Who Is Shiva?

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Śiva (Auspicious One)

Shiva Definition

Shiva is one of the main deities in Hinduism, alongside Vishnu and Brahma. Associated with the aspect of time, his role in the Trimurti is that of the destroyer and the restorer.

He also represents unmoved Supreme Consciousness.

a white statue of shiva with smoke around

Shiva deep dive

Shiva as a God

Shiva is worshiped by Shaivates as the supreme God. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad speaks of Shiva as the supreme deity and he plays a big role in the two Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The reputation of the God of Destruction often gets Shiva a bad rap from those who do not fully understand his role; he may be better termed as the transformer of the universe.

Much like Kali, he destroys in order to recreate. Maintaining the cycle of existence, his powers are used for the good of all beings – to destroy illusions and pave the way for liberation.

He is also thought to destroy the world once every 2,160,000,000 years.

In the benevolent aspects of Shiva, he is depicted living as a householder with his consort Parvati and two children, Ganesha and Kartikeya.

As well as this, he’s shown as living as an ascetic (in an eternal meditation) on his abode, which some believe to be the container of all of his knowledge, Mount Kailash.

Many yogis and Hindus say, with deep devotion and dedication, you can still see Shiva sitting on Mount Kailash today. One such story is that of Sri M as described in his book, Apprenticed To A Himalayan Master.

Lord Shiva has 108 names including Mahadeva, Maheshvara, Shankara, Rudra, Hara, and Devendra (Chief of Gods).

Mount Kailash covered in snow
Mount Kailash

The first yogi

Figures such as Sadhguru speak of Shiva being the first yogi, naming him Adiyogi. Many believe he was the divine source of yoga, sharing yoga with the rest of humanity.

You can read more about that in our encyclopedia entry on Adiyogi here, including the story of how he bestowed yoga upon the world.

Lord of the dance

As Nataraja, Shiva appears as Lord of the cosmic dance.

This depiction of Shiva dancing the Tandava, which is often sold as bronze statues, symbolizes him as the source of all movement in the universecreation, preservation, destruction, revelation, and concealment.

Performing the cosmic dance of creation, he drives the ceaseless rhythm of the universe and stamps the ignorance of Maya (illusion) away, transforming the energy of existence and setting the beat of life with his damaru (drum).

a painting of shiva dancing in the universe

Shiva as Hanuman

You may have heard of Hanuman as the great monkey God of the Ramayana, or perhaps popularized for some in the West by the famous Hanuman devotee Neem Karoli Baba (guru of Ram Dass).

In Shaivaite traditions, Hanuman is an incarnation of Shiva symbolizing exemplary discipline and devotion which are admirable marks of the bhakti and karma paths.

Though, as the form of Hanuman, he had forgotten that he was Lord Shiva!

There are many amazing stories about Hanuman, including the tale of how he jumped across the ocean from India to Sri Lanka in devotion to Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu) and, of course, how he thought the sun was a piece of fruit, so lept into the sky to try and eat it!

When I believe I am the body, then I am your faithful servant.

When I know I am the soul, I know myself to be a spark of your eternal Light. And when I have the vision of truth, you and I, my Lord, are one and the same.

Hanuman to Rama in The Ramayana
a statue of hanuman opening his chest


His consort is Devi, the Mother-goddess, and in her most well-known form, she is Shiva’s eternal wife, Parvati.

As well as the form of Parvati, other forms include Kali and Sati.

Representation & symbology

1. Blue skin

A sign of his infinite nature, Shiva’s blue skin is said to represent his transcendence and omniscience.

Other stories talk of how Shiva, as an almighty and powerful god, drank a poison that spread through his body and turned it blue. To stop the spread of the poison, Goddess Parvati, in the form of Mahavidya, entered his body to save him.

Though she saved his life, his throat still turned blue due to the effect of the poison. This is why he’s also known as Neelkanth, which literally means ‘the one with the blue throat’.

Blue also being the color associated with the Vishuddha (throat chakra), some say the activation of this point is when you first awaken Shiva within you.

a blue statue of shiva
2. The Ganga

The Ganga (the Ganges) is the most sacred river in India and is known to Hindus as Mother Ganga, worshiped as a personification of the Goddess Ganga.

Flowing from the Himalayas all the way to the Bay of Bengal, bathing in it is thought to wash away karmas that bind us to the cycle of life and death (samsara).

The holy river is depicted in Shiva as his matted hair, symbolizing how the precious knowledge he holds is capable of purifying our souls.

3. The Tripundra

Shiva is also shown with three horizontal lines on his forehead, known as the Tripundra. They are made from human ash, symbolizing how we all are made from and will return to the same thing – pure energy – hence making liberation a worthy goal in this lifetime.

They are thought to represent various ideas:

  • Shiva’s threefold power of: will (icchashakti), knowledge (jnanashakti), and action (kriyashakti)
  • The three gunas (rajas, sattva, and tamas)
  • The sacred mantra Om, broken down into the three letters of A-U-M
  • The self, inner-self, and Supreme Self
  • The holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva
a white statue of shiva's head
4. Snake around his neck

The snake is a well-known symbol of kundalini energy, so many believe this is one aspect of why Shiva is represented with a snake around his neck.

Another understanding is that the snake epitomizes the past, present, and future and how Shiva is beyond all three of these.

Others believe the snake represents the ahamkara (ego).

Our ego, when someone says something that we don’t want to hear or that hurts us, can tend to immediately attack that person, much like a snake when approached by something that intimidates or endangers them.

Again, this represents how Shiva has complete control over these standard human instincts that stops many of us from realizing the truth.

Shiva in Tantra

In Tantra, he represents half of the Divine – the divine masculine principle – whilst his consort, Shakti, represents the divine feminine. He is the ground of being in which we find incredible clarity, he is Absolute Consciousness with no beginning or end.

Within classical Tantra, the whole universe is thought of as being created, sustained, and ceased by two core forces – Shiva and Shakti. The eternal union of these two forces creates and maintains the entire macrocosm.

Neither is dominant as they are both equally divine.

Shiva is therefore a name for the paradigm of deities in Kashmir Shaivism, one-half of the fundamental deities that represent all of us.

He is the formless, spacious awareness that holds space for all forms. It is the space within which all forms of consciousness arise and subside. Whilst Shiva is the open presence, Shakti is the contents of this presence.

Tantric scripture speaks of Shiva as being the host of Shakti, holding her in all of her glory for the divine dance to move through his vast, spacious presence. In their undivided eternal union, forever as Universal Consciousness, the two are never apart.

colourful statues of shakti and shiva

Through Her [Shakti],
He [Shiva] assumes the form of the universe;
Without Her,
He is left naked.

Jnaneshwar – part of the poem: The Union of Shiva and Shakti

Shiva in God form, as above, is a slightly more contracted version of Shiva as pure awareness as he is thought of in traditional Tantra.

Shiva in your life

These deities, in all of the Hindu pantheon, represent you. Think of them as looking in a mirror.

It’s important to understand that they do not represent anything outside of you or an energy force far away; you can connect with (or as) them whenever you try.

To connect with Shiva is to know the true nature of consciousness, the space out of which everything arises and everything dissolves back into. His energy is one of spaciousness and openness, whilst simultaneously a deep groundedness.

A vast emptiness yet total completeness. He is the ground of being.

1. Mantra

I find chanting mantras one of the best ways to connect with the energy of deities, strengthening the power of their presence in your life in undeniable ways.

One of the most ancient and favored chants for Shiva’s invocation lies within the Vedas, Om Namah Shivaya. It’s thought to elevate your energy and balance the five elements of the universe.

Along with these mantras, you could chant (or sing) any of the following:

Chant these in the early morning at sunrise or at sunset, having fully cleansed your body. Whether done aloud or internally, reciting the mantras in multiples of 108 is considered best.

a man chanting mantras in nature

2. Contemplate Scriptures & Sutras

Read and contemplate texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Shiva Sutras.

The Shiva Sutras, supposedly found engraved on a stone by Vasugupta, is a collection of 77 wisdom teachings on liberation. This text formed the basic understanding of Kashmir Shaivism (classical Tantra) in the 9th century.

Read these texts and let them ruminate, chew them over, contemplate them, meditate on them, and see how they show up in your lives.

You may want to repeat the passages a few times and see how it feels in your body, perhaps letting your eyes rest on the page or mentally repeating the scripture if you can remember it.

Allow thoughts to arise and fall regarding the text, dissolving back into the ground of being.

There will eventually be a moment of direct experience in which you recognize what this means, so stay with the sutra for a little while before moving on to the next one.

a woman in a black top reading in nature

3. Meditation

As the god who is shown in eternal meditation, a regular meditation practice can help you to feel a sense, or even a fraction, of Shiva’s energy.

One dharana from the vijñana-bhairava-tantra (109) tells us that, if we repeat this affirmation to center our awareness as we enter meditation, we truly become Shiva:

‘I naturally embody the qualities of Shiva; I am Shiva’.

Here’s a guided meditation on the Shiva principle. Other practices might include a saguna (form) meditation like this or this.

4. Festivals

The festival devoted to Shiva is Maha Shivaratri, the Great Night of Shiva, an annual celebration of the deity that happens between February and March.

This marks the time that Shiva first performed the cosmic dance of creation, the Tandava Nritya, marking the beginning of consciousness. Some also believe it is the night during which Shiva saved the world from total destruction.

Join in the celebrations by chanting, meditating, fasting, and attending a puja or a satsang.

A final thought from Utpaladeva

In our deep recognition of what we are, we come to understand that we are no different from Lord Shiva.

Utpaladeva, a great devotee of Shiva, reminds us in his beautiful, devotional poetry:

When everything in the world is in your form,
How could there be a place
Not suitable for devotees?
Where in the world does their mantra
Fail to bear fruit?

Lord! When the objective world has dissolved
Through a state of deep meditation,
You stand alone –
And who does not see you then?

An excerpt from Utpaladeva’s Stotra One: The Pleasure of Devotion
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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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More On Deities:

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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