What is our universe made of? What are the building blocks and the fundamental reality that is? Greek philosopher Democritus came up with the idea of atoms as being fundamental in 400 BC. Over the succeeding millenia, one went from Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham’s idea of light being composed of particles as promulgated in his work Kitāb al-Manāẓir in the 11th century and Sir Isaac Newton’s corpuscular theory promulgated in his work Opticks to the work of pioneers like Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens and Augustin-Jean Fresnel on the wave-like nature of light. Going into the twentieth century, with the advent of quantum physics, and the work of luminaries such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Louis de Broglie, Arthur Compton, Niels Bohr and others, the whole conflict of whether entities were fundamentally wave-like or corpuscular went from only the domain of light to matter, thereby encompassing all entities in the Universe, at its most fundamental. The resolution of the same was put forth as the renowned Wave-Particle Duality, which saw one of its first major milestones in De Broglie’s note Ondes et quanta, presented at a meeting of the Paris Academy of Sciences on 10 September 1923, which extended the wave considerations to any massive particles.

While quantum mechanics was good at explaining a number of phenomena, when one reconciled quantum mechanics (physics at the most miniscule) with special relativity (particularly physics at extremely fast velocities), one got a more natural coming-together of the wave-like and particulate nature of entities in the idea of fields. Quantum field theories provide us with one of the most comprehensive conceptual frameworks to describe Physics across scales today. According to this theory, nature is made of fields and the Universe is pervaded by universal quantum fields. What we know as particles are just stable excitations in these fields, which are fluid-like substances that can be perturbed, can vibrate and experience excitations – stable among which emerge as real particles associated with that field. From a puritan’s perspective and mathematically, a field is a construct that has a specific value associated with it at each point in space, just like one can define a temperature field in a room that may or may not have a source of heat such as a fireplace or heater.

Regardless, in all this, one of the key ideas that emerges is that at the most fundamental, these fields, when unexcited, compose a quantum vacuum. Unlike our idea of vacuum in day-to-day life, this (quantum) vacuum is a teeming, frothing sea of particles and anti-particles zooming into existence and popping back into an un-manifested state, within the vacuum. Thus, most of physics, from that described by electromagnetism to the weak interaction and strong interaction (quantum chromodynamics), can be conceptualized in terms of everything manifested coming out of an apparent nothingness and going back to it after a while. The basis of existence itself and the fundamental reality of the cosmos seems to be a vast void. However, since there is a quantum vacuum associated with the different kinds of fields (such as a QCD vacuum for Quantum Chromodynamics), these vacua may potentially arise from one true unified-field quantum vacuum – the universal void, if the unification programme of contemporary physics succeeds. It is this void that I believe was thought of as Shiva in times of yore, albeit spiritually and metaphorically rather than empirically or scientifically, given that seers posited that everything comes from Shiva and goes back into Shiva, as per the Shaiva Agamas, Pancabrahma Upanishad and Ganapati Atharvashirsa. Nirvakam Shatakam by Sri Adi Sankaracharya speaks of Shiva as follows

मनो बुद्ध्यहंकारचित्तानि नाहम्
न च श्रोत्र जिह्वे न च घ्राण नेत्रे
न च व्योम भूमिर् न तेजो न वायु:
चिदानन्द रूप: शिवोऽहम् शिवोऽहम्॥

अहं निर्विकल्पो निराकाररूपो विभुत्वाच्च सर्वत्र सर्वेन्द्रियाणाम ।

न चासङ्गतं नैव मुक्तिर्न मेयः चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहं शिवोऽहम् ॥

Nirvāṇaṣatkam, Sri Adi Sankaracharya

translated as ‘I am not the mind, the intellect, the ego or the memory, I am not the ears, the skin, the nose or the eyes, I am not space, not earth, not fire, water or wind, I am the form of consciousness and bliss, I am the eternal Shiva. I am devoid of duality, my form is formlessness, I exist everywhere, pervading all senses, I am neither attached, neither free nor captive, I am the form of consciousness and bliss, I am the eternal Shiva, thereby highlighting the transcendent, fundamental essence of Shiva. In Sri Adi Sankaracharya’s conception of Shiva, it is not as much the nothingness that comes from the absence of any entities, but rather something more fundamental. Since this conception connects the idea of Shiva with that of Brahman (in Vedanta), this nothingness is the transcendent void beyond existence and non-existence. While darkness is the absence of light, and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev compares darkness to Shiva, this is not quite what Sri Adi Sankarachrya was speaking of.

The Pashupati seal, discovered during excavation of the Mohenjodaro archaeological site, has drawn attention to a possible representation of a yogi Proto-Shiva figure.

This universal conception of Shiva is personified as a yogi. Yoga is the pursuit and state of union and oneness with the fundamental reality of the Universe. While the debate about whether the personified form of Shiva was the first yogi is still undecided, with possible interpolations from the story of a historical Maharishi Nandinath (guru of Patanjali who gave us the Yogasutras) who composed Nandikeshvara Kashika, one can study one of the oldest traditions of Shaivism – the Pashupata to understand one of the earliest conceptualizations of Shiva. Shiva is the essence of the Universe manifested in each human being, and it is in releasing this ‘unfettered’ true nature of man that the Pashupata tradition believes in. As per the Pashupata tradition, it is this essence of one’s being, which is also the essence of the Universe, that is Shiva – the ‘Auspicious One’. The Pashupata derive their name from two words: Pashu (beast) and Pati (lord), alluding to how the ignorant state of human beings, which is imprisoned by bondage, being the proverbial ‘beast’ can be controlled by the Atman which is the soul or the Shiva-state as the master or lord (Pati).

Chola dynasty statue depicting Shiva dancing as Nataraja 

The whole idea that Shiva is Mrityunjay – ‘victor over death’ arises from the idea that the spiritual aspect of the Universe transcends and is beyond the constructs of mortality or physicality. That which is underlying the layer of reality that involves creation and destruction is indestructible, endless, beginning-less, truly immortal. Personified, Shiva’s immortality is best represented by him being Neelkanth – the one with the blue throat, which happened when to save a world inflicted by toxins, Shiva drank all the poison and survived, although his throat turned blue as a result. Esoterically, this blue neck symbolises the Vishuddhi Chakra that is located at the pit of the throat and is responsible for filtering out harmful influences. The elements adorning the person of Lord Shiva also has spiritual and metaphorical import. Shiva has always been referred to as Tyambakam, as in the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra

त्र्य॑म्बकं यजामहे सु॒गन्धिं॑ पुष्टि॒वर्ध॑नम् ।
उ॒र्वा॒रु॒कमि॑व॒ बन्ध॑नान् मृ॒त्योर्मु॑क्षीय॒ माऽमृता॑॑त् ।।

 Rigveda Mandala 7 Hymn 59 Verse 12

because he is said to have a third eye, which means that his perception is beyond the dualities, binaries and multiplicities of life. While the physical eyes can see the physical and the relative, the third eye is said to be able to transcend these and see beyond. Shiva’s acolyte Nandi is a symbol of eternal waiting, patience and meditative introspection. Nandi, while sitting, is not anticipating or expecting anything but just waiting. This is the quality that is highlighted as the essence of receptivity and the prerequisite to be able to transcend the worldly. Meditation means one is willing to ‘listen’ to existence, to the ultimate reality of the Universe. Shiva’s trishul represents three fundamental aspects and dimensions of life – Ida, Pingala and Sushumna, which are the three basic nadis (pathways for the flow of life-sustaining energy) in the Pranamaya kosha or the ‘energy body’ of the human system. The Ida and Pingala represent the basic duality in all existence, which we traditionally personify as Shiva and Shakti or the Masculine and the Feminine (not human genders but rather qualities of nature, here). Bringing a balance between the Ida and Pingala brings effectiveness in one’s life but it is in Sushumna, which usually remains dormant, that the secret of spiritual emancipation lies, as per Hindu (particularly Yogic and Vedantic) traditions. Shiva uses the moon as a decoration on his head because he is a great yogi who is intoxicated with spiritual realisation all the time, but who sits in great alertness in the worldly. The moon represents this since it is called Soma in Sanskrit (Shiva is called Somasundara as well), with Soma also being the term for an intoxicating drink. Shiva also has the snake around his throat. There are 114 chakras in the aforementioned Pranamaya Kosha, of which there are seven fundamental chakras, of which the Vishuddhi Chakra is located in the pit of one’s throat. This Chakra is strongly associated with the snake and whose activation is expressed in terms of the Neelkanth facet of Shiva.

One of the most important facets of Shiva is expressed in the Shiva Purana. One cannot identify Shiva in terms of any binaries, multiplicities or dualities. One cannot identify Shiva with relative constructs or relations. He is everything and he is nothing. He is the most beautiful and the ugliest. He is the best and he is the worst. He is the most disciplined and yet the most intoxicated (in spiritual realisation). He is the most realised and yet very gullible (as Bholenath). As paradoxical as these descriptions, this is what makes Shiva, and similarly Brahman in Vedanta, the most fundamental layer of reality and the Universe. This is why, in Hindu mythology, he is regarded as the deity to whom gods, demons and all kinds of creatures worship and also end up getting boons from. It is because of the manner in which Shiva, without looking at whether a god or a demon is seeking a boon, grants them even to Rakshasa-kings like Ravana, thereby creating tremors in the normal functioning of the relative and immanent Universe, that he is called Bholenath or the ‘naive/gullible one’. While he seems to be so gullible at the realm of relative constructs, he best reflects the underlying non-duality of the fundamental layer of the Universe. Entirely contradictory aspects of life are built into the personality of Shiva, and such a complex amalgamation of all the qualities of existence have been put into Shiva to trivialise the absolute value of these qualities, which all dissolve and become irrelevant at the fundamental layer of reality. This is also expected to be the case in unified physics, when the four fundamental forces of nature are hypothesized to converge to one overarching unified-force. At this stage, the various associated degrees of freedom are hypothesized to reduce to potentially one or a few parameters that can describe all phenomena, and going one further, this parameter or degree of freedom may itself be a perturbation/excitation in a more fundamental void. And it is that void wherein lies the realm of Shiva, if accounts and discussions are to be reflected on. Whether ancient Indian seers were looking at it from the scientific or the spiritual and philosophical perspective is important but not primary. What is primary is to seek out for oneself the truth of Shiva and to ascertain whether that is the underlying reality of the Universe, which must be independently arrived at by empirical inquiries and experiments, as much as is possible given experimental constraints.

Lastly, the idea of the Shiva Linga as a representation of Shiva has had a number of misunderstandings over the ages. For one, we take the Linga as primarily a phallus. In the Upanishads and Itihasa, Lingam means a mark or sign, and here refers to a sign of the formless fundamental layer of reality. The interplay of PurushaPrakriti, the Masculine and Feminine aspects of nature manifested in Shiva-Parvati creates all of the Universe, as per Hindu traditions. In this context, a phallic symbol could represent the generative power of the Purusha, of Shiva. But the whole idea of if it really is a phallic symbol is a bit absurd, given that Shiva is the infinite formless being underlying all reality.

 Lingam in the cave at the Amarnath Temple

There is a deeper understanding of the Lingam. For the Shaivites, a Linga is a symbol of cosmic mysteries, the creative powers and the metaphor for the spiritual truths of the Universe. As per Swami Vivekananda, the ShivaLinga has origins in the idea of Yupa-Stambha or Skambha of the Vedic rituals, where the term meant a ‘sacrificial post’, which was then idealized as symbol of Brahman – the final layer of reality. Hindu scriptures say

लयानघानचांटी भूतानि संघारे निखिलान्यतः सृष्टि काले पुनः सृष्टि शरतामलिंगम मुढ़ैठातम

referring to the entity being one in which the whole creation merges at the time of dissolution and out of which it reappears at the time of creation is called the lingam. The Lingam Purana states:

प्रधानं प्रकृतिर यदाहुर्लिगंउत्तम ।
गंध-वर्ण-रसहिंनं शब्द-स्पर्शादिवर्जितं ॥ 


 the foremost Lingam which is devoid of colour, taste, hearing, touch etc is spoken of as Prakriti or nature.

Another authentic reference is the Skanda Purana where lingam is clearly indicated as the supreme Shiva from where the whole universe is created and where it finally submerges,

आकाशं लिंगमित्याहु: पृथ्वी तस्य पीठिका।
आलय: सर्व देवानां लयनार्लिंगमुच्यते ॥
(स्कन्द पुराण)

The endless sky (that great void which contains the entire universe) is the Linga, the Earth is its base. At the end of time the entire universe and all the Gods finally emerge in the Linga itself.

A Shiva Lingam has three distinct parts: the Lower part represents Brahma, the middle part represents Vishnu and the upper and the most prominent part represents Shiva. Therefore, Shiva Lingam represents all the three powers in one – as the Param Braham or Supreme Shiva. Shiva Lingams that are made up of quartz have special significance: such Lingams have no colour of their own but take the colour of any object that comes in its contact. In this manner, the lingam represents the attribute-less and formless supreme Shiva.

Shiva is shown as the destroyer because it is in the destruction of the material, the worldly and the immanent that spiritual realization and union with the fundamental reality of the Universe comes to be. In the parlance of modern science, it is with greater symmetries and unification of various forces that we can reach this reality. It is with the spirit of inquiry and impartial seeking of truth, be it by spirituality or science, that we must orient ourselves, without recourse to biases, and this is the message of Shiva over and above all else – alignment and union with the Truth and fundamental reality of the Universe.

 शिवरात्रि की शुभकामनाएं ॐ

(Banner courtesy: photographymontreal at Flickr)