Of course Holi is on the horizon, but today Hindus celebrate another important festival – Maha Shivaratri.  Known as the Great Night of Shiva, the celebrations are marked by prayer and penance, music and dance (and some, in fact, stay up through the night).  Of course, as with all of our holidays, there is no single story or meaning associated with Maha Shivaratri, but some popular legends speak of it as either Shiva and Parvati’s wedding day, or the night Shiva performed the Tandava (the dance of primal creation, preservation and destruction), or as the day Shiva manifested himself in the form of a Linga.  Whatever your family believes, your kids are sure to be wondering about this long-haired, fur-clad deity.

So we present the Shiva FAQ – from a kid’s perspective.

1.  Why is Shiva blue?

Well actually, Shiva isn’t all blue – only his throat is supposed to be blue (Nila-kantha or “blue-throat”).  This is because in the story of Vishnu’s Kurma avatar, as the Devatas and the Rakshashas were churning the cosmic Ocean of Milk, a deadly poison – Halahala – emerged.  To save the universe, Shiva drank this poison and held it in his throat.  Nevertheless, he is often shown as having blue skin.

2.  Are those snakes going to hurt him?

Shiva is usually pictured wearing cobras (nag) around his neck.  Snakes serve Shiva as his ornaments.  Some people believe that by wearing the cobras, which are among the most feared and dangerous animals in the world, Shiva is showing us that if we follow him on the path of righteousness, no evil can touch or destroy us.  So no, those snakes won’t hurt Shiva – he is the boss of them.

3.  Why does he have an eye on his forehead?

Yes, that is a vertical eye in the middle of Shiva’s forehead – nestled among the stripes of holy ash – and it’s very powerful.  It is believed that the sun is his right eye, the moon is his left eye and the third eye symbolizes knowledge and power.  It is said to search out evil and destroy it with the fire of its gaze.  A popular legend tells that the third eye emerged when one day Parvati playfully put her palms over each of Shiva’s eyes – unintentionally plunging the whole world into darkness and turmoil.  The third eye emerged on Shiva’s forehead to save the world from a near-disaster.

4.  Why are people praying to that black stone?

That’s the Shiva Lingam and it’s a symbol of Shiva’s timeless energy.  You don’t see statues of Shiva himself very often, especially in temples.  Some people believe that a long time ago, a sage cursed Shiva for getting angry with him – dooming him to be worshipped on earth as a lingam (which means “sign” or “symbol” in Sanskrit).  Others say the lingam is just another attempt to give shape to an otherwise formless God.

5.  Why is he stepping on that baby?

That’s not actually a baby – it’s a dwarf-demon – and he is a symbol of ignorance.  In the image above, Shiva is pictured as Nataraj (The Lord of Dance) and he is performing the Tandava – a vigorous dance that represents the cosmic cycles of creation, preservation and destruction.  In this process, Shiva is essentially “crushing ignorance.”

Images via Google Images; depiction of Lingam:  oil on canvas by Rajiv Lochan of Varanasi, available for purchase at Exotic India Art; Nataraj:  Orissa Paata painting on canvas, available for purchase at Dolls of India



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