In many temples of south India, it is common to find the image of Shiva seated under a banyan tree facing south. This image is called Dakshinamurti, or the south-facing image. It presents Shiva as the teacher of teachers. Dakshinamurti sits atop of Mount Kailash, under the Pole Star, which is located in the north, and which is still, indicating it is the centre of the whirling world. He sits in the shade of a banyan tree. Banyan trees are associated with the hermit traditions of India, and hermits bring knowledge of the mind to the materialistic world of the householder.
From the south comes Dakshinakali, or the most fierce form of the Goddess. For south is the direction of death and change. Here flows Vaitarni, the river that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. It is a common practice in Hindu villages to locate the cremation ground in the south. Dead bodies are also aligned such that they face south.
As in most images of Shiva, this form shows a hooded serpent around his neck and a moon on his matted locks. He has male earrings on the right side and female earrings on the left side. This reveals his comfort at three levels–first, with masculinity and femininity; second, with mind and matter; and third, with the world of names and forms, and the world of namelessness and formlessness. Dakshinamurti’s left hand shows varada-mudra, the gesture of giving. His right hand shows jnana-mudra, or the gesture of wisdom, with his index finger touching his thumb. This establishes him as the teacher–he who knows, and he who gives knowledge.
He sits with his right foot on the ground, squashing a demon commonly identified as Apasmara, the demon of distorted memories that knots our mind and prevents the mind from expanding and appreciating infinity.
At Shiva’s feet sit many sages. To them he reveals the secrets of the Vedas and the Tantras. Sometimes, this discourse is called Agama, or Puranic temple tradition, and it complements Nigama, or Vedic ritual tradition.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.