It is said that everything in the cosmos follows a cyclical pattern of creation, sustenance and destruction. From a blade of grass to a banyan tree, from animals to humans, everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. This idea of the cycle of life has been a part of several mythologies. In the Hindu mythology, this idea is represented by the holy trinity or the Trimurtis. Lord Brahma is the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer.
As humans, we tend to celebrate creation and mourn destruction. And yet, Hindus worship Shiva, the god of destruction, more than they worship Brahma. Ironic, isn’t it? In fact, there is more to Shiva that the fact that he is the god of destruction. Legend describes him as a recluse who lives in a graveyard with a deadly serpent around his neck. His hair is matted and his body smeared with ash. One may wonder why such an unusual god is worshipped so fervently by Hindus across the world. Perhaps, there is more to the destroyer than what meets the eye. Soulveda explores some legends that might answer the question.
The destroyer of ego
An allegorical legend in the Shiva Purana has it that in the beginning of time, Lord Brahma was all alone. At first, he created Shatarupa–an entity that can take on many forms. However, when Shatarupa took the form of a beautiful maiden, Brahma started lusting after her. Obsessed with her, he even developed four heads to constantly keep an eye on her. To avoid Brahma’s gaze, Shatarupa kept changing her form. When she became a cow, Brahma took the identity of a bull; when she became a mare, he became a horse. Ultimately, in his pursuit of Shatarupa, Brahma took on several identities and drifted away from his true self. When he developed a fifth head (ego) out of ignorance, Shiva intervened in the form of Bhairava and decapitated it.
This legend asserts that to walk the spiritual path, worldly life and desire need not be shunned altogether. If everyone did so, the world would come to an end.
Brahma and Shatarupa represent us humans and the imaginary world we create with our thoughts. This world can have infinite forms, in capacity of our imagination, influencing our values and beliefs. Over the course of time, we even start identifying ourselves with it. But the more we are charmed by our own creation, the more we drift away from our true selves. We develop an ego and wallow in ignorance. Writes mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik in his book Shiva to Shankara: Decoding the Phallic Symbol: “Bhairava represents the most fearsome form of Shiva. In his hand he holds the fifth head of Brahma which is the ego that deludes the mind, entraps it in the material world, and ensnares it away from the soul.”
The conqueror of desire
Another tale in the Shiva Purana narrates a story involving Shiva and Parvati. Parvati is smitten by Shiva. But she is not able to get close to Shiva, for he is disinterested in worldly affairs. Finally, the devas (dwellers of heaven) intervene. They send lord Kamadeva (god of desire) to shoot arrows of lust upon him. Struck by the arrow, Shiva wakes up from his meditation. Angered, he opens his third eye, and reduces Kamadeva to ashes. This shatters Parvati’s dream. She performs a penance to remedy the situation. Through prayer and meditation, she wins Shiva’s heart and turns him into Shankara (a householder). Later, Kamadeva is resurrected as Ananga (a bodiless attendant) within Shiva and order is restored in the world.
This legend asserts that to walk the spiritual path, worldly life and desire need not be shunned altogether. If everyone did so, the world would come to an end. However, while engaging with the world, desire should not be allowed to rule over our lives either. (This is represented as Shiva destroying Kama when he tries to overpower him). Instead, it is necessary to keep this emotion under check (Eventually, Kamadeva becomes Shankara’s attendant). Catherine Benton, Associate Professor of Religion and Asian Studies, Lake Forest College, writes in her book God of Desire: Tales of Kamadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature writes: “While Ananga is immensely powerful in the world and his revival re-establishes order, he is no longer a threat to Mahadeva (the great god), not only because Shiva has defeated him with the fire of his anger but because Siva has subsumed the essential nature of god of desire within himself.”
By destroying Yama, Shiva eliminates the fear of death by instilling faith in a metaphysical realm beyond space and time.
The bestower of immortality
This legend is about Markandeya, an intelligent child born with a short lifespan. It is predetermined that he would die when he attains the age of 16. When Markandeya’s time is up, he is worshipping a shivalinga. So, when Yama, the god of death, comes to claim his life, the boy is in the middle of his prayers. Yama flings his noose on the boy to drag him away. But Markandeya refuses to cooperate. He holds the linga desperately as he wishes to finish his prayers. In that moment, Shiva (in the form of Kalabhairava) emerges from the linga and kills Yama. He then grants Markandeya the boon of immortality.
This story might seem like Markandeya defied the physical laws of nature. That is exactly what Markandeya managed to do, writes mystic and yogi Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. By entering the metaphysical spiritual realm, Markandeya transcended the physical realm which is governed by time. By going beyond the realm of space and time, the boy managed to cheat death. In his blog entry, The Story of Markandeya and Kalabhairava, Sadhguru writes: “Within Markandeya, that dimension of consciousness had opened up where he was not available to time any more. (…) he came in touch with that dimension of consciousness which we refer to as Kalabhairava. It is only because time exists that there is something called as death. Kalabhairava is that dimension of consciousness which can go beyond time.” Thus, by distancing himself from his physical self and by walking the spiritual path, Markandeya overcame death and achieved immortality.
In all these legends, Shiva is the destroyer. In the story of Brahma, he decapitates Brahma’s fifth head; in the tale of Kama, he destroys Kamadeva; in the legend of Markandeya, he kills Yama. By doing so, Shiva destroys that which stands in the path of spiritual progression. By severing Brahma’s head, he destroys ego and ignorance. He reveals the imaginary world we create for ourselves and urges us to break free from it. He encourages us to seek the truth. By killing Kamadeva, Shiva teaches us to break free from the clutches of desire. He encourages us to master the emotion instead. By destroying Yama, Shiva eliminates the fear of death by instilling faith in a metaphysical realm beyond space and time. Perhaps, for all these reasons and many more, Shiva is etched in his devotees’ hearts.