In our discussion of the Indus Valley civilization we encountered the figure of the meditating horned man, who many identified as Shiva. Shiva also has connections with the Vedic tradition as the god Rudra, who was also called “the howler”. Today, Shiva is at the center of one of the three most prominent religions within the Hindu family of religions. Shaivism is the name of this religion and its followers as known as “Shaivites”. The other two major religions are focused on Vishnu and the Goddess.
The iconography and mythology of Shiva depict him as an extremely paradoxical and immensely complex deity. He is both the destroyer and creator of the universe. In Hinduism, the world itself undergoes birth, death and rebirth. Different gods are associated with different functions in cosmic creation and destruction.
Shiva is movement and tranquility. Light and darkness. Male and female. Celibate and promiscuous. One scholar in fact calls him the “erotic ascetic”. He afflicts with illness and yet he is the physician that possesses a thousand medicines. He is wild but he is compassionate.
These paradoxes serve to symbolize the limitlessness and freedom of the divine. They also suggest that the kinds of things that we might ordinarily consider oppositions are in fact closer than we might think. Destruction must precede creation. Birth comes before death, which leads again to birth.
The Images of Shiva
Three prominent images of Shiva illustrate this theology: Shiva as a meditating yogi, as lord of the dance or Nataraja and then as the half-woman lord.
The great yogi image accents Shiva’s ascetic aspect. It provides a model for many Shaivites who seek to practice asceticism. Shiva is depicted here in a meditating posture. His eyes are half-shut to the world, suggesting that he is in the world but no of it. He wears wild animals skins, emblematic of his primal energy. His home is in the Himalayas.
He carries a trident that represents control over mind, body and intellect. Around his neck is a tamed cobra symbolizing his triumph over the ego, because the ego, like the serpent, harasses us with desires. In the top of his hair lies the goddess Ganga. From here, the river Ganges flows softly to earth, suggesting Shiva’s compassionate nature.
The Nataraja is one of the best known images of this Hindu deity. The image depicts Shiva’s cosmic dance during the auspicious occasion of the Maha Shivaratri, the great night of Shiva. Shiva dances the night away dispelling the ignorance of the night. Now, the ascetic yogi is a dancer. He dances wild and free as indicated by his flying hair, but his face is tranquil and composed. His forearms indicate his great power, and each of them expresses a meaningful gesture. In one hand he holds a dhamaru (a two-headed drum). In the other he holds a flame. With the drum he sounds the world into existence. With the flame he destroys it in order to create another.
One hand is upraised in a gesture that tells the devotee to fear not. The other hand points down to the uplifted foot, where the devotee may find refuge. It is an invitation to approach. His feet also make significant gestures. With a planted foot he crushes the demon of ignorance and sin. The lifted foot symbolizes his freedom from the world. Surrounding the entire image is a ring of fire.This is Samsara, the phenomenal world.
One final image of Shiva illustrates his endogenous nature. All the great gods of Hinduism have their essential female counterpart. This female aspect of the divine is depicted in a variety of ways. One of the more interesting ways is illustrated in the image of Shiva as the half-woman lord. In it, Shiva’s endogeny is shown as a single individual with male and female halves. Such an image suggests the all-encompassing nature of the divine. It reminds one of the limitations of anything in human experience to capture it.