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Shiva and Philosophy of Symbols

by Ravindra Ravi

People believe that our ancestors came into the Peninsula from the north, across the mountain-passes of the Himalayas and that the present religion of the people has grown since they crossed the mountains. In the beginning they had no images, there were no temples. People would gather to perform firescarifies in open spaces, because space has no limit, no boundary, no frontier. The fire was made of wood. Priests recited chants and were paid for it. If we recapitulate the past, we realize that the Hindus have always believed that if a man wanted to be religious, he must devote his whole life to it. A good man may manage a home and a family and business. But to become religious, the Hindu would send a man into the forest ! It was expected that there in the jungle, he would live in a cave or under trees. He would eat wild roots and fruit. You see the idea was that a great part of religion consists in quietening the mind and living alone in solitude, without any extra needs, which would be of great help in the quest. An aspirant's hair would grow longer. It would grow thick and unkempt. It could be coiled up on the top of the head. He may bathe also, but he cannot spare time from meditation to make it beautiful. These men are usually seen in great numbers in some forest, or beside a sacred river. You might have understood what the religious men of early Aryan times looked like.

Fire sacrifices, with crowds of people worshipping around it had been performed. Amid chanting of Mantaras, offerings were made into it, one or two forest saints mingling with the people to join in the devotion. Only white wood-ashes remain back. People go home, the place looks deserted. A hermit comes forward and takes up a handful of ash and rubs it all over his body. If we see one of these hermits from a distance, we would notice first his whiteness. If they rub themselves all over with ashes, they can become white. Thus the apartheid based on colours would automatically disappear. That complete holiness and this whitenes--, would always go together. Now you can imagine, the Himalayas and the snow-clad mountains, which are as white a snow. In India, we take the river Ganga as our mother and the Sun, as the kind and loving God Vishnu. Even hills and plants have distinct characteristics. The Aryans, who loved India, talked about fire-worship. The Himalayan snow peaks became the central object of their love. A great monk, clothed in ashes, lost in meditation, silent and alone, like these snowy heights, is adored as the Shiva-Shanker Bhagwan.

At this thought, the Hindu mind began to work out all sorts of symbols. The mountain, the ash-clothed hermit, the snow - all contributed to the complete picture of Shiva. Shiva possesses a bull on which he rides. As the moon shines above mountains, so he bears on His forehead the new moon. Fresh water, a few grains of rice and two or three green bel-leaves are the whole offering in the daily worship of Shiva. To show how easily Shiva can be pleased, there is a telling story.

Arjuna, one of the principal heroes of the great Mahabharata war, had gone up to the mountains to spend three months in worshipping Shiva and invoking His blessings. Suddenly, one day, as he was praying before the lingam and offering flowers, the sound of horns rang. The next moment the snow-King and Queen rode into view at the head of their retinue and came sweeping down the ravine in pursuit of a poor panting boar that ran upto Arjuna for protection. The hero, roused from his worship, showed the boar a way of escape and stood up to meet the challenge of the King. The next moment the whole hunt had come to a stop before him. "The quarry was mine!" cried the King and his voice sounded like winter blasts amongst the mountains. "How dare you touch it ?" At this address, Arjuna blazed with anger and picking up the bow and arrows he had thrown aside be fore commencing the worship, challenged the King to dismount and fight. "Accepted" said the snow-king and the combat began. But to the hereo's dismay, it seemed to him that he was attacking some terrible phantom, for one after another his good stout arrows disappeared into the person of the king, doing him no harm.

"Let us wrestle then !" Shouted Arjuna. And casting aside his bow, he flung himself upon his foe. He was met by the quiet touch of a hand on his heart and fell to the ground stunned. "Well, come on!" said the King, as Arjuna recovered himself a minute later and turned aside from the contest. But he seemed almost intoxicated. "I must finish my worship first", he said in a thick voice, taking up a garland of flowers to fling round the Shiva Lingama. The next moment the eyes of Arjuna were opened, for the Snow-King towered above him, blessing him. And the flowers were round his neck. "Mahadev ! Mahadev cried the aspirant flinging himself on the ground to touch with his head the feet of Lord Shiva. But already the hunt had swept on, down the valley and the Snow-King had disappeared. This was a story told about Shiva, who is so deeply loved by His devotees.

Lord Shiva represents the destructive aspect of Brahman. He is the all-pervading Ishwara. With Parvati. He becomes the Saguna Brahman for the purpose of pious devotion of his devotees. Lord Shiva is the Lord of ascetics and the Lord of yogins. He is robed in space, Digambara. His Trisul, Trident, that is held in His right hand, represents the three Gunas, Sat-Raj-Tam. That is the emblem of sovereignty. The Damaru in His left hand represents the Shabda Brahman. It represents OM from which all languages orginate. It is He who formed the Sanskrit language out of the Damaru beats. The crescent Moon indicates that He has controlled the mind perfectly. The flow of the Ganges, represents the nectar of immortality. The elephant represents, symbolically, Pride Siva's wearing the skin of an elephant denotes that He has controlled pride. The tiger represents lust ; Shiva's sitting on, a tiger-skin indicates that. He has conquered lust. His wearing of serpents denotes wisdom and eternity. He is Trilochana, the three-eyed one, in the centre of Whose forehead is the third fire, the eye of wisdom.

The serpent is the Jiva or the individual soul which rests upon Shiva, the Paramatma or the supreme soul. The five hoods mean the five senses or the five Tattvas viz., earth, water, fire, air and ether. The five hoods or the five serpents represent the five Pranas, which hiss in the body like the serpent. The inhalation and exhalation are like the hissing of the serpent. The individual soul enjoys the worldly objects through these Tattvas. When the individual attains knowledge through control of these senses and mind, he finds his eternal resting abode in Lord Shiva, the supreme soul. This is the esoteric significance of Lord Shiva's wearing the snake on His body. Lord Shiva wears serpents as omaments on His body. This indicates that Lord Shiva is absolutely fearless and immortal. Generally serpents live for hundreds of years. Thus wearing of serpents by Lord Shiva signifies that He is eternal.

"Namah Sivaya" is the Mantra of Lord Shiva. Na represents earth and Brahma ; Ma represents water and Vishnu ; Si fire and rudra ; va represents vayu and Maheshwara ; ya Akasa and Sadasiva. Lord Shiva has white complexion. This signifies that people should have pure hearts. Lord Shiva has three white lines of Bhasma on His forehead. This unfolds that a man should destroy the three impurities viz ego, expectation of fruits and illusion and three desires. Nandi or the bull represents the attendant of Lord Shiva.

He is the vehicle of Lord Shiva. He represents satsang. There is a famous saying, "If you have association with sages you are sure to attain Godrealisation. Sages will guide you. They will remove the snares that lie on your path. There is no other safe boat than satsang to take one to the other shore, of fearlessness and immortality, Lord Shiva represents the destructive aspect of the Godhead. He is seen absorbed in meditation on the mountain peak of the Kailash. He is an embodiment of serenity, renunciation and indifference to the world. The deer represents the Vedas, its four legs are the four Vedas, Lord Shiva is holding the deer in His hand. This indicates that he is Lord of the Vedas. He has a sword in one of His hands. This signifies that He is the destroyer of births and deaths. The fire in one of His hands shows that He protects the Jivas by burning all that binds.

Shiva Linga is also a symbol. The literal meaning of the word Linga is "visible sign of something invisible". This Shiva Linga is of an ellipsoid shape. Linga denotes something, which has neither any beginning nor an end. It is unlimited and never-ending. The Shiv Linga is the symbol of Shiva in the act of creation. Here is a hyman on the greatness of Shiva There is no God better than Shiva, there is no hymn better than the hymn on the greatness of Shiva, there is no sacred word better than the name of Shiva.

OM SHANTI SHANTI SHANTI

[Courtesy KOSHUR SAMACHAR. Son of the Late Sarvanand Premi, the author is a noted writer, living in Delhi]
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