Tripurantaka : Number 3 & Shiva
Most Hindu ceremonies end with “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti”. The invocation is a prayer for peace repeated thrice over. The significance of the number 3 & its use in the mythological context especially associated with Shiva as Tripurantaka is explored here.
As legend has it, three Asuras or devils, made three flying cities and decided to create trouble in the cosmos. Shiva was invoked for assistance to annihilate these cities. The complication however arose on the discovery, that only one arrow could be used to destroy all three cities. The trick then, was to wait for the opportune moment, when all three emerged together in one row. So Shiva, patiently followed them, till he found the ripe moment. Finally when it arrived, he strung the bow & unleashed the lethal blow so that the cities were strewn asunder in the spur of a moment. From the remnants, of the ashes of destruction, he drew three sharp parallel lines across his forehead. This is popularly, called the Tripundra or Shiva’s holy mark. It connotes the idea that assets, our physical body & all else in nature & three worlds created by Brahma are illusory & short lived and upon their extinction, all that remains is the soul or Atman.
Interestingly, the lines are drawn horizontally or in a sleeping position which suggests a state of inertia. This idea of non activity is associated with the notion that nothing in fact needs to be done to destroy the three worlds. Eventually, possessions, body & all other material objects are perishable & will vanish or lose their relevance. Replete in his wisdom of the illusion of life, he thus waits patiently for the right time to strike with his arrow.
A closer look at all things associated with Shiva reveals multiple occurrences of the number three which is hence sanctified and celebrated as such. His weapon the Trishul or trident has three blades. During, the worship of the Lingam, the sacred bail leaf is offered by devotees – this is a sprig with three leaves. So, just as Shiva holds the shaft of the Trident the devotees grasp the sprig. That which is held symbolizes the immortal soul, which remains after all perishable things decay.
The face of the Eternal Lord has three eyes. The imagery associated is often interpreted by some scholars with the thought that Kama or desire requires choices to be made. The pair of eyes Shiva has performs exactly this function, while one eye selects the other rejects. So when both his eyes our shut as he is found in meditation, there is no desire or sense arousal. The third eye then, represents transcendental wisdom or a state of awareness where everything is the same. It points to a central place where absence or abstinence from judgment or choice leads to freedom from desire. Shorn of desire, in a state of timelessness focused in the third eye, the Mahayogi ascends to achieve intuitive abilities & spiritual awakening.
Other three related imagery of Bholenath, include his cross legged sitting position & extended hands like an upward pointing triangle. The mountains he mediates on have the same pattern of the upward pointing triangles & the rattle drum or damroo he uses also has triangles. Yet again, triangular imagery indicates the ascent from a base of animal desire & worldly charm to single pointed attenting & focus at the apex, where a state of stillness & bliss is experienced by the Tapasvi.
So goes the tale of the auspicious threes & their Lord Tripurantaka.