Lord Shiva - The Mahadeva

Lord Shiva is generally identified as the Destroyer in the trinity or trimurthi of the Hindu pantheon of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. But there is much more to the Mahadeva than is conveyed through this simplistic definition. The word "Shiva" means "that which is not." Lord Shiva is quite literally seen as nothing or no-thing. The scriptures, such as the Shiv Puran state that both creation and dissolution of the universe happen in Shiva's lap, implying that the universe is born out of nothing, and will also dissolve into nothing. This is very much in line with what modern cosmology states about the evolution of the universe. The Big Bang theory implies and points to the fact that all of creation came out of nothingness, echoing what the sages of ancient India perceived several millennia ago.

Lord Shiva in History
Historically, Shiva has been the most important and significant god in the Indian subcontinent. He appears on the seals of the Harappan civilization in the Indus valley 4500 years ago. Seated in the padmasana posture commonly seen even today among yoga practitioners, Shiva is surrounded by several animals in a seal known as the Pashupati seal. These seals were probably used as identification markers during trade and commerce, and the presence of Shiva on such a seal implies that he held an important position in the Harappan civilization. Considering that the roots of Harappa go back 9000 years to the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh, it is quite possible that the worship of Shiva dates back at least nine millennia.

Before the advent of the Islamic invasions that began around 800AD, the Indian subcontinent was primarily a Shaiva culture. Most temples were constructed in honor of some form or aspect of Lord Shiva. With the arrival of the Muslim armies however, most of these temples, especially in the north of India, were destroyed, and Shiva worship receded to a certain extent. South India however remained a flourishing Shaiva culture, as evidenced by the many awe-inspiring temples in the region. Many of these temples are over a thousand years old and were themselves constructed over older versions of an already established sacred space. The Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu for example was probably a place of pilgrimage as far back as between two and three thousand years ago. The present version garba griha or sanctum sanctorum was built in the sixth century AD, and the larger structure of the temple came up over the next six or seven centuries, as several dynasties, most notable the Cholas and Pandyas, embellished it.

Forms of Lord Shiva


Shiva is worshiped in many forms. Considering the evidence from the Harappan civilization, he was probably worshiped as a yogi and pashupati originally. What's more, the form of Pashupati is related and probably derived from the form of Shiva as a yogi. Thus, Shiva as a yogi is almost certainly the most ancient aspect of Shiva.

In the yogic lore, Lord Shiva is known as the Adiyogi or the first yogi, and the Adi Guru or the first guru. He is the fount of the yogic sciences and the origin of yoga. It is said that about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, Shiva chose to impart the yogic sciences to humanity. He chose seven disciples, who are today known in the scriptures as the Saptarishis, and began to transmit this mystical technology to them. This event is said to have occurred on the banks of the Kantisarovar lake, which lies six kilometers beyond the Kedarnath Jyotirlinga. This holy day of transmission is still celebrated today as Guru Purnima, which falls in the lunar month of Ashadha in the Indian calendar, and corresponds to June-July in the Gregorian calendar.


Even today, the symbolism of Lord Shiva includes the presence of animals like Nandi the bull, who serves as his vehicle, and Vasuki the snake, around his neck. "Pashupati" literally means the "Lord of Animals," and it represents how a human being can rise beyond the animal instincts within him, to attain divinity. The process of "engineering" this rise by eliminating the "vasanas" or tendencies of animal nature, is known as yoga. Thus, Pashupati is probably a derivative of Adiyogi or Adi Guru, which perhaps explains why these two forms are combined in the Harappan seals.


Nataraja is the Lord of Dance, where Shiva is represented as the cosmic dancer performing his Anandatandava or Dance of Bliss. Shiva is enshrined as Nataraja in the Chidambaram Thillai Nataraja temple. Nataraja represents the fundamental mechanics of  creation. This fact has been recognized by the western scientific community as well. It is not aesthetics alone that led the renowned CERN high-energy laboratory in Laussane, Switzerland chose to install a two-meter-high Nataraja statue at their entrance.
Ananda Kumaraswami and Fritjoj Capra have both argued that the posture of the Nataraja statue is very similar to what is seen during interactions between sub-atomic particles in the bubble chamber used in high-energy physics experiments. They say that the statue is an allegory for the creation and destruction that is happening constantly in existence. Visit Spiritual Gateway for more information about Chidambaram and other Shiva temples.


Bhairava or Kala Bhairava is one of the more fearsome forms of Shiva. In mythological stories, Kala Bhairava is said to have ripped off Brahma's fifth head! Kala Bhairava is the Lord of Time, and the Lord of that realm that is beyond even death. This is represented in the story of Markandeya, where Shiva ensures that even Yama, the God of Death cannot lay his noose upon Markandeya's neck. Kala Bhairava is closely associated with the occult and is worshiped by many schools of ascetics and kapalikas - who walk around with a skull in their hand, just as Kala Bhairava walked around with Brahma's head.


Rudra is another ancient form of Shiva. He finds mention even in the Rig Veda which was composed over 5000 years ago. Rudra means "the roarer," and represents Shiva in a very fierce form. However, Rudra also represents a dialectical expression of a profound scientific truth. His roar is a metaphor for the Big Bang that kick-started the universe.

There is a still more subtle truth here that modern physics is only just beginning to decipher. According to yogi and mystic Sadhguru, Rudra represents not just one Big Bang, but a series of Big Bangs. In the yogic lore, it is said that the universe was not created once by 84 times. This is the reason why Hatha Yoga prescribes 84 fundamental asanas. Thus, Rudra represents many Big Bangs, compressed into a roar.

Modern physics is also coming to a similar conclusion today. Physicists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok in their Brane-theory conclude that the universe is not the result of one Big Bang, but is a result of a continuous series of Bangs. They have no clear picture of the number of Bangs though.

Lord Shiva's Companions


Parvati is Shiva's wife and consort. According to the myths, she is the embodiment of Shakti, the divine feminine or Prakriti, who was embodied to be the dual of Shiva, the divine masculine or Purusha. The story goes that Parvati was first born as Sati, only to immolate herself upon being humiliated by her father's disrespect for Shiva. She was then reborn as Parvati to Himavat, the king of the Mountains.

Parvati or Shakti is present at several temples, as the deity's consort. There are also many aspects of Parvati for whom there are full-fledged goddess temples, such as the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai.


Ganesha is seen as Shiva and Parvati's son, though in reality, he was created by Parvati alone, from her own body, using her tantric capabilities. Ganesha is often portrayed with an elephant head, though in many older texts, he is described as having a gana (one of Shiva's wild company). However, he was born quite a normal child, and acquired the unusual head after Shiva chopped it off!

Ganesha is worshiped as the remover of obstacles and is an extremely popular god in India. He has been worshiped since ancient times, and is also a significant part of tantric rituals.


Karthikeya is Shiva and Parvati's other son, though once again, this is not strictly true. Karthikeya was born solely of Shiva's seed. He is said to have been an immensely capable being and a fierce warrior. At the age of seven days, he fought Taraka the asura and slew him.

Karthikeya is also known as Skanda, Subramanya and Muruga. He is also known as Shanmukha or six-faced one, and is worshiped widely, especially in the south of India. He is primarily worshiped as a bachelor, though this is not always the case. The Ghati Subramanya hill in Karthikeya is known to have been his place of samadhi, and it is said that all the pebbles in this hill are six-faced, reflecting Karthikeya's own nature.


The ganas are Shiva's constant companions - his horde so to speak. They are described in various ways in the scriptures, but invariably, every description portrays them as demented or unusual beings who do not seem to belong to this world. Some of them are described as having many heads, some with limbs sticking out of their heads, and some without proper bodies. In fact, Ganesha is also described as having a gana's head rather than an elephant's head in certain texts. This is why he is known as Ganapati or "Chief of ganas."

The Worship of Lord Shiva
Shiva is perhaps the most widely worshiped among the many millions of gods in India. Several temples are dedicated to him across the four corners of the subcontinent - not just in India, but in Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal as well.

Historical Shiva Worship

The Kedarnath Temple in the Garhwal Himalayas.
Historically, Shaiva worship was much more predominant than it is today, and prior to the seventh century advent of Islam, almost all temples in India were dedicated to some form of Shiva or to Shakti.

The 4500-year-old Pashupati seal mentioned above is an example of this. Shiva is still the predominant deity in the south of India, and especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, whose state symbol is in fact a temple. However, Islam and its violent progress across the plains of North India over the last 13 centuries has lead to a decline of Shaiva worship in particular and the Hindu way of life in general. Several temples were desecrated and destroyed and mosques built over them by the invaders. Often, those who remained Hindus began to worship other deities such as Vishnu, and Devi or Shakti worship was relegated to hidden corners in the country due to the pressure from the patriarchal religion of Islam.

With the coming of the British, the situation did not ease much. Christianity was also a patriarchal, moralistic religion which sidelined Shakti worship and some of the more unorthodox modes of Shaiva worship such as tantra and even yoga. However, throughout the Islamic kingdom phase and during the British Raj, the Himalayas remained a stronghold of Shiva temples, and pilgrims often made the journey through the immense mountains to these temples. Kedarnath, Uttarkashi, Amarnath and Guptkashi are a few examples of these temples. South India still retains a strong presence of Shiva temples, include the Pancha Bhuta Sthalas or the temples of the five elements: Thillai Nataraja temple at Chidambaram, Ekambareshwar at Kanchi, Jambukeshwarar at Thiruvanaikavil, Arunachaleshwar at Thiruvannamalai, and Srikalahasti at Kalahasti.

The Linga

The linga is perhaps the most well-known aspect of Shaiva worship. Though seen as symbolic of a phallus by academics, this is an oversimplification of  what the linga represents. In yoga, the linga is seen as the first form that comes into existence from the nothingness, and also the last form before creation dissolves into nothingness again. Thus it is seen as a doorway to no-thing or Shiva. The lingas were created through a specific science that clearly set forth the technology of infusing a powerful energy into them.

The most famous lingas are the 12 Jyotirlingas or "lingas of light", the five pancha bhuta lingas, and the Dhyanalinga, which is the largest live linga at 13 feet 9 inches. Well-known lingas outside India include the one at the sixth century Katasnath temple in Pakistan, and the one at the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal.

Lord Shiva Worship in the Ancient World

Alain Daniélou, the author of “Gods of Love and Ecstacy – The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus,” has some very interesting comments to make about Shiva worship around the world. He draws parallels between Shiva worship and the worship of many gods of ancient cultures such as Egypt and Greece. For example, he takes the case of Dionysus, the god of the wine and wine-making and more importantly in this case, of ritual madness and religious ecstasy.

In his book, Daniélou speaks about the global presence of the Shaiva traditions in the ancient world, and also looks more closely at the parallels between Dionysus and Shiva: "The unity of Shivaite and Dionysiac concepts was recognised in the Hellenic world as a fact," he says. According to him, it was quite clear to the ancient Greeks that Dionysus and Shiva were one and the same god. Dionysus was recognized "as a god who was analogous to Shiva under one of his main aspects, as evidenced by the practices of left-hand Tantrism." He cites the works of Megasthenes, the Greek traveler who spent many years in the Mauryan Empire and the court of Chandragupta Maurya, where the Greek identifies Dionysus with Shiva. According to Megasthenes, this parallel Shiva/Dionysus worship was particularly prevalent in "the mountains where the vine is cultivated." Megasthenes also notes the similarities between the royal processions of the Mauryan emperor with the descriptions of Dionysus's followers' ecstatic processions. He notes that in ancient Greek works chronicling Alexander's travels in the subcontinent, "the soldiers of Alexander rushed to the Shivaite sanctuary of Nysa (near modern Peshawar, in the north of present-day Pakistan) to embrace their brothers in Dionysus, it did not enter their minds that this may have been another divinity, or a different cult."

Daniélou was a pretty colorful character himself. A French historian fascinated by India, he was captivated by India’s art and culture during his first visit to the country. Daniélou was initiated into a monastic order as Shiva Sharan, which means “One who is protected by Shiva.” He also learnt to play the veena in Varanasi, and later was appointed professor in the Banaras Hindu University (where I had met Prof. Rana) and director of the College of Indian Music. He wrote over thirty books on Indian music and culture in his lifetime. For his internationally recognized work, he was appointed an Officer of the Légion d'Honneur, an Officer of the Ordre National du Mérite, and Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Government.
According to the Greeks, Dionysus is said to have made a journey to India to propogate his cult of worship by a great conquest of India. Thus, he is supposed to have established his mode of worship in India too! The expedition is supposed to have lasted two years and when the god returned, he came riding an elephant.

Diodorus, another ancient historian, uses this myth to explain why there are many cults throughout the Middle East of the time, that were similar to the Shiva/Dionysus cult. However, looking at other classical sources, it is quite clear that the propagation was the other way around - the worship of Shiva traveled from India, through Asia and into Greece, where it became established as the worship of Dionysus.

For example, even the early Hebrews had such ecstatic rituals. Daniélou says, "Abraham came from Sumerian Ur, and despite Moses, the Hebrews also continued to take part in ecstatic rites up to David's time. In Egypt, it is Osiris whose myths and legends are connected with Shivaite myths. Osiris represents the powers of generation and growth. He is also the god of trees and plants." According to the ancient historians, Herodotus and Diodorus, Osiris is the same as Dionysus. The ancient legends says that Osiris came originally from India riding on a bull. He inducted into his army, the Satyrs, ( similar to Shiva's Ganas!) as dancers and singers, who were prone to many wild actions. When Osiris returned to India, he is supposed to have set up many cities. The direct contacts between Egypt and India are extremely ancient, and are independent of India's relations with Sumer, Anatolia and Crete. Highly important commercial exchanges were normally routed through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

Daniélou postulates how the spread of Shiva worship may have taken place. "After the last Ice Age, the great migrations from India to Portugal began in a climate which finally became more temperate during the fifth millennium." He speaks of the great ruins of mighty civilization dating back five to six thousand years that are being uncovered by archaeologists today - the Harappan civilization, the Sumerian, Crete and Malta. "These cultures bear the undeniable stamp of Shivaite thought, myths and symbols," he says. "The megalithic sanctuaries which are found everywhere from India to the British Isles and America, belong to the same culture, but are often the only vestiges of this stupendous civilization to have survived."

He says that from the beginning of around 5000 B.C. Shiva worship and its marks are visible in the remains of many civilizations. "The cult of the bull, the snake and the phallus, the royal symbol of the horns, Yoga positions, funeral chambers, both in those places where urban remains have survived and where only cliff-face engravings still exist," he says.
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