The different Vedic gods have particular roles or functions, and represent or control different forces of nature. Thus, they are not all the same. They all have different meanings and potencies to do particular things in the arrangement and management of the universal creation. In this way, most of them have specific positions and purposes to help facilitate the cause for the creation, maintenance, and even the destruction of the universe.
Since our analysis of the Vedic texts indicated that the Bhagavatam was the most ripened
fruit of Vedic knowledge, as well as being the commentary of all Vedanta by Srila Vyasadeva Himself, we will include the conclusive descriptions as found in the Bhagavatam to reach our definitive understanding.
The most prominent of all the Vedic gods consists of the Trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Brahma assists in creating the world, Vishnu maintains it, and Shiva helps in its annihilation. Those that follow the Vedic path, can generally be divided into three main categories; namely those who worship Shiva and are Shaivites, those who worship Shakti or the Goddess and are Shaktas, and those who worship Vishnu, the Vaishnavas. So lets take a look at who is Lord Shiva and Goddess Durga.
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One of the most significant of all the Vedic gods is Shiva. And one of the most noted of all the goddesses is Shivas wife, Durga. They also go by many other names. For example, Durga is also called Parvati and Sati, which means chastity. The name Shiva means auspicious. Shiva is known by many different names according to his function. When, for example, he expresses himself through space and time, he is known as Eshwara. He is called Sadashiva when he functions through air, which incorporates the principles of both sound and touch. Shiva is known as Rudra when he operates through fire, which incorporates the principles of sound, touch and form.
Shiva is the embodiment and controller of tama-guna, the mode of darkness, inertia, and the tendency towards annihilation. This is how he assists in the destruction of the cosmic creation in the end times, as well as in the exhibition of continuous forms of death and destruction that we see every day. However, this demise and dissolution can also be viewed as a renewal, which is also considered to be a part of Shiva.
We can find additional characteristics of Lord Shiva in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.2.2) in which it states that Lord Shiva is the spiritual master of the entire world. He is a peaceful personality, free from enmity, always satisfied in himself. He is the greatest among all the demigods. He is the spiritual master of the world by showing how to worship the Supreme. He is considered the best of all devotees. Therefore, he has his own spiritual line or sampradaya called the Rudra-sampradaya that comes directly from him. These days it is also found in the Vishnusvami-sampradaya, or the Vallabha-sampradaya.
Shiva is described as the most powerful, second only to Lord Vishnu.1 In this way, he is not the Supreme, but is almost as powerful. Although he has nothing to attain in this material world, he is always engaged for the benefit of everyone in this universe, and is accompanied by his material and dangerous energies like goddess Kali and goddess Durga. They serve him by killing all kinds of demons and impious persons. War represents Kalis energy of devastation. Sometimes we see pictures of a fierce form of Kali standing with one foot on the body of Shiva. This is because Shiva sometimes has to lie down in front of her to pacify her from killing all the demoniac people in the world. In this way, Shiva controls the material energy. Lord Shiva is also in control of the destructive energy, tamo-guna, the mode of darkness, and is assisted by Kali and Durga in this purpose. Durga helps him in keeping the majority of the living beings in the darkness of ignorance. That is why Durga and Kali are described as dangerous potencies. Only those who are serious about spiritual life are protected from this darkness.
Shiva is often shown as a handsome young man, with long hair from which flows a spurt of the Ganga (
Ganges) River (an emblem of purity) and in which is also a crescent moon. He is also white or light bluish in complexion, sometimes with a third eye between the eyebrows on the forehead, and usually with four arms (a sign of universal power) holding a Trishula (a trident, showing his ruling proficiency over the three modes of nature), the Damaru (small hour-glass shaped drum, the beating of which represents language or the alphabet), and exhibiting the mudras (hand positions) of Abhaya (protection) and Varada (giving blessings).
It is also said that Shivas drum represents srishti, the creation; the abhaya hand (giving blessings) represents sthiti, or preservation; his foot that presses down symbolizes tirobhava, or the veiling effect; and the uplifted foot means blessings (anugraha), especially toward seeing through the veil of illusion caused by ego. When he is shown with an axe, it represents samhara, destruction.
Sometimes he is shown with eight, ten or even thirty-two hands. These represent his various potencies and contain such things as an Akshamala (rosary that signifies being the master of spiritual sciences), the Khatvanga (magic wand which shows his being an adept in occult sciences), a Darpana (a mirror showing that the creation is a reflection of his cosmic form), a chakra (disc), a noose, a staff, a bow, a Pashupata spear, a lotus, sword, and so on. He is often sitting on or wearing a tiger skin. The tiger skin represents his command over his desires, which often consumes common men like a tiger.
Shiva is often shown with serpents entwined around his arms, waist, neck and hair. Snakes often invoke fear. So this represents how Shiva is free from fear. The snake also signifies time. If a poisonous snake bites someone, it is only a matter of time before that person will die. And time catches up with everyone sooner or later. So Lord Shiva is the Lord over time and death. These serpents also indicate that he is surrounded by death but beyond the power of it.
Shiva is also seen with ash from the cremation grounds smeared over his body. This is called vibhuti. It symbolizes death or detachment from the world and lust. It also indicates that our bodies, being inert matter in their essential form, will also become ashes when we die and if the body is cremated. Thus, we must rise above the bodily identification and become conscious of our real identity within. Ash is the sign of Shivas complete renunciation of the world.
Sometimes Shiva is shown wearing a garland of skulls. The skulls are representative of his being the lord of destruction and the cyclical nature of the appearance and disappearance of the material creation.
One of the most beautiful forms of Lord Shiva is portrayed in his dancing position, known as Nataraja, the king of dancers. As Nataraja, Shiva holds his damaru drum in his upper right hand. This indicates nada, the sound of the universal development. In his other hand, he holds a flame of destruction. Together these indicate both creation and destruction, the counterpoints of all material existence. His right hand is also held in the position of blessing and protection. As Nataraja, he also wears the skin of a tiger, which he slew. This represents the ego, which will fight when attacked and must be killed by the knowledge of the guru, or the wisdom of Nataraja himself. As Nataraja, he is shown with one foot subduing or standing on the body of Mahamaya, the illusion which is the cause of all suffering. The other foot is raised upward, which represents the attainment of the turiya state beyond the states of waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and the influence of the mind and creation. Thus, he is completely free from all of these.
There are many stories that relate how and why Shiva appears the way he does. For example, Lord Shiva is shown at times with a third eye in between his eyebrows on his forehead. It is said that his third eye represents the eye of wisdom, or inner sight. The other two eyes represent the balanced form of love and justice. Thus, Lord Shiva is not too harsh nor too lenient, but views everything with the proper proportions of love, justice, and inner knowledge. Together, Shivas three eyes also represent the sun, moon and fire, the means by which the universe is illuminated. How Shiva got a third eye is explained that one day Shivas wife Parvati covered Shivas eyes with her hands and the whole world was enveloped in darkness. Then Shiva willed the third eye to manifest, which sent forth light, heat and fire.
Another story is that once when the heavenly
Ganga river was descending onto the earth, the weight of its force would have crushed the world, so Shiva accepted it on his head, wherein it stayed until it was ready to be released. The
River is considered to have entered the universe when the Supreme Lord in His incarnation as Vamanadeva kicked the outer shell of the universe with His toe, thus letting in some of the water of the
Ocean, the spiritual water that surrounds the universe. This became the holy
Ganga. Thus, it is considered the foot wash of the Lord. So Lord Shiva takes this water on his head.
Ganga water is also said to represent the flow of knowledge and devotion to God. Shiva is known as the foremost devotee of Lord Krishna, Vishnu, or Lord Rama, which is one of the meanings of the spout of
Ganga water on Shivas head.
The Bhagavatam (10.41.15) relates: The water of the river Ganga [
Ganges] has purified the three worlds, having become transcendental by bathing Your [Lord Vishnus] feet. Lord Shiva accepted that water on his head, and by that waters grace the sons of King Sagara attained heaven.
Another story is that during the time when the demons and demigods were churning the ocean of milk, many objects started to be produced from it. One was the moon, which Shiva took and placed in his hair. This represents the phases of the moon or the passing of time, which is but an ornament for Shiva since he is not affected by it. The crescent moon also signifies the happiness of life, especially when it is based on a spiritual purpose. The rays of the moon enhance ones inspiration and energy for spiritual life, just as it is said that the rays of the moon nourish the vegetable kingdom. It represents the cooling light of the knowledge of the Self, and the way life should be when lived in that knowledge.
Another object that appeared from the churning was the severe poison which Shiva drank to keep it from spreading. However, Parvati, being alarmed at this, grabbed his throat so it could not go down, which is where he kept the poison, and which made his throat turn blue.
Shiva is often portrayed standing next to or on his bull, Nandikeshvara or Nandi (meaning joyful). Symbolically, Nandi represents the animal tendencies, such as the urge for sex, which are tamed and docile by Lord Shivas mastery over it. Thus, he rides on Nandi, who is obedient to Shivas command. Nandi also represents strength and virility. He is often seen in temples of Shiva in a reclining position in front of the main shrine, gazing toward the image of Shiva. Nandi also represents the jivatma, the individual soul, and the animalistic impulses that will carry it away into material existence, unless such tendencies are curbed.