What is the story behind Shiva?
By Amy Underdown, London, UK
Shiva, one of three gods of the Hindu Trimurti and often considered as the most powerful deity in all Hinduism, has a fascinating story behind him.
Often the God associated with time in Hinduism, the beginning of time seems like a good place to start when learning Shiva’s history. Unlike Vishnu or other Hindu deities, Shiva does not have a creation story; instead, many believe he is a Sayambhu, which means he is not borne of another body and has instead always existed. This is a challenging concept to grasp, but essentially means that Shiva always was and always will be. His perpetual existence has earned him the nickname (amongst many others) of the ‘Adi-Dev’, which can mean ‘the first man’ or essentially the oldest being in Hinduism.
From a historical perspective, Shiva is the amalgamation of tribal beliefs that predate even the ancient Vedic texts of Hinduism. The image and characterisation of Shiva that we know today has therefore been shaped throughout time and is a collection of traditions, with some influences dating back to pre-historic cave paintings in 10,000 BCE. Millenia later, ancient Greek texts from the time of Alexander the Great refer to Shiva as the ‘Indian Dionysus’, once again showing the worldwide and lengthy influence on our modern-day perception of Shiva.
Our current understanding has been greatly solidified through important literature, such as the Puranas (in particular, the Shiva Purana and Linga Purana.) This has since been furthered by many scholarly religious texts throughout history, such as the Shiva-related Tantra literature written between the 8th and 11th centuries. In other words, there is a vast story behind Shiva that has changed over time.
Perhaps this is fitting, considering Shiva’s contradictory personality of extremes and his power over time. Shiva’s main role within the Hindu triumvirate is to ultimately destroy this age of the universe, but he simultaneously will oversee its recreation once his destruction is complete. It may seem counterintuitive that a deity would exist in order to destroy the creations of others, not least his triumvirate counterparts, but Shiva’s powers are not arbitrary and are instead intended to make way for new and positive creations. Hindus also believe that the universe is cyclical in nature, regenerating every 2,160,000,000 years, which is where the associations between Shiva and the concept of time come into play. The Tandav, a divine dance of fury and death, is what Shiva performs when the universe needs to come to its end.
His commitment to both destruction and creation isn’t the only contradiction that is inherent to Shiva’s personality. He is often known as being a hedonistic god with extreme tendencies, and yet in other stories lives a very tamed and restricted life by abstaining from earthly pleasures. This ascetic side takes its form in his extreme devotion to meditation as the true way to find happiness. However, he is also seen as the master of ghosts and evil spirits, as well as the leader of thieves and villains.
One famous story about Shiva exemplifies his tendency towards the extremes of divine rage and ascetic meditation. Upon hearing that his wife, Sati, had jumped into a sacred fire and was dying, he attempted to perform the ferocious Tandav before it was time. Other deities were eventually able to calm Shiva down before the universe was in jeopardy. Following this, in both grief and repentance, Shiva entered a deep meditative state. Only once his new wife, Parvati, was born of Sati did this meditative period end. His loyalty to Parvati is commonly depicted in Hindu art as they are often seen together.
A deity of contradictions, Shiva the Destroyer has a tumultuous history which is reflective of his many responsibilities and characterisations. His importance over the universe, but also his personality, make him a popular choice in Hindu art.