Hinduism Today Magazine Issues and Articles
Sacred Symbols
Category : April/May/June 2003

INSIGHT

Sacred Symbols

Endearing images embodying intuitions of the spirit icons of mythology, mysticism and devotion adorn Hindu art, architecture and culture



Symbols adorn our world at every turn, in our spiritual, social and political experience. A ring or gold pendant silently strengthen and attest to wedded love. On mountain roads in any country, a sign with a truck silhouette on an angled line warns drivers of steep grades ahead. The red cross signifies aid in crises. Golden arches tell the vegan to beware. The best known symbols are simple numerals: 0 through 9, which originated in India in the ancient Brahmi script. Now and then, historic images are etched in the mass mind: the awesome mushroom cloud of the atom bomb will forever represent the specter of nuclear destruction. It is our sacredsymbols, icons of Divinity and higher reality, that wield the greatest power to inform and transform consciousness. Taoists gazing upon a yin-yang symbol, Navajo Indians "pouring" a feather symbol in a sand painting, Muslims embroidering the crescent moon and star, Buddhists contemplating a mandala, Christians kneeling before the cross, Hindus meditating upon the Aum, Pagans parading the ankh at Stonehenge all these are potent meditations on cosmic symbols that function as gateways to inner truths. To societies of prehistory, living fully in the raw splendor and power of nature, symbols and icons represented supernatural states and beings as they still can for us today. A stylized image of a snake coiled round a clay vase, for example, stood for cosmic life force and regeneration. Wielded by mystic priests, or shamans, symbols are psychic tools for shaping the forces of nature and invoking invisible astral beings. To conjure power, a medieval alchemist would enclose himself in a magic circle filled with geometric pictograms symbolizing inner realities. Today, as in olden times, religious symbols derive from the world around us. The sun appears in a spectrum of motifs across cultures from Mexico to Mongolia. Hinduism developed dozens of solar symbols, including the swastika and the wheel of the sun, honored by Buddhists as the eight-spoked dharma wheel. Hinduism has amassed a vast range of icons from thousands of years back. Coins found in the Indus Valley carry emblems of the cow and of the meditating yogi across a 6,000-year corridor of time. Images from the Vedic age are popular motifs in Kashmiri carpets and Chidambaram saris. These often serve to identify and distinguish members of a sect or community. The simple red dot worn on the forehead is both the mark of our dharmic heritage and the personal reminder that we must see the world not only with our physical eyes, but with the mind's eye, the third eye, the eye of the soul. India's adepts and seers have excelled at symbolic imagery, transforming mudras (hand gestures) into instantly recognized emblems and transmitters of a Deity's power or a particular frequency of energy. Each accoutrement of the dozens of Deities in the Hindu pantheon conveys a cosmic function or force. Today this ancient magic is with us everywhere, from the temple priest's invocation to the Indian housewife's drawing of multi-colored designs, called kolams or rangoli, on the ground as auspicious auguries, household blessings and greetings.

Vata

Vata, thebanyan tree, Ficus indicus, symbolizesHinduism, which branches out in all directions, draws from many roots, spreads shade far and wide, yet stems from one great trunk.Siva as Silent Sage sits beneath it. Aum.

Swastika

Swastika is the symbol ofauspiciousness and good fortune literally, "It is well." The right-angled arms of this ancient sun-sign denote the indirect way that Divinity is apprehended: by intuition and not by intellect. Aum.

Tripundra

Tripundra is a Saivite's great mark, three stripes of whitevibhuti on the brow. This holy ash signifies purity and theburning away ofanava,karma andmaya. Thebindu, or dot, at the third eye quickens spiritual insight. Aum.

Nataraja

Nataraja is Siva as "King of Dance." Carved in stone or cast in bronze, His ananda tandava,the fierce ballet of bliss, dances thecosmos into and out of existence within a fiery arch of flames denoting consciousness. Aum.

Mayil

Mayil,"peacock," isLord Murugan's mount, swift and beautiful likeKarttikeya Himself. The proud display of the dancing peacock symbolizes religion in full, unfolded glory. His shrill cry warns of approaching harm. Aum.

Pranava Aum

Pranava,Aum, is the root mantra andprimal sound from which all creation issues forth. It is associated with LordGanesha. Its three syllables stand at the beginning and end of every sacred verse,every human act. Aum.

Ganesha

Ganesha is the Lord of Obstacles and Ruler ofDharma. Seated upon His throne, He guides ourkarmas through creating and removingobstacles fromaround home ortemple is sanctifying, as is worshipinga Linga with bilva leaves and water. Aum.

Padma

Padma is thelotus flower, Nelumbo nucifera, perfection of beauty, associated withDeities and thechakras, especially the 1,000-petaledsahasrara. Rooted in the mud, its blossom is a promise of purity andunfoldment. Aum.

Mahakala

Mahakala, "Great Time," presides above creation's goldenarch. Devouring instants and eons, with a ferocious face, He is Time beyond time, reminder of thisworld's transitoriness, that sin and suffering will pass. Aum.

Ankusha

Ankusha, thegoad held in LordGanesha's right hand, is used to remove obstacles from dharma's path. It is the force by which all wrongful things are repelled from us, the sharp prod which spurs

Nandi

Nandi is Lord Siva's mount, orvahana. This huge white bull with a black tail, whose name means "joyful," disciplined animality kneeling at Siva's feet, is the idealdevotee, the pure joy andstrength of Saiva Dharma. Aum.

Bilva

Bilva is thebael tree. Its fruit, flowers and leaves are all sacred to Siva, liberations summit. Planting Aegle marmelos trees around home ot temple is sanctifying, as is worshipping a Linga with bilva leaves and water. Aum

Mankolam

Mankolam, the pleasingpaisley design, is modeled after a mango and associated withLordGanesha. Mangos are the sweetest of fruits, symbolizing auspiciousness and the happy fulfillment of legitimate worldly desires. Aum.

Shatkona

Shatkona, "six-pointed star," is two interlocking triangles;the upper stands forSiva,purusha andfire, the lower for Shakti,prakriti and water. Their union gives birth toSanatkumara, whose sacred number is six. Aum.

Mushika

Mushika is LordGanesha's mount, themouse, traditionally associated with abundance in family life. Under cover of darkness, seldom visible yet always at work, Mushika is like God's unseen grace in our lives. Aum

Ankusha

Ankusha, the goad held in Lord Ganesha's right hand is used to remove obstacles from dharma's path. It is the force by which all wrongful things are repelled from us, the sharp prod which spurs the dullards onward. Aum.

Anjali

Anjali, thegesture of two hands brought together near the heart, means to "honor or celebrate." It is ourHindu greeting, two joined as one,the bringing together of matter and spirit, the self meeting the Self in all. Aum.

Go

Go, thecow, is a symbol of theEarth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider. To the Hindu, all aimals are sacred, and we acknowledge this reverance of life in our special affection for the gentle cow.Aum.

Ghanta

Ghanta is thebell used in ritualpuja, which engages all senses, including hearing. Its ringing summons theGods,stimulates the inner ear and reminds us that, like sound, the world may be perceived but not possessed. Aum.

Gopura

Gopuras are the towering stone gateways through which pilgrims enter the South Indiantemple. Richly ornamented with myriad sculptures of the divine pantheon, their tiers symbolize the several planes of existence. Aum.

Kalasha

Kalasha, a huskedcoconut circled by mango leaves on a pot, is used inpuja to represent any God, especially LordGanesha. Breaking a coconut before His shrine is theego's shattering to reveal theunseen grace in our lives. Aum.

Konrai

Konrai, Golden Shower, blossoms are the flowering symbol of Siva's honeyed grace in our life. Associated with His shrines and temples throughout India, the Cassia fistula islauded in numberless Tirumurai hymns. Aum.

Homakuna

Homakunda, thefire altar, is the symbol of ancient Vedic rites. It is through the fire element, denoting divine consciousness, that we make offerings to the gods. Hindu sacraments are solemnized before the homa fire. Aum.

Tiruvadi

Tiruvadi, the sacredsandals worn by saints, sages and satgurus, symbolize thepreceptor'sholyfeet, which are the source of his grace. Prostrating before him, we humbly touch his feet for release from worldliness. Aum.

Trikona

Trikona, the triangle, is a symbol of God Siva which,like the Sivalinga, denotes His Absolute Being. It represents the elementfire and portrays the process of spiritual ascent and liberation spoken of in scripture. Aum.

Seval

Seval is the noble red rooster who heralds each dawn, calling all to awake and arise. He is a symbol of the imminence ofspiritual unfoldment and wisdom. As a fighting cock, he crows from Lord Skanda's battle flag. Aum

Kuttuvilaku

Kuttuvilaku, the standingoil lamp, symbolizes the dispelling of ignorance and awakening of the divine light within us. Its soft glow illumines the temple or shrine room, keepingthe atmosphere pure and serene. Aum.

Kamandalu

Kamandalu, the water vessel, is carried by theHindu monastic. It symbolizes his simple, self-contained life, his freedom from worldly needs, his con

Chandra

Chandra is the moon, ruler of the watery realms and of emotion, teating place of migrating souls. Suriya sun, ruler ofintellect, source of truth. One ispingala and lights the day; the other is ida and lights the night. Aum.

Vel

Vel, the holylance, is LordMurugan's protective power, our safeguard in adversity. Itstip is wide, long and sharp, signifying incisive discrimination and spiritual knowledge, which must be broad, deep and penetrating. Aum.

Trisula

Trishula, Siva'strident carried by Himalayan yogis, isthe royal scepter of the Saiva Dharma. Its triple prongs betoken desire, action and wisdom;ida,pingala andsushumna;and thegunas sattva,rajas andtamas. Aum.

Naga

Naga, the cobra, is a symbol ofkundalini power, cosmic energy coiled and slumbering within man. It inspires seekers to overcome misdeeds and suffering by lifting the serpent power up the spine into God Realization. Aum.

Dhvaja

Dhvaja,"flag," is the orange or red banner flown abovetemples, at festivals and in processions. It is a symbol of victory, signal to all that "Sanatana Dharma shall prevail." Its color betokens the sun's life-giving glow. Aum.

Kalachakra

Kalachakra, "wheel, or circle, of time," is the symbol of perfect creation, of the cycles of existence. Time and space are interwoven, and eight spokes mark the directions, each ruled by a Deity and having a unique quality. Aum.

Sivavalinga

Sivalinga is the ancient mark or symbol of God. This elliptical stone is a formless form betokeningParasiva, That which can never be described or portrayed. The pitha, pedestal, represents Siva's manifestParashakti. Aum.

Modaka

Modaka, a round, lemon-sized sweet made of rice, coconut, sugar and spices, is a favorite treat of Ganesha. Esoterically, it corresponds to siddhi (attainment or fulfillment), the gladdening contentment of pure joy. Aum.

Pasha

Pasha, tether ornoose, represents the soul's three-foldbondage of anava, karma and maya. Pasha is the all-important force or fetter by which God (Pati, envisioned as a cowherd) brings souls (pashu, or cows) along the path to Truth. Aum.

Hamsa

Hamsa, vehicle of Brahma, is the swan (more accurately, the wild goose Aser indicus). It is a noble symbol for the soul, and for adept renunciates,Paramahamsa, winging high above the mundane and diving straight to the goal. Aum

Rudraksha

Rudraksha seeds, Eleocarpus ganitrus, are prized as the compassionatetears Lord Siva shed for mankind's suffering. Saivites wearmalas of themalways as a symbol of God's love, chanting on each bead, "Aum Namah Sivaya."

Chandra

Chandra is themoon, ruler of the watery realms and ofemotion, testing place of migrating souls.Surya isthe sun, ruler of the intellect, source of truth. One is pingala and lights the day; the other is ida and lights the night. Aum