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
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
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
"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
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
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.