Lord Shiva’s symbols: finding meaning beyond the obvious

Of all the deities in the Hindu pantheon, Mahadev is the most fascinating. His personality is probably the most complex and He can verily be considered an epitome of paradoxes. He is both attached and detached at the same time. He is a family man but also an ascetic or Yogi. He is calm and composed but also one who can get terribly angry. The imagery and artistic interpretations we find all around us makes it clear why Lord Shiva is the most intriguing of all deities. He may not be a charmer or one who indulges in Ras Leela like Sri Hari Vishnu yet His leelas are as unique and fascinating as the Lord Himself. His symbols are also as unique as Lord Shiv. We shall try to understand the symbols associated with Mahadev in this post.

Trishul: He carries the Trishul (trident) which is associated with the three states of consciousness and also the three Gunas namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. The Trishul signifies His control over the Gunas; the mastery of which is essential to transcend the physical world and Maya.

Damru: It is said that He played the Damru that gave birth to the Maheshwara Sutras in Sanskrit; thereby giving birth to language itself. The shape of the Damru can be associated with the ever expanding and collapsing universe. Om, the primordial sound, emerged from Shiva’s Damru. Sounds and vibrations are the basis of all existence. Though, Maheshwara is the destroyer, yet He plays a significant role in the existence of the universe as well.
Rudraksha: means Shiva’s teardrops. It is actually a seed and one that never dies. Rudraksha, therefore, also symbolises the eternal nature of the soul. It shows us that the soul is never dying and we must attempt to recognize our true nature i.e. our soul and oneness with the Parama Purusha.

Third Eye: This is located between the eyebrows and is associated with alertness, knowledge and wisdom. The Third eye chakra is known as the Ajna Chakra and opening up of this leads an individual to enlightenment. However, it is important to remember that this is not merely physical but actually refers to the eye of vision, one that is above the sensory organs. With our two eyes we can merely see what is in front of us but once our third eye is activated we can see beyond the illusory or Maya; much like Rishis and Maharishis did.

Sarpa: Maheshwara is also known as Pashupatinath because He is considered to be the Lord of all beings including animals, birds and reptiles. He has a Sarpa or snake around His neck. The Sarpa signifies alertness which essentially means that He is ever alert even if He is in a state of Samadhi. Some scholars also state that Sarpa, which contains poison, is shown around the neck which the location of Vishuddhi chakra. It means filtering out that which is poisonous and harmful to us be it thoughts, actions or impulses.

Jata: His matted hair signifies Vayu and in a subtle manner represents the breath or life force that makes existence possible.

Bhasma: He smears His body with ashes which is the end of this physical body. Bhasma shows us that we, as in the physical body, will merge with the Pancha Bhootas and hence we must never forget the temporary nature of this body. This will help a sadhaka to rise above Maya and move up the spiritual ladder.

Mahadev is equally at home in Smashan Bhoomi (Cremation grounds) and snow clad peaks of Himalayas. In more ways than one, He helps us to understand the illusory nature of this universe. He also teaches us that it is very much possible to lead the life of a Grihastha (householder) but not be overwhelmed by it.