Maha Shivratri 2024: Avatars Of Shiva As The Ultimate Lover

This Maha Shivratri 2024, read about how Shiva embraces an unconventional and all-encompassing divine love, symbolised by the androgynous Ardhanarishvara form and the cosmic dance that resonates throughout the universe
A depiction of Shiva’s wedding procession attended by all creatures
A depiction of Shiva’s wedding procession attended by all creatures

Lord Ram might be the flavour of the day, but nothing has inspired Indian imagination more than the concept of Shiva. There is something very personal yet otherworldly about Shiva. It is challenging to define who or what Shiva is. It is perhaps easier to define who he or she or it is not. Shiva is fluid in the gender itself. He is also a She or It. Or neither of the three. Unlike the stories of Ram or Krishna, rooted in the two great epics of India, Shiva's stories are scattered and diverse. There is no one unifying story, nothing as potent as "Ramayana" or "Mahabharata," for Shiva. He is rooted in the soil of India. Or he emerged out of this very soil, manifested out of the air we breathe.

The childhood stories of Krishna have enchanted Indians for centuries. However, there are no childhood stories of Shiva. The eternal trope of Indian storytelling—the mother-son relationship like that of Yashodha and Krishna—is absent in the case of Shiva. There is no hero's journey like Lord Ram. Shiva has nothing to offer to match the thrill of Radha and Krishna's eternal romance, made more attractive due to the clandestine affair between a married woman and a cowherd, which inspired countless poems and paintings.

Actually, Shiva is not born to kill anyone or establish dharma or maryada. He is not born at all. He is beyond time. Shiva is Mahakala, or the great time itself. He has no beginning or end, yet he is the God of the end, the Samhara Murty. He is the most masculine of our gods, yet he is half female, Ardhanarishvara.

Shiva with his wife Parvati and their children Karthikeya and Ganesha
Shiva with his wife Parvati and their children Karthikeya and GaneshaPhoto: Getty Images

The concept of Ardhanarishvara itself is very unique. Of course, there are many androgynous forms of gods throughout human civilisation. In India, there is Vaikuntha Kamalaja or Lakshmi Narayana in Vaishnaivism, inspired by the Ardhanarishvara concept of Shiva and Parvati of Shaivism. This is not as popular as Ardhanarishvara of Shiva and is restricted to Kashmir and Nepal. Except in oblique references in Tantric texts, the Vaikuntha Kamalaja concept has no textual references in Puranas. There are a few temples for this androgynous form of Lakshmi and Vishnu in Nepal and eastern parts of India. In the ancient Vedic texts, Yama and Yami appear as brother-sister twins and were invoked together, but it is rare to find their iconography or idols. In the Buddhist tradition, Avalokiteshvara is sometimes represented in the androgynous form. But none of these forms are as developed as Ardhanarishvara concept of Shiva and Parvati.

We can't even write grammatically correct words for god as only one God deserves capital G in English. Such rules baffle a culture that thrives in the multiplicity of gods (Gods) and diversity in its thoughts. How can we translate Ardhanarishvara into English? Half man, Half woman god? or Half woman, half man goddess? Is Ishwara a god? How can Shiva, hailed as Viswanatha or the lord of the universe, be translated as god and not God?

Leaving aside the limitations of English, let's try to define the concept of Ardhanarishvara. In the simplest of terms, it represents harmony. Just look at the image for some time. Many versions of Ardhanarishvara differ mainly in what is carried in each hand. Sometimes, two hands and sometimes four hands are represented in the idol. The body of this androgynous form is the most interesting—half of the third eye, half of the moustache, one breast, and both sexual organs. It is unsettling and mesmerising at the same time. Only a culture confident of itself and spirituality can be so elegant and casual with such representation. Shiva's bull and Parvati's tiger or lion are often shown to be together to celebrate the harmony.

Shiva is the one who lives in the graveyards and burning ghats
Shiva is the one who lives in the graveyards and burning ghatsPhoto: Getty Images

Shiva is also represented in Phallic form. Once again, I am getting entangled in the limitations of English. The phallic form is a crude translation of the concept of linga. But isn't the linga form itself representing the harmonious union of the male and female, for Shiva linga is represented along with yoni or the female reproductive organ of prakriti?

Shiva's family in itself is a representation of the co-existence of opposites to make a whole. He is the sign of detachment, but among all the Hindu gods, his is the most celebrated family.

Shiva wears snakes as ornaments. He wears the clothes of a mendicant. Elephant skin dress, bare-chested, snakes and skulls as ornaments, matted hair of a mendicant—he is the sign of detachment. Unlike other Gods in the Hindu pantheon, he has no shining crown, golden ornaments, clothes of silk and so on unless he is represented as Raja Rajeswara or the King of God or God of the Kings. His other half, Parvati, is dressed in splendour. But Shiva wears ashes from the crematorium.

The linga form represents the harmonious union of the male and female
The linga form represents the harmonious union of the male and femalePhoto: Getty Images

Shiva has a bull as his vehicle. His wife rides a tiger or a lion. His son Ganesha, elder as per southern tradition and younger as per the northern tradition, rides a mouse. Snake is the enemy of the mouse in the real world, but in Shiva's abode, they dwell together in peace just as the lion and the bull do. The other son, Karthikeya, rides a peacock, which is an enemy of the snake. Yet, in Shiva's home, there is harmony.

Neither Shiva nor Parvati are the biological parents of either of the sons. Parvati created Ganesha. Karthikeya was not born in Parvati's womb. Yet, they form a complete family. This God, who is a mendicant, a virakta or the king of detachment, a yogi, is the complete family man.

Shiva is also called mahachandala, the lowliest of the low in the caste hierarchy, the one who lives in the graveyards and burning ghats, a mahavirakta, the great detached one. Yet he is the model family man. He dwells in the snowy peaks of the Himalayas in the extreme north and is known as dakshinamoorthy. He burned Kama, the god of love, to ashes and made him Anagha, the one without a body. He then blessed Kama to be dissolved in the air. So, as long as we breathe, we breathe the Kama, the love and are driven by love. Shiva's name is invoked only after his feminine name; hence, he is always Uma Maheshwar or Parvati Parameshwar.

The universe is nothing but his cosmic dance. He is bhootanatha, or the lord of all creatures, big and small. The universe runs due to his compassion. The rhythm of the world is his dance. In the air, his damru whispers.

In short, Shiva is nothing but the bliss in you and me.

Shivoham. Tatwamasi.

I am Shiva. You are that, too.

Anand Neelakantan is one of India's top-selling authors, with more than 14 books to his credit. He is also a columnist, screenwriter, and public speaker

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