Shiva | (2024)





Alternate Names


Appears In

The Vedas



Character Overview

Shiva, the destroyer, is one of the three supreme gods in Hindu mythology. The other two are Brahma (pronounced BRAH-muh), the creator, and Vishnu (pronounced VISH-noo), the preserver. Shiva's destructive powers are terrifying, but they also have a positive side in that destruction usually leads to new forms of existence. In art, Shiva is often portrayed with four arms, five faces, and three eyes. A glance from the third eye in the center of his forehead has the power to destroy anything in creation, including humans and gods. In the Vedas, a collection of ancient sacred texts, Shiva is identified with the storm god Rudra (pronounced ROOD-ruh).

Major Myths

According to one myth, Shiva first appeared when Brahma and Vishnu were arguing about which of them was more powerful. Their argument was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a great blazing pillar whose roots and branches extended beyond view into the earth and sky. Brahma became a goose and flew up to find the top of the pillar, while Vishnu turned into a boar and dug into the earth to look for its roots. Unsuccessful in their search, the two gods returned and saw Shiva emerge from an opening in the pillar. Recognizing Shiva's great power, they accepted him as the third ruler of the universe.

Shiva is a complex god with many roles and powers. In the natural cycle of creation and destruction, Shiva represents destruction, out of which a new creation will be born. He has many postures, from the seated ascetic (one who lives a life of self-denial) to the dancing Shiva. As ascetic, Shiva sits in a meditative pose. He has matted hair, from which flow the sacred waters of the Ganges (pronounced GAN-jeez) River, and wears a garland of snakes around his neck, symbolizing his control over physical desires. Despite his destructiveness, Shiva can be helpful to humans and other gods. He acts as a divine judge who shows no mercy to the wicked. He gains spiritual strength from periods of meditation— deep thought—in the Himalayas (pronounced him-uh-LAY-uhz), a mountain range on India's northern border. When he dances, he represents truth, and by dancing he banishes ignorance and helps relieve the suffering of his followers. According to one myth, Shiva saved the gods and the world from destruction by swallowing the poison of Vasuki (pronounced VUH-soo-kee), a serpent the gods used to produce the water of life. Drinking the poison made Shiva's neck blue, and he is often shown that way in art.

One of Shiva's greatest services to the world was to tame the sacred Ganges River, which flows from the Himalayas. At one time, the Ganges passed only through the heavens, leaving the earth dry. After a wise man changed the course of the river, it became a raging torrent and threatened to flood the earth. Shiva stood beneath the river and let its waters wind through his hair to calm its flow.

In another story, the gods were threatened by demons and asked Shiva for help. He agreed—on the condition that the gods lend him some of their own strength. After defeating the demons, however, Shiva refused to return the borrowed strength. As a result, he became the most powerful being in the universe. Shiva also has many weapons that make him unbeatable, including a club with a skull on the end, a sword and spear made from thunderbolts, and a bow made from a rainbow.

Shiva in Context

The many forms of Shiva reflect a combination of different religious traditions throughout India that span many centuries. Rudra, for instance, is a form that pre-dates Shiva and emphasizes the god's status as a bringer of storms. Two other forms of Shiva—as the Teacher and as the Lord of Dance—both originated in southern India and continue to be popular there. Shiva in the form of a lingam—or phallus, symbolizing procreation—likely originated in northern India or Pakistan, which was once part of India.

Shiva's Consorts: Parvati, Durga, and Kali

Most Hindu gods have a female consort, or wife, who complements the powers of the male god. Shiva's consort is Parvati, a benign mother goddess. But Parvati has many other forms. As Durga, she is an armed warrior goddess who rides a lion and slays Mahisha, the Buffalo Demon. As Kali, the fierce dark goddess beloved in Bengal, she comes to Durga's aid and slays Raktabija, a demon who has the ability to reproduce himself each time a drop of his blood touches the ground.

According to myth, Durga battles Raktabija but cannot kill him because each time she wounds him, another demon appears where his blood touched the earth. In need of help, Durga calls on Kali, who destroys the demon by sucking the blood from his wounded body before it can touch the ground. Kali then begins her furious dance upon the corpses of the slain demons and accidentally steps on her own husband, Shiva, lying on the ground. She stops her dance of death only when she hears Shiva's screams, which calm her.

Key Themes and Symbols

As with many Hindu deities, Shiva's various forms and myths cover a wide range of themes that reflect his varied character. In many instances, Shiva is closely associated with destruction. This is illustrated by the devastating power of his third eye, his arsenal of weapons, and the necklace of skulls he is often shown to be wearing. His association with storms also reflects the theme of destruction. However, Shiva is also linked to the theme of change, which can be positive or negative. In particular, he is associated with teaching, especially the teaching of yoga and music.

Shiva in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Shiva is portrayed in many forms throughout Hindu art. His most recognized form is as the Lord of Dance, which shows him poised in the middle of a dance of creation and destruction, surrounded by a circle of flames. Shiva is also often shown in meditation, a reflection of his status as the teacher of yoga and meditation. In this pose, he is shown with long matted hair wrapped in a swirl or bun, with a crescent moon on his head, holding a trident and a drum, and seated on a tiger skin. Like many other figures from mythology, Shiva has lent his name to an asteroid, and his name is also invoked in the Shiva Hypothesis, an attempt to explain the periodic mass extinctions that have been observed in the fossil record.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Shiva's Fire (2000) by Suzanne Fisher Staples tells the tale of a girl named Parvati—the name of Shiva's wife according to myth—who discovers she has extraordinary abilities that seem to be accessed through dancing. Parvati travels from the poor, small village where she was born to attend dance school in the bustling city of Madras, beginning a journey of discovery, identity, and her connection to the Lord of Dance. Author Staples received a Newbery Honor for a previous book, Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (1989).

SEE ALSO Brahma; Hinduism and Mythology; Vishnu

Shiva | (2024)


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