Why does Shiva have ash smeared on him?
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, these lines remind us of the mortality of human beings. We are born with an expiry date and hence it is important to make life worthwhile.
An unusual physical attribute of the most popular Hindu deity has important lessons to teach. Lord Shiva has a dramatic countenance which is significant to his teachings. An important aspect of his physical appearance is his bare body smeared with ash.
With reference to mythology, when Lord Shiva loses the love of his life (Sati), he goes to meditate at the highest peak of the Himalayas. This is his way to atone for the sin of killing and seeking revenge for Sati’s demise. Parvati, the daughter of Parvataraja, is sent to serve the Lord who acquiesces to have her near him. At the behest of the king of the Himalayas, Parvati serves Lord Shiva with utmost devotion. Meanwhile a demon named Taraka starts to create havoc and Lord Brahma predicts that the son of Parvati and Lord Shiva will defeat the demon. Devendra (the king of the Devas) orders Kama to make Shiva fall in love with Parvati. Devendra commands Kama to see that Lord Shiva should develop a yearning for Parvati since Kama has the power to do that. Kama has to create an ambiance of romance to break Lord Shiva from his focus and see Parvati in her true essence. This does not deter Lord Shiva from his samadhi. At the perfect opportunity the Hindu Cupid strikes Lord Shiva who then eyes Parvati and realizes that he is being weaned away from his meditation. Filled with anger Lord Shiva opens his third eye and reduces Kama to ashes and smears the ash on him to mark victory over worldly desires. Parvati did eventually woo Shiva with her love and integrity instead of just her beauty.
Philosophically, the lessons learnt from a mere act of smearing ash on the bare body are many. Shiva was not enamored by the beauty of Parvati alone and destroyed Kama because Kama attempted to make Shiva desire Parvati physically. He was deeply in love with Sati and disturbed by her loss and thought renouncing all materialistic pleasures would make him attain peace. Eventually Lord Shiva fell in love with Parvati for her devotion, maturity and respect. The intent of Kama may have been right but Shiva did not deem the manner right.
Most things in the universe reduce to ashes and is depicted by the ash-smeared appearance of Lord Shiva. According to Lord Shiva indifference towards the materialistic things makes us understand the cycle of life.
The story propounds that the true essence of life is beyond materialism.