Brahma (not to be confused with similar terms; Brahman and brahmin) created good and evil, night and day, and gods, demons, ancestors and humans from formless Brahman. It is said the universe was created when Brahma awoke and opened his eyes and will end when he goes back to sleep at the end of his day – a period of 4.32 million human years – the universe will end. Brahma is an abstract metaphysical ideal of a god, and lacks the earthy dramatic myths and legends of other deities, although he does feature in other god’s mythology. He is the bestower of boons upon various demons, boons which invariably create problems requiring divine intervention (and new opportunities) for other gods and goddesses to add to their legends. Brahma is thought to be aloof and unapproachable and isn’t worshipped with the devotional ardour of Shiva, Shakti or Vishnu. It is believed his work is done, and it is the various manifestations of Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti which have the power to power to affect our lives. On the next turn of the Wheel of Time, however, after the weary universe is destroyed by Shiva Nataraja, it is a reborn Brahma who will create the world anew. While his image is venerated somewhere in most major temples, only a handful of the half a million or so temples in India are dedicated solely to Brahma.
Brahma is believed to have created The Vedas, dispersing them in the four cardinal directions from his four mouths, although most of the credit ought to go to his wife, Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge.
Brahma is typically depicted in iconography as standing, his weight evenly upon both feet (samabhanga). He has four faces whose mouths disperse The Vedas in the four cardinal directions and four arms. In one hand he holds The Vedas, in the second he holds rosary beads (mala) symbolizing time, in the third he holds a ladle (sruva or shruk) symbolizing the means to feed a sacrificial fire, and in fourth a water jug (kamandalu) symbolizing the means from where all creation originates. In paintings, he is often depicted with the white beard of a sage. His vehicle (vahana) is a swan or goose.
Shiva’s nature is as complex and mysterious as Hinduism itself. He is Tripurantaka, Destroyer of Cities, yet also the serene Adiyogi, Lord of Yoga, gentle, generous and benevolent, residing within everyone as pure consciousness. Perhaps it is this wild, unpredictable nature which led orthodox Vedic tradition to favour Vishnu over Shiva, but in south India it is The Auspicious One who inspires the most ardent devotion (note 1).
In addition to Tripurantaka and Adiyogi, Shiva manifests in many different forms. He is Somaskanda, loving husband to Uma and father to sons Ganesha and Murugan; Ardhnarishvara, half-male half-female, embodying the cosmic duality of male and female principles; Dhakshina, Lord of the South and Great Teacher; Veenadhara the Lord of Music; and Bhikshatana, the Enchanting Mendicant (ascetic beggar).
However it is Shiva as Nataraja, The Great Lord of Dance which is his most widely known manifestation and it is in this form he is most ardently worshipped. As Nata (dance) Raja (lord), Shiva dances the ecstatic cosmic dance during which he performs the five essential acts as creator, preserver, eradicator of ignorance, bestower of reassurance, and ultimate destroyer (note 2).
Many of Hinduism’s most important concepts, as well as several of its spiritual, ascetic, tantric and ritual traditions, derive from early Saivite belief and practice. As a manifestation of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, Shiva exists on a higher plane, although he graciously takes human form from time to time, enabling devotees to make darshan (a visual connection) or to facilitate Bhakti (personal devotion). Shiva is an imposing sight in his physical form. He is covered in the ashes of the cremation ground, symbolic of his outsider status in the pantheon, the dreadlocks of his ascetic role as Lord of Yoga are knotted atop his head, adorned with a crescent moon, a skull, wild cassia blossoms, and a tiny figure of the goddess Ganga (note 3). In his forehead, Shiva’s vertically placed third eye indicates fiery energy (note 4). Wrapped around his waist is a tiger skin, while serpents representing his power over death, coil around his arms. Nataraja projects immense cosmic power as he bestows a delicate abhaya of grace and reassurance; “Fear not, I am here.”Justifiably this iconic icon has come to represent more than Shiva as Lord of Dance but Indian spirituality as a whole. Though the concept originated with the Pallavas in the fifth century, it was Chola’s artists and craftsmen under royal patronage who brought Nataraja to life in the 11th century.
While his human form varies widely according to his manifestation, within the innermost sanctum of Saivite temples, it is the lingam, Shiva’s non-figurative pillar-like symbol, which universally represents the eternal Shiva. The lingam is often depicted with a horizontal disk encircling the base representing Shakti, the Divine Goddess, and also serves to collect the libations poured upon it in worship.
Shiva acting alone may perform his cosmic acts protecting the world from evil, but it is only in combination with divine female energy in the various forms of Shakti, the Great Goddess that He bestows grace upon the individual soul. In Hinduism, and indeed in most ancient religions, female and male energy is considered interconnected and interdependent; two halves of the divine whole. In a temple setting, sculptures of Shiva as Nataraja are always accompanied by Uma. In the metaphysical sense, she completes him.
In the Saivite holy family, Shiva and his consort, Uma, have two sons, Ganesha and Murugan and each with their ardent following. While the elephant-headed, Ganesha, is well-loved throughout India, it is Murugan who is known as the God of the Tamils.
Note 1 – Shiva’s devotees, known as Saivites, often wear three vertical stripes upon their foreheads, symbolic of Shiva’s trident, or trishula. A red dot denotes Shakti energy. As a bindi, this red dot is often worn on a woman’s forehead for the same reason.
Note 2 – Nataraja is popularly known as Shiva the Destroyer, though to think of Shiva as ’destroyer’ in the contemporary sense misses the essence of Nataraja’s role. Dictionaries define ‘destroy’ as ending the existence of something, yet according to Indian philosophy, nothing ceases to exist. The cosmos and everything in it exists in a circular state, transforming from one state to another in an eternal cycle of creation, existence and re-creation. Shiva’s role is of critical importance in this Cosmic Cycle, this Wheel of Time. He is its agent of transformation, without which Brahma would have nothing from which to Create and Vishnu would have nothing to Preserve. To use contemporary terms, Nataraja might better be described as Shiva the Resetter, or possibly Shiva the Cosmic Rebooter. If this concept sounds like the Big Bang Theory, you’re not alone.
“Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.”
Note 3 – A figure of the goddess Ganga, the personification of the Ganges River, refers to the story of how this celestial river originally fell to earth in a torrent, but Shiva agreed to break its descent by catching it in his hair.
Note 4 – One of the many tales of Shiva and Uma tells of Uma playfully approaching Shiva from behind and covering his eyes with her hands. Suddenly darkness engulfed the entire world, and all were in fear, god and mortals. Suddenly a massive tongue of flame leapt from the forehead of Shiva, a third eye appeared, and the light was restored to the world. Another legend has the god, Kama (roughly equivalent to the Greek god Eros, or cupid) approaching Shiva as He was deep in meditation with the aim of facilitating a connection with a yearningUma. Startled out of his contemplation, Shiva incinerated the hapless Kama with fire from his third eye.
Shiva and Uma’s relationship represents the eternal tension in Hindu culture between the secular and spiritual, the ascetic and domestic. Until Uma enters his life, Shiva is Adiyogi, Lord of Yoga, leading the austere life of a sage, meditating motionless in cremation grounds and mountain forests.
Like many Hindu gods, Shiva is a character of contradictions. He is Lord of Yoga and the ultimate ascetic, but also Lord of Tantra, where sexual union is a path to spiritual enlightenment. Hindus do not interpret Shiva’s behaviour as contradictory, but rather a deity wisely integrating the extremes of human nature while transcending attachment to any ideology.
Uma is in love with Shiva and determined to lure him away from his ascetic self-absorption into the world of marriage, sex, and children. Uma breaks into Shiva’s mystic world by becoming as austere as he, to the extent other gods fear the heat of her intensity will to scorch not only themselves but the entire world. The gods persuade Shiva to accept Uma as his bride so she will cease her efforts.
As Shiva’s wife, Uma upholds the order of dharma, and it is she who represents the beauty and attraction of worldly, sexual life, and cherishes the home and community. Uma civilizes Shiva with her presence. She domesticates him, and in so doing, enables him to become accessible to the mortal worshipper.
A striking feature of many Chola Bronzes depicting Uma and Shiva as a couple is the sensual intimacy shown. In the depiction of their marriage, they tenderly hold hands, and in others, he will often be shown fondling her breast or gently turning her face to his. In the time of the Chola Empire the ecstasy of sexual union, whether mortal or divine, paralleled the rapture of the spiritual union between devotee and deity. To experience the rapture of oneness with one’s beloved was felt to be akin to the bliss of spiritual oneness with God. The sages of the 6th and 7th centuries wrote hymns to their gods and goddesses which are frankly sexual and led in no small part to the Bhakti movement which transformed Hindu worship from formal temple ritual to an intensely personal devotion to one’s chosen deity.
Shiva and Uma – The Divine MarriageTerry Curell2019-11-07T17:08:40-08:00
Vishnu ranks among the Maha Devas, the Great Gods. Brahma creates the Universe and Shiva destroys it, enabling Brahma to create it anew. Between creation and destruction, Vishnu preserves the universe’s cosmic order, its Dharma, when it is disturbed. The gods ask Vishnu to intervene and he leaves his formless state on the heavenly plane, descending to earth in the form of an avatar. Vishnu has manifested as ten avatars or incarnations, and each serves a specific form and purpose.
Vishnu’s avatars are;
Matsya, the Fish, who rescued the first man and the creatures of the earth from a great flood – a myth common to many cultures,
Kurma, the Tortoise, supported the stick on his back used to churn an ocean of milk to recover treasures,
Varaha, the Boar, after a thousand-year battle, raised the Earth out of from the sea with his tusks after the demon, Hiranyaksha, dragged it to the bottom of the ocean,
Narasimha, the Lion-Man, slew Hiranyakashipiu after Brahma had conferred a boon that the demon couldn’t be harmed or killed indoors or out, by day or night, nor by any weapon. The demon was causing trouble both in heaven and on earth, and when Hiranyakashipiu threatened his son Prahlada, a Vishnu devotee, Narasimha leapt from a pillar on a porch (neither indoors nor out) at dusk (neither day nor night) and tore out his heart with his claws,
Vamana, the Dwarf, appeared when Bali, a demon king, ruled the universe when the gods lost their power. Vamana visited Bali and begged for as much land as he could cover in three steps. Laughing, Bali granted the wish. As Vamana, Vishnu assumed the form of a giant whose first step bestrode the whole earth, the middle world with the second and with the third step, sent Bali down to rule the underworld,
Parasurama appeared as an angry, axe-wielding priest who came into the world to restore dharma to a social order corrupted by an arrogant Kshatriya (warrior) caste,
Rama, another popular Hindu deity, is the central figure in the Ramayana, an epic where Rama slays the multi-headed demon, Ravanna, who had kidnapped Rama’s devoted wife, Sita,
Krishna is a hugely popular deity in Hinduism. He was born mortal and is the playful butter loving toddler; the eternally beautiful, blue-skinned, flute-playing, gopi-seducing, cow-herding youth; and the worldly charioteer speaking to Arjuna on the battlefield in the epic, Bhagavad Gita, the definitive treatise on the practice of Hinduism.
Balarama is Krishna’s rarely worshipped, physically powerful, older brother who shares some of Krishna’s adventures. Later legends have Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth replacing Balarama as the ninth avatar (note 1),
Kalki, the mighty warrior, is Vishnu’s last incarnation and is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, our present time. Kalki will come to rid the world of evil riding a white horse and carrying a flaming sword.
Vishnu in his traditional form is portrayed in one of two ways; standing (samabhanga) on a lotus with four arms and hands holding attributes and weapons (note 2).
Or he is portrayed resting on the coiled snake floating on the cosmic ocean (note 3). As Vishnu awakens, the universe is created. A lotus emerges from his navel and out of the unfolding lotus emerges Brahma, the Creator, who then manifests the universe which Vishnu maintains and preserves. After Shiva destroys the universe, Brahma is enfolded in the lotus, withdraws into his navel, and Vishnu falls asleep once again. As he sleeps, he dreams the universe as it will be created when the next cycle begins, a cycle without beginning or end, the Hindu concept of time (note 3).
A foundational Hindu belief is the importance of the interdependent balance of male and female energies in major deities. The male cognitive force (Purusha) is ineffective without the creative female energy of Shakti (Prakriti), personified in Vishnu’s case by Lakshmi, the Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune. If Purusha is the word, Prakriti is the meaning. A romantic aspect of the myths whenever Vishnu descends to earth as an avatar he is accompanied by Lakshmi in her reincarnated form. For example, when Vishnu incarnates as Rama, Lakshmi is born as Sita.
Vishnu’s vehicle (vahana) is Garuda, a giant eagle able to spread knowledge of The Vedas. Garuda has great courage and sometimes portrayed in winged human form with an eagle’s beak.
Beginning in the 6th century in south India, Vaishnavite (note 4) poet-saints (alvars) roamed south India singing Vishnu’s praises in a deeply personal manner (note 5). This intimate relationship with God in turn inspired a new devotional style of worship known as Bhakti. Out of which arose practices formerly associated with Tantric rituals, such as puja and material images representing the gods (murti) which were believed to be able to temporarily host the deity, given the appropriate rituals and intensity and purity of heart of the devotee.
Note 1 – Hinduism is all-inclusive. When a new focus of worship, such as Buddhism or Christianity emerges, from a Hindu perspective they manifest a fresh aspect of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul, and are enfolded into Hindu belief.
Note 2 – In the first hand a conch, Sankha, represents the spread of the sacred sound ‘Om’; in the second the disc, Vajira, representing the chakra, the wheel of time; the third holds his club, Gada, representing the elemental force from which all physical and mental powers are derived; and in the fourth he holds the lotus, Padma, symbol of purity and unfolding creation.
Note 3 – Variously known as either Sesha (remainder) or Ananta (endless) who represent the sleeping universe.
Note 4 – Vaishnava is the sectarian belief that Vishnu or one of his avatars, Krishna in particular, is Supreme Lord. Vaishnavism has many sub-sects.
Note 5 – The equivalent for devotees of Shiva is Saivism and for the many aspects of Devi, Shaktism, all with many sub-sects.