Researching a Metaphor – Shiva

By Dr. Ashish Varma

Hinduism is often labelled as a religion of 330 million gods. This misunderstanding arises when people fail to grasp the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. Hindus worship the nameless and formless Supreme Reality (Bramh) by various names and forms. These different aspects of one reality are symbolised by the many gods and goddesses of Hinduism. The Hindu Trinity also called Trimurti (meaning three forms), is the representation of the three manifestations of the Supreme Reality, as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma symbolises creation, Vishnu preservation and renewal, and Shiva dissolution or destruction necessary for recreation. It must be understood that the members of the Hindu Trinity are not three different and independent gods, but three aspects of one Supreme Reality called Bramh by the seers of the Upanishads.

In Hinduism, Shiva (or Siva) is one of the chief deities of Hinduism. His name means “Auspicious One.” Devotees of Shiva are called “Saivites.” Lord Shiva represents the complete cyclic process of generation, destruction, and regeneration of the Universe. The all embracing nature of Lord Shiva is reflected in his 1008 names including Sambhu (“Benignant”), Samkara (“Beneficent”), Pasupati (“Lord of Beasts”), Mahesa (“Great Lord”) and Mahadeva (“Great God”) Shiva represents the aspect of the Supreme Reality (Bramh of the Upanishads) which continuously recreates, in the cyclic process of creation, preservation, dissolution and recreation. He annihilates evil, bestows grace, destroys ignorance, and awakens wisdom in his devotees. In the most famous myth concerning Shiva, he saves humanity by holding in his throat the poison that churned up in the waters and threatened mankind. For this reason he is often depicted with a blue neck.

Shiva is known as the destroyer of evil and ignorance, not destroyer for the sake of destruction, but for the sake of regeneration; transformation, transmutation, for recreating, cleansing out and eliminating the debris, transforming into strength, power, force (Shiva tramples the dwarf of ignorance and destroys Muyalakan, demons).

OM NAMO SIVAYAH as mantra represents fearlessness and protection against evil, accident, and death. Its philosophy of involution and evolution of energy and spirit leaves its imprint in every material, physical, fibre, nerve, cell, atom, molecule, proton, photon – the power to transcend – from the individual to the collectivity. In the words of Lama Angarika Govinda “to the enlightened man (human) whose consciousness embraces the universe, to him (her) the universe becomes his/her body”.

Bansi Pandit (1) states that owing to his cosmic activity of dissolution and recreation, the words destroyer and destruction have been erroneously associated with Lord Shiva. This difficulty arises when people fail to grasp the true significance of his cosmic role. The creation sustains itself by a delicate balance between the opposing forces of good and evil. When this balance is disturbed and sustenance of life becomes impossible, 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. Thus, Lord Shiva protects the souls from pain and suffering that would be caused by a dysfunctional universe. Lord Shiva is the Lord of mercy and compassion. He protects devotees from evil forces such as lust, greed, and anger. He 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. Since the tasks of Lord Shiva are numerous, He cannot be symbolised in one form. For this reason the images of Shiva vary significantly in their symbolism.

  • The unclad body covered with ashes: the unclad body symbolises the transcendental aspect of the Lord. Since most things reduce to ashes when burned, ashes symbolise the physical universe. The ashes on the unclad body of the Lord signify that Shiva is the source of the entire universe which emanates from Him, but He transcends the physical phenomena and is not affected by it.
  • 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.
  • Ganga: Ganga (river Ganges) is associated with Hindu mythology and 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, and not as an integral part of His countenance. The waxing and waning phenomenon of the moon symbolises the time cycle through which creation evolves from the beginning to the end. Since the Lord is the Eternal Reality, He is beyond time. Thus, the crescent moon is only one of His ornaments, and not an integral part of Him.
  • 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 centre of the forehead symbolises 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.
  • Half-open eyes: when the Lord opens His eyes, a new cycle of creation emerges and when He closes them, the universe dissolves for creation of the next cycle. The half-open eyes convey the idea that creation is going through cyclic process, with no beginning and no end. Lord Shiva is the Master of Yoga, as He uses His yogic power to project the universe from himself. The half-open eyes also symbolise his yogic posture.
  • Kundalas (two ear rings): two Kundalas, Alakshya (meaning “which cannot be shown by any sign”) and Niranjan (meaning “which cannot be seen by mortal eyes”) in the ears of the Lord signify that he is beyond ordinary perception. 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 symbolise the yogic power of Lord Shiva with which he dissolves and recreates the universe. Like a yogi, a snake hoards nothing, carries nothing, builds nothing, lives on air alone for a long time, and lives in mountains and forests. The venom of a snake, therefore, symbolises the yogic power.
  • A snake (Vasuki Naga): is shown curled three times around the neck of the Lord and is looking towards His right side. The three coils of the snake symbolise the past, present and future – time in cycles. The Lord wearing the curled snake like an ornament signifies that creation proceeds in cycles and is time dependent, but the Lord Himself transcends time. The right side of the body symbolises the human activities based upon knowledge, reason and logic. The snake looking towards the right side of the Lord signifies that the Lord’s eternal laws of reason and justice preserve natural order in the universe.
  • 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. The necklace has 108 beads which symbolise the elements used in the creation of the world.
  • Varda Mudra: the Lord’s right hand is shown in a boon-bestowing and blessing pose. As stated earlier, Lord Shiva annihilates evil, bestows grace, destroys ignorance, and awakens wisdom in His devotees.
  • Trident (Trisula): a three-pronged trident shown adjacent to the Lord symbolises his three fundamental powers (shakti) of will (iccha), action (kriya) and knowledge (jnana). The trident also symbolises the Lord’s power to destroy evil and ignorance. Also represents the triple function of Shiva – creation, protection, destruction and regeneration related to the microcosm and macrocosm of the five elements of nature – air, water, fire, earth and space.
  • Damaru (drum): a small drum with two sides separated from each other by a thin neck-like structure symbolises the two utterly dissimilar states of existence, un-manifest 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 symbolises Nada, the cosmic sound of AUM, which can be heard during deep meditation. According to Hindu scriptures, Nada is the source of creation.
  • 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, symbolised by the nectar in the Kamandalu.
  • Nandi: the bull is associated with Shiva and is said to be His vehicle. The bull symbolises 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. The bull is called Vrisha in Sanskrit. Vrisha also means dharma (righteousness). Thus a bull shown next to Shiva also indicates that he is the etemal companion of righteousness.
  • Tiger skin: a tiger skin symbolises potential energy. Lord Shiva, sitting on or wearing a tiger skin, illustrates the idea that he is the source of the creative energy that remains in potential form during the dissolution state of the universe. Of his own Divine Will, the Lord activates the potential form of the creative energy to project the universe in endless cycles.
  • Cremation ground: Shiva sitting in the cremation ground signifies that He is the controller of death in the physical world. Since birth and death are cyclic, controlling one implies controlling the other. Thus, Lord Shiva is revered as the ultimate controller of birth and death.

Another well known name for Shiva is Yogiraja, i.e. the Lord of Yoga. As the image below shows, he is seated on a skin of a tiger, a number of cobras all around his neck, his long matted hair into a mop atop of his head, the crescent that he wears on the mop of his hair, the sacred river Ganga falling from his head and flowing by his side who was brought down from heavens by Bhagiratha, the trident (trishula), the symbol of his power, the sacred bull (Nandi), and the mendicant’s bowl. Besides, these symbols another very important physical characteristic of Shiva is his vertical third eye. In Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic, the legend of how Shiva got the third eye is given this way. One day his beautiful consort Parvati (daughter of the King of Himalayas), stealthily went behind Shiva and playfully placed her hands over

Yogiraja, the Lord of Yoga

his eyes. Suddenly darkness engulfed the whole world and all beings trembled in great fear as the lord of the universe had closed his eyes. Suddenly a massive tongue of flame leapt from the forehead of Shiva; a third eye appeared there and this gave light to the world.

One of the most popular representations of Shiva is as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance. This is the pose in which Shiva Nataraja has been immortalised in countless beautiful sculptures, especially in South India, each detail of this image is invested with meaning. This image, shown below, symbolises the divine activities of God.” Creation arises from the drum, (sound) protection proceeds from the hand of hope, from fire proceeds destruction, from the foot that is planted upon muyalahan (dwarf) proceeds the destruction of evil, the foot held aloft gives deliverance.” His serene

Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance

smile shows his uninvolved transcendence, the three eyes are interpreted as sun, moon, and fire, or as the three powers of Shiva: will, knowledge, and action. The garland of skulls around his neck identifies him as time, and the death of all beings.

The Significance of Shiva’s Dance:

This cosmic dance of Shiva is called ‘Anandatandava,’ meaning the Dance of Bliss, and symbolises the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, as well as the daily rhythm of birth and death. The dance is a pictorial allegory of the five principle manifestations of eternal energy — creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, and illusion.

According to Coomerswamy (5), the dance of Shiva also represents his five activities: ‘Shrishti’ (creation, evolution); ‘Sthiti’ (preservation, support); ‘Samhara’ (destruction, evolution); ‘Tirobhava’ (illusion); and ‘Anugraha’ (release, emancipation, grace).

The overall temper of the image is paradoxical, uniting the inner tranquility, and outside activity of Shiva.

The image of the Hindu divinity Shiva dancing within a giant ring of fire is among the most beloved and awe-inspiring symbols of the Hindu conception of the nature of the cosmos. Indeed, at the heart of this powerful sacred image, we find a symbolic distillation of the essence of Hindu spiritual consciousness. In the introduction to his massive text on contemporary Hinduism, entitled Dancing with Siva, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami observes that “the Cosmic Dance describes the Hindu view of existence,” and that for Hindus “Dancing with Siva is everything we do, everything we think and say and feel, from our seeming birth to our so-called death. It is God and man forever engaged in sacred movement”. Shiva’s Dance also serves as a compelling and powerful metaphor for the energy at the heart of the process of spiritual transformation.

Each element composing the Nataraja has particular significance:

  • The form is encircled in flames representing consciousness and the manifest universe; the endless cycle of birth and death. The fiery ring, prahabhamandala, represents the universe with all its illusion, suffering and pain.
  • Shiva is shown with four arms, symbolising the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west), where each hand reflects a distinctive gesture or mudra.
  • The upper right hand holds a amaru—a small, hourglass-shaped drum—symbolising sound originating creation and marking the passage of time. The amaru is also thought to represent the male-female vital principle.
  • The upper left hand holds a flame (agni), which signifies destruction, the dissolution of form. The opposing concepts in the upper hands show the counterbalance of creation and destruction, or the fire of life.
  • The lower right hand shows the abhaya mudra (“fearlessness” in Sanskrit), asserting one to be without fear. The blessing is believed to bestow protection from both evil and ignorance to those who follow the righteousness of dharma.
  • The lower left hand points towards the left foot, which is elegantly raised, signifying upliftment and liberation. The same arm is held across the chest in the gahahasta (elephant trunk) pose, thought to lead the way through the jungle of ignorance.
  • Snakes that stand for egotism uncoil from his arms, legs and hair. Shiva’s unkempt hair—long, matted tresses, a symbol of a rejection of society—shows him to be an ascetic.
  • The cobra around Nataraja’s waist is kundalini shakti, or the divine force thought to reside within everything.
  • On his head is a skull, symbolising Shiva’s conquest over death, and the goddess Ganga also sits on his hairdo. His third eye is symbolic of omniscience, insight and enlightenment.
  • The dwarf on which Nataraja dances is Apasmarapurusha, a soul temporarily Earth-bound by sloth, confusion and forgetfulness. Shiva’s right leg, representing obscuring grace, symbolises his victory over ignorance. The uplifted left leg, by contrast, is revealing grace, which releases the mature soul from bondage.
  • The entire form rests on a lotus pedestal, the symbol of the creative forces of the universe, and the overall temper is paradoxical in nature: inner tranquility countered by vigorous outside activity. Shiva’s stoic face represents his neutrality, thus being in balance.

A Scientific Metaphor:

Fritzof Capra in his article “The Dance of Shiva: The Hindu View of Matter in the Light of Modern Physics,” and later in the The Tao of Physics beautifully relates Nataraj’s dance with modern physics. He says that “every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction…without end…For the modern physicists, then Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomena.”

The Nataraj Statue at CERN, Geneva:

In 2004, a 2m statue of the dancing Shiva was unveiled at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva. A special plaque next to the Shiva statue explains the significance of the metaphor of Shiva’s cosmic dance with quotations from Capra: “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.”
As a plaque alongside the statue explains, the belief is that Lord Shiva danced the Universe into existence, motivates it, and will eventually extinguish it.

The late astrophysicist, Carl Sagan (1934-1996) in his book, Cosmos, asserts that the Dance of Nataraja (Tandava) signifies the cycle of evolution and destruction of the cosmic universe (Big Bang Theory). “It is the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.” Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but also the very essence of inorganic matter. For modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter. Hundreds of years ago, Indian artist created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes.

He further says: “The most elegant and sublime of these is a representation of the creation of the universe at the beginning of each cosmic cycle, a motif known as the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva. The god, called in this manifestation Nataraja, the Dance King. In the upper right hand is a drum whose sound is the sound of creation. In the upper left hand is a tongue of flame, a reminder that the universe, now newly created, with billions of years from now will be utterly destroyed.”

Carl Sagan drew the metaphor between the cosmic dance of the Nataraj and the modern study of the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles.

Shiva’s counterparts or divine consorts are known as Shakti, Parvati, Bhavani, Uma, Maheshevari, et al. represent the unity of the male and female divine principle and the union and oneness of the being and psyche, as also the two hemispheres of the brain, intuition and intellect and their synthesis in higher knowledge and wisdom. Shiva wearing the garland of skulls and necklace of snakes, ashes on his forehead and body, represent detachment. It symbolises overcoming of fear – including fear of death and attachments of worldly existence, falsehoods, obsessions, delusions, and conquering desires – and transforming sexual energy to creative expressions, not fearing desires but able to work with them.

In India, in ancient times, temples were built mostly for Shiva, no one else. It was only in the last 1000 or so years that other temples were built. The word “Shiva” literally means “that which is not.” So the temple was built for “that which is not.” “That which is” is physical manifestation; “that which is not” is that which is beyond the physical.

Shiva is transcendent and at the same time the Self of each individual. In southern India to worship Shiva one must first purify the body with water before entering the sacred space. The gods and goddesses, demons and demonesses of India are innumerable. The myths about them are even greater in number. Shiva is outside this polytheistic background. His worship enables his worshiper to explore their innermost nature and understand the wisdom of ancient history. Carl Gustav Jung might have called Shiva a unique image of the Eurasian collective unconscious.

Shiva is a power capable of shaking lives by sending intuitions, subconscious images from depths beneath our rational consciousness. Shiva is an archetype that works on many levels.

In summary, as can be seen from the preceding information, Shiva is not simply a destroyer for the sake of destruction, but for the sake of regeneration; transformation, transmutation, for recreating, cleansing out and eliminating the debris and transforming into strength, power and force.



Dr. Ashish Varma
December 7th, 2015