In the Hindu trinity of Gods, Shiva is the destroyer and renewer. Known as the Finger of God, this powerful being represents the Will which determines the rhythm of the worlds.
Thousands of years before scientists discovered the similarity in structure of the atomic nucleus of solar systems, the Hindus asserted that the same rhythm must be found at all stages of creation and in all domains. For a moment consider rhythm and density, as rhythm acts first and foremost on density (matter), and plays a role in Hindu thought comparable to that which we associate with weight and shape.
One of the forms of Shiva is Nataraja, the Lord of the Cosmic Dance. He stands in his flaming circle of fire with the upper right hand holding a little drum-shaped hourglass, the rhythm of which is the world ~ creating the beat of time, which draws a veil across the face of eternity. His extended left hand holds the flame of spiritual light that burns this veil, revealing the void of eternity.
Nataraja's second right hand is in fear-dispelling posture, and the second left hand is pointing to the raised left foot. That hand is called the Elephant Hand and signifies teaching, for where the elephant has gone through the jungle, all animals can follow. Likewise wherever a teacher leads the way, disciples may follow.
The raised left foot signifies release, while the right foot stomps on the back of Tripurasura, demon of the three lower worlds ~ the mental, astral and physical planes. Tripurasura is the dwarf of ignorance, who drives souls into the vortex of rebirth. Shiva gazes in fascination at the poisonous world serpent, representing humanitys psychological attraction into the realm of bondage into unending birth, suffering and death.
The gods head is poised, serene and still in the midst of all creation and destruction. His right earring is said to be a mans and his left is a womans, for he includes and transcends opposites. In his streaming hair is found a skull, the crescent moon, the datura flower, and a tiny image of the goddess Ganges.
In former times the Ganges, which now waters the three worlds, washed only the sky. One day the earth had become so cluttered with the ashes of the dead that there seemed no possible way to cleanse it. The sage Bhagiratha thought of bringing the purifying Ganges down to earth, for its mere proximity was enough to wash away all uncleanness.
But the sacred river was so large that its descent entailed the risk of shaking and destroying the earth, just as the sudden descent of willful divine light on a person insufficiently prepared can destroy their physical body. Shiva invited the Ganges to fall upon his head, and from there the river, meandering through the gods hair, divided into seven torrents (the seven rays), then flowed on slowly and smoothly over the surface of the terrestrial world.
There is an esoteric and close analogy between the purifying Ganges, which circulates in the universe like the blood in our bodies, and Shiva, who like the heart, is motionless in rhythm, invoking and directing life-giving and purifying energy in the universe and in humanity. The real place of purification for the disciple is the heart; it is in the heart that the personality and the fruits of action are consumed, and all that is left is the Divine Spark, the Will of God: ATMA.
The posture of the dancing Shiva, Nataraja, suggests the shape of the sign OM, in the head, hands and raised foot. The appearance of this god resounds the wonder of existence ~ the seed sound, the energy sound, and the essence of all being.
Symbology of Shiva
Here is a key explaining what the different symbols in Lord Shiva's portrayals depict.
Cremation ground Shiva sitting in the cremation ground signifies that he is the controller of death in the physical world.
Matted locks The three matted locks on Lord Shiva's head convey the idea that integration of the physical, mental and spiritual aspects is the ideal of yoga.
Tiger skin The tiger skin symbolizes potential energy.
Crescent moon The crescent moon is only one of Shiva's ornaments. In Vedic astrology, the moon is the mother of planets. Shiva, for creation of the universe, lends importance to the mother aspect, this is shown by the moon.
The moon also is a measure of time, and thus the crescent on Lord Shiva's head signifies his control over time. Lord Shiva is the Eternal Reality and he is beyond time. Thus, the crescent moon is only one of His ornaments, and not an integral part of him.
Three eyes Lord Shiva, also called Tryambaka Deva, is depicted as having three eyes: the sun is his right eye, the moon the left eye and fire, the third eye.
Nandi The bull is associated with Shiva and said to be his vehicle.
Kundalas Two Kundalas ~ Alakshya and Niranjan ~ in the ears of the Lord symbolize the Shiva and Shakti (male and female) or Ardha-Nariswara principle of creation.
Kamandalu A water pot ~ Kamandalu ~ made from a dry pumpkin contains nectar and is shown on the ground next to Shiva signifies that an individual must break away from attachment to the physical world and clean his inner self of egoistic desires in order to experience the bliss of the Self.
Snake ~ Vasuki Naga The snake is shown curled three times around the neck of the Lord and is looking towards his right side. The three coils of the snake symbolize the past, present and future ~ time in cycles.
Rudraksha necklace Rudra is another name of Shiva. The Rudraksha necklace worn by the Lord illustrates that he uses the cosmic laws firmly, without compromise, to maintain law and order in the universe.
Ganga Ganga, symbolically represented on the head of the Lord by a female (Mother Ganga), with a jet of water emanating from her mouth and falling on the ground, signifies that the Lord destroys sin, removes ignorance, and bestows knowledge, purity and peace on the devotees.
Snake around the neck The snakes symbolize the yogic power of Lord Shiva with which he dissolves and recreates the universe.
Varda Mudra Lord Shiva's right hand is shown in a boon-bestowing and blessing pose, which annihilates evil, bestows grace, destroys ignorance, and awakens wisdom in his devotees.
Trident (Trisula) The three-pronged trident shown adjacent to the Lord symbolizes his three fundamental powers (shakti) ~ of will (iccha), action (kriya) and knowledge (jnana).
Damaru (drum) Damaru symbolizes the two utterly dissimilar states of existence ~ unmanifest and manifest.
Half-open eyes When Lord Shiva opens his eyes a new cycle of creation emerges, and when he closes them the universe dissolves for creation of the next cycle. The half-open eyes convey the idea that creation is going through this cyclic process, with no beginning no end.