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Pashupathi is an aspect of Lord Shiva, one of the supreme trinities and the God of destruction. The term ‘Pashu’ means ‘animal’ and can also refer to ‘any being’. ‘Pathi’ is ‘the Lord’ or ‘the Protector’. The name Pashupathi is said to have been conferred on Shiva, by Vishnu, the God of protection, as Shiva was given the position of the Lord of the demons.
Pashupathi is a God, who symbolizes many, profound aspects of five each. He has five heads, which represent the five important incarnations of Shiva, which are Sadyojatha, Vamadeva, Tatpurusha, Aghora and Ishana. The five faces also look in the five directions, in the four cardinal directions and at the zenith. The first of the five Avatars, Sadyojatha signifies Brahman or the universe, and hence denotes one of the five elements, the Earth; Vamadeva, the second signifies Lord Vishnu and denotes element water; Tatpurusha denotes the sages and the element air; Aghora is linked to Rudra and the element fire; and Ishana is associated with all that exists in nature and the element space.
Pashupathi is not merely the Lord of the animals. Even the human beings who are governed by anger, pride, jealousy, ego, avarice and ignorance are no superior to animals, and hence, it is believed that praying to Lord Pashupathi will help people to overcome such vices and shortcomings.
Once, there lived three demons, Viryavana, Tarakaksha and Vidyunmali, who became powerful, by performing penances and getting boons. They started killing sages, slaughtering people, harassing the Godly beings and thus destroying the very universe. It was not easy to challenge them, as they used to go and hide in their three illusory cities, known together as Tripura. These were none other than the cities of prosperity, power and dominance. Helpless, the Gods approached Lord Shiva for relief. The Lord took pity on them, took on the mighty demons, killed them ultimately and put an end to their atrocities. As a result, Shiva is said to have got the name Pashupathi as a title, as the Lord of the beings.
Mahabharatha epic also narrates the story about Pashupathastra, that is, the Astra or weapon of Pashupathi. Arjuna did severe penance towards Lord Shiva seeking this weapon from him and the Lord, pleased with his devotion, granted him the immensely powerful weapon after he himself testing Arjuna’s valour in a direct combat.
While Lord Shiva is well-worshipped in all of his many aspects, the greatest temple for Pashupathi is located in the neighbouring country of Nepal. Lying on the banks of river Bagmathi in capital Katmandu, the ancient Pashupathi Nath temple is regarded as one of the holiest places in Nepal and is visited by thousands of pilgrims, especially on the sacred Shivarathri day. It is believed that the Lord visited Nepal as a deer, was so impressed by the natural beauty of Katmandu valley and stayed there forever. Pashupathi Nath is also regarded unofficially as the national deity of Nepal. A famous temple for him also exists in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh in India. Pashupathi worship is believed to liberate people from all sins and lead them in the path of salvation.