Known as both the destroyer and protector, Shiva is the third member of the Hindu trinity or Trimurti that includes Shakti the creator and Vishnu the preserver. Shiva, whose name means “the auspicious one” in Sanskrit, is viewed as a positive force because he destroys evil, ignorance, and death. He also ensures the cycle of life because his destruction of negativity clears the way for renewal and growth.
One of the most complex ancient gods in the Hindu pantheon, Shiva takes many – often paradoxical – forms. As the god of the yogis, Shiva is an ascetic, celibate, and self-controlled. The ascetic Shiva is usually portrayed deep in meditation on top of Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. In his role as a householder, Shiva has a consort, Parvati (Shakti), with whom he has two sons: Ganesha, the remover of all obstacles; and Skanda, god of war.
One of the most popular representations of Shiva is as Nataraja, the lord of the dance. As Nataraja, he dances in a ring of flames atop the back of a tiny demon named Apasmara-Purusha, who symbolizes ignorance, laziness, and evil thoughts. Nataraja’s dance symbolizes the rhythm of the universe and the cycles of creation and destruction.
In images of Shiva, the water flowing from his hair represents the River Ganges, considered a goddess in Hindu mythology. According to legend, when Ganga came down from the heavens, the earth was overwhelmed with torrential floods. Shiva offered to serve as a conduit so that human beings could benefit from the purifying water without drowning in it. It is also said that Shiva’s skin is blue because when Ganga flooded the earth, he swallowed the poison that was churned up in the oceans, thus saving the universe.
The snake coiled around Shiva’s neck represents kundalini or the spiritual energy of life. In one hand he holds a trident symbolizing his power to destroy evil and ignorance. The three prongs of the trident stand for Shiva’s fundamental powers: will, action, and wisdom. Shiva also holds a drum that resonates with the sound Om – the universal sound of creation in Vedic philosophy.
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