This stone sculpture is not a portrait sculpture, as are many in the museum. It is a symbolic representation of cosmic power. When Shiva is depicted in his cosmic manifestation, before the creation of the universe, he is known as Sada Shiva in whose body the entire universe resides, waiting to be born.
He has so many hands because he holds the symbols of the power of all the other gods and goddesses of Hinduism. The hands holding symbols of power represent the acquisition of supernatural power gained by understanding the concepts and practicing the forms of yoga that can lead to liberation from the cycle of births and the achievement of immortality.
His front hands are in a gesture indicating that he is imparting knowledge. You will see this same hand gesture when Buddha is sculpted teaching his Four Noble Truths and 8-fold Path to Enlightenmen His three heads symbolize Shiva as the creator, preserve, and destroyer of the universe.
Many believe that Tantric practices existed from ancient times but were secret doctrines handed down orally from guru to student. During the Pala dynasty, in what is now Eastern India and Bangladesh, Tantric beliefs and practices came to dominate the curriculum at the great Buddhist Universities.
The Somapura Mahavihara at Paharpur was a famous university for the study of tantra. Practitioners of Tantra were believed to have supernatural powers to see the future, control the weather, fly through the air, become invisible, be two places at one time, and achieve liberation from rebirth in one lifetime. Feared by the common people, yogis who mastered tantra were believed to have magical powers and were sought out by both Hindu and Buddhist kings as advisors. They are still a powerful force in Hindu politics today.
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