Lord Shiva – The Destroyer

Shiva (Siva), along with Vishnu and Brahma, is one of the Trimurti deities of Hinduism. He is worshipped throughout the Hindu world. His beautiful consort Parvati usually accompanies him. Her avatars are Uma, Durga, or Kali. Shiva’s sons are Skanda (six-faced) and the elephant-headed Ganesha.

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Shiva is depicted in the Vedas as Rudra (the Howler). Rudra was described as the destructive power of rainstorms. With a red face, a blue neck, matted hair locks, and his body smeared with ashes, he dwelled in the Himalayas, where his servants were thieves and ghosts. He wore an animal skin, a cobra as a garland, and a crescent moon as a hair ornament. He carried a trident and used arrows and thunderbolts. He was worshipped in fear without the assurance that worshipping would provide protection. Other weapons used by Rudra included fever, coughs, and poisons. However, he was also a sustainer of life because he had 1,000 remedies for diseases and poisons. In the Svetasvatara Upanisad, Rudra and Shiva were identified as one and the same.

During the 100s b.c.e. shrines to Shiva were built, which included phallic symbols. Eventually these developed into a symbolic phallic lingam. Sometimes there would be four faces depicted on the sides of the symbol. These were representative of the omniscient character of the deity. In the development of Shiva worship the lingam was eventually seated in a shallow dish with a symbolic yoni representing a vulva. These were representative of Shiva’s sakti (female reproductive power). As a symbol of Shiva’s potency as a power for generating life the lingam and yoni were interpreted as symbols of creative power. Sometimes Shiva has been represented as half male and half female (Lord Ardhanarisvara).


In epic poems and in the Puranas, Shiva’s destructive side was modified by the development of a kinder, gentler side. In myths and in art Shiva (Rudha) was represented as the great yogin. Seated on Mount Kailas in Tibet he would meditate and thereby sustain the world. He was Parvati’s lover, and the “lord of the dance,” who trampled on time and enacted the destiny of the universe. Philosophical interpretations of Saivism interpreted him as the Great God or as the timeless, absolute consciousness that underlies the cosmos. In other myths Shiva was presented as an uncouth ascetic. Dwelling in cemeteries and on cremation grounds, he would smear his body with the ashes of the dead, or mark his forehead with three horizontal stripes of white ash. Myths told of the destructive power of Shiva declared that he wore a necklace of the skulls of deities he had outlived or had killed. As Shiva theology slowly expanded, he became a universal preserver or protector of life.

Eventually Shiva devotees (Saivas) organized themselves into orders. Some engaged in shocking behaviors— living in cremation grounds, using skulls as alms bowls, and practicing bloodletting rituals and sacrifices. 366 Shiva In the 400s several sects of Saivism developed, and Sanskrit manuals (agamas) were written by some sects. The agamas described beliefs and gave directions for building temples, carving images, and for practicing sect rituals. The sects were generally ascetics who also had a lay following. Among these sects were the Pasupatas founded by Lakulisa, the Kalamukhas, Kapalikas, Trikas, and Kashmiris.

In the 700s the Saivas sect developed the Saiva Siddhanta theological tradition in South India. The Saivas used the Sanskrit word for wisdom (siddhanta) to expound the wisdom of Shiva as the supreme lord. The Saiva Siddhanta taught that souls and matter are created by the power that comes from Brahman (maya) and that they do really exist. Souls were in bondage to karma but could be delivered from their ignorance by the liberating power of Shiva. Spiritual power can be acquired from an authentic guru who serves as a spiritual director.

In the 600s Saivite religion was promoted by a series of talented religious poets who wrote in the South Indian language of Tamil. Within 100 years religious poetry was set to music and sung over wide areas. The music invited a mystical union with the deity. However the union was not like that of Indian mystics, because the Saivite mystical union was not one of absorption into the divine; nor was there a loss of personality. Nonbelievers challenged the theology of the early Tamil poets. The philosopher Sankara developed arguments for the impersonal power of Brahman.


The Saivasiddhanta theologians defended Saivite beliefs against opponents by stressing the protective role of Shiva. Meykandar and his disciple Arulnandi, both Saivasiddhanta theologians of the 1200s, called Shiva Siva Pasupati, or “the Lord of Cattle” (like a “good shepherd”) who cared for the cattle. Saiva theology taught that ignorance kept souls from knowing their real nature. Ignorance made them blind to spiritual realities and to Shiva’s helping powers. Consequently they remained bound to the sufferings of this world by three ropes: the rope of ignorance, the rope of the penalties of karma, and the rope of maya (illusions about this world). Shiva came to be addressed as pati, or Lord, because he offered many spiritual aids that could be used by people to gain liberation from the three bonds.

Andrew J. Waskey

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