Lord Shiva, one of the most complex gods of India, embodies seemingly contradictory qualities – He is the destroyer and the restorer; the great ascetic as well as the symbol of sensuality; the benevolent herdsman of souls and also the wrathful avenger. Images of Lord Shiva have various symbols representing the powers and qualities of the deity.
The matted hair represents Lord Shiva's connection with the wind and Brahma's "breath of life". Lord Shiva is also the master of yoga, and the three matted locks on His head signify the ideal of yoga that involves the integration of the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of life.
Unclad Body and Ash
The unclad body symbolizes the transcendental aspect of Lord Shiva. It is also believed in Hinduism that ultimately all creation is destroyed by fire and becomes ash, only to be renewed again in a new cycle. The ash smeared on Lord Shiva's body signifies that He transcends physical phenomena and is not affected by it.
Lord Shiva is also known as Tryambaka Deva, which literally means 'three-eyed Lord,' and is often depicted as having three eyes. His right and left eyes are the sun and moon respectively, while His third eye is the eye of wisdom. As His right and left eyes represent His activities in the physical world, the third eye in the middle of His forehead symbolizes spiritual wisdom and power, seeing beyond the apparent and also destroying evil and evil-doers.
Ganga, or the river Ganges, is the most sacred river in India and represents the causal waters from which the earth arises. The holy water of the Ganges also signifies the essential element of ritual purification. By holding the Ganges in his matted hair, Lord Shiva allowed the holy river to traverse the earth and bring its purifying water to humans.
Often depicted on Lord Shiva's head is a crescent moon, representing the cyclical nature of the universe. The waxing and waning of the moon symbolizes the cycle through which creation evolves. Furthermore, since Lord Shiva is the Eternal Reality, He is beyond time and the cycle of creation.
Lord Shiva is often shown with a snake curled three times around His neck. The three coils of the snake represent the cycle of time – the past, present and future. The snake around Lord Shiva's neck symbolizes his transcendence over the cycles of creation and time.
The three-pronged trident known as the Trishul shown with Lord Shiva symbolizes His three fundamental powers, or shakti, of iccha, kriya, and jnana (will, action and knowledge). The trident also represents Lord Shiva's power to destroy evil and ignorance.
Lord Shiva is shown sitting on or wearing a tiger skin. The tiger is the vehicle of Shakti, the Goddess of power and force, and since Lord Shiva is the master of Shakti, He is beyond and above any kind of force. The tiger skin that Lord Shiva wears symbolizes His victory over every force. The tiger also represent lust, and Lord Shiva indicates, by sitting on the tiger skin, that he has conquered lust.