by Hema Patankar
Who is Śiva? Most textbooks have described Śiva as “the Hindu god of destruction”. Popular images portray Śiva as a muscular yogī with matted locks wearing only a tiger skin as he meditates in the icy Himalayan peaks, awe-inspiring and inaccessible.
However, the living Śaiva tradition sees Śiva as a deity who is boundlessly compassionate and the protector of all. The word Śiva literally means “the auspicious one”. Śiva is generous, granting blessings and protection to all his devotees, even the ones who only occasionally take interest.
Maybe you are reading this and thinking, “Isn’t Śiva just supreme consciousness?” For lovers of non-dual Śaiva teachings, Śiva is the subtle and divine essence nature of everything, as present in a sunny farmers’ market as in the Himalayas. Modern practitioners who study this philosophy tend to think that any representation of Śiva in form is an obstacle to real understanding. It might be hard to understand how you can have an intimate and personal relationship with a universal and transcendent presence.
Actually, one of the amazing things about the living tradition of Shaivism as it’s been practiced since ancient times, is that it weaves together seamlessly both the personal and transcendent views of who Śiva is. Across the Indian subcontinent, this all-encompassing approach has been modelled by many philosophers, yogīs, and ecstatic devotees. It is recorded both in the Sanskrit literature of Śaiva Siddhānta, and the Purāṇas, and also in poetry in regional languages ranging from Kashmiri to Tamil.
Here’s an example from a Sanskrit devotional song attributed to a celestial being named Puṣpadanta who was deeply devoted to Śiva. He says that lovers of knowledge confidently teach us a limited picture of who Śiva is. They say Śiva is the sun and moon, that Śiva is both the inner Self and the elements of nature: earth, water, fire, air and space. “But as for me, I can’t find anything that is not Śiva.” In other words, Puṣpadanta is showing us that even though Śiva can be seen and loved as these forms, he’s also aware that Śiva is actually everything.
The Power of a Sacred Journey
So how do seekers go about bringing these amazing but very diverse things we learn about Śiva into a more cohesive and compelling personal experience? One of the means the tradition describes is called a tīrtha-yātrā. This is a spiritual journey to a sacred place where you can “cross over” the threshold from everyday life into a realm where heightened awareness opens, a place that feels like a meeting point of heaven and earth.
Whether a cave, a temple or a mountain, these are places enlivened by the extraordinary sādhanā (spiritual practices) of countless sādhus and sages. Their śakti, sacred energy, of their sādhanā still permeates these places, so when you enter them, your heart’s aspirations are called forth and heard, and you find yourself extraordinarily receptive to receiving a divine response.
These are places of deep self-inquiry and discovery, nurtured by the accumulated power of century after century of intense devotion. It permeates the stone walls and hangs sweet and potent in the air. It unravels patterns of thinking that run contrary to your impulse to seek inner wisdom.
It doesn’t really matter what brought you here, whether you came seeking to lose yourself in the Supreme Presence or to seek divine intervention in a household matter. These are places where you experience darśana, where you see and are seen by the divine presence. There is no judgment. No matter why you came, you receive a blessing in some form.
Śiva Adorned in the Five Elements
Scattered not in the Himalayas, but among the rivers and mountains of Tamil Nadu in South India, there is a group of ancient Śiva temples known as the Pañca-bhūta Sthalam. They are each associated with one of the five great elements of nature – earth, water, fire, air and space.
As a lover of both Āyurveda and of Lord Śiva, I have been intrigued to experience how the formless Śiva would take the form of each specific element of nature in these temples. These are the same five elements that are described at length in Āyurveda because they are the building blocks for all the essential patterns of our body and mind, of foods and seasons, herbs and landscapes.
In addition, Śiva is known as the Lord of physicians and the supreme healer. So by visiting these sacred places, I wanted my understanding to be nourished by looking in a deep and personal way into the interconnectedness of these bodies of sacred wisdom and experience.
Entering the Temple, Entering Progressively Deeper Into Yourself.
Like so many temples in South India, most of these temples are ancient and huge. Think Angkor Wat huge, if you are familiar with World Heritage sites. 25 acres of courtyards within courtyards that mirror a progressively deeper journey within yourself. Giant entrance ways that reach over a hundred feet into the sky, leading ultimately to small, cave-like inner sanctums lit only by oil lamps.
The outer spaces are colorful and lively, with hundreds of depictions of deities and saints covering the pillars and walls. Here pilgrims are fed, elephants give playful blessings, sadhus give discourses, guides recount the temple’s history. Then with each successive courtyard, the atmosphere becomes more focused, chatter gives way to the sound of chanting of Oṃ Namaḥ Śivāya, and an air of eager anticipation and wonder builds.
Within the inner sanctum of each of these temples, Śiva is worshipped in the form of a liṅga. The liṅga is the simplest, almost abstract form of Śiva’s presence. It is a focal point of worship and blessings that seems to exude both the potential to become everything and the possibility of dissolving into a state beyond forms. Nearby, there is always an accompanying sacred space where the Goddess Śakti is worshipped. The Śaiva Āgamas are the body of literature that informs the patterns of ritual and devotion that you see in these temples.
The outer courtyards and halls are like the outer sheaths or kośas of our being: the sheaths made up of food, prana, mind, knowledge. The inner sanctum is the abode of bliss at the heart of our being, the ānandamāya-kośa, where the indwelling Lord is resides. It is here that darśana takes place.
You arrive at the temple threshold dressed with care and respect, and probably treading uncertainly. But by the time you emerge from the inner sanctum area, you will be more disheveled, smeared with sacred ash, splashed with holy water, clutching flowers that had rested on Śiva’s form, unable to stop smiling – and feeling profoundly at home.
It is common practice to bring back prasāda, something charged with the blessings of these sacred places, to share with others. Whether a small bundle of fragrant ash from the inner sanctum, an image of a deity, or sweets, Prasāda is something that makes the mind grow clear, bright, and deeply pleased. I offer you this glimpse of this tīrtha-yātrā not as my personal travelogue but as prasāda.
Earth, Pṛthivī: Ekambareśvara, the Lord of the Mango Tree
The earth element is solid and stable, supportive and nourishing.
According to tradition, the goddess Pārvatī took sand from a riverbank and shaped it with her hands into a Śiva-liṅga. Sitting under a mango tree, she worshipped Śiva in this form with such intense devotion that the area became charged forever with the presence of Śiva. The mango tree is said to have grown there for over three thousand years, and even today it gives generous fruits of four different flavors.
In the inner sanctum of this vast stone temple, the Śiva-liṅga is made of sand encased in bronze, reminding us of the form Pārvatī had created out of the earth where this temple now stands. Everything is solid, enduring and abundant like the earth. The great sage and philosopher Ādi Śaṅkarācārya has worshipped here. Successive kings have built and expanded the temple over the course of many centuries.
As you sit in the inner sanctum area, gazing awestruck into this sacred scene, the priest may ask you, very sweetly, to make a donation to feed to priests who take care of the temple. At first, this request disappointed me. Did they just see me as an ATM? But then I thought, what if I imagined his words were coming from Śiva?
As I looked around, I realized that here Śiva was manifesting not only as the ‘earthiness’ of soil and stone, but as the sprawling mango tree. I was reminded that the earth is the source of abundance, nourishment, and fragrance.
Ah, so this was an invitation to see that I could be generous like the earth, that I could nourish those who nurture this sacred space, that I could not just admire but participate in the embrace of Śiva’s compassion. The action looked simple – like Pārvatī’s sand image of Śiva. But it was an invitation to let these qualities of Śiva come forth from within myself, to worship Śiva by expressing them.
Water, Āpa: Jambukeśvara, the Lord of the Wood Apple Grove
Water is soft and purifying, and it connects whatever it touches, whether tiny particles or souls.
On an island in the charming Kāverī River, there are still remnants of a grove of wood apple trees within the courtyards of the temple where Śiva is manifest as Jambukeśvara. Within the inner sanctum, water bubbles up quietly, unceasingly at the base of the black granite Śivaliṅga. Whether the river banks are dry or flooding, this stream of water is constant, though no one is quite sure how it comes from the river into the temple. While it’s only a tiny stream, the energy of the water was so strong it created an image in my mind of priests standing ankle-deep in a flowing stream, worshipping Śiva in delight.
The beautiful qualities of water pervade the atmosphere of the whole temple. Though lots of pilgrims are coming and going, the atmosphere is serene, like sitting beside a forest creek. It is welcoming, though there is no one acting like a host to greet people. It is something in the atmosphere that makes you feel welcomed and refreshed. Sitting in a small stone pavilion, it felt as if Śiva had put us profoundly at ease. The message seemed to be: “Always feel you are at home when you enter the realm of Śiva. Be alert, yet assured. Explore the depth of this connection you feel.”
Fire, Agni: Aruṇācaleśvara, Lord of the Mountain Blazing with Wisdom
Fire heats, illumines, and transforms everything it touches. It is the brilliance of the mind, the ability to see and digest.
Here, Śiva is as much the mountain as the divine form in the vast temple this sacred mountain overlooks. This is where the Śiva appeared as a column of fire that stretched to infinity. It’s both a story told in the Śiva Purāṇa, and a metaphor for the suṣumnā-nāḍī, the subtle inner column of light that connects us with the experience of Śiva.
In a solitary cellar deep below this temple, and in a cave on the sacred mountain beside it, the 20th century sage Ramana Maharshi performed intense spiritual practice and emerged illumined by the unshakable experience of the indwelling Lord. Saints of the Tamil Śaiva tradition have composed a huge corpus of poetry in praise of the power of this sacred place and their experience of meeting Śiva in this form.
Entering the inner sanctum area of this temple is like stepping into a furnace. Sweat pours copiously from priests and devotees alike, yet the atmosphere is irresistible. But there is more than heat here. Agni is also the fire of the eyes. It’s about about seeing.
And what you see here is astonishing. There are no electric lights or windows to let in sunlight. The entire chamber is made of dark stone, lit only by small oil lamps. We sat huddled tightly amongst devotees watching the priests bathe Śiva’s black granite form in pots of cool water and milk. Then they closed a curtain as the priests chanted mantras and prepared the scene for Śiva to be seen.
Suddenly the curtains opened. Bells were ringing, drums were beating, reed instruments were filling their air with excitement. The oil lamps the priest waved illumined Śiva’s form, draped in thick fragrant garlands, adorned with jewels. It seemed as though Śiva’s form was dazzling and vibrating with a thunderous living presence. It was like a thrilling enactment of Śiva revealing himself in the cave of my own heart. The curtain between outer and inner experience had fallen away. I really saw him.
When your heart begins to vibrate with astonishment like this, if tears fall or your whole being is lit up with joy, these are not just emotional reactions, but an epiphany. These are moments of revelation and intuitive perception, at once universal and deeply personal. When you have experiences like this, sit with them, relish them, let yourself digest and see even deeper into them.
Air, Vāyu: Śrīkālahasti, The Lord Who Delighted in the Devotion of a Spider, a Snake and an Elephant
The air or wind element is about movement, creativity and coolness. It is light and swift, drying what it touches, stirring things into action.
This magnificent temple was built around the sacred ground where a spider worshipped Śiva by weaving a protective spiderweb, a cobra offered the gems from its hood to Śiva, and an elephant offered cool water from its trunk, day after day. The Śiva-liṅga that is worshipped as Śrīkālahasti is white with a mysterious appearance like both an elephant tusk and a white cobra, with a spider at the base.
But because this is the temple of air and wind, I didn’t have time to study this level of detail. The darshan line to approach the inner sanctum was moving swiftly. It was like being carried by the wind for a glimpse of Śiva. I had to really prepare my mind to be very focused for those moments in front of the Lord.
Within the inner sanctum, the oil lamps flickered constantly. It was as though a breeze was blowing in this windowless chamber, even though it was far from fans or anything external that could move the air.
The air element is deeply connected to the sense of touch. Here you feel the subtle touch of the air that has touched Śiva’s form. It’s amazing that it only took a moment to experience these subtle expressions of Śiva’s presence, while also taking in the visual beauty of this scene.
Space, Ākāśa: Chidambaram Naṭarāja, The Lord Who is the Cosmic Dancer in the Sky of Supreme Consciousness
The element of space or ether is an emptiness that subtly vibrates with unmanifest potential, that gives things around it room to function. It is free and detached, and gives rise to an expansive inner state.
In Chidambaram, Śiva is embodied in three ways: with form, as a semi-form, and as formless.
In form, Śiva here is Naṭarāja, the cosmic dancer. His face is lit with bliss as he beckons us to the path of inner freedom, while calmly crushing a demon with one foot. His gestures are elegant and evocative. While Śiva’s dance is described as filling the heavens, he is not worshipped here in the form of a huge Chola bronze statue, but a small ruby-studded statue.
What is called the semi-form of Śiva here is a small crystal liṅga that the sage Ādi Śaṅkaracārya brought from the Himalayas. It has been worshipped continuously here for close to 1,500 years.
Behind a curtain within the inner sanctum is the ākāśa-liṅga. Formed of space, this liṅga has no form that our eyes can ordinarily see. Here Śiva is the sky of inner Consciousness.
The curtain only opens occasionally. Yet an ethereal, transcendent atmosphere fills the air that you breathe here.
Abhiṣekha, the ritual bathing and worship of Śiva, takes place not in the small inner sanctum but in a raised, open pavilion beside it. For devotees, it is like the stage where Śiva dances, overflowing with supreme bliss.
The priest who was performing this ritual bathing was consciously or unconsciously mirroring the forms he was worshipping. His focus was deeply indrawn, his body erect and still like the Śiva-liṅga. The gestures of his hands mirrored the elegance of Naṭarāja’s gestures. He appeared absorbed in the sādhanā of worshipping Śiva by becoming Śiva.
Dakṣināmūrti: Śiva As the Supreme Guru
After darshan of Śiva in the inner sanctum of all of these temples comes pradakṣinā. You walk clockwise around the inner sanctum as you begin to spiral back to the outer spaces. It’s like an embrace to enfold the experience carefully in your heart.
On the south facing wall of each inner sanctum is Dakṣināmūrti, Śiva as the cosmic teacher, who embodies the knowledge of yoga and all wisdom. His blissful presence makes the rich treasures of knowledge accessible. As the Guru, he awakens this knowledge within a seeker. For those who do not have a living Guru, Śiva is the Guru. For those with a living Guru, there’s a sweet tradition of pausing in front of Dakṣināmūrti and remembering your own Guru with gratitude.
Śiva as Dakṣināmūrti teaches and awakens knowledge in silence, through the subtle speech of the heart. His gaze reminds you to pay close attention to what is happening inside you in response to entering Śiva’s inner world. In the widening courtyards around the inner sanctum, you can always find places to sit in meditation, to chant and linger with your experience.
Śiva is All the Tangible Elements of Nature and All That Transcends Them
This tīrtha-yātrā to the sacred places where Śiva is associated with each of the five elements was like moving through a touchable, breathable, visible commentary on one of the central teachings of Śaiva philosophy. Śiva who exists eternally as the transcendent supreme consciousness has simultaneously become every minute facet of the world we see and live in.
This means that nothing at all exists that is not Śiva. Similarly, the tradition makes it clear that the physical universe is made up of the five elements, i.e. There is nothing other than these elements in the tangible universe.
A spiritual journey through these sacred places creates the opportunity to focus on this world view one element at a time. It offers the chance to experience a personal connection with Śiva as earth – solid, enduring, nourishing; as water – cool, purifying and connecting: as fire – hot, luminous and transformative; as air – subtle, moving swiftly; and as space – transcendent and free.
At the same time, you are drawn again and again into an intuitive perception that while Śiva’s presence pervades all these forms – the elements, the silently awesome Śiva-liṅga, the exquisite Cosmic Dancer, Naṭarāja – there are indescribable dimensions of Śiva that you can only know in the inner sanctum of your heart.
You will undoubtedly feel enriched by the insights that are catalyzed in these sacred spaces, blessed by having stepped into these intensely spiritual environments. It can be subtle, yet it will leave an unforgettable imprint on your understanding and on your heart.