One of the most recognized and ubiquitous symbols of Lord Shiva is the trishula, the trident. It is fairly common, in Shaivite iconography, to have anthropomorphic forms of Shiva represented with trishula in hand. It is also not uncommon to see the trishula alongside Shiva’s aniconic (Linga) form. On rare occasions, one even finds the trishula is Shiva’s very representation in the absence of any other. The trishula is such a powerful symbol of the Lord that when one sees the trishula, one thinks of Shiva.
But, what makes the trident such a special symbol of God, and what message does it convey? In this post, we explore these two questions.
What makes the trident such a potent symbol of God are its three prongs. In Shaivite theology, the entire manifest universe, its quantitative and qualitative nature, as well as the process by which it emerged from the unmanifest Absolute is described in triadic terms. In short, therefore, Shiva holding the trishula symbolizes that the entire triadic universe is held together by the Lord.
The three prongs of the trishula represent:
(1) The three Shaktis of Shiva - the Power of will (Iccha), the Power of knowledge (Jnana) and the Power of action (Kriya). It is through progressive expansion of these Shaktis that the Unmanifest impinges into universal experience.
(2) The three Aspects of the Divine – Paramashiva, Parashakti (Paranada or Shiva Tattva) and Parabindu (Parameshvara or Shakti Tattva). The three Aspects are the very Being (Aham or "I am") of Shiva, His very Self.
(3) The three great universal acts of creation, sustenance and dissolution. Shiva is the Master and Controller of all three universal acts.
(4) The three personified Divinities of creation, sustenance and dissolution known as Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra. The three Divinities depicted as separate entities in mythical stories are one and the same with Shiva. He alone creates, sustains and dissolves the universe.
(5) The three syllables of Omkara: A (akara), U (ukara) and M (makara). The Omkara is the primal sound, the Word of God, which gave birth to entire universe. It is for this reason that Shiva is also called the Lord of Omkara (Omkareshvara).
(6) The three causes of the universal manifestation: efficient, instrumental and material. All three causes originate and reside within Shiva, and there is no cause external to Him which brought about universal manifestation.
(7) The three planes of reality that make up the manifest universe: the physical, the subtle, and the causal. The multitudes of heavenly and hellish realms that make up the universe are all contained within these three planes of reality. Shiva alone is the Lord and Master over all planes and all realms of existence.
(8) The three qualities of prakriti (primal nature): sattva, rajas and tamas. All things in existence emerged by the admixture of these three primal qualities. Shiva is the supreme Purusha who is both Master over prakriti and the three qualities, yet beyond them at the same time.
(9) The three ordinary states of consciousness: waking, dreaming and deep sleep. Shiva is ever existent within the three states, yet exists in the fourth transcendental state upon which the three ordinary states are founded.
(10) The triad impurities - anava, karma and maya - which keep the individual being feeling that s/he is separate or separable from Shiva. Shiva is the Ruler over these three impurities, and alone by the descent of His grace can one work through these impurities to realize Him.
(11) The triadic essences - Pati, pashu and pasha - which make up the trichotomy of existence. The trichotomy of all existence is held together within Shiva and in Him all three are realized as inseparable from one another.
In Shaivite theology and metaphysics, therefore, the trishula is the perfect symbol of the manifest universe, just as the Wielder of the trishula is the perfect representation of Divinity.
Aum Namah Shivaya.
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