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Exploits of Shiva

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 10:18 PM
Shiva drinking the lethal poison, halahal; in the background the gods churning the cosmic ocean; modern calendar print.

Churning of the World Poison

The gods once decided to churn out amrita from the primeval waters. Amrita is celestial nectar, containing the essence of all life. Anyone who drinks it becomes Immortal, living as long the cosmos itself. The gods wanted it desperately.

The waters stretched into infinity; to churn it, the gods erected a fabulous machine. Its base was Akupara, the divine turtle. On its back was placed Mount Mandara, the celestial axis which was used as the churning staff around which Sesha, the serpent of eternity, coiled itself.

The Adityas and Daityas, gods of light and darkness, pulled the serpent's tail and neck and spun the churning staff, first one way, then the other. As a result, the waters began to twist and twirl, slowly at first but then faster and faster. Foam gathered at the base of the mountain, and the waters began to curdle.

The gods checked the waters for the first signs of amrita. But to their dismay what first appeared on the froth-laden surface was dark and sticky, a viscid scum emitting caustic fumes; it was the dreaded poison: halahal! The poison began to spread all around, contaminating the waters and polluting the air. Sesha began to retch; Akupara lost control of his bowels. All the gods became sick, too weak even to cry for help; the very existence of the cosmos was at stake.

Just then Shiva appeared on the scene. He scooped up the lethal fluid and drank it as if it were sweet wine.

 Shiva’s fiery third eye which contains the energy of the sun; Tantrik painting.Parvati, fearing for Shiva, caught hold of his neck and stopped the poison from entering his body. The poison remained within Shiva's throat. It seeped into the skin of his neck, turning it blue.

Shiva's actions had saved the cosmos. With the poison gone, the air became fresh and the ocean became clear. The gods recovered their strength and resumed the churning.

When the amrita finally appeared, the gods drank it greedily. Then they remembered the terrible halahal. It dawned on them how their desire for eternal life had very nearly destroyed the cosmos.

They thanked Shiva for his timely help. To commemorate this great event, Vishnu gave Shiva a new name: Neelakantha, he-who-has-a-blue-neck.

The Third Eye

Once, Parvati in the spirit of play covered Shiva's eyes with her hands. The moment she did this, the whole world was plunged in darkness. Shiva's eyes contained the power of the sun. They had been shut out by Parvati.

"Save us!" cried the gods, the demons, the humans. Without the sun, the cosmos was doomed.

So Shiva opened his third eye, and through it released his energies.

The sun shone bright once more.

The river-nymph Ganga carrying a pitcher; Central Indian stone carving.Prayers of gratitude were offered across the cosmos to the three-eyed god, Trilochan Mahadev.

Descent of the Ganges

Bhagirath, prince of the Ikshavaku clan, came across a heap of ash. From it arose the lamentations of 60,000 youths. Their mournful sobs disturbed the gentle prince. "Who are these people?" he asked his grandfather, the wise Anshuman.

Anshuman told him the tragic tale of Sagar's 60,000 sons. "Long ago my grandfather, king Sagar, ruled this land. Envious of his growing power, Indra, king of the heavens, stole his horse. My uncles found it in the hermitage of the sage Kapila. They accused the hermit of theft, just as lndra hoped they would. Outraged by this accusation, Kapila conjured up his magical powers and burnt my uncles to death. As they were killed before their time, their souls were trapped in the twilight zone between life and after life."

"Is there any hope for them at all?" asked Bhagirath.

"Yes, but an impossible one. If their ashes can be cast in the Ganga, the heavenly river, they can move on to their next life. But Indra will not let us ascend into the heavens and Ganga will never come down to earth. So our ancestors are doomed to suffer for eternity."

"Not if I can help it. I will make Ganga come down," swore Bhagirath

Bhagirath walked out of his palace and became an ascetic. He tried to appease the gods with the practice of terrible austerities. His tapas, which included a hundred years of starvation and abstinence, forced Indra to let Ganga descend from the heavens.

Ganga trapped in Shiva’s hair; South Indian mural.
When Ganga heard about this she laughed contemptuously. "My fall from the heavens will break the very foundations of earth," she said, "The cities, the jungles, even the hills will be washed away by the force of my waters."

Disturbed by Ganga's pride, Brahma told Bhagirath to approach Shiva. "He is the great Kapardin-Jatadhari, bearer-of-a-dense-coiffure. With his locks, matted with banyan juice, he will capture this great river just as a cowherd ropes in an errant bull."

Bhagirath prayed to Shiva. "Can you help, great lord?"

Shiva said, "Let the vain Ganga leap from the heavens. I will stem her flow, and crush her pride."

Shiva stood on Mount Mandara, the cosmic axis, arms akimbo. He looked towards the heavens, ready to capture its river. Everybody gathered round him to witness the spectacle: gods, demons, humans, birds and beasts.

Ganga dived from her celestial abode with the force of a hundred thousand ocean currents. The sound was deafening. It seemed that Ganga planned to wash away the whole earth. The world trembled in anticipation . . .

Ganga fell right on top of Shiva's head. She hoped to split his skull with her fall. Instead she found herself getting entangled in his thick hair. The matted curls and dense knots trapped her waters, firmly restraining her flow. Chained by Shiva's tresses, the river-shrew Ganga finally emerged out of Shiva's topknot, not as a gush but as a mere trickle that gently moved towards the sea, fertilizing the earth on its way.

The two headed Agni, the fire-god, riding a ram; South Indian temple carving.Bhagirath cast the ashes of his ancestors in the heavenly river. They arose as spirits and before moving on to their next life they gave Shiva the suitable name of Gangadhar, he-who-holds-the-mighty-Ganges.

Ganga became Shiva's second wife.

Even today people cast the ashes of their ancestors in the Ganga in the hope of making a safe journey into the next life.

A Blade of Grass

The gods once sat before Brahma boasting of their prowess. "I can burn the ocean with my flames," said Agni, the fire-god. "I can blow away the mountains with my gales," said Vayu, the wind-god. And Indra, king of the gods, wielder of the thunderbolt said, "I can crush all the demons with my weapon, the vajra."

Brahma was dismayed by the arrogance of his sons.

Suddenly there appeared on the scene a yaksha. He held a blade of grass in his hand. "Can any of you get rid of this blade of grass?" he asked. Agni spat fire; he hissed and crackled, but found to his astonishment that the grass remained unsigned. Vayu huffed and puffed, and generated a blizzard, but the blade of grass refused to budge. Indra swung his vajra and hurled his thunderbolt, but the blade of grass remained as it was. 54 "What is meaning of this?" asked the gods.

‘"It means that beyond every great power there is one greater," replied the yaksha.

'Who says so?"


Indra, king of the gods, weilder of the thunderbolt, riding his white elephant; South Indian painting.The yaksha disappeared and there was silence. Agni and Vayu, humbled by the event, hung their heads in shame. But Indra was not amused. "Who does this Shiva think he is?" Indra grabbed his vajra and moved to Kailas to teach Shiva a lesson.

He saw before him a naked ascetic, an avadhut. "Where is Shiva?" asked Indra.

"I am he," replied the ascetic calmly.

"You have the impertinence to teach me, the king of the gods, a lesson."

Shiva didn't reply.

His silence enraged Indra. He raised his vajra to strike him. Shiva opened his third eye. Brahma realised what was about to happen. "Stop!" he cried, begging Shiva not to harm Indra. "Don't kill Indra. He is leader of the gods; without him the balance of the cosmos will be lost."

So Shiva cast his fire into the ocean.

"Indra will soon meet his match and his pride will be crushed, said Shiva. He will realise that bragging doesn't win battles."

Jalandhara The Demon From the Sea

Mohini, the enchantress, feminine from of Vishnu, touching her head while dancing with the demon Bhasmaka; Marble statue from Rajasthan.
Shiva's fire scorched the waters of the ocean. From the steam arose a demon called Jalandhara.

No sooner was he born than he became leader of the demons. He led them in battle against the gods and won a great victory. Indra was totally humiliated, beaten and bruised into submission and driven out of the heavens. He was deprived of his throne, his palace, his wealth, his power and his vajra was snatched away.

Indra went to Brahma for help. "How can I defeat Jalandhara?" he asked.

"You can't. Only Shiva can, "replied the wise creator.

Indra remembered and regretted the arrogance he had displayed not long ago. "Will Shiva help someone who insulted him?" he wondered.

"Shiva never bears a grudge."

Jalandhara, like Indra before him, declared, "I am the greatest warrior of the world."

"No, you are not. Not until you defeat Shiva," said Indra.

"Who is this Shiva?" asked Jalandhara.

"A hermit."

Shukra, the preceptor of the demon, devotee of Shiva; Central Indian stone carving.Jalandhara laughed and rushed to Kailas to fight Shiva. Shiva smiled and marked out a circle on the ground with his big toe. "I will fight only if you can carry this piece of earth on your head."

"Yes! I can," boasted Jalandhara. He ripped out that ground marked by Shiva and placed it on his head. "See, I can do it."

Suddenly the circular piece of earth on Jalandhara's head began to whir like a discus and grow in size. Before he could say another word it became so big and spun so violently that it cracked his skull and broke his spine.

As Jalandhara gasped for his last breath he heard Shiva say, "I carry the moon on my head, and you cannot even carry a small piece of earth. Whatever made you think you are the strongest being in the cosmos?"

Bhasmaka's Touch

Shiva once consumed pots of bhang and lost his good sense to intoxicated dreams. In that state he gave a demon called Bhasmaka the power to kill any creature by his mere touch.

The demon decided to test this power on Shiva himself. He moved his hands menacingly towards Shiva.

Shiva, shaken out of his drunken state, got up and ran. The whole cosmos witnessed the spectacle: Shiva being chased by Bhasmaka. They would have laughed had they not realised the seriousness of the situation: Shiva's destruction would lead to cosmic annihilation.

Shiva rushed to Vishnu. "Help me!" he cried.

"I will," promised the cosmic saviour. Taking the form of the ravishing damsel, Mohini, Vishnu appeared before Bhasmaka. Looking at her, the demon forgot about Shiva. "May I embrace you?" he asked.

Mohini looked into his eyes and said, "Only if you dance with me."

Mohini started to dance and Bhasmaka imitated all her movements.

Shiva striding forth; modern clay model.When she put her left foot forward, he did the same. Then she placed her right hand on her navel, he did the same. Finally when she placed her hands on top of her head, he did the same. With that Bhasmaka's own body burst into flames.

Vishnu had saved Shiva's life; for that Shiva was most grateful.

Science of Rejuvenation

Shukra practised terrible austerities to learn the science of immortality.

"There is no such science. All that is born must die," said Shiva.

"Then teach me the science of rejuvenation, Sanjivani Vidya, that can cure any disease and treat any wound."

Shiva, master of all herbs, lord of every medicine, taught the science to Shukra.

Shukra became the preceptor of the demons. Using his knowledge he was able to revive and restore to health all those who were wounded in battle against the gods. Consequently, the demons never suffered any casualties in war.

Brahma complained to Shiva, "Shukra disturbs the cosmic balance by reviving demons who have fallen in celestial battles. Do something. Stop him! Kill him!"

"I will stop him, there is no need to kill him," said Shiva.

The next time the gods and demons fought, a strange creature appeared on the horizon. It was an ogress called Kritya, a Shiva-gana. She sucked Shukra into her body. There he remained in an unborn state, unable to use his magic in favour of the demons. As a result, the battle of the gods and demons was fought fairly.

Brahma looked at Shukra locked in Kritya's womb and smiled at Shiva's ingenuity . . . only Mahakala could deprive a creature of life without actually killing him!

Three Flying Cities

Tripurantaka-Shiva shooting the single arrow which destroyed the three flying cities of the demons; Pahari Miniature.
Three demons once built three flying cities, tripura. On their flying cities the demons went everywhere, with their armies and their families; no mountain was too high, no ocean was too vast. Like falcons they swooped down upon cities to rape, plunder and terrorise the cosmos. They seemed unstoppable.

"They must be destroyed," said the gods.

"But how?" wondered Indra.

"Only with a single arrow!" informed Brahma, repository of all knowledge.

"But that is impossible," they complained, "No hunter can ever shoot two birds with a single arrow, let alone three flying cities?"

"It is not impossible if one has the right archer, wielding the right bow and arrow, riding the right chariot," said Vishnu. Everybody knew he was talking about Shiva, who is also known as Sharva, the cosmic archer.

"He can do it," they all agreed.

"But only if the three cities align themselves in a straight path," reminded Indra.

"Don't worry," said Vishnu reassuringly, "I have charted the course of the three cities and I know that very soon they will fall in a single line, but only for a moment. If at that exact moment, Shiva shoots the arrow, they will surely be destroyed."

"If anyone can do it, he can," said Brahma.

The gods rejoiced and got to work instantly.

First they used all their energies to assemble an appropriate war chariot: the earth itself, with the sun and moon serving as its wheels. Brahma was its charioteer and the stars its horses.

 Tripurantaka-Shiva, riding the cosmic chariot and wielding the cosmic bow; stone temple carving, Ellora.They then made the bow: Meru, king of the mountains, served as the shaft while Vasuki, king of the serpents, became the string. Its twang resounded across the cosmos.

"But we don't have a suitable arrow," said the gods.

"Yes, we do," said Vishnu who turned himself into a fiery missile, a blazing shastra.

Shiva took the form of Ugra, the fierce warlord and mounted the cosmic chariot. He grabbed the celestial bow and chased the three cities across the galaxies. He followed them up into the bright firmament and down into the murky waters of the nether world. He waited for the moment when the three flying cities were aligned. And when it happened, after a thousand years of chase, Shiva shot the lethal dart the Vishnu-shastra.

The missile ripped through the foundations of the three flying cities. Instantly they burst into flames and came tumbling down. The cries of the demons, their women and children, rent the air. All were killed. The remains of the cities turned into cosmic debris: comets, asteroids and meteors. After the massacre, Shiva came to be known as Tripurantaka, destroyer of the three cities.

The gods cheered Shiva's feat. But he did not smile. "I cannot celebrate the death of any creature, howsoever corrupt." Shiva's face was stern; tears ran down his cheeks. The painful cries of the demons echoed in his ears.

"Know this," Shiva said to all those who gathered around him, "A day will come when the whole cosmos, every atom within it, will be corrupt. At that time I shall wield my bow once again and destroy the three worlds." And to remind everyone of this fearsome premonition, he marked out on his forehead three lines, horizontal as a corpse, using the charred remains of the three flying cities.

Writer Name:-Devdutt Pattanaik

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