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.
For most Hindus, their belief and practice is a loosely defined spiritual philosophy, however, the core foundation of Hinduism, The Vedas, is very specific about the nature of God as an overarching principle encompassing all other concepts of Divinity. Most Hindus would rather simplify their spiritual life by focussing their devotions upon one, or perhaps two or three particular deities and self-identify as members of one or more of the four main sects within Hinduism.
Shaivism, where Shiva is worshipped as the Supreme Deity in the sense that other gods and goddesses are manifestations of Shiva. Shaivism was the dominant sect in the Chola Period and remains so in south India today,
Vaishnavism dominates within Hinduism overall with some 70% of Hindus believing that Vishnu, or one of his iterations such as Krishna, is Supreme over all other gods,
Shaktism holds the female aspects of God as Supreme. While certainly a minority it’s followers are no less devoted to Shakti in all her manifestations, such as Uma, Kali or Saraswati,
Smartism generally rejects the sectarian belief in one god above all. It holds to a Vedic belief that the six primary gods of Hinduism; Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesh, Murugan and Surya (the Vedic Sun god) manifest the formless Brahman more or less equally.
True to the pluralist and inclusive nature of Hinduism, each sect’s followers freely borrow beliefs and practices from each other.
“Brahman is the One, the One alone, in Brahman all deities become One alone.”
The Artharva Veda
Other sects may venerate less popular deities such as Krishna, Murugan or Ganesha, but do so with the fervour and dedication of the major sects. If such a group, or sect, has a defined philosophy and led by a particular guru, it is said to be sampradaya. An example would be The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly referred to as the Hare Krishna movement, formed in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.