With his matted hair, trident, third eye, tiger skin loin cloth, did I mention TRIDENT, snake around his shoulders… Shiva appears different, fierce, more edgy and unpredictable from many other gods and goddesses introduced to us through the Vedic culture.
Shiva is known as the god of destruction and also the cosmic dancer – under the supervision and maintenance of Vishnu, Brahma cyclically creates the material universe and Shiva destroys it. Shiva has many names and the one that addresses his cosmic dance of destruction is Nataraja, ‘the king of dance’. Through his various names we can get a good glimpse into his personality and we’ll go into that in a minute. Or just skip the next part and jump to the names, if it gets too techy for your taste here ;)
The only living being in Shiva-Tattva
As far as Shiva’s position in the ‘hierarchy’ of gods and goddesses goes, Shiva is in an interesting position that’s described as a kind of an in-between position in the Vedic scriptures, known as Shiva-tattva. He is neither in the supreme highest god category of Vishnu-tattva (although Shiva certainly is worshipped as such by many) nor is he on the same ‘level’ with other demigods and goddesses such as Saraswati or Ganesha. There’s an analogy of milk turning into curd when ummm.. something’s done to the milk (sorry I can’t remember the details nor am any kind of milk expert as a vegan, lol). Let me quote Brahma-Samhita to make sense out of this:
When milk is transformed by acids into yogurt, the yogurt is neither the same as nor different from the milk. I adore the primeval Lord Govinda [Krishna, Vishnu], of whom Lord Shiva is a transformation for performing the work of destruction.Brahma-Samhita 5.45
So Lord Shiva is intimately connected with and even dependent upon his relationship to Vishnu. But he is his own person, in his own category of existence, and no one else is trusted into this position with the responsibility of ultimate material destruction.
Now, let’s look deeper into Shiva’s personality.
Shiva is in constant meditation
Wearing matted locks of disheveled hair, and eager to conceal his actual nature, he staggers about like a madman. On his head he happily carries the Ganges, which has washed the lotus feet of Lord Krishna. When he dances he destroys the universe.Brihad-Bhagavatamrita
Yes, according to the Vedas, the Ganges actually flows from the galaxy first down on Shiva’s head, who is situated in the Himalayas, and only then down on earth. Because of this Shiva is the greatest yogi (hence his name Mahayogi, ‘the great yogi’), in constant meditation on Krishna (who’s ‘above’ Shiva in the Vishnu-tattva, Shiva-tattva philosophical situation we discussed earlier).
svapne jagarane sasvath krishna dhyana ratah shivah
“Sleeping or awake, Siva is constantly absorbed in meditation on Krishna.”
—Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Prakriti Khanda 2.56.61
sri rama rama rameti rame rame manorame
sahasra nama tat tulyam rama nama varanane
Lord Shiva speaking to his wife Parvati: “O Delight of my heart, o beautiful-faced lady! I myself constantly enjoy the supreme bliss chanting the divine name of my beloved as ‘Sri Rama, Sri Rama’ which is equal to reciting one thousand names of Lord Vishnu, Sriman Narayana.”
—Brihad Vishnu Sahasra Nama Stotra, Padma Purana, Uttara Khanda 72.335
As a side note, all husbands and boyfriends, please call your beloved ‘delight of my heart’ and ‘beautiful-faced’ asap and forever — sounds so lovely. I could get used to it (hint hint wink wink nudge nudge Daniel if you’re reading this). #ilovesanskritpoetry
Lord of the Ghosts – explain please!
Another name of Shiva is Asutosha, ‘easily pacified’. This means that Shiva also gets angry easily. That’s why worshiping Shiva can be tricky business. Better be careful and not wish or pray for something you can’t handle.
He is also known as Bhutanatha, ‘the lord of ghosts’. This shows Shiva’s super compassionate nature. In case you didn’t know, ghosts are real. Grossly generalized and simplified, there are people whose activities were so ignorant or degraded that after death they do not karmically qualify for another human body, so they stick around. Not in their physical bodies obviously, but disembodied, or in their “astral” body. Shiva sees the sad situation of these ghostly individuals and allows them to worship him so they can be gradually guided toward a path of self-realization. He’s kind to the ghosts and eventually places them in human wombs. (As another side note, before you make babies, make a prayer or two to have a nice soul be placed into your/your lady’s womb.)
Shiva apparently lives in the mode of ignorance like his companions (covers his body with ashes, wears animal skins) but inside he’s on the highest platform of goodness. That’s why he’s bewildering to the mundane and inspiring to the transcendentalist.
Shiva lives on the Kailash mountain
“There are many waterfalls, and in the mountains there are many beautiful caves in which the very beautiful wives of the mystics are found. On Kailash Hill there is always the rhytmical sound of the peacocks’ sweet vibrations and the bees’ humming. Cuckoos are always singing, and other birds whisper amongst themselves.”
Beautiful!! In the above image, you can see Shiva with his family – wife Parvati, and sons Ganesha and Kartikeya, in their home at Kailash mountain. Kailash mountain (below) has significance not just in the Vedic religion but Buddhism and Jainism as well.
The answer Rudra, my friend, is blowing in the wind
Another name of Shiva is Rudra. Rudra is a fierce and powerful aspect of Shiva. You can feel Rudra’s spirit when you get angry or when it’s very windy out. It’s the Rudra principle acting. Stormy sea water or blazing fire are also representations of Rudra. Animals like snake, lion and tiger are representations of rudra. Qualities like austerity and fury, too. Heatstrokes or freezing are Rudra. You can get in-depth about Rudra by reading this and the couple following passages from Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Shakti—Shiva’s divine love & feminine energy
Shiva-Ratri is the biggest Shiva celebration of the Hindu calendar year of devotional festivals. It celebrates the convergence of Shiva and the feminine divine energy Shakti, the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. Above Shiva instructs her. I just love that picture. Shiva’s feminine energy is also known as Durga, Kali, Uma, and Devi. Shakti means ‘power’ or ’empowerment’ – the primordial cosmic energy, the dynamic force moving through the universe, the creative power, the Divine Mother.
Shiva devotees have a clay marking of three horizontal lines on their foreheads like Shiva has in the painting above. Shaivites also wear and meditate with mala or meditation beads known as rudraksha mala. Rudraksha literally means ‘eyes of Rudra’ and the beads are made with seeds of a tree known as rudraksha (Elaeocarpus ganitrus). You can see rudraksha beads around the neck of the sadhu below. It’s not uncommon for sadhus to imitate the appearance of Shiva, the greatest yogi – also, siddhis or supernatural powers achieved through a mystical yogic practice are believed to reside in one’s hair. Therefore the long dreads.