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The Iconographic Analysis of Lord Shiva

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 1578 words Published: 18th May 2020

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 Iconography is the study of the visual representation of images, symbols, and art throughout history. Iconographic representations exist in numerous examples in many world cultures and religions. The world’s oldest religion, Hinduism, contains many iconographical examples. Many examples can specifically be seen in Lord Shiva. Shiva is one of three Gods in the holy trinity of Hinduism. There is Brahma – the creator, Vishnu – the preserver, and Shiva – the destroyer. At the creation of the universe, the three were present to perform their respective duties; create life, preserve life, and destroy all evil. Iconographic analysis of Shiva can explain the way of life of a practicing individual and explain some of the customs and traditions of that take place in the origin country of Hinduism, India. The properties that make Shiva the God he is can be studied through his symbolic and iconic properties, such as the Nataraja and the cosmic dance, the river Ganges tied within his locks, and his third eye that resides on his forehead. These iconographic and physical attributes of Shiva can explain the result of rituals, meditation, and scientific knowledge associated with the oldest religion on Earth.

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 The Nataraja is “the lord of dance” and it is a depiction of Shiva in one phase of his cosmic dancing, in which he is striking the Natya Shastra pose. He is contained within a ring of fire and his hands and feet are generously decorated. The dance is complicated and contains many intricate steps of coordination of hand, feet, and waist movements. He holds his drum and shakes it to produce the beat which he dances too. There are two types of dances that he performs; Aananda Tandavam, which is a gentle and calm dance for creation of the world, and Rudra Tandava, which is a more violent and raging dance for destruction. The Rudra Tandava comes before Rudra Tandava, in which Shiva’s energetic dancing force causes wind storms, tsunamis, and interstellar havoc. After the destructive dance, he performs the Aananda Tandavam to create the world after his path of destruction. Shiva performs the destructive and constructive dances to uphold the balance in the universe, as after each cycle of existence, it must be destroyed, and a new cycle must be created. This cosmic dance and Nataraja is symbolic to Hindus because it demonstrates the very essence of cosmic cycles, the basis of construction and destruction, and how this is observed in daily life (such as the cycle of life and seasons). Many Hindus in India and all over the word dance the cosmic dance to honor Shiva. Hindus have statues of Nataraja in their homes to protect their family from any evil. The cosmic dance is also used as a metaphor in molecular physics to understand the states of existence of subatomic particles. Shiva’s dance of creation and destruction is compared to the never-ending cycle of the creation and destruction of particles on the sub-atomic level. Many scientists accept this metaphor and understanding and in 2004, the Indian government presented CERN in Switzerland a sculpture of Nataraja, to signify the relation between His powerful dance and the kinematics and dynamics of subatomic particles that are being studied at the home of the largest particle collider in the world.

 Another important icon of Shiva is the river Ganges entangled in his locks. The origin of this comes from the legend of a king on earth who had sixty thousand sons. They were all burnt to death by an angry sage, and Goddess Ganga was ordered to descend in her river form and clean the souls of the sons. However, as Ganga was coming down, the rage and violence of her decent would cause catastrophic damage to Earth. Shiva was summoned and with quick thinking, he caught Ganga in his locks so that she streams calmly onto Earth below. Shiva successfully saved Earth as it would otherwise be destroyed and flooded by the river. The Ganges river is symbolic because it represents holiness and purity, as Ganga was used to cleanse and release the souls of the sons to heaven. The river originates from the Himalayas, as where Shiva resides, and drains into the Bay of Bengal. Many Hindus regard river Ganges as the holiest river and body of water in India, and many other sacred temples are located along the banks. Hindus in the vicinity of the river bathe in it every morning because according to Hindu scriptures, the Puranas, cleansing oneself in the holy water of Ganges will release the sins one has committed and bestow blessings. In many other Hindu ceremonies and prayers, many try to obtain the holy water of the Ganges to perform religious actions. Despite the river Ganges being “spiritually pure”, it is environmentally dangerous as contaminants, sewage, and fecal matter concentrations are well above excess of the Indian government’s requirements. This however does not hinder a devout Hindu from entering the waters to bathe and pray to get one step closer to obtaining Moksha (eternal peace and avoidance of the life/death cycle).

 Shiva’s third eye is perhaps the most iconographic attribute about this powerful destroyer. Unlike the normal eyes that he has, this one is located in the middle of his forehead and remains closed. Shiva only opens the third eye for destructive purposes. For example, when Shiva’s meditation was interrupted by God Kam Dev, whose purpose was to make Shiva fall in love with Goddess Parvati, Shiva angrily opened his third eye and instantly incinerated Kam Dev. In Hinduism, the third eye represents wisdom and knowledge. As when Shiva opened his normal eyes, he was being fooled by the actions of Kam Dev to get Shiva to marry Parvati. When he learned this was a rouse, Shiva opened his third eye because he became more knowledgeable of the situation and was able to destroy the lust and false desires that were trying to overcome him. Though Hindus and humans in general do not have a third eye, they tend to focus their thought at the center of their forehead to channel their energy during meditation. The is significant as when one meditates and focuses at this spot on their forehead, any lustful, deceitful, and false thoughts are “destroyed” to keep the meditation pure. As this is a vital location for meditation, focus, and self-awareness, Hindus tend to put tilakas at this location of the forehead. Focusing on this vital location of one’s head during meditation and prayer can help one connect closer to the divine and God.

 From analyzing the iconographic properties of Shiva, it can be seen that Shiva and Hinduism have had an impact on the rituals, meditation practices, and scientific knowledge to Hindus and other humans around the world. Nataraja and the cosmic dance represent the cosmic cycle of life and Hindus perform the dance to pay respects to Shiva. Nataraja and the cosmic dance are scientifically connected to the dynamics of subatomic particles. The river Ganges trickling from Shiva’s locks signify how Shiva saved the Earth, the holy pureness of the river, and why devotees pray in the river every day. The third eye on Shiva represents the location at which to focus to dissolve evil and lustful thoughts and to maintain pure meditation. Other iconographic attributes of Shiva have affected the lifestyle of Hindus and many others, especially in India. Shiva’s vehicle is a bull, and he wears a cobra around his neck. This is why Hindus do not practice slaughtering and consuming beef, and do not kill cobras in the jungle. There are many other iconographic attributes of Shiva that explain the rituals, meditation practices, and scientific knowledge of Hindus and non-Hindus alike. With a deeper analysis of iconography throughout all the other Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu religion, one can gain a better and more complete understanding of how these affect and impact Hindu traditions and way of being over the thousands of years Hinduism has been in existence.


[1] Dunn, Laura M. “The Self-Emptying God(Dess): Death and Salvation in the Iconographies of the Crucifixion and Chinnamastā.” Berkeley Journal of Religion and Theology, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 119–141. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLAiC9Y190114000786&site=ehost-live.

[2] Lee, Jonathan H. X. “Contesting Hindu Material and Visual Cultures, Forging Hindu American Identity and Subjectivity.” Nidān, vol. 23, Dec. 2011, pp. 73–84. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLAn3797030&site=ehost-live.

[3] Bidwaikar, Shruti. “The Giant Dance of Shiva.” Prabuddha Bharata, vol. 122, no. 7, July 2017, pp. 539–543. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLAiFZK171007001600&site=ehost-live.

[4] Cartwright, Mark. “Ganges.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 12 July 2019, www.ancient.eu/Ganges/.


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