BRAHMA, VISHNU. KRISHNA AND SHIVA

BRAHMA AND THE HINDU TRINITY

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Brahma
It is often said that the Hindu pantheon has three gods at its head: Brahma, the creator of the universe; Vishnu, the preserver of life; and Shiva, the destroyer of ignorance. Brahma is a representation of the impersonal brahman in a human form, usually with four faces facing the cardinal directions and four arms. In reality, Brahma receives little devotion from worshipers, who may mention him in passing while giving their attention to the other main gods. There are few temples in India dedicated to him; instead, his image may stand in niches on the walls of temples built for other deities. Religious stories usually place Brahma as an intermediate authority who cannot handle a problem and passes it on to either Vishnu or Shiva. The concept of the trinity (trimurti ), expressed in beautiful art works or invoked even by believers, is in practice a philosophical construct that unites all deistic traditions within Hinduism into one overarching symbol. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Initially, Hinduism was centered around three male gods: Brahma, creator of the cosmos; Vishnu, preserver and protector of the universe; and Shiva, destroyer of the universe so that from the formless void it may be created again. Brahma has never had a large number of worshippers. Shiva, Vishnu, and the Great Goddess Devi (Mahadevi) in their myriad forms are the most widely worshipped Hindu gods. They are described in the Puranas, a group of texts formulated betweenA.D. 200 and 800.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures

BRAHMA

Brahma is the "father of all" and has traditionally been recognized as the creator god. He is rarely depicted and is not worshiped as other gods in part because he has already fulfilled his duty by creating everything and will not do anything until the beginning of the next creation cycle.

When Brahma is depicted he is show with four, crowned, bearded heads---each facing towards one of the cardinal points---and has eight arms, in which he carries: 1) the four Vedas, 2) a rosary, 3) a pot with holy water, 4) a scepter, 5) a spoon, 6) a disc, 7) a fly whisk, and 8) a lotus flower.

Brahma is also known Ishwara or Mahanshakti. His shakti is Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music and poetry. She is often depicted holding a musical instrument in her hand. The swan (or goose), a symbol of knowledge, is the mount for both Brahma and Saraswati. Brahma is also sometimes recognized as the “Self,” and is represented by “Om,” the sound with no form.

All Hindu gods are regarded as refracted image of Brahma. He created the universe and founded a tradition of teachers. He taught everything he knew to the great sage Narada Muni, who taught it to Vyasadeva, the compiler of the Bhagavad Gita .

Brahma is said to have been born from a golden egg or a lotus flower that sprung from the naval of Vishnu, while he reclined on a serpent on the waves of the ocean during a cosmic sleep. Brahma originally had five heads. He acquired them when he fell in love with Saraswati---who was shy and tried to escape his glances---so he could see wherever she went.

VISHNU

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Vishnu, Raja Ravi, Varma
and Lord_Garuda
Vishnu is known as the Preserver and is a god with many incarnations. Generally regarded as nice, eternally young and attractive, he is often depicted with a crown and reclining on a multi-headed serpent with a lotus flower emerging from his navel. He usually has four arms. One carries a mace, which represents the basic force from which all other forces are derived. The others hold a conch, a disc, and a ball or a lotus. Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth is Vishnu's wife. Their mount in Garuda, the man-eagle.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Vishnu preserves and maintains order in the universe. Whenever destructive forces, usually symbolized by demons, threaten to overwhelm the world, Vishnu descends in the form of an avatar to restore moral order. His concern for human political and social activities expresses the gentle and just-minded side of the One. It is believed that in our present universe, Vishnu has already appeared in nine incarnations, taking such animal forms as a fish and a tortoise and various human forms such as Krishna, Rama, and the Buddha. It is believed he will appear once more in the future. As Rama, he symbolizes the importance of loyalty and obedience. As Krishna, he is the divine lover as well as a slayer of demons. Krishna’s consort, Radha, and his female devotees, in their passionate longing for him, symbolize the soul’s desire to be one with God.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

The historical Vishnu is good example of a single god that was coalesced from multiple gods over time. In the early Vedic verses Vishnu was a dwarf capable of crossing the universe in three strides. He was a minor deity who performed these feats mainly to amuse the other gods and was mentioned only five times in the Rig Veda. His antics as a dwarf made him popular and he became a major god, it is believed, after he was merged with an early sun god.

Vishnu is associated with “right action” and is considered an upholder of Hindu values. He preserves the universe by staying awake. If he falls asleep creation will withdraw intro a seed from it which it will emerge when creation occurs again. His role as preservers is greatly valued by Indians who worship Vishnu and pay homage to him in many ways. Vaishnavites, devotees of Vishnu, are one of the largest Hindu sects. See Sects.

As one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu is surrounded by a number of extremely popular and well-known stories and is the focus of a number of sects devoted entirely to his worship. Vishnu contains a number of personalities, often represented as ten major descents (avatars) in which the god has taken on physical forms in order to save earthly creatures from destruction. In one story, the earth was drowning in a huge flood, so to save it Vishnu took on the body of a giant turtle and lifted the earth on his back out of the waters. A tale found in the Vedas describes a demon who could not be conquered. Responding to the pleas of the gods, Vishnu appeared before the demon as a dwarf. The demon, in a classic instance of pride, underestimated this dwarf and granted him as much of the world as he could tread in three steps. Vishnu then assumed his universal form and in three strides spanned the entire universe and beyond, crushing the demon in the process. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Vishnu, His Incarnations and Other Gods

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Shiva and Vishnu
Vishnu is worshiped in the form of his incarnations and sometimes viewed as embodiment of the entire pantheon of Hindu gods. He is often depicted with other gods, such as Agni, Indra and Yama, placed on other parts of his body. Brahma was created from a lotus flower that sprouted from Vishnu's navel. Lord Jagannath, a reincarnation of Vishnu, was created by a celestial carpenter who shaped the deity, his brother and sister from a miraculous log. Vishnu’s wife is Lakshima.

Vishnu often takes an earthly from to save the world. The 10 incarnations he uses are 1) Matsya, the fish that saved the first man from the great flood; 2) Kurma, a tortoise that serves as a base for the mountain that supports the universe and is the creature that found the sacred ambrosia in the milk can; 3) a boar with the body of a man who holds the Earth goddess in his hands; 4) a man-lion who attacks the king of the demons with his paws; 5) a dwarf who obtains the earth, sky and hell and helps the gods gain possession of the world; 6) Rama in human form with an ax; 7) Rama, the hero of the Ramayana; 8) Krishna; 9) Buddha; and 10) a man-horse. By far the most important incarnations are Rama and Krishna. Rama is sometimes called the God of Truth. He is often depicted with a bow. See Ramayana and Mahabharata Above, See Krishna Below.

The incarnation of Vishnu known to almost everyone in India is his life as Ram (Rama in Sanskrit), a prince from the ancient north Indian kingdom of Ayodhya, in the cycle of stories known as the Ramayana (The Travels of Ram). On one level, this is a classic adventure story, as Ram is exiled from the kingdom and has to wander in the forests of southern India with his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal younger brother Lakshman. After many adventures, during which Ram befriends the king of the monkey kingdom and joins forces with the great monkey hero Hanuman, the demon king Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to his fortress on the island of Lanka (modern Sri Lanka). A huge war then ensues, as Ram with his animal allies attacks the demons, destroys them all, and returns in triumph to North India to occupy his lawful throne. Village storytellers, street theater players, the movies, and the national television network all have their versions of this story. In many parts of the country, but especially in North India, the annual festival of Dussehra celebrates Ram's adventures and his final triumph and includes the public burning of huge effigies of Ravana at the end of several days of parties. Everyone knows that Ram is really Vishnu, who came down to rid the earth of the demons and set up an ideal kingdom of righteousness--Ram Raj--which stands as an ideal in contemporary India. Sita is in reality his consort, the goddess Lakshmi, the ideal of feminine beauty and devotion to her husband. Lakshmi, also known as Shri, eventually became the goddess of fortune, surplus, and happiness. Hanuman, as the faithful sidekick with great physical and magical powers, is one of the most beloved images in the Hindu pantheon with temples of his own throughout the country. *

Iconography of Vishnu

Vishnu is sometimes used to symbolize the universe with his left eye representing night; his right eye representing day; clouds emerging from his hair; and the sun emanating from his mouth. From his nose comes the breath of life, which if properly directed can produce enlightenment. The conch shell, a symbol closely associated with Vishnu, is also associated with creation and is often blown at temples to indicate the presence of Vishnu. Vishnu sculpture often feature the god inside a flaming wheel.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Vishnu is usually depicted with four arms and wears a tall conical crown. Typically, one of his hands makes the fear-allaying gesture. His animal mount is Garuda, a man-bird and ancient solar symbol of power. In Vishnu’s nine previous avatars, he appeared as a fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, dwarf, the ax-bearer Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. Vishnu’s tenth appearance, yet to come, will be Kalki. His two most popular avatars are Krishna and Rama, both of whom, like Vishnu, are portrayed with dark blue-gray colored skin.Vishnu’s usual attributes are: The Great Goddess Devi. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

In iconography Vishnu may appear as any of his ten incarnations but often stands in sculpture as a princely male with four arms that bear a club, discus, conch, and lotus flower. He may also appear lying on his back on the thousand-headed king of the serpents, Shesha-Naga, in the milk ocean at the center of time, with his feet massaged by Lakshmi, and with a lotus growing from his navel giving birth to the god Brahma, a four-headed representation of the creative principle. Vishnu in this representation is the ultimate source of the universe that he causes to expand and contract at regular cosmic intervals measuring millions of years. On a more concrete level, Vishnu may become incarnate at any moment on earth in order to continue to bring sentient creatures back to himself, and a number of great religious teachers (including, for example, Chaitanya in Bengal) are identified by their followers as incarnations of Vishnu. *

KRISHNA

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Krishna and Radha
Another widely known incarnation of Vishnu is Krishna. Krishna, the God of Mercy and Childhood, is a popular avatar of Vishnu. Associated with love and mischief, he is a cowherd and a divine charioteer who sometimes takes on the role of protecting the world from the forces of adharma . He is often depicted with blue skin, playing a flute. Krishna means "Dark" or "Black" He is believed to have evolved from a god of an aboriginal tribe and may have been connected an ancient erotic herb.

Krishna is quite different from other religious figures such as Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha. He likes to cavort with milkmaids in the forest, eat clay, steal butter and play pranks. As a child, he slew ogresses and seduced cowherd wives and as an adult he made love to dozens of women at one time “amidst the merry tinkling of bracelets, armlets and anklets.” His consort is Rukmini. He pursued his great love, the married mortal beauty Radha, with the help of a sakhi , or go between.

Krishna is fond of adulation. He once said: "Fix Thy Mind on Me; be devoted to Me; sacrifice unto Me; bow down to Me.” He is worshiped by many in many ways. At festivals priests shape cow dung into images of the god. At school, children are entertained with stories about his adventures. On Sunday morning, television programs depict episodes from his story. Hindu devotees claim that Krishna’s sensual "pastimes" are manifestations of "love of the individual soul for God" not desire.

Krishna’s Stories

Krishna is one of the central figures of the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata (See Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata ). A number of additional legends and stories have developed about him over the centuries, with the most popular ones often revolving around the cute but naughty pranks he performed as a child and the way he entranced women with his flute playing. Some of his activities have been the subject of erotic verses and painting.

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Krishna and the gopis
According to Hindu lore Lord Krishna was born and raised in Vrindavan and Mathurare thousands of years ago. At a young age he was taken to the forest to live with cow herders so he could escape the evil plans that his evil uncle had for him. While he was in the forest his powers and appetite for women emerged. He was especially loved by the local women and gropis (cow maidens). He is often depicted surrounded by gropis. His favorite gropi was Radha.

Krishna ruled a kingdom on earth until he was mistaken for a deer and killed by a hunter who shot Krishna with an arrow in the heal, his one vulnerable spot. Krishna’s divine attributes were evident from an early age. Once was when Krishna’s foster mother punished him for his pranks she looked into his mouth and saw the universe.

In the Mahabharata (Great Battle of the Descendants of Bharata), the gigantic, multivolume epic of ancient North Indian kingdoms, Krishna appears as the ruler of one of the many states allied either with the heroic Pandava brothers or with their treacherous cousins, the Kauravas. Bharata was an ancient king whose achievements are celebrated in the Mahabharata and from whose name derives one of the names for modern India, that is Bharat. During the final battle, Krishna serves as charioteer for the hero Arjuna, and before the fighting starts he bolsters Arjuna's faltering will to fight against his kin. Krishna reveals himself as Vishnu, the supreme godhead, who has set up the entire conflict to cleanse the earth of evildoers according to his inscrutable will. This section of the epic, the Bhagavad Gita , or Song of the Lord, is one of the great jewels of world religious literature and of central importance in modern Hinduism. One of its main themes is karma-yoga , or selfless discipline in offering all of one's allotted tasks in life as a devotion to God and without attachment to consequences. The true reality is the soul that neither slays nor is slain and that can rejoin God through selfless dedication and through Krishna's saving grace. *

Krishna and the Gopis

A completely different cycle of stories portrays Krishna as a young cowherd, growing up in the country after he was saved from an evil uncle who coveted his kingdom. In this incarnation, Krishna often appears as a happy, roly-poly infant, well known for his pranks and thefts of butter. Although his enemies send evil agents to destroy him, the baby miraculously survives their attacks and kills his demonic assailants. Later, as he grows into an adolescent, he continues to perform miracles such as saving the cowherds and their flocks from a dangerous storm by holding up a mountain over their heads until the weather clears. His most striking exploits, however, are his affairs as a young adult with the gopis (cowherding maidens), all of whom are in love with him because of his good looks and talent with the flute. *

These explicitly sexual activities, including stealing the clothes of the maidens while they are bathing, are the basis for a wide range of poetry and songs to Krishna as a lover; the devotee of the god takes on a female role and directs toward the beloved lord the heartfelt longing for union with the divine. Krishna's relationship with Radha, his favorite among the gopis , has served as a model for male and female love in a variety of art forms, and since the sixteenth century appears prominently as a motif in North Indian paintings. Unlike many other deities, who are depicted as very fair in color, Krishna appears in all these adventures as a dark lord, either black or blue in color. In this sense, he is a figure who constantly overturns accepted conventions of order, hierarchy, and propriety, and introduces a playful and mischievous aspect of a god who hides from his worshipers but saves them in the end. The festival of Holi at the spring equinox, in which people of all backgrounds play in the streets and squirt each other with colored water, is associated with Krishna. *

SHIVA

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Bearded Shiva
Shiva (Siva) is regarded as the destroyer, preserver, and creator because he completes the Hindu cosmological cycle and ushers in the return of creation. He wears a chignon with curls and has a vertical third eye in the middle of his forehead. He often is depicted with four arms, carrying a string of beads, a symbol of his teaching, and a trident. The beads are called Rudraksha beads, a reference to his early name

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Shiva is worshipped as the ascetic god, remote when in meditation but also at times wild, passionate, and loving. As Lord of the Dance, he both destroys and creates the universe. His cosmic dance visualizes the cycles of creation and destruction in human lives, in the history of nations, and in the universe. Shiva is also manifest in a phallic emblem called a linga, and it is in this form that he is most often portrayed in the inner sanctum of his temples. Worshippers of Shiva believe that he is the supreme god who contains and controls all creation.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

In the Vedic verses Shiva was known as Rudra, a minor deity that protected cattle and was associated with the howl of the wind and healing herbs. He had both and positive and negative side: he could bring disease and he could cure it. In the Rig Veda he is mentioned only three times. Over time Rudra absorbed merged with an early fertility god and became Shiva. By the second century B.C. Shiva had become popular as indicated by the large number stone lingams, symbols of Shiva, found in archeological sites. In the A.D. 2nd century there were Shiva cults made up of devotees who made lewd gestures at women and sneering noises during ceremonies and slept in the ashes left behind from funeral pyres. By the seventh century Shiva had became a more mainstream Hindu God.

Shiva lives in his paradise on Mt. Meru (believed by many to be Mt. Kailas in Tibet), ), where he created the Ganges. He is the originator of all the performing arts. The rhythm of his drum and his dancing are thought to control the fate of the world and prepare it for a new creation. Shiva has many incarnations and appears in many different forms. They are sometimes better known and depicted more than Shiva himself. In the Shiva Purana , a medieval text devoted to Shiva, he has over 1,000 names, including Mahakala, the Lord of Time, and Maheshvara, the Lord of Knowledge.

Shiva has a dark side that is derived from his role as the destroyer but is also associated with asceticism. He is sometimes depicted as a poverty-stricken holy man with a crescent moon in his matted hair and serpent-like Brahma chord wrapped around his bare torso, surrounded by animals and followers. When he mediates he perseveres the world sort of like the way Vishnu does when he sleeps.

Many Sides of Shiva

The god Shiva is the other great figure in the modern pantheon. In contrast to the regal attributes of Vishnu, Shiva is a figure of renunciation. A favorite image portrays him as an ascetic, performing meditation alone in the fastness of the Himalayas. There he sits on a tiger skin, clad only in a loincloth, covered with sacred ash that gives his skin a gray color. His trident is stuck into the ground next to him. Around his neck is a snake. From his matted hair, tied in a topknot, the river Ganga (Ganges) descends to the earth. His neck is blue, a reminder of the time he drank the poison that emerged while gods and demons competed to churn the milk ocean. Shiva often appears in this image as an antisocial being, who once burned up Kama, the god of love, with a glance. But behind this image is the cosmic lord who, through the very power of his meditating consciousness, expands the entire universe and all beings in it. Although he appears to be hard to attain, in reality Shiva is a loving deity who saves those devotees who are wholeheartedly dedicated to him. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The bhakti literature of South India, where Shiva has long been important, describes the numerous instances of pure-hearted devotion to the beautiful lord and the final revelation of himself as Shiva after testing his devotees. Shiva often appears on earth in disguise, perhaps as a wandering Brahman priest, to challenge the charity or belief of a suffering servant, only to appear eventually in his true nature. Many of these divine plays are connected directly with specific people and specific sites, and almost every ancient Shiva temple can claim a famous poem or a famous miracle in its history. The hundreds of medieval temples in Tamil Nadu, almost all dedicated to Shiva, contain sculptured panels depicting the god in a variety of guises: Bhikshatana, the begging lord; Bhairava, a horrible, destructive image; or Nataraja, the lord of the dance, beating a drum that keeps time while he manifests the universe. *

Because he withholds his sexual urges and controls them, Shiva is able to transmute sexual energy into creative power, by generating intense heat. It is, in fact, the heat generated from discipline and austerity (tapas ) that is seen as the source for the generative power of all renunciants, and in this sense Shiva is often connected with wandering orders of monks in modern India. For the average worshiper, the sexual power of Shiva is seen in the most common image that represents him, the lingam. This is typically a cylindrical stone several feet tall, with a rounded top, standing in a circular base. On one level, this is the most basic image of divinity, providing a focus for worship with a minimum of artistic embellishment, attempting to represent the infinite. The addition of carved anatomical details on many lingams, however, leaves no doubt for the worshiper that this is an erect male sexual organ, showing the procreative power of God at the origin of all things.

Shiva Symbols

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Carved wooden lingam
Lingams (or lingas) are the phallic symbols that honor Shiva and represent male energy, rebirth, fertility and the creative forces of the universe.. They are found in varying sizes in many Hindu temples. A typical one is shaped like an erect phallus and made of polished stone. The vertical shaft is sometimes divided into the parts symbolizing the Hindu Trinity, with the upper rounded part associated with Shiva, the middle part linked to Vishnu, and the bottom part representing Brahma. According to the Shiva Purana “it is not the linga that is worshiped but the one whose symbol it is.”

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Shiva has many roles and guises, each identified by particular attributes and poses. He is sometimes depicted with two arms but more frequently four, and he often carries a trident. In the center of his forehead is a third eye, shown vertically. His hairlocks, long and matted from his ascetic practices, are piled up in a tall chignon. Some of Shiva’s most common attributes are: 1) the third eye, indicating divine omniscience; 2) damaru, a hand drum, indicating the primordial sound of creation; 3) a crescent moon in his hair, representing the cyclical nature of time; 4) agni, the consuming fire of destruction; 5) an antelope, representing animal fertility (Shiva is lord of the animals); 6) a trident and battle ax, symbols of Shiva’s militance. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Lingams are usually set on a round base called a yoni , which represents Shakti and the female force. A channel is carved on the base to allow ablutions to flow out. Shiva worshipers like to pour cows milk on lingams, sprinkle them with flowers and red powder and make offering of fruits and sweets. The lingam and the base together are a sort of ying and yang statue that symbolizes the entire universe and the union and interaction between male and female power.

The trident is another symbol associated with Shiva. The three forks are said to represent creation, preservation and destruction. Depictions of Shiva with three faces also represent the same balanced trilogy: two of the faces are usually opposites: maker and destroyer, or acetic and family-man, with the third face in the middle being a peaceful, reconciling force.

Shiva is often depicted with matted hair. This eludes to his time spent as an ascetic. He sometimes wears a necklace of skulls that symbolize his role as a destroyer and demon slayer. The vertical third eye in the middle of his forehead is equated with higher consciousness and Shiva’s power. The eye is always closed if it is open the universe will be destroyed.

Shiva is closely associated with Varanasi and death. It is said that anyone who dies in Varanasi will join Shiva straight away in Mt. Meru regardless of how much bad karma they have accumulated. Shiva is also closely associated with the Ganges, and India’s other holy rivers.

Shiva and Other Gods

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Young Shiva slaying demons
Shiva has many consorts that help express his many sides and bring out male and female power. The nature of this relationship is believed to be based on ancient mother goddess cults that were absorbed into Hinduism. Shiva’s consort is the mother goddess Shakti (Devi), the source of his divine energy. She also takes the form of Parvati, Gauri, Durga and the powerful Goddess of Death, Kali.

Parvati is the daughter of the sacred Himalayas. Renowned for her gentleness, she is Shiva’s primary wife and is regarded as the most benign and conservative of Shiva’s partners. She and Shiva have two sons: Skanda, the god of War, and Ganesh the popular elephant-headed god.

Natarja, an incarnation of Shiva, is the goddess of dance. She is often depicted in old bronze statues with four arms and one leg raised and the other crushing Apasmara, a dwarf-demon associated with confusion and ignorance. One hand assumes the gesture of protection, one points to a raised foot, one hold the drum that keeps the beat of the rhythm of creation. The forth holds the fire of dissolution. .

Nandi , the sacred bull, is Shiva’s mount when he rides through the heavens. It represents fertility; is often as white as the Himalayan peaks; and marks the entrance to a Shiva temples. A crescent moon encircling Shiva’s third eye is a symbol of the Nandi bull.

Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh

The concept of reality as the complex interplay of opposite principles, male and female, thus finds its highest form in the mythology of Shiva and his consort Parvati (also known as Shakti, Kali, or Durga), the daughter of the mountains. This most controlled deity, the meditating Shiva, then has still another form, as the erotic lover of Parvati, embracing her passionately. *

Shiva and Parvati have two sons, who have entire cycles of myths and legends and bhakti cults in their own right. One son is called variously Karttikeya (identified with the planet Mars) or Skanda (the god of war or Subrahmanya). He is extremely handsome, carries a spear, and rides a peacock. According to some traditions, he emerged motherless from Shiva when the gods needed a great warrior to conquer an indestructible demon. In southern India, where he is called Murugan, he is a lord of mountain places and a great friend of those who dedicate themselves to him. Some devotees vow to carry on their shoulders specially carved objects of wood for a determined number of weeks, never putting them down during that time. Others may go further, and insert knives or long pins into their bodies for extended periods. *

Another son of Shiva and Parvati is Ganesh, or Ganapati, the Lord of the Ganas (the hosts of Shiva), who has a male human's body with four arms and the head of an elephant. One myth claims that he originated directly from Parvati's body and entered into a quarrel with Shiva, who cut off his human head and replaced it later with the head of the first animal he found, which happened to be an elephant. For most worshipers, Ganesh is the first deity invoked during any ceremony because he is the god of wisdom and remover of obstacles. People worship Ganesh when beginning anything, for example, at the start of a trip or the first day of the new school year. He is often pictured next to his mount, the rat, symbol of the ability to get in anywhere. Ganesh is therefore a clever figure, a trickster in many stories, who presents a benevolent and friendly image to those worshipers who placate him. His image is perhaps the most widespread and public in India, visible in streets and transportation terminals everywhere. The antics of Ganesh and Karttikeya and the interactions of Shiva and Parvati have generated a series of entertaining myths of Shiva as a henpecked husband, who would prefer to keep meditating but instead is drawn into family problems, providing a series of morality tales in households throughout India. *

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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