Who Is Lord Shiva?

In Hindu mythology Lord Shiva is considered to be one of the "Trimurti" - a triad of the supreme Gods who reign over the Devas (Gods) and the Asuras (Demons) and the entirety of the cosmos. The Trimurti consist of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva with each symbolic of creation, preservation and destruction respectively. Brahma is the one cursed to have the least importance, Vishnu being the one with the most detailed mythology and it is Lord Shiva who is considered to be the most fearsome but shrouded in mystery and intrigue.

Compared to Brahma and Vishnu who have the look of royalty Shiva is portrayed as a singular being in deep meditation most of the time. It is said that when Shiva opens his "third eye" the whole of creation will burn, that when Shiva dances all of creation happens and that when he rides out to war none can stop him. Shrouded in ash of burnt bodies he is considered the lord of the dead with the ability to reanimate them. Veerabhadra and Kali, two very fearsome warriors are at his command and ride out to war with him. Lord Shiva is portrayed in a fearsome manner indeed, or is he?

However something is amiss and the evidence doesn't add up. Is Shiva really the fearsome warrior? Is he truly destructive or could he be something more, something other than merely the simplistic embodiment of destruction?

It seems to me that Shiva isn't really the destructive principle however he is Hinduism's ideal man. Let us see how..

Here are a few points for you to consider

  • Shiva is the only one of the three to have an abode on planet earth namely Mt.Kailash. Vishnu and Brahma live somewhere in the cosmos, Vishnu in a sea of milk in Vaikuntha and Brahma in an heavenly palace

  • Shiva married a human being (the same person twice if you consider Sati) - Parvati. Parvati had a human birth, a human father and a human story. Where do Vishnu's and Brahma's consorts Lakshmi and Saraswati come from?

  • He is the only one amongst the Trimurti to go to war as himself in a major mythological story i.e. when he goes to war against Sati's father. Brahma of course never leaves his seat and Vishnu mainly appears on Earth as one of his Avatars

  • Off the top of Shiva's head comes the river Ganges which is a river on Earth and not in the cosmos. A liquid flowing out from the top of a man's head is usually the Kundalini Shakti that has reached the Sahasrara chakra symbolic of an enlightened man

  • Shiva is not famed to have four hands or heads

  • A coiled snake around Shiva's neck that isn't trying to choke is again symbolic of an ascetic who has mastered the Kundalini. It is his friend, protector and guiding light

  • Shiva's condition on marrying Parvati was "When I'm a householder will you be my wife and when I'm an ascetic will you be an ascetic with me?" This isn't a condition a God would ask is it?

  • Nandi, a cow is Shiva's vehicle. Cows are sacred in Hindu tradition and are usually domesticated by farmers, in Shiva's case it is by Shiva the householder

  • Shiva's younger child is Ganesha - a man with the head of an elephant. The elephant is the animal that governs the Muladhara chakra and symbolizes the first stage in the journey of enlightenment. Ganesha is also the first God who is evoked in any major ceremony. It is needless to say that before attaining the "ideal spiritual being" (Shiva) it is his son who has to be prayed to first

  • During Vishnu's Kurma avatar (or the churning of the ocean saga) Shiva is asked to take the deadly poison on behalf of all of creation without which all living beings would perish. As he does so mythology has it he was about to swallow it but it is Parvati who chokes his throat and until Shiva is able to stabilize the poison in his throat. Which other of the Trimuti has had a death wish like that?

  • Shiva is worshiped in the form of a linga i.e. a male phallus - another link to his human nature
Maybe from the above points I got you to look at Shiva in a slightly different light. If Shiva is the ideal man then it is Vishnu who is the true destroyer (I imagine he has caused far more deaths through his various avatars) or the one who brings balance if you would prefer and Brahma the creator. We are now left with a void as to who might contain the destructive principle and my intuition points in the direction of Goddess(s) Durga/Kali. Together they represent the all important feminine destroyer seen in every other religion which allows for female gods. Moreover it is written that Yugas (eras) are reset by a "great flood" and the ocean is almost always feminine.

Personal Notes
  1. I'm no expert, really. This is "just" food for thought. I'm not a Hindu fanatic, hater or revivalist of anything you can think of. This is merely a blog post.
  2. Full disclosure, most of my knowledge comes from Amar Chitra Katha. I'm not claiming to be an authority of any sort