Shiva is one of the most prominent and revered figures. As one of the main gods of Hinduism, he is part of the Trimurti, the sacred trinity that also includes Brahma and Vishnu. This trinity represents the three fundamental forces that govern the universe: creation, preservation and destruction. Shiva, in particular, is known as the Destroyer, but his role goes beyond mere destruction, as he is also associated with renewal and transformation.
While some Hindu deities have a more specialized character, Shiva is an enigmatic and multifaceted figure. He is revered not only as a powerful deity, but also as a deeply wise and ascetic being. It´s important to note that, although it may seem contradictory, in Hinduism, destruction is seen not as a definitive end, but as part of a continuous cycle of regeneration and renewal.
In addition to his role in the Trimurti, Shiva is also part of a divine family. He is married to Parvati, the goddess of fertility, love and devotion. Together, they are considered an example of union and complementarity. Shiva and Parvati are the parents of two equally celebrated deities: Ganesha, the elephant god known as the remover of obstacles and patron of the arts and sciences; and Kartikeya, the god of war and commander of the armies of the gods.
Shiva and his family hold a special place in the hearts and minds of devotees, and are the focus of numerous festivals, rituals and worship practices. They are also recurring figures in literature, art and popular culture, and continue to play a central role in the spirituality and daily lives of millions of people in India and around the world.
Symbols and iconography of Shiva
The figure of Shiva is a veritable melting pot of symbolism. Each of them hides a deep spiritual lesson that can be of great help to reflect and inquire into aspects of ourselves and the world around us. Below we will briefly describe the most important symbols that usually accompany the figure of Shiva and what are some of their interpretations:
The Trishula is a three-pronged weapon that is associated with the Hindu deity Shiva. Also known as the trident of Shiva, the Trishula is an important symbol in Hinduism and has multiple meanings and representations.
In Hindu mythology, Shiva is considered the god of destruction and transformation, but is also worshipped as the supreme god and cosmic creator. The Trishula that Shiva carries in his hand represents his divine power and authority over the creation, preservation and destruction aspects of the universe.
The Trishula symbolizes the three main cosmic qualities or energies that Shiva personifies. These qualities are:
- Satva (goodness, truth and purity): Symbolizes Shiva’s ability to create and preserve the universe. It´s associated with creation and life.
- Rajas (passion, action and dynamism): Symbolizes the active and transforming energy of Shiva. It´s associated with the preservation and maintenance of cosmic balance.
- Tamas (ignorance, darkness and destruction): Symbolizes the destructive and transforming power of Shiva. It´s associated with destruction and death, but also with liberation from the cycle of existence.
The Trishula can also be interpreted as a representation of the three main deities of Hinduism: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver and Shiva is the destroyer. In this interpretation, the Trishula unifies these three deities and represents the totality of the cosmos.
In addition to its cosmic and mythological symbolism, the Trishula also has spiritual significance and is used as a symbol of protection and spiritual power in Hinduism. It´s believed that the Trishula can eliminate negative energies, purify the body and mind, and help achieve spiritual liberation.
Shiva’s third eye, also known as “the eye of wisdom,” is often depicted on Shiva’s forehead, in the middle and slightly above his two eyes.
Here is its symbolism and relationship to Shiva:
- Wisdom and Knowledge: the third eye represents wisdom and knowledge. It´s the eye that sees beyond the obvious, or the physical, and perceives the deep and ultimate truth. In this sense, it represents enlightenment and intuition, Shiva’s ability to see beyond the duality of the world and perceive the fundamental unity of existence.
- Destruction of ignorance: It´s said that when Shiva opens his third eye, ignorance and darkness are destroyed. It´s a symbol of the elimination of ignorance and illusion.
- Relationship to Meditation and Yoga: In the context of spiritual practice, the third eye is associated with the “ajna chakra” or the “third eye chakra” in the chakra system. The opening or activation of this chakra is said to lead to spiritual perception and intuition. As “Adiyogi” or the first yogi, Shiva is the master of this wisdom.
Snakes play a prominent role in Shiva iconography. Shiva is usually depicted with a snake coiled around his neck or as ornaments on his body. The snake can have several meanings:
- Control of the ego: The snake is a symbol of the ego and worldly desires. By wearing a snake around his neck, Shiva is said to have controlled his desires and ego. It also symbolizes Shiva’s ability to keep his emotions and thoughts under control.
- Cycle of creation and destruction: Snakes also symbolize the cycle of life, death and reincarnation due to their ability to shed their skin. This is in keeping with Shiva’s role as destroyer and regenerator in the cycle of creation and destruction.
- Immortality and healing: In many cultures, snakes are seen as symbols of immortality and healing. In the case of Shiva, the snake may symbolize his immortality and his ability to heal and renew.
- Kundalini Shakti: In the yogic tradition, the snake is also associated with Kundalini, the spiritual energy coiled at the base of the spine. Shiva is considered the“Lord of Yoga” and his connection with snakes may represent his dominion over this spiritual energy.
- Connection to Earth and fertility: Snakes are also associated with the Earth and fertility. As Shiva is a deity that is often worshiped for fertility and well-being, the snake may be a symbol of this.
Shiva is often depicted sitting or meditating on a tiger skin. There are various interpretations as to what this symbolizes.
- Control of instincts: The tiger is a fierce and powerful animal. Sitting on a tiger skin symbolizes that Shiva has mastered and controlled his animal side or instincts. In this sense, the tiger skin represents the desire and passion that Shiva has overcome.
- Austerity Indicator: In ancient India, ascetics and yogis often used animal skins as meditation mats. By sitting on a tiger skin, Shiva may be showing his austerity and his rejection of material luxuries.
- Strength and Power: The tiger is also a symbol of strength and power. By sitting on a tiger skin, Shiva may be demonstrating his own strength and power.
Jata refers to Shiva’s matted or braided hair. The symbolism of Jata in Shiva iconography is rich and significant, and is associated with various aspects of his divine character and power.
Shiva’s matted hair represents his asceticism and renunciation of the material world, his detachment from worldly pleasures and his dedication to spiritual life. Shiva is considered a supreme yogi, and his disheveled hair is a physical manifestation of his state of deep meditation and his connection to the divine.
According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges is actually a goddess, the goddess Ganga, who descended from heaven to Earth.
Legend has it that the Ganges was a heavenly river and that King Bhagiratha performed intense penance to bring the river to Earth to purify the souls of his ancestors. Shiva intervened to prevent the Ganges from flooding the Earth with its powerful and potentially destructive fall from the sky. Shiva captured the heavenly river in his hair and let it flow gently from there, dividing it into seven rivers.
Therefore, in images and sculptures of Shiva, he is often depicted with the Ganges flowing from his hair. The Ganges River is considered the holiest river in Hinduism and is known for its purifying powers. It´s believed that bathing in the Ganges can cleanse sins and help attain salvation.
The depiction of Shiva with the Ganges in his hair shows his power and his role as a savior. It also demonstrates his compassionate nature and his willingness to help humanity.
The drum, known as “damaru” in Sanskrit, is a percussion musical instrument used in various religious and cultural traditions of India. In the Hindu tradition, the damaru is closely associated with the god Shiva and is considered a sacred symbol in their iconography.
The damaru is depicted as a double-headed drum joined by a cord in the shape of a figure eight. The sound produced by the damaru is said to represent the primordial sound of the universe, which is considered the sound of the mantra“Om“. The sound of the damaru is associated with the divine rhythm of creation and destruction of the universe.
In addition, the damaru is considered a symbol of duality and balance. The two drum heads represent the masculine and feminine principles, and their union symbolizes the union of the opposite polarities in the universe. The eight-shaped cord represents the eternal flow of cosmic energy and the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth.
In depictions of Shiva, he is often shown holding the damaru in one of his hands while performing the cosmic dance. The damaru is considered a divine instrument that accompanies Shiva’s dance and symbolizes the creative and transformative power of the god.
Rudraksha is a sacred seed found in the Elaeocarpus ganitrus tree and is considered of great importance in Hinduism. This seed is closely associated with the symbolism of Shiva.
Shiva is portrayed wearing rudrakshas on his body, particularly on his neck, arms and wrists. Shiva is said to have blessed these seeds and uses them to protect and benefit his devotees.
The relationship between Rudraksha and Shiva dates back to ancient sacred texts such as the Shiva Purana and the Linga Purana. According to these scriptures, rudrakshas originated from the tears shed by Shiva after meditating for thousands of years for the welfare of mankind. These tears were transformed into divine seeds that were then dispersed throughout the world.
Rudrakshas are considered sacred objects and are widely used in meditation and spiritual practice in Hinduism. It´s believed that wearing rudrakshas close to the body has many benefits, such as protection against negative energies, balancing the chakras (energy centers), reducing stress and increasing concentration during meditation.
Rudraksha seeds have different “mukhis” or faces, ranging from one to twenty-one. Each type of Rudraksha is associated with one of the different forms or incarnations of Shiva.
Aspects and forms of God Shiva
Nataraja, or “Lord of Dance“, is an iconic representation of Shiva. He is immersed in a cosmic dance of destruction, recreation and balance that symbolizes the endless cycle of life and death.
The figure of Nataraja is one of the most recognizable in the Hindu pantheon. In it, Shiva is depicted dancing in a circle of flames, with one foot crushing a dwarf demon and the other raised in a sign of liberation. He has four arms: in one he holds a drum whose sound represents creation, in another a flame symbolizing destruction, the third arm in a gesture of blessing(abhayamudra) and the fourth points down towards the crushed demon, symbolizing ignorance.
Shiva ‘s dance is known as Tandava, a powerful dance that is said to cause the destruction of the universe so that it can be created anew. The figure of Shiva is in balance, symbolizing the duality of existence and the interdependence of creation and destruction.
The circle of fire surrounding Nataraja represents the entire universe and the constant cycle of life and death. The dwarf demon, called Apasmara, is the personification of ignorance, and when crushed by Shiva, symbolizes the victory of wisdom and truth over ignorance and illusion.
Nataraja is more than just a religious image. It´s a symbol of Hindu philosophy and cosmology, a reminder of the eternal cycles of life and death, and the need to overcome ignorance to achieve liberation. Shiva’s dance is a reminder of the impermanence of life and the need to live with awareness and purpose.
Ardhanarishvara is one of the most intriguing forms in the Hindu pantheon. This divine form is a combination of Shiva and Shakti, the masculine and feminine principle of the universe. The word ‘Ardhanarishvara‘ is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Ardha‘, meaning half, ‘Nari‘, meaning woman, and‘Ishvara‘, meaning lord. Therefore, ‘Ardhanarishvara’ translates as ‘the Lord who is half woman’.
The iconography of Ardhanarishvara is equally fascinating. This deity is usually depicted with a male half of the body, that of Shiva, and the other female half, that of Parvati or Shakti. The male half may have bluish skin, a snake around his neck, a crescent moon in his hair and the river Ganges flowing through his scalp. In his hand, he may have a trishul (trident) and a damaru (drum). The female half may have lighter skin, with jewelry and feminine clothing, and may carry a lotus or a mirror in her hand.
It symbolizes not only the merging of Shiva and Shakti, but also the essence of all creation. In Hindu philosophy, it´s believed that the universe was created from the union of Purusha (the male principle) and Prakriti (the female principle). Ardhanarishvara is an embodiment of this union, representing the balance and unification of opposing dualities.
Ardhanarishvara also has a deep spiritual significance. In the yoga tradition, Shiva and Shakti are said to reside within every human being as the male and female energies. The Shiva half of Ardhanarishvara represents pure consciousness, while the Shakti half represents creative and dynamic energy. The goal of yoga and meditation is to unite these two energies, achieving a state of inner balance and harmony.
The sacred texts of Hinduism also narrate several legends about the origin of Ardhanarishvara. One of the most popular is the one that tells how Brahma, the creator, asked Shiva to split in two, so that he could continue with the creation. Shiva then split into two halves, one male and one female.
It´s more than a mere symbol of androgyny or the union of the sexes. It represents the integration of the complementary aspects of reality, the masculine and the feminine, the static and the dynamic, the conscious and the energetic. It´s a reminder that all beings contain within themselves both the masculine and the feminine, and that harmony and balance between these two principles are essential to our existence and spiritual evolution.
Ardhanarishvara, in its many interpretations, serves as a potent reminder that all dualities and polarities are ultimately illusions. At the deepest level of reality, all things are intertwined and inseparable. This form of divinity represents non-duality, the merging of consciousness and matter, essence and form, masculine and feminine. The presence of both in equal measure within a single being indicates that ultimate reality transcends all dualities and distinctions.
It´s also a symbol of self-sufficiency. Shiva and Shakti, though two aspects of divinity, are dependent on each other. Without Shakti, Shiva is Shava (corpse), and without Shiva, Shakti has no place to reside. Thus, Ardhanarishvara symbolizes wholeness, completeness and perfection.
Dakshinamurti is an incarnation of the Hindu god Shiva, often regarded as the first teacher and the supreme symbol of wisdom and knowledge. The term “Dakshinamurti” is derived from Sanskrit and can be broken down into “Dakshina“, meaning “south“, and “Murti“, meaning “form” or “image“. Thus, Dakshinamurti is the “form that faces south,” an interpretation that is based on Hindu symbolism and mythology.
Dakshinamurti is worshipped as the master of all fields of human knowledge, including the arts, sciences and philosophy. As the god of wisdom, he is said to have taught the knowledge of the absolute (Brahman) to the ancient rishis (sages), as he sat under a Banyan tree, silent, but with a power that pervaded the universe.
He is usually depicted seated in the lotus or hero’s posture, a symbol of concentration and meditation. Dakshinamurti’s right hand often makes the gesture of “chinmudra“, symbolizing the union of individuality and universality. In his other hand, he usually holds a fire, symbolizing the destruction of ignorance.
This form of Shiva is particularly revered in Advaita Vedanta philosophy , which holds that supreme knowledge leads to union with the divine. Dakshinamurti, as the embodiment of supreme knowledge, is considered the guide to this union. Dakshinamurti’s silent teachings are seen as a way of transmitting the ultimate truth, which transcends words and conventional explanations.
In addition, Dakshinamurti is also depicted as a young man. This symbolizes the fact that wisdom and knowledge are not a product of age, but of inner realization. Thus, Dakshinamurti, even as a young man, is shown as a teacher of the ancient sages, suggesting that true knowledge and wisdom are accessible at any age.
Dakshinamurti is also worshipped as the god of yoga and meditation. He is credited with the invention of music and the arts, and is said to be the source of all language and communication. As such, he is the patron of scholars, musicians, artists and yogis.
Varanasi, the city of Shiva
Varanasi, also known as Varanasi, is one of the oldest cities in the world and the most sacred to Hindus. Its history and mythology are intrinsically intertwined with the figure of Shiva.
Located on the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, Varanasi is a crossroads of the mortal and the divine. It´s believed that Shiva founded the city more than 5,000 years ago, making it his earthly abode. According to Hindu mythology, Shiva is the destroyer and regenerator, the one who dissolves in order to create anew. And in the constant destruction and recreation of life, Varanasi is his perfect setting.
Shiva is omnipresent in Varanasi. His temples and shrines dot the city, but it´s in the ghats, the stone steps that descend to the Ganges River, where his presence is felt most intensely. Every day, thousands of devotees perform rituals and offerings in honor of Shiva, immersing themselves in the sacred waters of the Ganges to purify their souls and free themselves from the cycle of rebirth.
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of the most important in the city, is dedicated to Shiva. Here, Shiva is worshipped as Vishwanath, the lord of the universe. Devotees flock to this sacred place to pay homage and seek the god’s blessing. Inside the temple, Shiva’s lingam, his aniconic representation, is the object of constant worship.
Varanasi is also known as the “City of Light” or “The Splendid“, Kashi, in reference to the light of Shiva, which is believed to illuminate the path to spiritual liberation. This liberation, or moksha, is the final release from the cycle of rebirth and death, and is the ultimate goal of every Hindu practitioner.
The connection between Shiva and Varanasi goes beyond religion and into the sphere of culture and art. Indian classical dance, for example, has a deep link to Shiva. According to mythology, it was Shiva who created the dance, and in his form of Nataraja, the King of Dance, he is depicted performing the cosmic dance of destruction and creation. In Varanasi, this dance is often performed at festivals and performances, and is an integral part of the city’s cultural identity.
Death, a subject avoided in many cultures, is an essential part of daily life in Varanasi. Dying in Varanasi under the mantle of Shiva is considered to guarantee moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth and death. For this reason, many Hindus choose to spend their last days in this sacred city, awaiting death with a mixture of resignation and hope.
Nandi, vehicle and protector of Shiva
Nandi, also known as Nandikeshvara, is an important deity in Hindu mythology. He is primarily known as the vahana (vehicle) and guardian of Shiva. The relationship between Nandi and Shiva is unique and profound, full of devotion, loyalty and mutual respect.
Nandi is often depicted as a white bull, an animal that in India is a symbol of power, dignity and purity. In many Shiva temples, a statue of Nandi can be found at the entrance, facing the inner sanctum where the lingam, the aniconic representation of Shiva, is located. Nandi fulfills his role as protector, ever vigilant and ready to challenge anyone who wishes to disturb the peace of Lord Shiva.
The relationship between Shiva and Nandi is also one of master and disciple. According to Hindu mythology, it was Shiva who bestowed upon Nandi the knowledge of music and dance. In addition, Nandi is one of Shiva’s first students in the practice of yoga and meditation, which demonstrates the deep trust and close relationship between them.
In addition, Nandi is considered the chief of the ganas, the followers of Shiva. He assumes the responsibility of leading and guiding them according to Shiva’s wishes. His role as the leader of the ganas is also a testament to the great trust that Shiva places in him.
In many celebrations and rituals in honor of Shiva, Nandi plays an important role. During the festival of Maha Shivaratri, devotees offer their prayers to Nandi before worshipping Shiva, showing respect for his position as Shiva’s guardian and vahana.
The best known Shiva Mantras
Shiva has several sacred mantras associated with him. These mantras are recited as a form of worship and meditation, and are believed to have spiritual and transformative power. Here are some of the most important Shiva mantras along with their meaning:
Om Namah Shivaya
This is the most well-known and revered Shiva mantra.“Om Namah Shivaya” roughly translates as “Greetings to Shiva” or “I bow to Shiva“. This mantra is considered an invocation to the divinity of Shiva and is used to purify the mind and soul, and to elevate spiritual awareness.
Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra
This mantra is also known as the “Great mantra of victory over death“. It´s believed to bestow protection and health, and to help overcome obstacles and fear of death. It´s said to invoke the healing and rejuvenating energy of Shiva. The mantra is as follows:
Om Tryambakam Yajamahe
Mrityor Mukshiya Maamritat
Om Namo Bhagavate Rudraya
This mantra is used to invoke Shiva in his form of Rudra, the god of storm and benevolent destruction.“Om Namo Bhagavate Rudraya” means“Hail Lord Rudra.” This mantra is believed to help remove obstacles and free one from material bondages.
Shiva Gayatri Mantra
The Gayatri Mantra is a sacred mantra in Hinduism, and the Shiva Gayatri Mantra is dedicated to Shiva. This mantra is recited to invoke the wisdom, protection and power of Shiva. The mantra is as follows:
Om Tatpurushaya Vidmahe
Tanno Rudrah Prachodayat