Today, in honor of Maha Shivaratri—celebrations in honor of Lord Shiva taking place this weekend—we’re turning the spotlight on Shiva, one of Hinduism’s major players and the supreme God of Shaivism, a main branch of contemporary Hinduism. Shiva is a key player in most myths; we’ve met him already as Ganesh’s jealous father and as the creator of Virabhadra, the Warrior of Warrior I, II, and III.
Along with Brahma and Vishnu, Shiva is one third of the Trimurti, Hindu’s holy Trinity. Together these deities personify the cosmic functions of the wheel of life. Brahma represents creation; Vishu preservation; and Shiva transformation or destruction. Essentially, they represent birth, life, and death in its micro and macro iterations. (To examine this birth and death cycle through another lens, read about the Cycle of Transformation through Awareness.)
In Shaivism tradition, Shiva creates, protects and transforms the universe. He is often honored as the patron god of yoga, meditation, and the arts. In that guise he appears in seated meditation, living a life of simple asceticism on sacred Mount Kailash.
In his more fearsome roles Shiva is a ruthless demon slayer, bringing transformation through death in most of his deeds. At his highest, Shiva is the primal Self, or Atman, of the universe. He is without form and limitless, a transcendent and unchanging Godhead.
Shiva’s Features and Accessories
You can recognize Shiva by his third eye, a feature that opened on the god’s forehead when he beamed a missile of fire out of it to destroy an enemy. This fire bomb effectively reduced Kama, the god of lust, to a pile of ash. Shiva’s third eye, then, represents the rejection of desire and ignorance.
The serpent around Shiva’s neck stands for the ego. Once mastered, it can be worn as an adornment.
An elegant crescent moon rests above Shiva’s brow. One of Shiva’s names is Chandrashekhara, the one who holds the moon (chandra) on his head. The crescent is said to be the moon in its fifth day; it symbolizes the cycle of time, from beginning to end, over which Shiva reigns supreme. He is beyond and outside of time.
The Ganga, India’s holiest of all rivers, flows from Shiva’s hair. He is a fount of spiritual teachings.
Shiva’s trishula, the trident he carries as a weapon, has many interpretations. It signifies the interweaving of creation, preservation, and destruction (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva); the three gunas, energetic qualities in the physical world; and the nadis, energetic currents at work in the physical body.
Finally, Shiva’s damaru, a small two-headed drum represents Shiva’s role as the creator of all sounds, languages, music, and vibrations in creation. In one myth, the basic rules of Sanskrit arose when one of the language’s primary grammarians watched Shiva dance to the beat of his own damaru.