THE HINDU DEITIES : Siva - The Destroyer

Naeem Osman Memon

Review of Religions, March 1994

Siva, the third person of the Hindu Trimurti is generally considered to be the god of death and destruction but in some Vedic literature, he is credited with being the creator of all things.

Siva, the third person of Trimurti, generally referred to as Mahadeva and Maheshvara, i.e., the great god is considered in Hindu mythology to be the god of death and destruction who annihilates the material cosmos. Yet, in some Vedic literature, he is credited with being the first in existence and the creator of all things. There is for instance a legend in the Puranas in which it is stated that Maha Kala, i.e., Siva, on being alone was desirous of creation and therefore he churned his left arm with his right forefinger from whence issued a bubble which became like an egg and this egg he divided to form the heavens from the upper part, the earth from the lower part and Brahma, the generally accepted creator of all things from its middle. He then ordered Brahma to effect creation with his favour and disappeared but while the latter considered the manner in which he could accomplish his task, he besought his lord Bhava's, i.e., Siva's assistance - to receive from him the four Vedas which enabled him to proceed with his purpose.

The legend then states that as Brahma begun his work of creation, a fire sprung from his own brilliance, the heat of which caused perspiration to be collected on his forehead. In wiping this perspiration, a drop of his blood is stated to have fallen into the fire and from this sprang Rudra, i.e., Siva himself as the son of Brahma.

In another legend which supports the opinion that Siva is the supreme being, it is stated that Brahma was once requested by the Rsi's to declare the true nature of the godhead at which, influenced by the demon Mahesha, he asserted his own preeminence and declared himself to be `without a beginning or an end as well as the sole and self existent lord.' On hearing this, Kratu, a form of Visnu accused him of being misled by ignorance or else Brahma would not have made a statement so opposed to the truth since he, i.e., Visnu was the framer of the universe and the source of life. This dialogue between the two then escalated into a dispute which they finally agreed to let the authority of their scriptures settle. Nonetheless, when the Vedas declared Siva to be the supreme being - the creator, the preserver and also the destroyer of everything, the two disputed the adjudication. Consequently, the third person of the Trimurti is stated to have himself appeared in the form of Chandra Shekera only to be ridiculed by Brahma who called upon him to seek refuge at his feet at which Siva became so incensed that from his anger sprang into existence Bhairava, who on Siva's command cut off one of Brahma's five heads. This eventually led to his superiority being established and him being praised by both his other partners in the Hindu Triad.

There are several other texts in the Hindu scriptures in which Siva's superiority over Brahma and Visnu is conclusively established. The Padma Purana for instance shows Brahma worshipping him in one legend while in another, Siva is shown to have refused to worship the latter during the period of his incarnation as Rudra. Brahma is also seen to acknowledge Siva's superiority in some legends of the Mahabharata while in others he is stated to have been beheaded by the latter when he attempted to seduce Siva's daughter. In the Padma Purana also, Siva is shown to inflict punishment upon Brahma for his pride and arrogance on account of which he tormented the world with the splendour of his fifth head which shone brighter than a thousand suns.

The Siva Purana also contains passages in which Siva claimed to be Isvara, the supreme god who appears for the protection of his worshippers while the Varaha Purana contains a legend in which Brahma is seen to approach him on behalf of all the gods for protection against the demon Andhaka, i.e. Darkness.

There is also a legend in the Mahabharata which states that on one occasion, Brahma conducted the gods to Siva to seek his assistance against the asuras upon whom Brahma had previously bestowed a blessing that they could possess three castles which would be impossible to be destroyed by any deity except the one who was able to destroy them with a single arrow.

Yet, there is no shortage of legends in the Vedic literature in which Siva is declared to be the creation of either of the other two deities of the Trimurti or to be inferior to them. For instance, according to the Vamana Purana, he is stated to have been created by Brahma as his first act of creation. The legend also alludes to the flight of Siva to save himself from being slain by a giant which Brahma created to extract vengeance from Siva after being maimed by him. In another instance, he is declared to be the son of the god of beings, Prajapati, i.e., Brahma and his wife Usha, the goddess of Dawn while in the Kurma Purana, Brahma is stated to have produced Siva as Rudra from his own anger at his sons not perpetuating the human race.

According to the Padma Purana, Siva is stated to have sprung from the middle of Visnu's body and he is also shown to admit Visnu's superiority whom he called the Narayana, i.e., the supreme truth and also Parabrahma, i.e., the great Brahma as well as more excellent than all the gods whose greatness cannot be described. In some legends, he is seen to suffer defeat at the hands of Visnu, as for instance when the two contested for Sri on her first appearance on earth in a corporeal body. There is also a legend in the Markandeya Purana in which Siva is shown to be unable to assist the gods against Mahisha, the king who reduced the Vedic gods to the state of paupers while Visnu was able to provide relief to them.

Yet, while there are passages in the Vedic literature which either distinctly establish Siva's superiority or else inferiority to the other two deities of the Trimurti, others affirm equality between all three. In the Padma Purana for instance, it is demanded that the pious not make a difference between the three. The Skanda Purana also contains an interesting legend in which Siva is stated to have asked Visnu to assume the form of a beautiful women, which when he did, excited the latter who sought to embrace her. The legend then proceeds to state that as Visnu fled, Siva followed him and consequently caught up with him to embrace him so tightly that the two became one and the merged being came to be known as Har Hari. In another such legend, Lakshmi, the wife of Visnu and Durga, the fearful incarnation of Siva's otherwise wife of female virtue Uma, are shown to be engaged in contending the superiority of their respective husbands but when Visnu appears at the scene, in order to convince them that the two gods are equal, he approaches Siva who is seated nearby and enters his body and thus the two become one.

In modern times, Siva is considered to be the Puranic god closest to the Hindu spirit whose worship equals that of Visnu while it surpasses that of Brahma. He is generally represented in human form with three eyes, one being in his forehead - holding his famous trident in one hand and a bugle in another, wearing around his neck a serpent and a necklace of skulls while clad in a tiger skin from waist down.

A legend in the Mahabharata explains Siva's third eye and to states that he was once engaged in austerities seated on the Himalayas when his wife Uma came behind him and playfully put her hands on his two eyes. The world then suddenly became dark and lifeless to him at which a great flame burst from his forehead and the third eye, as bright as the sun was formed.

Siva is depicted in Hindu mythology as an extremely powerful god whose strength, according to the Mahabharata, even to the extent of half of it cannot be sustained by the entire stock of the Vedic gods. His third eye is believed to be capable of radiating such glory that it can consume and destroy armies and so is his trident believed to be extremely potent. Hence the Vedas contain a hymn which Hindus generally believe is addressed to Siva to the effect:

"We invoke with obeisance, the ruddy of the sky, with spiral braided hair, a brilliant form. Far be thy cow slaying and man slaying weapon."

The Vedic literature depicts several other ways in which Siva can cause destruction to extract vengeance or else accomplish his task as the destroyer. For instance, the Mahabharata contains a legend in which it is stated that on one occasion, a drop of perspiration which fell from his forehead issued forth a dreadful being Jvara which caused such destruction to the other gods that they had to plead Siva to withdraw it from the realm of the gods and transfer its wrath to the world of humans. The fever which in present day afflicts millions is believed to be the germ Jvara.

Siva is stated to be the lord of Bhuts, i.e., spirits and thieves and believed to generally delight in cruel practices. Thus one observes that his worshippers often engage in such forms of worship which involve inflicting severe physical pain upon one's self. Yet, while many Puranic legends depict him as a violent being, others portray him as an ascetic who generally spent his life in the wilderness engaged in severe penance and meditation. He is often shown by the Vedantic literature to spend his life in Tapasya, i.e., austerity, teaching the superiority of voluntary inconvenience to achieve a higher purpose in life as well as the great virtue of suppression of passions. He is also depicted as spending a greater part of his life engaged in meditation. The Vamana Purana describes how his wife Parvati, alias Uma Devi once complained to him about the violent heat and winds she had to endure living under the shade of trees and begged him to build a house at Kailasa on the Himalayas where she may live with him in comfort at which Siva's soul was agitated and he stated to her:

"O my beloved! I have no riches for the erection of the house nor am I a possessor of aught except the skin of an elephant for my garment and serpents for my ornament."

The legend then proceeds to state that he stopped a passing cloud and set his dwelling within it to later take residence in the Himalayas when the rainy season was over.

The Vamana Purana also explains how Siva became as ascetic and states that when Brahma, after a slumber of 1000 years began his work of creating the already destroyed world, he first created himself in the corporeal form with five heads and then proceeded to create from the quality of darkness another form with three eyes, twisted locks and bearing a rosary and trident, i.e., Siva. But no sooner did he create the consciousness of individual existence which became infused in the nature of all individual beings, including Siva, a dialogue ensued between them which developed into a quarrel as a result of which Siva cut off one of Brahma's heads. He then fled to Benares to escape being slain by the giant which his victim created to extract vengeance and it was here that he became absorbed in his endeavours to be absolved of his sin and hence turned an ascetic.

In his incarnations as Panchanana, Siva is depicted as a god to whom prayers are offered as a healer of the sick. In this form, he is extremely popular amongst barren Hindu women who offer supplications and sacrifices to him to obtain a gift of children.

Since Hindu mythology is heavily based upon a belief in the repeated incarnations of the gods, Siva is believed to have appeared in this world in several forms and so is his wife, Devi, meaning, the goddess. The first personal name by which she appears to be known in the Hindu scriptures is Uma Hemavati, the daughter of Brahma's son Daksha and the sister of Bhrgu, the Rsi who attended the courts of the three Hindu gods to determine which if them was the greatest. However, some sources are of the opinion that Hemavati is in herself a separate and distinct manifestation of Devi.

On this particular occasion, Uma is said to have offered herself to the Agni, the god of fire to sever all connection with her parents for the insult meted upon her husband by her father. Hence, she is given the name Sati and apparently, the Hindu custom of Satee where widows voluntarily burn themselves on the pyre of their deceased husbands takes its name from this incident in Hindu mythology. She is however stated to have taken rebirth as Parvati, the daughter of the king of the Himalayas, Himavata and his wife Mena to be Siva's wife once again after the dispute between her husband and father was brought to an amicable conclusion by the intervention of her paternal grandfather, Brahma, the first person of the Hindu Trimurti.

Another name by which Devi is known in the earliest scriptures is Ambika - said to be the sister of Rudra, i.e., Siva himself although in the later scriptures, she is declared to be his wife.

A legend in the Skanda Purana describes Parvati's appearance in this world as a mighty warrior who on the behest of Siva slew an asura named Durga and thereafter came to be known by the feminine form of the demon's name. Durga herself is then stated by the Vedic literature to have taken several forms which shall be discussed in the following issues of the Review of Religion. Suffice it to state that while Siva's stated incarnations in human form are not clearly detailed in the Vedic scriptures, those of his wife, at least some if not all, are mentioned in great detail.In the next issue of the Review of Religions, we shall introduce the Vedic Triad, Agni, Indra and Surya.