As gods go, Shiva is difficult to slot into any easy category. He is the lord of yoga and dance, a dreadlocked rebel smeared in ash and adorned with snakes, an all-powerful warrior whose army comprises ghouls and ghosts. He can reveal depths of knowledge with a single, diamond-edged glance, and yet grieve like a man. His third eye can incinerate when he is enraged, and his tandava can end time. For those who pray to him, he is the ‘auspicious one’. For those who try to understand him in his entirety, Shiva can appear as an enigma coiled in contradictions like the snakes around his neck.
Sifting through the myths that surround Shiva, one that catches my attention combines his legendary yogic prowess with a spiritual lesson relevant to us all. A popular myth, it has to do with how Shiva received one of his many epithets – Neelkantha, or ‘blue throat’. Most of us know how the story goes. It unfolds during the massive endeavour of churning the primordial ocean – samudra manthan – in which gods and demons come together in an unprecedented collaboration based on mutual greed. As the ocean throws up its spoils, the collaborators fight with one another to claim them. What each side is actually waiting for is the ultimate prize – amrit, the nectar that bestows immortality.
As is the nature of life, where there is pleasure there is also pain, tears chase smiles, and before one can find nectar, one must deal with poison. In fact, the nectar of inner bliss can only be accessed after one has dealt with the poison of negative emotions and habit patterns. So, before amrit could emerge from the depths of the primordial ocean, there appeared halahal, a powerful distillate of all the poisons in existence.
The churners who had been clamouring for the gifts of the ocean, fled in horror when they saw what their efforts had unearthed. Shiva was petitioned, who in his great compassion, decided to take care of the problem. Since the poison could not be returned to where it came from, nor could it be disposed off anywhere where it could pose a danger much like nuclear waste, Shiva decided to absorb it in himself. It is believed that through his yogic prowess, he was able to restrict the poison to his throat and prevent it from spreading through his body, thereby defusing its impact. The presence of this potent poison in his throat turned it blue, hence he also came to be called ‘Neelkantha’.
What is inspiring about this story is Shiva’s ability to not only absorb poisonous negativity within himself, but also to successfully deactivate it. This is a skill we need to develop in terms of our emotional lives. Too often, we absorb negativity and allow it to create havoc in our inner environment. If someone says anything negative directed at us, we are ever ready to swallow it and react with anger, violence, and so on. What if we were to arrest the passage of poison by using the power of awareness? By not allowing it to spread into our mind and vitiating our quality of consciousness, we would be more in control of our emotional responses than if we were to absorb it unchecked. This is a lesson we could learn from Neelkantha on this Mahashivratri.