Due to his implicit connection to destruction and chaos Lord Shiva and death share a vital relationship. Death is one concept each and every one of us shall have to face no matter how much we may dislike it. It is difficult to form relationships with people in life, more so, those that have a substantial meaning in our lives. Those of us who have had loving families would know how important it is to be able to connect and depend on family members. They are there for us, warts and all. Parents, siblings and as we reach adulthood, spouses and partners constitute the strongest relationships we manage to make and often take for granted, until one day they are suddenly gone.
In our times, when so much of our relationships are conducted online, we call, text and video chat with our loved ones very often. Somehow the virtual connect seems enough to some of us. A lot of our issues and conflicts with each other are left unresolved because we choose not to have confrontations. The popular saying about this goes that “we always hurt the ones we love” and how true that is!
The absolute loss of connection that comes to pass upon death, tells us a lot more about ourselves than the deceased. Every time we hear of a death, we become implicitly conscious of our own mortality. Death spares nobody on the basis of race, class, gender, orientation, nationality or any of the other categories of differentiation human beings like to come up with, in order to make ourselves feel different and by extension, better than other people. The one and absolute equalizer, death has the power to tear to shreds all possible veils of vanity one may have. No matter how big one may become in life, one day all of that power, money and influence must be left behind. No wonder therefore that many cultures around the globe see death as a negative force.
Major world religions try to enforce obedience in their followers with the fear of death and the prospect of what is to come after death. The collusion of the state and religion in many countries still evoke the fear of God and punishments after death to perpetuate a hegemonic system of control over the poorest and weakest section of their population.
But what of us- those who live in advanced democracies, in developed and rapidly developing countries? We have seemingly managed to break the shackles of bigoted clergy, but very few of us would think of ourselves as Godless, and faithless. Even those of us who profess to be atheists, protesting the absence of God, pointing to the rampant suffering and heinous crimes in the world, would not deny the power and influence of death. Will Christ grant us redemption? Will our souls be saved, or shall we be doomed to perpetually suffer hell fires? Is there life after death that some religion like Hinduism professes? Or is our deaths the final closure of everything? That we end, not with a bang but with a feeble squeak?
Philosophers around the globe, across all times have pondered over these questions. Still, 10,000 years into human existence on planet earth, we are nowhere close to finding any definitive answer. All we do know for certain, is that one day we shall definitely perish and the most we could do is hope, we go with the least pain and suffering as possible.
So much for those that have left us forever and gone away! What of those of us that live and must live on regardless of how much it hurts us? What do we do with our thoughts about our beloved and our concerns regarding their fate after death? How do we come to terms with the inevitability of our mortality?
Many of us choose to deposit our worries with some form of idea of divine manifestation we like to call God. All discussions and debates about whether God exists or which religion to follow to reach Him with certainty, have only led to horrific fights and bloodshed throughout human history. In the contemporary times of globalization and multiculturalism, we have become more and more aware of other people and their ways of life. For the most part, we have evolved as a species by learning from one another, but in some cases, where politics and sectarianism have held sway, there has been and continues to be strife.
Ever wondered, why do we fight thus? Is it only to have and control more and more material resources? Or Perhaps there is a deeper insecurity that operates in our collective subconscious, that prompts us to violence? To protect against anything that tries to unsettle our traditionally cherished idea of a moral centre in the world? One would not be too far away from the truth if they were to look closely at the third possibility. We are always trying to control and bring meaning to the otherwise fluctuating world around us, that is in large parts governed by chance. Religion allows us to have that fixed centre to deposit the fears and anxieties that we cannot contain or control by ourselves.
As a system of social structure, Hinduism has survived over 3000 years. It shall be pointless to try underscoring its merits or draw comparisons with other faiths. It has its own share of internecine problems and contradictions just like every other faith, and so called empirical atheisms. Let us consider it to be just another system and try looking at one of its important contributions to the philosophy around death.
Lord Shiva and death happen to form one of the most important connection firstly due to Lord Shiva’s association with the role of the destroyer in the Hindu trinity but at a more deeper level, it talks of a certain understanding of the phenomenon of death that is unique. Just like other religions, it asks us to believe in a higher power in whom we shall all meld and find absolute benediction from, but when it comes to Lord Shiva, the philosophy turns more to this world than to the next. According to some Shaivite sects, the body is not something that ought to be chastised or neglected. It is seen as the medium through which we can experience all the wonders of the world. The sense organs come together and give us the ability to connect, even to our loved ones. We forget over time, that everybody we have ever known apart from ourselves belong to the world outside us. They are all products of the world that binds us to materiality.
This is exactly why Lord Shiva and his followers are said to frequent burning Ghats. They smear ash over their bodies and some sects known as the Aghoris are known to consume human cadavers. These are not mindless acts of barbarity. These are instead, the means to familiarize oneself with the grotesque realities of life. In our pursuit of pleasure and beauty, we forget that the ugly and the painful are as much part of existence. In our need to be loved, and in the comfort of the embrace of our loved ones, we become oblivious to the fact that it would be equally painful if we were to lose them.
One must remember always that Lord Shiva does not represent dwelling on the morbid parts and thoughts of life. He is also a householder with a wife and two sons. He is known to give vent to immense anger and pain, almost as much as he is known to be calm and dedicated in meditation and mercy.
Lord Shiva and death therefore represent a kind of philosophy that advocates constant reality checks in our lives. It keeps us aware of the dual existence of pleasure and pain. Meditations on Lord Shiva will not bring back our loved ones from their graves but it will help us to focus more on the good memories we had created with them or hoped to create. It would remind us that there really never is a ‘happily ever after’. It would grant us the fortitude to suffer bravely, not for the hopes of a fruitful return but for the attainment of a resignation that even we shall pass one day.
Immortality is achievable only when we manage to live life to the fullest. Being able to connect to and become one with the absolute realities of existence, allows for the true enlightenment of the mind. For all the remaining conflicts and loose ends, one can always look within to employ the Panchakshara Mantra and meditate on the ultimate truth of life- constant negotiations between the beautiful and the grotesque in all their varying Shades :
Om Namah Shivaya!
To understand the concept behind the Swarna Bhairava, one must first understand the significance of some of Lord Shiva’s forms known as ‘Bhairavas’. Translated literally, the expression means ‘frightful’ or terrible. Shiva is known to have appeared in the form of a Bhairav for the first time in order to punish Lord Brahma who had falsely claimed to Lord Vishnu that he was the supreme creator of the universe, commanding Lord Vishnu to pay obeisance to him. Shiva, in his rage has punished Brahma by decapitating one of Brahma’s five heads. As a result he incurred the sin of ‘Brahmhattya’ or the killing of a Brahmin, (which according to Hinduism is one of the worst possible crimes) and had to roam about in penance for twelve long years with the severed head of Brahma which slowly turned into a skull. Invoked at particular times of extreme rage, the Bhairava form of Shiva is known to bring about absolute destruction. Nevertheless, even this terrible form of Shiva plays the role of preserver. The most widely known example of protective Bhairava is attached to the legend of Sati. When Sati had immolated herself and Shiva resorted to dancing the Tandav Nritya Lord Vishnu had to break Lord Shiva’s trance. He did so by using his Sudarshan Chakra to dismember the burnt body of Sati, which fell down to earth in fifty two different places. Lord Shiva, upon regaining his composure posted a Bhairava at each of these site where shrines of Sati were erected. Shiva had decreed the Bhairava would protect the sites and the cities around it for all times to come.
The Swarna Bhairava is one such Bhairava that plays the role of a preserver even though it is unrelated to the legend of Sati. The Thantondreeswarar Temple in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu houses the deity Swarna Bhairava. In this form, Shiva, in the form of a Bhairava is seen sitting with Parvati who appears as a Bhairavi. He has two dogs as his divine vehicles or ‘Vahana’. Unlike the other Bhairavas, here Shiva carries in his hand the ‘Akshay Patra’ or the bowl of plenty that never runs out of food or riches. Devi Lakshmi- Goddess of plenty and Kuber- God of wealth attend on the couple. Special yajnas are performed every Asthami or the 8th day of the new moon with 16 ‘Kalasas’ or pots filled with water, which is used for the ‘Abhishekha’ of the deity followed by the worship of the holy cow.
In the Swarna Bhairava form Lord Shiva actively plays the role of the preserver, not in a metaphysical sense as he is usually wont to do, but in pure material terms instead.
The legend of Thantondreeswarar revolves around a yogi named Konganar from a place called Mathur, who had used herbs and alchemy to convert iron into gold. Konganar sought the help of Lord Shiva to improve his skills and was advised by the latter to worship Lord Bhairava in the Illupai jungle. Praying earnestly, he succeeded in his endeavour and the gold he produced was brighter than all gold. When however he tried to take the gold away, it sank into the earth and took the shape of a Shiva Linga that glowed with a brightness of its own. It indicates the deep philosophy that knowledge gained from Shiva cannot be used only for personal gain and that Lord Shiva can and does look after the material prosperity of all his devotees.
The appearance of the self luminous Linga prompted the devotees to worship it as ‘Swayam Prakaseswarar’- once again highlighting the fact that Lord Shankar did not have any beginning or end and operated as the ultimate master of His own will, serving the purpose of destruction or as in this case, creation and preservation, as he saw fit. Devotees pray in this shrine seeking material prosperity and good health. Those bitten by dogs also come here praying to be cured of the poison that afflicts them.