The Hindu god Shiva (who has nothing whatsoever to do with sitting shiva) is usually depicted as one of the members of the great Triad, one of the three projections of the Supreme Reality, each with a specific cosmic function. Brahmā is the Creator, Vishnu is the Maintainer or Preserver, and Shiva is the Destroyer or Transformer, the dissolution that precedes re-creation. In Shaivism, the oldest of the four sects of Hinduism, Shiva is the supreme Being: creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer, and concealer of everything that exists.
I first encountered Shiva in Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, the series of interviews with Bill Moyers on PBS in 1988. He did a marvelous job of explicating the iconic image of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva, Lord of the Dance), right. Shiva does the cosmic Dance of Bliss inside a ring of fire—the world of illusion—to destroy a weary universe and make preparations for Brahma to create everything anew.
He has four arms and two legs, and every aspect of his pose is a carefully constructed symbol. Dr. Richard Stromer explains it beautifully:
The contents of the upper two of Nataraja’s outstretched hands are meant to demonstrate the eternal balance between the forces of creation and those of destruction. In the upper right hand, Shiva holds the sacred damaru, a drum in the shape of an hourglass, with which Shiva beats out the rhythm of his dance and with it the ceaseless creation of the universe and all of its infinite forms. This drum, writes Joseph Campbell, “is the drum of time, the tick of time which shuts out the knowledge of eternity,” as a result of which “we are enclosed in time.” Moreover, it is said to signify the primordial sound from which all things emanate, connoting in Heinrich Zimmer’s words “Sound, the vehicle of speech, the conveyer of revelation, tradition, incantation, magic, and divine truth.” Opposed to this force of creation as represented by the drum is the flame of extinction held in Shiva’s upper right hand. That flame symbolizes all of Shiva’s awesome powers of destruction, the terrible but necessary burning away of all things existing in time and space, the fire which, Campbell writes, “burns away the veil of time and opens our minds to eternity.” Continue reading