There once was a woman who was curious to learn about what Shiva’s role in yoga practice was. She learnt that Shiva was considered to be the ‘ultimate yogi’, and wondered if this was a gender-thing, or because he was greater than other deities discussed in yoga.
This lady found out soon that Shiva – the ultimate yogi – represents subjective consciousness, and not really a god or a man (although he could be that, if she wanted to see him that way).
The woman in question began to see that whenever we discuss Shiva, it is rare we that we do not also mention Shakti, or the goddess. The goddess represents many things, but in the context of Shiva, the goddess represents energy (or power). In some contexts, Shiva symbolises purusha (which is the mind independent of nature), while Shakti symbolises nature (prakrti).
The woman in our story discovered that it was important to understand that these concepts were told as stories to people over time. The wisdom was given characteristics, humanised and deified so that the concepts would be understood more easily, and also easily recounted to others over time.
This woman also began to see that she had to ‘unlearn’ many things, especially if we come from an Abrahamic religious background. Shiva and Shakti need not be deities (although they can be – there is no wrong or right), and they do represent consciousness / energy and purusha / prakrti.
She heard three stories of Shiva (greatly abbreviated), and one symbolism from Shiva, from which she reflected on and enriched her yoga practice – both on or off the mat.
The source of the warrior poses – Virabhadrasana.
We all know the warrior poses – Virabhadrasana 1, Virabhadrasana 2 and Virabhadrasana 3. These three ‘standard’ yoga poses come from a story about the destruction and restoration of rules, regulations and rituals.
Sati, daughter of Daksha, set her sights on Shiva to be her husband. Daksha wasn’t particularly happy about this. Daksha had offered his daughters in marriage to the devas (loosely translated as ‘gods’, although this word is just convenient) as a transactional arrangement. The devas in return would give him the means (heat, light, wind, fire, rain) to draw wealth from the earth in return.
Daksha refuses to grant Sati permission to marry Shiva. but she is adamant. She leaves Daksha’s household and follows Shiva everywhere in a bid to make Shiva see her. Finally, Shiva agrees to take her as his wife.
Daksha likes control. He conducts yagna – rituals – in order to create rules, regulations and sacrifices to control nature. However, nature can never really be controlled. Animals cannot all be regulated. So Sati’s disobedience severely angers Daksha.
When Daksha does his next yagna, he makes sure it’s a grand one and deliberately did not invite Shiva or Sati. Shiva does not care (he is consciousness removed from nature and humanity – why should he care?) but Sati was upset.
Sati gatecrashed the yagna, and Daksha takes the opportunity to humiliate her by insulting Shiva. Of course he didn’t invite Shiva, why should he? Daksha lives by culture, rules and regulations, he would never want Shiva in his house. Shiva does not care for culture and is indifferent to nature and humanity. Daksha adds, “If you have any shame, you will stay out of my house too.”
Sati, in anger and frustration with her father (who just seeks to control) and her husband Shiva (who is indifferent to culture, humanity and nature), jumps into the sacrificial fire and is set ablaze. She gives herself up as an offering.
When Shiva learnt of Sati’s demise, and that no one sought to help her, he became angry. His righteous outrage became Virabhadra, a fearsome warrior. Virabhadra went over to the ritual festival that Daksha was hosting, found Daksha and beheaded him.
As a point of interest for yoga mat practice, Virabhadrasana 1 / Warrior 1 is when he lifts his sword overhead; Virabhadrasana 2 / Warrior 2 is when he takes aim; and, Virabhadrasana 3 / Warrior 3 is when he throws to sword to behead Daksha.
This story is an allegory for many things. Daksha likes to control and dominate humanity and nature, and he does this through rules, regulations and rituals. He prefers not to have anything to do with anyone who won’t obey him. Rather than gazing within to see how he can overcome his insecurity and fears, he seeks to gaze without.
Shiva, on the other hand, is indifferent to nature and humanity. He is even distant to Sati, his own wife, and did not support her when she insisted on going to her father’s ritual. There isn’t really a true merging of consciousness with energy or purusha with prakrti in this union of Shiva and Sati. However, Sati becomes a ‘mirror’ for Shiva, his darpan. Her death is a reflection of Shiva’s indifference to humanity and nature.
With Virabhadra severing Daksha’s head, Shiva is condemning the abuse of the human mind to control and domesticate nature. Shiva is devastated with Sati’s demise and weeps for her, as her carries her charred body through the world, howling with sadness (the analysis and interpretation of this story is from Devdutt Pattanaik’s “7 Secrets of Shiva“).
From this story, whether on the mat or in a sitting practice or while journaling, we can reflect on
- how we create regulations and rules to bolster our own security to the detriment of others;
- how we try to control and dominate things or people because of our own fears;
- how do people or animals react or respond to us? Let how they see us guide us as to our own behaviour, our mirror, as Sati was a mirror to Shiva’s?
- Are we ready to raise the sword, take aim and behead our fears and insecurities?
There are so many other points that we can reflect on in this story. Let me know in the comments if you have found more for your reflection.
The withdrawal – Shiva in his cave.
After the death of Sati (and a few other occurrences not discussed here), Shiva withdraws back into his cave. He returns back to his formlessness form of subjective consciousness.
This can be viewed as pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Pratyahara withdrawal means to feed (ahara) the senses the opposite (prati) of what it is usually fed.
In our daily lives, we usually chase after material objects or sensory objects, objects that our mind believes will give us gratification or enjoyment. Sometimes our mind derives these sensations, and sometimes we get disappointed. When this happens, the outcome is usually the same – we ill still crave, we will still chase. If our mind is gratified, we chase after the same object; if our mind is disappointed, we chase after some other sensory object from which we may derive gratification.
In the process, we develop prejudice, bias, likes and dislikes. Rather than us seeking objects that give us these sensations of gratification or enjoyment, we end up identifying with the chasing and craving. We lose clarity.
Withdrawal into our own cave, as Shiva withdraws into his, helps to give us the distance from this identity. Over time, we may stop identifying with the chase or craving, and see it as an activity. And over even more time, we may stop the chase or the craving, and be in a state of equanimity (at least, for most times).
In the Bhagavad Gita, this state of withdrawal is symbolised by the tortoise (or turtle), as it withdraws its limbs and head into its shell.
Practising this state of withdrawal may be a challenge to some, but always remember – baby steps. Here are a few ideas for withdrawal during your mat practice and daily life:
- When you practise on the mat, withdraw all your senses from distractions around you to your grounding points or your breath;
- As you sit for your meditation practice, focus all your sensations to a single point of concentration (breath, mantra, candle flame etc.);
- When you are at work, have your attention at only one task at a time;
- When someone is speaking to you, give your undivided attention to them.
These are but. few examples when you withdraw all senses to a single point. Actually, this is called dharana, the sixth limb of the Yoga Sutras. What Shiva practised is a total withdrawal, which we can work towards eventually.
Shiva and Parvati – manifestation.
The goddess was not done with Shiva though. She took on the form of Parvati, princess of the mountain, to get Shiva to engage once again with nature and humanity.
Unlike when she was in her form of Sati, she did not follow Shiva wherever he went. As Parvati, she sat and meditated on him. She fasted and resisted all temptations until she got his attention. He agreed to come to her house, as a groom comes to receive his bride.
Being indifferent to cultural norms, Shiva arrived wearing hide instead of silk, riding a bull instead of a horse, covered in ash instead of sandal paste, and had serpents instead of garlands. Parvati’s parents weren’t happy with this, so Parvati beseeched Shiva to change his form.
Recalling his experience with Sati, Shiva transforms into a beautiful form, pleasing to all. And so they were wed, and he took her to his mountain peak, where they make a home.
Remembering that the goddess (here, Parvati) represents nature and energy, while Shiva symbolises subjective consciousness / subjective mind, this story is a metaphor for when energy and subjective consciousness merge, there we have manifestation.
This is also symbolised through the 36 tattvas of Kashmir Shaivism (which we won’t discuss in detail here), but basically takes us from transcendent consciousness to physical manifestation (‘tattva’ means principle or reality, where ‘tatt’ means ‘that’, ‘quality’ or ‘godhead’ and ‘tvam’ means ‘thou’ or ‘individual’).
We can also view this in asana practice with paschimottanasana (literally ‘intense stretch of the west pose’, simplified to ‘seated forward bend’), a yoga pose that takes us from transcendent consciousness to manifestation.
When Shiva’s human form is depicted, he usually has a hooded cobra wrapped around him.
The cobra is unique amongst all serpents as it possesses a hood that it spreads whenever it is still. The hooded cobra around Shiva’s neck thus represents stillness which contrasts the restlessness of nature. Shiva pins Brahma down so that he stops and observes nature’s dance, and aligns himself with her rhythms rather than manipulating them to suit his whims.Devdutt Pattanaik. “7 Secrets of Shiva”
The serpent or snake also symbolises change, as symbolised by its shedding of its skin. Personally, I had an issue with snakes and serpents, as I had always seen them as representations of evil or the devil, or something equivalent. I guess that was my upbringing in Christianity. A mindset change sometimes creates an incredible paradigm shift.
In addition to this, in yoga, Devdutt Pattanaik states:
It is said that the serpent around Shiva’s neck is Patanjali who wrote the Yoga-sutra, the aphorisms of yoga. In it, he defines yoga as the unbinding of the knots of the imagination. Brahma creates these knots as he pursues Shatarupa; Shiva destroys them.Devdutt Pattanaik. “7 Secrets of Shiva”
So this abolition of ‘knots in the imagination’ can be our focus whenever we practise bhujangasana or cobra pose. During our daily life, or in an open-eyed meditation, we can give our full attention to the world around us with an alert and still mind, observing the rhythms of nature, for example, our breath and our heartbeat.
This single-minded focus can be for us dharana, the sixth limb of the Yoga Sutras (see above). Dharana is single-mindedness focus, like the cobra coiled around Shiva’s neck.
Points for reflection.
We learnt in the stories that nature calls on to consciousness to bring wisdom and compassion into the domestication of humanity and nature. Whereas Daksha attempted to control humanity and nature through rules, regulations and rituals, he did it for his own benefit, and not the benefit of others.
We also learnt that this won’t work in the long term, and that these rules, regulations and rituals will be destroyed and there will be a withdrawal of consciousness. But nature will always hearken on to consciousness to respond to the needs of humanity and, sometimes, as it did with the case of Shiva and Parvati, there will be a continued harmonious co-existence.
Finally we learnt that subjective consciousness closest to transcendence may have a single-minded focus to watch and to observe. And sometimes, we may even be able to discern the observer watching us. The one seeing, will end up being the seer.
Let me know how these points of focus from these stories and symbols help with your yoga practice and your daily life in the comment below. Please do contact me if you’d like to chat further about this.
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