Why is Shiva so powerful?
The great meditation and asceticism he performs in the Himalayas gives him his immense power.
Why is Shiva so important?
He is the destroyer god of the Hindu trimurti (“trinity”), along with Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver. In Shaivite traditions, all other gods are emanations of Shiva.
Did Shiva cut off Ganesha’s head?
Yes. Not knowing Ganesha was his son, Shiva cut off the god’s head, which was then replaced with an elephant’s head.
Why is Shiva’s neck blue?
Shiva once drank poison that turned his neck blue, giving him the nickname Nilakantha (नीलकण्ठ), meaning “Blue Throat.”
Shiva, the destroyer god, is a great ascetic who meditates high in the Himalayas on a tiger-skin rug. He is usually depicted with matted hair and skin covered in ashes from cremation grounds.
At one point, to distract Shiva from his meditation, the god of love, Kama, attempted to shoot him with an arrow of lust for the goddess of the mountain, Parvati. In revenge, Shiva blasted Kama with fire from his third eye. Kama survived thanks to Parvati’s pleas to revive him, but he now wanders the world without a body.
Shiva married Parvati, and the couple gave birth to Skanda, a god of war, and Ganesha, the popular elephant-headed god. They both went on to become powerful demon slayers.
Images often depict Shiva holding a trident (trishula) and riding on his bull, Nandi. He is a god of opposites, at once ascetic and erotic, a god who lays worlds to waste so that creation can spring up whole again. Ever the masculine god, he serves as the manly counterpart to the feminine power (shakti) of his wife, Parvati. He is associated with the divine ambrosia Soma and phallic symbols such as snakes and lingas.
The Sanskrit adjective śiva (meaning “auspicious, glorious, benevolent”) is used to describe many gods throughout the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures. However, it is especially attached to Shiva’s forerunner or prototype, Rudra, the Vedic god of storms who likewise dwells in mountains. In the case of Rudra, the adjective śiva is used as a noun in its own right, thus making him “the auspicious [one].” The two figures, Rudra and Shiva, are commonly accepted to be one and the same.
The composers of the Vedas viewed Rudra as a ferocious god with terrible destructive power; many of the hymns addressed to him involve prayers to be merciful with their lives and livestock.1 The use of śiva as “auspicious” for Rudra is thus a way of placating and flattering the god to be kind.2
Shiva or Śiva
Titles and Epithets
Indian mythology is filled to the brim with nicknames and epithets for different gods, often describing their great deeds and attributes. Notable epithets for Shiva include:
Nilakantha (नीलकण्ठ), “Blue Throat”
Ishvara (ईश्वर), “Lord”
Maheshvara (महेश्वर), “Great Lord”
Nataraja (नटराज), “Lord of the Dance”
Dakshinamurti (दक्षिनामूर्ति), “South-Facing”
Mahakala (महाकाल), “Great Time”
Shankara (शंकर), “Auspicious”
As a master ascetic, Shiva has the matted hair of a Yogi, sits on a tiger-skin rug, smears his skin with ash from cremation grounds, and often wears a garland of skulls or a snake curled around his neck. He wields the trident (trishula) as a weapon.
On his head is a third eye and a crescent moon, associated with the ritual drink Soma. Out of this crescent moon flows the holy river Ganges. His vehicle (vahana) is the bull Nandi. He is also represented and worshipped without a body as a linga, or phallic symbol.
Shiva is a god of wild contrasts. On the one hand, he is the ultimate ascetic who practices austerities for years or eons at a time. On the other hand, several myths attest to his hypermasculinity, and he is regularly worshipped in the form of a phallus.
Shiva is the great destroyer of Tripura and functions as a godly weapon of mass destruction. He is commonly associated with snakes and serpents.
According to Shaivite traditions of Hinduism, Shiva stands as the supreme god and is self-born (svayambhu), without a mother or father. He married the goddess of the mountain, Parvati, and has two sons, the elephant-headed Ganesha and Skanda, a god of war.
- Parvati (Sati)
- Skanda (Karttikeya)
Shiva evolved as a combination of several gods and figures, with other gods being assimilated into his broader image. The most notable case of this involves a figure from the pre-Vedic Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley in modern Pakistan, which rose long before the Indo-European-speaking peoples invaded or migrated into the Indian subcontinent. Sadly, scholars have been unable to decipher the writing system of the Harappan civilization, so any link between Shiva and a figure from this period is speculative.
In the early twentieth century, archaeologists digging in the ruins of Mohenjo Daro discovered a small clay seal depicting a figure sitting in what appears to be lotus position, wearing exaggerated horns and surrounded by elephants and other animals. Scholars called the figure Pashupati, “Lord of Beasts,” which is a nickname of Shiva. The association between the two figures has remained ever since.
This horned figure, Pashupati, may be a sort of prototype or ancestor of the modern Shiva. It developed before the arrival of Aryan-speaking peoples and managed to survive and evolve through the Vedic period before merging with Vedic figures such as Rudra.
Shiva is widely acknowledged to be a development of the Vedic god Rudra, a fierce god of storms who shares many characteristics with Shiva.3 This identification with Rudra is expanded upon further in the Shiva Purana, with Shiva claiming several times to have taken on the form of Rudra:
Thus lord Shiva who had assumed the form of Rudra performed divine sports on the mount Kailāsa, though he was foremost among Yogins.4
It is entirely possible that Shiva as we know him today arose out of a melting pot of Harappan, Vedic, and other Hindu gods, with each giving their own unique contributions to the modern Shiva.
The Burning of Kama
At one time, the demon Taraka grew so powerful from performing austerities (tapas) and meditations that he convinced the god Brahma to bestow a favor upon him. Ever the clever demon, Taraka wished for the power to only be killed by a son of Shiva. As Shiva was also a great ascetic, it was unlikely that he would take time away from his meditations to marry and have children. With the favor granted, Taraka ravaged the world and harassed the gods with his newfound invulnerability.
Indra, the king of the gods, knew the only way to defeat the demon was to distract Shiva from his austerities long enough for him to marry and have children. He summoned Kama, god of love and desire, to afflict Shiva with lust for the goddess Parvati.
After flying up to Kailasa, Kama made the mountain erupt in the bright flowers of spring. Water lilies bloomed and buzzed with bees, and mango trees grew heavy with their fruit. But Shiva was undisturbed at the wondrous display. It was not until Parvati came to offer him fruit that the god at last broke his meditation and gazed upon her.
Seeing his chance, Kama shot an arrow of lust at the god, who fell in love with Parvati after admiring her beauty and grace. But Shiva knew of Kama’s meddling and burned the god to ashes with the fire from his third eye in revenge for trying to afflict him with lust.5
Out of pity for Kama, Parvati asked Shiva to bring the god of desire back to life. But with his body completely incinerated, Kama was restored without any body or limbs at all, for which he is called Ananga, or “Limbless.” Now Kama roams the world as a disembodied spirit of love and lust.
Indra’s plan eventually worked: the couple gave birth to Skanda, who killed the demon Taraka once and for all.
Birth and Beheading of Ganesha
Shiva did not fully abandon his asceticism after marrying the goddess Parvati. Once, when the god was away on one of his many meditation retreats in the mountains, Parvati desired a heavenly attendant who would serve Parvati and Shiva perfectly. She then wiped the dirt from her body as she took a bath and formed the god Ganesha out of this dirt, saying, “You are my son. You are my own. I have none else to call my own.”6
With the newly born god fully formed and clothed, she sent him off to serve as gatekeeper of the house and told him not to let anyone into her quarters.
Some time later, Shiva returned unexpectedly from his meditations, and Ganesha followed his mother’s orders and refused his entrance. He even went so far as to beat Shiva with a staff to shoo him away. Even after Shiva told the boy that he was Parvati’s husband, Ganesha refused to budge and struck Shiva again with his staff. Understandably angry at being turned away from his own house, Shiva lopped off Ganesha’s head with his trident.7
Out of grief for her son’s death, Parvati wept and created a whole host of goddesses,8 who she ordered to devour all the gods, sages, and demons of the world. She vowed that only restoring her son to life would stop her terrible anger. Even Shiva was distressed at this, and all the gods took counsel together.
Shiva decided to fix his mistake; he sent the gods out to kill the first person they met and attach the head to Ganesha’s body. After coming upon an elephant, they chopped off its head and fixed it to Ganesha. They then brought back the body, sprinkled it with holy water, and muttered prayers to Shiva, and the body at once came back to life.
With her son restored, Parvati stopped her onslaught of heaven and rejoiced. For his part, Ganesha was made the chief of Shiva’s warriors and attendants.
The Burning of Tripura
Shiva’s destructive potential swayed the tide of many battles between the heavenly devas (gods) and asuras (titans or demons).
After suffering a defeat, the demons Maya, Taraka, and Vidyunmalin performed severe austerities in order to gain the attention of Brahma, in the hopes of being granted a favor. They mangled their bodies, barely ate, sat between fires during the hottest part of the day, and dove into cold water in winter.
Impressed by their efforts, Brahma eventually came down and offered Maya one blessing. The demon wished for a grand city impregnable to the gods so that he and his people could be safe from their wrath. But Brahma refused this request, saying that no city could ever keep out the gods. Maya relented only slightly and asked for a city that could be destroyed by one thing and one thing only: a single arrow shot by Shiva.
This was enough to appease the god, and at once a magnificent city sprang up with markets, palaces, roadways, fountains, gardens with lotus ponds, rest houses, and every luxury the titans could dream of. It was, in fact, three cities: one for Maya made of iron, one for Taraka made of silver, and one for Vidyunmalin made of gold. Because of this, it was called Tripura, or “Triple City.” For a time, the city prospered. The asuras lived peacefully and even righteously, chanting Vedic hymns and holding Brahmins in high honor.
But in time, Tripura darkened, and its people fell into vice and began assaulting Brahmins and gods once again. The gods knew that the city’s days were numbered now. Begging Shiva to join them in the fight, they reminded him that only he could end the war and destroy the triple city.
In his heart, Shiva wailed and bemoaned the terrible deed he was about to do. The asura Maya was in reality a passionate devotee of Shiva, and he knew that the demon would soon meet his end, along with the rest of the city. But as he descended upon Tripura riding his bull, Nandi, the bull warned Maya to flee before it was too late.
Shiva loosed his one and only arrow and struck all three cities at once, and they went up in flames as easily as if they were built of straw. Men, women, children, and animals alike all perished, and the city roared with the moans of people crying for their loved ones. Even the seas surrounding Tripura boiled and cooked all the creatures of the ocean.
But Maya listened to Nandi’s warning and was able to flee the city with his household, one of only a few to escape the god’s wrath. With that single arrow, Shiva laid waste to the asuras’ nearly impregnable city and ended the war.
Just as the Olympian gods in Greek mythology fought against the Titans, so too did the Hindu devas (gods) fight against the asuras (titans or demons) for control over the cosmos. At one point, the gods began to fare poorly in the war, and so they contrived a trick to gain an edge over their asura rivals. The two sides agreed to create the heavenly ambrosia, amrita, which would make both devas and asuras immortal if they drank it.
To create the amrita, the gods and demons churned the waters of the ocean, using Mount Mandara as a churning stick and the great snake Vasuki as the chord. In time the herbs and plants of the mountain mixed with the waters of the ocean and became milk, then clarified butter. All sorts of miraculous beings and substances were poured out of the churning sea, like the goddess Lakshmi, the ritual drink Soma, and heavenly horses and elephants.
One of these substances was the terrible halahala poison,9 which amazed the gods at the mere smell of it. Knowing the harmful potential of such a poison, Shiva drank it and held it in his throat so that it could not threaten the world. But the poison was so virulent that the god’s neck turned blue—hence his epithet Nilakantha, meaning “Blue Throat.”10
Hinduism covers a wide geographical area in South and Southeast Asia, and Hindus in Cambodia, Java, Kashmere, and Tamil Nadu worship the god in their own way. Prayers and mantras are common, but the most popular practice is that of worshipping Shiva in the form of a linga.
According to one story in the Shiva Purana, the practice of linga worship began as a result of Shiva testing his followers. At one time, Shiva gazed upon a group of sages performing sacrifices and singing praises to the god, and he set out to test their mettle and devotion.
Assuming the form of a hideous madman smeared in ashes, he strode stark naked into the forest grove and caused a ruckus with his dancing and antics. The sages’ wives had mixed reactions to this display, with some fleeing in terror and others approaching the disguised god and even fighting each other for his affections.
The sages were so enraged with the stranger—first for disrupting their meditations and sacrifices, and second for seducing their wives—that they cursed his penis to fall off. This caused chaos and mayhem throughout the cosmos as the phallus wandered around like a chariot without a driver. Wherever it went, fires sprang up, and everything burned.
In time, the sages learned from the god Brahma that the only way to stop the phallus was to keep it still and stationary. This, the god said, was only possible if the goddess Parvati created a specialized altar for the phallus in the shape of a vagina and if the sages drenched the wandering phallus with water, milk, sandalwood paste, flowers, and incense while reciting Vedic mantras. With this deed accomplished, the sages brought peace back to the cosmos. In this way, Shiva came to be worshipped in the form of a phallic image.11
Festivals and/or Holidays
Shivaratri, or “Shiva’s Night”
In another tale, the great gods Vishnu and Brahma came to blows over who was the greater god. Brahma insisted that he was the grandfather of Vishnu, while Vishnu said that he was Brahma’s father and that Brahma was born on a lotus springing from Vishnu’s navel. They assembled their armies and a great battle ensued in the sky, with each god riding on his flying mount. The clash of their weapons burned swathes of the world to ashes.
Finally, their battle was interrupted by a great pillar of fire that struck the ground between them. The pillar was so massively tall that neither could see its beginning or end. Together they decided to search for its bottom, which pierced straight through the netherworld, while its top reached far above the furthest tops of the heavens they could climb.
From the pillar sprang Shiva, who chastised the gods for their foolishness. The column was none other than a mighty display of his phallus. The god of destruction then memorialized that event as Shivaratri, “Shiva’s Night,” and said that whoever engaged in linga worship on that day would be rewarded the same amount as those who worshiped Shiva throughout the year. Aside from encouraging ritual worship on that day, the god said that devotees should fast all day and night, restrain their senses, and be truthful.12
Shiva temples often have images depicting this scene of Shiva as lingodbhavamurti, or “image [of Shiva] emerging from the linga.”
Shiva temples are common throughout South and Southeast Asia, some boasting gigantic images of the god. At Murudeshwar Temple in Karnataka, India, visitors can find a 123-foot statue of Shiva. Many of the temples found in Southeast Asia owe their architectural inspiration to Tamil-style temples in South India, due to the many Tamil merchants and pilgrims who traveled to spread their religious practices.
As one of the major deities of one of the world’s biggest religions, Shiva continues to be worshipped daily and regularly appears in films depicting popular Hindu mythology.
Perhaps the most well-known images of Shiva are his depictions as Nataraja, “Lord of the Dance,” within a wheel of fire. Visitors to the headquarters of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) will find a statue of Shiva as Nataraja, a gift from the Indian government to commemorate their collaboration. The Indian government chose this image of Shiva because of the parallel between Shiva’s cosmic dance and the study of the “cosmic dance” of subatomic particles.13
Dimmit, Cornelia, and J. A. B. van Buitenen, eds. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Purāṇas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.
Doniger, Wendy. Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook Translated from the Sanskrit. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
Johnson, W. J., trans. The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahābhārata: The Massacre at Night. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.