shiva is their Lord who alone can liberate them with His grace.

Destroyer versus benefactor

Siva has both positive and negative qualities. There is no god in the entire Hindu pantheon who is associated with such extremities. The contrasting qualities of Shiva are well described in several Hindu texts including the Vedas and the Mahabharata. In the Vedas we see Siva both as the fierce Rudra and the benign protector of people and healer of diseases. In the Puranas we see Him in his destructive and depressive moods as well His euphoric and magnanimous temparament. We see his disturbed state when he carries the corpse of his wife Sati on his shoulder, his impetous nature when he beheads his own son Ganesh and his anger when he is disturbed by Manmadha, the cupid whom he destroys with his thrid eye. At the same time we also see his compassion, when he willingly consumes the poison that comes out of the churning of the oceas and when he willingly agrees to let the Ganges flow from His earth down to earth so that people could be liberated. The Mahabharata brings out the contrasting qualities of Shiva by describing him as "the standard of invincibility, might, and terror", as well as a figure of honor, delight, and brilliance.

In his positive aspect, Shiva is described as the pure one (shviam), who sanctifies everything He touches. He is the liberator of the deluded, bestower of boons, one who is easy to please, who is full of compassion, love and grace, the master of all sounds and arts and protector of the weak and the meak. He has unbounded love for his family and his followers. Seated on a mountain in the world of Kailash, watched by the liberated Siddhas, He keeps a protective watch on the worlds. He is Samkara, the doer of good deeds, the one who is same in all deeds and who is stable and peaceful at all times. As Sambhu, the personification of eternal bliss, He is the source of all bliss and happiness in the world.

On negative side He is described as the Lord of the death, terror and destruction, who unleashes his fierce nature upon those who follow the evil ways. As part of the Trinity, He eventually destroys all the worlds and ends the time cycle. As Bhairava, the Lord of fierce form, He is associated with several tantric cults, human and animal sacrifices, magical rituals and gory practices. Since in Hinduism, time symbolizes death, Siva is also known as Mahakala (great time), the ultimate destroyer of all things.

Ascetic versus householder

Another contrasting quality of Shiva is that he is both a householder and also an ascetic. At times he wanders among corpses among the cremation grounds, while he also remains seated firmly with his family in the world of Kailash, surronded by his most beloved devotees. Siva is Iswara, the Lord of yoga and meditation. He is known as the great yogi (maha yogin), who is the source of all yogas and their original teacher. As devoted husband, he is known as Lord of Uma or Parvathi (Umapathi or Parvathipathi), his consort.

An illustration of the family of Shiva, consisting of Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha and Skanda (Kartikeya)He is depicted as both an ascetic yogin and as a householder, roles which have been traditionally mutually exclusive in Hindu society.[122] When depicted as a yogin, he may be shown sitting and meditating.[123] His epithet Mahāyogin ("the great Yogi: Mahā = "great", Yogin = "one who practices Yoga") refers to his association with yoga.[124] While Vedic religion was conceived mainly in terms of sacrifice, it was during the Epic period that the concepts of tapas, yoga, and asceticism became more important, and the depiction of Shiva as an ascetic sitting in philosophical isolation reflects these later concepts.[125]