This blog explores and examines the intersections of rhetoric, race, and religion.
Monday, March 11, 2013
A Theological Reflection on Shiva on the Occasion of Mahashivaratri
On March 10, Hindus around the world will celebrate Shivaratri (The Night of Shiva). I share these theological reflections on the occasion of this sacred festival.
For centuries, Hindus have worshiped and described God through the name and form of Shiva. The name Shiva connotes kindness, benevolence and grace. Shiva is also commonly known as Shankara, meaning one who acts unceasingly for the good of all. The many names and forms of God available in the Hindu tradition are not just expressions of India's religious and cultural diversity. These also express profound insights about the nature of God and human existence that enrich our theological understanding. I want to suggest four ways in which the name and form of Shiva speak relevantly to us about divinity and the meaning of human life.
The first insight arises from the contrast between the iconic representations of Shiva and those of God as Vishnu. Although, both may be seen as forms of the one God, there are unmistakable differences. Icons of Vishnu typically represent him in the symbols of royalty, power and affluence. He wears a crown on his head, jewels around his neck, golden earning on both ears, and resplendent robes. Shiva, on the other hand, wears nothing but a loincloth; his only "jewels," are snakes and rosaries. The icon of Shiva attracts us by its stark simplicity, asceticism and lack of adornment. The eyes of Vishnu are open, looking out to the world; the eyes of Shiva are half-closed in meditation.
The representation of Vishnu with the symbols of kingship and splendor properly emphasizes the nature of God as the omnipotent source, lord and sustainer of creation. The icon of Shiva, empty of all trappings of power and wealth, reminds us that the meaning of human life is be found in who we are and not in what we own. Although wealth and power are important for human wellbeing, these are impermanent, unpredictable and ultimately fail to satisfy the thoughtful person. Our human worth is an intrinsic one that has its source in the divine that exists at the heart of everyone. Shiva's half-closed eyes point to the condition of being awake to this divine reality.