The Book of Shiva

The Book of Shiva

In The Book of Shiva, Namita Gokhale rightly points out that the gods are alive in India.

– Gillian Wright, Deccan Chronicle, February 20th, 2000

Shiva: Destroyer and Protector, Supreme Ascetic and Lord of the Universe. He is Ardhanarishwara, half-man and half-woman; he is Neelakantha, who drank poison to save the three worlds—and yet, when crazed with grief at the death of Sati, set about destroying them. Shiva holds within him the answers to some of the greatest dilemmas that have perplexed mankind.

Who is Shiva? Why does he roam the world as a naked ascetic covered with ash? What was the tandava? What is the story behind the worship of the linga and what vision of the world does it signify? Namita Gokhale examines these questions and many others that lie within the myriad of stories about Shiva. Even as she unravels his complexities, she finds a philosophy and worldview that is terrifying and yet life affirming—an outlook that is, to many, the essence of Indian thought.

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By Gillian Wright

Have you ever tried to roll the universe up into a ball and express its ultimate truth in 150 pages of flawless English prose? Such was the task allotted to Namita Gokhale, Bulbul Sharma, Royina Gewal, Nanditha Krishna and Pavan K. Varma, who have made valiant efforts to encompass Shiva, the Devi, Ganesha, Vishnu and Krishna in five small books.

The books, attractively designed and illustrated, fit comfortably into the hand and have been created to make perfect small gifts and easy reading for those with busy lives. They retell the better and the less well-known myths of the deities, list their many names and attributes, include some of the great devotional poetry they have inspired and describe the main temples where the deities are worshipped , as well as popular festivals. They also give us a chance to remember the minor figures like Trijata, the demon who is worshipped around the time of Kartik Poornima because she was the friend who gave hope to Sita when she was in despair in Lanka.

However, there are pitfalls in this pocket format. In The Book of Shiva, Namita Gokhale rightly points out that the gods are alive in India. Unfortunately, by including in quick succession a profusion of complex myths, she succeeds in squeezing out some of this life, and she is not alone in this. In the whole series , the desire to make the English up-to-date and accessible results in some odd translations and inappropriate usage, and occasionally historical theory is presented as undisputed fact.

Bulbul Sharma is perhaps the series most natural storyteller. She starts her book on a personal note with a description of her grandmother who was steeped in the traditions of the Devi and, like many women before her, a repository and guardian of traditional wisdom and culture. Sadly Sharma, so creative herself, in her chapter on Saraswati does not consider the goddess as the invisible river of creativity in which we all flow. She does include some sublime hymns and striking dialogues, particularly one where Lakshmi addresses Shiva and reveals the unity of the supreme being by telling Shiva how she discovered that He and Vishnu are none other than one and the same. The theme of unity in the divine flows through all five books, not only the oneness of Vishnu-Shiva, but of Shiva-Shakti. Vishnu and his consorts and the longing of the human soul to merge with the infinite.

Interpretation, of course, is the key to understanding myth. The tradition of retelling myths in India, where religious teachers take small incidents and expand on them, bringing out their immediate significance to us, is one reason why the gods are alive today. The compressions of myths, which the format of these books demands, runs counter to this life-giving tradition. Only occasionally do the authors have a chance to introduce their own and other commentators interpretations. Pavan Varma does this most consistently, but then dealing with just one incarnation of Vishnu-Krishna-he has more space to do so. His portrait of Krishna as Lila Purushottam is delightful, though even he can be seen beating a hasty retreat from the complexities of the Bhagvad Gita.

These stories of the gods display the variety of the Hindu pantheon, but at the same time each of the deities is presented as the supreme god. Max Muller coined the term “Kathenotheism” for this worship of many gods but only one at a time, enabling devotees to approach the supreme reality in different ways at different moments. This unique aspect of Hinduism is undoubtedly another reason the gods are alive today.