It is beyond the scope of humans to understand, much less explain, Shiva. He is known by several names such as Rudra, Mahadev, Nataraja etc. He is not just the destroyer but also the transformer. From Him everything emerges, by Him everything is sustained and in Him everything merges in the end. To put a form to Him or describe him is practically impossible. Yet, the human mind has tried to perceive Him as much as their limited intellect would permit.
Shiva means ‘the auspicious one’. Shiva is not just beyond time and form but He is beyond gender as well. When we say Shiva we refer to His masculine form, Siva is feminine and Shivam is neuter gender. Thus, He transcends all boundaries. He is the cause and reason for the existence of the universe itself. There are three states in which Shiva exists- Nirgun, Sagun and Nirgun-Sagun. As Nirgun, meaning formless, He is present as the energy that exists all around us. In His Sagun state Shiva is present in every being on this universe, both living as well as non-living. His Nirgun-Sagun form is represented as the Shiva Linga.
There are several symbols associated with Mahadev. Let us take a glance at them.
1) Shiva images: Pictorially Shiva is shown with His throat in blue and sometimes His entire body is painted in blue. Blue is the colour of the sky as well. Sky represents something which has been and continues to be eternal. It has no birth, death and limits. It is everywhere and in every direction. The sky appears blue because blue molecules from the sun are scattered more than the other colours. It is the last colour that we see. Similarly, Shiva is the last that our eyes perceive.
2) Bhasma: Bhasma means holy ashes. It reminds us of the fickleness of life and also how we will merge with it at the end of our lives. It is a constant reminder that at the end of everything we with merge with the ‘Pancha Bhootas’. Death doesn’t discriminate and the ashes of every being is the same; irrespective of caste, creed, gender etc. The world is merely an illusion and the Bhasma points out at what is Maya and what is reality through its symbolism.
3) Trishul: Mahadev is Mahakaal. Kaal means time and He is timeless. He existed before time, continues to exist now and will do so in the future. He has transcended time itself. He is a slayer of time and his Trishul depicts how He is beyond the past, present and future.
4) Tripundra: Shiva and Shiva bhakts always sport the Tripundra. The three striped on Mahadev’s forehead is referred to as Tripundra and is representative of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas Gunas. Sattva is harmonious & balanced,Tamas is self-centred & egoistic and it is lazy & destructive. Every being is a mix of these three Gunas.
5) Damru: Along with the Trishul, Shiva holds a Damru in one of His hands. It is a musical instrument which is associated with the Pranava Mantra or the primordial sound Om. It is from this sound that the universe is said to have emerged. Besides this, it was from this very sound that grammar, basis of any language and music emerged. When Shiva plays his Damru, as a creator, His Damru vibrates 14 times giving birth to the 14 basic formulae on which Sanskrit grammar is based and organised. Om is the sound one hears while the person is in deep meditation or the state of samadhi.
6) The third eye: Shiva is called Trinetra because He possesses a third eye. This eye stands for rising above desires and being equanimous. When one opens the third eye or pineal gland, through meditation, it is believed that the person can perceive and see beyond time and space. It takes an individual to a higher level of consciousness and Shiva is the highest level of consciousness. Pineal gland is also associated with the sleep inducing hormone melatoninand serotonin, the chemical which is connected with happiness and well being.
7) Rudraksha: One of Shiva’s symbols Rudraksha is a combination of the words Rudra (another name of Shiva) and Aksha (eye). Thus, Rudraksha means ‘eye of Shiva’. One who wears Rudraksha is believed to be able to balance their chakras and energies. It is said to be Shiva’s tears and is not just used as prayer beads but also helps to cure health issues such as stress, anxiety, blood pressure, palpitations etc.
8) Crescent moon (Ardha Chandra): Both scientifically and philosophically the half crescent moon on Shiva’s forehead is related to time and the Lord’s control over it. In earlier times, days and months were calculated on the basis of waxing and waning of the moon. Besides that moon controls the tides and one having control over the moon signifies that He controls nature as well. Thus, Shiva is the controller of both time and nature. He has transcended time and is eternal.
9) Vasuki the snake: Lord Shiva is depicted with a snake, known as Vasuki, around His neck. For Shiva all his devotees are the same and he treats them with equality. It also indicates that all things, good and bad, arise from Him and merge with Him in the end.
10) Tiger skin and Yogic posture: Mahadev is shown seated cross legged on a mat of tiger skin (Baghambar Chaal). It shows that a devotee can find his true form through yoga and meditation. By sitting on a tiger skin, Shiva points out that by seeking refuge in Him devotees can overcome all fear.
11) Ganga: The life giving river flows down from the locks of Shiva. It symbolises eternal flow of mental energies and knowledge which is the source of highest bliss.
Everything associated with Shiva is auspicious and transcends the boundaries of time, space and nature. They encourage us to look beyond the physical plane into the spiritual one. By seeking refuge at His feet we will not only be able to conquer our fears but also reach a higher level of consciousness.