Symbolism has found its way since the start of the Vedic following. As one of the holy trinity, Shiva has many symbols that are associated with him. Whenever we find these elements, we immediately think of the Lord himself. Here are the symbols of Lord Shiva:
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Body smeared with ashes
This symbol has higher meaning than just the element itself. It represents how Shiva is in its transcendental aspect in nature and that his presence is higher than material presence. The ash is not a normal one, but instead the ash from a cemetery. It corresponds to the Hindu philosophy of life and death, that the death is the ultimate reality of life. Everything, in the end, is converted into ashes, and since Shiva is the God of destruction, the ash represents that everything, in the end, can be reduced to destroyed and that the lord goes beyond the circle of life and death.
Matted Hair / Jata
The symbol of matted hair is that Shiva is the Lord of Wind or Vayu, that every moment, all living beings breathe him. It represents Shiva as the Pashupatinath, the Lord of All Living Beings.
In Hindu dharma, Ganga is the most sacred river. Legend has it that the river has the source in Shiva and that flows from the matted hair of Shiva. Symbolically, it is represented by the jet of water smothering out of the head of Shiva and falling on the ground. The legend also has it that Shiva himself allowed that water to flow to humans through an outlet in the river to traverse the earth. The water is thus considered to be pure and has purifying nature. This is also how Shiva has got his name Gangadhara, which means “Bearer of the river Ganga”. Sanatana Dharma refers to the river as having the capacity of bringing fertility, and that Lord Shiva is not just a god of destruction, but also a conveyor of purity and peace.
The Third Eye
In Hindu dharma, Shiva is also referred to as “Traymbaka Deva”, which means “three-eyed Lord”. He is also depicted having three eyes in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. His right eye is said to be the sun, the left eye is said to be the moon, and the third eye is said to be the fire. The two left and right eye is considered to be the one looking into the physical world, while the third eye is considered to be looking beyond the obvious, and it represents the spiritual knowledge. The center eye is also known as the eye of wisdom or knowledge. The power extends beyond too: it can search any evil around the universe and destroy it instantly. This is why the devils fear the third eye.
Half Open Eyes
If you have noticed, these eyes are not completely open. The half-open nature of the eyes conveys that the cycle of the universe is still in process. When he opens his eyes completely, then a new cycle of creation begins, and when he closes them, then the universe is destroyed until the next phase of creation. The half-eyes show that creation is an eternal cyclic process that has no end or beginning.
The Snake Around the Neck
The snake coils three rounds on the neck of Shiva, and that represents time in its most accurate form: the past, the present and the future, and the coiling signifies the cyclic nature of it. And him wearing the snake shows that Shiva is immune to the wrath of time and death. They also represent dormant energy known as Kundalini Shakti that resides within him.
The snake turns in the same direction as the Lord, and that shows that the laws of Shiva is the law of reason and justice that preserves the natural order.
Shiva has three lines of ashes drawn on his forehead. This is the Vibhuti and it shows the immortality of the Lord and praises the glory of Lord Shiva.
The tiger in Hindu dharma represents the vehicle of Shakti, the Goddess of power and force. Shiva wearing the tiger skin represents his power and that he is the master of Shakti that goes beyond any other force. Tiger also represents lust, and Shiva sitting on it shows that he has conquered lust. Moreover, the tiger is also a symbol of energy, and in this case, it represents Shiva as the source of relative energy that flows throughout the universe, and that Shiva activates the energy with his own Divine will to project the universe in endless cycles.
The Rudraksha Necklace
Shiva wears a Rudraksha necklace with 108 beads that are made from his own tears. Beads mean the elements of the world, and him wearing the necklace means that Rudraksha is firm about the rules of the universe and that even he follows the cosmic laws.
Damaru, the Drum
Damaru is a small hourglass-shaped drum. Shiva plays it with one hand in “damaru=hasta” gesture. When played, it produces the cosmic sound of AUM known as Nada. In Sanatana Dharma, Nada is the source of creation. One can find this symbol mostly in the famous Nataraja representation of Shiva.
There are three prongs in the spear of Shiva, and they represent three of the fundamental power of Shiva: will (icchya), action (kriya) and jnana (knowledge). This represents that he can destroy evil and ignorance. It also represents that the evil doers are punished by the Lord in three planes: spiritual, subtle and physical.
Kamandalu is another accessory of Shiva. It’s a water pot made from dry pumpkin and it contains Amrit. It represents the Yogi side of the Lord, but it has a deeper meaning. Just like how the rice pumpkin is plucked from the plant, with its fruit removed and the shell cleaned to carry the pure amrit, an individual must give up the material world and remove the self of egoism, and only then he can find the purely spiritual form.
They refer to the two earrings: Alakshya which means that cannot be shown by any sign, and Niranjan, which cannot be seen by mortal eyes. The meaning of these refers to the imperceptible nature of Shiva. The left one is worn by women and the right one is used by men. The Kundalas thus represent the dual nature of Shiva and Shakti, male and female, the principle of creation.
Mount Kailash is abode to Lord Shiva, and according to the Hindu dharma, the mountain is said to be the center of the universe. It means that Shiva is Kailash, the bestower of peace.
Nandi, the Bull
Nandi is the vehicle of Shiva, and it symbolizes both power and ignorance. Bull is called “vrisha” in Sanskrit, and it means “righteousness”. Nandi with Shiva, thus, symbolizes Shiva as a companion of righteousness.