The term 'SIVA' means one who is Auspicious. Auspiciousness is generally associated in human mind with fulfilment of certain desires, attainment of certain pleasant and agreeable ends etc., mostly sanctioned by Sastras. This is the experience of joy in the worldly life. For instance we refer to 'auspicious' occasions of Upanayanam, Marriage, Seemanthonnayanam etc. Siva the personification of auspiciousness is reputed to be 'Asutosha', quickly pleased. He is also 'Ardhanariswara', having given away the left part of his form to his consort Parvathi. He is therefore full of compassion and motherly love, specially for the devotee who offers intense prayers. As Mrityunjaya, he is remembered as the conqueror of Mrityu, who is none other than the Lord of death, Yama. The celebrated Vedic Maha Mrityunjaya mantra, also commonly known as Triyambaka mantra, is chanted during Upanayanam, Marriage etc. for attaining long life and prosperity. A mantra is said to protect the one who chants it - मननात् त्रायते इति मन्त्रः.
The Story of Markandeya
The story of how Siva protected the boy Markandeya from Yama comes to everyone's mind in this context. Once upon a time, there lived a sage called Mrikandu with his wife Marudvati. Both were devotees of Siva. They were childless and they prayed intensely to Siva for a child. Siva appeared before them and asked the couple if they desired an ordinary son who would live a long life, or an exceptionally meritorious son who would live a short life. The couple chose the latter. In due course, Marudvati gave birth to a male child, who was named Markandeya (son of Mrikandu). Markandeya was an extraordinarily gifted child, and became an accomplished sage early in his childhood. He was especially devoted to Siva, and had mastered the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra. At the age of sixteen, his sojourn on this earth had come to an end, and Yama, death personified, came personally on his mount of ox to take him away. At that time Markandeya was worshipping the Siva Lingam. When he saw Yama, Markandeya held the Siva Linga in tight embrace out of fright and prayed for Siva's protection. The young lad broke into a soulful song of praise of the supreme qualities of Siva. Each sloka ends with the refrain: चन्द्रशेखरं-आश्रये मम किं करिष्यति वै यमः- "When I have taken refuge in Chandrasekhara, what can Yama do to me?" In this Stotra, Markandeya extols Siva's acts of bravery and compassion, citing Tripurasamhara, killing of asuras like Andhaka, reducing Manmatha to ashes and bringing him back to life later, destruction of Daksha's yagna, and holding the conceited Ganga on his head. He adds that Siva is the supreme physician for all worldly sufferings; he cleanses us of all our sins accumulated in innumerable births. Markandeya concludes his prayer with:
विश्वसृष्टिविधायिनं पुनरेव पालनतत्परं
संहरन्तमथ प्रपञ्चं-अशेष-लोकनिवासिनम् ।
चन्द्रशेखरं-आश्रये मम किं करिष्यति वै यमः ॥
"Siva projects the universe, protects it and destroys it in due time leaving no trace of creation behind. He is engaged in sport day and night, surrounded by the heads of Ganas. When he is my refuge, what can Yama do to me?"
रुद्रं पशुपतिं स्थाणुं नीलकण्ठं-उमापतिम् ।
नमामि शिरसा देवं किं नो मृत्युः करिष्यति ॥
"I bow my head in obeisance to Rudra, the master of all souls, the changeless, eternal, the blue-necked consort of Uma. What can death do to us?"
Yama could not care less for the boy's prayerful state and threw his death-noose around the boy-sage, which encircled the Siva Lingam too.
Suddenly, the Siva Lingam burst open with a thundering roar, and a majestic, fiery form of Siva appeared out of the blazing light. Enraged that Yama should have the audacity to encircle the Siva Lingam with his noose, Siva struck down Kala (Yama is also called Kala, Time, since Time brings death to all beings) with his Trisula. Markandeya was thus spared from death. Siva blessed Markandeya with eternal life and proclaimed that he shall forever remain a sixteen-year-old sage. The assembly of Devas who had witnessed the spectacle begged Siva to revive Yama, as a world without death would put unbearable burden on the earth. Siva then revived Yama, and declared that His devotees were forever to be spared from the noose of Yama. Since that day, the fiery form of Siva that appeared to save the boy-sage Markandeya is called Kalasamhara Murti (or Kalari). Markandeya attained enlightenment at a young age by Siva's grace. He was no more bound by time (kala) or death. He had broken through the cycle of birth and death. Verily, Markandeya had gained oneness with Lord Mrityunjaya and conquered death itself.
Siva is beyond death and time. He is the Eternal Lord. He is the Ruler of time (Mahakaleshvara); he is the Originator of time (Mahakala) and Destroyer of time (Kalari or Kalasamhara Murti). Time in the story is represented by Yama since time brings death and dissolution to all things, but Siva brings death to time itself. When all things are extinct, Siva alone remains. Siva is called Maha Mrityunjaya, the great Conquerer of Death.
The Story of Svetha
Skanda Puranam recounts another story similar to Markandeya's. There was a king called Svetha, a great devotee of Siva. His rule was in strict adherence to the principles of dharma; the subjects were all prosperous, happy and peaceful. When the time came for his passing away from earth, Yama despatched some terrible-looking Yamadutas for fetching Svetha. When the messengers, armed with the rope, arrived, they found the king in deep meditation of Siva. They could not approach him. Yama then came himself, armed with his 'Danda' (stick); he too could not bring himself to attack Svetha; he stood like a statue. Kala now came, with his sharp-edged dagger drawn. He chided Yama for failing to perform his assigned task. Now he himself prepared to attack Svetha. Siva at that very instant opened his third eye and reduced Kala to ashes. Svetha came to his senses by now and, observing the ashes of Kala, praised Siva with a beautiful hymn and asked him who had been burnt to ashes. Siva said that it was Kala, who had come to take away Svetha, burnt now in order to protect him. Svetha prayed to Siva: "It is owing to Kala that some people are established in dharma, some are very devoted, some are Gnanis and some have attained Liberation. Kala is indeed the creator and protector as well as the destroyer of beings. Hence please bring Kala back to life." The attitude of Svetha, praying for the life of Kala at that instant, when he himself had just escaped the clutches of death owing to the intervention of Siva, is indeed remarkable. This shows the true state of mind of a 'Sthitapragna'.
Siva happily acceded and, with a smile, granted life to Kala. Overcome by bashfulness, Kala praised Siva and said to Svetha: "This entire universe is under my control. But you have won over Siva, the lord of lords." The king in turn extolled Kala as another form of Siva himself. Yama returned to his city and ordered Yamadutas to be very careful and avoid going near true devotees of Siva. Svetha ruled the kingdom for many more years with strict adherence to dharma and attained to Siva Sayujyam in time. Vyasa concludes by saying:
एवं भक्तिपराणां च महेशे च जगद्गुरौ ।
सिद्धिः करतले तेषां सत्यं प्रतिवदामि वः ॥
"To those who are supremely devoted to Maheswara, the Guru of the universe, all attainments are on hand; this is truth."
Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra
We find that the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra is chanted with great devotion especially by people who are terminally sick in order to avert death and regain good health. The mantra wards off deaths by snake-bites, lightning, accidents with motor, fire, water, air etc. Again, diseases pronounced incurable by doctors are cured by this mantra, when chanted with full sincerity, faith and devotion. It is a mantra to conquer death.
Sastras however attach greater importance to life beyond death. It can be easily seen on introspection that the pleasure derived from mundane experiences is short-lived. Sanatana dharma makes it abundantly clear that true auspiciousness is the stage when we get relief from the never-ending cycle of repeated births and deaths. That is everlasting happiness, unmixed with even a tinge of misery. Man has to realise through discrimination the futility of running after transient worldly pleasures, which only result in ultimate gloom; he should seek the Lord's Feet for succour. This requires two things: one, recognition of all worldly possessions, experiences, happenings etc. as unalloyed misery; two, realisation of the Lord alone as the single source of eternal happiness. Unless one starts to practise detachment with things worldly, he cannot make much progress in his sadhana to attain the lord, the state of never returning to the world. This is easily said, but extremely difficult to practise. Sastras exhort us to live life like the lotus in water; i.e. draw sustenance from the world for day-to-day activities, but be above and immune to the temptations of the world. One has necessarily to maintain his own body and his near and dear ones, all the while attaching himself to the world. But he should always keep in mind that all this including his own body and mind are but temporary illusory tools, to be cast away at the appropriate time. He should not lose sight of his ultimate aim, viz. attainment of Siva. After using the ladder to reach the terrace, one does not need the ladder any more. This is the Supreme Gnana. Siva stands for this Gnana. 'Gnanam-icchet Maheswarat'- says the adage; one should pray to Siva for granting this Gnana. Siva being Asutosha grants our prayers quickly. It is interesting that one, who possesses the most valuable thing, is ready to part with it quickly, if only we pray sincerely.
Maha Mrityunjaya mantra cited above is indeed the most powerful Vedic mantra addressed to Siva, praying for quick attainment of Gnana. It is Moksha mantra. The mantra says:
ॐ त्र्यम्बकं यजामहे सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनम् ।
उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान्-मृत्योर्-मुक्षीय माऽमृतात् ॥
'We pray to the three-eyed Siva, who is full of nice scent and who increases our nourishment, that we should be freed from the cycle of births and deaths, like the ripe cucumber getting separated from its stem effortlessly and be never deprived of immortality.'
It is in practice to chant this mantra and the succeeding Riks along with Sri Rudradhyaya. The three eyes of Siva are said to refer to three acts of creation, sustenance and destruction, three worlds (upper, earth and lower), three attributes (Satva, Rajas, Tamas), three Vedas (Rik, Yajus and Sama), and, Surya, Chandra and Agni (the three luminous objects).
It is said that as the scent, colour etc. of the form of Sri Parameswara are all superior as mentioned in Upanishad through 'Divyagandhah', 'Divyarasah' etc., the term 'Sugandhim' has been used here. But the deeper meaning is that just as good scent drives away bad smell instantly, Siva's grace destroys all the evil vasanas (tendencies) from the worshipper's mind and fills it with Gnanam. Vedanta teaches that vasanas acquired over several lives do not get extinguished by merely experiencing the fruits of Punya (merit) and Papa (sin). They only mutiply and get strengthened.
Durvasana Pratikara Dasakam
Realising the difficulties faced by aspirants in overcoming Vasanas, Adi Sankaracharya has composed a special 'Durvasana Pratikara Dasakam', where he details the steps one has to take in order to keep fighting the constantly resurfacing evil vasanas. One has to keep charging the mind with good vasanas all the time. Start the day with meditation on Bhagavan. Do karmas prescribed by Vedas. Avoid prohibited acts. Study Itihasas and Puranas to digest the evils arising from bad vasanas and the good resulting from good vasanas. Pay particular attention to the Moksha Dharma chapters in Mahabharata and Yoga Vasishtam. In order to develop constant love and devotion to Bhagavan, read stories like Srimad Bhagavatham. Get over desires and greed by practising contentment and the thought of difficulties in fulfilling them. Considering the false nature of mundane existence, do not plan actions for achieving worldly ends. Conquer the habit of harsh speech by cultivating sweet words of address. Avoid needless speech by adopting the habit of silence. When anger arises in mind, overcome by forbearance. Avoid conceit by remembering stories of arrogant men falling to dust. When confronted with false slander, remember that even avataras like Rama and Krishna faced such errant behaviour and ignore it. Patiently bear the troubles inflicted by others as that would exhaust the evil karmas.
Overcome sloth by consuming Satvic foods. Continue wakefulness till sleep comes; this will avert dreams. Never feel wretched. Think that you are the eternal blissful Atman. Overcome attachment to close relatives by thinking of the misery that would ensue when they depart. Cultivate loneliness and thus get over the pulls of the sense organs. Be ever alert. Thinking that Prarabdha would take its course in all mundane matters, meditate on Atman. This way, you can overcome the attachment to body (Ahankara) and possessions (Mamakara). Like the leakage of water from a basket full of holes, the power of life is gradually exiting from various openings in the body. Do not waste the most valuable human birth; Experience the bliss of Atman.
मत्र्याद्यप्सरसं विवेकतुरगं सन्तोष-चिन्तामणिम् ।
आत्मज्ञान-महामृतं समरसं नैराश्य-चन्द्रोदयं
वेदान्तार्णवं-आश्रयन्-अनुदिनं सेवस्व मुक्तिश्रियम् ॥
"Churn the ocean of milk of Vedanta and obtain the nectar of Atmagnana and the Lakshmi called Mukti. While churning, you will also get the byproducts of Airavata (elephant) of courage, Kamadhenu of peace, Kalpaka trees of conquest of sense organs, Apsara women of friendship, compassion etc., Uchaisravas (horse) of discrimination, Chintamani (gem) of contentment and the moonshine of dispassion."
Vasanas are fully destroyed only at the dawn of Gnana by the grace of Lord. Further, Parameswara blesses growth of the nourishment of his devotees in all respects. This nourishment acts in accordance with the wish of the devotee. If he craves for worldly pleasures, he attains them. If he desires Moksha, Siva is only too pleased to guide him on the right path and grant him Moksha. Hence the prayer in this mantra is specifically directed to attainment of immortality: we, who extol that Parameswara, should be relieved from the bondage of samsara effortlessly, just as the ripe cucumber falls off on its own from the connecting stem. We should never fall off the aim of Moksha, i.e. Nivritti Marga (path of renunciation), which is the path for Moksha.
References in Puranas
त्रियम्बकसमो नास्ति देवो वा घृणयान्वितः । प्रसादशीलः प्रीतश्च तथा मन्त्रोऽपि सुव्रताः ॥
तस्मात्सर्वं परित्यज्य त्रियम्बकं-उमापतिम् । त्रियम्बकेन मन्त्रेण पूजयेत्-सुसमाहितः ॥
सर्वावस्थां गतो वापि मुक्तोऽयं सर्वपातकैः । शिवध्यानान्न सन्देहो यथा रुद्रस्तथा स्वयम् ॥
"There is no Devata equal in compassion to Triyambaka (Siva). He is pleased quickly and is very kind; his mantra (Triyambaka mantra) also has the same characteristics, o virtuous people! Hence one should leave everything aside and worship the consort of Uma, Triyambkeswara with the Triyambaka mantra with full concentration. In whichever condition he is, the devotee will be released of all sins by meditating on Siva; there is no doubt; he will become same as Rudra."
Skanda Puranam extols Kalasamharini Murthi thus:
पक्वानाञ्च भयं कालात्-सजह्रे दयया यतः ।
कालसंहारिणी मूर्तिः कथिता सा मुनीश्वरैः ॥
"Siva, who removes the fear of Kala from the minds of mature Gnanis out of compassion, is called Kalasamharini Murthi by the best among sages."
Periya Puranam, which describes the life stories of the Saivite saints called Nayanmars, mentions the interesting story of a saint called Rudra Pasupathi Nayanar.
He was an exception to the general pattern of happenings in the life of the other Nayanmars, who attained Moksha after being subjected to rigorous tests of devotion. Pasupathi was born in a rich brahmana family, in a town called Tiruttalaiyur, on the banks of Kaveri. He learnt Vedas in his young age, but he was greatly fascinated with Sri Rudram, a great section of Yajur Veda on Siva, extolling his omnipresence and supreme power to grant Moksha. Everyday after doing Puja at home and also in Siva temple with fragrant flowers, Pasupathi went to the temple tank and being neck deep in water, used to chant Sri Rudram several times during the day till sunset. He used to come back home and chant the sacred Panchakshari mantra till he slept. This procedure continued for several years and Siva bade him to come to Chidambaram and chant Sri Rudram, as he liked his singing very much. He then went to Chidambaram and in the golden court there, he chanted Sri Rudram in the presence of the Dikshitars. He merged in the Effulgence of Nataraja, as he was singing Sri Rudram!