Shiva meaning ‘the Good’ is the third member of the triad. He is also named as MAHESHA or MAHADEVA (the Greatest God). He is much more many-sided and multi-colorful than many of the other gods including Vishnu.

Shiva is represented in various ways but the distinctive characteristics of this god are: His seat, which is invariably either the skin of a tiger or a panther, A number of cobras all around his neck and shoulders, His long matted hair tied into a mop atop his head, The crescent that he wears on the mop of his head, The sacred river Ganga falling upon his head and flowing by his side, The trident (trishula), the symbol of his power, The sacred bull and The mendicant’s bowl.

Besides these symbols another very important physical characteristic of Shiva is his VERTICAL EYE – the third eye. In the Mahabharata, the Great Hindu epic, the legend of how Shiva got the third eye is narrated this way. One day his beautiful consort Parvati, daughter of the King of Mountains, stealthily went behind Shiva and playfully placed her hands over 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 had appeared there and this gave light to the world.

In “SRI SHIVA TATTVA” this eye is described as: “the frontal eye, the eye of fire, it is the eye of higher perception. It looks mainly inward but whenever directed outward, it burns all that appears before it. It is from a glance of the third eye that KAMA, the lord of love, was burnt to ashes and that the gods and all created beings are destroyed at each of the periodical destructions of the universe”. Having three eyes, Shiva is also called TRI-NETRA, TRI-AMBAKA, TRI-AKSHA or TRI-NAYANA.

About the different symbols surrounding Lord Shiva, the scriptures gives various explanations.

The Tiger Skin:
The tiger is the vehicle of SHAKTI, the goddess of all power and force. Shiva is beyond and above any kind of force. He is its master and carries the skin of the tiger as the victor of every force. An interesting legend in Purana narrates that once Shiva wandered in the forests in the form of a bare-bodied mendicant and the wives of the sages were enchanted by him. The jealous sages in anger tried to over-power him by digging a pit. When Shiva passed by the pit, a tiger was made to rush out of it. Shiva slew the tiger and taking its skin, wore it as a garment.

Cobras around neck:
Shiva is beyond the power of death though he is surrounded and encircled by death. This aspect is also emphasized by his name NEELKANTHA, the god who alone can drink the deadly poison to free the world from its effects. Now these cobras around his neck also represent the basic dormant energy, which in cobra-like manner is coiled at the base of the spinal cord. It is called KUNDALINI, the serpent power.

Crescent on hair-mop:
He bears on his head as a diadem the crescent of the fifth day moon. Placed near the fiery third eye this shows the power of Soma, the sacrificial offering, which is the representative of Moon. It means that Shiva possesses the power of procreation co-existent with that of destruction.

Matted Hair:
The flowing Jata of Shiva’s matted hair represents him as the lord of wind, Vayu, who is the subtle form of the breath all round.

Sacred Ganga:
The holiest of the holy rivers, namely Ganga, flowing from the crown of Shiva’s head represents the causal waters, from which the earth arises. It also represents the essential instrument of ritual purification. Holding the Ganges on his head, Shiva allowed the outlet to the great holy river so as to traverse the earth and bring purifying water to the human beings.

The Trident:
Trishula of Shiva is the symbol of the three functions of the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer. This also represents the instrument of punishment to the evildoer on all the three planes, viz. spiritual, subtle and physical.

In popular representations Shiva stands majestically in the center of the universe, adorned with all his symbols of crescent, cobras, prayer beads, trident and matted hair. Very often a female figurehead adorns his head; she is goddess Ganga who was brought from heavens by Bhagiratha and as earth could not bear Ganga’s impact, Shiva took her on his own head. At other times Shiva is shown as riding on his bull, called Nandi, covered with ashes all over his body, his eyes inflamed with intoxicating herbs and with a drum and a horn in his two hands. Here the ashes on the body symbolize him as a YOGI, who has burnt all his evil desires and rubbed himself with the ashes of the ritual fire.

Shiva’s bull, NANDI (the joyful) is white as snow with a huge body and soft brown eyes. Its hump resembles the top of a snow-covered mountain. Bull represents lust or the sexual impulse and Shiva is the master of lust fully controlling it by riding on its back.

Another well-known name of Shiva is RUDRA. In the, Vedas Rudra is called by many names and has many attributes. He is the roaring god, the terrible god, the god of storms, and the god of tempest. On the one hand if angry he can bring disaster to man and his wealth of cattle but if pleased he can be kind and beneficent. In YAJURVEDA, Rudra is also called ‘ Mahadeva’, a name specifically applied today only to Shiva.

According to Vishnu Purana this god Rudra is said to have sprung from the forehead of Brahma and to have separated himself into male and female. This legend is the forerunner of Shiva’s another manifestation, called ARDHANARISHWARA, where he is half-male and half-female, combining energies of both the sexes. There Rudra is also given seven other names by Brahma: BHAVA, SARVA, ISHAN, PASHUPATI, BHIMA, UGRA and MAHADEVA. These names are all being given to Shiva. Finally Rudra of the Vedas ceased to have any separate identity and became completely merged into Shiva.

Shiva represents the complete cyclic process of generation, destruction and regeneration.The all embracing nature of this god is reflected in the 1008 names given to him in the scriptures and in the mind of numerous Hindus he is recognized as being essentially no different from the Vedic notion of the multiple forms of a single divine power.

Shiva is also called by the well-known name of NATARAJA, the lord of the cosmic dance. Numerous images of Shiva in his dancing pose are available throughout India and this image of Shiva is also the most popular one amongst the foreigners. The small drum of Lord Shiva is the symbol of rhythm and sound. In fact rhythm is there in the whole movement of the universe and sound is the medium, musical and divine, that comes from the word of Supreme Deity, and carries revelations and the truth. Sound with atmospheric either also represents the primeval outburst of creation.

Shiva’s name SHANKARA means the Giver of Joy, and other name SHAMBHU means the Abode of Joy. As MAHESHWARA he is the Divine Lord, the source of knowledge. In Maheshwara are coordinated the three energies from which knowledge flows, the power of understanding (JNANA), the will (ICCHA) and action (KRIYA). Shiva is MAHAKAL, the Lord of Death but much more correctly the Lord of Time. Before anything could come to exist, time has to be present. In fact time is the first condition for the existence of the world. It is prior to space.

The image of ARDHANARISHWARA, half-male and half-female, represents Lord Shiva as the union of substance and energy, the life principle and Shakti.

Shiva’s another well-known name is Yogi Raja, i.e., the Lord of Yoga. He is himself represented as the perfect or the greatest ascetic. He is the last word in austerity, penance and meditation. This method of Yoga is different from rituals and therefore in some earlier Hindu scriptures, Shiva is accused of teaching the secrets of higher truths to those who are low born or who are not properly qualified for ritual practices. To Lord Shiva is attributed revealing to mankind the method and technique of Yoga, which in these days is very popular in the West.

This god in many images is shown to have five faces looking towards East, West, North and South while the fifth one is shown looking upward. The five aspects represented by these five faces are:

  • The face looking upward is called ISHANA (the Ruler), and is copper-colored. He is the embodiment of all forms of learning and represents the enjoyer of nature, (Kshetrajan).
  • The eastern face of Shiva is called TAT-PURUSHA (the Supreme Man) and is yellow-colored. It represents all nature connected with earth, the sense of smell and the anus as the organ of action.
  • The western face of Shiva is red and is called YAMA DEVA (the Left- hand Deity); it represents Ego (Ahamkara) and corresponds to the element fire. It is connected with the sense of sight.
  • The southern face of Shiva is blue or sometimes blue-black, it is called AGHORA BHAIRAV (the Non-fearful or the Frightful), it represents Intellect (Buddhi) and Eternal Laws (Dharma). It is connected with the sense of hearing and the organ of speech.
  • The northern face of Shiva is called SADYOJAT (the suddenly born) and is white in color. It represents the mind and corresponds to sacrificial elixir (Soma).

He wandered over the earth aimlessly, carrying the corpse of his consort on his shoulders. To bring Shiva to his normal state and to cure him of this obsession Vishnu used his Sudarshan Chakra and cut up Sati’s body scattering her limbs at various spots. The places where the limbs fell became sacred spots and are known as SHAKTIPITHAS. Shiva in the form of a Bhairav guards each of these spots. Bhairav is seen either in the company of a dog or riding a dog. Bhairav is invoked in rites designed to destroy enemies.

Another most popular image of Shiva has no human form but is represented by LINGA (the Phallus Figure). It is made of black or white stone, depicted sometime as ’rounded both at top and bottom to show that it does not stand’ or ‘arise from’ anywhere in our space or time, and in some cases an egg-shaped stone tapering at top recalling either the ‘COSMIC EGG’, from which the world emerge or the ‘Bright Flame of Light’; hence it is called JYOTIR LINGA too. Thus, whether depicted as the generative symbol or the fountain-source of light, this Linga represents the Lord of the Universe.

It may also be noted that sex symbolism is for long associated with fanning and the implements connected with it. This fertility aspect of the Linga belongs to the period of Epics and Puranas. As the symbol of transcendental energy and power Linga is the central conception of Shiva philosophy. Shiva is represented in temples in beautifully sculptured forms as well as the symbolic Linga form. The Lingaayat sect follower’s initiation ceremony corresponding to the sacred thread ceremony of most of the Hindus is performed by replacing, YAJNOPAVITA (sacred thread) with a necklace of small Lingas. In south India male devotees of Shiva also wear a formalized miniature Linga, attached to a necklace and concealed under the clothing.

In fact western scholars have overdone the phallus aspect though Linga’s first meaning is that of a ‘sign’, ‘mark’ or ‘symbol’. Shiva-Purana, the source book of Shiva’s divinity, itself defines Linga as the distinctive sign through which it is possible to recognize the nature of the object. Thus Linga, the phallus, giver of life is the important shape under which the nature of the shapeless can be represented. Again Shiva-Purana in another hymn says: “It is not the Linga itself which is worshipped but the owner of the Linga, the Progenitor, the Supreme Creator (Purushottama), the Linga leads to Shiva, whose symbol it is.” The Shiva-Linga is represented erect and is divided into three parts. The lowest part is below the pedestal, and is called Brahma part. The middle or the second part is on the pedestal and is womb-shaped: it is called the Vishnu part. The third part is cylindrical and rises above the pedestal; this is the Rudra-Shiva part.

Shiva-Ratri, i.e., Shiva’s Night is the famous festival in honor of Lord Shiva. It is held on the fourteenth night of the dark half moon in the month of Magh (January -February). Throughout the night Shiva’s image is covered by showers of green leaves. This custom is based on a legend that narrates how a hunter after his game in a thick forest lost the way and decided to spend the night under a tree. He could not sleep properly due to cold and feeling uneasy kept on changing postures. With his movements the leaves kept on falling below, where a Shiva-Linga stood at the foot of the tree. Lord was so pleased with him that he bestowed upon him good fortunes. Hence the custom of holding this night-festival named Shiva-Ratri.