Brahma is the creator of the universe while Vishnu is the preserver of it. Shiva’s role is to destroy the universe in order to re-create it.
Hindus believe his powers of destruction and recreation are used even now to destroy the illusions and imperfections of this world, paving the way for beneficial change. According to Hindu belief, this destruction is not arbitrary, but constructive. Shiva is therefore seen as the source of both good and evil and is regarded as the one who combines many contradictory elements.
Shiva is known to have untamed passion, which leads him to extremes in behavior. Sometimes he is an ascetic, abstaining from all worldly pleasures. At others he is a hedonist.
It is Shiva’s relationship with his wife, Parvati which brings him balance. Their union allows him to be an ascetic and a lover, but within the bounds of marriage.
Hindus who worship Shiva as their primary god are members of the Shaivism sect.
What does Shiva look like?
In his representations as a man, Shiva always has a blue face and throat. Strictly speaking his body is white, but images often show him with a blue body too.
Shiva is represented with the following features:
- A third eye
The extra eye represents the wisdom and insight that Shiva has. It is also believed to be the source of his untamed energy. On one occasion, when Shiva was distracted in the midst of worship by the love god, Kama, Shiva opened his third eye in anger. Kama was consumed by the fire that poured forth, and only returned to life when Parvati intervened.
- A cobra necklace
This signifies Shiva’s power over the most dangerous creatures in the world. Some traditions also say that the snake represents Shiva’s power of destruction and recreation. The snake sheds its skin to make way for new, smooth skin.
- The vibhuti
The vibhuti are three lines drawn horizontally across the forehead in white ash. They represent Shiva’s all pervading nature, his superhuman power and wealth. Also, they cover up his powerful third eye. Members of Shaivism often draw vibhuti lines across their forehead.
- The trident
The three pronged trident represents the three functions of the Hindu triumvirate.
While other gods are depicted in lavish surroundings, Shiva is dressed in simple animal skin and in austere settings, usually in a yogic position. Parvati, whenever she is present, is always at the side of Shiva. Their relationship is one of equality.
Even though Shiva is the destroyer, he is usually represented as smiling and tranquil.
Shiva is sometimes represented as half man, half woman. His figure is split half way down the body, one half showing his body and the second half that of Parvati’s.
Shiva is also represented by Shiva linga. This is a phallic statue, representing the raw power of Shiva and his masculinity. Hindus believe it represents the seed of the universe, demonstrating Shiva’s quality of creation. Worshipers of Shiva celebrate Mahashivratri, a festival at which the Shiva linga is bathed in water, milk and honey and worshiped.
Who is he linked with?
Shiva’s consort is Devi, the Mother-goddess. Devi has taken on many forms in the past, including Kali, the goddess of death, and Sati, the goddess of marital felicity. Her best known incarnation is Parvati, Shiva’s eternal wife.
Hindus believe Shiva and Parvati live in the Kailash mountains in the Himalayas.
Lord of the dance
Dance is an important art form in India, and Shiva is believed to be the master of it. He is often called the Lord of Dance. The rhythm of dance is a metaphor for the balance in the universe which Shiva is believed to hold so masterfully.
His most important dance is the Tandav. This is the cosmic dance of death, which he performs at the end of an age, to destroy the universe.
According to one Hindu legend, Shiva almost signalled the end of this universe by performing this dangerous dance before its time. This is the story.
One day, the father of the goddess Sati decided to hold a prayer ceremony. At this prayer ceremony, all the gods would be invited and offerings would be made to them.
But Shiva had married Sati against the wishes of her father and he was not invited. Sati was deeply offended on behalf of her husband.
In anger, Sati prayed intensely and jumped into the sacred fire that was burning on the day of the ceremony.
During this time, Shiva had been in the midst of deep meditation. But when Sati jumped into the fire, he awoke in great anger, realising what his wife had done.
The story becomes less certain at this point, but it is believed that Shiva started the cosmic dance of death. The whole universe was about to be destroyed before it was time.
The gods who were present at the prayer ceremony were very concerned. In order to pacify him, they scattered the ashes of Sati over him. This did the trick. He calmed down and did not complete the dance. But he went into meditation for many years, deeply upset over the death of his wife, ignoring all his godly duties.
It was not until Sati was reborn as Parvati that Shiva finally came out of meditation. Through her love and patience, she taught him about family life and the importance of moderation.
Shiva and Parvati are held up as the perfect example of marital bliss by many Hindus, and one is rarely depicted without the other.