The Most Popular Stories of Shiva, the Destroyer

Shiva, Durga and his two sons, Ganesha and Kartikya
Shiva, Durga and his two sons, Ganesha and Kartikya. (c)

Lord Shiva is one of three principle Hindu deities, along with Brahma and Vishnu. Especially in Shavais—one of the four main branches of Hinduism, Shiva is regarded as the Supreme Being responsible for creation, destruction, and everything in between. For other Hindu sects, Shiva's reputation is as the Destroyer of Evil, existing on equal footing with Brahma and Vishnu. 

It is no surprise, then, that legends and mythological tales surround Lord Shiva abound. Here are a few of the most popular ones:

The Creation of the Ganges River

A legend from the Ramayana speaks of King Bhagirath, who once meditated before Lord Brahma for a thousand years for the salvation of the souls of his ancestors. Pleased with his devotion, Brahma granted him a wish; the king then requested that the Lord send the river goddess Ganges down to earth from heaven so that she could flow over his ancestors' ashes and wash their curse away and allow them to go to heaven.

Brahma granted his wish but requested that the king first pray to Shiva, for Shiva alone could support the weight of Ganga's descent. Accordingly, King Bhagrirath prayed to Shiva, who agreed that Ganga could descend while entwined in the locks of his hair. In one variation of the story, an angry Ganga tried to drown Shiva during the descent, but the Lord powerfully held her motionless until she relented. After meandering down through Shiva's thick matted locks, the holy river Ganges appeared on earth.  

For modern Hindus, this legend is re-enacted by a ceremonial ritual known as bathing the Shiva Lingam.

The Tiger and the Leaves

Once a hunter who was chasing a deer wandered into a dense forest found himself on the banks of river Kolidum, where  he heard the growl of a tiger. To protect himself from the beast, he climbed up a tree nearby. The tiger pitched itself on the ground below the tree, demonstrating no intention to leave. The hunter stayed up in the tree all night and to keep himself from falling asleep, he gently plucked one leaf after another from the tree and threw it down.

Under the tree was a Shiva Linga, and the tree blessedly turned out to be a bilva tree. Unknowingly, the man had pleased the deity by casting bilva leaves down upon the ground. At sunrise, the hunter looked down to find the tiger gone, and in its place stood Lord Shiva. The hunter prostrated himself before the Lord and attained salvation from the cycle of birth and death.

To this day, bilva leaves are used by modern believers in ritual devotions to Shiva. The leaves are thought to cool the deity's fierce temperament and to resolve even the worst karmic debt. 

Shiva as a Phallus

According to another legend, Brahma and Vishnu, the two other deities of the holy Trinity, once had an argument over who was more supreme.  Brahma, being the Creator, declared himself to be more revered, while Vishnu, the Preserver, pronounced that it was he commanded more respect.

Just then a colossal lingam (Sanskrit for phallus) in the form of an infinite pillar of light, known as a Jyotirlinga, appeared blanketed in flames before them. Both Brahma and Vishnu were awestruck by its rapidly increasing size, and, forgetting their quarrel, they decided to determine its dimensions. Vishnu assumed the form of a boar and went to the netherworld, while Brahma became a swan and flew to the skies, but neither was able to fulfill their task. Suddenly Shiva appeared out of the lingam and stated that he was the progenitor of both Brahma and Vishnu, and that henceforth he should be worshiped in his phallic form, the lingam, and not in his anthropomorphic form.

This tale is used to explain why Shiva is often represented iconically in the form of a Shiva Linga carving in Hindu devotions. 

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