Who is Shiva?

Many descriptions of Hindu deities refer to Brahma as the Creator, Vishnu as the Preserver and Shiva as the much-feared Destroyer. But is this portrayal of Shiva entirely accurate?


The idea of a Destroyer can evoke terror, and indeed Shiva is a terrifying being. He is often depicted surrounded by misshapen demons, covered in cremation ashes and dressed in a ragged tiger skin. These images represent three things that horrify us: our inner demons, death and the animal urges which drive us to unspeakable acts. Shiva can meditate peacefully because he has faced and embraced all of these; he shows us that we, too, can face them and not only survive, but thrive.

Shiva does destroy, but only that which is holding us back from evolving. In his famous depiction as Nataraj, King of the Dance, he is shown pointing to the foot he has lifted from a dwarfish shape, symbolizing liberation from childish attitudes and behavior. He has done this with Time and Effort, which he displays as a beating drum and a burning flame. Shiva’s fourth hand is raised in abhaya, the “fear not”, mudra, encouraging us not to lose hope if our process does not seem to be successful at first.

Thus it is often more useful to think of Shiva as a symbol of Transformation. One of the greatest chants associated with him is the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra, about releasing attachments which no longer serve us. A line of this sacred poem is a beautiful analogy: “When the time is right, help me let go as gracefully as the ripened cucumber lets go of its vine.”

During the time of Shivaratri, “night of Shiva”, we are said to receive cosmic support in transitioning to ever higher levels in our work, relationships and pursuits. On the evenings of February 11, 12 and 13, consider setting aside time to reflect on what needs to shift in your life with a group event or with an individual meditation: sit quietly and envision a change you wish to make. Repeat the mantra Om Namah Shivaya, “I welcome transformation”, 11 times - and see what happens!

May all your deepest wishes come true.