Hinduism - Who Is Lord Shiva?



Shiva (auspicious) - One of the three most significant deities in the Hindu pantheon, together with the deity Vishnu and the Goddess.

All three are remarkable for being almost missing from the Vedas, and their ascent to power (and subsequent eclipse of the original Vedic gods) indicates a significant shift in Hindu tradition.

Shiva is the only one of the three who is not named in the Veda.

He is connected with the god Rudra, who initially appears in a few late Vedic hymns and is eventually described as the only ultimate deity underlying all things in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

In this upanishad, the term Shiva ("auspicious") first occurs as an adjective modifiying the feminine noun body.

Despite his presence in the upanishad as a supreme god, Rudra/status Shiva's is ambiguous.

He is characterized as a skilled archer who lives in the highlands (away from humans) and is commanded not to hurt either man or beast with his arrows.

Rudra/Shiva is undoubtedly not a Vedic god, and some have argued that his origins lay in the Indus Valley civilization, citing as proof one of the seals discovered at Harappa, an ancient city in Pakistan, depicting a horned figure sitting cross-legged as if in meditation.

This association is feasible, but it isn't really persuasive.

He may have joined the pantheon as a deity worshipped by ascetics, who have historically been connected with mountain settlements.

Shiva is associated with ascetics because of various ascetic characteristics ascribed to him, such as matted hair and an ash-smeared torso.

His marginal place among the gods might also be explained by his ascetic background, since he would have been a "outsider" to the Vedic sacrifice cult, which was the "established" religion at the time.

Shiva's dramatic entrance into the pantheon occurs during the account of his wife Sati's death.

In this myth, Shiva's father-in-law Daksha's disparaging remarks—that Shiva was an ascetic without money, work, or family who was unsuitable to enter respectable society—led to the destruction of Daksha's sacrifice as a demonstration of Shiva's power.

Shiva's iconography, mythology, and character have all kept this ambiguous, sometimes marginal nature.

The fact that he is a god whose nature enables him to pass transcend competing forces (or dualities) inside himself and the universe by being the potential of both forces at the same time is perhaps his most fundamental and significant attribute.

Shiva may symbolize both the wild and hazardous aspect of life as well as the polished and dignified side.

Atop the one hand, he had the look of a traditional ascetic, with matted hair, an ash-smeared physique, and a residence on Mount Kailas in the Himalayas.

He is, on the other side, Hindu society's ideal of a nice husband who adores his wife Parvati.

He has snakes on his body and is dressed in a bloody elephant hide, yet he also wears the Ganges River and the crescent moon, which are symbols of beauty, purity, and auspiciousness.

His mythic deeds emphasize his overwhelming power, which no foe can stand up to, as well as his sudden and sometimes impetuous temper, which is best seen in his destruction of Kama, the god of love; however, this sudden violence contrasts with his grace and favor toward his devotees (bhakta), for whom he is given the name "quickly satisfied" (Ashutosh), and to whom he will give almost everything.

He is historically portrayed as the expositor of the tantras, the most secret and secretive religious practice of all, yet being shown as simple and without deception (as Bholanath, the "simple lord").

This transcendence of all polarities may be observed in the representations that usually depict him, such as his form as Nataraja, which depicts several of his opposing attributes, or as Ardhanarishvara, which is half masculine and half female.

The linga, the pillar-shaped item that is his symbolic form, whose base and shaft are seen as signifying male and female reproductive organs, exemplifies this transcending of duality.

Finally, the tantric theory of the subtle body (the system of psychic centers, or chakras, that run throughout the human body), in which religious practice seeks for the union of Shiva and Shakti, exemplifies this transcendence.

Shiva encompasses all the conflicting possibilities for human experience, as Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty points out, and in legendary form gives a resolve that one ordinary human existence can never achieve.

In response to the earlier and more established concept of Vishnu's avatars, Shiva's adherents created a philosophy of avatars (incar tures of Shiva who come on earth in the guise of a variety of saints, sages, and lesser deities to restore balance and do other required deeds).

Shiva's avatars, unlike Vishnu's, do not seem to have been a mechanism to accommodate minor existing deities within the bigger pantheon.

The most significant of Shiva's twenty-one incarnations is Hanuman, who is the only one with a well-established separate cult.

The others were sages (such as Durvasas) and prominent creatures, but unlike Vishnu, the worship of Shiva's avatars has never overshadowed Shiva's own adoration.

See Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's Shiva, 1981, and Stella Kramrisch's The Presence of Shiva, 1981, for further information on Shiva's mythology.

Also see Shaiva.

~Kiran Atma

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