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.
He has two additional hands. The symbols here vary, but they all represent wisdom. There is the fuel-less fire of tapa, or meditative practices, representing knowledge that burns all knots that prevent the mind from expanding. There is the hooded serpent representing the flaring of knowledge that is born when one witnesses the world, rather than indulging in it. There is the string of rosary beads, used for chanting and memorisation. There are musical instruments and books. 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.
His left foot he places over his right thigh. Traditionally, the left side of the body represents prakriti, or matter, and the right side of the body represents purusha, or the mind. As in the Nataraja statue, Shiva shows preference for the right foot, placing it firmly on the ground; the left foot is in the air, or on the right thigh, as in this case. Contrast this with Krishna images, always stands resting on his left foot, and lets the right foot cross over it. Krishna enjoys matter, but brings mindfulness into it. While both of Krishna’s feet are on the ground, meaning he values both matter and mind, Shiva prefers mind over matter and so has only one foot on the ground, resulting in him also being called Ekapada, one-footed god.
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.
Thus, symbolically, the image reveals the kind of knowledge it will share: knowledge of stilling the mind to overcome the enchantments of tumultuous materialism that causes misery. 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. The discourse is also called Dakshinamurti Upanishad. This image is more popular in south Indian tradition than in the north. The story goes that all the sages went north to hear Shiva speak and so the earth tilted. To balance the earth, Shiva told his discipline, Agastya, to travel south, which is why Agastya is the great sage of the south. Other sages who listen to the discourse include Vyagrapada, who asked Shiva to grant him tiger feet so that he could easily collect forest flowers for his worship, and Patanjali, the serpent, and Nandi, the bull, and Bhringi, who has no flesh and blood, and needs a third leg so that he stand erect like a tripod. Then there are Hayagriva, who has the head of a horse, sometimes considered a form of Vishnu, and even Suka, who has the head of a parrot, and son of Vyasa, who parrots out the Vedas meticulously.
Kala and Kali Adi
Shankara composed the Dakshinamurti Stotram in which he observes how this young-looking silent teacher enlightens old sages with his wisdom, for Shiva is wisdom personified. Questions are asked, not by sages, but by the Goddess herself. She marries Shiva and encourages him to speak and share his wisdom gathered through eons of contemplation. This conversation is how the Tantras are presented. If he is Kala, time, she is Kali who conquers time. It is she who makes the shava or corpse into Shiva, God. It is the Goddess, who comes from the south, and embodies matter and change, who inspires the answers, and the answer is not always spoken; it is performed and presented through song and dance too, which is why Indian classical dance is rich in meaning.
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.