Significance of Lord Shiva in Hinduism
Of all the Hindu deities none have influenced Indian culture and mentality that Lord Shiva, the ascetic dweller of the mountains and the cosmic dancer, who with His third eye destroys evil. Lord Shiva represents the destructive power of God in the Hindu trinity called the Trimurthi along with Brahma and Vishnu. To followers of Shaivism, a branch of Hinduism dedicated to Shiva, He is Parameswara or Maheswara – Supreme Lord. Typically worshipped as Shivalinga, an abstract representation of the Lord, Shiva is also worshipped in other forms such as Nataraja, or Lord of Dance.
Lord Shiva in Hinduism
Historians believe that Lord Shiva was a pre-Vedic god who was admitted into the Hindu pantheon due of His immense popularity among many non-Aryan tribes. The deity known as Rudra in the Vedas came to be associated with Lord Shiva. The Indus Valley seals depicting a seated yogi is generally agreed to be a prototype of Lord Shiva as known today. It is believed that the worship of Lord Shiva was prevalent as early as 2nd or 3rd centuries B.C.
There are several references to Lord Shiva in the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Both Arjuna and Krishna worshipped Him to obtain favors. In fact, Arjuna obtains Shiva’s astra or weapon known as Pashupata after performing penance to Lord Shiva. In the Ramayana, the demon king Ravana is a great devotee Lord Shiva, and Rama and Hanuman offer prayers to Lord Shiva at Rameshwaram before embarking on their mission to rescue Sita from Ravana.
With the popularity of Saivism a great deal of literature grew around Lord Shiva and which came to be recognized as Agama literature. In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad Lord Shiva was elevated to the status of Brahman, or the Ultimate Reality, by the sages who composed it after they had visions of Lord Shiva as the Absolute and Supreme Brahman. Saivism as a popular movement took shape mainly in South India because of the patronage of different dynasties such as the Pallavas and Cholas. The devoted effort of many Tamil saints helped built a great collection of bhakti or devotional literature in honor of Lord Shiva.
The Forms of Lord Shiva
Lord Shiva is known by many names and titles. As the god of destruction, He is Rudra, literally ‘the Red One’, feared by one and all. As Kailasanathar, He is the Lord of Mount Kailash, His Abode in the Himalayas. As Purusha, He is Iswara, or the Ultimate Reality, Himself. As the Lord of the beings, He is known as Pasupatinath. As the consort of Uma, the Mother Goddess, He is known as Umapathi.
As the bearer of the sacred river Ganges, He is known as Ganagadhar. Because of His matted hair, He is called Jatadhari by His ascetic followers. As a perfect being He is Siddheshwar. With the trident in His hands, He became popular as the heroic and fearless Trisuladhari. As the world teacher, He was named Dakhshinamurthi by Adi Shankara.
As the Lord of Dance, He is well known as Nataraja. As the master of yoga, He is credited with the source of all knowledge concerning the various yogas. Such was His prowess and divinity that Lord Vishnu Himself in His incarnations as Rama and Krishna worshipped Him with great reverence. Ever willing to help those who are in distress, He saved the worlds and all the gods by drinking the poison Halahal that was created during the churning of the oceans, a feat that turned his throat blue and earned him the name Neelakanthan, or blue-throated one.
Lord Shiva was also dear to demons, as he was easily pleased and granted boons freely to devotees. Demons like Ravana and Hiranyakashipu were His ardent followers who became infinitely powerful due to the various boons we granted them out of an unbounded love. To the followers of Vira Saiva cult, He is Virabhadra, valor personified. In His terrific forms, He is worshipped as Bhairavamurthy and Pataleswar.
While Lord Shiva is worshipped as a symbol of sexual vitality, He is also known to have destroyed the physical form of love, Kama, with His third eye when the latter tried to interrupt His meditation. Loved by His children Ganesha and Skanda, and followed by His dutiful wife Parvathi, He became a symbol of ideal householder to His devotees despite of His well known image as the ideal ascetic.
Men and women love Him alike for his unsurpassed qualities of love and generosity. Even today many young and unmarried girls in rural India worship Lord Shiva and pray for a devoted husband like Him. Combining both the male and female aspects of creation in Himself, Lord Shiva earned the popular name of Ardhanariswara. As rider of the bull Nandi, He is known to the world as Nandeswara.
Temples of Lord Shiva
Temples dedicated to Lord Shiva are found all over India and elsewhere. As early as the 2nd century AD, the fame of Lord Shiva had spread beyond the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia. As Hindu culture spread, Shiva temples were built in places like Java, Champa (Indo-China), Kambhoja ( present day Cambodia) and in other areas as early as 5th Century A.D.
Great temples dedicated to Lord Shiva were also built in South India by the Cholas and other great empires of Tamil Nadu. Many of these grand temples, including Chidambaram, Thanjavur, Rameshwaram, Kumbakonam, Kanchipuram and Varanasi, remain popular even to this day.
Hinduism...gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the God ward endeavor of the human spirit. An immense many-sided and many staged provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, Santana Dharma...