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Lord Shiva, the Supreme God

Wedded to Parvati, father of Ganapati and Subrahmanya, one who sits in deep meditation in the Mount Kailas of the Himalayas, the King of dance, the patron of all ascetics, and the one who represents everything that is pure and auspicious, Shiva the powerful god, is the source of great energies. In Sanskrit, Shiva (or Siva) means gracious, auspicious. In Tamil, it means ‘the Supreme One’, ‘the Purest’.

Shiva and Vishnu are the two most popular and powerful gods of Hinduism. Brahma, the other member of the Trinity of the Hindu Pantheon, is far behind in popularity. The first two represent two principal streams of traditional Hinduism. The followers of Vishnu are Vaishnavites and those of Shiva are the Shaivites. If Vishnu is originally an Aryan god, Shiva is considered to be of the Dravidian stock, and the one symbolizing the amalgam between the two races. Let us see what the historians and anthropologists have to say about it.

India is a remarkable country in so many ways.  Of these is the fact that it has one of the longest recorded civilizations in history. There are the remains of the pre-historic periods too which speak volumes for the unrecorded eons of the India region. Right from this dawn of the evolution of the Indian society, one name/concept stands out as the earliest evidence of a god-like name/image that precedes even the Aryan gods of the Rig Veda. And that particular name/image is Pashupati. In Sanskrit the term means ‘the lord of all animals’. Authoritative scholars have concluded that the Pashupati image belongs to a proto-type of Shiva, the protector of animals. The most significant fact is that the remains from the excavations at the famous Mohanjo-daro and Harappa regions represent a pre-Aryan urban civilization that existed some 5000 years ago. If such a civilization flourished during such a period in the past, how many more decades or centuries had it taken prior to that for developing into such an advanced level of living? In India, the old beliefs continue to live through to the present day. The Indians have always shown a tendency to retain their earlier beliefs and re-cast them to suit the requirements of the changing times and social or political conditions.

Shiva originally belonged to the southern part of India. The invading Aryans could find the great influence Shiva wielded among the people. And ultimately, Parvati, the white girl and daughter of the mountain god Himalaya was given in marriage to Shiva, the darkish South Indian hero, symbolizing the merging of the two races. Thus we see the ‘old’ Shiva retaining his presence even when the Aryan culture began to dominate the Indian region, and becoming one of the three important gods of the Hindu Pantheon – Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the protector and Shiva the recycler – i.e., the Trinity. As the recycler, Shiva is the destroyer, and purifier, and the one responsible for change. In another explanation, Shiva is Satyam, truth, Shivam, the essential goodness and Sundaram, beauty. And Shiva also represents the male potency, and fertility.

Shiva evolved over a period of time by the merging the elements of a pre-Aryan or a non-Aryan fertility deity with Rudra, a fierce god of the Vedic (Aryan) period. This ‘pre-Aryan’ is nothing but ‘Dravidian’ as has been established by anthropologists and historians who delved into pre-historic evidences. According to these scholars the proto-Dravidians introduced a Neolithic village culture based on agriculture or hunting in Baluchistan and Sind, and this enriched and incorporated elements of the Mesolithic culture evidenced about 5000 BC by the earliest known paintings in rock shelters of bison, elephant and buffalo, as far a field as Adamgarh in central India and Badami in the southern Deccan. The so-called Indus Valley civilization which developed form this stretched from Afghanistan to beyond present Delhi and from Makeran coast of Baluchistan far down into Gujarat. Great cities such as Mohanjo-daro and Harappa and Kalibangan rose during the 3rd millennium BC and reached the height of their considerable material culture about 2150-1750 BC as carbon14 dating has shown. These Dravidians or proto-Dravidians clearly worshipped deities connected in one way or another with fertility. Phallic worship typified in the seals found at Harappa, shows a god seated with legs crossed and wearing bull’s horns (bull is a universal symbol of male potency). The cult of a mother goddess is another feature of this culture (Historians have found a similarity of this with the Mesopotamian cults). Then there are figures of animals – deer, elephant, tiger, rhinoceros buffalo and birds – and serpents. It is acknowledged that serpent worship is a pre-Aryan feature, though later on this has been absorbed into the Aryan faith system. We have to note it that the majority of serpents or Nagas were considered demons, though a few were honored otherwise; and that the reverence for animals was alien to the Aryan belief.

Now let us consider the Shiva image. He and his consort resemble the Dravidian cult figures in many respects. Shiva is often portrayed in a cross-legged yogic posture with the bull Nandi as his symbol and vehicle. He is the patron god of the ascetics, self-controlled and celibate. At the same time he loves his spouse whether it be known as Shakti, or Sati or Parvati, or Uma, Gauri, Durga or Kali. Shiva’s character, unlike that of Vishnu, is a mixture of the fair and unfair, the good and the bad. He lurks in horrible places, such as battlefields, burning-grounds, and cross-roads, observes A.L. Basham, noted Indologist and author. Shiva wears a garland of skulls and is surrounded by ghosts, evil spirits and demons – a description in the typical Aryan style which tends to look down upon the ordinary Dravidian elements. Whatever it be, he is a great ascetic, and the patron deity of ascetics. Professor Basham continues his portrayal of Shiva: On the high slopes of the Himalayan Mount Kailasa, Shiva, the great yogi, sits on a tiger skin, deep in meditation in mystical stillness, and through his meditation the world is kept in position. He is depicted thus: as wearing his long and matted hair in a topknot, in which the crescent moon is fixed, and from which flows the sacred river Ganges. In the middle of his forehead is a third eye, emblem of his superior wisdom and insight. His neck is black, scarred by a deadly poison which was the last of the objects churned from the cosmic ocean, and which he drank to save the other gods from destruction. Snakes, of which he is the lord, encircle his neck and arms. His body is covered with ashes, a favorite ascetic practice. Beside him, his weapon, the trident, Parvati, his beautiful wife, and his mount the bull Nandi.

Look, the ascetic who maintains a mystical stillness while in meditation, springs up and transforms himself as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, and dances 108 different dances, all his own compositions. His dances are of unbelievable ranges, from the movements of absolute calmness to the blood-curdling fierceness of the shattering tandava which is capable of destroying the world.

Shiva has many forms. One is Aghora, as one residing in the cremation grounds. Another one is Ishana, as the Shivalingam. Tat Purusha, in meditation. Varna Deva, the eternal Shiva. Rudra, the terrific wrathful form…

Lingam needs special explanation. It is Shiva, conceived in his unborn, invisible form, always accompanied by the Yoni, the female part, surrounding the base of the lingam, representing the male creative energy of Shiva.

The love of Parvati, the daughter of Himalaya, the mountain king, towards Shiva is a saga of singular dedication and beauty. She undertakes the severest of penances to win the hand of the ascetic of Kailasa and wins at the end. A son is born to the couple, and the child is known as Kumara, or Subrahmanya. Kumarasambhava, the birth of Kumara, is a story incorporated in the epic Mahabharata out of which Kalidasa, the great poet and playwright in Sanskrit wove a classic of the same name. This theme has given rise to umpteen number of literary and performing art creations in various languages of India.

Shiva is the fountain head of a lot of sub-stories. One of them is the burning of Kama, the agent of Desire. Kama assists Parvati in her attempts at wooing the unmoving Shiva who sits still in his yogic posture, in deep meditation. Parvati offers the first-blown flowers of spring at the feet of the meditating Shiva. At the appropriate moment, Kama uses his tricks and instills the feeling of love and desire in the mind of Shiva. The disturbance wakes up Shiva from his concentrated meditation and he finds Kama playing his tricks at him. Shiva burns the miscreant down by opening his third eye, the eye that has a laser-like power to burn up anything on its way. Shiva at his worst as a destroyer is revealed in this episode.

In order to save his devotees from distress, Shiva would do anything. Once he trounced Yama, the lord of death, in order to free a devotee of his from death. As one who vanquished death, Shiva is called Mrityunjaya. In Sanskrit, it means one who conquered Death. Once Shiva drank poison churned up from the ocean in order to save the world from being poisoned. And the poison was arrested at his throat by some of the onlookers lest it should kill Shiva himself. And this resulted in his throat becoming bluish and his getting a new name – Neelkantha which means ‘Blue Throat’.

Lore goes that River Ganges was brought down from heavens to the earth by King Bhagiratha. But there was a problem: when Ganga descents from the sky and falls down to the earth, the impact would be unbearable and devastating. To avoid this, Bhagiratha found a way: he requests Shiva to bear the burden of the descent of Ganges on his matted hair. Everything ends well when Shiva receives Ganges on his head of matted hair and let it flow down smoothly. This gave him a name – Gangadhar, the one who bears the river Ganges on his hair.

Shiva is also known as Ardhanarishvara (meaning ‘the Lord who is half woman’) with a deep philosophic connotation that the ultimate power of the universe lies in the combination of both feminine and masculine powers. It symbolically shows that Shiva and his consort Shakti are inseparable – half male and the other half female, in visual representation (This is seen in the bronzes of the Chola dynasty and the sculptures at Ellora and Elephanta. The earliest Ardhanrishvara images are reported from 35 -60 AD). 

The worship of Shiva has various forms. The most familiar is the worship in the form of linga, which is in the form of a cylindrical column. Shiva denotes auspiciousness and linga means ‘genital’, a place where the creative energy sleeps after the dissolution of the created universe. The phallic symbolization is one of the cornerstones of the Shaivite vision.

The most famous temple dedicated to Shiva in India is in Kashi, Varanasi, where the lord is worshipped as Visvanath, the God of all lands. There are twelve jyotirlinga temples in various parts of the country. In South India, the most famous Shiva temples are in Tiruvannamalai, Kanchipuram, Tirunaikaval, Chidambaram and Srikalahasti. Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur, Nellaiappar temple in Tirunelveli are also important centers of Shiva worship. The Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal is another important site of Shiva pilgrimage. The famous Ama Math yatra to Amarnath Cave in Kashmir is also a very important center of pilgrimage for the followers of the Shiva cult. Maha Shivaratri (‘Great Night of Shiva’) is a very important annual festival for the Hindus. It falls on the 13th night of the month of Phalguna in the Hindu calendar, in the month of February. This is the night when Shiva sleeps, and all his devotees keep vigil all night. There are other versions too for the significance of Shivratri. One such is that Parvati, the consort of Shiva, prayed to him to save the world from an impending destruction and she worshipped him all through the long night of pralaya or deluge. Her prayer was granted and a grateful Parvati designated the particular night as the occasion for special worship of Shiva. She conveyed it to the world that this particular night is Shiva’s favorite day.