Ṛṣis of the Vedas were very explicit about the appearance of Rudra and the commonality with that of Puranic Śiva. While the first declaration to Rudra is seen in the Rig Veda, the Saṃhitās of Atharva & Yajur Vedas gave utmost detail to His features and nature, but the important aspect is the usage of terminology and the consistency across Vedas is impressive.
Let’s go over various shades/colors used to describe Rudra and find out how Rudra can have such diversity. Rig Veda says: “He is brilliant shines like the Sun, dazzling like gold, and the best of the divine and of Vasu”RV1.43.5, so the keyword here is “brilliance/ shine“. Now, let us compare this with Yajur Veda, Taittirīya Saṃhitā 4.5.5 which says: “Oh lord of mountains, whose brilliance/rays which permeates”, the Sanskrit word here is Hiraṇya (हिरण्य) meaning the Golden/brilliant one. Let’s compare the above with titles from three different Vedic Śākhās, Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā 16.11, Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 10.22.40 & Caraka-Katha Āraṇyaka:
Hiraṇyabhahavey : “he with golden/brilliant shoulders”
Hiraṇyarūpaya : “golden form”
Hiraṇyapathaye = “abode of all brilliance”
Tvishīmat (त्विषीमते) = “brilliant and dazzling one”.
ādityavarna = “Sun-colored-luster”
So, four different Vedic Śākhās described Rudra in the same way, this should have landed in the Upaniṣhads, which it did, in Svetasvatara Upaniṣhads also used the exact title ādityavarna आदित्यवर्णं SU3.8. Finding this consistency across scripture is the true goal of our exploration, so let’s try another color of Rudra, this time from Vedas to the Itihasa.
Both Rig Veda 2.33 and Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā 16.6-17 address him as barúḥ (बभ्रु / बभ्लुश) meaning tawny-brown/red with beautiful lips. Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā 16.6 further calls him Aruna (अरुण) meaning the yellowish-redness color of the sky during dawn. Taittirīya Āraṇyaka calls him Kṛṣṇapingala TA10.23.41.23, meaning tawny or orangish-yellow skin.
In contradiction to the above two shades, He is also addressed as śukra (शुक्र) in Rig Veda, meaning clear/white/opaque RV2.33 – hence the name Śukreśvara Liṅga of Varanasi. This coincides with Mahabharatam wherein Rśi Vyāsa says “Since he is of the form or color of smoke, therefore he is called Dhurjjati“ DP203. One must notice the diversity of Sanskrit Vocabulary used by the Rishis, yet the consistency in their description.
Apart from these shades let’s talk about the color of his neck. He has a blueish/white neck called nīlakanthāya/Nelagriva/Śitikaṇṭha sometimes addressed as Srikanta (नीलकण्ठ/नीलग्रीव/शितिकण्ठ)2 and bluish belly3 which is again consistent across various Vedic Śākhās. Among the 70 Svayambhu Liṅgas, Kālanjara takes the 32nd position in the list and is called Nilakanta (blue neck), similarly, Vimaleśvara Liṅga takes the 33rd position which is called Śrīkaṇṭha. Atharva Veda and both Yajur Vedas shared a similar hymn in which they addressed Rudra as Nīlalohita (नीललोहित) 1 meaning the one with blue and reddish-orange color, similar to the sky during the sunset (as shown in the image). The latter two called him Vilohita (विलोहित) meaning deep fiery red. Latter literature gave much prominence to the term Nīlalohita denoting the union of Prakṛti and Puruṣa which gave rise to Nīlalohitāgama, one among the 28 Siddhāntāgama. 1: [VS16.46/TS4.8.10/AV15.1.7,MB-KarnaParva34] 2:[TS4.5/VS16.7-28/APS14.3.2] 3:[AV15.1,VS 16.7,KYV4.5]
With so many detailed yet diverse descriptions, how does one justify so many hues/colors?
Vedas themself answered it. Atharva Veda 15.1.8 goes deeper in saying that, blue (Nila) represents how He overwhelms the evil and, red (lohita) represents Him inflicting pain on those who dislike him. The summary is, that each Hue is based on his role and action, meaning in deep meditative states he is White, in fierce action he is Red, in union with Shakti (the act of creation) He is blue, and so on. Hence, Rig Veda gave him the perfect title Pururūpam RV2.33.9 meaning Multihued, this is how the Rśis of the Vedas concur with each other. If we take a deep look into these colors of Rudra they are all the colors of Fire and Sun and Sky during various times of the day. This close relation with Sun (Surya) represents both His inner radiance and outer brilliance (ādityavarna) and it is this Sun/radiance that Rishis ask of Rudra RV2.33.1,KA-III-222. In the next section, we will see the deep relation with Surya both on the physical plain (His eyes and the heart) and Himself becoming “The Sun” by obtaining the title īśhana SB6.1.3.
The most distinctive attribute of Śiva is His long hair that held the Great Ganga, but what about Rudra? Vedas gave three distinctive titles, they said Harikeśa (हरिकेशेभ्य) YV4.5.2 MB1.17.11 and Vyuptakeśa (व्युप्तकेश) and Kaparddi (कपर्दिने) YV4.5.5. Harikeśa has many meanings, like self-Luminant, golden-head/hair, black hair, or fair-headed which means the one who is unprejudiced towards all beings. The most interesting part is that Indra is also addressed as Harikeśa RV10.96.5. This title has many compounds (Sandhi) in Sanskrit like Hari+keśa or Hari+ka+iśa. Another description of His hair is Kapardi, meaning knotted/braided locks of hair RV1.114,AV 2.27. Finally, Vyuptakeśa is another unique title that is found in both the Maitrāyaṇī and Taittirīya Śākhā of Kṛṣṇa Yajur Veda. Vyuptakeśa means the one whose hair is disheveled, unmaintained, and ungroomed. Vyuptakeśa is also mentioned in an event from Mahābhāratam Dhrona Parva 202 in regards to a child in the lap of Devi Uma. This child is addressed by Lord Brahma with the title Shambu who is nonother than Maheshwara himself for the sake of Uma. This is why Rudras nor Shiva are never into Charm or appeal, whereas Viṣṇu and Devi are called Alankara:Priya meaning those who allure in decorations and charm, but Shiva is called Abhisheka:Priya and is always wet or covered with Bhasma (Ash). One can find Shiva Liṅgas in the most unconventional and bizarre of locations. Many are found in open environments like Seashores, rivers, river banks, waterfalls, icy caves, and more. Among the 70 Svayambhu Liṅgas Jāngala takes the 29th position in the list and is called Kaparddi. As we move into Atharva Veda, He is called “nī́laśikhaṇḍena” meaning black tufts of hair or can also be understood as dark-haired chest AV11.2.7. Mahābhāratam Dhrona Parva 203 brings light to a unique title called Vyomakesha (व्योमकेश), meaning “Hair that covers the sky and heavens” and it’s this hair that held Ganga from the heavens (Svarga). Interestingly Viṣṇu is called Keshava (केशव).
Rudra, in the Vedas, is associated in deep conjunction with Soma KYV 7.1,VS16, and Agni as one of his natures or epithets, and on several occasions with Surya, this coincides with the title Trayambakam or Virūpākṣa, meaning three-eyed or odd-eyed, and the celebrated title “Somasuryagni Lochanaya“, meaning the one with Soma, Surya, and Agni as his three eyes. Atharva Veda 15th Kanda 18th Prayāya, famously known as Vrātyas Suktam, says “oh Vrātya, as for this right eye is the distant Sun/Āditya, so for the left eye is the Moon/Soma”. But what about the Agni of the 3rd eye which burnt Kamadeva? Caraka-Katha Āraṇyaka III-222 specifies that Rudras eyes are the fire, one is the fire on Earth and the other is the fire of the Sun, and when His eyes are praised, then the Yajamana’s offspring are not born blind. The title trayambakam, has many contextual derivatives but the meaning is straightforward though it’s interpreted differently these days. With regard to physical appearance, it means three-eyes RV 7.59,TS4.5.4,AV11.2.2, but many western scholars attribute it to harvest season (Ritu) using the term Ambaka. Some also consider using the term Ambikā to represent Autumn. But this is not how the Vedic chant of Ghana Patana operates, the chant says “त्रि अम्बकं इति त्रयम्बकं“. So, it’s not Ambi+kam, nor Ambā+kam, nor Ambaka, the vocabulary section below should clarify this. Later in Kṛṣṇa Yajur Veda, He is called AmbikaPathi, so Ambakam is different from Ambika. Sri Valmiki Ramayana Itihāsa 6.93.38 uses the same reference to Rudra by addressing him as “trayambakasya” denoting three eyes. Atharva Veda calls him “the thousand-eyed”AV4.28.3/11.2. On multiple occasions, He is referred to as the one with Virūpākṣa, meaning the one with odd eyes TA10.23.1 or thousands of eyes VS16.8/AV11.2.7. But it never mentions him having an eye on his forehead.
Vocabulary: Ambā/Amba means mother. In southern regions it Amma, so the ‘म्ब’ became just ‘म्’. The short form of Amma is just “Mā” the preceding ‘ā’ became silent in regular usage, but mātā denotes respect. Hence the title Uma = ‘U’ + ‘Ma’ or the title Sambha = ‘Sa’ + ‘Ambā‘ (meaning along with Ambā). Rig Veda itself in its 5th mandala uses the term त्रिमाता – trimātā́ to denote three mothers so there is no need for Triambakam to become 3 mothers or 3 sisters. Further South of India Amma became Amman/Amme (Hence the song “Amme Narayani”). Ambā is a respected term given to women irrespective of age. Ambi is a term used with affection towards a mother or daughter, since Uma is a princess she was called with a derivative Ambika (Ambi + Ka). Ambaya/Ambada and Ambala/Ambali are all derivatives given to the term mother based on the context. Since the prevalence of Devi Uma is high in Kashi the King of Kashi named his 3 daughters: Amba, Ambika, Ambalika. Ambi+ka is given to sister, and Amba+lika is given to mother. Hence, ambakam denotes eyes and has no relevance to the mother. It’s only when you convert the sandhi as Amba+ka+am or Amba+kam that many try to interpret in relation to the mother, but contextually there is no reason for such a sandhi (decoupling) in the context of this hymn especially when there is a term trimātā́ used in Rig Veda. Hence Vedic Ghana Patana chant says “त्रि अम्बकं इति त्रयम्बकं“. Amba can also denote water in a few cases.
Having explored the vocabulary with various derivations and Ghana Patana, is there any explicit reference that can conclude the title trayambakam and its origin? Well, Rśi Vyāsa explains the significance of 3 and its association to Rudra in Mahabratam Drona Parva 203, the following should clarify any remnant questions:
And since Maheswara by means of his two eyes closed (in meditation), created through sheer force of will the third eye on his forehead, he is for that reason called the trayambakam…Mahabratam Drona Parva 202-203
And since three goddesses adore and have recourse to that Lord of the universe, viz., Firmament, Water and Earth, he is for that reason called Tryamvaka.
The Ordainer of the three worlds (Triloka), he is the sole refuge of the three worlds….
O son of Kunti, seek the protection of that boon-giving Lord of the universe, the lord of Uma, that God of three eyes (trayambaka), that destroyer of Daksha’s sacrifice….
When, however, the three cities came together in the firmament, the lord Mahadeva. pierced them with that terrible shaft of his, consisting of three knots. (Tripurantaka/Tripurari)….
And since the solar and the lunar rays of light that appear in the world are spoken of as the hair on the Three-eyed one, he is for that reason called Vyomakesa
Viṣvarūpam / Vishvaroopma
So, how can one have so many hues/colors and so many physical forms and attributes? From Rig Veda to both Yajur Vedas, His form is Viṣvarūpam, meaning the cosmic form or the all-encompassing omni-form, and Pururūpam, meaning multiform/multihued, and Virūpam, meaning multifold altering forms and Vahurūpa meaning multi-formed RV2.33.10,TS4.5.4,TA10.23.1. It was Mahābhāratam which actually gave a definition to the term Viṣvarūpam by saying “since those Devas called the Viṣvadevas are in Him, He is for that reason called Viṣvarūpam, since with respect to the past, the future, and the present, that Divine has many forms, he is, on that account, called Vahurupa (many-formed).”AP161/DP202. Even with such consistency across Vedas and Itihāsa, Taittirīya Saṃhitā 4.5 elaborated the concept of the all-encompassing aspect of Rudra with two more titles, they are Bṛhat (बृहत्) = largest/all-encompassing and Saṃvṛddha (संवृद्ध) = ever-growing. Both Śrī Rudram and Śatarudrīya describe a furious form emerging out of Prajāpati, this furious anger is called Manyu, the ferocious aspect of Rudra with a hundred heads, a thousand eyes, and thousands of weapons. This matches perfectly with Kausitaki Brāhmaṇa 6 of Rig Veda wherein it describes Rudra as a thousand-eyed and arms with thousand weapons. This all-encompassing form of Rudra was very difficult to iconify into sculpture or painting, so two approaches were possible, first option was to show one body with many heads and hands, like the magnificent sculpture at Thanumalayan Temple in Suchindram, Tamil Nadu. The latter option was to depict one ‘being’ with various forms emerging out of it, like the Mahadeva Vishvaroopma icon found in Parel, Mumbai by the Indian Archeological Society, currently stored in Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum. After Nārāyaṇa Sukta and Śrīmad Bhagavādgita, Viṣṇu’s Viṣvarūpam took high prominence in its depiction. Alongside Rudra, Soma and Prajāpati shared the title of Viṣvarūpam, but Varuna is also addressed in a similar way RV7.34.
Since we have described various contradictory features, attributes, and forms, how can one visualize an image called Viṣvarūpam/all-encompassing omni-form – who is but an enigma – especially when Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā 16.44 says “homage to the one who is in the tempest, storms, in the hearts (Sun), in whirlpools, in deep wells, and in the very abysses”. Since the first declaration of Rudra in the Rig Veda, then the details in the Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda gave rise to the final premise that landed in the Upaniṣhad (Svetasvatara one among the 18 primary Upaniṣhads), which says in Chap 3, sloka 11:
सर्वानन शिरोग्रीवः सर्वभूतगुहाशयः । सर्वव्यापी स भगवांस्तस्मात् सर्वगतः शिवः ॥ ११॥Svetasvatara Upaniṣhad 3.11
All (सर्वा) heads, necks/faces (शिरो + ग्रीव) are you, as you are dwelling in all (सर्व) beings and their cores/hearts (सर्वभूतगुहाशय)| You are omnipresent/all-pervasive (सर्वव्यापी) in all divine forms (भगवांस्तस्मात्), all-encompassing in all (सर्व+गतः)
Please note: शिर+स्तस् means forms of heads, and भगवां+स्तस् means divine forms.
Behold Master, Origin, and Guardian of the Universe, the Lord of all the gods, the Supreme Deity, who is exceedingly difficult of being gazed at, who is minute than the minutest and larger than the largest, who is called Rudra. Who is the Lord of all the superior ones, who is called Hara and Sambhu, who has matted locks on his head, who is the infuser of life into every form, who is the First cause of all immobile and mobile things, who is irresistible and of frightful aspect, who is of fierce wrath and great soul, who is the All-destroyer, and of large heart; who bareth the celestial bow and a couple of quivers, who is cased in golden armor, and whose energy is infinite, who holdes the Pinaka, who is armed with thunder bolt, blazing trident, battle-axe, mace, and a large sword; whose eye-brows are fair, whose locks are matted, who wieldeth the heavy short club, who hath the moon on his forehead, who is clad in tiger-skin, and who is armed with the bludgeon who is decked with beautiful angadas, who hath snakes for his sacred thread, and who is surrounded by diverse creatures of the universe and by numerous ghosts and spirits ; who is the One ; who is the abode of ascetic austerities….Mahābhāratam Drona Parva Narayanastra Mokshana Parva 202-203