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A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

Śiva (‘ auspicious’, ‘ benevolent’, also known by numerous epithets—e.g. Mahākāla, Maheśvara) 

One of the three great deities of medieval and subsequent Hinduism; he is the focus of worship in the Śaiva traditions (collectively referred to as Śaivism). His historical origins are obscure, although some claim to find evidence of a ‘proto-Śiva’ cult in the material remains of the Indus Valley civilization. Textual evidence begins with the application of the partly euphemistic epithet ‘śiva’ (‘benign’) to the wild and ambiguous deity Rudra in the Ṛg Veda. Considerably later (c.3rd–1st century bce), Rudra is identified as the supreme God in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, and from about the 2nd century ce onwards, Śiva (now subsuming Rudra) becomes the focus of a wide-ranging, pan-Indian Purāṇic, Tantric, and bhakta literature, accompanied by a complex ritual culture and a rich iconography.

Śiva is portrayed in multiple ways, with numerous regional (e.g. Khaṇḍobā), sectarian (e.g. Bhairava), and mythological (e.g. Gaṅgādhara) variations. His anthropomorphic depiction as the great ascetic, whose mastery of yoga (the tapas he has generated) is signified by his ‘third-eye’, typically shows him smeared in ashes (bhasman), clad in the skin of a tiger or an elephant, carrying a trident (triśūla) or khaṭvāṅga, his hair in a matted top-knot (jaṭā), crowned by a crescent moon, wearing a garland (mālā) of rudrākṣa berries, or of skulls, entwined with snakes and carrying an alms bowl made from a human skull (kapāla). This continues to provide the model for the outward appearance of many Śaiva ascetics, such as the Kāpālikas. In general, his representations in painting, sculpture, and narrative are intended to evoke the ambiguity inherent in his power: he is the sexually continent, celibate, ascetic mendicant—the solitary, matted-haired ‘outsider’, patrolling the fringes of Vedic culture, deliberately, and terrifyingly, courting the impurities of the cremation ground. At the same time, he is the sensual, erotic, and fertile God in his familial prime, surrounded, in his Himālayan stronghold, by his wife (Pārvatī), and children (Gaṇeśa, Murukaṉ/ Kārtikkeya/Skanda), accompanied by his vāhana, Naṇḍin. This dual (for some paradoxical) aspect of Śiva's character is graphically represented in the form in which he is most commonly worshipped, the aniconic liṅga, usually set in a yoni. The liṅga represents his male spirit, the yoni, his śakti, or female power, conceptualized, to a greater or lesser extent, as his consort, the Goddess (Devī). Taken together, they symbolize the god's unlimited and dynamic potency, his simultaneously fertile and destructive energy. In a further rendition of these contrasting but complementary attributes, Śiva is visualized as the ecstatic, omnipresent, and omnipotent cosmic deity who, as Naṭarāja, dances the world to destruction, only to create it again as part of the continuing cosmic cycle. Although his temples and tīrthas are ubiquitous, he is particularly associated with the city of Vārāṇasī. See also Paśupati; Rudra; Śaivism.