To sustain the law and balance of nature or existence, Lord Shiva took many avatars in various yugas. Kurma Purana talks about 28 avatars of Shiva but in Shiva Purana, the following 19 Avatars of Shiva are mentioned.
Adi Shankaracharya said, “Forgive me Oh, Shiva! My three great sins! I came on a pilgrimage to Kashi forgetting that, you are omnipresent. In thinking about you, I forgot that You are beyond thought. In praying to You, I forgot that You are beyond words.”
Lord Shiva manifests according to situations, he may have manifested innumerable times but there are few notable avatars or incarnations of Shiva (not direct avatars but as his Amsa). In Shiva Purana, the following 19 Avatars of Shiva are mentioned.
1. Piplaad Avatar
Lord Shiva took birth in the house of Rishi Dadhichi as Piplaad. But the sage is said to have left the house due to the positioning of the Shani. So, Piplaad cursed Shani and caused the planet to fall from its celestial abode. Later, he forgave Shani on the condition that the planet would never trouble anyone before 16 years of age. Hence, worshipping the Piplaad form of Lord Shiva helps to get rid of Shani dosha.
2. Nandi Avatar
Lord Shiva is seen as the protector of the herds. He is depicted as bull-faced with four hands. The two hands are seen holding an axe and an antelope.
3. Veerabhadra Avatar
Veerabhadra came to be after Goddess Sati immolated herself at the Daksha yagna. Lord Shiva became extremely furious. Lord Shiva plucked a hair strand from his head and threw it on the ground. It was from the hair strand that Veerbhadra and Rudrakali were born. This fierce avatar is said to have broken the sacrificial vessels, polluted the offerings, insulted the priests, and finally cut off Daksha’s head, trampled on Indra, broke the staff of Yama, and scattered the gods on every side; then he returned to Mount Kailash.
4. Sharabha Avatar
Shiva Purana narrates that god Shiva assumed the Avatar of Sharabha (part bird part lion) to tame Narasimha – the fierce man-lion avatar of Vishnu. This form is popularly known as Sarabeshwara (Lord Sarabha) or Sharabeshwaramurti.
First, Vishnu assumed the form of Narasimha to slay Hiranyakashipu, an asura king, who was terrorizing the universe and devotee of Shiva. The Shiva Purana mentions: After slaying Hiranyakashipu, Narasimha’s wrath was not appeased. The Devas (the gods) requested Shiva to tackle Narasimha. Initially, Shiva brings forth Virabhadra, one of his terrifying forms, in order to calm Narasimha.
When that failed, Shiva manifested as the human lion-bird Sharabha. Sharabha then attacked Narasimha and seized him up until he was immobilized. He thus quelled Narasimha’s terrifying rage. Narasimha became a devotee of Shiva after being bound by Sharabha. Sharabha then decapitated and de-skinned Narasimha so Shiva could wear the hide and lion head as a garment.
Ashwatthama is said to be the “Vish Purush” who sprung out of Shiva after he took Halahal during Samundra Manthan. He was granted a blessing that he would be able to kill oppressive Kshatriyas. He will be born as Bhardwaja’s grandson and be raised as Brahman but attracted to Kshatriyahood. This Vish Purusha was born as Ashwatthama to Drona and Kripi.
6. Bhairava Avatar
The Bhairava avatar was created when Lord Brahma lied about his quest for superiority, Shiva took the form of Bhairava and cut off Lord Brahma’s fifth head. Severing a Brahma’s head made Lord Shiva guilty of the crime of killing a Brahmin (Brahma Hatya) and hence Shiva had to carry the skull of Brahma for twelve years and roam as a Bhikshatana. In this form, Shiva is said to guard all the Shakti Peethas.
7. Durvasa Avatar
Lord Shiva had taken the avatar of Durvasa on the earth to maintain the discipline of the universe. Durvasa was a great sage known for his short temper. Durvasa Muni had a greenish-red complexion, a long beard, and tall stature; dressed in rags and carrying a stick of the sacred Bilva tree. Wherever he went, he was always accompanied by ten thousand disciples. In his travels, he kept strict vows and ate Durva (Dubo) herb only.
8. Grihapati Avatar
Lord Shiva was born to a great devotee of Lord Shiva, Shuchismati was his devoted wife who yearned to birth a child, like Shiva. The child was well versed in all the Vedas yet was informed had to die young due to planetary positions.
His journey to Kashi was dampened by Indra but Lord Shiva came to his defense and Lord Shiva blessed Grihapati by saying “even Kaalvajra would not be able to kill you.” Grihapati became very pleased. The Shivalinga which he worshipped, later on, became famous as ‘Agnishwar linga’. Lord Shiva made Grihapati the lord of all directions.
9. Lord Hanuman
Lord Shiva was so infatuated by the appearance of Lord Vishnu in his form of Mohini during Samudra Manthan that his sem*n was released on the ground. This sem*n was established by the Saptarishis in the womb of Anjani, with the permission of Lord Shiva himself. In this way was born the mighty Hanuman.
10. Vrishabha Avatar
During Samundra Manthan Vishnu tricked all the asuras by creating an illusion of enchanting beauties. When the asuras saw them, they forcibly carried these enchanting beauties to their abode – Patal Lok. After that, they again returned to take control of the Nectar which had been taken by the gods.
While Vishnu went to annihilate them in Patal loka he himself got caught up in the Maya and fathered many immoral sons there who created a ruckus for the Gods. It was then Lord Shiva took the form of an ox or Vrishabha and killed all the cruel sons of Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu came to fight the ox but after recognizing that it was Lord Shiva’s incarnation, he left the fight and returned to his abode.
11. Yatinath Avatar
Yatinath Avatar – There was once a tribal man named Aahuk. He and his wife were ardent devotees of Lord Shiva. One day Lord Shiva visited them in the form of Yatinath. Their small hut couldn’t accommodate lord Shiva disguised as a guest, so Aahuk decided to sleep outside. Unfortunately, he was killed by a wild animal outside. This wife decided to take her own life but was blessed by Lord Shiva that they would be born as Nala and Damyanti in the next life and Shiva would unite them.
12. Krishna Darshan avatar
Lord Shiva took the incarnation of Krishna Darshan’s avatar to highlight the importance of yagna and rituals in a person’s life. A prince, Nabhag who was kept from his share of the kingdom by his brothers had been asked by his father to educate a sage to get rid of all his attachments to successfully conduct a yajna. When the task is completed, pleased Sage Angiras hands him all the wealth which is stopped by Krishan Darshan Avataar of Shiva. He showed Nabhag the significance of higher spiritual attainment and salvation and hence gave blessings.
13. Bhikshuvarya Avatar
This incarnation of Lord Shiva protects human beings from all kinds of dangers. This story is about King Satyarth of Vidarbha, his wife, and their son. After the Mahabharata, all the gods left for their respective abodes. The Kali Yuga had already begun on Earth. Due to the onset of Kali Yuga, there was not much difference between righteousness and unrighteousness. People were attacking each other’s kingdoms out of greed for wealth and riches.
The same happened with King Satyarth of Vidarbha. The enemy kingdom attacked his kingdom and killed King Satyarth. His pregnant wife managed to escape from the enemies and saved her life because she was carrying a child in her womb. To avoid the child’s death, she took refuge in a forest.
In the forest, she gave birth to a beautiful son. There was a lake near the forest. The queen, feeling thirsty, carried her son in her hands and went towards the lake. As soon as she reached the lake, a crocodile attacked her and made her its prey. After some time, the child started suffering from hunger and thirst.
Lord Shiva, through his divine vision, observed all this. Lord Shiva decided to help the child and disguised himself as a beggar. He reached there, and in the form of a beggar, Lord Shiva introduced himself to the queen and informed her that the child was the son of King Satyarth of Vidarbha. He gave instructions for the upbringing of the child. The beggar woman promised to take care of the child.
Witnessing the beggar woman performing her duties, Lord Shiva, in his true form, appeared and revealed himself to her. Seeing the true form of Lord Shiva, the beggar woman was overwhelmed. Lord Shiva praised her for taking care of the child according to his instructions. The beggar woman fulfilled her duty of nurturing the child. Growing up, the child, by Lord Shiva’s grace, defeated his enemies and regained his kingdom.
14. Sureshwar Avatar
Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati appeared in front of the son of sage Vyaghrapaad, Upamanyu disguised as Indra and Indrani respectively. To test his devotion, both of them told Upamanyu to stop doing penance and stop worshiping Shiva.
Upamanyu was enraged and refused even after being cursed by them. Shiva and Parvati were satisfied by his total dedication and devotion Shiva promised Upamanyu that he would be present in the vicinity of his hermitage along with Parvati forever. Lord Shiva got the name ‘Sureshwar’ because he appeared in the guise of Indra.
15. Kirateshwar Avatar
Lord Shiva descended in the form of a hunter or Kirat while Arjuna was meditating to kill an Asura named Mooka, disguised as boar. Arjun’s meditation got disturbed by the sound and upon seeing the boar, Arjun and the Kirat struck the boar at the same time with arrows. A fight broke between the Kirat and Arjuna as to who struck the boar first. Arjuna challenged Lord Shiva in the form of Kirat for a duel. Lord Shiva was pleased by Arjuna’s valor and gifted him his Pashupata Astra.
16. Suntantarka Avatar
Lord Shiva took this incarnation to ask the hand of Goddess Parvati in marriage from her father Himalaya. To request the hand of Parvati from her father Himachal, Lord Shiva disguised himself as a wandering dancer. Holding a Damaru (a small drum) in his hand, Shiva, in the form of a dancer, arrived at Himachal’s house and started performing the dance.
His divine dance as Nataraja was so beautiful and captivating that everyone became pleased. When Himachal asked the dancer for alms, the Nataraja Shiva asked for Parvati as his alms. This enraged Himachal Raj. After a while, Shiva, still in his dancer disguise, revealed his true form to Parvati and left. Upon his departure, Himachal and his minister gained divine knowledge, and they decided to give Parvati to Shiva.
17. Brahmachari Avatar
It was in Brahmachari Avatar, that Lord Shiva tested Goddess Parvati’s determination to marry him. After sacrificing her life in Daksha’s Yajna, when Sati was reborn in the house of the Himalayas, she performed intense austerity to attain Lord Shiva as her husband. To test Parvati’s devotion, Shiva disguised himself as a celibate ascetic (Brahmachari) and approached her. Parvati worshipped the ascetic according to the prescribed rituals.
When the ascetic inquired about the purpose of her austerity and upon learning, began to criticize Shiva, calling him a dweller of cremation grounds and a Kapalika. Hearing this, Parvati became extremely angry. Witnessing Parvati’s devotion and love, Shiva revealed his true form to her. Upon seeing this, Parvati became immensely delighted.
18. Yaksheshwar Avatar
When the deities after defeating the Asuras during Samudra Manthan, had become arrogant, Lord Shiva disliked it as pride was not a quality for gods to possess. Lord Shiva then presented some grass before them and asked them to cut it. It was Lord Shiva’s attempt to destroy their false pride through this divine grass. Hence, nobody could cut the grass and the pride vanished. This form of Lord Shiva then came to be known as Yaksheshwar.
19. Avadhut Avatar
Avadhut Avatar was an incarnation that was taken by Lord Shiva to crush the arrogance of Lord Indra. As the ruler of the gods, Indra developed a sense of pride. On one occasion, while Indra and other gods were passing through the Kailash Mountain, Lord Shiva decided to test him.
Lord Shiva transformed into a sage and obstructed their path. Indra requested the sage to move aside, but the form of Lord Shiva as the ascetic remained unmoved. This angered Indra, and he attempted to use his thunderbolt but found his hand stuck. This broke the pride of Lord Indra and upon request, Lord Shiva revealed his true identity.