In Hinduism, every god and goddess can be understood from at least four standpoints: the absolute, the cosmic, the “departmental” and the incarnation who appears on earth to reestablish dharma. From the highest standpoint, Lord Shiv is the formless absolute reality, the nature of pure consciousness. Shiv’s name itself means auspiciousness. It is Shiv that transforms an inert body, a shava (corpse) into a beautiful thing. That divine consciousness is one’s own true nature.
From the cosmic standpoint, Lord Shiv represents the lord of the universe — the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the world. From the departmental standpoint, he is worshipped as the deity in charge of the power of destruction. Thus, we invoke the lord to give us the capacity to destroy our attachments and ignoble thoughts. In his fourth aspect as a particular form that manifested on earth, Lord Shiv is said to have appeared in numerous incarnations as a guru avatar, an enlightened master who teaches the knowledge of the self to his disciples.
Sri Adi Shankaracharya and Dakshinamurti Bhagwan are considered to be such avatars of Lord Shiv. In his Ramayan, Tulsidas explains that Lord Shiv is brahman, the absolute reality, and Parvati, his spouse, is adi shakti, the lord’s primordial power.
Tulsidas also points out that the lord embodies faith that is essential to realise the truth. Yet even if we have faith, we are unable to see the truth unless we have a teacher to guide us. Thus, Lord Shiv is the supreme brahman, the faith by which we realise the truth, and also the guru who guides us.