Shiva is the symbol of Maha Yogi. In the Nath Parampara, the first Guru or Teacher, is supposed to be Adinath and Adinath is none other than Shiva. They are indistinguishable. The Nath Sampradaya or tradition is one of the most ancient Orders from where the practice of Yoga has come to us.
Shiva is represented with three eyes. When Shiva meditates, he closes the two eyes to meditate upon the inner core. When He meditates with His eyes closed, the third eye opens, which is called the Eye of Knowledge—the eye of understanding. It’s not any organ situated there; you can only open it through unfolding of the inner wisdom. Shivam, in Sanskrit , also means auspiciousness and bliss. It can also be used as a substitute for “Ananda” — which we all seek. Therefore, Adinath is considered to be none other than Shiva who taught the practice of Yoga so that one may turn inward and find the source of one’s being—happiness and knowledge.
Shiva, who wears a tiger skin or deer skin found in the forest, smears his body with ashes, has matted hair, sits cross legged like a yogi and has a crescent moon on His head. The crescent moon is a symbol of Shakti, you see it in Durga and Kali, the Navadurgas all have a crescent. Crescent is also the last digit of the moon either when it is going off or when it is coming back, therefore it is considered to be the sixteenth letter of the sixteen lettered Sri Vidya.
This crescent moon is a symbol of Shakti and the Moon is called Soma, therefore Shiva is called Somashekhara, one who keeps or collects or retains Soma. Soma has two meanings. One is the Moon; the other is the imagination that is associated with the moon. Soma is also that which when imbibed, the consciousness ascends to different levels, like the Soma which was drunk in the Vedic ages to transform the mind, to raise it from the ordinary state of consciousness to a higher state of consciousness. The real Soma is that which the yogi feels when his energies or his consciousness ascends to the highest center in the human body and it really intoxicates you, so much so, that you don’t need to go to a bar ever!
Shiva can be Shankara, as you see in form, or Shiva can be the absolute Supreme Brahman who is also called Som. In Kashmir Shaivism, Shiva has no image, He is the Supreme Being.
Here are two more symbols of Shiva which are very, very important. One is the snake, which is around His neck, and that snake represents wisdom. The snake also is the symbol of the Kundalini, which remains inactive in most people but resides in all human systems, and the level of wisdom and higher consciousness that a person ascends to is when this energy uncoils itself and moves upwards. Of course, it’s not a physical thing! It’s a symbol of energy rolled up in potential form which has to be awakened by the yogi and Shiva again is the symbol of that awakening, where the human being becomes God.
Shivaratri, traditionally, is also supposed to be the day of Samudra Manthan—when the churning took place, first a very powerful poison called ‘hala hala visha’ is supposed to have come out and it would have enveloped the world but for the fact that Shiva was supposed to have drunk it up. It stopped in his throat where it turned blue, and so He is called “Neelkanth”.
This is applicable to all yogis, not only to Shiva. When you churn your mind in meditation, which means, when you delve deeper and deeper into the layers of your mind, the first thing that comes out is not Amrit. The first thing that comes out is poison, because that’s the only way it can come out and disappear, which is why, many people who start the practice of sadhana, after a while, give up sadhana and take on other things because that poison has come out. They get carried away by the poison, or they drink the poison. There is no Shiva nowadays, unfortunately, to drink the poison for us. This is something which every practitioner of spiritual exercises should keep in mind — that when you practice and go deeper and deeper, all the tendencies that have been hidden in your subconscious mind till now bottled up, will come to the surface. That is the poison. Now, that is where you might get some help from a teacher, who knows how to handle it, otherwise, everything will go berserk.
They say that when Shiva dances, the whole world shakes and is about to collapse and He pulls Himself together. When he dances his Tandav Nritya, he destroys images, he explodes all the images that we have created and without that distraction of the old and the stratified and the calcified and the fossilized, nothing new can come up. Like death! Shiva is also called Maheshwara, the destroyer.
Now that destroying is only a transformation, because unless the old goes, no new can come in, that is, on the physical side. On the psychological side, which is relevant to the yogi who is always in search of his true identity, or, his true consciousness, true consciousness means to go beyond all images, not images that you see around you, but images that we build up in our mind. The Tandav Nritya is a beautiful expression of the breaking down of all these images that we have created.
Look inside your mind and you will see that we have hundreds of images and it is because of these images that we get hurt, our ego goes up, we have all the problems. Because of the images you are neither able to explore nor you are able to listen. This destruction of all images is the most important function of Shiva and the night is supposed to be the time when the outside world vanishes from our mind and we are into the realms of inner consciousness.
Shiva sits there guiding us on to this tour, this journey into the inner, where we go breaking image after image, image after image, and then we come to the Source of Consciousness, because of which the mind is able to create. And this is the most important aspect of the concept of Shiva.
So, the Tandav Nritya of Shiva is meant to free you from all the conditioning, all the images, all the attractions and repulsions that keep you rooted to the understanding that you are an individual, different, and not the same as everybody else. So if you are ready to embrace the dancing Shiva, then you are free, if you are not, then you are not free. You can choose.
The Linga represents Shiva, which is the symbol that stands like a pillar, as the single principle around which all other activities take place. Wherever there is a linga, there is also the ‘yoni’ – womb. It’s usually ‘linga-yoni’, so the whole of production, creation, movement, everything depends on the linga and the yoni, which means, as the energy of the linga is there, so also there has to be a womb to receive it. So Shiva and Shakti here together, represent the entire creation of the Cosmos.
Shiva doesn’t need any elaborate offerings, give him a ‘bilwa’ leaf and a little cold water. That’s how a yogi’s life is. He doesn’t need anything, he needs water to drink and perhaps some food to eat and he is happy with that. Therefore, Shiva represents the perfect Yogi. Shiva represents that symbol of the creation of the entire Universe.
Shiva panchakshara is the mantra which is invoked whenever you say Shiva. It’s called panchakshara because it has five letters. ‘Om,’ is the ‘Pranava’, which is added to all mantras, and then you have ‘na’ ‘ma’ ‘shi’ ‘va’ ‘ya’. All these five letters represent the ascent of consciousness through the different psychic centers of the human system. This panchakshara has so many variations that, chanted in different ways, it brings about different effects in the consciousness. Sometimes it is chanted as na ma shi va ya; sometimes it is chanted as shi va ya na ma; depending on which teacher teaches you and for what purpose
This whole theory and practice is the symbol of Shiva as the Supreme Energy, in cooperation with Shakti, who creates the entire universe, and it is linked to our inner system by which we can actually touch those parts of the energy which are active in us and witness the ascent of consciousness.