In the Hindu Pantheon, Lord Shiva occupies one of the earliest and foremost places. His carving is found in the ancient Sindhu-Saraswati civilization. There he is seen in his famous yogic pose, meditating. He is, therefore, considered to be the originator of yoga and meditation. Siva, or Shiva, also means “auspicious one.” Lord Shiva, who is considered to be the Lord of Death and Dissolution, thus gets a new look. As the auspicious one, Lord Shiva is hailed as the Lord of Compassion. Legend has it that when the gods (devtas) and the demons (asuras) churned the ocean to extract the nectar of immortality, there first appeared a most noxious poison, harmful to all beings. They all rushed to Lord Shiva, who, in his compassion, drank the dark poison to save the universe. Lord Shiva, however, did not swallow the poison but retained it in his throat. He is, therefore, also known as the god with the blue throat, the Neelkantha. The poison became the ornament necklace for Lord Shiva, encouraging mankind not to hesitate to help others and to mitigate their sorrows.
According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva was first married to Uma. She was the daughter of Rishi Daksha, who had insulted Shiva because he was not well dressed and did not have material possessions. Uma then pleaded before her father that the man’s virtues were much more important than material possessions or outward appearances. Thus, it became established in Hindu society that virtuous behavior is a better asset than wealth and material objects, such as jewels or gold. But when Uma’s father, Daksha, continued with his arrogant behavior, Uma threw herself in the fire of the yagna havan, with a vow that in her next life, she would again become the consort of Lord Shiva. She fulfilled this vow by becoming the goddess Parvati, daughter of Himalaya, in her new incarnation.
Lord Shiva is also portrayed as the Lord of Dance, Nataraja. Here, he is presented in a most magnificent dancing extravaganza, with four arms and hands. The upper-right hand holds the damaru, a small percussion tool, representing sound. In the Hindu mind, all language, music, and knowledge came from sound. The upper-left hand holds a tongue of fire. Thus, one hand indicates creation and the other points to destruction, symbolizing the unity of these two processes. The third hand (front right) is seen in the abhaya hasta position—that is, it is gesturing the sign of grace and protection of the Lord. The front left hand is in the gaja hasta position—it is formed in the shape of an elephant’s trunk, which had the ability to pick up the heaviest log or the smallest needle. The left foot is raised up in the air, pointing toward the salvation of man, and the right foot is resting on the struggling dwarf, symbolic of the human ego of ignorance. We may crush our ignorance with the sword of knowledge in order to achieve salvation (moksha).
The matted hair of Lord Shiva holds the sacred river Ganges, signifying the power and purity of mankind. Even when the Lord dances with abandon and ferocity, his face is serene and calm in superb, deep meditation, showing the path of utmost action with complete relaxation. He is also presented as Bhairava, the fierce wielder of trishula, the trident of love, wisdom, and action. In the famous sculpture of the south-faced Lord Dakshinamoorthy, Shiva is seen as the youthful guru, teaching his pupils by his eloquent silence. His youthful face symbolizes that the man of realization has transcended time and achieved immortality. In ardhanarisvara form (half male, half female), Lord Shiva is projected as the Purusha (the male form as divine) on one half and as the Prakruti (the female form as nature) on the other half, to be combined by the Purusha to become active and enlightened. This is seen as the seed of divinity in all beings, which manifests in the course of evolution. This form of Lord Shiva recognizes the presence of both male and female components in each individual. Thus was born the concept of Shiva and Shakti to represent the Divine and all its energy. Yet another form, Hari-Hara, has two images, half Shiva and half Vishnu, merged together, signifying the ultimate unity of all forms of the Divine.
In the Hindu pantheon, Lord Shiva is referred to as Mahadeva, the absolute and the greatest god. It is also believed that Lord Shiva first spontaneously appeared as a high mountain in the form of Arunachala in South India, as the first Jyotir Lingam. Subsequently, he also presented himself as smaller Jyotir Lingam in the cylindrical stone shape in twelve different places. His appearance in the form of Shiv Lingam, where indirect human agency was involved around the Lingam, is also in twelve places.
In the Shiv Purana, Shiv Lingam has been referred to as niraakar, or the formless presentation of Lord Shiva. In the saakar, or formed presentation of human appearance, he is known as Mahesh or Jagdeeshwar. Most Shiva devotees recognize the Lingam as an abstract icon of the Divine. The sexual aspect of Lingam as a symbol of Creation in the form of a male phallus is subordinated to the spiritual perspective.
Lord Shiva has three eyes—the sun, moon, and fire. The third eye, “agni”, also is considered as the eye of inner vision; hence, it is often invoked at the time of meditation. It is said that with the third eye, he burned desire, or kama. He therefore is also named Trilochan, the lord with three eyes. He has the crescent moon on his forehead, signifying knowledge and mystical vision. His matted hair and ash-smeared body indicate austerity, and around his neck is the serpent energy, Kundalini Shakti, moving from the spine upwards. Lord Shiva has two sons, Ganpati and Skanda. His main consort, the goddess Parvati, assumes other forms as well, such as Durga, the bright one; Sati, the devoted wife; Bhairavi, the terror inspiring; or Kali, the black one. Nandi, the white bull, is the vehicle of Lord Shiva and is present at the entrance of all Shiva temples. In scriptures, Nandi represents man (jivatman), who is in eternal search of the Divine.
Lord Shiva is one of the Gods in the Hindu Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. In the Vedas, Lord Shiva is also known as as “Rudra”, the god of storm associated with destruction. It was from this narrative that He came to be known as the God of Destruction amongst the three primary mythological Gods. However, soon a significant benevolent characteristic of “Compassion” was discovered in Him, when He drank the dark poison to save the universe. Instead of swallowing the poison, Lord Shiva retained it in his throat and is therefore known as the god with the blue throat, the “Neelkantha”. Gradually, many more features were discovered like His utmost austerity smearing His body with ashes, His mastery of the art of dancing as “Natraja”, His stance of Yoga and Meditation which designated Him as the originator of these two pursuits etc. This established a dynamic pattern in Hindu theology to search and discover more and more attributes in all divine manifestations to become the role models for mankind, to be inspired and prompted to imbibe similar qualities and virtues in their own life.