Guest Author - Sangeetha Ekambaram
Shiva is one of the most complex and multi-faceted deities in Hinduism. Many preliminary introductions to Shiva situate him as the "destroyer", alongside "the creator" (Brahma) and "the preserver" (Vishnu). Shiva's supremely divine personality is expressed in various narratives, ritual practices and physical representations. He can be represented as the cosmic dancer, or in the aniconic form of the linga or as holding a bow and arrow. However, some forms directly contradict others. Below are these paradoxical forms that serve as an introduction to this multidimensional deity.
Shiva's power of destruction has the potential to create a fear in the imagination. However, Shiva destroys for reason that are ultimately beneficial. While Shiva's powers of destruction sometimes pertain to the physical universe, destruction also entails the end of illusory and false ways of seeing reality (maya) so that a new age of wisdom can be born. Therefore, for those Hindus who are engaged in spiritual practices such as certain types of meditation, Shiva becomes an focus of worship as He is responsible for the dissolution of the ego-centric point of view.
Another way in which Shiva exhibits a paradoxical personality is in his roles both as an ascetic who has renounced the world and as the passionate, loving husband of the goddess Parvati. He has two children with Parvati, Ganesha and Kartikeya. In traditional Hindu society, the ascetic is someone who deliberately renounces domestic partnership and other worldly duties such as having children for a life devoted to solitude and spiritual practice.
Shiva is often depicted in paintings as an ascetic, wearing the minimal animal-skin cloths of an ascetic, a serpent coiled around his neck and sitting in a meditation position. He is also often depicted with his wife Parvati alongside his two children. Within these contradictory roles, Shiva displays a spectrum of powerful emotions, from unshakeable calm and peace to powerful passion to destructive anger. Therefore, these paradoxical portrayals live simultaneously in the Hindu imagination.
Shiva is also represented as Ardhanarishvara another paradoxical form in which one half of His body is male and the other half is female. The female half is His consort Parvati. In symbolic terms, Ardhanarishvara embodies both the masculine and feminine energies of the universe and the cosmic balance achieved through this merging of opposites.
Many more representations and narratives demonstrate Shiva's complex personality and powers. A look only at those forms which are paradoxical serves as an introduction to the multidimensionality of this deity in Hindu thought and practice.