Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Understanding Shiva

Walter Mason writes: "Reading Claire Scobie’s exquisite new novel The Pagoda Tree has sent me back to a range of books to help me hone up my knowledge of Hinduism, particularly the worship of Shiva, which is a large part of Claire’s simply fascinating book."
Purchasing details follow.

The Pagoda Tree tells the story of the Devadasi, temple dancers consecrated to Shiva and devoted to a life of ritual dance and worship, serving as wives of the deity. At a young age these women were tattooed with the trident symbol of Shiva, and they danced in ancient recreations of the various lives and stories of this most important deity. Much of Claire’s book is set in the large Shiva temple at Tanjore, a real place devoted to the worship of the Shiva Lingam, the phallic rendering of a particular aspect of Shiva.

The first book I picked up in my quest for knowledge  was Namita Gokhale’s simply brilliant The Book of Shiva, an excellent introduction to the stories and mythology attached to Shiva, and the various ways in which he is worshipped.

Reading it I was reminded that Shiva is the father of Ganesha, the hugely popular elephant-headed deity who, as remover of obstacles, serves as a focal point for the worship of so many people. Ganesha has played an important symbolic purpose in my life, and I have written about him in both my books. A small shrine to Ganesha was in the corner of my room in Phnom Penh when I wrote Destination Cambodia, and there is a small and beautifully-kept park in that same city that hosts a little-visited statue of Ganesha of great modernist beauty.

Gokhale’s lovely and very informative little book also told the story of Shiva’s great sacrifice in drinking the poison of the world – he was the only celestial to have done so. This is why he is traditionally depicted with a blue throat – the skin changed colour in reaction to the poison he consumed out of a sense of duty.

The next book I went to was Daughters of the Goddess author Linda Johnsen’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism. Say what you like about the title, this is for me one of the most indispensible religious guides I have ever purchased, and I must pick it up a dozen times a year. Clearly and carefully laid out, I think it the very best introduction to Hinduism for the lay person, and it is an invaluable reference book. She talks about the images of Shiva Nataraja, the exquisite form of Shiva dancing in a circle of flame. This is an image I have in my own home (and which, incidentally, I have glimpsed in the study of Claire Scobie herself).  A Southern Indian image, Johnsen says it represents “the end of the present cycle of time when Shiva will annihilate the universe, reabsorbing all existence into his pure awareness.”

Shiva Nataraja
Shiva’s vehicle is the bull Nandi, as Ajit Mookerjee reminds us in his exquisitely illustrated book Kali: The Feminine Force. This figure of Nandi is something the traveller will regularly encounter in Bali, and in the outer courtyards of the temples at Angkor in Cambodia. It was Nandi who defeated the god Indra’s elephant mount, reminds Paul B. Courtright in his exhaustive and constantly fascinating book Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. The head of this elephant became the head of Ganesha, Shiva’s own son.

Shiva represents so many contradictory forces and is the perfect symbol of the inexplicable Godhead. As Ram Dass explains in his fantastic commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Paths to God, Shiva is the final thing that Arjuna faces in his tremendous spiritual battle. For in Shiva’s form all is destroyed, all lives, and all is created.

Keen to read or listen?
You can purchase Claire Scobie's The Pagoda Tree postage FREE from this link: BUY
You can purchase Ram Dass' Paths to God postage FREE from this link: BUY
You can purchase Namita Gokhale's The Book of Shiva postage FREE from this link: BUY
(You can buy any other books you are seeking also by continuing on "via" those links. A small % of the sale will return to us and support this Book Club. Thank you for that.) 
You can also hear Stephanie Dowrick read a most exquisite passage from the Bhagavad Gita on her magnificent new meditation/sacred music CD, Heavenly, co-created with musician Kim Cunio. Heavenly is available by mail order from BLUE.

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