Near the beginning of a short story I wrote some years ago, I had the line, “I sit shiva on the steps. I sit, Shiva on the steps. I am in mourning for what I have destroyed.”
It might seem like a rather inauspicious beginning for a story. But in fact there is something rather auspicious about shiva.
Mourning, of course, is an occasion of loss, and shiva as in sit shiva is a prescribed period of seven days of mourning for any of the seven first-degree relatives in the Jewish tradition. And death and destruction are always thought of as losses – and Shiva, the Hindu god, is well known as Shiva the Destroyer.
But why would people worship a god of destruction? Ah, and here lies the path to wisdom. You cannot have creation without destruction. Every creation involves change; every change also involves something no longer being the way it was – which involves loss. In truth, nothing can dance the dance of creation unless there are separate dancers and separate places to dance. If in the beginning the world is formless and void, an even unity, the first thing that must happen is that it must be divided, cut into pieces with a shiv, as it were. And then you see what arrangements and creations can be had from the kaleidoscope of life (ah, kaleidoscope – from Greek roots for “beautiful form vision”, but note that kalé, feminine form for “beautiful”, is very similar to Sanskrit Kali, name of the Hindu goddess of eternal energy… and death).
And when creation dances in the kaleidoscope, at each turn there are new visions, and at each turn the previous vision meets the Shiva end: it is vanished. And so it will be. You have to learn to let go. You may mourn – and you are blessed if you mourn, for you will be comforted – but once you have mourned, you must accept the new state of things. And the dance goes on. (The dance… lord of the dance? Why, yes. I’m sure you’ve seen the image of a Hindu god in a dancing pose, on one foot, with four arms. That is Shiva Nataraj, Lord of the Dance. So much more than Michael Flatley.)
And so, you see, the god of destruction is also the god of change. And the god of renunciation. And the god of purity. And the auspicious god. Quite literally, in fact: Shiva is Sanskrit for “the auspicious one”.
OK, Shiva is auspicious, but how about shiva? Well, shiva is simply Hebrew for “seven” (you will also see it as shivah, or sheva or shevah contingent on gender). And seven, as we know, is a “lucky” number. It is also the number of days of creation. Well, creation took six – on the seventh, God rested.
One may, with some creativity, discern shapes relating to creation and destruction in the letters of this word. The v is like a knife edge, or a division; the i is like a candle flame. The s is like a snake… or a river. The h is perhaps like the low chair a mourner must sit on during shiva. But of course you can create what you will out of forms you are given. How about the sounds? The word starts with the classical sound of hushing. Why hush? Is it about to begin? Or is it the sound of a door or window opening? Or simply the static hiss of entropy? Well, next things begin to vibrate – a vowel comes, and then the avidly vibrating /v/, made with the teeth and the lips: what bites and what kisses. And finally the mouth opens to the final vowel and lets it all go, like a sand mandala.
Speaking of dust in the wind… I know I must have a copy of that short story somewhere, the one I used a cut piece of as the entry to this note. But I wrote it on a laptop computer that I haven’t used in years (I don’t even know where it is now). I’m sure I saved it to a floppy, and I’ve transferred what I can of my floppies to my hard drive, but I just looked and I can’t find it. Well. This was the same laptop computer that developed a hairline crack in the motherboard in the middle of my dissertation research. (It did get fixed eventually.) I guess I was just getting what I asked for when I named it. Named it? I almost never name my inanimate objects. But I did name that laptop. Guess what name I gave it?