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What do the three horizontal stripes, also known as Tripundra of bhasma (ash), on Lord Shiva's forehead represent?

These are also drawn on the sides of arms of Lord Shiva as well as his devotees. What is the reason behind this?

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    there are plenty of reasons. One of the significance I can think of is this. Lord Shiva is a Ideal Yogi. He is the King of Yogis, the Lord of Yoga. Yoga implies total equanimity. i.e. One lives completely detached from pain and pleasure, good and bad, heat and cold, right and wrong, these opposites form the Duality of Maya. Thus God is above all of these. The Bhasma/Vibhuti/Ash that Lord Shiva smears over the body represents this aspect of The Supreme. All that is born in this world (including the body) is subject to dissolution. Everything becomes ash in the end. That's why the ash. – Sai Dec 11 '15 at 21:09
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    They represent 3 gunas of Prakriti/Shakti(Satva, Rajas and Tamas), and Shiva himself represents immortal Purush/Brahman, who is witness(our soul) of the repetitive creation, maintenance and destruction that happens in universe. They also represent Gross body experiencing waking state, Subtle body experiencing dreaming state and Causal body experiencing Deep Sleep State, while Shiva/Ishwara is reality called Turiya, is thoughtless Samadhi and is a goal of every moksha seeking devotee. Ash is reminder of death. – user3870 Feb 23 '16 at 17:18
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The importance and significance of Tripundra is described in detail in Kalagnirudra Upanishad which is part of Krishna Yajurveda.

yAsya prathamA rekhA sA gArhapatyashchAkAro
rajobhUrlokaH svAtmA kriyAshaktirR^igvedaH
prAtaHsavanaM maheshvaro devateti yAsya dvitIyA rekhA
sA dakShiNAgnirukAraH satvamantarikShamantarAtmA-
chechChAshaktiryajurvedo mAdhya.ndinaM savanaM
sadAshivo devateti yAsya tR^itIyA rekhA sAhavanIyo makArastamo
dyaurlokaH paramAtmA j~nAnashaktiH sAmavedastR^itIyasavanaM
mahAdevo devateti evaM tripuNDravidhiM bhasmanA karoti

  1. (He replied). The three lines should occupy the whole forehead, from the eyes to the scalp of the head including also the portion between the eyebrows.

  2. It’s first line represents the Garhapatya fire, akara (in Om mantra) Rajas, Bhuloka (earth), Atman, Kriyasakti, RigVeda, the morning yaga, and the Deity Mahesvara.

  3. The second line represents Dakshinagni, Ukara, Satva, Antariksha (the middle space), inner self, Ichchasakti, Yajur Veda, mid-day yaga, and the Deity Sadasiva.

  4. The third line represents Ahavaniya fire, Makara, Tamas, Dyuloka (heaven) the Supreme Self, Jnanasakti, Samaveda, the third yaga, and the Deity Mahadeva.

Additionally, this is how Swami Sivananda interprets Tripundra in his book Lord Siva and His Worship.

He wears three white-lined Bhasma or Vibhuti on His forehead. What is the significance of this? He teaches silently that people should destroy the three impurities, viz., Anava (egoism), Karma (action with expectation of fruits), and Maya (illusion), and the three desires or Eshanas, viz., desire for landed property, desire for woman, desire for gold, and the three Vasanas, viz., Lokavasana, Dehavasana and Sastravasana, and then attain Him with a pure heart.

  • Good answer, but not sure if Karma as such is impurity. Even though, the post braces are explaining "with fruits", May be there should be a braced prefix like SakAm be for Karma for better clarity. Similarly gold should be braced with "richness". – iammilind Mar 10 '16 at 1:33
  • @iammilind I think Swamiji meant the Sakam Karma as he said expectation of fruits. – The Destroyer Mar 10 '16 at 5:23
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    Wouldn't the explanation of the Upanishad be favoured over Swami Sivananda's explanation? I am not saying that he is wrong but maybe it is complementary. – Surya Sep 20 '16 at 16:39
  • @Surya Even i feel the same. Should i remove that? – The Destroyer Sep 20 '16 at 16:41
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    @TheDestroyer no it seems like a nice explanation anyway. – Surya Sep 20 '16 at 16:44

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