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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. Hindus who worship Shiva as their primary god are members of the Shaivism sect.

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]

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, wrote: “The name of Shiva does not appear in the Vedas, but he was earlier known as Rudra, or the Fearful and Destructive One. Though the power of destruction, which in the most intensified form makes him a Bhairava ('The Terrible Destroyer'), remains Shiva's principal attribute, the corollary of that attribute, namely creation or fertility, is also central to the identity of Shiva. This aspect of Shiva is represented by the lingam, or phallus, which is worshipped as a representation of Shiva. Sometimes the female genitals, or yoni, are placed alongside the lingam. These are not the only iconic representations of Shiva: he appears as the yogi, in whom are concentrated all the powers acquired by meditation, penance, and a life of austerity, or as the naked ascetic Digambara, with matted hair and a body smeared with ashes... To begin to enumerate Shiva's various forms, epithets, and representations is to unravel the multiple layering of Indian civilization. There are, needless to say, innumerable pilgrimage sites associated with Shiva, and temples to him are to be found in every nook and cranny of India. According to Hindu mythology, Shiva's home is on Mt. Kailash, at the foot of which is the purest and holiest lake to be found anywhere, Manasarovar [from the Sanskrit manas, which gives this site its name]. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA]

Mt Kailash

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.

Many Sides of Shiva

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.

giant Shiva statue in Murdeshwar

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. *

Shiva’s Power, Passions and Sexual Energy

According to the BBC: Shiva is known to have untamed passion, which leads him to extremes in behaviour. Sometimes he is an ascetic, abstaining from all worldly pleasures. At others he is a hedonist. It is Shiva's relationship with his wife, Parvati which brings him balance. Their union allows him to be an ascetic and a lover, but within the bounds of marriage. [Source: BBC |::|]

Shiva as Nataraj

“Hindus believe his powers of destruction and recreation are used even now to destroy the illusions and imperfections of this world, paving the way for beneficial change. According to Hindu belief, this destruction is not arbitrary, but constructive. Shiva is therefore seen as the source of both good and evil and is regarded as the one who combines many contradictory elements. |::|

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’s Image and Representations

Shiva typically carries a trident and has a third eye in his forehead, signifying his all-seeing nature. He often has a serpent wrapped around him like a scarf and wears a skull and the crescent moon in his matted hair piled high upon his head.

According to the BBC: “ In his representations as a man, Shiva always has a blue face and throat. Strictly speaking his body is white, but images often show him with a blue body too. Even though Shiva is the destroyer, he is usually represented as smiling and tranquil. While other gods are depicted in lavish surroundings, Shiva is dressed in simple animal skin and in austere settings, usually in a yogic position. Parvati, whenever she is present, is always at the side of Shiva. Their relationship is one of equality. [Source: BBC |::|]

Lord Shiva with many of his symbols

Shiva is represented with the following features: 1) A third eye: The extra eye represents the wisdom and insight that Shiva has. It is also believed to be the source of his untamed energy. On one occasion, when Shiva was distracted in the midst of worship by the love god, Kama, Shiva opened his third eye in anger. Kama was consumed by the fire that poured forth, and only returned to life when Parvati intervened. 2) A cobra necklace: This signifies Shiva's power over the most dangerous creatures in the world. Some traditions also say that the snake represents Shiva's power of destruction and recreation. The snake sheds its skin to make way for new, smooth skin. 3) The vibhuti are three lines drawn horizontally across the forehead in white ash. They represent Shiva's all-pervading nature, his superhuman power and wealth. Also, they cover up his powerful third eye. Members of Shaivism often draw vibhuti lines across their forehead. 4) The trident: The three-pronged trident represents the three functions of the Hindu triumvirate.

Shiva is sometimes represented as half man, half woman. His figure is split half way down the body, one half showing his body and the second half that of Parvati's. Shiva is also represented by Shiva linga. This is a phallic statue, representing the raw power of Shiva and his masculinity. Hindus believe it represents the seed of the universe, demonstrating Shiva's quality of creation. Worshippers of Shiva celebrate Mahashivratri, a festival at which the Shiva linga is bathed in water, milk and honey and worshipped.

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, wrote: “ In Indian art, Shiva can also be recognized by the presence of Nandi, or the bull, which is his vehicle; or by the trishul or trident, the weapon that he carries with him. He is known, according to some ancient authorities, by 1,008 epithets: among these are Nilakantha, "the blue-throated"; Panchanana, "the five-faced"; Nataraj, "The Lord of Dancers"; and Trilochana, "the three-eyed". “The "third eye of Shiva" has become the stuff of much legend, not only in India: it is with this eye that Shiva destroyed Kama, the Lord of Love, who had the impunity to tempt Shiva with amorous thoughts of his consort Parvati as he sat in penance. Shiva is often shown with Parvati; he is also shown as ardhnarishwara, half-man and half-woman. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA]

Shiva Symbols

The trident is a 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.


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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.

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 Devi (Shakti), the source of his divine energy. Devi has taken on many forms in the past, including , Gauri, Durga, Sati, the goddess of marital felicity and Kali, the powerful Goddess of Death.

Devi's best known incarnation is Parvati, Shiva's primary and eternal wife. Shiva and Parvati are held up as the perfect example of marital bliss by many Hindus, and one is rarely depicted without the other. Hindus believe Shiva and Parvati live in the Kailash mountains in the Himalayas. Parvati is the daughter of the sacred Himalayas. Renowned for her gentleness, she 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.

Vidya Dehejia, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: “ Renowned as a great dancer, Shiva has the appellation Nataraja, "Lord of Dance." Shiva is the great practitioner of yoga who spent aeons in meditation until he opened his eyes, saw the goddess Parvati, and fell in love with her. Parvati, the consort of Shiva, with the lion as her vehicle, is a major deity in her own right. As Durga, she slays demons whom the other gods are unable to control. One of her most celebrated feats is the destruction of the buffalo demon Mahisha. Two other deities are considered their children. Elephant-headed Ganesha is the god who removes obstacles and is worshipped at the start of any undertaking; his vehicle is the mouse. Skanda, a warlike youth, rides the peacock. [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art]

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. *

Parvati and Ganesh visit Shiva while he meditates in the forest

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. *

Shiva: Nataraj, The Lord of Dancers

Shiva is also known as Nataraj, the Lord of Dancers. According to the BBC: “Dance is an important art form in India, and Shiva is believed to be the master of it. He is often called the Lord of Dance. The rhythm of dance is a metaphor for the balance in the universe which Shiva is believed to hold so masterfully. His most important dance is the Tandav. This is the cosmic dance of death, which he performs at the end of an age, to destroy the universe. [Source: BBC |::|]

Shiva as Nataraj, Lord of Dance

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, writes: “The most splendid representations of Nataraj are to be found in the Chola bronzes from South India, from around the 8th century to the 12th century; it is the image of Nataraj which is installed as the central deity in the great temple at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The image of Shiva as Nataraj is indelibly stitched into the Indian imagination. "How many various dances of Shiva are known to His worshippers", says Ananda Coomaraswamy, "I cannot say. No doubt the root idea behind all of these dances is more or less one and the same, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy." Continues Coomaraswamy, "Whatever the origins of Shiva's dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of." [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

“A more fluid and energetic representation of a moving figure than the dancing figure of Shiva can scarcely be found anywhere. Though there are minor variations, the characteristic features of Nataraj are as follows: he is shown with four hands, two on either side. The upper left hand holds a flame, the lower left hand points down to the demon Muyalaka, who is shown holding a cobra. The demon is being crushed by Shiva's right foot; the other foot is raised. The upper right hand holds a drum, the lower one is in the abhaymudra, 'be without fear'. Shiva's hair is braided and jewelled, but some of his locks whirl as he dances; within the folds of his hair are a wreathing cobra, a skull, and the figure of Ganga. The entire figure stands on a lotus pedestal and is fringed by a circle of flames, which are touched by the hands holding the drum and the fire. ==

“The dance of Shiva represents his five activities: Shrishti (creation, evolution); Sthiti (preservation, support); Samhara (destruction, evolution); Tirobhava (illusion); and Anugraha (release, emancipation, grace). The symbolic significance of every aspect of the representation of Shiva is furnished by many texts, such as the Chidambara Mummani Kovai: "O my Lord, Thy hand holding the sacred drum has made and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds and innumerable souls. Thy lifted hand protects both the conscious and unconscious order of thy creation. All these worlds are transformed by Thy hand bearing fire. Thy sacred foot, planted on the ground, gives an abode to the tired soul struggling in the toils of causality. It is Thy lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those that approach Thee. These Five-Actions are indeed Thy Handiwork." ==

How Shiva Almost Destroyed the Universe by Dancing Too Soon

Nataraj dancing on the site of a temple

“According to one Hindu legend, Shiva almost signalled the end of this universe by performing this dangerous dance before its time. One day, the father of the goddess Sati decided to hold a prayer ceremony. At this prayer ceremony, all the gods would be invited and offerings would be made to them. But Shiva had married Sati against the wishes of her father and he was not invited. Sati was deeply offended on behalf of her husband. In anger, Sati prayed intensely and jumped into the sacred fire that was burning on the day of the ceremony. During this time, Shiva had been in the midst of deep meditation. But when Sati jumped into the fire, he awoke in great anger, realising what his wife had done. [Source: BBC |::|]

“The story becomes less certain at this point, but it is believed that Shiva started the cosmic dance of death. The whole universe was about to be destroyed before it was time. The gods who were present at the prayer ceremony were very concerned. In order to pacify him, they scattered the ashes of Sati over him. This did the trick. He calmed down and did not complete the dance. But he went into meditation for many years, deeply upset over the death of his wife, ignoring all his godly duties. |::|

“It was not until Sati was reborn as Parvati that Shiva finally came out of meditation. Through her love and patience, she taught him about family life and the importance of moderation. Shiva and Parvati are held up as the perfect example of marital bliss by many Hindus, and one is rarely depicted without the other. |::|

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.

Last updated December 2023

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