In the Hindu trimurti, or three faces of God, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Shiva is known by 108 names and has many forms, some terrible and some serene. He has the power to destroy the entire universe when it has become so overtaken by evil that only death and regeneration can restore it to wholeness. He also has the supreme wisdom to conquer ignorance.
The name Shiva comes from a Sanskrit adjective that means "pure," and the worship of Shiva goes back to the time of the Rig Veda -- the oldest book in Hinduism -- and even before. The Vedas speak of Rudra, god of the hunt and of thunderstorms, and that is still one of the names of Shiva. Shiva is more complex than Rudra, however. He is also associated with Agni, the Vedic god of fire, and Indra, the god of war. He is the only god whose origins can be traced to the pre-Aryan period in the Indus Valley.
More than any other Hindu god, Shiva is given to extremes. He is sometimes portrayed as a serene ascetic and sometimes as a wanton hedonist. He is often depicted as a householder with his eternal wife, Parvati, and their two children, Ganesha and Kartikeya. He wears a cobra necklace to signify his dominance over nature, and has a third eye, signifying wisdom and insight. Shiva is sometimes depicted as Ardhnarishwara, conjoined with Shakti, who personifies his female aspect. This androgynous, sexual aspect of Shiva is worshipped in the form of the sacred lingam, or phallus, which is the centerpiece of the annual Maha Shivaratri festival.
Lord of Wisdom and Serenity
At his most serene, Shiva sits in meditation in the forest, with the Himalayas -- particularly Mount Kailash, his home -- in the background. He is the god of yogis, and in this aspect, he renounces the world and all attachment to it in favor of the bliss of samadhi, or enlightenment. Consequently, Shiva worshippers, who form a distinct sect within Hinduism called Shaivism, are the most ascetic of all Hindus. Shaivist sadhus wander the countryside dressed in saffron robes, covered in ash and seeking self realization through the inward directed practices of yoga and meditation.
Nataraj, Destroyer of Ignorance
The depiction of Shiva as Nataraj, Lord of the Dance, began in south India in the 9th and 10th Centuries. As Nataraj, Shiva crushes Apasamara Purusha, the demon of ignorance and forgetfulness, under his feet. The fire that burns around him is the fire of destruction, and Shiva's dance is so complete that it reduces the world to ashes and scatters it in all directions, making possible the creation of a new world. The Dance of Shiva is also known as the Dance of Bliss. It alludes to grand cosmic cycles of creation and destruction as well as more earth-centered ones of birth and death.
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