Who is Shiva, the destroyer-god, who with Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver, forms the Hindu Trimurti? What relationship exists between this god and humanity? Is he to be prayed to, to be worshipped, to be feared, to be appeased? He is said to be Rudra, the terrible, the destroyer, the regenerator, the frequenter of the burning-ground, the Cosmic dancer, the eternal Contemplator, the Mahayogi, the patron of all the yogis. Is he entirely a Hindu concept? Or do we find him as Phtah, Typhon and Set in the Egyptian, as Saturn-Kronos in the Greek, as Jehovah in the Jewish, as Baal in the Chaldean teachings? Does not his vehicle, Nandi, the Bull, have its counterpart in Apis, the Egyptian sacred bull? And is not his symbol, the lingam, that of every creative god in every nation?
The fundamental idea needs to be grasped that Shiva is a great god in Nature, a power in the Cosmos, the Sound, the Word, or Vach, that stirs all into activity. It is his drum that is the origin of Sanskrit, the language of the gods, Panini says. It is Nature's call, the rhythm of the Universe, the Song of Life, the sound of the waves, the rumbling of the thunderclap, the vast sounds emitted by every aspect of Nature, from the bursting of the bud to the earthquake, the "silvery buzzing of the golden fire-fly" to the trumpeting of the elephant. Shiva is Motion, which is positive and negative, present eternally in every atom during this Manvantara. He is within every atom; every atom is part of him; he is within every man and every man is part of him. There is that aspect of Shiva which we do not yet perceive, for it is without the sphere of our consciousness, and that aspect which is in us and which we are dimly beginning to recognize as the perceiver through sorrow and joy. Evolution is the process of becoming one with the eternal perceiver-contemplator. Briefly put, Shiva is the All. He is the universal spiritual essence of Nature. We degrade him by our anthropomorphic conceptions of him. Nature alone can incarnate the delusions which the illusions of Nature produce in us. It is because destruction is necessary for all changed and progress that man fears him and he has become the dreaded god of the burning-ground. Unfortunately for us, his regenerative aspect has been lost sight of. But, when this is seen, then destruction is welcomed, for it is only through destruction resulting in regeneration that we progress. This recognition marks a stage in human awakening and brings to mind H.P.B.'s statement: "Woe to those who live without suffering."
Not all decay and destruction need to be feared. The seed dies to live as a plant; the passions and sensuous thoughts of man must die to live as a conscious entity in Eternity. Once this is recognized, all destruction is seen not merely as inevitable, but as beautiful, for it reveals the sacrificial aspect of life, unconscious in the lower kingdoms, to be consciously recognized and used by the human being.
Shiva is the patron of all the yogis. His drum rhythmically sounds through the cycle of decay and rebirth. As Krishna's flute calls on all men to see the beauty in life, the harmony of all Nature with the divine, so Shiva's drum calls the one who sees beneath the beauty the agony of destruction. As the Buddha first saw the beauty of life and later saw that each species lived on the other, that nothing came to birth save by suffering and struggle, and began to search for the unifying factor in life, finally reaching the glorious vision of the rhythmic movement of the stars, of the cyclic motion of the waters, and of the link between the milk of the mother and the poison of the snake—so a knowledge of Shiva brings us, in however small a degree, nearer this understanding. In time we, too, can see that there is "a Power divine which moves to good."
How shall we learn to look for Shiva in the battle of life? Even if he is the power in Nature that causes decay, he is the regenerator, the deliverer, the healer, the ever-auspicious, the friend of all beings. Did he not, at the "churning of the ocean of milk," drink up, with overflowing compassion, the terrible poison called Halahala, that was threatening all living creatures with extinction, so that nectar could be secured from the ocean and the world could be saved? The poison could not harm him but left a blue stain on his throat; hence his name Nilakantha. This story from the Bhagavata Purana is a reminder to us, not only of what Shiva has done, but of what we have to do with the poison around us.
There is also the allegory of Shiva transforming lumps of flesh into boys, and calling them Maruts, to show the transformation of senseless men into rational beings; the Maruts, in esoteric teachings, are identical with some of the Agnishwatta Pitris, the human intelligent Egos.
Shiva is portrayed as the wielder of the thunderbolt and the possessor of hundreds of bows and arrows. He protects the worthy with drawn bow, is the Lord of those that fight against wickedness, and makes the evil-doers suffer. There is no place where Shiva is not. A story tells us of Brahma and Vishnu discussing who was the greater of the two, when they suddenly saw before them a column of light, seemingly without beginning or end, which came through the earth and proceeded upwards to the sky. They decided to go, the one upwards to the end and the other downwards to the beginning and meet again in the middle to tell each other of what they had found. They went and returned, but had found neither beginning nor end. Then they saw Shiva before them and he told them that all three—creation, preservation, destruction-regeneration—were equally important.
But Shiva is most commonly depicted as the contemplator and the dancer. As the eternal contemplator he sits in meditation in his abode on Mount Kailasa, surrounded by the eternal snows. Around him is peace and happiness. At times his third eye roves over the world to see where there may be the shining light of a devotee. But he himself sits in motionless, withdrawn, divine contemplation.
There are times when this contemplation is disturbed, and two stories show us what disturbs it. In the one he is shown carrying the dead body of his wife Sati over his shoulder and stamping through the world in such an agony of grief that all life begins to wither and desolation begins to reign over all. At last Vishnu, in order to preserve what remained of life, had to destroy the dead body so that Shiva, no longer encumbered, might return to Kailasa to resume his contemplation. In another story it was playfulness, action without knowledge of results, that brought near-tragedy. One day Parvati with her attendants came up to the Lord Shiva when he was deep in contemplation. She was in a gay mood. All around were devas and rishis filled with ecstasy in the wonderful presence of the Divine Contemplator. All Nature herself was at peace. Parvati, slipping behind him, placed her hands over his eyes. At once the light of the world went out and fire began to destroy all life. Filled with fear, Parvati begged him to return to his contemplation, and once again peace was restored. Trouble comes to the world through foolish actions as much as by wrong actions!
The picture of Shiva as the divine dancer of three different dances symbolizes different aspects of him. First we have the Cosmic dance. He danced before the gods and the heavenly dwellers in the beginning, and it was the sound of his drum that changed chaos into cosmos and made rhythm pulsate throughout the world. The other gods also helped, forming the chorus and playing the various instruments.
In the second dance, the Tandava, he dances in the burning-ground, a terrible place of death and decay feared by all. This dance symbolizes the destruction of evil, of our bad desires and emotions, our wrong thoughts and actions. Our lower nature which harbours the evil tendencies becomes the burning-ground, and if we would dance with the Dancer then we will see the relationship between the eternal and unchanging and that which changes. Our Karma is heavy and unpleasant because of our evil deeds and desires, and Shiva's rhythmic dance helps us to learn how to handle ourselves so as to purify our nature more quickly.
The third dance, the Nadanta, the dance of Nataraja, shows him as the centre of the universe. He has four arms; in one right hand he holds the drum, standing for creative sound; with the other he makes the sign, "Do not fear"; one left hand holds fire, the fire of destruction or change, and the other points to his triumph over the dwarf. Around him is the circle of fire. It is Shiva's eternal dance of creation, maintenance, destruction and deliverance. The macrocosmic dance on the vast stage of the firmament has its counterpart in the microcosm, in the heart of the individual.
During the Vigil Night of Shiva, Mahashivaratri, we are brought to the moment of interval between destruction and regeneration; it symbolizes the night when we must contemplate on that which watches the growth out of the decay. Just as the mediaeval European knight spent the night before his investiture in the Church alone with his sword, so during Mahashivaratri we have to be alone with our sword, the Shiva in us. We have to look behind and before, to see what evil needs eradicating from our heart, what growth of virtue we need to encourage. Such a dark night of the soul comes to all of us; it is a time when desolation lies before and behind us, and in the burning-ground of the heart there seems no life. No one escapes this dark night. Even the Christ suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane. To keep before us the memory of Shiva's dance will save us from despair and give us the courage to pass on.
Shiva is not only outside of us but within us. He is the creator and the saviour of spiritual man, as he is the good gardener of Nature. He weeds out the plants, human and cosmic, and kills the passions of the physical to call to life the perceptions of the spiritual man. To unite ourselves with the One Self is to recognize the Shiva in us.
How can we do this? By austerities. Only by austerities can his powers be attained, as many stories point out. Nothing is given; all must be fought for and won. Beauty of form will not win him; Uma with all the perfection of form and character was unable to make him notice her. But when she began her austerities, her body covered with the customary ashes, her hair unkempt, then did he notice her. Austerities must be thought of not as physical postures but as efforts towards the destruction of all evil in us through devotion and contemplation.
To endeavour to see Shiva in our heart is to practise his contemplation and to perform his dance; seeing joy in suffering, freeing ourselves from limitations, will in time make us sense the Universe in us, the Shiva in us, the Motion in us, and make us see ourselves as part of Nature's sound. Life is a song, Light on the Path tells us. "Learn from it the lesson of harmony."
Further, if we can "personify" without "materializing" the concept of Shiva, we gain some thought-provoking knowledge. We are told that Rudra-Shiva, the great Yogi, is the forefather of all the Adepts. And, connecting this with the wonderful description given in The Secret Doctrine of those spiritual Beings who helped in the initial stage of human evolution, we learn that in Esotericism Shiva is one of the greatest Kings of the Divine Dynasties. He is the Patron of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Root-Races.
As recorded by one of the Great Masters:
Absorbed in the absolute self-unconsciousness of physical Self, plunged in the depths of true Being, which is no being but eternal, universal Life, his whole form as immovable and white as the eternal summits of snow in Kailasa where he sits, above care, above sorrow, above sin and worldliness, a mendicant, a sage, a healer, the King of Kings, the Yogi of Yogis, such is the ideal Shiva of Yoga Shastras, the culmination of Spiritual Wisdom.
Rare indeed is this human birth. The human body is like a boat, the first and foremost use of which is to carry us across the ocean of life and death to the shore of immortality. The Guru is the skilful helmsman; divine grace is the favourable wind. If with such means as these man does not strive to cross the ocean of life and death, he is indeed spiritually dead.