Q: Do you have any information about the god Shiva? Is Shiva still important in modern Hinduism?
A: Shiva’s roots reach back to the earliest forms of Vedic Hinduism, in which he was known as Rudra, the mountain god-- often vengeful, always mischievous, and sometimes just plain malevolent. As the Hindu conception of him developed, he retained these traits but also took on some more pragmatic characteristics, as a source of power and as the force of rejuvenation of the world through destruction. This can clearly be seen in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, in which Shiva, disguised as a hunter, has a violent encounter with the hero Arjuna, culminating in Arjuna’s worship of and devotion to Shiva and the resultant rewarding of great power in war to Arjuna.
Over time, Shiva has taken on numerous forms, each of which has its own special emphasis and particular manner of worship: Natarya, the lord of the dance; Durvasa, a Hindu wiseman; Bikhshatana, the begging lord; Bhairava, the awesome and terrifying form; Ishwara, the Shiva of Satya Sai Baba’s teachings, who himself has a cosmic, a dream, and a walking form; and many others.
His consort is Parvati, the devoted one. It is somewhat unclear whether the goddesses Kali and Durga (themselves the force behind the Shaktism school of Hinduism) are simply occasional consorts of Shiva, or alternate forms of Parvati. Together, Shiva and Parvati are commonly symbolized by the lingam-yoni, a graphic fertility image representing the union of male and female which today has sexual rituals or implications in its worship and instead mainly stands for the spiritual power of their union.
Shiva and Parvati are thought to have two sons. Ganesha is the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, the god of beginnings and of writing. In mystical Hinduism, Ganesha is called the lord of categories (elements of understanding). Skanda, the sometimes six-headed god of war, is the younger son of Shiva and Parvati, and is known by a multitude of names-- Murugan, Karttikeya, Subramaniam, etc., depending upon locale.
Today, the largest of the three main schools of bhakti or devotional Hinduism is based on following Shiva. While his various forms create a certain diversity in practice, there are some definite characteristics of the school as a whole. Externally, his followers commonly mark their foreheads with three horizontal strips, to identify themselves. Internally, there is a hard edge to his worship. Especially among the Tamil and southern Indians, Shiva devotion tends to be the strictest form of bhakti. The emphasis is often on asceticism and suffering. Shiva may be the destroyer of demons and the power behind the re-creation of the world, but he is also a harsh master and a god who is, above all, not safe and not predictable. Devotion to him may entail a mendicant lifestyle, a constant facing into dark spiritual powers, a life of poverty and solitude, or even self-inflicted pain.
The festival of Thaipusam demonstrates the full range of Shiva devotion. Originally commemorating the gift from Parvati to Skanda of a lance with which he could dispel demons, Thaipusam is now a general festival of Skanda, celebrated throughout Singapore, Malaysia, and Tamil Nadu. It is a day on which devotees may offer thanks to Skanda, but more typically offer penance. Some may only leave a small offering before an image of Skanda but many carry a kavadi, a wooden yoke or frame which holds containers of milk and honey. For many, the larger and heavier one’s kavadi, the greater one’s suffering and therefore the greater one’s devotion.
For many devotees, the festival is led up to with a month of extreme austerity. The day of Thaipusam is then begun with a ritual bath, and the believer puts himself into a trance. After that, his cheeks and tongue may be skewered in a bloodless ritual, and his kavadi frame may be hung from him by hooks in his skin. Then he may at last give his offerings of penitence.
It is not only through his sons and family and through temple puja or devoted lifestyles that Shiva remains important in modern Hinduism. For many contemporary Hindus, not part of any individual school, each day of the week is dedicated to a particular god, and Shiva is commonly one of them. His day might be celebrated with household rituals, prayers, and especially with fasting. As well, his image may even be found among those reverenced by devotees of Vishnu, for instance, at a Hare Krishna center. Many of recent years’ popular gurus and yoga masters call upon the ascetic and contemplative traditions of Shiva devotion. The pervasiveness and importance of Shiva has continued from the earliest forms of Hinduism until the present day.