What is Shiva best known for ?
Lord Shiva, known as the destroyer and the protector, is the third member of the Hindu trinity or Trimurti that includes Brahma the creator and Vishnu the preserver. Shiva, whose name translates to “the auspicious one” from Sanskrit, is viewed as a positive force that destroys ignorance and evil. This destruction of evil clears the way for renewal and growth and this ensures the cycle of life.
One of the most complex gods in the Hindu pantheon, Shiva takes many, often paradoxical, forms. As the god of the yogis, Shiva takes on the role of an ascetic, dressed in leopard skin, covered in ash, with matted hair – rid of all material comforts – deep in meditation on top of the Mount Kailasha in the Himalayas. When he takes on the role of a householder, Shiva has a consort, Parvati, with whom he has two sons – Ganesha, the remover of all obstacles; and Skanda, or Kartikeya, the commander-in-chief of the army of the Devas.
There are many stories and anecdotes that help us understand the protective nature of this Supreme Being. In the many images of Shiva, the water flowing from his hair is a representation of the River Ganga. Ganga was considered a Goddess in Hindu mythology, who according to legend, descended from the heavens and caused torrential floods on the earth. To protect all living beings from the wrath of the Ganga and to allow them to reap the benefits of the River’s purifying waters, Shiva offered to serve as a conduit for Ganga.
During the ‘Samundra Manthan‘ or the churning of the cosmic oceans, the Gods discovered a poison, called halaa-hala. This poison was said to be so toxic that it had the power to wipe out all of creation. On Lord Vishnu’s advice, the worried Gods prayed to Shiva for help and protection. Ever compassionate and merciful, Shiva drank all the poison and contained it in his throat by binding it with a snake, saving all living creation. The poison turned his throat blue but left him unharmed – thus Shiva also came to be known as Neelakantha or the one with the blue throat.
The most popular representation of Shiva shows him with a snake coiled around Shiva’s neck, which represents kundalini or the spiritual energy of life. In this form, he holds a trident, which symbolises his power to destroy ignorance and evil. The three prongs of the trident stand for Shiva’s fundamental powers – will, action and wisdom. Shiva also holds a ‘Dumroo’ or drum that resonates with the sound ‘Om’ – the universal sound of creation in Vedic philosophy.
Shiva is also represented as the lord of dance – Nataraja. This representation of Shiva portrays him dancing in a ring of flames atop the back of a demon named Apasmara-Purusha, who symbolizes sloth, ignorance and evil thoughts. This dance symbolizes the rhythm of the universe along with the two intertwined cycles of creation and destruction that represent life.
His various depictions propagate balance and harmony. They teach one the importance of the life cycle and how one must understand and respect it in order to co-exist harmoniously with nature, society and the universe. All that has a beginning must have an end – through Shiva’s powers nothing is truly destroyed except the illusion of individuality. His transformative and purifying powers pave the way for a better reality – a beautiful new beginning along with new opportunities. As the god who constantly meditates and lives as a simple ascetic, Shiva searches and strives for a universe in perfect harmony and balance. While best known as the destroyer, Shiva truly represents hope, transformation and goodness.