This is the last of five Mythological Spotlights that was originally a Deific Masks page.
Shiva is a very complex deity. He is usually the destroyer of the universe, though also sometimes considered a creator in some sects, and he is also a deity of the powers of liberation. He holds the trident of divine power, the drum of cosmic vibration, and the flame of destruction. He also wears the beautiful goddess of the Ganges river in his locks of hair. Despite his nature as a destroyer and a generally wild deity, he is known for being respectful, friendly, kind, loyal, and protective to his devotees, which probably explains a lot of his popularity as a deity. He also upholds cosmic balance and has the power to bring opposites together. As Mahadeva he is associated with the powers of the heavens and cosmos, one of the most powerful, if not the highest, of the Hindu pantheon of deities. Shiva is also represented as a Lord of Music (Vinadhara), and a Lord of the Dance. As Pashupati he is the lord of animals. In his capacity as the destroyer, Shiva destroys clutter to make way for space, harmony, and serenity.
It has been speculated that a seal found in Mohenjo-daro, an ancient settlement located in what is now Pakistan, depicts an early version of the Vedic deity Rudra, who went on to become the modern Hindu deity Shiva. The deity in question and its seal was named Pashupati, after one of Shiva’s epithets (which means “Lord of Animals”), and shown with the horns of a water buffalo, sitting in a yogic pose, and surrounded by animals. However, for many, Shiva originated as the Vedic deity Rudra. Funny enough, it is said that in Vedic times, an epithet given to Rudra and other deities was Siva (which means “The Auspicious One”), which would become the name of the modern Shiva.
Rudra himself was a lord of storms, wind, and the hunt, and was considered a dangerous and frightening deity, the embodiment of unpredictable and wild nature (which might have made his Siva epithet bitterly ironic). The Rigveda praises Rudra as one of the mightiest deities, if not the mightiest. His sons were a group of storm deities known as the Maruts, who were violent young warriors that attended to the weather deity Indra. Rudra was also feared to cause diseases to people and cattle with his arrows, but it was also believed he was capable of healing people as well. He was mainly appeased and worshiped out of fear rather than devotion, due to his mostly malevolent and unpredictable nature, and was often associated desolate and distant places.
Rudra’s depiction started to change when he became identified as Shiva, the destroyer of the universe and liberator of souls, which likely began with a body of Indian texts known as the Upanishads. One of these texts, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, is notable for is focus on Rudra and Shiva. In fact, it’s the first text where Shiva is definitely used as an epithet for Rudra; the wild, fierce, destructive, and borderline-malevolent deity Rudra started also being considered a kind and benign deity. Over time, Rudra and Shiva became viewed as one and the same deity, and in the time of another body of texts known as the Puranas, the notion of a trinity of deities (that of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer) emerged and Shiva’s role within it was: he was the destroyer and regeneration of the universe, the deity of transformation, and a liberator of souls. However, it was and still is often the case that one or two members of the trinity were favored more than the other. Vishnu and Shiva were always more popular and were treated as the Supreme Being by different sects of Hinduism. There are some who believe Shiva is the supreme being, and Vishnu and Brahma (among other deities) are merely aspects of him, while others believe Vishnu is the supreme being and Shiva is just his supreme guru and the ruler of the material world. Two sects represent each position respectively, and have often taken to vilifying each other and even demonizing their patron gods as liars. Even to this day most people prefer one of them over the other or both, but the deity Brahma never attained same kind of prominence. This may be partly to do with a myth in which Shiva cursed Brahma to never be worshiped. Some say it was because Brahma mated with a goddess named Shatarupa, which was considered incestuous because Brahma had created her and so she was considered to be his daughter. Today, Shiva is one of the most widely worshiped deities in Hinduism and is considered to be benevolent and just as well as destructive, and he is also worshiped in many forms and under many names. Many myths show him to be more powerful than almost all other deities, if not all other deities, and the devas tend to call on either him or Vishnu for aid. The only deity shown to be possibly more powerful than Shiva is his wife, Parvati, whenever she is angered or takes on terrfyingly wrathful forms such as Kali (whose dance of bloodlust almost destroyed the universe before Shiva lay himself beneath her feat as a mattress).
In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Shiva is manifested as the deity Mahakala, a wrathful protective deity (particularly one classed as Dharmapala or “protector of Dharma”) charged with defending practitioners, schools, and teachings of the Buddhist faith. In Buddhist lore, Mahakala is considered a wrathful manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Mahakala arrived to Japan from China (where he was also considered a protective deity) and become a household deity of fortune and farmers, associated with prosperity, and was named Daikokuten. Despite his happy and benign personality, Daikokuten could also assume a wrathful form with six arms and three heads, referred to as Sanmen Daikokuten. Shiva himself also made his way to Japan as one of twelve devas who guard the eight directions, the sun, the moon, up, and down. He is known in Japanese esoteric Buddhism as Ishanaten or Daijizaiten, and he was believed to protect the northeast direction and live in the sixth heaven (the heaven of the world of desire). He is also believed to have been subjugated by Gozanze Myo-O, one of the Five Wisdom Kings, before becoming a Buddhist deity. There is also a myth from medieval times which stated that Japan itself was the domicile of Daijizaiten, who was thought to be its cosmic ruler and the inventor of the Chinese writing script. In the same myth, Vishnu (Bichuten) was the cosmic ruler of China and the creator of the Kharosthi script, while Brahma (Bonten) was the cosmic ruler of India and the creator of its script.
Shiva’s complexity has made him a hugely successful deity in the Hindu mythos. He has been able to capture multiple mythological connotations that render him a particularly universal deity within Hinduism. His association with asceticism has also led him to be taken as a totem of Hindu orthopraxy in that he represents the state to which the yogis aspire to, that which they seek to become through the attainment of God-realization. His dark side through Mahakala lends itself nicely to the Tantric framework and the resultant transmutation into Japan seems to have made him something of a chthonic god. As such, the universality of Shiva is a strength that allows him to travel throughout the East.
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