Cultures & Traditions

Shiva

Shiva, one of the most important gods of Hinduism, is a very complex deity. In the Vedic period (ancient times) he was seen as Rudra, the Aryan deity of storms and destruction. He is also an ancient god of fertility. As the god of death and rebirth, Shiva is sometimes imagined in his terrible aspect, as Lord of Destruction, who meditates among the ashes of corpses on a cremation ground. He is a supreme yogi, an ascetic (one who abstains from various worldly pleasures) of great powers, with wild hair and an ash-smeared body, who transcends ordinary reality. He is also married to Parvati, a daughter of the Himalayas, who is also called Uma, “the shining one.” They are often shown as a loving couple embracing each other. Their children, Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, and Skanda, a great warrior, often appear with the couple.

Shiva is a deity who often inhabits the farther limits of accepted activity. He delights in stepping outside of the norms of human behavior, and stories abound of his outrageous conduct and moral ambivalence, yet despite this he is considered beautiful, and is the object of intense devotion. Possessing such a complex character, Shiva is understandably known by many different names. He is Mahadeva (the Great God), Nataraja (the Lord of the Dance), Mahakala (the Great Black One), and Sundareshvara (the Beautiful Lord).

Early History of the Deity

The origin of Shiva is unknown. Certain elements of his character developed from the wild god Rudra. He was the terrifying god of storms and lightening, and also of cattle. Rudra appears in the Vedas but his cult did not survive into the historical period. The period of time between the worship of the Vedic Rudra and the first appearances of sculptures of the god Shiva in the first centuries CE is unclear. The considerable variation in Shiva’s personality from Rudra’s is no doubt due to the number of different cults which were absorbed into his worship during this period of uncertainty.

Shiva is also an ancient fertility deity. This is clearly implied by the most common form in which he is worshipped – the standing phallic pillar, or linga. This part of his cult can be traced back to the Vedas. The earliest surviving images of Shiva are probably those in the linga form.

Shiva as a Great Yogi

The word Yogi refers to the ascetic practitioners of meditation in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Despite his role as a husband and father, Shiva is renowned for his abandonment of settled life and his success in meditation and ascetic practices. This paradox is typical of Shiva’s complex behavior. Shiva as a yogi is depicted with a snow-white face, is dressed in a tiger skin, and has matted hair. He carries the ascetic’s waterpot and sometimes a staff. He is often depicted as an immobile ascetic—naked and his body smeared with ashes and his hair matted.

Forms of Shiva

Shiva was especially predominant in southern India. Kings and queens of the Chola dynasty (9th – 13th centuries) patronized the construction of great temples with a special emphasis on Shiva and the circle of deities surrounding him. During this era, bronze images of major deities were produced for temple worship and ritual procession. The Dallas Museum of Art’s Shiva Nataraja is an example of this type of bronze image [2000.377].

Shiva as Nataraja is the Lord of the Dance. As the god of rhythm he likes to dance in joy and in sorrow. Dancing symbolizes both the glory of Shiva and the eternal movement of the universe, which it serves to perpetuate.

Shiva in his Chandrashekhara form, literally Shiva with the moon in his crest, is identified by the crescent moon located on the left side of his matted locks of hair. The moon generally symbolizes the passage of time. It also represents the vessel from which the gods drank the intoxicating elixir known as soma.

Virabhadra was Shiva’s powerful warrior form created to destroy a sacrifice and avenge the death of his wife, Sati. When Daksha, Sati’s father, performed a great sacrifice, all the gods were invited except Shiva. Sati was so furious at this slight that she threw herself on the sacrificial fire. When Shiva learned about Sati’s death, he threw one of his hairs on the ground, and from that Virabhadra arose, destroying Daksha’s sacrifice and killing Daksha. See the DMA's sculpture of Virabhadra [2007.16]

Adapted from

  • A. Levosky, "Shiva." DMA unpublished material.