Perhaps because it can be reached only by crossing over a large expanse of water, because one must voyage there, to go to Elephanta is to journey to another world. Nor can the babble of casual visitors or the chatter of monkey troops diminish its ageless mystery. One enters into a presence so utterly awesome and undiluted by time or the passing events of antlike humanity as to feel oneself observed by the disinterested eye of a living god. Each of more than a hundred steps leads upward and closer to a mystery carved out of the island stone, as if chiselled from the grey matter constituting the brains of ancient artist-seers who shaped their consciousness to the form of their Lord. Here on the hill, in these caverned depths lit by sunlight at unexpected angles, Shiva reigns supreme – Maheshvara, patron of all yogins and creator, preserver and destroyer of all worlds – captured somehow in the sculptured soul of stone. Even the most agnostic of visitors finds a silence descending upon his tongue as he approaches this sanctuary. As he enters its yawning portals, his eye is arrested by the power and serenity of figures fashioned by and belonging to the King of the World. It seems there is no way one can separate the sublime expressions, the grace of petrified movement, the dynamism of symbolic gesture, from the sense of Shiva's presence. The wonderful legends portraying his exploits may come to mind in attempting to interpret the forms, but they slip away uncompleted, like dreams before the rising sun.
The figure that first attracts the mind's eye is that of Shiva Nataraja performing the anandatandava, the cosmic dance expressing his divine totality, danced within the secret cave of every human heart. It is said that the ragas and their accompanying melodies came from the chakras of Lord Shiva's subtle body as he danced the world into and out of existence. His eight arms gracefully encircle his curved torso, holding staff, axe and serpent, along with a mayavic veil with whose removal he promises to reveal his essential nature. One's gaze is riveted by the depth of stillness and whirling motion so marvellously combined in the aloofness and powerful immanence expressed in the Lord's face, as well as in the weightless arch of his perfectly centred body. Only gradually does a pristine and monolithic form impose its nearly enclosed shape upon the consciousness that flickers at the corner of the eye. Slowly one finds oneself turning towards a square inner chamber whose four doorless portals reveal part of the curve of a great linga. It is glimpsed through the near portal, illuminated by sunlight flooding in through the eastern doorway, yet dark and smoothly silhouetted in its solitary mystery. The mind intuits something of the sanctity of this shape and the eye shys away from confronting it prematurely before preliminary mysteries have been pondered.
But the great stillness and overwhelming energy of the cave have already seized upon the imagination, evoking deeply buried strains of ancient, pre-Vedic beliefs dormant within the ancestral memory, wherein shades of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro consort with antique Dravidian rituals. Even old Minoan ghosts chant soundlessly before a horned god enthroned with his bull on mountain heights. Borne up from subconscious depths, such memories have their roots, no doubt, in the fact that we have all lived before and that an early form of Shaivism was widespread among the pre-Aryan populations of India as well as among the pre-Hellenes of the Mediterranean, the Etruscans, the Basques and even the ancient Celtic people. The melodies of forgotten emotions and knowledge do not, however, plunge the mind into heady rounds of Dionysian revelry or fascination with weird rites – not in this place, not in association with this god, whose humanly conceived images transcend so completely the enthralment of the mortal coil. Rather, one is reminded of an almost lost and most archaic cosmology, accompanied by initiatory mysteries and practices effected from the earliest times as a means of spiritual realization. Handed down in secret by word of mouth and scattered here and there in the oldest sangam literature of the ancient Tamils, the knowledge slipped from the awareness of the masses of people while burying itself ever deeper in the memory of their souls.
This is what is awakened at Elephanta. It is this storehouse of inner recollection, whose doors begin to open slightly, unleashing a stream of thoughts and feelings that defies rational processes and leaves the conscious mind in abeyance, unable to explain what it has experienced. More than any other deity, it is in the presence of Shiva that the deepest recesses of the heart begin to reveal the pattern of a tapestry of selfhood. Made up of the most electric threads of rudimentary elemental energy woven together with the purest strands of spiritual intelligence, its barely glimpsed nature unsettles the suppositions of the orthodox mind. One knows that the sacred literature of India is filled with rhapsodic assertions placing one god over another in importance. Followers of Vishnu have no trouble finding scripture to support his priority in the Hindu pantheon, nor is it difficult to find myths substantiating Brahmā's celestial parentage and rulership. Thousands of highly symbolic tales depict a rich and often confusing relationship between the major deities making up the trimurti. They depict their great conquests over daityas and asuras as well as their unending competition with one another. But it is Shiva who combines in his complex nature the most unmanifest and abstract qualities with the most savage elements transmuted within the human breast. Through his example, his sacrifice, his tapas, his insistent disregard for convenient truths or lesser order, Man has received the most sublime science of self-realization ever evolved in the world.
Brahmā flew upward as a swan, while Vishnu, as a boar, dove into the ocean's depths seeking the ends of this fiery linga. But its growth was unstoppable, leaving behind in the world its symbolic residue in the form of the sacred Arunachala Mountain at Tiruvannamalai. Brahmā might have known he could not encompass Shiva's might, for when he had been unable to create through meditation, he had asked assistance from the dancing god, who then assumed the form of the androgynous Ard-hanarishvara. It is even said that the universe comes into being only when it is filled with Shiva's immanence, for without him as sentience there is no cause or creator for it. The priorities of the gods have also been discovered through their involvement with the Shiva linga itself, for it is asserted by some that the base of the pedestal is Brahmā, the part grasped by the yoni is Vishnu (representing the first principle in contact with Nature), and the aloof and free upper shaft belongs to Shiva, the Ishvara of all the worlds. The Secret Doctrine diagrams the distinction, showing two ultimately interlaced triangles: the downward-pointing one representing the moist, incarnating principle of Vishnu, the upward-pointing triangle of fire standing for Shiva and transcendence over the elements of manifest existence. Metaphysically, the source of the manifest world can be seen as a result of the opposition of these two – the centripetal and centrifugal forces poised in a contest, resulting in the eruption of a formulating creative force identified with Brahmā. It would be incorrect, however, to assume that the centrifugal tendency associated with Shiva is the same as that of Brahmā, for the one is without end and the other is measurable and finite.
Though overpowering and central in their symbolic significance, the sculptured panels that meet the eye of the pilgrim at Elephanta do not depict all of Shiva's aspects. The one hundred and eight dance forms (karana) of the bharatanatyam reflect some of them, his one thousand and eight names the rest. He is Triambaka (Three-Eyed), Nilakantha (Blue-Throated), Panchanana (Five-Faced), Chandrashekara (Moon- or Soma-Crested), Gangadhara (Bearer of Ganga), Girisha (Mountain Lord), Kapalamalin (wearing a garland of skulls), Janardana (Torturer of Men) and Sthanu (Immutable), to name a few. He is Shuladhara, bearer of the trident, representing the three functions of creator, preserver and destroyer, a living link between the unmanifest brahman and Brahmā. As both substratum and boundless void involved with the beginnings and ends of existence, Shiva is the Divine Darkness beyond all duality, beyond which is non-being. In the words of the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, "Even the Sun lies prostrate before him." His presence stirs the latent potential of saguna brahman, the immanent cause, the reflection of consciousness deposited within the non-evolved nature of Mahavishnu. His desire is not for a world but is Desire absorbed completely into its undivided Self, which extends without measure and is the basis of that existence experienced by man only in the deepest, dreamless sleep.
Within Shiva as Maheshvara are coordinated the three energies from which knowledge arises. He combines at every level of his being jnana (the power of understanding), iccha (pure will) and kriya (creative action). Gazing upon the lofty bliss and concentrated energy captured in the faces of Shiva sculptured in the panels of Elephanta, one finds it is not difficult to recognize that he is, indeed, mahat, the lord of the universal mind of the Primary Creation before it becomes the 'I' of the secondary creation. Called the presiding deity of the thousand-petalled lotus of Mind, he is its eternal divine support, bearing its cup of immortality in the crescent moon on his brow. In the panel depicting Shiva as Ardhanarishvara, his masculine side remains aloof, hands turned inward, while his feminine side holds a mirror in which the god's image is reflected. A hymn of praise speaks of Shiva as "the mirror of undifferentiated consciousness", its universal agent, but he is also that consciousness itself, as suggested by the masculine side of this androgynous aspect. One can think of the cosmos as manifesting through Maheshvara in terms of thought evolving into speech – from the silence without thought which is ananda, to the Buddhic perception of vijnana, to mana, the visualized idea seized by the mind, and the mental shape of words in the vital breath, which is prana, to the elements or bhuta – resulting in uttered speech and food making up the bodies to support it. As the personification of Buddhic perception (vijnana-maya-murti), Shiva manifests as Dakshinamurti, the southern deity of initiation who represents the faculty which perceives the very beginning of a primordial idea arising in the unmanifest. From the standpoint of the world, cosmic ideation resides symbolically in the sun and is represented as descending to the earth from north to south, which becomes the point of its end and aim, the place of disintegration and death. In that place sits Dakshinamurti in repose, teaching in silence the beginning and the end of knowledge which withdraws its aim into its source.
Worshippers of Shiva seek his wisdom through yoga, vedanta, language and music. It is said that the theory of these four forms sprang from his drum during the great tandava dance. Called the Maheshvara Sutra, it is the esoteric verbal formula into which the ancient Shaivite wisdom was condensed. It can be read by the initiated in the rhythm and mudras of the sublime bharatanatyam as well as in the mantras of those who have kept this hoary teaching intact. In the anandatandava, the kalantaka and the alidhavritta, as in the bhuteshvara, the ashtamurti and all the aspects of Shiva's mahanata (cosmic dance), this great gnosis is enacted on a macrocosmic stage, impressing every level of manifestation with its truth, especially within the cave of every human heart. Shankaracharya referred poetically to Shiva's swirling, tawny locks of hair, flashing like lightning as he dances in the lotus of the devotee's heart. The Brahmavaivarta Purana says that Mahadeva has a mansion in akasha above the burning-grounds of Varanasi, seen only by yogins and Sages. This is the akasha of the heart, that place of sacrifice and clear perception accessible only to ardent lovers of the Lord of Tears.
Representing as it does the entire cosmic process of creation and dissolution, the anandatandava can only be performed at the centre of the universe, the heart of which is the site of unfathomable akasha mirrored in the world at Chidambaram (Tillai). In the Tamil Puranas, Shiva described this place to his disciple, the cosmic serpent Adishesha. He showed through analogy that the journey there can be made within the individual heart, wherein the maya of the world can be stripped away. In the tandava Shiva is encircled by his tiruvasi, a flame fed by divine informing power but reflecting the individual and material energy of Nature. Shankara called the circle maya, realizing which leads to the pranava (Lord) and removes illusion. Considering this, one sees that the maya of Shiva is different from that of Vishnu. Shiva's dance is that of involution and evolution, creating the illusion of the appearance and disappearance of worlds. The maya of Vishnu is the very charm of life, that of Shiva the illusion of life and death themselves. Shiva creates, and as he creates he destroys through his illusion. He is free from illusion but manifold within it, devoid of qualities yet seeming to possess them. The crescent moon on his brow is filled with soma, the sacrificial offering shaped like the horns of Nandi the Bull who represents the sublimated vital powers sacrificed to the fiery centre of spiritual sight filling the great Lord's Third Eye. With this mastery and gift, the fire of tapas purifies the flames of maya encircling the heart and opens the way to the dance's central point, the pranava which is Shiva's changeless essence. In this, fire is fought with fire, even the means of conquest is an illusion, but the veil held in Nataraja's hand is ever poised to be drawn aside.
The eye that has hesitated to rest fully upon the great linga within the inner sanctum of Elephanta now gazes tentatively at its darkly smoothed shape. It notes the sweet petalled flowers that have been lovingly placed at its top by someone agile and determined enough to reach it. The pilgrim pauses, all the mysterious and powerful sculptures, the legends and teachings of this god, swirling around like a dance in his head. The depths of their meaning remain elusive, but they have aroused memories and subtle intuitive faculties now acting nearly to succeed in drawing the pilgrim to the lingo's pedestal. But the mystery is yet veiled and he moves on. Eventually, he pauses before the terrifying form of Andhakasuravadha and becomes absorbed in the ferocity of the expression and the violent energy focussed upon the killing. Here Shiva is the destroyer of the personification of darkness and ignorance in the form of the demon Andhaka. Shiva's many arms clutch fearful weapons and his body bends with titanic force upon the destructive business at hand. His face, contorted with rage, is yet noble and fills the viewer with awe. His teeth protrude like a tiger's and there is no doubt that all must fall before his irresistible onslaught. All thoughts of benevolent deities and comforting rest in the lap of the Lord flee before such an image, and one is thrown back upon oneself into a yet deeper examination of what one imagined was required of those said to stand in the presence of God. Now the arduous asceticism of ash-smeared saddhus and the lonesome solitude of cave-dwelling munis begin to be understood in a more sympathetic light. Their sufferings and sacrifices are somehow more appropriate, matching analogously the ferociously uncompromising elimination of obstacles to wisdom demonstrated by Shiva.
By destroying darkness, Shiva is, paradoxically, identified with darkness, his white form representing a mere contrast to the surrounding darkness which is himself. He is the Darkness beyond all duality, but also the darkness inherent in the world and identified with the quality of tamas. With Vishnu representing the centripetal force of sattva and its strong preservative support of truth and righteousness, and Brahmā personifying the quality of rajas rushing forth to create the worlds, Shiva embraces the association of tamas, least admired of the three gunas. For tamas is both darkness and indifference. It binds through delusion and heedlessness, idleness and folly. When dealing with the relative action of the three gunas in manifest life, one meets the inert, slothful, heavy and self-absorbed form of tamas: the ignorant carelessness of an individual sunk in the mud of smugness or stubborn self-destruction or blind adherence to unconscious prejudices. Thus, from the standpoint of worldly action, tamas is the lowest quality, one which seems difficult to relate to the enormous energy and control evidenced by Shiva as creator and destroyer. The term 'inertia' provides a clue to this paradox, for the word describes a property of matter through which it remains in its state of rest or uniform motion in a line. The term comes from the Latin iners, which means lazy, untrained, ineffective', as well as 'inactive' and 'calm'. The centrifugally tending principle of Shiva encompasses the totality of all creative power in an immeasurable extension. If Brahmā's world, though infinite seeming, is measurable in time and space, Shiva's domain knows no limits. Thus, his extension can be likened to unstoppable, uniform motion or inertia, for endlessly to fly out amounts to the same as remaining completely still and inactive. From the standpoint of transcendence, therefore, tamas can serve to overcome the obstacles of action, including that of sattva, which binds through merit and virtue.
The positive side of the coin of indifference is detachment and renunciation, not ends in themselves but means which ever act against the preservation of form once it has fulfilled its usefulness in the service of spirit. In the end, it can truly be said that "existence is only a stage of an expanding – that is, disintegrating – universe". Destruction is the ultimate cause of creation, its beginning and end, and the darkness of Shiva waits always just beyond. If he were to remove the veil of maya altogether, his own dance of creation and disintegration would disappear, enveloped by the Void of his non-duality. In the manifest cosmos, however, Shiva is evolution and progress personified, destroying things in one form only to call them into life in another. In myths he is continually opposing Brahmā's desire to create, constantly withdrawing in ascetic non-cooperation. But he agrees to become androgynous and eventually separates out in the role of Lord to his shakti. These seeming contradictions merely serve to illustrate the simultaneity of creation and destruction, withdrawal and ferocious involvement, comprising his inertia. As Mahadeva, Shiva is above all the gunas. In the world he is Bhuteshvara, Lord of the elements, whirling as perpetual motion incarnate. The yogin's steadfastness of mind, the persevering and adhering to concentration for long periods without intermission, these are exercises in dispassion, coveted aspects of the inertia of Shiva, just as his undeterred destruction of ignorance is its fearful side. Mahadeva deposited the seed reflection of consciousness in the pre-cosmic Vishnu, which became the first individual Being (svayambhu brahman) dwelling in the abstract plan of the universe. When Brahmā failed to create reproductive offspring, Shiva assisted him and husbanded the development of what eventually would become the human vehicle of his own offspring, the Kumaras. Involved in the world, the power of Shiva partakes of maya perceived as imprisoned in the cycles of time. In symbolic counteraction of this he becomes Mahakala, dancing the kalantaka in conquest of time, asserting his deeper claim through the reflected force of destruction, the power nearest to non-existence. Without intermission he dances, ever freeing the seed of timeless spiritual consciousness carried forth in life but dying in form.
In the secondary creation, when Brahmā's Egg marks the beginning and end of time and space, Shiva became Ardhanarishvara, the union of the first duad, producing desire, the source and flow of life. In this aspect he breathes from the stone, a graceful and compelling figure found in one of the deeper grottos of Elephanta. His smoothly moulded lines of masculine-feminine nature curve in bold relief, one of his right arms lightly resting upon Nandi's back. The pilgrim to this sanctuary has skirted the inner chamber of the linga and turned away from the powerful scene of Andhaka's destruction to be confronted with a form of great richness and paradox. Compassionate detachment exudes from the god's noble face, his undifferentiated consciousness persisting intact even as his feminine side gazes into the mirror of reflected life. It is as though he knows the suffering and joy to come but remains aloof. As one views this expression of Shiva, one's inner sense of being joins with that point of beginning before it all happened, when everything was whole and pristine and poised on the mountain's summit in akasha. And then the descent begins, the two parts of the androgyne separating to become Shiva and Shakti, lord and consort in the manifesting world.
The idea that the androgyne divides to produce male and female is a very ancient one. An amusing tale relating to this process involves the Sage Bhringin, who, after the separation, vowed to make pradakshina (circumambulation) around Shiva only. His refusal to honour Parvati angered the goddess, who persuaded her Lord to seal her back into his singular form so as to force the Sage to circle them both. But the wily devotee was not to be foiled in his aim, and, taking the form of an insect, he bored a hole through the middle of the couple and succeeded in circumambulating Shiva alone. Moving to the right of the Ardhanarishvara, the pilgrim follows, in effect, the course of Shiva's increasing involvement in subtle matter by arriving before a panel depicting his marriage to Parvati. Here the commanding sculptured form of Shiva dominates the smaller, demure shape of Parvati, whose lowered eyes express an appropriate and sweet modesty in the presence of such a privilege. All the devas hover near, Vishnu waits at hand and the bride's father, Himavat, solicitously attends. The pilgrim stands at a distance drinking in the details of this happy scene, noticing the visiting young honeymoon couples who shyly look for someone to take their photograph at the feet of the divine pair. They too, in this lesser world, prepare to descend into the joys and pain of greater involvement in sensory existence. They have made their small kalyanasundara and seek now to capture some tangible link, no matter how tenuous, between themselves and their macrocosmic archetype, as though doing so would lend an intuited meaning to the sacrifices that lie ahead.
Perhaps the most conspicuous paradox of Shiva's nature lies in his ithyphallic but perpetually chaste condition. As soon as he has entered the world, as it were, he is depicted in epic and verse as continually involved in both fervent sexual activity and extreme forms of asceticism. He had vowed eternal chastity, from which Parvati had found it extremely difficult to distract him. Even after their marriage Shiva often observed yogic aloofness, interrupted by millennia of intense sexual intercourse. Parvati is often depicted as peeved with either too much attention or too little attention. But though his frightful potency expresses itself in persistent dalliance for thousands of years, during which he is oblivious to the worlds and his obligations to them, he remains essentially self-contained in a state of brahmacharya. The other gods are often disturbed by his negligence, being concerned with the order of things, but being a yogin, Shiva does not stop in whatever he does. Without intermission he adheres to his intended course. With the one-pointedness of his spiritual eye, his dynamic inertia extends unceasingly and without limit even while his consciousness remains unmoved. Drops of Shiva's semen have fallen prodigiously to earth but never involuntarily or because he was ensnared (like Brahmā) in desire. For him there is no other for whom he feels desire. He is in everything already and therefore eternally free from bondage. Even in sacrifice or gambling or dance, Shiva is omnipresent and involved. The sacrifice belongs to him, the game and the dance are his alone. Thus, he will never let Parvati win at dice or outdance him. Nor will he permit Daksha or others to sacrifice in the belief that it is their own. It is he himself who wins, who dances and sacrifices and he will destroy the efforts of any who fail to acknowledge this.
When Shiva was 'born' in the cosmos, he was called by the gods Vasoshpati, the Lord of the dwelling. Just so he is born in every human child, to be called Grihapati, Lord of the house. Shankaracharya echoed this idea in a beautiful hymn wherein he said, "My Self is you, my breaths your servants, my body your home." In Shaivite belief, worship involves doing good to all living creatures, as they are all Shiva's forms. Even the bhutas and elementals are his, for there is no point of life in the universe not part of his nature and thus a potential means of reaching the divine. Shiva is everywhere, he is immanent, suffusing, ready to burst forth, even in the vastitude of his unalterable omnipresence. A South Indian legend tells of an old woman commanded by a Pandyan king to repair a dam single-handedly. She prayed to Sundaresha and a workman appeared with a basket and spade to repair the dam with one stroke. It was Shiva, of course, and the king, rejoicing, constructed a temple dedicated to him on the very spot – one of glorious proportions which is still flourishing to this day at the very heart of the city of Madurai. In thousands of other temples Shiva's immanence is celebrated, but one need not enter their sanctums to find him, for he is present everywhere – each element born of his linga-womb filled with his mystery. One of the most sublime expressions of his combined immediacy and detachment rests in the wondrously carved contours of the great Maheshvara dominating Elephanta's inner alcove. A corridor of massive pillars carved out of the living rock leads the eye inevitably to rest upon its overbrooding presence. It is as if, even in the gloom, the faces overwhelm one, asserting their great depth and weight and living spiritual power to dominate the mind and strike a blow upon the inner chambers of the heart. One is utterly overtaken with reverential awe and can only stand in silence before these faces of God. For here is Shiva as creator, preserver and destroyer, the calm central face of Tatpurusha a perfection of serenity, with heavy eyelids and lips conveying tenderness, strength, aloofness and compassion at one and the same time. To the left, Shiva's ferocious visage glares with dreadful force, seeming to be poised in the act of releasing a scorching blast from his bulging Third Eye. To the right, Vamadeva smiles, displaying the almost feminine grace and sweetness associated with Vishnu as he participates in Shiva.
Standing there, one's inner being prostrates before this visible mystery. One has felt the closeness of Shiva's power in the other marvellously dynamic panels, but here one sees immensity simply expressed by shapes whose very contours seem to capture and yet exude the throbbing heartbeat of divinity itself. Streaming out into the arteries of the invisible world, his conscious power flows. Destroying and creating, he is the good gardener, the herdsman who tends the creatures of the field, Pashupati who wanders the forests guiding each species in its evolution. In his train flow terror and transcendence, the violence in Nature inexorably weeding out inadequate vestures, ever releasing the immortal seed to better forms. Everywhere he is death ushering in new life. With his crescent horns he plows the elemental fields of existence as death conquering death, ceaselessly preparing the soil for the immeasurable extension of his fertile seed. His is the flood of immortality soaking the ashes in the burning-ground of the devotee's heart. Only now does the pilgrim feel ready to turn towards the inner sanctum and revere the linga there. Bathed in an aura of serene wonder, he slowly approaches its potent simplicity. On the way, he stops to gaze at the sublime figure of Shiva as Yogeshvara, the patron of all yogins. The carving is worn but strongly portrays Shiva as the supreme exemplar of all that is beyond sensory experience, all that grasps and embodies the unmanifest source of the manifest. He is shown sitting on a lotus whose stalk springs from the primordial waters of non-being. His serenity is complete and the intensity of his single-mindedness is framed in a veil of timeless calm. His sacrifice is so cosmic it does not reveal itself in any mark or line of expression, and yet it communicates itself through every atom of his form which seems, increasingly, to be everywhere the pilgrim turns. Surrounded by this sacrifice, he finds its seed growing within, rising up and beginning to fill his heart.
Being immanent in everything, Shiva knows no distinction between classes or conditions. He is the god of youth, of the Shudras, of animals and trees, rather than merely of powerful and influential oligarchies. Because he encouraged men to disregard hierarchical religions and laws in order to discover the divine laws of Nature, the ancient Aryans banished him from their sacrifices. His ganas mock social rules and order and frolic like delinquents while they protect and befriend the persecuted and god-intoxicated. He is even the patron of outcasts and outlaws, his fierce unkempt appearance causing, at times, the very gods to despise him. But Shiva rejoices in contempt, "for he who is despised lives happy, freed of all attachment". The asceticism of Shiva is intensified with self-imposed degradation meant to clarify detachment and assert a freedom beyond worldly standards. This is linked to dispassion, born from the overcoming of desires and carried to the utmost form of indifference. To paraphrase Patanjali, it is to regard all else other than soul with the indifference arising from the knowledge that all else is illusion. Thus, Shiva disregards the opinions of men and gods. Appearing as a beggar in rags, a lust-ridden enchanter, a scourge or a howling Rudra, he is intent on one thing only – to guard eternally and prepare the way to the Uncreate. But when the gods fearfully beheld the poison rising at the churning of the sea of milk, it was to Shiva that they turned, begging him to swallow it. When he had done so and held the deadly brew suspended in his throat, he retired to his mountain fastness to meditate. To the devas who later came with congratulations he said, "I have done nothing. Drinking of this bitter poison is a small matter when there is so much poison in the affairs of the world. Those who can drink that poison and maintain their balance are the real heroes."
During life the greatest impediment to man's awakening of yogic powers is the activity of the physiological senses. With sexual action, for example, the spinal cord and brain are immediately affected, altering the condition of the pineal gland. Shiva's mansion above the burning-grounds of Varanasi is none other than the Akashic 'hall of consciousness' where the dance of bliss is witnessed, the seat of the Third Eye which is opened by drawing the creative seed into the lotus of the mind. The burning-ground is the heart, where the ashes of the universe, or body, are sanctified. It is filled with the vibhuti, symbol of sublimated eros produced from the fire of tapas as it burns the semen (soma) of chastity. Shiva, the great lord of this fire, smears its ashes over his body just as his devotees smear its marks across their brows and arms, strengthening their vow, steadying the flame of their self-imposed tapas. Approaching the worship of Shiva, they reverentially touch the testicles of his vahan Nandi, the embodiment of the sexual energy which is mastered by the Lord. They do this because only a man of strong creative energies is in a position to control and transmute them into spiritual powers. The sexual impulse should not be denied or weakened through false austerities, nor can individuals of weak temperament qualify for the great trials Shiva sets. For as guardian of the Uncreate he is the avenger of its loss of wholeness, the fragmented and uncontrolled manifestations of what should be a unified force-field of pure magic and spiritual realization.
Stirred to his very soul, the pilgrim at last moves on to the inner sanctum of the linga, passes between the great dvarapalas guarding its doors and stands before its stark immensity. Like other Shiva lingas it is an urdhvalinga, conveying symbolically by its erect upward form the fact that the seed has been channelled up for the sake of the spiritual liberation of mankind. Here Shiva is in his Sthanu (unborn) form, for the linga represents the nirguna state of the Supreme. The ancients believed that one is entitled to worship Shiva in the linga form only when one is spiritually progressed to the point of realizing Shiva's existence in all forms. The pilgrim has been gradually approaching something of this realization, and perhaps this is why he feels himself finally worthy of standing at the base of the great, perfectly domed stone and absorbing some of its silent teaching. It is said that before one can become an adept, the Third Eye must be opened and one must acquire the Akashic vision partaking of the very essence of the linga. Among those who stand before its sublimity, few are they who obtain such spiritual insight. But many, like the pilgrim, intuit its inherent ananda and begin to feel the throbbing beat of the cosmic dancer's feet in the cave of the heart. Some of daring, possessing a resolve to persist in their meditative efforts without intermission, will even embrace the fearful non-duality of the unmanifest which it represents – which to the wise is truly bliss.
They will come to realize that the opposites of the deva light and bhuta darkness, of life and inertia, which seem eternally in conflict, are reconciled in Shiva. In their own subtle vestures they will experience the coexistence of these expressed in the rhythm of Shiva's cosmic dance and find what seemed a conflict resolved not into static form but into perpetual motion, streaming out ceaselessly with no limit from the still point at the very centre of the heart. This is how the silent Sages of old, destroying the bonds of desire and illusion, annihilated their lesser sense of selfhood and beheld the anandatandava with their inner eye. They destroyed the separation between the eye and the heart, the inner and outer worlds, and expanded consciousness through the fiery linga of unlimited akasha to join the ranks of the immortals. Those who realize Shiva residing in their hearts become deathless, and the living stone of Elephanta is suffused with the impress of this possibility. Shiva's presence is everywhere there, especially in the uncreate form of the sacred linga. The truth of this floods the pilgrim's consciousness and he bows gently to place his brow upon the smooth, cool stone.