Once an argument broke out between Sri Hari Vishnu and Brahma Dev as to who among the two of them was superior. When the two of them were involved in this debate, a pillar of fire emerged. Both Vishnu and Brahma were given the task of finding the beginning and end of the pillar. While Sri Vishnu took the form of boar and went downwards to find the end, Brahma Dev rode His Swan and moved upwards to find the beginning. To cut a long story short, Sri Vishnu admitted His failure but Brahma Dev lied that He had indeed discovered the beginning of the pillar. Due to this false evidence, He was cursed by Mahadev that neither would the former be worshipped nor there be any temples dedicated to Him. That pillar was none other than Mahadev Himself. He is both formless and one with many forms. Contradictory as it may sound, it is one of the most important aspects of Shiva and one who can understand this truth transcends all barriers of life and death and conquers the pairs of opposites.
Shiva Purana celebrates the form of Shiva where He manifests as Linga corresponding to the five elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space) of nature governed by Him. It also talks about the 64 manifestations of Shiva. Here we will confine ourselves to some of the forms of this formless deity.
1) Ardhnareshwar: Much before feminists in West rose to fight for equal rights, Hindus knew that man and woman share an important relationship in which each one has their own role. Much like a scale is a balanced one when both sides are equal in weight; life is balanced when both genders have equal rights. This lesson was taught by none other than Mahadev when He manifested as Ardhnareshwar, one half being Shiva and the other Devi Parvati (or Adishakti). But this form is not just about equality among the genders; it is also about bringing a balance within by recognizing the masculine and feminine qualities within us (not to be confused with the external manifestation of our genders).
2) Nataraja: literally translates to ‘King of dance/dancing’. This form of Shiva is often associated with the cosmic dance of destruction which forms the basis of all creation. Chidambaram is the Jyotirlinga where the presiding deity is Nataraja. This form of Nataraja also finds place at CERN in Switzerland proving that the metaphor of cosmic dance is intricately connected with modern physics. The name of the city Chidambaram itself talks about consciousness or wisdom that lies within each of us and needs to be awakened.
3) Dakshinamurti: In this form He represents the conqueror of wisdom and one who is a manifestation of knowledge. As Dakshinamurti He passed on all knowledge to the Saptarishis and asked them to take this wisdom to human beings so that humans could benefit from it. He is worshipped as Adi yogi or the first Guru. The one who is able to assimilate this knowledge would be able to progress on the path of self-realization.
4) Virabhadra: When Devi Sati immolated Herself, Shiva was angered beyond limits. He then sent Virabhadra to destroy Daksh’s Yagna and kill Daksh as well. Virabhadra is fully armed and seeks vengeance. This is one of the ‘Ugra’ forms of Mahadev where Virabhadra leaves a trail of destruction.
5) Kalbhairav/Bhairav: is a slayer of time and represents one’s victory over time. Bhairava is a fearful form of Lord Shiva which creates terror in the hearts of enemies and destroys fear of the devotees. Each of the Shakti Peethas is guarded by a Bhairav; thus He plays the role of kshetrapala (guardian deity) as well. After beheading the fifth head of Brahma, Brahmahati Dosha (curse for killing a Brahmin) followed Kalbhairav until the latter reached Varanasi/Kashi. It was here that Kalbhairav got rid of Brahmahati Dosha. There are eight forms of Bhairava known as Ashta Bhairavas. Adi Shankara composed ‘Kalbhairav Ashtakam’, a stotra containing eight paragraphs, in praise of Kalbhairav.
6) Chandrashekar: When Daksh cursed Chandra (Moon) with untimely death all the Rishis and people pleaded with Mahadev to spare moon’s life without which there would be imbalance in the universe. Acceding to the requests, Mahadev agreed to adorn Chandra on His head. Although the curse could not be reversed, this ‘Abhaydhan’ by Lord Shiva ensured that Chandra would not die but wax and wane instead. In accordance with this boon moon waxes and wanes every fortnight during Krishna (dark) and Shukla (bright) Paksha culminating in Purnima and Amavasya respectively.
7) Sarabeshwar: After killing Hiranyakashpu, Sri Vishnu in the ‘Ugra’ form of Narasimha was wrathful and could not be pacified. It was then that all Devas approached Mahadev for help. Considering their request Mahadev took the form of Sarabeshwar. Sarabeshwar is portrayed as half-lion and half-bird. He is depicted as having two heads, two wings and eight legs of the lion with sharp claws and a long tail (as described in the Sharaba Upanishad). (Note: Vaishnava sects state that Sharaba is a manisfestation of Sri Hari Vishnu)
This list is by no means exhaustive and there are many more forms of Maheshwara that warrants our attention. However, these forms of Shiva teach us that He manifests Himself as per the demands of the situation and rushes to the rescue of Devas and Manavas alike. He is both attached and detached at the same time because He has conquered the pair of opposites. It is very difficult for a bhakt like me, who has hardly progressed on the path of spirituality, to describe Him and His manifestations. What I can say with certainty, though, is that there is hardly any deity as fascinating as Maheshwara whose various manifestations are not just lessons for life but also cause for joy and celebration. Ultimately we need to recognize the ‘Shiva’ who is seated within us.