History of Literature

Shiva and His Family





also spelled Śiwa or Śiva

One of the main deities of Hinduism, whom Shaivas worship as the supreme god (see Shaivism). Among his common epithets are Shambhu (“Benign”), Shankara (“Beneficent”), Mahesha (“Great Lord”), and Mahadeva (“Great God”).

Shiva is represented in a variety of forms: in a pacific mood with his consort Parvati and son Skanda, as the cosmic dancer (Nataraja), as a naked ascetic, as a mendicant beggar, as a yogi, and as the androgynous union of Shiva and his consort in one body, half-male and half-female (Ardhanarishvara). As Bhairava, he is often depicted as a Dalit (formerly called an untouchable) and accompanied by a dog. He is both the great ascetic and the master of fertility, and he is the master of both poison and medicine, through his ambivalent power over snakes. As Lord of Beasts (Pashupati), he is the benevolent herdsman—or, at times, the merciless slaughterer of the “beasts” that are the human souls in his care. Although some of the combinations of roles may be explained by Shiva’s identification with earlier mythological figures, they arise primarily from a tendency in Hinduism to see complementary qualities in a single ambiguous figure.

Shiva’s female consort is known under various manifestations as Uma, Sati, Parvati, Durga, and Kali; Shiva is also sometimes paired with Shakti, the embodiment of power. The divine couple, together with their sons—Skanda and the elephant-headed Ganesha—are said to dwell on Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas. The six-headed Skanda is said to have been born of Shiva’s seed, which was shed in the mouth of the god of fire, Agni, and transferred first to the river Ganges and then to six of the stars in the constellation of the Pleiades. According to another well-known myth, Ganesha was born when Parvati created him out of the dirt she rubbed off during a bath, and he received his elephant head from Shiva, who was responsible for beheading him. Shiva’s vehicle in the world, his vahana, is the bull Nandi; a sculpture of Nandi sits opposite the main sanctuary of many Shiva temples. In temples and in private shrines, Shiva is also worshipped in the form of the lingam, a cylindrical votary object that is often embedded in a yoni, or spouted dish. Together they symbolize the eternal process of creation and regeneration. Since the late 19th century some scholars have interpreted the lingam and yoni as being aniconic representations of the male and female sexual organs, respectively.

Shiva is usually depicted in painting and sculpture as white (from the ashes of corpses that are smeared on his body) with a blue neck (from holding in his throat the poison that emerged at the churning of the cosmic ocean, which threatened to destroy the world), his hair arranged in a coil of matted locks (jatamakuta) and adorned with the crescent moon and the Ganges (according to legend, he brought the Ganges River to earth from the sky, where she is the Milky Way, by allowing the river to trickle through his hair, thus breaking her fall). Shiva has three eyes, the third eye bestowing inward vision but capable of burning destruction when focused outward. He wears a garland of skulls and a serpent around his neck and carries in his two (sometimes four) hands a deerskin, a trident, a small hand drum, or a club with a skull at the end. This skull identifies Shiva as a Kapalika (“Skull-Bearer”) and refers to a time when he cut off the fifth head of Brahma. The head stuck to his hand until he reached Varanasi (now in Uttar Pradesh, India), a city sacred to Shiva. It then fell away, and a shrine for the cleansing of all sins was later established in the place where it landed.

Wendy Doniger


"Great god, supreme lord, what
are you doing inside there? All of
us, the gods, have come to you for
refuge, for we are tortured by
Taraka; protect us. "

Shiva Purana


Shiva and His Family

Tне god Shiva lived on Mount Kailasa with his wife, the gentle goddess Parvati, and his two sons Skanda (or Kartikeya) and Ganesh. Skanda, his oldest son, was originally six children created by Shiva alone, but one day, Parvati cuddled the children together too much and they merged into a single body with six heads. Skanda, who was the Hindu god of war, grew into a handsome young man, quite the opposite of his fat little brother, the elephant-headed Ganesh. As soon as he was old enough, he killed the demon Taraka who had been oppressing the gods. Ganesh, on the other hand, was born from the dirt Parvati had washed off in her bath. Stories vary as to how he acquired his elephant head: in one Parvati tells him to stop anyone from disturbing her in her bath, and when he refuses to let Shiva in, Shiva burns off his head with his third eye; in another, Shiva, who has been away, does not recognize his son and sears off his head thinking he is paying court to Parvati; yet another tells how the planet Saturn, while babysitting Ganesh, forgets the power of his glance, and burns off his head by accident. In each story, Ganesh's human head is replaced with that of an elephant.





Shiva and his family are shown here on Mount Kailasa with a deputation of gods and holy men at
the base of the mountain. They may be worshipping the holy family or, despite the presence of Skanda, they
may be asking Shiva to help them destroy the demon Taraka - for which purpose Skanda was born.







Dangerous Child

Parvati cradles Skanda, the god of
war, who later restored peace to heaven and earth after he defeated the demon Taraka. He is identified
with the planet Mars.

Hanuman, the Monkey God

Standing aside from the other gods is Hanuman, the monkey god, the general of Rama in the Ramayana. He was the son of the wind god Vayu, was capable of changing shape, and was immensely strong. He is regarded as the epitome of loyalty.



"The brahmins saw Rudra
(Shiva) dancing in the sky, that
supreme liberator who instantly
releases people fro? their
ignorance, who is kind and
benevolent to his devotees. "



This 11th-centuiy bronze shows Shiva as Lord of the Dance



Lord of the Dance

Shiva, called "the destroyer", is shown as a family man; as a holy man with matted hair and an ash-smeared body; as Bhuteswara, lord of the ghosts, wearing a skull necklace; and as here, as lord of the Tandava, the universal dance in which he dances the creation and destruction of the world, trampling the dwarf of human ignorance. By the ferocious concentration of this dance, Shiva reveals the cosmic truth. He dances in a circle of flames, cupping in one hand the flame of destruction, and in another the drum of creation. The holy men who saw him dancing hailed him thus: "We behold you dancing, source of the world, lodged in our own hearts! By you does this wheel of Brahma turn. You, sole guardian of the world, are filled with Maya. We take refuge in you! We adore you! You are the soul of Yoga, the master of consciousness who dances the divine dance!"


Agni, God of Fire

The fire god Agni, a god of sacrifice, is born anew whenever a fire is lit. One of the chief Vedic (early Indian) gods, his role gradually diminished, as many of his attributes were taken over by either Shiva or Skanda (with whom Agni was briefly and agonizingly pregnant during Skanda's highly complicated conception and gestation). While Shiva's fire will devour the world at doomsday, Agni's both consumes and purifies the dirt and sin of this world; for this reason Hindus burn the bodies of their dead. The purifying power of Agni's fire was granted him by the sage Bhrigu. Bhrigu abducted another man's wife, and the injured husband asked Agni, who knew all homes, where she was to be found. Agni told him, and Bhrigu was so angry that he cursed Agni to eat everything in his path, whether pure or impure. Agni argued that as a god he had to tell the truth, so Bhrigu granted him the power to purify everything he burnt. Agni has two heads, a fire-red body, and seven tongues that greedily lick up the butter used in sacrifices.




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