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From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Śiva literally means 'the auspicious one’.

Significance of Śiva[edit]

Śiva is the last deity of the 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. 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.
  • Though Śiva is described as responsible for destruction, he is equally responsible for it's 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.
  • 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.

Aspects of Śiva[edit]

Though Śiva is often called as 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-Aryan god, ‘more ancient’ than the Vedic Rudra. Though the ‘Aryan conquerors’ despised and derided the Śaivas and their Śiva,[1] as the two races had to live together, rapprochement and consequent cultural reconciliation became inevitable.

Portraiture of Śiva[edit]

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 worshiped 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 triśula[2] and ḍamaru[3] while the other two are in the abhaya[4] and varada[5] mudrās.[6]

He has a crown of long matted hair from which flows the river Gañgā. He also wears the crescent moon as a diadem. A tiger-skin and an elephant-skin adorns his body as his garments. There are serpents all over his body forming the necklace, the girdle, the yajñopavīta[7] as also arm-bracelets. There is also a garland of skulls around his blue neck.

Personnel of Śiva[edit]

Man, being what he is, cannot help superimposing his own states on his gods too! Therefore it is natural for him to conceive of Śiva as a man with family. Pārvatī is his consort. Gaṇeśa and Kumāra[8] are his sons. Then there is the large retinue forming a veritable zoo as it were. Nandi, his vehicle bull, Bhṛñgi the ṛsi with three legs and three arms, the mouse of Gaṇeśa, the peacock of Kumāra and also a host of ghosts, goblins and imps constantly capering around him form his large retinue.

Famous Stories about Lord Śiva[edit]

Though he has his headquarters in the icy mountains, the Himalayas, 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 summarize first the various stories about Śiva recounted in our mythological literature:

  1. Once Pārvatī, in a playful mood, closed his two eyes, and lo! the entire world was plunged into darkness. To save the worlds from this predicament, Śiva willed a third eye in between his eyebrows, sending forth light, fire and heat. Later on, he opened this third eye which is normally kept closed out of infinite mercy for humanity to burn up Kāmadeva, the lord of lust.
  2. When the celestial river Gaṅgā, which was descending from the heaven to this earth, fell ferociously on Śiva’s head out of pride, he just got her locked up there. Only after much prayer and supplication by Bhagīratha[9] and due apologies by Gaṅgā, did he allow her to stream out.
  3. When the Kṣīrasamudra, the ocean of milk, was being churned, one of the objects to rise was the cool crescent moon. Śiva seized it and made it his diadem. When the deadly poison Hālāhala also rose and started destroying the worlds with its leaping tongues of fire, Śiva gathered it on to his palm and drank it, thus saving the worlds. Pārvatī, getting alarmed about the safety of her spouse, pressed his throat so that the poison could not go down into the stomach. It thus remained in his throat, lending its blue color permanently to it.
  4. Being angered by Śiva whose extraordinary beauty had attracted their wives, the Rṣis of Dārukavana tried to kill him through sorcerous rituals. Out of the sacrificial fire rose a tiger, a deer and a red-hot iron. Śiva killed the tiger and wore its skin, caught hold of the deer with his left hand which has remained there ever since and made the iron one of this weapons.
  5. Other stories relate to his destroying the sacrifice of Dakṣa, his cutting off of one of the five heads of Brahmā for having spoken disrespectfully, his destroying the three cities built by the demon Tripurāsura, his killing the elephant demon Gajāsura and wearing his hide, his having granted to Arjuna as a boon the weapon Pāśupatāstra, his having become Ardhanārīśvara to dispel the ignorance of his devotee Bhṛṅgi, his appearing as a pillar of fire to teach a lesson to Brahmā and Viṣṇu, his vanquishing Yama, the god of death, to save his votary Mārkaṇḍeya and so on.

Symbology of Śiva[edit]

An attempt can now be made to unravel this mysterious symbology of the Śiva-picture. It can be symbolized as belows:

  • Śiva is snow-white in color, which matches wonderfully with that of his abode, the Himalayas.
  • 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[10] is pictured as white, whereas Viṣṇu who represents Sattva[11] 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, then the whole sky including the powerful wind blowing in it forms his hair. That is why he is called Vyomakeśa.[12]
  • 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. 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 the animal impulses.
  • The garland of skulls[13] 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 appearances and disappearances 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.
  • The venomous cobras which symbolize 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.

Iconographic Representation of Śiva[edit]

Iconographically Śiva may have two, three, four, eight, ten or even thirty-two hands. Some of the various objects shown in these hands are:

  1. Triśula - trident
  2. Cakra - discus
  3. Paraśu - battle axe
  4. Damaru - drum
  5. Akṣamālā - rosary
  6. Mṛga - deer
  7. Pāśa - noose
  8. Daṇḍa - staff
  9. Pināka or ajagava - bow
  10. Khatvāṇga - magic wand
  11. Pāśupata - spear
  12. Padma - lotus
  13. Kapāla - skull-cup
  14. Darpaṇa - mirror
  15. Khaḍga - sword
  16. Etc.

Symbolization of Various Hand Objects[edit]

It is rather difficult to find a meaning for each of these items. However an attempt will be made to explain some of them.

  • The triśula being an important weapon of offence and defense 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 proceeds the cosmic processes.
  • It is said that while dancing the tāṇḍavanṛtya, Śiva sounded his ḍamaru fourteen times, thereby producing sounds like a-i-uṇ, r-lṛ-k and so on, which are now known as the Māheśvara-sutras, 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[14] or language itself. In other words it stands for all the words spoken or written or otherwise 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.
  • The akṣamālā shows that he is the master of spiritual sciences.
  • The khaṭvāṅga shows that he is an adept in occult sciences too.
  • The kapāla with which he drinks blood, is another symbol that points to his all-destroying power.
  • The darpaṇa indicates that the entire creation is just a reflection of his cosmic form.


The icon of Śiva is never worshiped as the mulamurti.[15] It is always worshiped as an utsavamurti.[16]


  1. It is apparently because of some of their mysterious rituals and practices.
  2. Triśula means trident.
  3. Ḍamaru means drum.
  4. Abhaya means protection-giving.
  5. Varada means boon-giving.
  6. Mudrās means poses.
  7. Yajñopavīta means sacred thread.
  8. Kumāra is also known as Skanda or Subrahmaṇya.
  9. Bhagīratha was responsible for bringing the celestial river down to this earth.
  10. Tamas means the force of darkness and destruction.
  11. Sattva means the force of light and enlightenment.
  12. Vyomakeśa means the one who has the sky or space as his hair.
  13. Skulls means muṇḍamālā.
  14. Grammar means the science of language.
  15. Mulamurti means original, installed in the sanctum sanctorum.
  16. Utsavamurti means the icon used during festivals for taking out in a procession.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore

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