One of the chief Hindu gods and probably the most widely worshipped of them all. Shiva, whose name means Auspicious One in Sanskrit, is part of the central trinity of Hindu deities along with Brahma and Vishnu. Engravings from the preHindu Harappan civilization (ca. 2800 1800 B.C. ), which show a yogi in meditation, suggest that early versions of Shiva were revered even then.
He appears in the Vedas under the name Rudra, and later in the Mahabharata and Ramayana as one of the most powerful of all deities. Shiva takes many aspects. He is the destroyer, clearing the way for new life and new energies.
He is the great ascetic or yogi, often portrayed as meditating high in the Himalayan mountains. Shiva is also considered a representation of sensuality, and a symbol of the belief that spiritual worship and sensuality come from the same source. Other common aspects of Shiva are as the great avenger or as the cosmic dancer Nataraja, presiding over the eternal dance of death, rebirth and the promise of release.
Shiva's female consorts are aspects of the divine feminine force, or Shakti, and their names include Durga, Kali, Parvati, and Uma. Their children are Kartikeya and, more famously, Ganesha. Worship of Shiva often centers around a symbol known as a linga, which is often taken to be phallic.
Other ritual objects associated with him are the trident and holy ash, which are common features of ascetic cults devoted to him. The Ganga River in northern India is said to flow through his hair, while Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas is his meditation retreat. In religious and popular art, Shiva is often portrayed as a wandering ascetic, or sadhu, wearing little and with his hair coiled up on his head.
His skin might be white, black, red, or blue, and around his neck he has both a snake and a necklace of skulls. He carries his trident (or in South India, an axe), and a small drum. In his forehead there is a third eye.
When directed inward it connotes spiritual vision, but it can be destructive when focused outward. Some images of Shiva depict him as not one among many but as the supreme god Madeva: destroyer, creator, and preserver. Devotees of Shiva in this form, who are commonly known as Shaivites, might place three verticle marks on their foreheads to represent these three aspects.
SEE ALSO: Durga; Ganesha; Vishnu