As the color of the sky lightened in the east, Usha, the Goddess of the morning colored the sky crimson. The sun rose languidly, full of guilt and shame, knowing the great horrors of the day before. Its first rays fell on the ash-smeared form of the yogi who wandered the lands of Bharata, the land of the Gods. But this was no ordinary ascetic, he was the Swayambho, the self-born, the celestial ascetic. Tall, fair and well built, his head framed by matted locks, he was dressed in nothing but a loincloth made from the skin of dead animals. The trident he carried glimmered in the morning light, thirsting for more of the gore and destruction that it had witnessed the night before. The yogi seemed unaware of the world around him and he walked slowly, aimlessly, in a trance. His half-closed eyes were blood-shot, his face streaked with tears. As he moved he would sometimes jerk his head, his locks flying around like angry serpents, a ferocious energy coursing through his limbs, barely under control, like a wild animal straining at its leash. He would often open his eyes, look around in surprise and then, looking at the load he carried in his arms, burst into tears. Sadness would give way to anger and his eyes would roll upwards, lids would droop as he entered the semi-trance state again. The spot on his forehead between his eyes, where he smeared ash, would start glowing. He had wandered this way the whole night, crazed with anger and sorrow.
There were those who followed him, keeping their distance, scurrying away to take shelter among trees and shrubs when he had his bouts of anger. They cowered at a distance, not able to muster courage to walk up to him, talk to him, console him or stop him from the course he had set himself on. Anger had blinded him last night, and slowly given way to profound sorrow. Almost as if in a reflex, the yogi had entered into the meditative state in which he had spent decades in a secluded stone cave high up in the mountains. Along with his followers he had subsisted only on roots and fruits, not knowing cooked food or stitched clothing. They had eaten what nature gave them and used the skin of dead animals for clothing, when needed. Scores of years he meditated, unraveling the mysteries of the world to those who would come seeking it from him. He had taught his followers Yoga and medicine and Natya and Tantra. He had existed like this since times immemorial, since before time itself, and would have continued to do so had he not consented to marry Sati.
The name brought him to his senses; he woke up, as if from sleep. Looking at the form he carried in his arms, charred beyond recognition now, he convulsed with anger and rage. Nandi, and the others following him, fell down to the ground in fear. The more he looked at her body, the more the convulsions grew. Even though charred beyond recognition, it was easy to see what he carried was once a beautiful woman. The woman he had loved and married, and whose body he had carried through the night, the night of horrors the world will never be able to forget. His convulsions grew more rhythmic, the body and the limbs moved with a cruel energy his followers had never seen before. Even as he carried her, with one hand he used the ‘damroo’, his one-handed drum, to time his movements. Its ominous sound brought shivers to the people watching him. They had feared as much. The rhythm was clear now, to everyone. The yogi danced his dance with the body slung on his arms. The two forms looked grotesque, dancing together, often the margins between the two blurred. It had begun!
Those celestial beings watching him from a distance had known this would happen, they now rushed to inform the only person who could stop him. While the yogi continued his gyrations, the spot on his forehead grew brighter and brighter. The heavens were crowded with all the celestials, watching in awe and fear. The animals of the forest scurried away from the place, knowing in their gut what was happening. The end was near. The yogi kept dancing, faster and faster, beating the damroo and looking at the form in his arms, resolved to see this through. His semi-trance did not allow him to see the object that approached him from the sky in the east. Moving fast and glowing brightly, the Sudarshan, the celestial missile, had been let loose by Hari, the Padmanabh. While Shiva danced, immersed in his thoughts, the missile approached him, aimed at the form in his arms.
Shiva had never been on good terms with his father-in-law Daksha. Daksha was biased against Shiva, because his father Brahma had once been chastised and humiliated by Shiva. To add insult to injury, Daksha’s daughter Sati had taken to worshipping Shiva and had performed severe austerities to please Shiva and have him as her husband. The ‘Bholenaath’ had relented and had consented to lead his ‘Baarat’ or marriage procession to Daksha’s capital to wed Sati. Daksha had been dismissive of Shiva’s prominent stature among the contemporaries as the ‘Mahadev’ and had barely been civil during the ceremonies. After marriage, Shiva had conveyed to Sati his resolve to never visit Daksha’s kingdom again. Sati had been happy living with Shiva, high on the Kailasha until she heard of the great sacrificial feast being thrown by her father, to appease the Gods. She had insisted on going, though Shiva had cautioned her to not go where she was neither invited nor welcome. But her childhood instincts had taken over Sati, and even though Shiva stayed behind, she had gone. Accompanied by Nandi and other caretakers from Shiva’s group of followers, she had visited her father only to be given the cold shoulder at first and public humiliation later. She had borne the insults heaped on her with aplomb, but was furious when Daksha started to debase her husband. Sati loved Shiva more than herself and, realizing that he had been right in trying to discourage her to visit these impious premises, she had, in a fit of rage, sadness and desperation entered the sacrificial fire after cursing the place and all those present. She had warned, with her last words, those present of the fate about to befall them. She had told them, in clear words, that all the sages, Gods and Devas of the world will not be able to save this cursed land and its inhabitants from Shiva. Those present, had quaked with the implications of her prophecy, but Daksha had been haughtily dismissive. When she entered the sacrificial altar, a wave of terror had swept across the palace premises; those present had shuddered visibly at the thought of the impending doom.
The entourage that Shiva had sent to accompany Sati had fled in panic and, quivering to the bones, had prostrated themselves at the feet of Shiva. As they narrated the story, Shiva’s rage had known no bounds. He had led his people to Daksha’s palace and stormed the sacrificial grounds. Tears flowing like streams, searing his eyes and streaking his cheeks, he had sat down in the ‘Padmaasana’ , the Lotus posture, at the altar near Sati’s charred remains and, laying Sati down on his lap, had howled in pain. His curse rent the sky, and made everyone present tremble. Birds of prey started cawing, wolves howled in unison, hyenas laughed and elephants had trumpeted. The sky became overcast with clouds and the earth trembled. All the divine guests and members of Daksha’s royal household quacked with fear. Daksha fell down upon the ground trembling and begged for mercy, knowing that doom was imminent. Shiva did not hear anyone, did not see anything. He jerked his head and in rage pulled out two locks of his matted hair and smashed them to the ground. He was already deep in a meditative trance, his body trembling with countless years of yogic energy locked inside him. He had started glowing like the sun. It became more and more difficult to look at him. The ground trembled under the weight of his locks and a cloud of dust arose, soon to clear away and reveal Veer Bhadra and Bhadra Kaali, Shiva’s alter egos, the personification of his yogic self. Fiery eyed and armed with weapons of all sorts, the duo knelt by the feet of their master to await instructions. Shiva was still in deep trance, his body quivering, glowing, his face contorted in anger, he had become Rudra ‘the angry one’!
He opened his eyes slowly and rose from the Lotus posture, carrying Sati’s body with him. As he turned to walk away from the altar, he commanded the duo to destroy everything in sight. And the horror began.
Veer Bhadra and Bhadra Kaali lay waste anything they laid their eyes on. Doors were smashed, windows broken, pillars and pavilions pulled down. Any living being in their path was decapitated and disemboweled. Bhadra sought out Daksha and, pinning him down under his feet, cut his head off with the trident he carried. Men, women, animals fled the scene howling and crying while the carcass eaters waited in the shadows for the feast of their lives. Day turned to night, wild animals howled and shrieked while the twin harbingers of death wreaked havoc upon Daksha’s palace. Rudra meanwhile walked away from the place, unmindful of the doom he had unleashed upon the place. His eyes half closed, he carried Sati’s charred body out of the premises and continued walking. The faithful followed him at a distance, sobbing, crying, fearing for their lives, not able to muster courage to walk up to their Lord who was grieving the demise of his beloved. It was a strange sight, Rudra walking with Sati’s body, not knowing where he went, his ‘ganas’ following at a distance. And so this went on through the night. While Daksha’s lifeless body lay in his burning palace, surrounded by corpses of the royal guests, divine beings, Devas and nymphs he had called to his feast, Rudra roamed the lands of Bharatavarsha.
Down the mountains and into the forests he went, over the water, he knew not what came his way. The charred remains of Sati’s body hung limply in his strong, ash smeared arms, bobbing up and down as he walked. He was mindful of only one emotion – rage, he wanted to end the world, he had resolved that this is what people deserved. His eyes blazing with fire, he, the ‘Virupaaksha’, roamed the earth while the Gods huddled together in guilt and shame and fear and wondered how to stop him from destroying all of creation. They knew what was coming; the ‘Tandav’ or the Cosmic dance would come.
Both beneficial and destructive, the dance was Rudra’s way of giving vent to his immense yogic energies. To cure or to curse, he used the Tandava in different ways and with devastating effect.
As he walked the earth throughout the night, nature went into hibernation. Plants wilted, rivers and streams receded and the moon shone no more. Every once in a while, some part of the carcass that he carried would fall off and drop to the ground. As it struck the ground, Rudra would shudder, his body convulsing with the pain of separation, his limbs flying wild. At these times it was difficult to tell if it was one man or many. After some time the activity would cease, and Rudra, calming down, would continue his aimless wander while another remained in his place. Bhairav stood guard where Sati’s body parts fell. The ‘ganas’ or followers hurried to cover the part with fresh earth, pay obeisance, do ‘Prana Pratishtha’ for consecrating the place and name it after the part that fell. Thus Rudra kept walking and his followers kept making ‘Shakti Peethas’ or ‘house of Shakti’, another name for Sati, the divine Mother. Thus came Bimala, Tara Tarini, Kamakhya, Vishalakshi, Manikarnika, Kapalini and on and on. The madness seemed unending, till at the very crack of dawn Rudra seemed to slow down. Nandi and the others thought that his anger had abated, but they were wrong, this was just the lull before the storm. Meditating and contemplating, wavering between anger, guilt, sorrow, pity and rage throughout the night, the ‘Mahayogi’ had finally arrived at a conclusion. The world, as he knew it, must be destroyed for it to be rebuilt again, cleansed of its sins.
As the first rays of the sun hit him, he had slowly begun his dance. His eyes now almost completely closed, there was no emotion on his face. The ‘Trinetra’ or Third Eye was turning red, ready to open up and destroy the world. His body glowed, brighter and brighter and soon it was impossible to look at him. He looked like another sun that had descended from the firmament and was now trying to burn everything on this earth. Even so, the red hue from his forehead could be seen, turning crimson by the second. His face impassive, he danced in deep trance, far far away from the world, Sati still held close to his bosom, cradled in his arms, her touch reminding him why the world needed to be destroyed.
He was so absorbed in his trance that he did not notice the missile that Vishnu Padmanaabh had let loose in his direction. When all the celestial beings had fled in terror, they had gone in supplication to Hari, to seek his intervention to stop Rudra, for no one else could. They appealed to him to remove the cause of Rudra’s anger somehow as everytime he saw Sati he went into a fresh fit of rage. The burnt and dismembered body of Sati would not allow Rudra to cool down, to become Shiva again. It kept telling him, whispering to him to end the world. They had pleaded with Hari to have the body removed so that Rudra would slip into his meditation again and the world could be saved. Hari had not known what to do. Taking the body away from Rudra, in this frame of mind was impossible. He would not see whom it was that approached or what it was that was being said. While he was in this trance, he was unapproachable, impervious to anything physical or metaphysical. Ensconced in his yogic cocoon Rudra was unassailable, and impossible to confront either with logic or in combat. It was then that Hari, the ‘Lotus eyed God’, decided to destroy the body of Sati with his ‘Sudarshan chakra’ or discus. It would destroy Sati’s body but leave Rudra unharmed due to his yogic trance. It was the only safe way to stop this vicious cycle and stop Rudra’s ‘Tandava’ from reaching its climax, for then, even Hari could not do anything but prepare to create another world, for this one would be surely destroyed.
And so he had loosed the missile, which now flew towards Rudra, aimed at the body of Sati. It was like a flash of lightening in the sky, hardly visible, as it approached its mark. Rudra had nearly completed his dance, his body as bright as the day, the crimson light from his ‘Trinetra’ splitting the orb of light surrounding him, growing stronger and beginning to sear everything in its vicinity. The much dreaded ‘Trinetra’ or third eye was opening. It was then that the missile hit him. There was a huge explosion, a flash of light unlike any the world has seen. For moments everyone was blinded, then the light subsided. Shiva stood poised in the Abhaya Mudra or the benevolent pose. The body of Sati was gone, and Shiva had slipped back into the deepest meditative slumber. His followers scurried hither thither, looking for parts of the body, which got scattered all over Bharatavarsha. Everywhere they went they found some piece of their divine Mother, and along with that piece of Sati’s body they found Bhairav standing guard. They buried the piece, consecrated the grounds, named the shrine and left Bhairav standing guard at the Shakti Peetha. They counted a total of fifty one, thus the number was also termed holy due to its association with Sati and Shiva. Shiva on the other hand walked back to his cave high on Mount Kailasha, to continue his meditation, not to be disturbed till another maiden would take it upon herself to win his heart.
My humble obeisance at the feet of my Lord, Mahadev!
– Divya Narain Upadhyaya