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The Legend of Shiva

The Legend of Shiva

Many of India’s five hundred million Hindus know the Almighty as Lord Shiva. This Hindu god can be evoked by prayers, hymns, meditations and rituals, as well as through painted and carved icons. Shiva’s diverse and contradictory appearances convey the entirety of existence with all its complexities, dualities, and paradoxes. God of the cosmic dance; member of the supreme Hindu triad, along with Brahma and Vishnu, Shiva is a complex god with many conflicting attributes and names. He is Lingodbhava, the phallic deity, Rudra, lord of beasts; Pashupa, protector of cattle; Bhutapati, father of demons; Tryambaka, accompanied by three mother goddesses; Digambara, “clothed in space” or “sky-clad”; and Nataraja, king of the dance. Shiva indicates benevolence, but the name was propitiatory for he was dangerous, destructive and lethal. Round him collected all the negative deities of the Dravidians, the original inhabitants of southern India. Shiva is not a bhagavat (“blessed one”), but an isvara (“a master”). He is the leader of all those who have no place in society: outcasts, vampires, demons, ascetics. Although destructive he is also merciful; although a phallic god he is also an ascetic. Shiva combines contrasting characteristics and so points the way to an underlying principle of unification.

Shiva wears a tiger skin and a snake collar; his hair is tied in the knot of the ascetic and adorned with the crescent moon and trident. He is shown with his third eye open, or this is indicated by three lines on his forehead; he has a variable number of arms, usually four. Shiva rides on the bull Nandi, and so holy is he that even his mount has become a god.

Shiva, the Lord of the Dance

One of the most eloquent and expository of Shiva’s manifestations depicts him as Nataraja, Dance-King or the Lord of the Dance, whose cosmic lila, or “play,” forms the very nature and reason of reality. Shiva fills the whole cosmos with his joyful dance called tandava, which represents his five activities: shrishti, or creation; sthiti, or preservation; samhara, or destruction; tirobhava, or illusion; and anugraha, or salvation. In one hand he beats his drum, the primordial heartbeat of creation, while in another hand he holds the fire of all emcompassing destruction. Yet Shiva as Lord of Dance also offers an alternative to the cycles of life and death, for his third hand, with palm facing outwards, performs the mudra or gesture of abhaya (“fear not” or “hope”) which relieves us from despair, while his fourth hand points to a raised foot indicating liberation from the demon of ignorance upon which his other foot firmly stands. He dances and dances until the cosmos is brought to the point of annihilation; it has to be destroyed in order to be reintegrated into the Absolute. Shiva’s intoxicating and revelatory dance was often the cause of conversion of heretics and enemies. It is finally creative, for it expresses the otherwise inexpressible.

Shiva has always had a wide and popular following and many stories are attached to him. According to Hindu mythology, when the demons and deities churned the Sea of Milk, 14 jewels surfaced. One of them was a poison, which neither the deities nor the demons would accept. Since the poisonous fumes threatened to devastate the world, Shiva drank the poison. The poison was so deadly that his throat became blue, which is why Shiva also earned the epithet Nilakantha, the blue-throated. To relieve Shiva from the burning sensation of the poison, he was given the moon, which had also come out from the ocean, to cool him down. Thus he wears the crescent moon today.

Drinking of this gross poison was a small matter for Shiva. He is supposed to have said in the Linga Purana that there is still much poison in this world and those who could drink that poison are the real heroes. Indeed, both poison and nectar reside in the hearts of man and only when human souls are free from poison can they experience the joys of nectar.

When the goddess Ganga descended to earth in the shape of the holy river Ganges to provide moksha (release) for the 60,000 sons of King Sagara who were earlier burnt to ashes because of the curse of a saint, it was Shiva who absorbed the otherwise destructive shock of the falling water. Since there was no one who could bear the impact of the mighty descent, the King performed penances and propitiated Shiva, finally getting the god to agree to receive the heavenly floods on his head. The river descended with such ponderous force that it threw the whole world into wonderment. But Shiva, seated in mediation, was left unmoved and remained in as great equipoise as ever. For seven years the river lost its way looking for an outlet in the interminable masses of Shiva’s locks, which represent the world or Creation in all its modalities and endless forms, and which are as vast and complicated as the affairs of the world. Shiva finally allowed the Ganges to flow onto the earth, but first he divided the great stream into seven channels to lessen its impact.

Shiva, locked in a trance, is often unapproachable, and so his active force, shakti, is personified in the goddesses Parvati, Uma, Durga, or Kali. As Uma, Parvati (“she of the mountains”) was responsible for opening Shiva’s third eye. Their physical union was a symbol of spiritual wholeness and forms the basic approach of the Tantric cult, which utilizes controlled sexuality to achieve ecstatic insight.

Shiva, the Terrifying

Shiva does not always appear as the perfection of beauty and grace. In his Bhairava manifestation, Shiva himself suffered from having committed the heinous crime of beheading his own father, Brama. This patricide forms an essential part of Shaivite creation mythology and can only be understood in terms of complicated metaphysical rationales. In any event, though necessary to creation, Shiva’s sin required many years of atonement during which he wandered about as a guilt-crazed beggar, pursued by a Fury, while his father’s skull clung to his hand to become his begging bowl. Only upon reaching the holy city of Benares did he receive absolution and the begging bowl drop from his hand.

Bhairava’s guilt drove him to insanity and Indian artists and sculptors portrayed his horrible madness more frequently than his pathos. Such a frightful image should be regarded with awe and respect, especially by the devotee who, while recognizing the sin of Shiva, is at the same time assured of the god’s mastery of and transcendence over all apparent evil and suffering:

Axe, Drum, Sword, Bow and Arrows,
Trident, Skull, Three Fiery Eyes,
Blood-red colored Clothes,
Poison-blue Body, Full of Cobras, Frightful Face!
But, Oh Shiva! Bestower of Pleasant Boons,
I worship your Non-Frightful Figure!

(From Pancaratragama,
trans. Prof. Sooda L. Bhatt)


Ultimately Shiva offers a resolution to all paradoxes of existence through his mythic roles and actions which contrast, combine, and transcend life’s dualities.