Shiva, Shakti, Nataraja


Shiva is one of the principal Hindu deities, who with Vishnu and Brahma forms the Trimurti or triad of great gods.

Shiva is a Sanskrit word meaning “auspicious one”. He is the Moongod and lord of the mountains, with the moon in his hair from which flows Ganga, the sacred river Ganges.

Shiva contains all the contradictory aspects of human nature. He is the joyful Lord of the universal dance and fiery destroyer of demons, archetypal celibate yogi and drunken seducer of the sages’ wives, haunter of funeral grounds and embodiment of irrepressible vitality.

Shiva’s vehicle or vahana is Nandi, the bull (the joyous). He represents Shiva’s virility and fertility and is instinctual power and impenetrable strength. He is the son of the divine cow Surabhi, who arose from the churning of the primordial ocea

One myth about Shiva concerns the 10,000 rishis (sages). Shiva visited them in order to persuade them to become devotees. The rishis responded by cursing him and sent a fearsome tiger to devour him. The great god simply removed the skin of the tiger and draped it around him. They then sent a snake to attack Shiva who merely draped it around his neck. They then sent an evil dwarf demon upon which Shiva placed his foot and proceeded to dance. Eventually the rishis could resist no longer and threw themselves at his feet.

Shiva is often shown with a third eye, the eye of inner vision in the middle of the forehead. He frequently has a serpent as a necklace and others wrapped around his arms. He may be depicted smeared with ashes as a symbol of his ascetism. His throat chakra is often coloured blue, due to the important role he played in the myth of the churning of the ocean.

According to this popular tale the great snake Vasuki was used as a rope to turn Mt Mandara and so churn the seas in order to produce amrita, the elixir of immortality. The snake became exhausted and vomited his venom, which would destroy all existence. Shiva saved the world by swallowing the poison, which stained his throat.

His trident represents the trinity of Creation, Preservation and Destruction and the Damaru drum, duality. The damaru also represents the pulse of Time.

Shiva is also the god of Time and thus The Great Destroyer.
He sits in Abaha Mudra, giving the gesture of protection. The new moon is associated with Shiva and is often called the Shiva Moon. The sliver moon represents the primary perception of the yogi’s inner vision, the barely perceptible only seen with the inner vision.

Other aspects of Shiva’s vast nature are as Tripurantaka, “He who puts an end to the three towns” – the three worlds of earth, space and sky. Shiva- Rudra also relates to Shiva’s role as the periodic annihilation by the great Lord of the created universe.

As Pashupati he is depicted as “The Herdsman, the Owner of Cattle and Lord of the Beasts”, and as Nataraja the “Lord of The Dance” (see below).

Originally published in Here & Now magazine. Written by Khalid Julian Millane, joint owner of Shikara Design, importer of Asian artifacts, furnitire and carpets, and who has anendless fascination with Eastern mythology and history.


Shiva and Shakti

Shiva and his consort with many names – Parvarti, Kali, Durga, Chandi, Uma, Sati etc.- are regarded as the primeval twofold- personalization of the Absolute. The are the unfolding of the neutral Brahma into the opposites of the male and female principles. Often seen gazing with a deep and everlasting rapture they are imbued with the secret knowledge that, though seemingly two, they are fundamentally one.

They are depicted again and again in stone and in bronze in temples and caves throughout the Hindu world. Shiva is often seen with four arms. With one he holds his consort, another his trident, representing the trilogy of creation, preservation and destruction, others holding a rosary representing the ascetic, an axe of discrimination or a small damaru drum beating Time as he is its master. Often he holds a lotus emblematic of the divinity’s productive essence.

Shiva and Parvarti are often depicted with their “sons”, the elephant -headed Ganesha  and the war-like Kartikeya.

The God and Goddess are the first self-revelation of the Absolute, the male being the personification of the passive aspect which we know as Eternity, the female of the activating energy (sakti), the dynamism of Time. Though apparently opposites, they are in essence one. The mystery of their identity is stated in symbol. The God is he who dwells as the root figure of the Lingam. The Goddess is the yoni, mother-womb of the ever-cycling eons, of every atom in the living cell. She is known as Parvarti, Kali, Uma, Durga – she has her living counterpart in every woman, as the God in every man.

Indeed Shiva is depicted as the hermaphrodite Ardanarishvara, The Lord who is half woman, a single figure in which the complimentary qualities of male and female are beautifully combined and their division trandcended.

Adapted from Myths and Symbols in Indian Art by Heinrich Zimmer and The Hindu Vision by A. Shearer.


Shiva as Nataraja

Shiva’s most comprehensive form is as Nataraja, ‘Lord of The Dance’. Dancing is an ancient form of mysticism, a transformation, inducing trance, ecstasy and mergence with the divine essence. In India dance has flourished alongside the austerities of meditation and Shiva, the arch-yogi of the gods is also master of the dance.

In this reproduction of South Indian bronzes dating from around the tenth century A.D. the figure may be described as follows:

Encircled by endless fire symbolising creation and transformation, he is a figure of abandon, breaking all boundaries with his dance of bliss. His hair which streams out wildly contains all the planets. The upper right hand carries the damaru, a little drum shaped like an hour-glass whose beating is the pulse of time. This connotes Sound – the conveyer of revelation, tradition, magic and divine truth.

The opposite hand, the upper left, with a half-moon posture of the fingers, bears a tongue of flame. Fire is the element of the destruction of the world. In these two hands creation and destruction play the cosmic dance.

His lower right hand displays the “fear not” gesture, bestowing protection and peace, while the remaining left lifted across the chest, points downward to the uplifted left foot. This foot signifies Release and is the refuge and salvation of the devotee. The hand pointing to it is held in a pose imitative of the outstretched trunk of the elephant reminding us of Shiva’s son, Ganesha, The Remover of Obstacles.

The divinity dances on the dwarf of Ignorance or Forgetfulness.

As Nataraja, Shiva is the embodiment and manifestation of eternal energy in its five activities.

  1. Creation – the pouring forth or unfolding
  2. Maintenance – the duration
  3. Destruction – the taking back or re-absorption
  4. Concealement – the veiling of True Being behind the masks of apparitions, aloofness, display of Maya and
  5. Favour – acceptance of the devotee, acknowledgement of the pious endeavour of the yogi.

The first three and the last two are matched, as co-operative mutual antagonisms; the god displays them all- not only simultaneously, but in sequence.

They are symbolised in the position of his hands and feet – the upper three hands being respectively, “creation”, “maintenance” and “destruction”. The foot planted in Forgetfulness is “concealement” and the foot uplifted, “favour”; the “elephant hand” indicates the linkage of the three to the two, and promises peace to the soul that experiences the relationship.

Shiva as Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer, his gestures wild and full of grace, precipitates the cosmic illusion – his swaying arms, legs and torso the continuous creation/destruction of the universe, death exactly balancing earth, annihilation the end of every coming forth.

The cyclic rhythm, flowing endlessly in the irreversible round of the Mahayugas or Great Eons, is marked by the beating and stamping of the Master’s heels. But the face remains, meanwhile, in sovereign calm.

*Adapted from passages in “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization” by Heinrich Zimmer,  and ”The Hindu Vision” by Alistair Shearer.

Originally published in Here & Now magazine. Written by Khalid Julian Millane, joint owner of Shikara Design, importer of Asian artifacts, furnitire and carpets, and who has anendless fascination with Eastern mythology and history.

Related to - Eastern Spiritual Mythology

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