As the text has it, one day the gracious Vishnu was reclining in great ease and full comfort on the coils of the Great Serpent Shesh. Suddenly Brahma, filled with vanity for knowing all Vedas and thereby claiming superiority over all other gods, arrived where Vishnu reclined. It infuriated him that Vishnu did not take notice of him and was sleeping. Brahma scolded Vishnu for his arrogance requiring him to acknowledge his superior position as the creator of everything and the father of the world and bow to him. Vishnu contradicted him and claimed that it is in him that the creation exists. The arguments first grew hot and then turned into a deadly battle. Arms were shot and charged from both sides and tended to destroy the creation itself. Brahmins, sages and gods reached Shiva and prayed him to intervene.
On their prayer Shiva created in the centre of battling sides a column of fire in which all weapons shot by either side fell, melted and perished. Thus not only their battle was rendered infructuous but they also realised their littleness. The column’s upper end shot into the sky beyond vision, and the lower, penetrated into the earth’s bosom. With ego shedded off, dismayed Brahma and Vishnu met and decided to discover the column’s ends. Vishnu, taking the boar form, entered into the earth, and Brahma, on his mount swan, rose into the sky but all in vain as neither could reach its ends. The legend has further dimensions including Brahma’s lie and wrathful Shiva creating Bhairava from the sweat on his forehead for severing his fifth head and more, but the painting does not illustrate it so far.
The other legend relates to how the Linga was separated from Shiva and was first installed. Once a group of Brahmins lived in a forest known as Daruvana. They were all devoted to Shiva. One day Shiva thought of testing their devotion. Hence, with a deformed figure and holding his Linga in hand he reached Daruvana and roamed around where Brahmins lived. The Brahmins were away for ‘bhikshatana’ – begging. The Brahmin womenfolk saw this strange man and were charmed. Passionate they hugged each other and felt delighted. In the mean time the Brahmins came back. The enraged Brahmins, no sooner than they saw this awkward-looking man, and not knowing that he was Shiva himself, cursed that his Linga dropped off his body on the earth.
The Linga instantly dropped but not to lie idle on the earth. It entered the earth and shot into the sky like a column of fire burning everything around and turned into a potential danger to the creation. Brahmins realised their error and with a penitent mind they reached Brahma for rescue. Brahma advised them that Parvati alone could bear its heat and they should worship her and convince her to take the Shiva’s Linga on her person. After Parvati consented, the Linga cooled and settled into her Yoni serving like its ‘pita’ and thus the Shiva-linga along with Yoni as its ‘pitha’ was first installed as deity and is since then the Shiva’s votive icon worshipped on a far greater scale than his anthropomorphic image.
The painting has in its centre a large size Shiva figure in white, his essential body-colour, before it turned blue by consuming the deadly poison that the ocean yielded when gods and demons churned it, grey with ashes smeared on it, or black in his Bhairava manifestation. The lower half of the figure has been shaped like a column with the look of a single foot, obviously representing the Linga. Some texts claim that the column of fire that appeared in between battling Brahma and Vishnu had the form of a single foot giving Shiva his Eka Pada Rudra – single-footed Rudra, epithet. From the apex of this lower half emerge flames of fire, as well as the figure of Bhairava, the essential components of both legends.
Strangely, not his more usual attributes, trident and drum, Shiva is carrying in one of his four hands an antelope, and in another, a goad, while the other two are held in abhaya – freedom from fear, and varada – redemption. Antelope symbolised rash passions, the vain ego of Brahma and Vishnu, which Shiva suppresses, symbolically by his goad, and imparts to all freedom from fear. Brahma and Vishnu are rushing in opposite directions, one above the earth in the sky, and the other, under it. The emergence of the blue-bodied Bhairava is suggestive of the other part of the legend that relates to Brahma’s lie and the punishment for it at Bhairava’s hands.
Towards the left are Brahmins, a woman, symbolic of all womenfolk of the other legend of the Daruvana Brahmins, entranced by Shiva’s appearance, and males, a few turning away from him in disgust for his ugly form while others, represented by one of them, announcing the curse causing the Linga to drop. Again, the entranced womenfolk, symbolic of truer and simple devoted self, saw in the ugly figure appearing before them the most sublime and beautiful form of Shiva, while their husbands, still in bondage, could see only its outward ugliness and obscenity. The presence of the sun and the moon at one time in the sky, and of the creatures of the earth, sky and water, and even those like Naga kanyas belonging to two domains, is suggestive of the Linga’s timelessness and all pervasive breadth beyond what the sun and the moon are able to scale, and living beings, define.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.