Shiva, the destroyer, is one of the three supreme gods in Hindu mythology. The other two are Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver. Shiva's destructive powers are awesome, but they also have a positive side in that destruction usually leads to new forms of existence. In art, Shiva is often portrayed with four arms, four faces, and three eyes. A glance from the third eye in the center of his forehead has the power to destroy anything in creation, including humans and gods. In the Vedas, a collection of ancient sacred texts, Shiva is identified with the storm god Rudra.
Birth of Shiva. According to one myth, Shiva first appeared when Brahma and Vishnu were arguing about which of them was more powerful. Their argument was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a great blazing pillar whose roots and branches extended beyond view into the earth and sky. Brahma became a goose and flew up to find the top of the pillar, while Vishnu turned into a boar and dug into the earth to look for its roots. Unsuccessful in their search, the two gods returned and saw Shiva emerge from an opening in the pillar. Recognizing Shiva's great power, they accepted him as the third ruler of the universe.
Roles and Powers. Shiva is a complex god with many roles and powers. In his destroyer role, he often haunts cemeteries, wearing a headdress of snakes and a necklace of skulls. A band of terrifying demons, hungering for blood, accompanies him.
Yet despite his destructiveness, Shiva can be helpful to humans and other gods. He acts as a divine judge who shows no mercy to the wicked. He gains spiritual strength from periods of meditation—deep thought—in the Himalayas. When he dances, he represents truth, and by dancing he banishes ignorance and helps relieve the suffering of his followers. According to one myth, Shiva saved the gods and the world from destruction by swallowing the poison of Vasuki, a serpent the gods used to produce the water of life. Drinking the poison made Shiva's neck blue, and he is often shown that way in art.
One of Shiva's greatest services to the world was to tame the sacred Ganges River, which flows from the Himalayas. At one time, the Ganges passed only through the heavens, leaving the earth dry. After a wise man changed the course of the river, it became a raging torrent and threatened to flood the earth. Shiva stood beneath the river and let its waters wind through his hair to calm its flow.
In another story, the gods were threatened by demons and asked Shiva for help. He agreed—on the condition that the gods lend him some of their own strength. However, after defeating the demons, Shiva refused to return the borrowed strength. As a result, he became the most powerful being in the universe. Shiva also has many weapons that make him unbeatable, including a club with a skull on the end, a sword and spear made from thunderbolts, and a bow made from a rainbow.