Who is Shiva?
Who is this wandering mendicant who often disappears from society for thousands of years to meditate on top of mountains or in caves, oblivious to anything but the Absolute?
Who is this homeless yogi who turns to ash that which he looks upon with his third eye?
Who is this "masculine" deity of the Hindu pantheon, one of the primary gods emerging from Ancient India?
Who IS SHIVA?
Shiva is not a person. Shiva represents a principle, a natural law, a cosmic pattern that exists here, there, and everywhere.
Sorta like gravity.
According to the Yoga tradition (which springs forth from the broader Vedic and pre-Vedic "religion") Shiva is a male deity who is seen as the God of Destruction. Brahma is the Creator, Vishnu is the Sustainer.... and Shiva is the Destroyer.
He is "the end". Before a new beginning, things must crumble and far apart, no?
Although the word siva is mentioned in the Rig Veda, the oldest surviving text known in human civilization, Shiva doesn't take the more central position that he does in Indic thought until around the coming of Christ and the turn to the Common Era. Before this, a more rudimentary form of Shiva is worshipped most commonly by the name of Rudra. Scholars and practitioners alike agree that Rudra, seen as the storm God in the literature, is a pre-Shiva form of Shiva. Gods and Goddesses, after all, evolve and take on new traits as they leave old ones behind depending on the culture at the time(s). But the archetypal energies remain the same. Rudra, the storm god in Vedic literature, is literally "he who howls". Interestingly, Rudra was seen as a sort of fierce form of Shiva, whereas the word siva in these ancient texts referred to "auspicious one"; "benevolent one"; "tranquil". Hmmm...
If we can imagine our ancient ancestors, the howling storms that came during agriculture season could take on two different forms. In one instance, the storm could wipe out all that was built and created to set an entirely new canvas for life. This could have devastating consequences for tribes that relied on agriculture to sustain their lives. On the flip side, a storm could bring much needed rainfall to bring life to withering crops, and could ward off starvation. Both of these had forms of "benevolence" to them. I guess it just depends on how you are looking.
As Shiva evolved from Rudra, the dominant religious/spiritual paths of India began to center around worshipping a central deity. In the Vedic era, our early ancestors were pagan-like in their construction of rituals and nature-centric worship. All of the early gods and goddesses represented natural laws. This makes sense as far as how our early humans sought to align themselves with the divinities of life.
Civilization grew and evolved and so did the way humans worshipped their gods (& goddesses).
Eventually, Shiva and Vishnu (and certain forms of these divine beings) became the central feature in ancient to medieval India.
For the tribes of people who saw Shiva as the Supreme Reality, they were considered Saivites, or "followers of Shiva". For those who saw Vishnu as the Supreme Reality, they were considered Vaishnavaites. Interesting to note that in both cases, each group of humans (for the most part) acknowledged that the Supreme Reality was beyond name and form, and that they simply chose to identify Shiva (or Vishnu) as the icon which helped transport their awareness to that nameless, formless Absolute.
What can be said here?
Stating the observable truth: Shiva was/is a portal for the practitioner's awareness to move away from their limited identify and towards a less limited identity.
This is why he is seen as the God of Destruction/ Transformation.
Moving away from the ego and towards the Divine requires personal transformation. Not an easy task. Sometimes we need a fierce storm to rip through our consciousness, to uproot all that is not truth, so that we can start over fresh. Ya know what I mean?
Sometimes the drama of life can be painful -- just like a storm at an inopportune moment. To what end?
Well, with a spiritual perspective, and through an application of the teachings of Yoga, we can learn that this process is really teaching us to die before we die. So that we can step into our true heritage on this planet, as spiritual beings having a human experience NOT human beings having a spiritual experience. What this means is that we wake up to our Eternal Truth, our True Essence, AS SHIVA -- as the formless unmanifest from which we come and are yet to return. This is what it means to realize our spiritual nature.
As they say in Sanskrit, "Jiva is Shiva". Jiva refers to the individual liberated soul, and Shiva, of course, refers to the Absolute. But our experience is often otherwise! Stuck in the world of duality, trapped in the veil of maya and ignorance, the lost soul wanders, looking for ultimate peace and happiness in world that is designed to trap us and bind us further.
This is why practitioners worship Shiva -- this wandering mendicant. He is wandering mendicant because he has renounced everything of the world! He sees that nothing in this world can satisfy him, and only the bliss of the One is worth anything at all. So he disappears and sits on top of the mountain to enter samadhi, a state of complete unity with life, a complete absence of resistance and mental effort. The state of Yoga.
I am reminded of the work of Edward Edinger and Carl Jung. I was listening to a lecture from Edward talking about "Encounters with the Greater Personality". In the work of these two brilliant psycho-analysts they talk about how the human psyche has not one, but two distinct centers.
The first center is the human ego, around which everything in a person's personality and their personal reality revolves. However, if this was factually the only center in a person's life, there would be no opportunity for change or transformation to take place. There must be a second center, a center outside of the ego or beyond the ego, which allows the ego to be a fluid and adaptable thing (although how adaptable is questionable).
This second center, according to these psychologists, is what is called the Self (capital S). In Shaivism, the Shiva worshippers are worshipping exactly this. They acknowledge how limited the ego is (the small s self). They seek to align with the Greater Personality, the Divine Will, all so that they can "let go" a little easier, "die before they die", and enter into the blissful abode of the One before death. I.E -- enter into a state of greater harmony, peace, joy, and ease between All That Is.
This is the true meaning of Shiva worship. To let go of the small self so that the Greater Self can take over. We are talking principles. These are not weird gods that exists far away in ancient lands. They are simply frameworks to support us on the path of Yoga. Use them as you wish.
Om Namah Shivaya