“When I didn’t know myself,
where were you?
Like the colour in the gold,
you were in me.
I saw in you,
lord white as jasmine,
the paradox of your being
without showing a limb.”
~ Akka Mahadevi
If you have been to India, you are likely to have met a beggar who came to you imploring, asking you to relieve him from his suffering, but also being a little rough, with something in his voice sounding like a reproach. You probably froze for a second, feeling guilty, not knowing what to do. You felt caught between giving or not giving, between an easy way out or a shameful flight. None of them satisfactory. Torn by this conflict, you may have missed the giving, salvific part of it all. You may have missed that in the profuse tradition of India, one of Shiva’s many forms is the ‘Supreme Beggar‘. You may have missed that, in Krishnamurti’s words, “Conflict is the measure of the ‘I’.” Shiva came along to give you a chance, a beautiful opportunity to see that there is in you a way out of yourself, of your little ‘I’, in which you could both give and receive. I’d like to call this freezing, this second of conflict and confusion, the ‘knot of Shiva’. I had this knot undone once, long ago, and was allowed to sneak a peek at Shiva’s face. Evidently, he had some secrets to tell. So let’s accept the invitation. Let’s now walk the road from the egoistic, immature thoughts and images of Shiva, to the more understanding, universal realisation of his true identity. Let’s unravel Shiva’s mysteries…
If you have been to India, you must have noticed that Shiva is almighty, ubiquitous, omnipresent. You have seen him everywhere, from north to south, from the mountains to the sea, encompassing everything, sustaining the world. You have seen the extent of his power — fantastic and without limit, his many names, many forms. In a beautiful portrait, Vanamali wrote eloquently: “The world is his hunting ground. The universe resounds with his presence. He is both sound and echo. He is intangible vibration as well as infinitesimal substance. He is the rustling of the withered leaves and the glossy green of the newborn grass. He is the ferryman who ferries us from life to death, but he is also the liberator from death to immortality.”
But before we learn anything about shiva’s powers, let’s have a look at his many identities. India has been generous, prolific as always. There is a treatise that enumerates Shiva’s one thousand names. Many of them emphasise his greatness. He is the ‘Supreme Lord‘, the ‘Lord of the Universe‘. But he is also the ‘Simple One‘, the ‘Devourer of Time‘, the ‘Conqueror of Death‘, and, as we have seen, the ‘Supreme Beggar‘. Only to say a few. The meaning of the Sanskrit word ‘Śiva‘ is: “auspicious, propitious, benevolent”. He is the ‘One who brings Peace and Joy‘, the ‘One who removes the Sorrows and Sins of the World‘. In his fierce aspect, he is ‘The great Destroyer‘, ‘the ‘One who brandishes a blood-soaked Sword‘. Another etymology informs that Shiva means “that which is not”, implying “that from which everything comes”. But in spite of his many attributes, Shiva is one. In Rupert Spira’s words, Shiva is “pure knowing” or “the essential irreducible essence of our self.”
No wonder Shiva has so many names, for Rupert Spira describes this irreducible essence as being “open, empty, spacious, luminous, ever-present“. Or “imperturbable, indestructible, inextinguishable, indivisible, immutable, immortal, invulnerable.” He further adds: “‘I’ stands for indivisible, infinite, intimate and innocent.” And all these qualities have lethal effects on the separate self. They are killers. That’s where Shiva — the ‘Slayer of the Demons‘ — gets his fierceness aspect from. This is how the many objective qualities of the mind can dissolve into the objectless nature of consciousness.
In his commentary of the ‘Shiva Sutras‘, Kshemaraja unravels Shiva’s true identity in an eloquent manner: “Ultimate Reality is Cit. It is non-relational consciousness. It is the changeless principle of all changes. In it, there is no distinction of subject and object, of I and This. It is the Supreme Self surveying Itself. [It is] the Eternal Light without which nothing can appear. It is Shiva.” Now, how can Shiva, who has a changeless, colourless, indivisible nature, adopt so many different forms? By being no-thing, by being empty, Shiva — or consciousness — has the ability of being everything, of adopting every possible form. That is the explanation behind Shiva’s many appearances. In our search for Shiva’s identity, it is now time to look more closely at some of his most famous and potent forms, and understand what are his ways to tame the mind and shine so brightly in our lives. Let’s see how ‘formless, eternal, infinite being’ can bring peace, confer happiness, and grant love and prosperity. For such are Shiva’s promises to the world.
The first of Shiva’s aspects is ‘Mahayogi’ or the ‘Great Yogi‘. This is Shiva’s most famous appearance, the one you see everywhere in India, the image of the Lord printed in books, painted on walls, remembered in minds. He is the ascetic yogi sitting cross-legged in a yoga posture, meditating in the Himalayas, with all his popular attributes — the matted hair, the trident, the drum, the snake, the crescent moon, among others. His place is the unshakable ground of being, this pure and empty space of light that is the source of all things. To separate the innumerable objective forms of being from this primary ground is the essence of yogic activities. There is no way out of the pain of existence if you keep relating only at the level of objects. You have to step out of it, to go back into yourself, find the unifying core of experience.
Yet — and this is something unimaginable — Shiva, the ‘Great Yogi’, the ‘Icon of Meditation and Concentration‘, is also ‘Umapati’, or ‘Husband of Parvati‘, a householder and the father of two sons, struggling with the daily, domestic problems of mariage and parenthood. This points out to the capacity in ourself to be safe, as stated by Rupert Spira, “not just in the background of experience but in the midst of experience. There is no longer any necessity to take refuge in a cave, or in the transcendent presence of awareness. We take refuge in the midst of experience.”
Shiva’s consort is Uma, better known as Parvati, the ‘Daughter of the Mountain‘. Her nickname is Shakti. As stated in the ‘Shiva Sutras’, she is “the mirror in which Shiva realizes His own grandeur, power and beauty.” She is the form of the formless Shiva, the many appearances of the changeless Shiva. She is also His capacity to recognise his own light, to know himself as pure undifferentiated consciousness. This is the extent of her power on him. They have two sons, Ganesh, the ‘Remover of Obstacles‘, and Kartikeya, the ‘Lord of War‘ who defeats the demons. “Only when Shiva is united with Shakti does he have the power to create“, it is said in the ‘Saundaryalahari’.
But before we enquire into this essential aspect of Shiva — his mariage with Shakti — let’s have a look at the groom. At first sight, Shiva is by no means a good match. Sally Kempton draws here an unflattering portrait: “Shiva is an outcast, a wild-haired madman, an eccentric who hangs around with ghosts and goblins and who worships corpses.” A beautiful, insightful story tells us that when Shiva — the ‘Lord of Ghosts and Spirits‘ — left his forest to marry Parvati in the heights of the Himalayan kingdom, he took with him all his companions. They were ghosts, spirits, gremlins, smelly, difformed, smeared with ashes. When Parvati’s family held sight of this horrendous mariage procession, they got scared. But the bride’s mind could not be lead astray. It so happened that when the cortège reached the Himalayan abode of Parvati, they were all suddenly transformed into beautiful, finely dressed companions, into divine beings full of light. This is the extent of the transformative power of a mariage with truth. Bringing your emotions, even the ugliest, into the warmth and spiritual heights of consciousness, or love, will give them a sacred, meaningful aspect, and will expose the true nature of their being.
“Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”
~ William Blake
So Shiva has found his lover, has become one with her Shakti, merging into this new form, ‘Shiva-Shakti’. In Swami Sivananda’s words: “The power or active aspect of the immanent God is Shakti. Shiva is the unchanging consciousness. Shakti is His changing Power which appears as mind and matter. She runs this world-show. She maintains the sportive play or ‘Lila’ of the Lord. She is the supporter of the vast universe. She is the supreme Power by which the world is upheld. She is the Universal Mother.” Being settled in your true identity as pure consciousness is not quite enough though, for you have yet to bring this light to every little corner of your experience. You — pure awareness — have to marry the world of forms, the appearances of mind as thoughts and feelings, and all your acquired past idiosyncrasies, so that these gremlins can acquire their new golden garment. But let’s be careful here, of the beautiful, romantic images. Shiva never actually marries somebody who is separate from himself. He only recognises his own nature as being not only in the background, but in the foreground as well. He is not only the ascetic yogi, lost in himself; he is also Shakti, the dance of life itself, in its many forms, beauty, and contrasts, in the generous and celebratory expanse of its unconditional love.
“Awareness lives in eternity, but dances in time.”
~ Rupert Spira
“When He embraces Her,
It is His own bliss that Shiva enjoys.
He is the Enjoyer of everything,
But there is no enjoyment without Her.
She is His form,
But Her beauty comes from Him.
By their intermingling,
They are together enjoying this feast.
Shiva and Shakti are the same,
Like air and its motion,
Or gold and its lustre.”
~ Saint Jnaneshwar
In every relationship, comes the time of arguments and conflict. It is when we forget our true nature and believe ourself to be separate from existence, and from the multiple forms and shapes of experience. If Shiva and Shakti are not dancing together as one, if Shiva remains static as pure awareness, he can have all the peace but still carries with him his ghostly companions named fear, sadness, anger, ready to show up when circumstances are less favourable. So he must invite his friends instead of ignoring them, allow the Shakti aspect of his being to enlighten and transform his daily activities, and create anew. Informed by the qualities inherent in Shiva-pure-consciousness, he-she can now celebrate life as the very totality of him-herself. Jean Klein gives here a description : “When attention loses its grasping, volitional quality, the perceived is freed and dissolved in the perceiver. But the perceiver must first be free of all will in order for the perceived to be released. In the Kashmir tradition the perceiver is Shiva and the perceived is Shakti.” If Shiva cannot let the creative, loving, celebratory part of Shakti express itself in him, then Shiva is not Shiva anymore. He is cut off from the loving, celebratory aspect of life. He loses his inherent oneness.
When Shiva dances in pure harmony with Shakti, it is interesting to notice that the offsprings of this love are Ganesh, who removes obstacles, and Kartikeya, who defeats the demon. This means that when Shiva — pure, undifferentiated consciousness — allows himself to get out of his remote position and goes into the world of objective experience, he is rewarded with a particular easiness in life — obstacles are naturally removed, and emotional torments are easily melted away. Ganesha — who by the way is also the ‘God of Intelligence’ — understood the all-importance of his parents, as Shiva-Shakti. As related in a story from the Puranas, Shiva and his wife Parvati were sitting on Mount Kailash with their two children, Ganesha and Kartikeya. When the sage Narada came and presented them with the fruit of knowledge, Shiva said to the two children: “It will be for the one who returns first after going around the three worlds.” Kartikeya ran to his peacock and started his flight searching around the world. Ganesha understood that his parents, as Shiva-Shakti, constitute the totality of the existing universe, and merely circled around them. He consequently won the fruit.
We have seen that in Rupert Spira’s words, Shiva is not just “the witnessing background of all experience, inherently free from all things“, or the ‘Great Yogi‘. He is also, in his mariage with Shakti, “the substance of all experience, intimately one with all things.” We are yet to be presented with Shiva’s most famous appearance, the one that encompasses everything, the one that makes his glory: Nataraja, the ‘Lord of the Dance‘. As the story goes, it so happened that Shiva humiliated a band of old sages who claimed being the source of all wisdom. He was repeatedly attacked by the furious rishis, and when they finally sent the most hideous dwarf to kill him, Shiva, crushing the dwarf with his foot, showed himself in all his glory: He performed the ‘Ananda Tandava’ or the ‘Fierce Dance of Bliss‘. Shiva’s cosmic dance is movement, and expresses itself in the five divine acts which, according to Koos Zondervan, are: “The whole process of creation, of veiling Himself and functioning in His own creation as ignorant beings, of sustaining creation, of revealing Himself — in people who realize the Self — and of dissolving again creation.” In one sublime form, in one pose, in one movement, is described the whole process of life and death, of ignorance and understanding.
This is us: Shiva fighting these angry rishis, Shiva being the source all things, Shiva marrying the world and creating this seamless experience, Shiva veiling himself, Shiva destroying each and every thing, Shiva enlightening himself. We read in the ‘Inmai Vilakkam‘: “Find out these within yourself, then shall your fetters fall away.” Shiva is a performer, a magician, capable of veiling his own true nature to himself by the means of himself. This is the nature of the dance of ‘Shiva Nataraja’: both its veiling, concealing power and its counterpart, the shower of grace or revealing power. This is beautifully expressed by Rupert Spira: “This process of evolution and involution is the dance of Oneness, That Which Cannot Be Named taking shape and dissolving, vibrating in every nuance of experience and dissolving itself into itself, transparent, open, empty and luminous.”
“O you the creator, you the destroyer, you who sustain and make an end,
Who in sunlight dance among the birds and the children at play,
Who at midnight dance among the corpses in the burning grounds,
You, Shiva, you dark and terrible Bhairava,
You Suchness and Illusion, the Void and All Things,
You are the lord of life, and therefore I have brought you flowers;
You are the lord of death, and therefore I have brought you my heart—
This heart that is now your burning ground.
Ignorance there and self shall be consumed with fire.
That you may dance, Bhairava, among the ashes.
That you may dance, Lord Shiva, in a place of flowers,
And I dance with you.”
~ Aldous Huxley
We have yet to explore two of Shiva’s forms that are beautiful reminders of the importance of humility. The first of these pillars of humble apprenticeship is the one that leads to destruction, to death. Shiva is an eternal companion of death. Even in his unfathomable glory, his illustrious peak of ‘God dancing the Universe‘, he remains the ‘One who carries a Skull‘, the Destroyer who loves to spend his free time in the burning ground. In his eagerness to know the world he has created, to incarnate himself in it, to enjoy and celebrate the qualities of love, beauty, happiness, inherent to his creation, He — as I — was granted the most difficult object of all: A body. This is the place where identification tends to flee and find refuge, where the strongest and often most conditioned remnants of separateness remain. There, says Rupert Spira, are lodged the “feelings [that] are the old residues of ignorance at the level of the body.” The cremation ground is the place where Shiva burns these residues. It is the place where we discover the body to be only a fleeting thing, a passing collection of feelings and sensations. It is the place where we experience the fragility of existence, and, as a natural counterpart, the unshakable nature of consciousness. It is the place of humility and love. “Because Thou lovest the Burning-ground, I have made a burning-ground of my heart — That Thou, Dark One, haunter of the Burning-ground, Mayest dance Thy eternal dance.” says a Bengali hymn to Kali.
The second pillar of humble apprenticeship is to be found in the relationship between guru and disciple. Shiva knows this well, who reserves his most youthful, handsome form to the figure of the teacher: Dakshinamurti. He is the ‘Supreme Guru‘, who is seated facing south — the direction of death — and was the favourite of Ramana Maharishi because he was teaching through silence. Shiva is ready for anything, any sacrifice, to reveal the truth of being to others, as it is shown in this story:
“The sons of Brahma were in search for the one who could give them this truth and wisdom. In turn, they visited Brahma himself, Vishnu and Shiva. Each time they were disappointed for they found the gods indulging in the presence of women: Brahma was listening to Sarasvati playing the Veena, enjoying it, and Vishnu was lying and being given a foot massage by Lakshmi. ‘How could these enamoured behaviours be in line with the high wisdom required for teaching the highest truth?’ Shiva was the worst of all, dancing frenetically his celestial dance, half woman, half man! The sons were shocked and disappointed. They left! But Shiva, in his great concern and compassion for them, took the form of the young, handsome, supreme teacher Dakshinamurti, and went to sit down under a banyan tree on the path they were using on their way home. When they saw him, the sons of Brahma were immediately drawn to him and realised their true self through his silent teaching.”
In his infinite, pedagogical goodness, Shiva suppressed his feminine side, so that his form could now be acceptable by these young men. The meaning of this is that provisionally, we may put aside for a while all objective appearances as thoughts, feelings, perceptions, in order to better feel this presence in our self. Here is the extent of Shiva’s humility. He wants to attract everything and everybody into his lap, into his loving field, which is infinite consciousness. He is the supreme beggar praying you to surrender, so that He can find the passage to yourself, in Himself. He is the supreme lover begging you to love Him through His very love for you. He is the supreme artist begging you to see the beauty of the world, through His very appearance as the world. He is the supreme teacher begging you to find his answer contained in your question, so that both can dissolve in and as Himself, in and as yourself. He will always, always comply — if only you dare to ask — because you are Him. Such is the nature of Shiva’s complex relationship to the world, and to yourself. So, next time you meet a beggar in India or anywhere else in the world, listen to him. And see what remains of the ‘knot of Shiva’.
Text by Alain Joly
First poem by Akka Mahadevi, 12th Century
I borrowed the idea of the title to the book, ‘Speaking of Śiva’ (A. K. Ramanujan)
A few of Shiva’s one thousand names:
‘One who becomes helpless for falling into the body’
‘The Lord resides in the firmament of the heart’
‘The Lord travels at the speed of the mind’
‘The Lord is the tree of the Universe’
‘The Lord is the giver of thousands’
– This seal (around 2500 BCE) discovered during excavation of the Mohenjodaro archaeological site in the Indus Valley has drawn attention as a possible representation of a “yogi” or “proto-siva” figure.
– Mask of Bhairava (The most terrible form of Shiva) – Nepal, 17-18th Century – Bronze, 53/46 cm – The Staatliche Museen of Berlin.
– Shiva as the Lord of Dance (between 950 and 1000), Copper alloy – Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Guests on this page:
– J. Krishnamurti
– Rupert Spira
– Sally Kempton
– William Blake
– Swami Sivanananda
– Saint Jnaneshwar
– Koos Zondervan
– Aldous Huxley
– ‘Presence’, Vol. I & II – by Rupert Spira (Non-Duality Press)
– ‘Speaking of Śiva’ – Poems by Akka Mahadevi and other bhakti saints (Translated and presented by A. K. Ramanujan) – (Penguin Classics)
– Shiva (Wikipedia)
– Shivas Sahasranama (1000 names of Shiva)
– Akka Mahadevi (Wikipedia)
– Rupert Spira
– Kshemaraja (Wikipedia)
– Sally Kempton
– William Blake (Wikipedia)
– Swami Sivananda (Wikipedia)
– Saint Jnaneshwar (Wikipedia)
– Koos Zondervan
– Aldous Huxley (Wikipedia)
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