Also known as: Rudra, Nataraja, Mahādeva, Maheśhvara, Parameśhvara; 10,000 additional names
Earliest recorded mention: c. 1700 BCE
Major texts: the Upanishads, the Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad Gita)
"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
— Bhagavad Gita, ch. 11, v. 32
Śaṇkara, means "beneficent." He is ascetic and celibate, but also married to the goddesses Sati and Parvati, and father of Ganesha and Kartikeya. With his many hands he gives, and he takes away.
To call Shiva the god of death, as my 9th grade World Cultures textbook did, is telling only half the story, and missing the point in a major way. A belief in reincarnation is central to Hinduism, and Shiva is a god not so much of death but of transformation. Everything dies, but everything is reborn. Shiva, who is eternal, expands rather than reincarnates, and symbolizes the constant balancing and renewal of the universe.
This idea of transformation is powerful and feels like a fundamental truth. We see it in the change of seasons and in the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians: "I will tell you something that has been secret: that we are not all going to die, but shall all be changed."
I don't remember much about September 11, 2001. I was living in Los Angeles, and in the habit of getting up very early, as most of my clients were on the East Coast. I took Dizzy for a walk around the block, then booted up my computer. The headline on my web browser announced that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. At 6:30, the phone rang. It was my friend Meredith, who shared an apartment with my cousin Moira in West Hollywood. She told me to turn on the television, that it was terrible.
Within the hour several of us had gathered at Meredith and Moira's. We spent the day there, watching the television and calling everyone we knew in New York and Washington, as the telephone lines jammed and we waited for the next attack. When I eventually drove home, the streets of Los Angeles were as empty as if a neutron bomb had hit it.
We were all transformed that day, and the transformation continues. Shiva reminds us that joy comes from sorrow, that life comes from death, and that even the gods dance.