Shūnyam And Shivam


“Namelessness’ is articulated in many ways, in numerous layers, depending on the listener. [Upakausalya, ‘Skillful Means’: ‘to speak at the speed of listening of the listener’].

It can go from the abstract language of the Upanishads to folk renderings routinely held at every street corner in India before ignorance and luxury real-estate wiped them out.

Yājñavalkya talked of his Ātman as: ‘an endless infinite reality’ and simultaneously ‘an inner controller’; a ‘mass of intelligence’ which is also ‘the unattached and the undecaying’. An expressive circling around ‘That’.

He then went on to elaborate it in what would later be called Coincidentia Oppositorum, notion extensively developed in later Mystical traditions, both Jewish and Islamic, but is best known from the Docta Ignoranta of the German scholar Nicholas of Cusa [1440 CE].

[For those who believe our best scientists are the new philosophers, Neils Bohr [Nobel, Physics, ’22] chose Contraria Sunt Complementa as the motto on his ‘Coat of Arms’.]

Yājñavalkya’s was abstract language as used in the millennia before the Buddha, itself descended from an earlier oral tradition that was now being documented in script.

Over the centuries, as this language becomes molded to the more concrete sensibilities of the interested listener, it makes an anthropomorphic bent [‘man-made’ and in the likeness of ‘Man’] accommodating the deeply cherished socio-cultural inheritances of the listener. We call this the magical reality, the necessary medium, of Myth.

This happens in every religious tradition and I have given illustrative extracts in the posts. [None of this is unique to the religious front. See the sections on Logic and Mathematics for its different avatars.]

I wrote this piece below on Shivam many years ago and display it here to show how this parallel is recast from the abstract to the tangible.

Shivam is the ideal deity, widely popular yet complex and sophisticated in its mythological and iconic construction. No other God in the Hindu Pantheon is clad in such a mix of seeming contradictions. I own an ancient Shiva Bronze, the prized centerpiece of my small Art collection.

Śiva, Chennai Museum, India

His name is not uttered. It must not be mentioned ; only indirectly is He to be referred to.’ [Aitareya Brahmana, 3:34].

Shivam is the abstraction; Shiva, the personification in ecstatic bhakthi, in solemn ritual, in myth, metaphor and poetic spree.

A minor god, as is Vishnu, in the the Rig Veda, He grows, transforms as the guardian-deity of the truth of Rta [‘An inexpressible, uncodefied order’] to dominate the later Hindu pantheon.

Shiva the ‘Pacific, Waveless’, is also as Raudra, the ‘Howler’, the darkly fierce god of storms. He bestrides the contradiction, rides the conflict, raids the verses of the Rig Veda in unpeakable acts.

Sundarar [8th Century] in his poems routinely addresses Him as Pitha, literally ‘[You] Delirious Madman’. The Sthapathis [Sculptors] of Swamimalai ever struggle to make respectable this untamed ‘Wild God’, temper him for his devotees.

Shiva is both the ascetic and the erotic and representation radiates outwards. Absent to aniconic to iconic to the unabashedly anthropomorphic. The familiar Mandala sequence, cryptic to coherent, from center to perimeter. And back again.

At the great temple of Arunachala, Shiva is Lingabhava, a shaft of light without beginning or end. As Nataraja at Thillai, he strides the shrine at Chidambaram as the deity of the Dance. He bears on his right, the ear-ring of a man; on his left, that of a woman. His foot is a-step on the body of a dwarf [Apasmayapurusha: a ‘Heedlessness’].

The Third Eye of Shiva [Triyambaka] is set mid-point on the forehead, equidistant from the two corporal eyes. It stands unprotected, does not blink, is never closed. In its proper mythic interpretation, the Eye carries no eyelid [an irregularity quickly corrected by Bollywood poster-artists].

If you can get a fix on Shivam, if you can place Him, grasp Her, corral It, what you have placed, grasped, corralled, by that very fact, is not Shivam. [See: ‘That’]

As the Gudimallam Linga, the earliest excavated version [300 BCE; South Eastern India], Shiva stands astride a Linga, the two united in one mingled rendering. The  grounded expression in stone of the altitudinous abstraction, the modeling artifact of the ‘Subject-Object’ divide, the primal cleaving.

The ShivaLinga-Yoni [the minimalist rendering, encircled, below] is the original symbol of division and union. It is the principal representation in the temple-shrines of both the Vishwanatha in Kashi and the Brihadeashwara in Thanjavur. The Phallus, primal, primeval and universal in its symbolism and the receptive Feminine, the fount of all that is Create.

[The pious wince, preferring instead the Spatika Linga, a mild-mannered quartz-crytstal which reflects but is itself untouched, in analogue to the later ‘Immaculate Pure Self’ of Vedantha.]

The Third Eye of Shiva [Triyambaka] is set mid-point on the forehead, equidistant from the two corporal eyes. In its proper mythic interpretation, the Eye carries no eyelid [an irregularity quickly corrected by Bollywood poster-artists]. It stands unprotected, never blinks.

The sacral act of the Yajna was dismembering and reunification in the consuming flames of the altar, itself placed atop an earthen base, the original Mother rendered fecund by the Mantras. The symbolism is transparent and meant to be so.

And the sacred-ash, originally a mark of the imperative of self-naughting, now smeared over one’s forehead in cosmetic precision, a parallel of three lines [see the image].

The ShivaLinga-Yoni as the original symbol of creation is now long forgotten replaced instead by imputed magical powers, divine flutter and superstitious cant, an ostensible piety.

I walk into a Śaṅkara Ashram, a Shaivite School, 1,500 years after its founding and watch the travesty of bright, earnest Brahmin boys whose calling it is to articulate Brahman, perfecting instead the rounding of the rolled rice-ball.

The circle is yet to be rounded. The self-scuttle stopped-short. Shūnyam unsighted. Shivam remains just a name.

Ashtavakra is reputed to have lived and studied alongside Svetaketu, son of Uddalaka, who is part of our story.

‘What is Creation
or Dissolution?

What is seeking
And the end of seeking?

Who is the seeker?
And what has he found?

What is Freedom or Bondage?
What are holy books or teachings?

Who is the Disciple?
And who is the Master?

For I have no bounds

I am Shiva

Nothing arises in Me
Nothing is,
Nothing is not,

What more is there to say?’

Aṣṭāvakra Gita
Selected Verses

Translation by Thomas Byrom

Aṣṭāvakra: the Poet baring ‘Eight Bends’. He is reputed to have lived and studied alongside Svetaketu, son of Uddalaka who was the teacher of Yājñavalkya, part of our story. The poem is likely of much later origin and mixes various schools, including early Buddhist and later Vedanthic in its verses.