Shiva’s Question


When destruction happens, Shiva’s question arises: what is it that is calling out to be broken down?

The same question comes out of the tarot through Arcanum XVI, the Tower. In the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck, the Eye of Shiva stares out like a sun over the Tower’s jagged annihilation. This card commonly points to accident, bereavement or some other unwelcome occurrence coming out of the blue and causing shock and turmoil, wound about with the deeper, even more painful recognition that whatever stability has been upset needed to be forced to change.

Shiva’s question is a cosmological one, emerging from vast cycles of time and understanding building up and collapsing. It is asked from about as far-out as you can get; and because of this it is not necessarily wise, from a human perspective, to rush forward with an answer. Humans, for plenty of good reasons, fear and shun destruction; at the same time we are a hyper-destructive species. To the extent that we are incapable of dealing with this paradox in ourselves, Shiva’s question is too unsettling and needs to be hurriedly silenced: even asking the question is readily deemed crazy or callous or inhumane.

Before answers, then, trying to live with the acute discomfort of the question. Not half as easy as Rilke’s beautiful, essential injunction makes it sound:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

There may be many possible answers to Shiva’s question, and not all will point in the same direction or add up, making for dissensus and complexity. Trying to reach ahead to the answer is likely a symptom of control, perhaps based on the assumption that this terrible situation is just like some previous terrible situation, which it isn’t quite, meaning that the assumed answer will misalign and risk making this already terrible situation far, far worse. Answers, such as they are, arise from putting one foot in front of the other and navigating, now.

Shiva’s question also asks why, in human experience, as one of my favourite film lines puts it (from Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), what you want and what you get are two different things. Reasonable human discourse never openly welcomes chaos and destruction onto the stage: always there is a slower-paced, more gently-tempered alternative, waiting in the wings to be taken. Peace negotiations rather than war; a Robin Hood tax instead of slashing public sector spending. It’s near impossible to know how far far-reaching change is indeed achieved by such slow, quiet measures; to the extent that the latter are far less visible and tangible in the public domain than are the storm and stress of wars, disasters and shock doctrines.

The intolerable questions remain. How best to act and react when, despite the best intentions and wisest alternatives, destruction is what you get, regardless? And, what it is that is forced to change beyond itself by crisis and destruction, which would not otherwise shift by other means?


One thought on “Shiva’s Question

  1. Tony, thank you. Sometimes I think it’s just hitting the right metaphor: the question, the lake – and indeed the boat for difficult times.

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