March 17, 2004 · updated February 15, 2022

Shiva (also spelled Siva) is one of the chief deities of Hinduism. His name means "Auspicious One." Devotees of Shiva are called "Saivites." Shiva is known by many other names, including Sambhu ("Benignant"), Samkara ("Beneficent"), Pasupati ("Lord of Beasts"), Mahesa ("Great Lord") and Mahadeva ("Great God").

Shiva is a paradoxical deity: "both the destroyer and the restorer, the great ascetic and the symbol of sensuality, the benevolent herdsman of souls and the wrathful avenger." {1} In the most famous myth concerning Shiva, he saves humanity by holding in his throat the poison that churned up in the waters and threatened mankind. For this reason he is often depicted with a blue neck.

History of Shiva and Shiva-Worship

In the Vedas, Shiva is an aspect of the god Rudra, not a separate god. However, a joint form Rudra-Shiva appears in early household rites, making Shiva one of the most ancient Hindu gods still worshipped today. By the 2nd century BCE, Rudra's significance began to wane and Shiva rose in popularity as a separate identity.

In the Ramayana, Shiva is a mighty and personal god, and in the Mahabharata he is the equal of Vishnu and worshipped by other gods. Shiva became associated with generation and destruction; sometimes fulfilling the role of Destroyer along with Vishnu (the Preserver) and Brahma (the Creator) and sometimes embodying all three roles within himself.

In the Mahadeva image in the Elephanta caves (on an island off of Bombay), which dates to between the 5th and 7th centuries CE, Shiva is shown in his threefold form. The two faces on either side represent (apparent) opposites - male and female (ardhanari); terrifying destroyer (bhairava) and active giver of repose; mahayogi and grhasta. The third face, serene and peaceful, reconciles the two - Shiva as the One who transcends all contradictions.

This triple aspect of Shiva, which has become a dominant form, is represented in the three horizontal lines Saivites mark on their foreheads.

Shiva's Family and Associations

Shiva's female consort is variously manifested as Uma, Sati, Parvati, Durga, Kali, and sometimes Shakti. Their sons are Skanda, the god of war, and the beloved elephant-headed Ganesh, remover of obstacles.

Shiva is especially associated with the Ganges River, which flows through his hair in images, and Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas.

Iconography and Symbolism of Shiva

Shiva's symbols are the bull and the linga. The latter symbol is historically associated with the phallus, but is not generally perceived as such by worshipers. Unlike most other Hindu gods and goddesses, Shiva is not worshipped in human form in temples, but rather as the linga.

Other depictions of Shiva have his hair in matted locks and piled atop his head like an ascetic and adorned with the crescent moon and the Ganges River (according to legend, he broke the Ganga's fall to earth by allowing her to trickle through his hair).

Shiva has a third eye, giving him the capability of inward vision but also burning destruction when focused outward. He is variously shown with two or four hands, which hold a deerskin, a trident, a small hand drum, or a club with a skull at the end.

One of the most popular representations of Shiva is as Nataraj, the cosmic dancer. He is also variously depicted as a naked ascetic, a beggar, a yogi, and the union of he and his female consort in one body.