Lord Shiva represents the aspect of the Supreme Being that continuously dissolves to recreate in the cyclic process of creation, preservation, dissolution and recreation of the universe. Lord Shiva is the Lord of mercy and compassion. He protects devotees from evil forces such as lust, greed, and anger. He grants boons, bestows grace and awakens wisdom in His devotees. The symbolism discussed below includes major symbols that are common to all pictures and images of Shiva venerated by Hindus.

  • Matted locks: Lord Shiva is the Master of yoga. The three matted locks on the head of the Lord convey the idea that integration of the physical, mental and spiritual energies is the ideal of yoga. The flow of his matted hair also represents Shiva as the Lord of Wind or Vayu, who is the subtle form of breathe present in all living beings.
  • Ganga: Ganga is the most sacred river of Hindus. According to tradition, one who bathes in Ganga (revered as Mother Ganga) in accordance with traditional rites and ceremonies on religious occasions in combination with certain astrological events, is freed from sin and attains knowledge, purity and peace. Ganga, symbolically represented on the head of the Lord by a female (Mother Ganga) with a jet of water emanating from her mouth and falling on the ground, signifies that the Lord destroys sin, removes ignorance, and bestows knowledge, purity and peace on the devotees.
  • The crescent moon: is shown on the side of the Lord’s head as an ornament. The waxing and waning phenomenon of the moon symbolizes the time cycle through which creation evolves from the beginning to the end. Since the Lord is the Eternal Reality, He is beyond time.
  • Three eyes: Lord Shiva, also called Tryambaka Deva (literally, “three-eyed Lord”), is depicted as having three eyes: the sun is His right eye, the moon the left eye and fire the third eye. The two eyes on the right and left indicate His activity in the physical world. The third eye in the center of the forehead symbolizes spiritual knowledge and power, and is thus called the eye of wisdom or knowledge. Like fire, the powerful gaze of Shiva’s third eye annihilates evil, and thus the evil-doers fear His third eye.
  • Kundalas (two ear rings): Since the kundala in the left ear of the Lord is of the type used by women and the one in His right ear is of the type used by men, these Kundalas also symbolize the Shiva and Shakti (male and female) principle of creation.
  • Snake around the neck: sages have used snakes to symbolize the yogic power of Lord Shiva. Snake also represents a thousand thoughts that pass through our minds all the time. A mind that is controlled can be worn as an ornament around the neck.
  • Rudraksha necklace: Rudra is another name of Shiva. Rudra also means “strict or uncompromising” and aksha means “eye.” Rudraksha necklace worn by the Lord illustrates that He uses His cosmic laws firmly – without compromise – to maintain law and order in the universe. To lead a peaceful and successful life, we all must follow all the rules, cosmic, social and professional and also help others to do the same.
  • Trident (Trisula): a three-pronged trident shown adjacent to the Lord symbolizes His three fundamental powers (shakti) of will (iccha), action (kriya) and knowledge (jnana). The trident also symbolizes the Lord’s power to destroy evil and ignorance. It also represents the three Gunas—Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.
  • Damaru (drum): a small drum with two sides separated from each other by a thin neck-like structure symbolizes the two utterly dissimilar states of existence, unmanifest and manifest. When a damaru is vibrated, it produces dissimilar sounds which are fused together by resonance to create one sound. The sound thus produced symbolizes Nada, the cosmic sound of AUM, which can be heard during deep meditation. According to Hindu scriptures, Nada is the source of creation. Exactly similar to the conch, panchajanya of Vishnu.
  • Kamandalu: a water pot (Kamandalu) made from a dry pumpkin contains nectar and is shown on the ground next to Shiva. The process of making Kamandalu has deep spiritual significance. A ripe pumpkin is plucked from a plant, its fruit is removed and the shell is cleaned for containing the nectar. In the same way, an individual must break away from attachment to the physical world and clean his inner self of egoistic desires in order to experience the bliss of the Self, symbolized by the nectar in the Kamandalu.
  • Nandi: the bull is associated with Shiva and is said to be His vehicle. The bull symbolizes both power and ignorance. Lord Shiva’s use of the bull as a vehicle conveys the idea that He removes ignorance and bestows power of wisdom on His devotees. Have you seen villains in hindi movies, they are generally shown as physically strong persons with lack of intelligence or thinking power. They are the bulls, if under control will do whatever the master wants, or else it can destroy you also.
  • Tiger skin: He is often shown seated upon a tiger skin, an honour reserved for the most accomplished of Hindu ascetics, the Brahmarishis. Tiger represents lust. His sitting on the tiger’s skin indicates that He has conquered lust.
  •  Generally in the corporate world most of us are worried about the timelines. Quarterly and yearly performance targets. Our job is to put in maximum efforts with due diligence and commitment and leave the rest to GOD as hard work never goes without rewards. Be master of the time.
  •  Like Vishnu’s Sudarshana the third eye is not something that kills people but kills the ignorance in people. Knowledge is the only reliable source for one’s success and we must constantly strive hard to acquire more than adequate knowledge in our sphere of activities.
  •  If a person is not successful in his job, it could either be due to his capability or willingness. Ability is derived from knowledge and skills, that is jnana shakti and kriya shakti. Generally we can impart trainings to individuals who lack knowledge or skills. However if he lacks willingness to perform, that is ichha shakti, no knowledge is adequate to be successful.

Lord Shiva dissolves the universe for creation of the next cycle so that the un-liberated souls will have another opportunity to liberate themselves from bondage with the physical world. As generally understood, Shiva is not the destroyer, but does creative destruction. The old have to be destroyed to create the new, whether in the physical world or in the mind. If you want to be successful in the new organization, you have to learn the culture, systems and procedures and products of the new company. If you continue to sell the products of the previous company and practice the same behavior, you may not survive here for a long time.

You will also see many similarities between Vishnu and Shiva from the symbols that are associated with them.

  • Like Vishnu’s conch, the Damaru produces “nada brahmam”, is the origin of everything. Hence Shiva is also the creator. Ganga and Kamandalu with water are also symbols for life and purity.
  • Trishul, like the Gada of Vishnu, shows the supreme authority and will be used as and when needed to punish people to bring them in the correct path.
  • The third eye of Shiva, when open does not kill people, but destroys their ignorance.
  •  Lord Shiva is the perfect Yogi, generally shown meditating and in perfect control of his mind and never too conscious of his body and appearance. A lesson that we must try to practice in our life all the time.

Shiva is the God of Death and that is why devotees chant the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra to overcome fear of death and to restore health and happiness in life. Let us also evaluate the symbols of death that one can observe in Lord Shiva.

Generally the causes of death are the following – Disease, drowning, fire, accident or death by a weapon and breathing problems.

  • Shiva has many snakes adorning his body and represents disease. (Kindly look at the symbol of India medical association, two intertwined snakes)
  • Ganga flows from the head of the lord and represents water and death by drowning.
  • Shiva’s third eye represents Fire.
  • Trishul is of course the weapon with which one can die.
  • And finally the “Jata” represents vayu and represents death by breathing problems. 

In order to overcome the fear of death and restore good health and happiness one should recite the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra which is considered extremely powerful and significant by the Hindus.

Om tryambakam yajamahe sugandhim pushti – vardhanam,

urva – rukamiva bandhanan mrityor – muksheeya ma – amritat |

Also known as the Moksha Mantra of Lord Shiva, chanting of Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra is said to create divine vibrations that heals. This mantra restores health and happiness and brings calmness in the face of death. When courage or determination is blocked, it rises up to overcome obstacles. It awakens a healing force that reaches deep into the body and mind.

2 replies
  1. Anil
    Anil says:

    Superb explanations. Even though I am seeing pictures of Vishnu and Shiva for 40+ years, I get a feeling, I know only 0.000001% of these Gods. I never thought of understanding the significance of these. The meanings you have given to each and every aspect is simply amazing. Probably it would have taken another 100 years, if I try to understand on my own.

    In terms of iccha shakti, there is this old saying, where there is a will, there is a way. I was reading an interesting book in which the author says, he or she who has a ‘why’ to work can bear with almost any ‘how’ as well.

    Thank you for your thought provoking article. Please keep writing such articles.

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