This week on Isabella’s passion blog, we’re taking a trip to India to learn about Hindu mythology. Specifically, we’re going to be examining a deity named Shiva, also known as “the Transformer” or, more ominously, “the Destroyer.” Shiva is actually rather important; he’s the supreme God of Shaivism, and one of the three most influential denominations of contemporary Hinduism. In his most revered form, Shiva is limitless, transcending, constant and formless.
Like most all-powerful deities, Shiva has both his compassionate and terrifying moments. In benevolent aspects, he is portrayed as an omniscient Yogi, and as the patron god of yoga and the arts, you can often find statues of him meditating while facing the southern shores of India. He is said to reside on Mount Kailash with his wife Parvati (goddess of love, fertility, and devotion) and his two children, Ganesha and Kartikeya (Gods of wisdom and war, respectively). When Shiva is feeling cranky and/or needs to lay the beat down on someone, you might catch him slaying a demon or two. In this case, stabbing with his handy trident is his preferred method of annihilation.
You can actually learn a lot about Shiva just by considering the symbolism and stories behind his personal attributes. Shiva has 4 arms, resembling 4 vedas. He wears a serpent and a garland of skulls around each of his six heads. “But Isabella!” you’re probably thinking, “I only see five heads in that picture!” Well, obviously you haven’t reached enlightenment yet. Only those who have reached enlightenment can see Shiva’s sixth head, noob.
As I mentioned, Shiva’s weapon of choice is a trident, which he holds in his lower right arm. The trident, like most forms of Hinduism, can be understood as the symbolism of the unity of the three worlds a human faces: your inside world (your own thought process/emotions), your immediate world (the things you’re familiar with/your environment), and the broader world (everything else). At the base of the trident, all three forks unite, just like all three of these worlds.
You may have also noticed that Shiva’s skin is an interesting color: blue. However, according to my sources, Shiva is actually meant to have very pale skin, and is often sculpted from white clay or stone. Despite this, he is often depicted as having the blue skin you see above. I’ve turned up two reasons for this contradiction throughout my research.
The first comes in the form of a story: one day a young Shiva had the ingenious (or not) idea to drink the Halahala poison–churned up during one of the gods’ great wars, the Samudra Manthan–from the Kshirsagar manthan, or “Ocean of Milk” (…yes, you read that correctly). Shiva did this in order to destroy the poison’s destructive capacity. However, the god had forgotten one important detail: the universe was in his stomach. Luckily for us poor mortals, Goddess Parvati has some quick reflexes. She managed to strangle Shiva before he swallowed the poison, trapping it in his throat before it could destroy everything we hold dear. Still, the poison was so potent, it ended up turning Shiva’s neck blue, hence his nickname, Neelakanta (blue-throated one).
Another explanation for Shiva’s strange coloring is his habit of smearing his body with human ashes–reflecting how often he visits the cremation grounds, and possibly his blue-greyish complexion. The ashes are said to represent the end of all material existence. And why not? If Shiva is carrying around our universe in his stomach, we can make a sound guess that it will be he who eventually brings about all our ends.
He is the Destroyer, after all.