Who is Shiva? – An Introduction to Lord Shiva

One of the Hindu Trinity, Lord Shiva, is known to be the destroyer other two (Brahma and Vishnu) are creator and preserver according to various Puranas. The destructive energies are released by Lord Shiva, which dismantles all of the creation to start a new one.

Shiva is known to house both the calm as Bholenath and the fierce like Kala Bhairav and Veerabhadra. Shiva is the source of a large amount of natural energy and passion that gives rise to his extreme behavior. Goddess Parvati brings out this balance in his life, and they are incomplete without each other.

Shiva is also the cosmic dancer (Nataraja), an ascetic, a yogi, and Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous union of Shiva and his consort in one body half-male and half-female. One of the names given to Lord Shiva is Pashupatinath which means ‘master of animals.’ However, this description of animals includes every being.

Who is Lord Shiva?

It is humanly impossible to describe Shiva in words; he is beyond words and expressions. But, let us look into what Hindu scriptures talk about Shiva.

Shiva Sahasranama (1008 Names of Lord Shiva) include Mahadeva (the great god), Mahesh, Rudra, Neelkantha (the blue-throated one), and Ishvara (the supreme god), Mahayogi, or the great ascetic, who symbolizes the highest form of austere penance and abstract meditation, which results in salvation.

Shiva Purana’s, Chapter 3 Shatrudra Samhita’s, Section 17 talks about the Rudra Form of Lord Shiva. According to Svetasvatara Upanishad of Krishna Yajurveda, Rudra is everything, the self, the Brahman; there is no second to Rudra.

Rudra is truly one, for the knowers of Brahman do not admit the existence of a second; he alone rules all the worlds by His powers. He dwells as the inner Self of every living being. After having created all the worlds, He, their Protector, takes them back into Himself at the end of time. He, the omniscient Rudra, the creator of the gods and the bestower of their powers, the support of the universe, He who, in the beginning, gave birth to Hiranyagarbha −may He endow us with clear intellect!

Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.2 and 3.4

Rudra is the one who creates, protects, and dissolves back into himself. He is the creator of time, all-powerful, all-knowing, one who gave birth to the golden egg from which the universe manifested. He is the state of “existence, consciousness, and bliss” – Satchidananda.

Taittariya Aranyaka of Yajurveda in 10.23,24 also talks about Rudra being the absolute reality, Supreme Brahman.

Supreme Brahman, the Absolute Reality, has become an androgynous Person in the form of Umamaheshvara, dark blue and reddish-brown in hue, absolutely chaste, and possessing uncommon eyes. Salutations to Him alone who is the Soul of the universe or whose form is the universe. All this verily is Rudra. To Rudra, who is such, we offer our salutation.

We salute again and again that Being, Rudra, who alone is the light and the Soul of creatures. The material universe, the created beings, and whatever there is manifoldly and profusely created in the past and the present in the form of the world, all that is indeed this Rudra. Salutations be to Rudra, who is such.

Shiva is a state of pure consciousness.

He is the Lord of the soul and nature. The shifting of life and liberation comes from Him, bondage in time, and freedom in eternity. This, coupled with his “Bholenath” persona, is maybe why priests, kings/queens, and asuras meditated to please the Mahadeva to make their dreams come true. So on Shivaratri, Hindus, Yogis, and followers of Shaivism all worship, meditate, and rejoice in the Bhakti ras of Mahadeva.

Shiva is a state of pure consciousness or nothingness. Shiva is the state where no thoughts arise; it’s complete silence, and the truth is revealed only in silence.

Shiva’s Appearance

Shiva is a dark-skinned austere with a blue throat. Shiva’s hair is matted and coiled on his head, adorned with a snake and a crescent moon. Ganga is always depicted flowing out of his topknot.

Shiva is also the god with three eyes. The third eye, in the middle of his forehead, is always closed and only opens to annihilate an evildoer. While the other Gods are adorned with gold and gemstones, Shiva is adorned with a garland of skulls, rudraksha beads, or a snake hanging from his neck.

The serpent race was despised and feared by all other creatures, but found a place of honor in Shiva’s sacred person, simply because he was moved by their plight. Shiva wore snakes as armlets and bracelets.

Lord Shiva Art
Image credit – DeviantArt/Swarooproy

On the one hand, Shiva holds his Trishul. The Trishul usually has a Damaru or waisted drum tied to it. On another hand, he holds a conch shell and a rudraksha mala, and on the third, a club, or a bow.

Shiva wears tiger or leopard skin around his waist, and his upper body is usually bare but smeared with ashes, as befits an ascetic.

His third eye is believed to have appeared when Goddess Parvati, in a playful mood, covered his eyes with her hands. Immediately, the universe was plunged into darkness, and there was chaos. Shiva formed another eye on his forehead, from which emerged fire to restore the light.

Why is Shiva the destroyer?

In the Hindu trinity, Brahma is referred to as a creator, Vishnu as a preserver, and Shiva as the Destroyer. The work of Brahma involved creating new worlds and bringing life to them, that of Vishnu involved managing and sustaining the world with his energies, and that of Shiva involved destroying and withdrawing the manifestations.

Creation ends at the point of Maha-Pralaya when manifestation is withdrawn back into the Great Void. This is when Shiva begins his Shiva Tandav, his famous cosmic dance. From his dance, the destructive energies are released and activated that dismantle all of the creation. (Read)

Whenever Shiva is referred to as the Destroyer, it means that He destroys the bad and paves a new beginning. Shiva performs the dissolution task of dissolving everything into himself.

He destroys your gross form – the identification you have about yourself so that you return back to where you actually came from, you merge back into the absolute Bliss called Shiva himself.

In short, Shiva shuts your mind off and takes you away from the unreal or Maya so that you can realize the Self or God.

Avatars of Shiva

As Shiva is Brahman, the absolute reality, all is Shiva. There are innumerable incarnations or avatars of Shiva. However, recorded in Puranas, there are 19 avatars of Shiva recognized by great rishis.

  1. Piplaad: Piplaad Avatar of Lord Shiva was taken to end the cruelty of Daksha, a Brahmin, and give people relief from the death of infants.
  2. Nandi: Nandi, the divine bull, is Lord Shiva’s gatekeeper and vehicle, known for his unwavering devotion and considered as Shiva himself.
  3. Veerabhadra: Veerabhadra is the fierce warrior form of Shiva, who emerged from his anger after his wife Sati’s self-immolation.
  4. Sharabha: Shiva took the form of Sharabha, a mythical beast, to pacify Lord Vishnu’s fierce form, Narasimha.
  5. Ashwatthama: Ashwatthama, a character in the epic Mahabharata, is considered an avatar of Lord Shiva, known for his loyalty to Drona and his role in the Kurukshetra war.
  6. Bhairava: Bhairava is a fierce manifestation of Lord Shiva associated with annihilation.
  7. Durvasa: Durvasa, known for his short temper, is an ancient sage who is considered an avatar of Shiva.
  8. Grihapati: Grihapati avatar symbolizes the importance of a disciplined life and portrays Shiva as a model householder.
  9. Lord Hanuman: Considered an avatar of Shiva, Hanuman is known for his unwavering devotion to Lord Rama and his superhuman strength.
  10. Vrishabha: In the form of Vrishabha, Shiva demonstrates the path of righteousness and the importance of duties over rights.
  11. Yatinath: Yatinath avatar showcases Shiva as an ascetic and teaches the importance of self-control and renunciation.
  12. Krishna Darshan: In the Krishna Darshan avatar, Shiva takes the form of Lord Krishna to test Arjuna’s skills and virtues.
  13. Bhikshuvarya: In this form, Shiva exemplifies humility and teaches the virtues of alms-giving.
  14. Sureshwar: Sureshwar avatar of Shiva is known for imparting knowledge of the Vedas.
  15. Kirateshwar: Kirateshwar is Shiva’s form as a hunter, depicting his simplicity and connection with nature.
  16. Suntantarka: The Suntantarka form represents Shiva as a social reformer and deliverer of sermons.
  17. Brahmachari: In his Brahmachari avatar, Shiva epitomizes the life of a celibate student and exemplifies discipline and concentration.
  18. Yaksheshwar: The Yaksheshwar avatar of Shiva demonstrates his lordship over all celestial beings.
  19. Avadhut: Shiva as Avadhut represents the principle of detachment and transcendence from worldly desires.