Introduction – The Five Powers of Siva
By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami
Lord Siva is commonly thought of as the god of destruction, one Divinity among a divine trinity, along with Brahma, Lord of Creation, and Vishnu, Lord of Preservation. This theological perspective, especially espoused in Smarta Hinduism, is based in the Puranas, Hindu folk narratives containing ethical and cosmological teachings about Gods, man and the world. But other denominations, including Saiva Hinduism, which is based on the Saiva Agamas, hold a different view. In these revealed scriptures the three great cosmic actions are all performed by God Siva. In addition to creation, preservation and destruction, Siva performs two more actions which relate specifically to the soul. With the fourth, called obscuration, He veils Himself from us, the embodied souls, purposefully limiting our awareness, keeping us ensconced in the world–oblivious to our true nature, our past and future lives and karmas–thus allowing us to evolve. This beguiling force is called veiling or concealing grace, tirodhana shakti. With His fifth action or power, called revelation, anugraha shakti, Lord Siva frees us from the illusion of separateness from Him, granting us realization of our true identity. The Raurava Agama proclaims: “The birth of the world, its maintenance, its destruction, the soul’s obscuration and liberation are the five acts of His dance.”
Siva Nataraja, Lord of Dance, a well-known murti (worshipful icon), clearly depicts these five actions. Creation, or emanation (srishti), is represented by His upper right hand holding the drum upon which He beats Paranada, the Primal Sound, from which issue forth the rhythms and cycles of creation. Preservation (sthiti) is represented by His lower right hand, held in the gesture of blessing, abhaya mudra, indicating “fear not.” Destruction (samhara), dissolution or absorption, is symbolized by the fire in His upper left hand, held in ardha-chandra mudra, “half-moon gesture.” Obscuring grace (tirodhana), the power which hides the truth from souls, thereby permitting experience, growth and eventual fulfillment of destiny, is represented by His right foot upon the prostrate person, apasmarapurusha, who symbolizes the principle of ignorance, or anava. Revealing grace (anugraha), which grants knowledge and severs the soul’s bonds, is symbolized by Siva’s raised left foot, and by His lower left hand, held in gajahasta or “elephant trunk” mudra, inviting approach.
Little known to the general public, but quite well known to the Saivite priesthood, is another form of God Siva performing these five actions. This form of Siva has five faces and is called Sadasiva. In Sanskrit the five faces are referred to as Panchabrahma, meaning “five great Lords.” The term Brahma in this context does not refer to the four-faced creator God (Brahma). A description of Panchabrahma is given in the Ajita Agama (20, 158-164a) in the form of instructions to temple priests:
“After thus constructing mentally the throne of Siva, holding a handful of flowers, with steady mind and controlled senses, one should meditate on Siva’s body sitting in the lotus posture, shining with the color of pure crystal, endowed with five heads, serene, with smiling faces, having the brilliance of ten million suns, of new full-blown youth, with ten arms, brightened by a crest of tawny tresses rolled upwards, each face having three radiant eyes, or shaktis, with the crescent moon of wisdom in His hair, the cause of all causes, His right hands holding the no-fear posture, a trident, an axe, a sword and a thunderbolt, His left hands holding a noose, a serpent, an elephant goad, fire and a bell, all fit for a supreme sovereign, endowed with every auspicious mark, adorned with ample ornaments, in radiant raiments, attractive, having beautiful garlands and an ointment of sandalwood paste.”
In his commentary on Mrigendra Agama, Aghorasivacharya (12th century) is careful to point out that while we speak of Siva with five faces and many limbs, He does not actually possess these features. This visualization in only for the sake of meditation and adoration.
In Saiva Siddhanta philosophy, Lord Siva, God, is All and in all, and is understood in three modes: formless (nishkala), formed-formless (sakala-nishkala), and formed (sakala). In the formless mode, Siva is Absolute Reality, Parasiva; in the formed-formless mode, Siva is Pure Consciousness, Parashakti; in the formed mode, Siva is Personal Lord, Parameshvara. Siva is represented in the main shrine of nearly all Siva temples as the Sivalinga. This aniconic murti represents the formed-formless aspect of God. Metaphysically, the Absolute Reality, Parasiva, which is formless, comes to be known as Sadasiva when He presents Himself in the Sivalinga. Sadasiva means eternally pure and auspicious. In temple ceremonies (puja) based on the Saiva Agamas, it is this five-fold form of Siva that is being worshiped in the Sivalinga. To show this, some temples include in their decorations a metal covering over the Linga with four faces engraved in it. The fifth face, Ishana, may be shown on the top, but is most commonly omitted. Some Sivalingas have the faces carved into the Linga itself. The Ishana face looks upward and is of pure crystal color. Tatpurusha faces east and is gold in color. Aghora faces south and is blue-black in color. Vamadeva is turned northward and is saffron in color. Sadyojata looks west and is white in color. In some temples, Panchabrahma is also represented by five distinct murtis displayed in a prominent place, such as on the outside of the main tower above the sanctum.
In the Ajita Agama, Sadasiva is said to be formed-formless because His body is made up of five mantras. In Sanskrit, this etheric vessel is termed vidyadeha or “knowledge body.” The five mantras, known collectively as the Panchabrahma Samhita Mantra, are: Ishana Murdha, Tatpurusha Vaktra, Aghora Hridaya, Vamadeva Guhya and Sadyojata Murta. At the subtle level at which Sadasiva exists, there is still not a definite body in form, only the seeds or potentialities of sound, color and knowledge.
In his introduction to the Ajita Agama, Pierre-Sylvain Filliozat, offers insight into Sadasiva in Saiva Siddhanta: “Saivism is a religion of one God, the supreme Siva (Parasiva). Numerous entities are around Him. They are His creations and consequently His subjects with definite functions. They participate of His own essence in different degrees. The major ones among them are said to be engendered by Him or to be outward manifestations of Himself. We use the word hypostasis, or “sub-state,” to refer to the concept of emanation of a subsidiary entity from the Supreme, as it expresses in the most general way the idea of existence separated from the essence without altering the unity of the latter…. The reason given for the fact of hypostasis of the Supreme God is the necessity of communication. The Supreme is characterized as inaccessible to senses, speech and mind. That would render worship impossible. The Supreme makes Himself accessible through accessible hypostases. In the Saiva religion, the main hypostasis is Sadasiva; and Saiva worship is precisely the worship of Sadasiva. The communication with the entity comes through five Brahma mantras, which are formulas of homage to five entities: Ishana, Tatpurusha, Aghorasiva, Vamadeva and Sadyojata. Communion is realized through the mental image of five heads, bearing the same names and placed, respectively, at the zenith, in the east, south, north and west. The basic action of the worshiper is meditation (dhyana) on these five heads. Meditation and bodily actions need a point of fixation (dharana), a material support and target. This is the Linga, a name given in the Ajita Agama only in its sense of ‘sign.'”
Editor’s Note: The term Parasiva, used by Bodhinatha above to mean Absolute Reality, carries the additional meaning of Siva as Mahadeva in the main text.