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Who is Shiva?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Shiva is one of the primary gods in the Hindu religion, which is widely practiced in India. Like many Hindu deities, he has a complex and dualistic nature. Many practitioners of Hinduism focus their worship on Shiva and his many aspects, in a tradition called Shaivism. Since he is such an important member of the Hindu pantheon, some people outside of this religion are vaguely familiar with him.

Various forms of Hinduism have been practiced for thousands of years, with the oldest beliefs and teachings of the religion being found in a series of sacred texts known as the Vedas. Originally, Shiva appears to have been worshiped in the guise of Rudra, an older god who was in charge of storms, winds, and hunting. Rudra was sometimes known as “The Terrible,” in a reference to his wild and savage ways.

Like Rudra, Shiva is a very destructive god, capable of wreaking havoc and burning away impurities. But he is also a god of creation, and considered a god of truth, goodness, and beauty. Many people consider him to be a very auspicious god, as well as a god of paradoxical ideas. Many statues, for example, depict him with both female and male attributes, enforcing the concept of Shiva as a very dualistic and sometimes confusing figure in Hindu mythology. In addition to being a creator and a destroyer, he is also associated with dance, the arts, and wisdom, and he is a respected figure in the yogic tradition.

In most depictions of Shiva, he has a third eye, matted hair, and a crescent or horn on his head. The river Ganges also plays a role in Shiva's iconography, since the god is closely associated with the Ganges, and snakes may appear wrapped around him as well. He carries a trident in some images, as that is his weapon of choice, and his body is often naked and smeared in ash. When he requires transportation, Shiva rides a white bull named Nandi.

The primary family of Shiva consists of the goddess Parvati and their children, Ganesha and Skanda. He is also associated with other goddesses and gods in the Hindu pantheon, such as Vishnu and Kali. His first consort according to Hindu mythology was Sati, a goddess of loyalty, truth, and long life. According to legend, Sati immolated herself because her father disapproved of her marriage to Shiva, and she was reincarnated as Parvati.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon353547 — On Oct 31, 2013

As per shiv mahapuran, Brahma and vishnu are part of shiva. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the sustainer and Shiva the destroyer (destroyer of evil).

By anon258554 — On Apr 02, 2012

Lord Shiva is the Ultimate Destroyer. The one who is in charge of destruction. The third trimurti.

By yagmursaver — On Dec 18, 2011

Lord Shiva is the biggest creator, and I was interested in it a long time ago, especially the religion stuff. It's really so interesting but also a little bit visionary. It's so funny O.K., but I'm still curious Is it in the from of a male or female, because it has a mannish body with a female head.

By anon192872 — On Jul 02, 2011

@burcinc: I have a small correction to make on your post. Brahman is not the creator. The word appropriate for this scenario is "Brahma." Brahma is the creator / god of creation. 'Brahman' is the supreme consciousness which is present in all humans as per the Hindu belief system.

@anon32966: Shiva is linked to Brahma as burcinc had stated.

By fify — On Mar 12, 2011

When my friends and I visited the local Hindu temple, a devotee told us about the symbolism of the Shiva statue there. As far as I can remember, the crescent moon on Shiva's forehead and the poison in his neck represents the good and bad in life and how we should accept both pain and pleasure.

The poison that is in the middle of his neck is a representation that even though we might have many experiences, both good and bad, we should not let these experiences alter the goodness and purity of our soul. That's why even though he has swallowed poison, Shiva has not let it go to his stomach, he has not allowed his experiences to make him bitter or angry.

I think the snake around his neck had something to do with staying positive and thinking good thoughts. And the ashes means that we are all going to die one day, so we should not be materialistic, we should think beyond the materialistic world.

All of the Hindu God and Goddess statues I have looked at appeared complicated to me. But they all have an explanation and it's all very meaningful and spiritual I think.

By burcinc — On Mar 11, 2011

@anon32996-- you can think of those two as belonging to the same category, along with Vishnu. It is said that Brahman is the creator, Vishnu the sustainer and Shiva the destroyer. So these three are responsible for the universe with Brahman representing the psychic aspect, Vishnu the mental aspect and Shiva the physical aspect.

I have been told a story about Shiva and Brahman also. Brahman was pursuing Saraswati, the goddess of arts, knowledge and music. Lord Shiva, while trying to protect Saraswati, struck Brahman's head and cut it off. Shiva had committed a great sin by harming Brahman, as a result, Shiva's body turned black.

By anon32996 — On May 30, 2009

is shiva somehow linked to brahman? because i don't exactly understand?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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