Maha Shivratri 2017: Shiva is a cultural symbol synthesised from influences over thousands of years

He is un-manifest and yet he has manifest himself for millennia in literature and philosophy, in art and sculpture, in dance and in music. He is the Adiyogi — the first among the yogis…an ascetic and yet he is the perfect family man and a celebrated lover. He destroys and yet he protects. It is perhaps impossible for the devotee to comprehend the incomprehensible Shiva.

But that does not prevent the devotee from trying, that is the devotee’s right and that is the devotee’s duty. In the bhaktas quest for comprehending the incomprehensible, the nirakaara (formless) is given myriad forms — becomes sakaara. From the rishi (seer) to the poet, from the painter to the sculptor, from the musician to the lay devotee — Shiva has been variously visualised, eulogised and internalised. This note brings together some of the popular forms and stories (in no particular order) of he who is the Mahadeva – the greatest of all Gods.

Shiva (as Sadashiva in Padmasana) with his family in Pahari Style. Image Courtesy: National Museum

Shiva (as Sadashiva in Padmasana) with his family in Pahari Style. Image Courtesy: National Museum

Lingodbhava Shiva

The story is narrated thus. The universe as we know it had not been created. There were dark waters all around. Vishnu and Brahma were fighting with each other over who was superior. While they were quarreling, a pillar of light appeared in front of them. This resplendent column of light was expanding and it seemed to fill all that was and it seemed infinite. To settle their fight for supremacy, Brahma and Vishnu decided to find the ends of this limitless pillar. The first to locate either end, would be declared superior. Brahma took the form of a gander and flew above to look for the upper end while Vishnu assumed the form of a boar and dived deep down to search for the bottom. Needless to say, neither succeeded.

This pillar of flaming light was the limitless Shiva who manifested himself in the form of a linga (the word implies a sign or a mark in the Svetasvatara Upanishad). The linga is Shiva’s most enduring icon and most popular form in which he is worshipped even in contemporary times.

This story is an allegory of sorts.

The nirakaara Shiva may not be within the reach of lay mortals but if the search of the bhakta is true and pure, there will be light and Shiva will manifest in front of her. This ever expanding, infinite column of light signifies movement, there is no stillness. There is movement from not knowing — darkness (agyaana) to knowing — light (gyaana). The infinite column is also reminiscent of the infinite light that pervades this cosmos. It also provides an alternative explanation to the often debated origin of linga worship.

Shiva Pashupati

Seal 420 or the Pashupati Seal - Mohenjodaro. Image Courtesy: National Museum

Seal 420 or the Pashupati Seal - Mohenjodaro. Image Courtesy: National Museum

If one were to agree with John Marshal’s identification of Seal 420 excavated at Mohenjodaro, it is our earliest encounter with Pashupati – the Lord of the Animals (the seal can be reliably dated to at least 4000 years ago). In the Maitrayani Samhita of the Krishna Yajurveda, we encounter a story where a frightened Prajapati proclaims that henceforth Rudra (here in the form of an archer) would be ‘pashunam pati’. Shiva as he is worshipped today is Pashupati. He is ever accompanied by Nandi (the feisty bull) and his popular iconographic forms include snakes around his neck or the linga.

However, are we all not pashus (animals) bound by pashas (fetters) to our objects of desire? It is believed that once the bhakta surrenders to Pashupati, he liberates the devotee from the animal within, he removes the chains of maya (worldliness) that bind the bhakta. The devotee set free from her fetters then sees the Shiva within — that is the sublime symbolism of Pashupati.


Lingodbhava Shiva Sculpture. Wikimedia Commons

Lingodbhava Shiva Sculpture. Wikimedia Commons

In their greed for amrita (ambrosia), the devas and the asuras churned the mighty ocean for over a thousand years with Mount Meru as the churning rod and the great serpent Vasuki as the rope. As the churning went on with great vehemence, a burning mass of poison which seemed to engulf the entire universe, the terrible Kalakuta (also Halahala) emerged from the depths of the ocean (or was emitted by Vasuki). The venomous fumes threatened to destroy the cosmos with their force. It was at this point that at the behest of Brahma and in order to protect life, the great Lord – swallowed the mass of Kalakuta. He held the poison in his throat and this left a blue mark on the throat of the beautiful god.

He became Neelakantha — the one with the blue throat.

Kala signifies both the colour black and time. Like Shiva swallowed the black poison to protect the destruction; at the end of time, he – the Mahakala, will also swallow time itself. The churning of the ocean is also a metaphor of the churning of time itself. When one churns for immortality, one also churns death. That is the timeless truth and only the Mahakala can transcend kala. The halahala is born of incessant greed, it is born of desire and attachment. That is the real poison that bothers Neelkantha and he holds out a promise to the mortal of helping transcend this poison of desire and attachment.

Shiva and his family (Kartikheya is missing) – Raja Ravi Verma print. Image Courtesy: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Shiva and his family (Kartikheya is missing) – Raja Ravi Verma print. Image Courtesy: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Shiva is the Maheshwara. As the cosmic dancer, he is engaged in the endless dance of time and his five-fold activities of creation (sarga), maintenance (stithi), annihilation (samhara), removal (tirobhava) and blessing or liberation (anugraha). As the Adiyogi, he has conquered desire and time. The stories and manifestations of the Mahadeva are infinite. Shiva as we know and worship him today is also a cultural symbol who is a synthesis of multiple manifestations and influences over thousands of years.

His infinite manifestations are but an exhortation to the believer to find the Shiva within and become a true yogi. His syncretic nature is but a reminder of his ever expanding form and his infinite capacity to absorb and to reinvent endlessly.

Author’s Note: Each of the stories mentioned above have many versions and variations and are multilayered. Relevant parts have been retold here as illustrations only. The same holds true for the ruminations. The note draws from multiple sources, both primary and secondary and acknowledges its debt to them. The note is note intended to be comprehensive does not touch upon the vast world of Saiva philosophical systems. Also the forms of Shiva as a householder and his various manifestations with Parvati among others are conspicuous by their absence.
We have appended a short list of references from whom the work draws upon and which may be of interest to the reader for further exploration.

Kramrisch, Stella (2007 Reprint). The Presence of Siva. MLBD, New Delhi.
Lingapurana. Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
Mahulikar, Gauri (2000). Vedic Elements in Puranic Mantras and Rituals. Nag Publishers, New Delhi.
Sankshipt Shiva Purana. Gita Press, Gorakhphur.
Skanda Purana. Gita Press, Gorakhphur

Garima is an independent business consultant, mentors startups and is an Indic Studies enthusiast.

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Updated Date: Feb 24, 2017 09:45:23 IST

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