Shiva as the Great Unknown
We live in a magical and mysterious universe pervaded by an unseen intelligence and subtle energies, which reach far beyond the merely human concerns that dominate our minds today. There is a sacred order to the cosmos, reflecting vast and eonic forces working at a different level altogether than our ordinary historical, personal and social preoccupations. This power of consciousness behind the universe is transformational and cataclysmic in nature; it does not conform to our expectations, needs and demands, or to the formulations and opinions of our intellect.
We usually dwell at the surface of this greater cosmos, afraid of its unpredictable currents, in which all our civilizational achievements can seem but a glimmer or a shadow. Yet besides our usual desires for the enjoyments of our familiar outer world, we also possess a strong inner urge to connect with this greater unknown reality, even if we do not have any clear idea about what it may be. This drive for transcendence becomes the basis of religion and spirituality, among other deeper searches for truth, though we may reduce these to more mundane compulsions and keep them scaled down into the human world.
This sacred cosmic mystery has been formulated in many ways in the different cultures of the world going back to the dawn of our species. It has become the prime concern of many esoteric groups, including various orders of monks, renunciates and spiritual communities of different types. If we look at India and its great Yoga tradition, we find union with that mysterious unknown reality as the essence of India’s cultural striving and the subject of a massive civilizational development.
“Not what is known by the mind, by that through which the mind is known,” Vedantic philosophy brilliantly echoes this search for what is beyond the known. The ancient Vedas reflect this cosmic mystery in strange mantras of light and fire that cannot be translated and defy logic in their formulation. That supreme truth takes us beyond all names and forms, words and ideas; yet we must approach it through some type of expression in order to relate to it and bring it into our lives.
It is probably in the form of the great deity of Lord Shiva that we most confront the great cosmic mystery in Yogic thought and imagery. What is the reality behind Lord Shiva, who is regarded as the great Lord of Yoga, and the supreme deity beyond all limitation?
Shiva is perhaps the most misunderstood of the Hindu pantheon, an enigmatic figure who suggests a reality beyond the bounds of convention or even reason. Shiva with his retinue of wild animals and ghosts, his trident, matted hair, the crescent Moon on his head that also bears the descent of the heavenly Ganga, and his behavior that acts in defiance of all ordinary norms stands apart from all other deities like the harbinger of a different order of reality.
This mysterious reality of the Cosmic Shiva is not merely a cultural or religious issue, some strange aspect of Hindu thought, but is relevant to the spiritual well-being of every individual. It reflects the great mystery and the cosmic power in which we all live, but which overrides and transcends all that we of our own efforts attempt do in our ordinary lives.
To reach and unfold the power of the Cosmic Shiva is the key both to our ultimate personal well-being and to the upliftment of the human race as a whole. Indeed, that Shiva consciousness is also seeking to enter more deeply into humanity and bring us into a greater alignment with the cosmos that can spiritualize all that we are. We can ignore this great unknown for a time, but we remain surrounded by it on every side and it holds the key to our future as well as to our origins in the dark night of time. Our modern humanity trapped in the illusion of information and technology needs to confront and is beginning a new reckoning with this supreme mystery.
Shiva, we should note, is not the simply name of a Hindu deity. Shiva, which means “that which is auspicious,” refers to the auspicious effect of our contact with the unknown, the nameless, the great mystery, what is beyond all limitation, time, space and action. In this regard, Shiva has no name and also an infinite number of names. It is this inner reality of Shiva that we need to understand, not simply Shiva as a religious deity or a cultural form. Chanting the name of Shiva means going beyond all names. It is the resonance of the cosmic silence.
The Universal Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva
Probably, the simplest and most common explication of Shiva, which one finds in the traditional literature, is that there is a trinity of divine forces governing the process of time in the universe with Brahma as the Creator, Vishnu as the Sustainer, and Shiva as the Destroyer.
Yet this description also causes the shadow of a destructive force to be cast upon Shiva – as if his cosmic role was to promote negativity and death. However, according to the view of Vedic philosophy, which is unlike that of western theology, there is in truth no real creation or destruction of anything in the universe. The visible universe is but a manifestation of the timeless unmanifest, like the waves arising from the sea. We do not attribute the ocean with the action of creating and destroying waves. The wave arises from and returns to the sea, being nothing but water all along. When the wave goes back to the sea, it is a return, not annihilation. Shiva is that power of eternal return and transformation, not a mere force of destruction.
There is a process of manifestation only. In this regard, Lord Brahma initiates the manifestation, setting forth the prime laws and principles behind the universe. Lord Vishnu protects and sustains the manifestation, and Lord Shiva dissolves or completes it. According to this view, Shiva is the great deity who dissolves all limitations, difficulties, sorrows and bondage, taking us back to the freedom of the unmanifest. Shiva is the state of mergence to which all things must return.
However, according to another and deeper view, Shiva represents the transcendent (what is called Brahman or the Absolute in Vedanta thought), Vishnu the cosmic lord (Ishvara), and Brahma the cosmic mind (Mahat Tattva). The Divine power in its higher essence beyond all manifestation is known as Shiva. When it enters into human beings it becomes Vishnu, and when it becomes the basis of our intelligence it becomes Brahma. We can only have an intimation from our mortal world of that supreme immortality. Vishnu, on the other hand, takes a human form to guide, protect and save us. Brahma is ever present as knowledge, teaching and ritual.
Shiva as the Supreme Reality
As the primal reality, Shiva is looked upon in four main ways. Shiva is first the original light of reality, Prakasha. Second, he is the immortal life force, Prana. Third, he is primal sound, OM or Pranava. Fourth he is the primal being or pure consciousness, Atman orPurusha, our own inner Self and true nature.
Shiva as the primal power of light and awareness represents our own higher search for Self-realization, and is not simply an external deity. That inner light is the real basis of life and is beyond all birth and death. It is ever resounding as the cosmic vibration that is both the manifest and unmanifest reality. It is our true being beyond the limitations of body and mind, which are but its instruments.
Shiva is the embodiment of mystery. His true nature cannot be known and does not dwell in the domain of speech or mind, word or thought. We contact Shiva when we realize the limited nature of all that we can know or think. This makes Shiva something of a terrible deity, the power of the great unknown that renders our lives but a grain of dust in the cosmic dance. Shiva is the deity of paradox. He stands above all dualities. He is beyond good and evil. He is the being of cosmic consciousness far beyond the constraints of any creaturely mind and its compulsions.
Shiva is also the great deity of nature, the lord of animals or Pashupati. He is the lord of the wild. He really has no human form. We find his face and form hidden in nature, whether in the mountain, tree, the cloud, the animal or the rock.
The Duality of Shiva and Shakti
Yet Shiva forms a duality of cosmic powers at a manifest level as the cosmic masculine force, along with his complimentary Shakti or feminine principle.
Shiva is the male, the fire, the mountain, and power of stillness, as Shakti is the female, water, valley, and power of action. Shiva is the central still point and Shakti is the turning of the wheel. Shiva is the root and trunk of the tree; Shakti is the branches, leaves, flowers and fruit.
The worship of Shiva and Shakti or the dual cosmic powers represents the natural religion of all humanity and of the entire universe, which revolves around honoring these two forces in all their manifestations in both the animate and inanimate realms. We find this honoring of the dual mystery in all native and traditional cultures, and in the ancient world overall. Shiva is the standing stone, pyramid or obelisk, while Shakti is reflected in the ring stone, the altar or the cave such as we already find worshipped in the earliest humanity long before what we call history began.
Looking back in time and history, we could say that Shiva is the deity of the shaman also, and as such perhaps the oldest formulation of the sacred in humanity He is the lord of the dance, of ecstasy, of the drum, of dream and trance which the Shaman seeks. To Shiva belongs the sacred fire and the sacred plant, the Agni and Soma of Vedic lore. In fact the Vedas are nothing but the mantric expression of Shiva, with the four main Vedic deities of Agni, Soma, Surya, and Indra or Fire, Sun, Moon and Lightning as the four aspects of his light.
However, as the cosmic masculine force, Shiva is not a mere phallic symbol or glorification of sexuality or promiscuity, as some would like to portray. He is also the great ascetic and yogi, reflecting the highest self-discipline and inner equipoise. He indicates the power that pervades the universe and allows us to ascend in consciousness to our highest potential, which is that of Self-realization.
Shiva is symbolized as a bull, or his vehicle is the bull (nandi). Yet this is not the bull as a mere symbol of virility but the bull of dharma or cosmic law. The bull represents the spirit or the Purusha, the enduring principle of awareness which holds all things together and gives significance to all.
Forms of Shiva
Shiva has many forms through which his different aspects and attributes are worshipped and brought into our lives.
He is Nataraj, the great lord of the cosmic dance of ecstatic dissolution, who consumes the entire universe in the all-pervasive cosmic fire.
He is Dakshinamurti, the enlightened youth who sitting beneath a banyan tree teaches through silence even the most senior of the sages.
He is Chandrashekhar who holds the crescent Moon on his head as an ornament and has the power to control the mind.
He is Nilakantha or the blue-throated deity who can transform poison into bliss.
He is Gangadhara who holds the Ganga River on his head, allowing the cosmic waters to stream into the Earth.
As Shankara, the giver of boons, he is auspicious, and promotes healing, blessings and abundance.
As Rudra, the fiery one, he is fierce, demanding purification, humility and self-abnegation.
There are special forms of Shiva for all the directions, elements and chakras, which are the inner ruling powers behind nature. Everything in the universe has its Shiva or spirit-power, through which we can connect to the Cosmic energy and Prana.
Shiva reflects the entire universe composed of both fire or Agni and water or Soma. He is Vayu or the cosmic wind that animates all things and balances all dualities. He is Mahakala, the great lord of time and eternity. His forms are innumerable and his names are unending.
Shiva’s consorts or feminine counterparts are similarly many in name and form. Kali or the Goddess of Time and eternity, Durga or She who takes us beyond all difficulties, Parvati or the Daughter of the mountain, Uma, the female ascetic, Lalita or she who plays, Sundari or the Goddess of cosmic beauty – these are but a few of her innumerable manifestations. Just as Shiva is Mahadeva or the Great God, his consort is Mahadevi or the Great Goddess. Her forms are as diverse and paradoxical as those of Shiva’s, reflecting the universal power that is rooted in transformation, not in fixed appearances.
Shiva as the Great Deity of Yoga
The quest for Shiva, whatever name we may wish to use, is perhaps the essence of humanity’s perennial search for immortality. Yoga as a sadhana or spiritual practice rests upon cultivating the Shiva consciousness of the highest awareness and bliss. This reality of Shiva is the power of silence, stillness, and non-doing, not the ordinary power of self-assertion and aggression. It works through inaction, peace and balance, in which one is centered in one’s own being and grasps the entire universe as a manifestation of one’s own thoughts. This power of Shiva is not the outer force that displays itself for personal gain, nor the outer effort to control that makes a show of itself to gain adulation. It is the spiritual force that turns things around, draws things within, and takes them back to their source, in which a deep unity remains. Shiva symbolizes this balancing and calming effect of all Yoga practices.
Shiva is the lord of cosmic sound or the cosmic music, particularly the great mantra OM from which all the Vedas and all mantras are said to derive, and the entire universe generated. The Sanskrit alphabet is said to arise from the beating of Shiva’s drum, whose resonance pervades all space. He has other important bija mantras of Hum and Haum or Haum Joom Sah. Hum represents the cosmic fire or Agni. Haum represents the Cosmic Prana, two important aspects of Shiva energy. Haum Joom Sah reflects the speed and power of his energy moving into us and taking us beyond from the standpoint of this Cosmic Prana.
Perhaps most notable for dealing with all of life’s difficulties and dangers is Shiva’s aspect as Tryambakam, the Three-Eyed One orMrityunjaya, the one who takes us beyond death, as the rishi Vasishta lauds in the Rig Veda.
Tryambakam yajamahe sugandhim pushtivardhanam; urvarukam iva bandhanat, mriyor mukshiya mamritat.
We worship the three eyed one, who is fragrant and increases nourishment. As a gourd from its stalk, may he release us from death but not from immortality.
This is the basis of the famous but much longer Vedic Rudram chant to Shiva in the Yajur Veda, in which one learns to honor the Divine power and mystery not only in beauty, bliss and happiness, but also in sorrow, difficulty and death. Shiva helps us embrace both sides of all dualities so that we can move beyond all dualities to te essence of oneness which is the deepest awareness. Shiva is the very death of death. He carries all time and existence in the winking of his eyes. Once we reach him, there is no more death and sorrow, which are revealed as but the shadow of a deeper unending light.
Relative to specific Yoga practices, Shiva is the master of asana; particularly the seated pose that is the most important of all the asanas. He is usually portrayed in either Siddhasana or Padmasana (lotus pose) often surrounded by animals that symbolize the other asanas as well.
Shiva is also the great lord of Prana or the cosmic life energy. The mantras Ham Sa and So Ham, the natural sounds of the breath, reflect the pranic dance of Shiva within us. They represent the voice of Shiva reverberating at the core of our being. In yogic pranayama we are cultivating the power of Shiva or the Cosmic Prana in one aspect or another.
Shiva is the great guide to meditation, the supreme guru, teaching us to observe, contemplate and not react, providing us with a cosmic view of the events in our lives and the emotions in our minds, so these can never overwhelm us. Yet Shiva is not the deity of a mere intellectual meditation or any mere personal self-analysis; he is the deity of merging the mind back into its source in the infinite, giving up the personal mind for the universal consciousness. Shiva takes us beyond the preconceptions of the mind to the consciousness that pervades all space and is not bound to any memory patterns, fears or desires.
Shiva as Yogeshvara or the Lord of Yoga is the ideal ascetic, monk, swami and sadhu. Worshipping him we can master all aspects and practices of Yoga and meditation.
There are those who fear this Shiva energy or who would denigrate it as something harsh, uncontrolled, animal, or sensuous. Even many academicians take this approach to Shiva as a deity, reading human weaknesses, rather than cosmic transcendence into his mysterious symbolism. This is because they misunderstand Shiva’s cosmic power as something negative, no more than the wild forces of nature that would disrupt our lives.
However, Shiva is also the supreme healer, bringing rest, peace and rejuvenation to body, mind and heart. This occurs when we surrender to his power as holding a deeper love and bliss. In this regard, Shiva is also the deity of doctors, known as Vaidyanath or the Lord of all Ayurvedic physicians. Shiva as fiery Rudra helps us overcome febrile and infectious diseases and brings about purification. Yet as watery Soma, Shiva holds the powers of nourishment, rejuvenation and revitalization.
The worship of Shiva pervades the Yoga tradition from the most ancient to modern times. The Nath Yogis who gave us Tantric Yoga, Hatha Yoga and Siddha Yoga, were followers of Lord Shiva who is Adi Nath or the original Nath guru. This includes the great teachers Goraknath and Matsyendranath, who still have wide followings in India today.
Return to Shiva
Our return to this original clear light of reality, which is Shiva, is the essence not only of yogic spirituality, but also of all true science, art, philosophy and psychology.
To achieve this higher state of awareness, we can practice Shiva Yoga or the Yoga of Shiva, of which there are many varieties in many Shaivite traditions. Shiva is the great deity of the Himalayas with many forms from Amarnath in Kashmir, to Kedarnath near the origin of the Ganga, to Pashupati Nath in Nepal, and Mount Kailas in Tibet. His great city is Kashi (Varanasi), but also has Uttar Kashi in the Himalayas. There are many famous Shiva Jyotirlingas or lingas of light, mainly in Central India, like Omkareshvara, and a number of Shiva sites in the South like Tiruvannamali, the fire linga of Lord Shiva, where Ramana Maharshi, regarded by many as a modern incarnation of Lord Shiva, has his ashram located. This worship of Shiva has gone global as in the example of the Kauai Hindu temple in Hawaii of the Hinduism Today magazine and its powerful crystal Shiva linga.
Yet we can also approach Shiva in a personal manner apart from the formalities of older traditions. To contact that state of Shiva within ourselves is a simple matter of allowing ourselves to get lost in nature, particularly in the mountains or the forests, and to also get lost in our own inner nature beyond the mind, giving up our psychological being to our universal sense of Self. To contact Shiva we must be willing to let go of everything, we must be willing to surrender the mind’s need to know for a willingness to be. This is not at all easy, though it is something that all of us can gradually approach.
As the Shiva force begins to manifest within us, it creates a certain pressure inside our minds and nervous systems for us to purify, to change, and to transcend We must allow its currents to move and they will facilitate a deeper healing that dissolves all our problems and does not merely suppress them. But this requires that we do not resist the higher Shiva force, but rather welcome it as the call of our true nature.
One may ask: Does it matter what one calls that reality, even if one does not know the word Shiva or understand the yogic symbolism of Shiva? That is probably the case, but connecting with the power of Shiva through traditional forms and ways of knowledge can be a great aid in understanding that supreme unknown. Yoga helps us return to that great mystery of Shiva by the path of previous great Yogis and sages whose blessings can guide us along the way, step by step.
May that Supreme Shiva manifest within you and remove all limitations!