Even modern westerners, (not just the colonials), frequently take the “many-limb” descriptions very literally. This is not correct.
Trinethra : Siva is called the three eyed one, the third eye, a phalanethra, located in the forehead is a gnyana nethram or eye of knowledge. So when kama or desire, tried to disturb him, he destroyed his desire with the flame from his third eye or Gnyana Nethram.
Sahasraksha : Indra and Varuna have been both referred to as Sahasrakhsa, having a thousand eyes, which means that they are all seeing. Chanakya has also said that, in Indra’s case Sahasraksha meant that he had a thousand spies.
Sahasrabahu : This term meaning a thousand arms refers to power and strength. It refers to Vishnu who was very powerful in battle and always won.
ChaturBhuja : Four shouldered is used to refer to someone who gaurds or blesses the 4 directions and is used to apply to nearly all luminaries and deities.
Sahasrapat : Refers to a thousand feet. Since God is everywhere and in all beings, all feet are His. This term refers to the omni-present Vishnu.
Chaturmukha, Panchamukha, Shanmukha, : 4, 5 or 6 faced. Many heads relate to knowledge, intelligence and functions. Chaturmukha can refer to Brahma, Siva, Panchamukha to Gayathri Devi, Ganesha, Hanuman and Shanmukha to Karthikeya. But nearly any deity may be described as having a different number of faces.
A deity with 4, 5 or 6 faces can also mean that they know what is going on in all directions. Sometimes it has an astronomical reference. Karthikeya is in the midst of 6 sisters of Krthika (Pleides). Sometimes it has to do with mantra with which they are invoked.
Dasanana, Dasakantha, Dasagriva, Dasa-Sira: refers to 10 faces, necks and heads, expertise in 10 areas, governance of 10 regions and so forth. It signifies, knowledge and strength. It applies to Ravana generally.
Dasaratha : can fight with 10 chariots at the same time. (Refers to Sri Rama’s father)
Gajanana : Elephant faced – signifies both power and and wisdom that goes with a very large head. This term nearly always refers to Ganesha.
So if we read that Siva reduced the number of Brahma’s heads from 5 to 4 or replaced Ganesha’s head with an elephant head, we must understand, that Brahma’s functions were curtailed or that Ganesha’s importance and abilities (knowledge etc) were increased.
See Also: Daksha’s head: Goat! Aries, Mesha!
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