Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Shiva: The Wild God of Power and Ecstasy

Book Review: Shiva: The Wild God of Power and Ecstasy by Wolf-Dieter Storl, Ph. D (Inner Traditions 2004)

This is a nice big overview of Shiva in his many manifestations and complex origins and syntheses. It is both an academic study from the author’s perspective as a cultural anthrolopologist/ethnologist and an account by one who is deeply interested in Shiva. The book is full of stories and folk tales of Shiva and his exploits both from oral tradition and from the Puranas. He examines Shiva as a very old shamanistic deity, particularly in his aspect as Pashupati, the lord of the animals. Shiva often appears with a crescent moon in his hair and skirted with animal skin, reminiscent of the horned god. He also has his damaru drum, dances, and is adorned with serpents reminiscent of an archetypal shaman. Later, in South India came the familiar image of Shiva as Nataraja, the King of Dancers. Here he dances on one foot with four arms and is ringed with fire. Also shamanistic is Shiva’s aspect as the lord of ghosts, goblins, and shades/rowdy spirits. This Shiva Bhuteshvara and his entourage is described as drunken and madly dancing. But not only is Shiva the lord of shamanic ecstasy, like Odin and Dionysus, but he is also the Lord of Yoga, of ascetic discipline. Bhairava is a wrathful aspect of Shiva who wanders aimlessly doing penance for cutting off one of Brahma’s heads. He has many aspects, as many as 64 to correspond to the 64 Yoginis led by Bhairavi. An early form that came to be Shiva was that of Rudra, the howler. He was a wild hunter that came down from the mountains
with his rowdy wind spirits, the maruts, not so different than Odin and the wild hunt. Rudra is mentioned in the earliest Vedas.

Pivotal to Shiva worship is the veneration of Shiva’s Lingham. This is fertility culture at its finest with the lingham and yoni displayed and adorned with many prescribed offerings. The Lingham Puja is done by Saivites everywhere. Shiva Linghams are most often made of polished stone. The lingham is placed on the yoni and showered with milk, coconut milk, spices, and flowers. The Lingham is infinite as in the story where Vishnu awakens from his sleep after the universe was going back into manifestation and finds Brahma and then they see a huge pillar of fire. Brahma takes the form of a gander and tries to find the top while Vishnu takes the form of a boar and roots down to find the source. Vishnu is informed by a serpent that the pillar is a manifestation of Shiva and the root and crown are never to be found. Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer, make up the trinity of deities. Saivites have it that Shiva is the ultimate and most important while the Vaisnavas accord that title to Vishnu. The Cobra guards the lingham.

There are many tales of Shiva here. I especially enjoyed the ones where he and his wife Parvati squabbled about various matters. Lover’s quarrels and all the emotions of a family make Shiva more accessible to the common Hindu person, I would think.

Shiva, as the Lord of Yoga, is often called Shankar, or Shiva the Peaceful. He is known to live on Mount Kailash and spend his time in meditation and asceticism. In fact, in many of the mythical stories there are various asuras, or demigods that practice tortuous asceticism for aeons in order to develop various powers and force Brahma to grant them boons. Failing to slay their ego they create problems in the god realms and among humans. Often it is Shiva or his Shaktis, such as Durga, or Kali, that must fix things and overcome or slay the demons – showing that the ego must be put aside in order to truly succeed in the quest for enlightenment. Devotees of Shiva Shankara call him Dhurjati or Jatadhara, “the one with matted, felted hair.” Indeed it was matted hair ascetics who first taught the Buddha around 500 BCE. It is said that the river Ganges springs from Shiva’s hair and that he cushioned the fall of the goddess Ganga as she flowed down to appease the sufferings and austerities of a rishi as told in the Ramayana. Shiva’s devotees will often be seen with rudraksha beads, red textured seeds from a tree. There are various rare types and whole detailed rites, prescriptions, and taboos associated with them. These are associated with Shiva as the wild old wind god Rudra. They are called the tears of Rudra. Rudra as a wind god is said to be pleased and calmed into the peaceful Shiva Shankara by the yogic practice of pranayama, or breath control. This certainly makes sense for a wind god. Rudra is said to be master of the eleven pranas.

Shiva is called Tryambaka, the three-eyed one. The third eye in the forehead is a notable symbol of Shiva. With his powerful eye he can incinerate the whole universe. Other triple symbols of Shiva are his trident, called the trishula, and the three horizontal lines drawn in ash on the foreheads of his disciples. The trident is likely a symbol of the world tree upside down with the roots ascending to the celestial realm. It is the baton of the shaman and the horned god that later became the pitchfork of the devil. The three prongs are sometimes said to be Siva-Vishnu-Brahma, sometimes the three gunas (three principles of material nature – revealing, action, and inertial), and some say non-attachment, knowledge, and spiritual concentration (samadhi).

There is a chapter devoted to The Goddess (Devi), or the consort(s) of Shiva. First there was Uma – who jumped into the fire out of shame. She was reincarnated as Parvati, the mother of Ganesh and Kartikeyya. Also there is Durga, and Kali. There is also Annapurna, the goddess of food who was Parvati feeding Shiva. There even appears to have been a Roman version of the food goddess called Anna Perenna, who fed starving soldiers during an early battle. Shiva appears in a few androgenous forms with the goddess as Uma Shankar and even in a female form as Maheshvari. Kali dances on Shiva’s corpse as he attempts to subdue her madness through trance. Criminals and murderers make offerings to Shiva and Kali. The Thugs who would perform ritual murders to appease the goddess Kali were later found out to be mostly Muslims who equated Kali to Fatima. Kali is the Black Mother of Time. She slays the ego, our misconceived sense of self, which ever tries in vain to conquer time (kala).The various goddesses can be said to represent the white, red, and black gunas. The author puts forth an idea of the triple form of the goddess as the white, red, and black goddesses. The white goddess is Sarasvati, the river goddess (from old Vedic Persia) of arts, knowledge, and music who the author compares to Brighid. She is sattvic, the principle of light and spiritual unveiling. (Incidentally, I find this interesting for once at a Tibetan Buddhist initiation of Sarasvati I learned from the guru that her subtlety is such that she cannot manifest in a gross realm where cruelty and war and suffering are everywhere. Perhaps this is because she is so sattvic, or revealed spiritually that she loses her identity in the so-called lower realms.) The red goddess is Laksmi, the beautiful goddess of fortune who like Aphrodite was born of foam and like Athena has an owl as companion. She arose from the churning of the ocean of milk. She would represent the rajasic, or active or motion principle of nature. The black goddess Kali would represent the tamasic principle of inertia or the darkness that veils all things into sleep, unconsciousness, or stillness. So the triple goddess would be Sarasvati-Laksmi-Kali, hmnn somewhat reminiscent of the black madonna gypsy goddess in her French name as Sara-La-Kali. The author notes also similarities to the three Norns and the three Fates of the Greeks. White, red, and black – the colors of sperm/milk, blood, and excrement. Substance is sometimes seen as the domain of the feminine.

One story of the origin of the androgenous Shiva-Shakti has it that grandfather Brahma’s sons born of his mind had no intention of populating the earth (they merely created the creatures of the earth in their function of prajapatis, or creators). This made Brahma angry and his thoughts, “took on the form of a hermaphroditic being which he commanded to split into two. The masculine half he called “Rudra” and the feminine half, “Sati (Uma).” The creator gave Sati to his foremost son Daksha to be born as his youngest daughter, whom Shiva was destined to wed.” Uma was reborn as Parvati the daughter as well as her sister Ganga of the mountain king Himalaya and Mena, a goddess of space, or akasha. Parvati practiced asceticism to win Shiva’s heart. She was the mother of Kartikeyya, or Skanda – the demon killer and the elephant-headed powerful Ganesh, known as remover of obstacles. Many icons show the divine family as these four. Ganesh rides on a mouse , or rat and Skanda on a peacock. According to the author many Swamis will say that the place name of Scandinavia comes from Skanda. The author also equates the now outlawed Indian practice of widows jumping into the fire (as Uma/Sati did) with a similar practice among Scandinavian widows.

There is a chapter devoted to Shiva Nataraja, the divine dancer. He dances on a pygmy demon who tried to deceive him. Here is a great quote from that chapter:

“In Shankar, resting motionless in meditation, the three primal principles, the red, white, and black gunas, are in harmonious, undisturbed balance. But when Shiva becomes Nataraja, these elements are swirled into motion, churned and infinitely mixed and remixed. When he starts the drumbeat, the Oneness of Shankar’s silence is shattered. The countless trillions upon zillions of rhythms and pulses of Creation start their beat, for all of nature is dance: the dance of wind and waves, the rounds of seasons and tides, the swirl of planets and galaxies, the reveling of elves, elemental beings, and angels, the frolic of the animals, the coming and going of thoughts and feelings, going on endlessly. At long last, even the scientists cannot ignore the metaphor and begin to talk meaningfully of the dance of subatomic particles swirling through the cosmos as ever transforming fields of matter and energy.

“What is dance, but the continual loss and instantaneous regaining of balance? Shiva’s dance is the fine edge of the universe tumbling into chaos and destruction and the simultaneous recreation of poise, in a continuous, ecstatic, spontaneous whirl of creation-destruction-creation-destruction.”

The sound of Shiva’s drum marks too the beginning of the universe as it vibrates the akasha causing Brahma to breathe and the prajapatis to emanate from his forehead and create the constituents of the universe. The sound is OM and the sound will remain until the universe is again destroyed in the cyclic fashion according to the Vedas.

Next there is a chapter devoted to the family of Shiva, Parvati, and there sons Skanda and Ganesh, and also Shiva’s faithful bull, Nandi. There are stories of the magical origins of the two sons and their exploits and attributes. Ganesh lost one of his tusks in an argument and later used it to write down the Mahabharata dictated to him by a rishi. One common icon shows the whole divine family riding on Nandi, the massive white bull. Nandi is symbolic of duty, or dharma to one’s master. Indeed Nandi is considered “lord of dharma” perhaps similar to the Zoroastrian veneration and connection of the white bull to the cosmic law “asha.” Nandi’s parents are the cow and the turtle.

Shiva is metaphysically considered to be the Divine Self. All is Shiva. He is Shiva, “the gracious, Shambhu, “the kind”, and Shankar, “the peaceful.” He is Satcittananda, being-consciousness-bliss. His goddess, or shakti is the energy that propels consciousness. Shakti animates Shiva. He reveals all as “lila” the spontaneous play of the gods.

The author compares a lot of old Persian and Indian Vedic words and gods to later Indo-European words and forms of the Greeks, Romans, Germans, and Anglo-Saxons. Many of these comparisons are quite convincing and should be considered offshoots of the same (more or less) general prehistoric Indo-European Nature Religion. Later as non-Aryan elements, particularly the Dravidians in South India, diluted the old Vedic religion things changed. Then the Vedas were written down to preserve the old Brahmanical knowledge. The Puranas, according to the author, came about later as folk tales where the non-Aryan elements were thoroughly mixed in. The author says that this is best exemplified in the story of Shiva’s destruction of the horse sacrifice being performed by Daksha, the chief priest and mind-born prajapati son of Brahma. Basically, Shiva’s wife Uma goes with a retinue and is received coldly by her father Daksha. She jumps into the sacrificial fire. When Shiva finds out he destroys what is left of the Vedic ritual. There are several versions of this story recounted in the famous epics like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas. In one it is Shiva arising from the constellation Orion as Sharva, the archer chasing the sacrificial fire as the deer. Sharva is apparently an Indo-Iranian pre-cursor to Shiva and is associated with the lord of the animals. So to the Vedic Brahmins Shiva is the outcaste, the sinner, the crazy one, the nonconformist, the dope imbibing, mad chief of ghosts.

Next is a great chapter called “Shiva as the Devil.” Here the author gives an interesting history of Zoroastrianism where Zarathustra (Zoroaster is his Greek name) reforms the old Vedic religion due to his desert visions and commences to separate the world into good and evil, clean and unclean, light and darkness, etc. Perhaps it is a response to a more agrarian society. Blood sacrifices were stopped and cows were protected. However, some animals, particularly insects were considered unclean and killed endlessly according to the author. He notes that the Zoroastrian supreme god of Light was fashioned from the Vedic sky god Varuna, or Persian Uruwna. This is equivalent to the Greek Ouranos, or Latin Uranos, ancestor of all and guardian of law. Also with Zoroaster’s reformation came the assignment of the old Vedic gods (daevas) to the realm of evil spirits, hence our words, devil and demon. Indra, Sharva (Shiva-Rudra), and the twins called the Ashvins are mentioned by name. This Zoroastrian reformation marked the beginning of the Middle Eastern Monotheistic Dualisms most strongly influencing Judaeism, Christianity, Manichaeism and other Gnostic sects, and Islam. Ahura Mazda as supreme being , an ahura – equuivalent to the Sanskrit asura (and very likely the Nordic aesir) made the asuras the angelic beings verses the demonic daevas. In the early Vedas they were more or less two different type of gods – similar to the gods and titans (perhaps wilder older gods) of the Greeks. Later in India the asuras became more demonic, or more specifically became more troublesome due to their inability to overcome their own powerful egos. Later yet in Buddhist terms the asuras are called the jealous gods. In any case Shiva is of the devas, indeed he is often called Mahadeva, or Mahadev – the Great God. Zoroaster spoke out against asceticism and idolatry (likely the far origin of Islamic and Judaic injunctions against idolatry). Leading a natural life and speaking truth was favored over the ecstatic methods of shamanism and the harsh discipline of yoga. The Wild God (Shiva) dancing ecstatically on the ghat or funeral pyre is seen as both God and the Devil, or a Being with unlimited potential for good or evil – as is the Self. After all an enflamed horned god dancing madly and carrying a trident/pitchfork certainly evokes images of the traditional devil. The author even makes an interesting etymology of our word for the “bogey man” coming ultimately from the Sanskrit word “Bhagavan”, meaning lord/giver through the Slavic “bogu” “Bhagavan” usually refers to a sacred deity. The author does make an interesting statement that the espousing of the good/evil dichotomy makes it more susceptible to fanaticism compared to the notion that all beings have a right to live without suffering and have a chance at liberation. With Shiva, good and evil has more to do with one’s current state of delusion/enlightenment rather than any ultimate purity/impurity.

Some occultists, particularly the Theosophists, Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophists, and various Essenic Orders consider Zoroaster to be a great prophet and ascended master. They see his reformations as more useful than not although one can also make a very good point that they have been more harmful than useful. But I would say both harmful and useful.

Next we have Shiva and the Tantras. Tantrists will have it that the so-called Four Ages of the Vedas have their corresponding effective spiritual teachings. In the first age, the Krita Yuga, or Golden Age – it was the Vedas; in the second age, the Treta Yuga, or the Silver Age – it was the Upanishads; in the third age, the Dvapara Yuga, or Copper Age – it was the Puranas; and now in the last age, the Kali Yuga, or Iron Age – it is the Tantras. The Tantras teach that desire and pleasure and indulgence can be used as a spiritual practice – particularly if done without attachment/addiction/destruction. It is sometimes considered a shortcut, a more direct path, providing that one can give up the ego (ahamkara). Theoretically, when this ego-death occurs no more karma is made. There is only residual karma left to be worn away. Tantrikas realize that there is energy in our desire, in our anger, in our mass of delusions. This energy is there to be transformed . Energy is Shakti. Shakti is the necessary consort of Shiva. Shakti often appears as a serpent goddess such as Manasa Devi or as the Kundalini Shakti coiled at the base of the spine awakened through breath and yoga. As each chakra blooms when kundalini arises a more refined aspect of Shiva is revealed. The tantric union of lovers (maithuna) is a symbol of Shiva and Shakti entwined in the play of love-making. The enlightened yogi or tantrika is said to experience the blissful union of Shiva and Shakti. It is said that there are three ways to approach tantra (this is similar in the Buddhist tradition as well) based on one’s disposition relative to the three gunas. The divya is sattvic and so does not need external ritual. The vira, or hero is considered rajasic and so the yogic methods and confronting of desires and fears is practiced. The pashu is tamasic and would likely overindulge so a more ordinary symbolic puja is his suggested method. The so-called Hindu Tantric texts called the Shiva Agamas and Shakti Agamas could be read by all castes – there was no distinction within the context of this form of spiritual practice. In Buddhist iconography it is the great Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara who mostly takes on Shiva’s attributes. Although the author does not mention this, it is also the wrathful Vajrakilaya that is considered most similar to Shiva as Bhairava. Vajrakilaya is the Vajra-cannibal, Vajrakumara – who was once called Rudra, and spent aeons in self-indulgence, murder, and pillage before being subdued and transformed by the Buddha Vajrasattva. Now Vajrakilaya is considered foremost as a dharma protector and aid to the practitioner in vanquishing the foe-demons within.

Covered next is Shiva’s indulgence in mind-altering substances, two in particular – cannabis and the much more dangerous thorn apple. Also covered are plants considered sacred to Shiva such as the bel tree, or wood apple. Its three leaves often decorate Shiva linghams. Its fruit, the Bilva fruit, is in the citrus family and is considered medicinal. This is the fruit conspicuously seen as offerings in Tibetan Buddhist Thanka paintings. The author is also an ethnobotanist so he goes into some detail about the sacred plants. Shiva-Aushadhishvara is considered to be the lord of herbs and consciousness-changing drugs. Cannabis is called bhang and is eaten and smoked in India by Saivite sadhus. Shiva appears here in his aspect as Bholonath, the trickster/fool, ash-covered and with matted hair, riding on his white bull red-eyed from hemp and accompanied by goblins, ghosts, and witches. The sadhus claim that smoking bhang helps them maintain sexual abstinence, or brahmacharya. Pot smoking is tolerated among the sadhus and old folks but looked down upon by younger people. Apparently, the hippies that migrated to India in the 70’s embraced this aspect of Shiva. As for the sadhus (wandering Shiva devotees) -they have specific rituals for smoking with a pipe called a chilam. The author speculates that it may have been the Scythians that brought cannabis-smoking to India. Apparently, they had a rite where they made a sweat lodge and burned cannabis on the rocks especially to communicate with the dead, particularly the recently dead, and guide them on. Among the sadhus the ash from the pipe is also sacred. White ash is said to be the seed of Shiva. Shiva is Agni, the fire and Shakti is soma, the medicine. Ashes are the result of Shiva incinerating the universe. Ash is a symbol of the inevitability of death and also the conquering of anger and the subduing of the senses.

In mythology it was Shiva who drank the poison of the world, the halahala that arose from the churned Ocean of Milk. Parvati forced it to be trapped in his neck, turning it blue. Thorn Apple is another poison indulged by some Saivites. Shivaratri night in February is said to be wild and dangerous as this indulgence occurs. Though I have never indulged in Thorn Apple I have heard a few stories of people that have and they involved reports of extremely intense madness-like trips, often ending with the person ending up in a hospital or mental ward for a day or two. (I worry about my goats since there is some datura maturing in their yard in late summer.) The author says that datura may have been brought to Europe by the gypsies. Dhatura is considered to be the uncontrollable Rudra, Lord of Tears, while ganja/bhang/cannabis is said to be the gentle Devi.

Next there is a section on Saivite holidays and auspicious times for various practices. There is the descent of the Goddess Durga in the spring – nine days commemorating her struggle to slay the buffalo demon. In summer there is the scared bathing in the Ganges. In august there is a Ganesh festival. In September/October there is a festival to feed the ancestors during a waning moon. In February New Moon there is the night of Shiva, or Shivaratri commemorating the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. Not long after is a peculiar festival called the Holi festival where revelry and mayhem break loose in carnival fashion. The symbology for Saivites is the story of Shiva incinerating Kama, the god of carnal desire, with his third eye for interrupting his meditation. People shoot red paint all over each other. They may pelt one another with flying excrement and are generally stoned and rowdy. Effigies of giant penises fill the streets. Then, as I read, about midday the situation changes and people go and clean up the messes and dress in fresh clean clothes and put on an aire of extreme civility, bowing and anointing one another.

This was a very informative book both from a historical/academic perspective and from a spiritual perspective. He also co-authored a book about the magical uses of plants throughout the ancient cultures of the world, called Witchcraft Medicine that sounds interesting.

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