The Godhead in Hinduism is comprised of a trinity of divine forces – those of creation, sustenance and annihilation. Brahman  the Universal Essence embarks on creation through Brahma,  sustains it through Vishnu and dissolves it through Shiva. The created universe is called Brahmanda, the egg of Brahma the creator, or the cosmic egg. The Puranas have numerous legendary stories in respect of each of the major deities of the Hindu pantheon – colourful mythical tales that seek to project ethical norms and symbolic interpolations of metaphysical verities and philosophical insight to enable the common man to grasp the essence of Hindu thought and beliefs.

While Brahma has become more or less marginalized with only a single temple in India dedicated to him at Pushkar, an important pilgrimage spot in Rajasthan in North East India, Vishnu and Shiva over the ages became the major deities with large followings. sheshnag_vishnu_wb23smThe marginalization of Brahma became complete with his depiction as sitting on a lotus arisen from the naval of Vishnu. He thus became a subsidiary deity, reliant on Vishnu for his creation, leaving only two poles, that of Vishnu and Shiva as contenders. Creation then proceeds from the naval of Vishnu, much like an umbilical chord and the fetus is Brahma. Thereafter as a mother nurtures its offspring in the womb, Vishnu devotes himself to nurturing his creation, symbolized as Brahma. Brahma then proceeds to create primal beings (like the Biblical Adam) representative of the sense organs and the organs of action. but that is another story. Creation proceeds from the stem of the lotus from Vishnu’s naval, extending like an umblical chord with Brahma as the fetus in the lotus. Thereafter as the mother nurtures the fetus in the womb, Vishnu too devotes himself to nurturing and sustaining creation.

Vishnu and Shiva after the marginalization of Brahma, over the ages have become the major deities with large following. Those regarding Vishnu as the primal force are called Vaishnavites while those that regard Shiva as the primal creator are termed Shaivites. In modern times the distinction between the two sects have become eroded and generally Hindus worship both with equal ardour, though each individual may have an emotional preference to the form that appeals to him more. Ascetics and Tantriks are generally devotees of the informal and rustic deity Shiva. The Shakti sect of the goddess also finds common cause with Shiva since that cult arises from Shiva’s consort.

Despite his lonely slumber on the coils of the celestial serpent Shesh, deep in the cosmic ocean ( Sur Sagar ), contemplating the destiny of the created physical universe and material existence, he is not quite as remote as one may imagine. His incarnations on earth, the most popular being Rama and Krishna, bring him into intimate contact with living beings on the physical plane and help him experience every facet of their triumphs and woes, their trials and tribulations from which his Avatars are not exempt. Vishnu thus succeeds despite his remote transcendence to become an intimate god through his earthly incarnations. 






Shiva the great mystic god is in a category of his own. He remains otherworldly, secluded, unconcerned and virtually inaccessible in the remote reaches of the Himalayas at Mount Kailash, contemplating not the created world but the essence of reality and truth. He is the ultimate ascetic, muscular, white as the snows, unadorned and rustic, smeared with the ashes of abnegation, rather than the sweet smelling sandalwood paste of Vishnu’s romantic creativity. His eyes are closed in inward meditation and only to be disturbed or distracted from his depths at your peril.

197944_159650527425094_100526190004195_370094_3595663_n_thumbLegend has it that the god of love Kama Dev, defiantly sought to awaken him from his meditative trance with his seductive flower-arrows of love. The gods had deputed him on this risky and delicate mission to awaken Shiva to enable him to wed Nature incarnated as the goddess Parvati, daughter of the mountains. His blissful peace thus shattered he opened his third eye located between his brows in fury. Kama Dev perished, burnt to ashes by the destructive rays unleashed from the third eye, though he was later revived by the pleadings of the gods so that the world woulod not become bereft of love and romance necessary for procreation.



Mohenjodaro seal

The evolution of Shiva may also be seen in pre-Vedic India in the seals of the Indus Valley civilization where he is depicted as Pashupati, Lord of animals, around 2500 B.C. He is portrayed as an ascetic seated in Yogic posture with an erect phallus. He is surrounded by the figures of a tiger, a rhinoserous and a buffalo. Other seals depict a deity holding a trident accompanied by a bull.



The Greeks who came to India with Alexander in 300 B.C. noted similarities between Shiva and their god Dionysus. Both are associated with fertility, and protection of animals. Both are shown wearing animal skins and residing in the mountains and the forests. The bull, the snake and the phallus are common features in their portrayal. Both are priapic gods while the vine leaf is a favourite of Dionysus the Beil leaf is sacred for Shiva. Temperamentally also both are depicted as being alike – strident, abrupt and irritable.


Mahadev Rudra-002


Lord Shiva’s renunciation is absolute, his disinterest and disengagement, total. He is the monolith and epitome of primal energy, a one without the need of a second. In this state he is forever in bliss. His only adornments are the crescent moon on his hair knot,  the river Ganges bound in his locks flowing out into the Himalayas, and the cobra with open hood coiled around his neck, while other lesser cobras form anklets and bracelets. The beads of the sacred Himalayan berry the Rudraksh adorn his wrists and ankles. The Rudraksh when worn as a garland repels negative energies and takes its name from Rudra, his pristine Vedic manifestation as the fearsome howler and lord of the thunderbolt adorned by a garland of skulls – one who frequents cremation grounds as the extinguisher of life.


if-nataraja2He is also portrayed as the dynamic primal force of divinity Adideva engaged in the cosmic dance of cyclical creation and devolution, the Nataraj, lord of the cosmic dance (Tandav). The image of Nataraj is immensely symbolic. One hand holds a resonating rattle drum emphasizing the noisy and repetitive rhythms of material existence, complimented by the raised and revolving left leg again a symbol of the flux of nature ever on the move, forever changing, unstable and precarious. The left hand also moving to the right aligned with the left leg, points to it to indicate how ephemeral material existence is. The right hand rises just above it in the gesture (Mudra) of a blessing urging one not to fear the material instability and evolution of transient nature but to rise beyond it in introspection and meditation to attain enlightenment and bliss. That state is described in scriptures as Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Truth, Consciousness, Beauty or Sat-Chit-Anand, Truth-Consciousness-Bliss. The left side is the physical while the right is metaphysical. The movement of the left hand and foot towards the right signifies the importance of moving away from the physical towards the spiritual  Another hand holds the fire of introspection which can lead to enlightenment. It burns like a sun through its own force without need of any fuel. The right leg signifies the stability and solidity of the spiritual, planted firmly and unmoving, crushing the demon of the ego and illusion (Maya) , seeking to extinguish it. The fires of creation and dissolution blaze in a circle around Nataraj’s dynamic form. The intense activity of this force is highlighted by Shiva’s swirling locks and the rhythmic and graceful assertive movements of limbs at contradictory angles of the body.

At the cosmic level Shiva is engaged in the devolution of creation; at the personal level he symbolizes the destruction of the ego and the illusion of transitory existence (Maya) for the realization of the core, the soul or Atma, the transcendence from Prakriti (Nature) to Purush (Primal Essence of reality) which is reflected in the Self within. The imagery urges the devotee to press his spiritual leg firmly on that dwarfing illusion or ego to unveil the essence which is the Soul, the only truth. The devotee then seeks to look upon the complex symbolic representation in a trance aided by Sanskrit hymns that configure and hail the image. He glimpses the cardinal truth, poetically and metamorphically projected through the imagery and seeks to assimilate its meaning through introspection while worshiping this adorable dynamic form that reveals its secrets.

India is a land deeply devoted to symbolism. Numerous arms and heads with which Hindu deities are depicted, are not intended to create monstrous and fearsome entities but merely to emphasize additional attributes with a kind of poetic license. The many armed and headed images convey to the worshiper an entity with multiple capabilities and attributes symbolized by the objects held in the hands and the diverse expressions of each head. It is similar to allowing timing in a camera shot to get a skyfull of moons as the moon transits the heavens or to capture the movements of ones arms in a dance as multiple arms as they traverse a circle.


Sati_shiva_bishnu (1)Nature symbolized by the goddess however cannot leave this impersonal god of Yoga alone and must engage him, combining the male and female principles in divine union. The goddess also symbolizing the primal energy of creation then incarnated as Sati the daughter of Daksha the arrogant Lord of the Temporal realms. Her desire to marry the lonely God of the mountains was forcefully rejected by her father who considered Shiva as no more than a naked barbarian with a retinue of equally despicable tribals, gnomes and goblins, unfit for any alliance with his royal lineage. Sati defying him persisted and pursued  Shiva till he finally succumbed to her entreaties. Daksha however spurned and insulted the rustic God time and again till finally Sati unable to bear her husband’s humiliation at the hands of her father, immolated herself. Shiva’s anguish and fury knew no bounds and after decimating Daksha he carried her corpse inconsolable from place to place, unleashing havoc on the physical plane with his sorrow. When the very annhilation of the world was threatened, Vishnu intervened to save the world from his wrath. With his discus he dismembered the corpse casting its limbs far and wide, spots which today are revered as centres of energy (Shakti Sthals) for pilgrimage by worshipers. Shiva then stabilized and resumed his lonely meditations cutting himself off completely from the physical world as was his wont.

lord_shivas_familyBut the spirit of the goddess refused to give up her paramour and reincarnated as the daughter of the Himalayas, Parvati. We have already seen what happened to the god of love when he sought to awaken Shiva from his meditations to wed Parvati at the behest of the gods. Parvati was wary of repeating such a mistake and instead sought to woo him by herself undertaking severe penances and austerities finally impressing him with her single minded resolve and dedication. Their union produced two sons, Kartik and ganesh. Kartik became renowned as a slayer of demonic forces that had been plaguing the demi-gods and he became their commander-in-chief whiloe Ganesh, the elephant headed god became the most popular deity of the Hindu pantheon, the remover of all obstacles and the one to be worshiped before all in any ritual prayer. The shaivite family are worhipped in temples across the land. ardhnareshwar2Shiv and Parvati were then conjoined as a single principle of metaphysical reality in the form of Ardhnareshwar, half male and half female running down the middle. the remote primal essence no longer separated from its natural physical counterpart.

shiva poison







Shiva also has a phosphorescent blue throat and is therefore called Neelkanth. This derives from the pot of poison he consumed to save the world from its toxic effect when the poison emerged from the churning of the cosmic ocean by the gods and the Titans in a celestial tug of war. The churning produced many exquisite objects including the elixir of immortality, the goddess Laxmi, the white elephant Airavat and many jewels. Vishnu claimed Laxmi as his consort, Indra the premier demi-god took Airavat as his steed, the nectar of immortality was shared by all the gods after denying the Titans an equal share. Shivathe mediator of the churning exercise wanted nothing for himself but when no one claimed the deadlypot of poison he volunteered to consume it lest it percolted into the cosmos destroying creation. The poison was confined in his throat and he thereby heroically saved the world from apocalypse but acquired a blue throat.


Also emerging from the cosmic ocean was Chandra, the Moon, who had been banished there, his radiance diminishing every moment till all that was left of him was a crescent. Daksha the overlord of the temporal realms had once again proved himself to be an infamous father-in-law. We have already seen how his humiliation of Shiva had led to his daughter Sati’s suicide through self-immolation ( the word Sati later came to be synonymous with the heinous Hindu upper caste practice of immolation on the pyre of a widow’s husband). Chandra had wed all Daksha’s remaining 27 daughters represented by asterisms, called Nakshatras, around the Zodiac. His preference for only one, Rohini, to the neglect of all the others had incensed Daksha who in characteristic manner cursed his son-in-law Chandra to lose all his radiance.. On emerging from the churning of the cosmic ocean Chandra besieged Shiva to absolve him of the curse. Shiva well known as Ashotosh or one easily moved, took pity on Chandra and placed him on his head. Thus all portrayals of Shiva show him adorned with a crescent Moon. Chandra thus honoured by the primal lord succeeded in having the curse modified. Henceforth he would wax and wane over the month. Having learnt his lesson , now Chandra spends a night with each of his wives, waxing as he approaches his favourite Rohini and waning as he moves away from her. On no-Moon night he is with no wife but on the night before that he is a crescent and in dedication to Lord Shiva for having saved him, that night is celebrated as Shiv Ratri or the night of Shiva when prayers are addressed to him.



Lord Ayyappa

When the elixir of immortality emerged the Titans grasped it as theirs. Lord Vishnu then assumed the form of a divine damsel of unequalled beauty to charm and outwit them. She succeeded in stealing the pot from them giving it to the gods. The beauteous form of Mohini aroused great passion in Shiva who unable to resist her charm embraced her and from his spilt semen arose Lord Ayyappa, worshiped in Kerala in the South. Ayyappa is regarded as the unlikely issue of Shiva and Vishnu ( as Mohini). At Sabarmalai a temple built in his honour has become one of the great pilgrimage spots of South India where the sects devoted to Shiva and Vishnu have a common product of the two streams of Hinduism to worship.






Amarnath Kashmir

Generally Shiv temples do not focus on portraying the ascetic god in anthropomorphic terms. Rather, the Sanctum Sanctorum at the heart of the temple has an abstract portrayal of him as a primordial phallus (Linga) arising from a Vagina (Yoni). The phallus and Vagina represent the creative force of the universe. The temple phallus is generally a monolithic rock discovered in a river bed or elsewhere, a crystal or as in the famed temple of Amarnath in Kashmir as an icicle which grows with the waxing of the Moon into a gigantic icy phallic shape, fluctuating with the seasons. Hundreds of thousands flock each year for pilgrimage to the shrine when the form has reached its apex. This phallic worship appears contradictory to the depiction of Shiva as an ascetic god who is devoid of desire or any inclination whatsoever for physical and therefore sexual contact. For the uninitiated it becomes a popular misconception that he is an erotic deity. Nothing could be further from the truth as we have already seen how he reacted to Kama Dev’s provocations to arouse his lust. Paradoxically therefore, the erect phallus in worship does not signify lust – rather quite the contrary  The auto erotic phallus in ascetic and Tantrik tradition, arises from no external stimuli, rather it is evidence of deep states of meditative euphoria involving a contrary flow of semen in the reverse direction ( inwards as against outwards) when one glimpses metaphysical truth, consciousness and bliss ( Sat-Chit-Anand). The phallus in worship represents such a form, the product of the arousal of metaphysical truth, consciousness and bliss which is the opposite of physical desire, lust and pleasure. The worship  of the phallus is a metaphysical exercise for bliss rather than any physical indulgence for pleasure. One may well call it a sublimation of sex. Shiva in the ultimate analysis is the antithesis of carnal desire, the obverse of lust, the very transcendence of love.

In the 19th century European theologists and intellectuals were appalled and shocked by what appeared to them to be the barbaric practice of phallic worship. Hindu intellectuals and sages like Vivekanand when confronted by criticism and condemnation at the Paris conference of world religions of such practices, sought to present a defence. Christian puritanical mores of the 19th century did not allow for any acceptance or theological justification and explanation for the practice. Thinkers like Vivekananda and Shivananda then resorted to denial that the Lingam represented the phallus and explained that in Vedic times it was the practice to erect sacrificial pillars (Sthambas) representing the Divine Essence, Brahman and it was only later that these pillars came to to be represented as an abstract symbol for Lord Shiva.

According to some thinkers the Linga and Yoni symbolize the eternal union between the static and dynamic aspects of absolute reality, the communion between the masculine and feminine principles from which all physical diversity originates. Shiva is the static changeless essence while Shakti is the dynamic ever changing power that produces the phenomenal world. The symbolism of Linga and Yoni in fact help the devotee to rid himself/herself of all sexual thought in a sublimation of sex. Devotees as far as I know never contemplate the sexual when they worship the Linga.


Shiva is also portrayed as naked, totally uninhibited, simple, asocial,unconcerned with cultural sophistication, etiquette and ritual , with no awareness of shame, egoless  and not the least self conscious.He therefore appears naked, except for a tiger skin around his girdle. These qualities and apparel make his followers call him the simple lord, the divine simpleton (Bholenath). Devotees sing and dance with unrestrained ecstasy and passion to the beating of rhythmic rattle drums and symbols with wafting clouds of incense smoke, to invoke such a primal god, in the process themselves losing all vestiges of culture, social inhibitions, taboos and self consciousness, like the Lord they adore, admire and love, step by step allowing the ego to slip away in a frenzy of detachment. In several Shiva festivals, marijuana is freely consumed to allow a metaphysical ‘high’, as devotees pour urns of water and milk on the Lingum bedecked with toxic Arka flowers (milkweed) and Bail leaves of the wood apple tree and the poisonous Dhatura nut, all sacred offerings to Lord Shiva, wild and toxic matching his unorthodox nature, the nature of the universal essence. Through the glow of ritual and worship, song and dance, arises resplendent the Linga to paradoxically banish their lust and inhibitions alike and raise them to a more enlightened state, devoid of ego.


painting by Swaroop Roy