“The Young Ascetic”
As an ascetic, Shiva has overcome the joys and sorrows of this finite world. Eternally youthful, He is of pale blue complexion, possessing a face so exquisitely beautiful that He appears both male and female. His long matted hair is worn in a massive topknot from which Mother Ganges flows down as the sacred river of India.
Atop His head is the crescent moon shining with the first radiance of creation. In the centre of His forehead is the third eye, the eye of wisdom, which destroys illusion and passion. Across His forehead and on other parts of His body are the triple lines of ash reminding us of the4hree impurities: egotism; karma, action with attachment to its fruits; and maya, illusion.He carries a trident, trishul, representing the Hindu trinity of Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. In His other hand He plays a two-sided finger drum, damaru, merging His masculine and feminine aspects. His body is adorned with garlands of snakes, symbolizing His fearlessness and immortality.
According to one legend, the wives of the great Rishis, or Saints fell in love with the handsome young Shiva. The Rishis were jealous and angry, so they sent a tiger to kill Him. Shiva tore off the tiger’s skin with His bare hands and used it as a meditation seat.
A snake was later sent to poison Him, but He subdued it and used the serpent as a necklace. Finally, they sent a terrifying demon to overpower Him, but Shiva quickly vanquished the demon and danced His fearful dance of victory over the body. When the Rishis, gods, celestial beings and demons saw His awesome dance of power, they realized His great supremacy and became His followers.
The Cosmic Dancer
As Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, Shiva commands the order and movement of the entire universe. He choreographs the drama played out on the earthly plane. His movements create the diverse images of life, ever-changing as He spins and whirls through time and space. Shiva Nataraja is constantly subjecting us to joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Ultimately He dominates all that lives, by dealing the hand of death.
In the Tandava dance of the victor over evil, Shiva Nataraja exhibits a fearful display of His cosmic energies, dancing in a circle of flames to the rhythm of universal motion. Balanced on one foot, He stands on the dwarf of ignorance with the careless abandon of one transported by His own music. His other foot is raised in the dancing pose, leading the way out of suffering. Nataraja has four arms: His left hand contains a ball of flames, forewarning of the world’s destruction and beginning anew the process of creation. His lower right hand is in the teaching pose, offering an end to eternal suffering through His grace. Pointing downward, His left hand expresses the final release from ignorance.
For centuries the myths and legends of Shiva and other gods were performed in temples and homes of devotees. These dramas gradually developed into the classical dance forms of India, such as Bharatanatyam, which capture the essence of Shiva in highly specialized movements and take years of study to perfect.
Shiva, the Lord of Destruction reigns over the dark forces of life and nature. The name Shiva itself comes from the root “sava,” meaning corpse, characterizing His identification with death. The cycle of existence ever repeats the essential processes of birth, life, and death; whose counterparts in the Hindu trinity are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer.
As the great Destroyer, Shiva keeps the cycle of creation and destruction running its cosmic course. Without Him, the entire universe would cease to function, as creation can only rise from the ashes of destruction. Shiva is the great liberator, destroying the suffering and sins of mankind. He breaks down and dissolves all phenomena, releasing energy for further growth and transformation. He is death but He is also life.
The Wrathful Bhairab
One of Lord Shiva’s countless manifestations is the terrifying god Bhairab. Whenever retribution is to be dealt out, Shiva calls on Bhairab to ensure that justice is done.On one occasion Shiva wanted to punish Lord Brahma, who had been lusting after his own daughter. Brahma was so obsessed with her that he had sprouted heads in the four directions so that he could watch her wherever she went. Finally his daughter took refuge in the heavens, and when Brahma produced a fifth head to watch her there, Shiva was so angry that He created Bhairab and sent him to cut off Brahma’s fifth head.
As punishmentfor the sin of killing a Brahmin, Bhairab was forced to wander the universe in agonizing grief, carrying the skull ofBrahma in one hand. He was haunted by his crime until he cleansed himself of the horrible deed by bathing in a sacred pool in Varanasi.
Many people believe that it is necessary to placate Bhairab to subdue his wrath, and some perform blood sacrifices of goats, chickens, and buffalo at his altars to appease him. Animal sacrifice is especially prevalent in northern India and Nepal.
As Bhairab is well known for his indulgence in intoxicants, certain sects of yogis invoke him while drinking alcohol and smoking hashish. Thus they identify more closely with the character of the terrifying god they emulate. They believe that Bhairab dwells in the cremation grounds in the form of wild dogs who scavenge their daily fare from the charred remains of human corpses.
Some of Bhairab’s disciples imitate his dance of grief whilst begging. Dressing up in their colourful attire takes hours as they put on multicoloured rags, myriads of bells, rosary beads, and ash. The effect is completed by the ritualistic wrapping of yards of wool cord around their waists, spun by yogis trained in the time consuming art. As they wend their way through the bazaars dancing, they announce their arrival by shouting, “Alag, bom, bom, bomfi’ Great spirals of incense smoke rise into the air from the gigantic coconut shells which serve as their begging bowls.