The Meaning Behind Every Symbol of Lord ShivaSeptember 28, 2022
Lord Shiva is one of the Trimurtis, the trinity of powerful Hindu gods. His main function is the destruction or dissolution of the Universe at the end of time.
He is also the most complex deity in Hinduism, who combines auspiciousness (Shiva), terror (Rudra), art (Nataraja), and power (Vishwanatha) within himself. He is limitless, formless, transcendent, unchanging, and has no beginning or end. Brahman emerges from him, stays in him, and returns to him. He is both Nirgun Brahman and Sagun Brahman.
Shiva exists in 3 states.
Nirgun: Here, he is formless. The entire Universe and creation lie in his pervasiveness.
Saguna: In this state, Shiva is the entire Universe. His “ansh” is present in all creation. Despite this, no form can describe him.
Nirgun-Sagun: In this state, he is the Shivalingam. The word comes from Sanskrit – Shiva (Lord) + Lingam (Mark/Symbol). Thus, Shivalingam represents the mark of the Lord within its creation. All things in the world emerge out of a dome/a ball/ a Pindi. The seed of a tree is round, the cell which becomes a child is round, all heavenly bodies are round, and the earth is round. This roundness is a mark of Shiva. As we cannot comprehend him, we worship his mark. In other words, we worship the entire Brahman in a Shivalingam.
The Yajur Veda says, “Na Tasya Pratima Asit,’ meaning ‘There is no image of him.’ So, he is formless. But all forms belong to him.
He-she-it are the three forms in which the world appears, and they arise out of him. While Siva is male, Shiva is female, and Shivam is neutral.
Thus, he is beyond gender..
Symbols of Lord Shiva
Shiva is rich in symbolism. His body, as well as the things he wears on it, are all symbols. Let us explore the symbolism of Shiva.
The Crescent Moon
The crescent moon on Shiva’s forehead is a symbol of time. The moon’s waxing and waning helped calculate the days and months in ancient times.
The moon on Shiva’s head suggests that he controls time and is also beyond time or eternal. Controlling time and the moon is necessary to control nature. It is the moon’s gravity that causes high tides and low tides. One of Shiva’s names is Chandrashekhara, which means ‘One who holds the moon in his hair knot’.
Ashes on his Body
The ash smeared on Shiva’s body is actually from a cemetery. The cemetery is also one of Shiva’s favorite haunts, where he hangs out with his Ganas. The ash reminds us that death is our ultimate destination. In the end, we will all be reduced to ashes. But Shiva is beyond the circle of life and death. The ash is shiva’s way of telling us to remain humble and grounded and shun vanity, ego, and pride.
Matted Hair / Jata
With his matted hair, Shiva controlled the waters of the Ganges. It is a symbol of the power he wields over all of creation. A hymn in the Vedas says that those who have long jatas have special relations with spirits.
Ganga is a river as well as Goddess in Hinduism. It is the holiest river in India. Legend says that it originates in Shiva’s matted hair. Another legend says that Shiva allowed it to flow through his hair. Hence, Ganges water is considered to be sacred and pure. One of Shiva’s many names ‘Gangadhara’, means “Bearer of the river Ganga”. Thus, Shiva is not just a destroyer but also a conveyor of purity and peace. Ganga also represents knowledge. Thus, ultimate knowledge is flowing from Lord Shiva.
His Third Eye
Lord Shiva has a 3rd eye called Triyambhkam, Trinetra, etc. The third eye represents the sight of knowledge. It hints that our 2 eyes are not enough to judge things and grasp the truth. It signifies the destruction of the world of Maya. It helps us to distinguish what is right and wrong.
His third eye also symbolizes the rejection of desire. A person needs Samata(balance), Sadhuta (purity of character), and Dooradrishti (broader vision). He should not succumb to immoral desires for the opposite sex (other than one’s spouse), money (which is not earned honestly), and fame (which is not born of sattvic actions).
Yogis believe that when the pineal gland or ‘third eye’ is awakened, one can see beyond space-time into time-space. It is like a spiritual antenna that helps one to reach higher levels of consciousness while one is still present in the physical body.
His Half Open Eyes
Shiva’s eyes are not fully open. This implies that the cycle of the Universe is still a work in progress. When his eyes open fully, a new cycle of creation begins. When he closes them, the Universe will dissolve and make way for the next cycle of creation. Thus, creation is an eternal and cyclic process. It has no end or beginning.
The Snake Around his Neck
The snake lies coiled thrice around Shiva’s neck. The 3 coils represent past, present, and future time. The coils signify time’s cyclic nature. Shiva wearing it shows that Shiva is beyond time and death. The snake also symbolizes Kundalini Shakti. The snake signifies passion and desire. So another meaning is that Shiva has conquered such earthly desires.
The 3 stripes on his forehead are called the Tripunda. They symbolize the 3 Gunas.
- Sattva Guna – Pure, good, harmonious, altruistic, creative, balanced
- Rajas Guna – Confusion, overactive or eager, egoist, passionate, self-centered
- Tamas Guna – Lazy, heavy, impure, destructive
The tiger is Goddess Shakti’s vehicle and represents power. Shiva wearing the tiger skin indicates his great power and that he controls even Shakti. Tiger often represents lust, so it suggests that Shiva has conquered lust. Moreover, the tiger symbolizes energy. Shiva is the source of relative energy that is present all over the Universe. He activates this energy with his own Divine will and creates the Universe in endless cycles.
The Rudraksha Necklace
Shiva’s Rudraksha necklace has 108 beads made of his own tears. Beads signify the elements of the world. So, Shiva wearing the necklace means that he adheres to cosmic laws, too. It also symbolizes grace and asceticism.
Damaru, the Drum
Shiva’s Damaru represents the cosmic sound called Pranavamand. It also represents the “Shabda Brahma” or OM. It is from this that grammar and music came. Supposedly, when Shiva is in the mode of creation, his drum vibrates 14 times. These 14 basic formulae comprise all the alphabets in Sanskrit, which are arranged in ways to facilitate different grammatical processes. So, the Damaru represents alphabets, grammar, and language.
The Lingam, which represents Shiva, is a phallic statue. It signifies his masculinity and raw power. It is seen as the seed of the Universe by Hindus.
His Trishul has three prongs that represent three fundamental powers of Shiva: will (icchya), action (kriya), and jnana (knowledge). This means that he can destroy evil and ignorance and also that he punishes evildoers in three planes: spiritual, subtle, and physical. It also signifies his 3 aspects – creator, preserver, and destroyer. It can also represent the equilibrium of the 3 Gunas – Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.
Kamandalu is a water pot made using a dry pumpkin. It contains Amrit. It represents Shiva as Yogi. The pumpkin is plucked, its fruit removed, and the shell cleaned so that it can carry the Amrit. Likewise, one should renounce the material world and rid oneself of egoism to attain the purely spiritual form.
These are Shiva’s earrings. One is Alakshya, meaning ‘that cannot be shown by any sign’, and Niranjan, ‘that cannot be seen by mortal eyes’. These refer to Shiva’s imperceptible nature. Women wear the left one and men wear the right one. The Kundalas signify the dual nature of Shiva, as he is also Shakti, the female principle.
Shiva’s abode, Mount Kailash, is supposedly the center of the Universe. It means that Shiva is Kailash, the one who bestows peace.
Nandi, the Bull
Nandi, the bull, is Shiva’s vehicle. It represents Dharma or righteousness. The word for bull is “vrisha” in Sanskrit, which means “righteousness”.
Mantras of Lord Shiva
There are many Mantras of Lord Shiva. The most well-known of these is the Panchakshari Mantra ‘Om Namah Shivaya’, which means ‘Salutations to the Auspicious One.’ The Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra is also very famous. Shiva is also called Marundheeshwarar and Vaitheeshwarar, the God of medicine or healing. Some of the powerful Lord Shiva healing Mantras are Shivashtakam, Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra, and the Panchakshari Mantra.
Lord Shiva Temples
There are many Shiva temples in India. Some of the most famous are:
- Brihadeeshwara Temple, Thanjavur
- Mahakaleshwar JyothirlingaTemple, Ujjain
- Omkareshwar Mahadev Temple, Shivpuri
- Kedarnath Temple, Uttarakhand
- Bhimashankar Temple, Pune
- Trimbakeshwar Shiva temple, Nashik
- Vadakkunnathan Temple, Thrissur
- Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameshwaram
- Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi
- Amarnath Temple, Srinagar