Shiva, the third god of the Hindu triad, has three eyes, the third one (between the eyebrows) being usually closed, except at the time of destruction of things. He wears long hair, supports the holy Ganga river on his head and the crescent moon on his matted hair. He has two to four arms, holds a trident in his hand, is naked except for a tiger-skin, besmears himself with ash and is decorated with snakes on his head, neck and arms. He is very fair-coloured but has a blue throat due to his having drunk poison during the time of the churning of the ocean by the gods. In his other hands he holds an axe, an antelope, and an hour-glass shaped drum called a ‘damru’. He wears a garland of skulls and is also known as the lord of the cremation grounds. His consort is Parvati and he is the father of Ganesha and Skanda (Kartikeya). His vehicle is the bull called Nandi.
Shiva was not a Vedic god and in his earlier forms he was known as Rudra. In contrast to Vishnu’s reputation as the benevolent creator god, Shiva represents destruction, austerity and the more malignant forces of life. This divergence has the effect that whereas Vishnu manifested himself through avataras, Shiva is represented by different aspects of his own powers and that of his consort.
His spiritual ancestor, Rudra, was ambiguous, being both benevolent and malevolent, and the latter aspect gradually prevailed. The combination of the ideas of creation and destruction is expressed in his late aspect as the Supreme Being (Mahadeva). In this form he is frequently represented as the phallic symbol (linga) which is worshipped in a Shiva temple. The lingam can be said to represent the powers of regeneration and procreation.
Shiva is shown in many other forms also, having more than four arms. They are grouped as under:
Boon giving forms (Six.)
Destructive forms (Eight)
Benign forms (Twelve)
General forms (Twenty-eight)
Dancing forms (Eight) (some books mention one hundred and eight different forms).
Shiva-ratri (night of Shiva) is both a festival and a time to keep a vow. It is celebrated in February-March all over the country and the devotees spend the whole night singing devotional songs in praise of Lord Shiva. The lingam is first washed with Ganga water and then milk, curd, honey, ghee (clarified butter), flowers, etc., are poured over it. Devotees on this day abstain from food, ending the fast with a meal of dates, fruits, nuts, sweet potatoes and beaten rice. Special celebrations are held at important Shiva temples at Chidambaram, Kalahasti, Khajuraho, Varanasi and Kashmir.
Standing Shiva Statue