Monday, February 20, 2012

The symbols of Shiva

Today is Mahashivaratri -- perhaps, the only festival that matters for people, who believe in the religion of Shiva. 

Ours is not a family of temple goers. But, we do make it a point to visit the local Shiva temple, once a year, on this holy occasion. And the one we visit, is not much into pomp and splendor. It is an old temple, surrounded by trees, and hidden away from development, in a little spot left untouched by the concrete jungle that our city has come to be.

On our way to the temple, we decided to pick up some flowers, and my wife insisted that we should get some Bilva (wood apple) leaves, considered very holy to Shaivites. As an old legend goes, a poor and hungry man was once lost in the woods, and found safety in the highest branch of a Bilva  tree. And there, through the night, he wept -- praying to the Lord.  His teardrops and the Bilva leaves fell on a Shivalinga under the tree, and the man achieved the blessings of Shiva. And so, many people say that water and Bilva leaves are all that you need to worship Shiva. And, make sure that you bring your devotion with you, when you visit the temple, for devotion is all that matters.

Since I have done this many times in the past, when I sifted through a bunch of bilva leaves, I looked for a trifoliate -- three leaves together, that are considered very holy. But today, for some reason, I also remembered the symbolism behind the trifoliate. Some people believe that the leaves represent the three functions of the universe: creation, preservation and destruction. Others believe that the leaves represent the three eyes of Shiva. The symbolism that I like, is related to the three gunas or tendencies of universal nature, which reside in all of us : rajas, sattva and tamas, fundamentally linked to the three functions of the universe. Shiva teaches us how to control them inside us, and understand that they need to exist in a balance, destined for us, much before we began to be.

And while I was thinking about it, I also remembered the many other symbols that are associated with Shiva. Most Hindu deities are shown with multiple heads and limbs, usually, wielding a variety of symbolic objects. I have rarely come across a depiction of Shiva that shows him with multiple heads and limbs. The most powerful deity of the Hindus, Mahadeva Shiva -- or the God of gods --  is usually depicted as a man. Of course, dressed as a wandering ascetic. And usually, in a meditative pose.

The symbols, one comes across, while looking at this ordinary Yogi, are quite extraordinary.

First, there are the three Bilva leaves, which any wandering ascetic can tuck into his hair. But a quick look at the other two things stuck in his hair -- and one wonders, why Shiva is called the God of gods. The Ganga,  a river that has sustained life and given birth to the modern Indian civilization, is shown flowing from the dreadlocks of Shiva. And so is the crescent moon, which represents the flow of time through its waxing and waning. Since Shiva is above space and time, one of the largest rivers that gives life, and a celestial object that keeps time, are shown as mere ornaments in his hair. 

Then, there is the blue throat, which represents all the evil that came out of the churning of the universe. Those participating, wanted the nectar. But with good, comes evil, and someone had to drink the poison to save the rest of us.

One of Shiva's symbols, which is particularly dear to me, is the garland of Rudraksh that he wears, representing purity. A Rudraksh is an intensely blue fruit, which, when dried is used as a rosary bead by many eastern religions. It is considered very dear to Shiva, since Rudra is another name for Shiva. A Rudraksh, has many faces, and I often think that it probably sums up the contradictions in Shiva, more than anything else.

And, if one has to complete the list, one cannot forget the trident, representing the gunas,  the drum, representing the creation of knowledge from its sounds, and the tiger skin, which represents control over our senses. Try looking at Shiva's freestanding trident by itself, specially, in places in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, if you concentrate on the trident long enough, you can almost see the Lord out of the corners of your eyes. It is as if, he is right there, standing next to you, admiring his own trident.

To me, what has always been fascinating about Shiva is the way he manifests himself amongst us, the ordinary. Shiva never shows up with a burst of light and a halo around his head, he never makes a public display of his powers. As if, he doesn't really need the attention -- he already has too much of it.

In fact, time and again, in multiple texts on Hinduism, Shiva appears as an ordinary man. Perhaps, a hunter stalking wild boar, and perhaps, as a mendicant asking for alms. In fact, the fearsome Sadhu you passed by today, with red eyes and the colorful dreadlocks, could well have been the Lord himself. And so,  I always think that Shiva has a very subtle message for all of us, about how we should conduct ourselves.

Perhaps, we should be more aware of the fact that when we come across a person, who seems ordinary to us, we should treat him or her with as much respect, as we would treat Shiva himself. If we knew beforehand, that we were blessed with his presence.

May the Lord shower you with his choicest blessings on Shivaratri. And perhaps, you can partake in the festivities by enjoying a glass of  the Lord's favorite drink. Trust me, it will make you laugh. 

Om Namah Shivayah! 


  1. very nicely written :)
    would b so nice if we all followed the message u left us at the end..

    har har mahadev!

  2. Nice thoughts, nice pics.

    Here, in S.India, there is this unique, fragrant flower called 'Nagalinga Pushpa', associated with Lord Shiva.

    Second time this month that I have come across similar interpretations of 'Har har Mahadev' as 'every one of us is a Mahadev' (first time, in the Shiva trilogy).

    1. Dear Soumya, I did not know about this flower, but I searched for it. It looks beautiful! Thanks for sharing.


  3. Good write - up ...