Shiva - The Sensuous Yogi
There once dwelt in a dense forest a group of hermits engaged in the most difficult of austerities. The hermitage had a large number of knowledgeable and mighty sages, but they were for the most part ritualists, more involved in the actual process rather than appreciating the symbolic significance behind the liturgies they performed.
Lord Shiva in his role of an ascetic mendicant once approached this group of recluses to beg for alms. The force of Shiva's tapas or meditations glowed forth form his auric body. Combined with the spectacular flicker in his eyes, it presented him as extraordinarily handsome. This comely young ascetic, his naked body smeared with ashes, exerted a powerful influence upon the womenfolk of the hermitage.
The wives and daughters of the sages rushed out to greet the naked yogi. The hermits were utterly shocked at the sight of this unclad monk who drove their well-born wives and mothers to a demented level of desire. The women came with offerings of fruits and flowers. When they approached Shiva the sensuous yogi, they shed all restraint, taking hold of his hands, pleading for his attentions. They shed away their inhibitions, their ornaments, their clothes, and embraced the naked stranger with the skull in his hands.
The saints were left speechless. Their years of solitude and penance and the hard monastic life were all repudiated by the inexplicable aberrations of their noble wives. Confused, pained, bewildered and also very angry, the sages asked the stranger for his name and identity. Shiva greeted their queries with a silence. Driven to a level of frenzy the same as their chaste women, these sages in their uncontrolled outrage tore off Shiva's organ of generation from his body. But Shiva, the first amongst yogis, remained supremely unaffected both by the women's adoration and the sages' anger.
As soon as Shiva's organ fell to the ground it assumed a gigantic proportion, making everyone aware of the divine status of this handsome ascetic. Thus is said to have originated the emblematic worship of Shiva's organ, popularly known as the Shiva linga.
The rapture of love, the moment of euphoria in which we forget everything else (reason, wisdom, prudence, social rules, human interests etc), is but an image of the mystical bliss. The lover ceases to be himself and becomes one with the object of his/her desire. Indeed, for an instant, he/she ceases to exist as an individual, merging with the other being in totality.
The sole reality at that defining moment is the voluptuousness of desire that unites them:
"Just as in the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the entire world, all that exists within himself and without, so in union with the Being of knowledge, he no longer knows anything, either within or without" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.3.21).
For an instant, one achieves one's true goal, forgets one's own interests, ambitions, problems, and duties, and participates in that feeling of bliss that is one's true and immortal nature. Mystical rapture is a marvelous feeling of pleasure, similar to the effect produced by bhang, the Indian hemp and favorite drink of Shiva.
In order to be genuine, love and rapture of pleasure must be absolutely irrational. They must not be "useful," "normal," or according to law." They must not be a mere procreative act used to beget children for the continuance of our house, to look after us and defend our property. They must not be the outcome of marriage, which stabilizes our social position and represents a communion of interests. True love must be wholly useless and disinterested, far from any idea of family, progeny, or social order. Only then it is pure, true love.
This is why the mystical poets sing of illicit love, the love of what does not belong to you (parakiya) and not of what you already possess (svakiya). Loving a wife, or someone who belongs to us, is part of what binds us to the world of forms and not of what can free us from it. According to Alain Danielou, only adulterous, abnormal love can be considered pure and truly free from all ties, and only it can give us some idea of the mystic experience - it is absurd, disinterested, and destructive of all that is human.
Thus we should not wonder at the fact that representations of human love - the search for voluptuous pleasure - recognize none of the limits that social ethics wish to impose.
Hence the conduct of the virtuous ladies in the hermitage though shocking at first sight, is perfectly understandable from the above viewpoint. In fact the story also brings our attention to the fact that these women were more spiritually advanced than their men folk, who were engaged in endless itineraries of rituals whose symbolic significance they were unable to fathom and were thus far away from the true import of these spiritual pratices.
The ladies on the other hand were more intuitively fine tuned to appreciate the true nature of physical desire, sprung naturally from their archetypal inner being and in harmony with their primordial nature uncontaminated by man made constructs, including both social and moral.
The canonical iconography of Shiva further shows him with certain characteristic attributes which emphasize his sensuous nature, while retaining his essentially yogic profile.
Some of these traits making up the character and personality of Shiva are:
The Dance of Shiva
It is said that man danced before he spoke. He certainly danced before he painted and sculpted reliefs on his walls. All cultures of the world have given dance a ritual status before any formal ritual or liturgy was codified in texts, or recreated through relief or paint.
Yoga, like dance, is much more than a mere physical exercise. It is a holistic way of relating to the body that involves an increasing awareness on all levels: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. Yoga unites the functions of each of these aspects of our personality. This is true for dance also.
Certainly any successful dance performance is characterized by a balanced harmony between the body and spirit. What is suggested here is that dance, like yoga, is a conscious attempt at integrating all the tiers of our existence. It does not negate but on the contrary affirms the sensual nature of our objective physical being, and treats it as fundamental to any attempt at spiritual awareness as our subjective intangible soul.
Dance is thus a spiritual channel, an opening of both metaphysical and sensuous doorways.
Whirling his limbs, gracefully carved as if a woman's, Shiva as Nataraja gyrates to the rhythms of his essentially fleshy dance - an outpouring of sensual stimulation in free and unrestrained exuberance. His dance is both supremely sexual and sublimely spiritual.
These are the cremation fires which are ultimately going to consume our mortal bodies. But on the other hand dance is also an act of creation. It brings about a new situation and transforms the perpetrator into a higher realm of reality and personality. Thus the forces gathered and projected in his frantic, ever-enduring gyration are both of creation and annihilation. According to Clarissa Estes, in her book 'Women Who Run With the Wolves':
"To make love. we dance with Death. There will be flowing, there will be draining, there will be live birth and still birth and yet born-again birth of something new. To love is to learn the steps. To make love is to dance the dance".
Applying the same criterion, we observe that Shiva's dance of death and regeneration is nothing but the recreation of the sexual act itself, which is composed of an interplay of desire, sensuality, highs and lows, and of course an overriding sensation of ecstasy, all an integral part of Shiva's dance.
A poet has beautifully described dance as "nature struggling to express itself, in terms of the joy of the dance." Hence by extension, in the frenzy of the actual physical act of mating can be discerned the ultimate truth of all manifested existence. This truth is that of birth and inevitable death. These are the defining qualities of Shiva's dance, as also of the sexual act, both of which communicate through an exhilarated appreciation of the body, for its own sake.
The Hair of Shiva
Shiva's tresses are long and flowing, and dark as the night is.
Supra-normal energy, amounting to the power of magic, resides in such a wildness of hair untouched by the scissors. The celebrated strength of Samson, who with naked hands tore asunder the jaws of a lion and shook down the roof of a pagan temple, was similarly said to reside in his uncut hair.
Shiva's hair also supports a crescent moon, a symbol of the female reproductive cycle.
Indeed much of womanly charm, the sensual appeal of the Eternal feminine, is also in the fragrance, the flow and luster of beautiful hair. On the other hand, anyone renouncing the generative forces of the vegetable-animal realm, revolting against the procreative principle of life, sex, earth, and nature, to enter upon the spiritual path of absolute asceticism, has first to be shaved.
But though the spiritual and even earthly rewards of this ascetic attitude are high, Shiva does not shave or shear his hair, said to be "sweet with many a pleasant scent." Refusing to take advantage of the symbolical and potent devices of self-curtailment and deprivation, the arch-yogi is forever the unshorn male.
Shiva thus accepts the essentially sensual nature of the manifested world. He makes us aware that we can free ourselves from our attachments through the very attachments themselves and not otherwise. According to the Kama Sutra "those that seek liberation achieve it thanks to detachment, which cannot occur except after attachment, since the spirit of humankind is by nature attracted by the objects of the senses."
Nandi the Bull of Shiva
The vehicle of Shiva is a bull (vrishabh or vrisha in Sanskrit). He is the great sprinkler of the seed, and represents the fecundating energy of Kama the God of love.
The bull which wanders about, anxious to find a mate, is taken as the embodiment of the sex impulse. Most living creatures are governed by their instincts; they are ridden over by the bull. They are merely the appendage of their reproductive powers.
But Shiva is the master of lust. He rides on the bull. Only those who are masters of their own impulses can ride on the bull. Thus the image of Shiva atop his bull represents the sexual drive brought under control, though not weakened, through asceticism. As Mahayogi, the god is master of the bull. This is true even when he is with his shakti, and his images therefore often represent him sitting upon its back, poised gracefully and fully in control.
"Among those who have mastered the bull you are the bull keeper.A primary aim of yoga is to transform our mighty sexual potency into spiritual power. Yogis believe that sex energy is the very energy that man can utilize for the conquest of his own self. The sexually powerful man, if he controls himself, can attain any form of power, even conquer the celestial worlds. On the other hand, men of weak temperament are unqualified for great adventures, physical or mental.
O Lord! Riding on the bull, you protect the worlds."
The sex impulse must therefore never be denied or weakened. Yoga thus opposes exaggerated austerities. According to Zimmer, noted Indologist, a deity's animal mount is the manifestation of the god's divine essence. Indeed the man of strong powers is the vehicle of Shiva, through whom the deity reveals his own virile nature and powers. The bull of Shiva is hence also called the joyful (Nandi), correspondingly Shiva himself is known as the lord of joy (Nandikeshvara).
Kundalini and the Marriage of Shiva
The metabolic energy called Kundalini is symbolized as Parvati. She is conceived as the serpent power which lies coiled in the lowest chambers of the human body. Kundalini when properly quickened, unfolds her vibrating hoods and by an upward sweep enters the spinal cord and then the brain, and finally unites above the head with Shiva. In mythology, Shiva's wedding with Parvati is the entrance of this serpent power into the Higher Mind which is compared to the snowy mountains of Kailash. Kailash is the symbol of the highest mind and Shiva has his abode on this mountain where silence reigns eternally.
The analogy is between a human wedding which releases the highest ecstasies of the flesh, and the wedding of Kundalini with Shiva, which is a symbol of the highest bliss attainable by an individual soul.
Our body is the instrument of our destiny. Our intellectual mechanism and spiritual being are not independent of the body that shelters and nourishes them. If we wish for success in anything whatever, we must take care of our body: cherish, satisfy, and content it. Yogis condemn abstinence, just as they condemn excess, since both cause imbalance in the physical and intellectual being. A healthy, vigorous, satisfied body, one that is pleasant to inhabit, is the best vehicle and instrument for human and spiritual accomplishment.
Eroticism and pleasure in all its forms are vital for man's intellectual and physical balance. Life is transmitted through the sexual act, and the giving of life is a duty, a debt to be discharged by whoever has received it. Besides its practical utility, however, physical pleasure plays an essential role in our inner development. It is the image of divine bliss and prepares us and aids us to attain it. A man who strives to be chaste and who fears, condemns, and thwarts physical love can never free himself from the prison of the senses. He weaves around himself a web of obscure frustrations, which will hinder him from realizing his transcendental destiny.
On the other hand, the man who has tasted all kinds of sensual pleasure can gradually turn aside from them, finding greater sensual pleasure in union with the divine. This is no longer renunciation, but liberation. In discovering the divine, the realized man gradually loses interest in earthly things, virtue, honor, vice, and pleasure. He considers the human act of love in the same way that he breathes the perfume of flowers or listens to the song of birds.
Indeed the remark of the saint who said "I have never renounced any vice: it is they who have left me" summarizes the message of Shiva.
In the Puranas, which collect the most ancient mythological and historical legends, Shiva appears as a mysterious and lascivious deity of the primeval forest. He is naked, and his beauty seduces all beings. The sages practicing austere asceticism are disturbed by the charms of this unconventional god. His virile power is described as limitless. Wandering through the forest, the symbol of the cosmos, always ithyphallic, he scatters his seed. From his seed are born plants, metals, and precious stones.
God of eroticism, Shiva is also the master of Yoga, which is described as the method used to sublimate virile power and transform it into mental and intellectual power. He is therefore the "great Yogi." Fittingly therefore, the Kama Sutra designates the various positions adopted in the act of love as asanas, the same term used to describe the postures of Hathayoga.
Although both Shiva and his goddess Shakti are creator deities, the true scope of their union is not procreation, but pleasure and voluptuousness (ananda). A whole world of legend and myth narrates their love. The two opposites, the positive and the negative pole, acquire reality only in their relations with each other. They exist solely in what unites them, in the spark of pleasure that jumps from one to the other. In other words, the immanent cause of the universe, substance, and creation, is voluptuous desire.
The spermatozoid substance placed in the female has a fecundating action, but the same substance, when reabsorbed through sexual abstinence, nourishes the cerebral matter. Rising, according to yogic formula, through the subtle channels flanking the backbone, it renders the intellectual faculties more acute. The Yogi perceives sexual energy as though it were coiled up at the base of the spine, which is why it is called kundalini (coiled) and likened to a sleeping snake. When, by means of mental concentration, it awakens and unwinds its coils, it rises like a column of fire toward the zenith, toward the top of the skull - the image of the heavenly vault - and pierces it to reach the transcendent worlds inhabited by Shiva. Shiva's liberated phallus represents this illuminating power rising heavenward beyond the material world. Thus is the linga likened to a pillar of light, guiding us to true knowledge.
References and Further Reading
Agrawala, Vasudeva S. Siva Mahadeva: Varanasi, 1984.
Danielou, Alain. The Hindu Temple: Vermont, 2001.
Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India: Vermont, 1991.
Danielou, Alain. Virtue, Success, Pleasure, Liberation; The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India: Vermont, 1993.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves: London, 1998.
Gokhale, Namita. The Book of Shiva: New Delhi, 2001.
Gupta, Roxanne Kamayani, Ph.D. A Yoga of Indian Classical Dance: Vermont, 2000.
Gupta, Shakti M. Shiva: Bombay, 1993.
Tucci, Giuseppe. Rati-Lila An Interpretation of the Tantric Imagery of the Temples of Nepal: Geneva, 1969.
Maxwell, T.S. The Gods of Asia: New Delhi, 1997.
Meister, Michael W (Ed). Discourses on Shiva: Bombay, 1984.
Morningstar, Sally. Moon Wisdom: 2000.
Zimmer, Heinrich. The Art of Indian Asia; Its Mythology and Transformation (two vols.): Delhi, 2001
Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization: Delhi, 1990.
Article by Nitin Kumar, editor, Exotic India