In Sanskrit, the word Shiva means ‘The Auspicious One’. Lord Shiva is one of the holy Trinity or Forces behind the cosmic functioning. The Trinity includes Lord Brahma who performs creative tasks, Lord Vishnu, who maintains the created manifestations and Mahesh (Shiva) who annihilates the manifestations through His Cosmic Dance called the Tandava. Lord Shiva is known by many different names such as Mahadev, Mahesh, Mahayogi, Bhole Nath, Pashupati, Nataraja, Shankara, Vishwanath, Bhava, Bhujangapatihari and Bhairava and so on.
He is associated with Shakti or the Female Creative Energy. He has many fearsome forms and is regarded as a formless (not materially manifested as humans and animals), transcendent, limitless and omniscient entity. Shiva as Rudra is the destroyer of sorrows and evil. He as Shankara brings forth goodness. Shiva as Natraja is the patron of dance and art and a divine cosmic dancer Himself. Devotees of Shiva follow Shaivism and believe that Lord Shiva is both the creator and the destroyer, and hence is static as well as dynamic. He is considered to be the source of fertility and bestows prosperity on His devotees, while he destroys the evil to protect the good. In temples, Shiva is often found as the ‘linga’ – a dvine symbol that represents Him as a powerful energy responsible for existence of all living beings on a microcosmic and macrocosmic level.
Devotees of Shiva follow Shaivism and believe that Lord Shiva is both the creator and the destroyer, and hence is static as well as dynamic. He is considered to be the source of fertility and bestows prosperity on his worshipers, while he destroys the evil to protect the good. In temples, Shiva is often found as the ‘linga’ – the phallic symbol that represents him as a powerful energy responsible for existence of all living being on a microcosmic and macrocosmic level.
While Lord Shiva is the destroyer amongst the Trinity, He is considered to be a positive force. He is an icon of masculinity and virility --- His rage, aggression and resolve can be compared to none, and this is why Shiva is also strongly worshipped by those who follow Tantric science (an occult science of using influential mantras). Besides Shaivism, Lord Shiva is also worshipped by followers of Shaktism. Shakti is Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, and His equal half.
Birth of Shiva:
The birth of Shiva forms an interesting topic for discussion. There are many legends and opinions about how Lord Shiva was born, why He is called the greatest Yogi, how He lives with His own self, completely detached from domestic and material affairs yet He is regarded as an ideal husband.
It is said Shiva in His absolute form has not birth or death; He is eternally living, ever-lasting. Every element of creations material as well as spiritual has emanated from His body. In the Bhagavad Purana (4.7.50), the Lord Vishnu says He, Brahma and Shiva are One without a second:
ahaṁ brahmā ca śarvaś ca
jagataḥ kāraṇaṁ param
“Brahma, Lord Shiva and I are the supreme cause of the material manifestation. I am the Supersoul, the self-sufficient witness. But impersonally there is no difference between Brahma, Lord Shiva and Me.”
Although the above verse excellently makes everything clear regarding the position of the Trinity, the Lord in order to enliven His devotees creates His eternal pastimes. In those activities (pastimes), He assumes various forms such as Shiva on the Shivloka (abode of Shiva), Arjuna on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra (Bhagavad-gita 10.37), Brahma of Brahmaloka (abode of Brahma), Vishnu of the Vishnuloka (abode of Vishnu) and Yama of the Yamaloka and so on.
In the Shrimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavat Purana) (3.12.1-20), the birth of Lord Shiva is nicely described.
On the order of the Lord, Brahma created nescient activities or qualities such as self-deception, the sense of death, anger after frustration, the sense of false ownership, and the illusory bodily conception, or forgetfulness of one’s real identity. These qualities which will actively influence the conditioned souls in the Age of Kali made Brahma feel guilty. In order to get rid of such displeasure, he focused on the Supreme Lord in order to purify himself.
Then, he created four great sages as his sons named Sanaka, Sananda, Sanatana and Sanat-kumara. All of them had no desire to marry and fill the created universes (planets) with progenies. They disobeyed their father, causing much anger in his four heads. He couldn’t control his wrath and that uncontrolled wrath generated a child of red and blue hues from between his eyebrows.
The child cried angrily and anxiously. Brahma called Him Rudra and said: “My dear boy, I have already chosen the following places for your residence: the heart, the senses, the air of life, the sky, the air, the fire, the water, the earth, the sun, the moon and austerity. You will be known by eleven names: Manyu, Manu, Mahinasa, Mahan, Shiva, Ṛtadhvaja, Ugrareta, Bhava, Kala, Vamadeva and Dhṛtavrata.” Also Brahma informed Him about His wives named: Dhi, Dhrti, Rasala, Uma, Niyut, Sarpi, Ila, Ambika, Iravati, Svadha and Diksha. This is how Lord Shiva came into existence and assumed the charge of destroying those nescient qualities and annihilation of the created universes.
Five Elements of Nature:
The five faces of Lord Shiva have their own name, and represent the five elements.
- Sadyojaata represents the Earth, and earned Him the name Mahadeva (which means Great God)
- Vaamadeva represents the Water, and earned Him the name Uma Shankar
- Aghora represents the Fire, and earned Him the name Bhairava
- Tatpurusha represents the Air, and earned Him the name Nandi
- Eesaana represents Space, and earned Him the name Sadasiva
Lord Shiva is often depicted as a Great Yogi who lives on Mount Kailash with His wife Parvati and two sons Ganesha and Kartikeya.
Lord Shiva has a number of physical traits that are deeply intertwined with the many Vedic stories. He is often depicted as a tall, muscular man with matted hair and river Ganga flowing from His hair. He has blue eyes and a blue throat, which is why He is also called as Neelkantha. It is believed that Lord Shiva consumed the deadliest poison called Halala to save the world, and it turned his throat blue. He sits with half open eyes and His third-eye is prominent on the forehead. He wears a tiger-skin wrapped around his waist because He is a Brahmarishi with a crescent moon ornament on the side of His head. He has Rudraksha beads all over His body, and has a serpent Vasuki coiled around His neck.
The matted hair represents Shiva as the Lord of Wind or Vayu, and the scared river Ganga flows from His hair. Legend has it that the lord brought forth a great river to purify the earth – a life giving river that is pious for Hindus. With this, Shiva is not just the Lord of Destruction, but also the Lord of Purity, Knowledge and Life. The Vibhuti or ash smeared on His forehead denotes that life and death hang in a delicate balance, each incomplete without the other. He is the three-eyed god, and His third eye can find evil anywhere, and destroy it. He is often shown with eyes half open, denoting that the opening of His eyes representing the cycle of the Universe --- creation begins when He closes His eyes and the Universe is destroyed when He opens His eyes. The three coils of Vasuki serpent wrapped around Lord Shiva’s neck represent the past, present and the future, and hence denote the cycle of life. He wears a necklace made with 108 rudrakshas beads and holds a damaru or drum in His hand. In His other hand, He holds the Trishul, or the Trident.
Read more about 19 Avtars of Lord Shiva
Lord Shiva’s vahana or vehicle is Nandi – a white bull. It is a symbol of power and righteousness. Nandi possesses extra-ordinary size and is believed to have a sentient level intelligence --- he can create thunder by stamping his foot. He is believed to be a god in an animal form, and reflects the reasons why Shiva is also known as Pashupati Nath or the Lord of animals.
Favorite Fruits or Food:
When praying to Lord Shiva, offerings of some his favourite foods and flowers are made. These include milk, honey, sugar, raw rice mixed with milk, coconuts and coconut water and curd. Bilva leaves are also often used for prayers. Lord Shiva appreciates Bhaang, a drink made from hemp leaves. Auspicious flowers preferred by Lord Shiva include Lotus, Hemp flowers and Dhatura.
In The Vedas and Puranas:
The Rig Veda dating back to 1700-1100BC and considered as one of the oldest known Vedic texts mentions Rudra, another name associated with Lord Shiva. It is believed that Rudra and Shiva are collectively called Mahadevas, the Great gods. Together, they are also classified as Rudras or the Storm Gods. Shiva is referred to as Rudra in Vedic literature. The foundation of Rudra-Shiva relationship was established by the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. The Shiva Purana – the authoritative text for Shaivites, and Linga Purana are dedicated to the forms and cosmology of Lord Shiva. He is the inspiration behind Shaiva Agamas and Shaiva Siddhanta that form the foundational text for Tantric literature of the 8th-11th AD.
Vedic Legends of Shiva:
There are many legends associated with Lord Shiva who enjoys His pastimes with other living beings. The story of Lord Shiva killing Jalandhar is so captivating that anyone who reads or hears from a self-realized devotee of Vishnu or Shiva, he at once becomes spiritually nourished. All of his past karmas gradually dwindle, making him humble.
The legend of Shiva slaying Jalandhar appears in the Shiva Purana. Once, Lord Shiva disguised as a naked yogi stopped Indra and Brihaspati on the way to Mount Kailasha in order to test their knowledge and behavior with a yogi. Failing the test, Indra who wanted the yogi out of their way threatened Him with his Thunderbolt. However, Indra’s right arm got instantly paralyzed as Shiva nullified the effect of the Thunderbolt. This infuriated Shiva who rose to open His Third Eye. Brihaspati immediately knelt down and asked Him to forgive Indra.
Before the divine Fire from His Third Eye falls on Indra, Shiva turned His head around toward the ocean. The Fire hit the ocean, generating a giant wave of the waters that turned into a boy. Upon hearing the boy cry loudly, Lord Brahma appeared on the scene and wondered seeing the luminous boy. Vivid visuals appeared to Brahma when he looked closely at him. Brahma predicted that he would be the greatest King of all the demons. He would only be killed by Shiva!
The boy grew up to be called Jalandhar, one of the highly powerful kings of demons. When Sage Bhrigu told him how Indira had taken away his father’s treasure, he became angry and declared a war against the King of heaven Indra and other gods.
The Great War ensued, leading to the conquest of the gods. They all prayed to Vishnu for help. The Lord agreed but not to slay Jalandhar because Goddess Lakshmi considered him to be Her brother. Impressed by Jalandhar’s fighting skills, Lord Vishnu blessed him with Ocean of Milk as he desired. This made the gods angry as Jalandhar emerged as the King of the three worlds.
Sage Narada once visited the crowned King Jalandhara. The Sage narrated to him the beauty of Kalisha Hill (Shiva’s abode) and His charming wife, Parvati. Shocked to find this out, the King called Shiva a number one hypocrite; how can a yogi in a renounced spirit have a beautiful wife? He asked Shiva to give His wife to him which infuriated Him!
As Shiva entered the war field, engaging in the fight against Jalandhar’s men, the King Jalandhar disguised himself as Shambhu (Shiva) and approached Pravati. However, his strategy failed as she found it out and became violently angry only to show her Kali form. Frightened, Jalandhar left.
Parvati knew Jalandhar’s wife Vrinda who was a pious devotee of Lord Vishnu. She went to the Lord and asked Him to do what Jalandhar did to her. Later, Lord Vishnu disguised as Jalandhar went to his wife in order to break her chastity because her husband thrived on her chastity. Vrinda unaware of Vishnu’s illusion embraced her husband Jalandhar (who was Vishnu Himself), spoiling her own chastity.
Upon finding out that it was not her husband but Lord Vishnu, she got incensed and cursed Him that His will also be abducted once (Sita being kidnapped by Ravana in future). When Jalandhara found out that his wife killed herself after falling for an illusion created by Vishnu, he at marched toward Vishnu and His assistants. However, Lord Shiva appeared on the scene with an extremely fierce look on His face and slew Jalandhara with His Trident by beheading him. As the body collapsed onto the ground, the luminous soul entered the Third Eye of Shiva as it was predicted by Brahma.
Story of Vasuki and Shiva: Vasuki without Lord Shiva considers himself as nothing but a lifeless body. He is just like an ornament wrapped around the neck of NeelKantha (Shiva). There are many stories around Vasuki and Shiva. One of the legends is about Vasuki’s surrender to Shiva.
Being the eldest son of Sage Kashyapa and Kadru, he surrendered to Lord Shiva who took halala, the deadliest poison that emerged during Churning of the Milk Ocean in order to save others from death.
With a body full of injuries caused by the churning process, the distressed Vasuki surrendered and fell at the feet of Lord Shiva. He said: "O Lord! O the leader of gods, the intense Churning of Milk Ocean strained my body, leaving it hot and injured. I somehow became intolerant and lost all of my Yogic strengths and emitted the venom I had preserved for millions of years. I transgressed self-control of the entire Yoga Naga Kula clan. Why did this happen, my Lord? Please enlighten me."
Smiling with love and compassion, Lord Shiva said: ‘When you were chosen from the rest as a rope in the Churning, you were unaware of ego taking over you making you think “They have chosen me. I must be special and great”. However you have already punished by the bruises all over your body. Do not fear. You will be called once again by the gods and the demons to churn the Ocean until amrita comes out. The fragrance of amrita will energize you and restore your yogic strengths’.
Assured by the Lord, Vasuki followed and attained all of his strengths, becoming dear to Shiva. Vasuki considered himself to be the humblest devotee when Shiva placed him around his neck; the greatest service of all!
When the King of asuras (demons) Mayasura constructed Tripura the three cities, all the three worlds; upper planetary systems, the middle one and the lower one, were filled with turbulence. The lowest city was made with walls of Iron, located on earth he second, with walls of silver, located in the sky, and the third with walls of gold, was erected in heaven. The King wanted all of them to surrender to him and accept him as their seed-giving father.
All the gods approached Shiva and asked Him to slay the demons by destroying the cities. The Lord created these weapons: A bow and an arrow, a powerful chariot with the various gods and goddesses and components of the universe. He mounted on His chariot and moved upwards. He took out his bow and arrow, and hit the converged cities with a single arrow. The cosmic arrow hit the core of the cities that then began to collapse. The string of the bow was none other than Vasuki who felt immense and boundless pleasure in serving his master, Shambhu (Shiva).
Story of Ganga on the head of Shiva: River Ganga (Ganges) is one of the purest and the holiest rivers. According to Vedas It personifies Goddess Ganga whose sacred water can liberate anyone from sins and the repetitive cycle of birth and death. She is always depicted flowing from the head of Lord Shiva. But why?
According to Bhagavata Purana, King Sagara who had sixty thousand sons decided to perform a Vedic ritual that required a horse. King Indra envying the ritual stole the horse secretly. Shocked and furious, King Sagara ordered all of his sons to fetch the horse.
They went to the nether world and found the horse resting next Sage Kaplia who was in deep meditation. Thinking that the sage stole the horse, they disturbed him with rude language and humiliated him as well. The sage opened his eyes chanting a mantra that burnt them to death. All the sons then lived in hell, calling for help!
Years later, Bhagiratha being one of the descendants of King Sagara prayed to Brahma for bringing Ganga down to earth.
Brahma asked Ganga to descend on Bhuloka (earth) but she disagreed and vowed to flood the earth by falling from the heavens.
Why is He called Neelkantha?
Once, Sage Durvasa offered King Indra a special garland which was given by Lord Shiva. Indra kept it on the trunk of his elephant to prove that he had no arrogance in his nature. The elephant was aware of his arrogance and threw the garland to the ground. Durvasa lost his cool and cursed Indra and all the gods will soon be bereft of their opulence and strengths.
Soon the curse came true and the demons taking advantage of the curse defeated all the gods. The Supreme Lord Vishnu asked the gods to handle the demons tactfully and make an alliance with them. The gods followed and asked the demons to jointly churn Milk Ocean which will produce the Divine Elixir amrita (nectar of immortality). However, Lord Vishnu’s plan was to let the gods have the elixir.
Then, the Churning process started with the Mount Mandara as the churning rod. The serpent Vasuki who stays around Shiva's neck assumed the role of the churning rope. The process generated a number of valuables from the Ocean. One of them was the deadliest poison Halahala that spread in all directions endangering everything in existence. To protect the universes, Lord Shiva arrived and began to consume the poison. Seeing Her husband consume the point, Parvati ran to him and grabbed His throat in a way that the poison wouldn’t go down. As a result, the throat turned blue. Thereafter gods began to call Him Neelakantha (Neela means blue and Kantha means throat)
Shiva consumed the poison in an act to protect the universe, and his wife, Parvati, grabbed Shiva's throat in an effort to prevent him from swallowing the poison, which was the most deadly poison in existence, harmful even to a god. As a result, Shiva's throat turned blue. For this reason, Lord Shiva is also called Neelakantha (the blue-throated one; "neela" = "blue", "kantha" = "throat" in Sanskrit).