The Truth About Shiva

The Truth About Shiva

The Truth About Shiva

By Bibek Debroy

ETYMOLOGICALLY, THE WORD tattva means the truth, or essential nature. That’s the reason I think the word Hindutva, which has come to assume unnecessary negative nuances, is better than Hinduism. Any “ism” conveys a sense of dogmatism. Tattva also means a first principle, or elementary property. Understood in that sense, most people are familiar with the tattvas of samkhya. Five gross elements, five subtle elements, five organs of action, five senses of perception, manas (which is not quite “mind” in the Western sense), buddhi or mahat (intelligence) and ahamkara. These 23 are standard. Beyond that, the enumeration depends on the text. Prakriti, of course. Perhaps, Purusha. As I said, depending on the text, there are 24, 25, or even 26 tattvas. Most people will have a cursory familiarity with 25 tattvas, that is, their names. In contrast, I am often surprised that people don’t know about the Shaiva tattvas, which are different. Hence, let me start a few columns on these. As my source, I will use ‘Uttara Bhaga’ of Shiva Purana, the section that features in Vayaviya Samhita. Translations are mine.

We will start with Shiva and Pashupata. The sages asked, “What is this jnana about Pashupata? Why is Shiva Pashupati? Why did Krishna, unblemished in deeds, ask Dhoumya’s elder brother? O Vayu! Please tell us all this. There is no lord in the three worlds who is your equal as a speaker.” Krishna wanted a son and obtained instructions about worshipping Shiva from Upamanyu, Dhoumya’s elder brother. As with all Puranas, Suta answered the question asked by the sages. But he was repeating what Vayu, the wind-god, had told other sages earlier. That’s the reason this segment is known as Vayaviya Purana.

Vayu said, “Earlier, on Mandara, Deva Mahesha, known as Shrikantha (the one with the handsome throat), spoke about the supreme Pashupata jnana to Devi. Krishna Vishnu, the womb of the universe, asked the same question about the pashu status of devas and others and Shiva’s status as pati. Accordingly, the sage Upamanyu instructed Krishna. I will briefly tell you what he said. Earlier, Upamanyu was seated. Vishnu, in the form of Krishna, prostrated himself before him in the proper way and spoke these words. Shri Krishna said, “O illustrious one! I wish to hear what Deva told Devi about the divine Pashupata jnana and everything about his glory. Why is the divinity Pashupati? Who are spoken of as pashus? What pasha (noose) binds them? How is one freed from it?” Upamanyu was urged by the illustrious one in this way.”

Upamanyu said, “Starting with Brahma and ending with immobile entities, everything is described as pashu. The lord of devas, the wielder of the trident, has samsara under his subjugation. Since the lord of devas, Shiva, is their lord, he is spoken of as Pashupati. Pati binds pashus in the pasha of impurity, maya and other things. When he is worshipped with devotion, he frees them. There are 24 tattvasmayakarma and gunas. These are spoken of as vishayas (material objects of enjoyment). These are the pashas that bind living beings. Starting with Brahma and ending with a blade of grass, Maheshvara binds pashus with these pashas. The divinity, who is pati, makes them perform their own respective tasks. Following Mahesha’s command, Prakriti gives birth to Buddhi, that is appropriate for Purusha. Buddhi leads to ahamkaraAhamkara generates the 11 senses and the five tanmatras (subtle elements). All this happens under the instructions of Shiva, lord of devas. Following Shiva’s instructions, the tanmatras create, in the due order, all the five great (gross) elements. Following Shiva’s command, all the great elements create the physical bodies of embodied beings, starting with Brahma and ending with a blade of grass. Buddhi is determined to act. Ahamkara possesses self-conceit. Consciousness perceives and the mind takes a resolution. Ears and other senses of perception separately receive sound and other objects of the senses. The fact that they perceive their own objects of the senses and not those of others is because of the divinity’s divine command and power. They receive sound and the others. The organs of action are engaged in performing their own acts. Each performs its own task and not that of others.”

“Sound is grasped and words are spoken. Shambu is the greatest and nothing can transgress his command. He is the one who grants space to all the elements. It is because of Paramesha’s command that space is everywhere. As a result of Sharva’s command, Prabhanjana (Vayu) supports everything and is inside and outside the universe, under prana and other names. As a result of Parameshvara’s command, Agni bears havya to devas, kavya to ancestors and undertakes cooking and other activities. As a result of his command, water gives life to everyone and does other things. Because of Vishveshvara’s command, Vishvambhara (One who supports the universe. This word has several meanings. Here, it means Vishnu) always supports the universe, protects devas, kills asuras and protects the three worlds. As a result of his command, Indra of the devas obtained the status of best among devas and Varuna always rules over water, binding with his noose and chastising with his rod. As a result of his command, the lord of riches became Indra of the yakshas and distributes wealth to beings, depending on their good deeds. As a result of his command, Purusha bestows prosperity and eternal jnana on those who are extremely intelligent. Following Shiva’s instructions, Ishana punishes those who are wicked. Engaged by Shiva, Shesha holds up the earth on his head. Hara’s fierce and tamasa form is the one who is known as the destroyer. As a result of Isha’s command, the one with four faces (Brahma) creates. In many other forms, the lord protects, and at the end, he destroys. It is through Kalakala’s (the destroyer of Kala, Shiva) command that Vishnu protects the universe. It is through his own three forms that he creates, preserves and destroys the universe. All this occurs because of Hara’s instructions. His atman is in the universe. In his three forms, he creates and preserves. At the end, in the form of the Destroyer, he is the one who destroys all subjects. Through Kalakala’s command, time preserves the universe. His three forms are radiant in the universe. He instructs the rain to shower down from the sky. It is because of the instructions of the lord of devas that Bhanu (Surya) showers down. (In the sense that the sun’s rays suck up the water that is showered down as rain.) He wears Chandra as an ornament and because of his command, Chandra nourishes plants, delights beings and supplies devas with nectar.”

“Everything is established because of Shankara’s command and powers—Adityas, Vasus, Rudras, the two Ashvins, Maruts, those who travel in the sky, rishissiddhas, serpents, humans, mrigaspashus, birds, worms, immobile objects, rivers, oceans, mountains, forests, lakes, Vedas and Vedangas, the sacred texts, mantras, stomas (hymns of praise), sacrifices, the fire of destruction that ends with Shiva, worlds and their rulers, the innumerable brahmandas and their coverings, everything in the past, the present and the future, the directions and sub-directions, kala and the other divisions of time and everything in the universe that has been seen, or heard of.”

“O Krishna! Shambhu’s immeasurable deeds and what is done as a result of his command are extremely wonderful. In earlier times, the gods, along with Indra, argued amongst themselves, having defeated the asuras in a battle. Each said, “I have been victorious.” Maheshvara assumed an excellent form, that of a yaksha, and arrived in their midst, with his own auspicious signs not evident on his limbs. He placed a blade of grass on the ground and asked each of the gods to move it. “Whoever is capable of doing this has defeated the daityas.” Hearing the yaksha’s words, Shachi’s consort, the wielder of vajra, was enraged. He laughed and tried to raise the blade of grass. Though he wished to, he was incapable of raising the blade of grass. To sever it, the wielder of the vajra then released his vajra at it. His vajra seemed to face vajras from every direction and striking the blade of grass, fell down in front of it, sideways. Vahni (Agni) ignited a large fire. Pavana unleashed a mighty wind. The lord of waters created a deluge, as if dissolution had arrived. In this way, the wrathful devas sought to do many things against the blade of grass. As a result of the yaksha’s strength, all these were futile. Indra was angry and asked the yaksha, “Who are you?” While they watched, he vanished. At this time, Devi Haimavati (Himalaya’s daughter) showed herself in the sky, decorated in divine ornaments, beautiful and with a pleasant smile. Seeing her, devas, with Shakra at the forefront, were amazed. They prostrated themselves and asked her about the yaksha. “Who was this, with the signs of a yaksha?” Smiling, Devi replied, “He cannot be perceived by you. He is the one who makes the wheel of samsara, with its mobile and immobile entities, move around. In the beginning, he is the one who creates the universe. At the end, he withdraws it. There is no one who controls him. He controls everything.” Saying this, Mahadevi vanished from the spot.”

Originally published in the Open Magazine

Reproduced here with permission from Dr. Bibek Debroy