Hindu seers were among the earliest and the greatest artists of the world. They would often convey their observations and thoughts in the concealed language of symbols and icons. The richness and variety of symbolism used in Hindu scriptures is unrivalled! Few examples may be recalled to capture the beauty and significance of the symbols in the Hindu pantheon.
The portrait of Lord Shiva has deep symbolic significance. The matted hair proclaims the length and intensity of his austerities, or tapas, and the cobra around his neck signifies that even the most poisonous snake becomes harmless because the one who has identified with the Supreme has gone beyond all the effects of matter on his senses and organs. The third eye in the middle of the forehead represents the concentration of knowledge, or jnana, and it embodies the absolute power to destroy the sloth, tamas, and all its manifestations. The ashes that besmear the body recall to us that this body of which we are proud and obsessed is ultimately bound to end up merely as ashes.
NOTE: This chapter is mainly adapted from Nityanand Swami, Symbolism in Hinduism, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai, India, 2001.