Shiva Vinadhara
Shiva Vinadhara (Holder of the Lute). Learn more »

As with all the most powerful Hindu deities, Shiva has many aspects and powers that have been described in hymns, religious narratives, ritual, visual art, dance, theater, and—most recently—film and television.

One of the most revered texts of the Hindu tradition is the Rg Veda, a collection of more than one thousand hymns dating to 1200-1000 BCE. The Rg Veda describes the power of multiple deities (such as Agni, the god of fire) and the centrality of sacrifice in religious ritual. The religious ideas of the Vedas form an important thread in Hindu belief and tradition. Hindu priests still perform many rituals by chanting the Sanskrit verses of the Vedas.

In the Rg Veda, Shiva was understood as the deity Rudra, “the howler,” a lesser but feared god who is connected to the wild, uncontrollable aspects of animals and nature. Between 300 and 700 CE, a new understanding of Shiva emerged from texts called the Puranas, which recount the adventures and challenges of the gods. The Shiva Purana describes Shiva as performing two critical and interconnecting roles as the destroyer and the creator, periodically destroying the universe so that it can be remade again. These texts also contain stories of Shiva as a yogi, dweller in cremation grounds, husband to the goddess Parvati (Uma), and father to the gods Ganesha and Skanda.

Around the ninth century, a school of thought emerged around Shiva that described the deity as having two distinct aspects. In one, Shiva is supreme and without form. In the other, Shiva takes form and can be embodied, seen, and interacted with on Earth. Portable bronze images were seen as vehicles for Shiva’s divine power and physical presence to be shared with his devotees.

It is important to note that Shiva must be ritualistically invited to descend to Earth from his formless, supreme state into the physical form of a ritual bronze. Following that ritual, puja can be performed for the deity. When puja is over, the “sending away” ritual is performed and Shiva may depart.

Next: Devotional Poetry