Śiva is the last deity of the Hindu Trinity. He is responsible for the dissolution of the universe. He is the embodiment of Tamas, the centrifugal inertia, the tendency towards dispersion and annihilation.
Literally, Śiva is one in whom the Universe ‘sleeps’ after destruction, till the next cycle of creation.
All that is born, must die. All that is produced, must disintegrate and be destroyed. This is an inviolable law. The principle that brings about this disintegration, the power behind this destruction, is Śiva.
Śiva is much more than that. Disintegration of the universe ends in the ultimate thinning out, into a boundless void. This boundless void, the substratum of all existence, from which springs out again and again this apparently limitless universe, is Śiva. So, though Śiva is described as responsible for destruction, he is equally responsible for creation and existence. In this sense, Brahmā and Viṣṇu are also Śiva. It is perhaps this identity that is revealed by some of the stories in the purāṇas. If one story makes Śiva speak from the womb of the infinite pillar of fire to Brahmā and Viṣṇu that they are his own aspects, other stories make Śiva as being born from the brows of an angry Viṣṇu or from Brahmā who was intensely desiring to beget a son.
Though Śiva is often called Rudra, especially in his terrific aspect, whether the two are identical or not has been a subject of discussion and even controversy. Some scholars are inclined to think that the Rudra of the Vedas and the Śiva of the purāṇas and āgamas are two different deities fused into one at a later date as cultural integration of the two races accepting them progressed. According to these scholars Śiva the pacific deity is a non-Āryan god, ‘more ancient’ than the Vedic Rudra. Though the ‘Āryan conquerors’ despised and derided the Śaivas and their Śiva (apparently because of some of their mysterious rituals and practices), as the two races had to live together, rapprochement and consequent cultural reconciliation became inevitable.
Whatever may be the conjecture behind these statements they are irrelevant to our study here, since we are more interested in discovering the significance of the symbology concerned, to enrich our lives.
Śiva is worshipped both in the anthropomorphic aspect and as the liṅga, the latter being the rule whereas the former is an exception. The most common of his pictures and images shows him as a very handsome youth, white as camphor. His limbs besmeared with ashes are strong and smooth. He has three eyes—the third eye being on the forehead between the eyebrows—and four arms, two of the arms holding the triśūla (trident) and ḍamaru (drum) while the other two are in the abhaya (protection-giving) and varada (boon-giving) mudrās (poses). He has a crown of long matted hair from which flows the river Gaṅgā. He also wears the crescent moon as a diadem. A tiger-skin and an elephant-skin adorn his body as his garments. There are serpents all over his body forming the necklace, the girdle, the yajñopavīta (sacred thread) as also arm-bracelets. There is also a garland of skulls round his blue neck.
Man, being what he is, cannot help superimposing his own states on his gods too! Therefore it is but natural for him to conceive of Śiva as a man with family. Pārvatī is his consort. Gaṇeśa and Kumāra (the latter also known as Skanda or Subrahmaṇya) are his sons.
Then there is the large retinue forming a veritable zoo as it were! Nandi his vehicle bull, Bhṛṅgi the ṛṣi with three legs and three arms, the mouse of Gaṇeśa, the peacock of Kumāra as also a host of ghosts, goblins and imps constantly capering round him—form his large retinue.
Though he has his headquarters in the icy mountains, the Himālayas, he is fond of roaming the earth, especially the burial grounds and cremation sites. All this is in perfect consonance with his nature as the Lord of destruction and dissolution.
Before embarking upon the explanation of all this, which is obviously symbolical, it is better to summarise first the various stories about Śiva recounted in our mythological literature:
An attempt can now be made to unravel this mysterious symbology of the Śiva-picture. Śiva is snow-white in colour, which matches wonderfully with that of his abode, the Himālayas. White stands for light that dispels darkness, knowledge that dispels ignorance. He is the very personification of cosmic consciousness. It may appear strange that Śiva who represents Tamas (the force of darkness and destruction) is pictured as white, whereas Viṣṇu who represents Sattva (the force of light and enlightenment) is pictured as dark! There is nothing strange in this since the opposing Guṇas are inseparable. Hence Śiva is white outside and dark inside whereas Viṣṇu is the reverse of it.
The three eyes of Śiva represent the sun, the moon and the fire, the three sources of light, life and heat. The third eye can also indicate the eye of knowledge and wisdom and hence his omniscience.
If the sun and the moon form his two eyes as it were, then the whole sky including the powerful wind blowing in it, forms his hair. That is why he is called Vyomakeśa (one who has the sky or space as his hair).
Tiger is a ferocious animal that mercilessly devours its hapless victims. Desire, which consumes human beings, without ever being satiated, can be compared to a tiger. That Śiva has killed the tiger and wears its skin as his apparel shows his complete mastery over desire.
The elephant being a powerful animal, wearing its skin implies that Śiva has completely subjugated all animal impulses.
The garland of skulls (muṇḍamālā) that he wears and the ashes of the funeral pyre with which he has besmeared his body indicate that he is the lord of destruction. The garland of skulls also represents the revolution of ages and successive appearance and disappearance of the human races.
Śiva is the lord of yoga and yogis. He is often shown as sitting in deep meditation immersed in the enjoyment of the bliss of his own self. The water of the river Gaṅgā represents this. Or it can represent jñāna, knowledge. Since Gaṅgā is highly adored as a great purifying agent, it goes without saying that he whom it adorns, is the very personification of purifying or redeeming power.
The crescent moon stands for time, since measurement of time as days or months depends upon the waxing and waning of the moon. By wearing it as a diadem, Śiva is showing us that even the all-powerful time is only an ornament for him!
And then, the snakes. The venomous cobras which symbolise death for us adorn his frame in all possible manner embellishing it further. He alone, to whom symbol of death is a decoration, can gulp down the deadly poison Hālāhala to save the worlds. All this points to one thing: He is Mṛtyuñjaya, the conqueror of death! Coiled serpents may also represent cycles of time in the macrocosm and the basic energy—akin to sexual energy—of living beings in the microcosm. So, Śiva is the master of time and energy.
Iconographically Śiva may have two, three, four, eight, ten or even thirty-two hands. Some of the various objects shown in these hands are: triśūla (trident), cakra (discus), paraśu (battle axe), ḍamaru (drum), akṣamālā (rosary), mṛga (deer), pāśa (noose), daṇḍa (staff), pināka or ajagava (bow), khaṭvāṇga (magic wand), pāśupata (spear), padma (lotus), kapāla (skull-cup), darpaṇa (mirror), khaḍga (sword) and so on. It is rather difficult to find a meaning for everyone of these items. However an attempt will be made to explain some of them.
The triśūla (trident) being an important weapon of offence and defence, indicates that Śiva is the supreme ruler. Philosophically it can stand for the three guṇas or the three processes of creation, preservation and dissolution. Hence Śiva the wielder of the trident is the master of the guṇas and from him proceed the cosmic processes.
It is said that while dancing the tāṇḍavanṛtya, Śiva sounded his ḍamaru (small drum) fourteen times, thereby producing sounds like a-i-uṇ, r-lṛ-k and so on, which are now known as the Māheśvara-sūtras, the fourteen basic formulae containing all of the alphabet arranged in the most ingenious manner, facilitating innumerable grammatical processes. Hence the ḍamaru represents the alphabet, grammar (the science of language) or language itself. In other words it stands for all words—spoken or written or other-wise expressed—and hence for the entire gamut of all arts and sciences, sacred and secular. It also represents sound as such, the logos, from which the entire creation has proceeded. By holding it in his hand, Śiva is demonstrating the fact that the entire creation, including its various arts and sciences, has proceeded out of his will, his play.
If the akṣamālā (rosary) shows that he is the master of spiritual sciences, the khaṭvāṅga (magic wand with a skull fixed at one end) shows that he is an adept in occult sciences too. The kapāla (skull-cup) with which he drinks blood, is another symbol that points to his all-destroying power. The darpaṇa (mirror) indicates that the entire creation is just a reflection of his cosmic form.
The icon of Śiva is never worshipped as the mūlamūrti (original, installed in the sanctum sanctorum), but only as an utsavamūrti (the icon used during festivals for taking out in a procession).
As regards the liṅga, the emblem of Śiva universally venerated, some explanation is needed. Literally Śiva means auspiciousness and Liṅga means a sign or symbol. Hence the ‘Śivaliṅga’ is just a symbol of the great God of the universe (‘Mahādeva’) who is all-auspiciousness. As already explained, ‘Śiva’ means the one in whom the whole creation sleeps after dissolution. ‘Liṅga’ also means the same thing—aplace where created objects get dissolved during the disintegration of the created universe. Since, according to Hinduism, it is the same God that creates, sustains and destroys the universe, the Śivaliṅga represents symbolically God Himself.
Whether the Śivaliṅga is a phallic emblem or not, is a moot point. Phallic cults have existed in all countries and in all civilizations. It is quite likely that the phallic cults of an aboriginal civilization were absorbed into Hinduism and the worship itself was elevated to honour the Father-Mother-Principle of creation. This is one view. That it is a remnant of the Vedic yūpastambha, to which sacrificial victims used to be tied, is another view. According to this view, the Hindu temple is a metamorphosis of the Vedic yāgaśālā (sacrificial shed). That it is an imitation of the Buddhist stūpa is another guess that is sometimes hazarded but not substantiated, since Śivaliṅgas have been found even in the pre-Buddhistic civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.
Since God is beyond name and form, and since we cannot conceive of an abstract principle like Him, without the aid of concrete symbols, a rounded surface is perhaps the nearest approach to him.
Śivaliṅgas may be cala (movable) or acala (immovable). The cala-liṅgas may be kept in the shrine of one’s own home for worship or prepared temporarily with materials like clay or dough etc., for worship and dispensed with after the worship or worn on the body as iṣṭaliṅga as the Vīraśaivas do. The acala-liṅgas are those installed in temples. They are usually made of stone and have three parts. The lowest part which is square, is called Brahmabhāga and represents Brahmā, the creator. The middle part which is octagonal, is called Viṣṇu-bhāga and represents Viṣṇu, the sustainer. These two parts are embedded inside the pedestal. The Rudrabhāga which is cylindrical and projects outside the pedestal is the one to which worship is offered. Hence it is called pūjābhāga.
The pūjābhāga also contains certain lines technically called Brahmasūtra, without which the Liṅga becomes unfit for worship.
Comparable to the Vyūhas or emanations of Lord Viṣṇu, is the Pañcānana form of Lord Śiva. Pañcānana or the five-faced one, represents the five aspects of Śiva vis-a-vis the created universe. The five faces are respectively Īśāna, Tatpuruṣa, Aghora, Vāmadeva and Sadyojāta. The face Īśāna, turned towards the zenith, represents the highest aspect and is also called Sadāśiva. On the physical plane, it represents the power that rules over ether or sky and on the spiritual plane, it is the deity that grants Mokṣa or liberation. Tatpuruṣa facing east, stands for the power that rules over air and represents the forces of darkness and obscuration on the spiritual plane. Aghora, facing south and ruling over the element fire, stands for the power that absorbs and renovates the universe. Vāmadeva facing north, ruling over the element water, is responsible for preservation. Sadyojāta, facing west represents the power that creates.
Iconographically, these five aspects are shown in different ways.
There are several other aspects in which Lord Śiva is depicted or worshipped. They can be broadly divided into the following categories:
The peaceful form of Śiva as also the form showing mercy and grace belong to the first group. The forms showing grace or granting boons to Caṇḍeśa, Nandīśvara, Vighneśvara or Rāvaṇa belong to this category.
All terrific aspects can be classed under the second group. Kaṅkāla Bhairava represents Śiva who cut off the fifth head of Brahmā for having reviled him and who had to wander as a beggar for twelve years to get rid of that sin. Gajāsura-vadhamūrti represents him as killing the demon Nīla (an associate of Andhakāsura) who had assumed the form of an elephant. Tripurāntakamūrti depicts him as destroying by his arrow, the three cities of iron, silver and gold built on the earth, in air and in heaven by the three sons of Andhakāsura who had become almost invincible because of these three impregnable shelters. Śarabheśamūrti pictures Śiva as a Śarabha (an imaginary animal more ferocious than the lion) destroying the Narasiṁha form of Viṣṇu, a story obviously conceived by the Śaivites to assert the superiority of their Lord over Viṣṇu! Kālārimūrti portrays him as vanquishing Yama, the god of death, who wanted to take away the life of Mārkaṇḍeya, a great devotee of Śiva. Kāmāntakamūrti illustrates him as destroying Kāma, the god of lust, by the fire emitted through his third eye. Andhakāsuravadhamūrti shows him as vanquishing Andhakāsura and later on, on supplication, conferring on him the commandership of the gaṇas (dwarf attendants). Andhaka became Bhṛṅgīśa.
Lord Śiva is a great master of dance. All the 108 modes of dancing known to the treatises on dancing have come from him. It is said that he dances every evening in order to relieve the sufferings of creatures and entertain the gods who gather in Kailāsa in full strength. (Hence he is called Sabhāpati, the lord of the congregation.)
Only nine modes of dancing are described of which the Naṭarāja aspect is the most well-known. The Naṭarāja icon shows him with four hands and two legs, in the posture of dancing. There is the ḍamaru (drum) in the upper right hand and fire in the left. The lower right hand is in abhayamudrā (pose of protection) and the left is pointing towards the uplifted left foot. The left foot is resting on the demon Apasmārapuruṣa. The whole image may or may not be surrounded by a circle of blazing fire.
Śiva’s dance indicates a continuous process of creation, preservation and destruction. The ḍamaru represents the principle of śabda (sound) and hence ākāśa (ether), which proceeds immediately from the ātman and is responsible for further creation or evolution. Fire represents pralayāgni, the fire that destroys the world at the time of dissolution of the world, and hence symbolises the process of destruction. Thus ḍamaru and fire represent the continuous cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. The other two hands indicate that he who takes refuge at the feet of the Lord will have nothing to fear. The Apasmārapuruṣa (apasmāra = epilepsy) symbolises ignorance which makes us lose our balance and consciousness. He is trampled upon by the Lord for the good of the devotees who take refuge.
Several other dancing postures of Śiva like Ānanda-tāṇḍavamūrti, Umā-tāṇḍavamūrti, Tripura-tāṇḍavamūrti, and Ūrdhva-tāṇḍavamūrti are also mentioned in the āgamas.
Śiva is as great a master of yoga and spiritual sciences as he is of music, dancing and other arts. As a universal teacher he is called Dakṣiṇāmūrti. Since Śiva was seated facing south (dakṣiṇa = south) when he taught the sages in a secluded spot on the Himālayas, he is called Dakṣiṇāmūrti. He has three eyes and four arms and one of the legs is trampling upon the Apasmārapuruṣa. Two of the arms (the front right and the front left) are in jñānamudra and varadamudra poses (showing the imparting of knowledge and bestowing of gifts). The back hands hold the akṣamāla (rosary) and, either fire or serpent. He is the very model of the perfect Guru. He is surrounded by several ṛṣis eager to learn ātmavidyā (Self-knowledge) from him.
Śiva is said to have appeared as a blazing pillar of fire, of immeasurable size, to destroy the pride of Brahmā and Viṣṇu. Liṅgodhbavamūrti depicts him as manifesting in the heart of the liṅga. The image has four arms. Brahmā and Viṣṇu stand on either side adoring him.
The Bhikṣāṭanamūrti shows Śiva as a naked Bhairava begging his food in the skull cup. It is almost the same as the Kaṅkālamūrti.
The Haryardhamūrti, also called as Harihara and Śaṅkaranārāyaṇa, has Śiva on the right half and Viṣṇu on the left. A fusion of these two aspects into one god is an obvious attempt at a happy reconciliation of the warring cults of Śiva and Viṣṇu.
The Ardhanārīśvara (half man and half woman) form which Pārvatī as the left half represents the bipolar nature of the created world and hence the need to look upon woman as equal and complementary to man.
There can be no Śiva temple without Nandi, the recumbent bull placed in front of the shrine. Nandi or Nandikeśvara may be depicted exactly like Śiva—with three eyes and two hands holding the paraśu (battle axe) and mṛga (the antelope). But the other two hands are joined together in the añjali pose (obeisance). More commonly he is shown as a bull-faced human being or just as a bull.
The purāṇas describe him as born out of the right side of Viṣṇu resembling Śiva exactly and given as a son to the sage Sālaṅkāyana who had practised severe austerities. Other versions describe him as the son of the sage Śilāda who got him by the grace of Śiva.
Nandikeśvara, also known as Adhikāranandi, is the head of the gaṇas of Śiva and also his vāhana (carrier vehicle).
Symbolically, the bull represents the animal instincts, especially the sex, and Śiva’s riding on it reflects his absolute mastery over it.
Then comes Bhṛṅgi, the sage, who was singularly devoted to Lord Śiva, and was elevated to the retinue of Śiva’s abode. The sage was so fanatical in his devotion to Śiva that he did not care even for Pārvatī, his consort! When Pārvatī merged herself into the body of Śiva and Śiva thus became Ardhanārīśvara, Bhṛṅgi was still so bigoted that he became a Bhṛṅga (= bee) and bored through the centre of the Ardhanārīśvara form to complete his circumambulation! Hence the name Bhṛṅgi. Śiva, of course, made him realise his mistake.
Vīrabhadra is another deity associated with Śiva. He is the personification of Śiva’s anger manifested during Dakṣa’s sacrifice because of the contemptuous treatment meted out to him. Śiva is said to have created him out of a hair plucked out from his head. Vīrabhadra successfully destroyed Dakṣa’s sacrifice and humiliated all the gods who had assembled there. He is usually shown with three eyes and four arms holding bow, arrow, sword and mace. He wears a garland of skulls. The face is terrific. Bhadrakālī, his counterpart created by Pārvatī, is sometimes shown by his side. Śiva temples may have a small shrine dedicated to him, located usually in the south-east.
Next comes Caṇḍeśvara, a human devotee raised to the status of a deity by Lord Śiva because of his intense devotion. He is a fierce deity holding weapons of war and destruction like the bow, arrow, trident, chisel, noose and so on. Though independent shrines dedicated to him are not uncommon, he is usually installed in every Śiva temple in the north-eastern corner, facing south. Devotees believe that he can act as a messenger and mediator interceding with the Lord on behalf of the devotees. Hence supplication before him is a duty of every devotee visiting the Śiva temples.
Other attendants of Śiva are the gaṇas, also known as pramathagaṇas or bhūtagaṇas (demigods or malignant spirits). If they are not propitiated, they can do harm.