Endearing images embodying intuitions of the spiritual 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.
It is our sacred symbols, 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 yoga symbol 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. Yoga Symbols 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, the banyan tree, Ficus indicus, symbolizes Hinduism, 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.
Swastika is the symbol of auspiciousness 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.
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.
Nataraja is Siva as “King of Dance.” Carved in stone or cast in bronze, His ananda tandava, the fierce ballet of bliss, dances the cosmos into and out of existence within a fiery arch of flames denoting consciousness.
Mayil,”peacock,” is Lord Murugan’s mount, swift and beautiful like Karttikeya Himself. The proud display of the dancing peacock symbolizes religion in full, unfolded glory. His shrill cry warns of approaching harm.
Pranava, Aum is the root mantra and primal sound from which all creation issues forth. It is associated with Lord Ganesha. Its three syllables stand at the beginning and end of every sacred verse, every human act.
Ganesha is the Lord of Obstacles and Ruler of Dharma. Seated upon His throne, He guides our karmas through creating and removing obstacles from around home or temple is sanctifying, as is worshiping a Linga with bilva leaves and water.
Padma is the lotus flower, Nelumbo nucifera, perfection of beauty, associated with Deities and the chakras, especially the 1,000-petaledsahasrara. Rooted in the mud, its blossom is a promise of purity and unfoldment.
Mahakala, “Great Time,” presides above creation’s golden arch. Devouring instants and eons, with a ferocious face, He is Time beyond time, reminder of this world’s transitoriness, that sin and suffering will pass.
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.
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.
Bilva is the bael tree. Its fruit, flowers and leaves are all sacred to Siva, liberations summit. Planting Aegle marmelos trees around the home or temple is sanctifying, as is worshipping a Linga with bilva leaves and water.
Mankolam, the pleasing paisley design, is modeled after a mango and associated with Lord Ganesha. Mangos are the sweetest of fruits, symbolizing auspiciousness and the happy fulfillment of legitimate worldly desires.
Shatkona (six-pointed star)
Shatkona is two interlocking triangles; the upper stands for Siva, purusha and fire, the lower for Shakti, prakriti and water. Their union gives birth to Sanatkumara, whose sacred number is six.
Mushika is Lord Ganesha’s mount, the mouse, 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.
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.
Anjali, the gesture of two hands brought together near the heart, means to “honor or celebrate.” It is our Hindu greeting, two joined as one, the bringing together of matter and spirit, the self meeting the Self in all.
Go (Sacred Cow)
Go, the cow, is a symbol of the Earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider. To the Hindu, all animals are sacred, and we acknowledge this reverence of life in our special affection for the gentle cow.
Ghanta is the bell used in ritual puja, which engages all senses, including hearing. Its ringing summons the Gods, stimulates the inner ear and reminds us that, like sound, the world may be perceived but not possessed.
Gopuras are the towering stone gateways through which pilgrims enter the South Indian temple. Richly ornamented with myriad sculptures of the divine pantheon, their tiers symbolize the several planes of existence.
Kalasha, a husked coconut circled by mango leaves on a pot, is used in puja to represent any God, especially Lord Ganesha. Breaking a coconut before His shrine is the ego’s shattering to reveal the unseen grace in our lives.
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 is lauded in numberless Tirumurai hymns.
Homakunda, the fire 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.
Tiruvadi, the sacred sandals worn by saints, sages and satgurus, symbolize the preceptor’s holyfeet, which are the source of his grace. Prostrating before him, we humbly touch his feet for release from worldliness.
Trikona, the triangle, is a symbol of God Siva which, like the Sivalinga, denotes His Absolute Being. It represents the element fire and portrays the process of spiritual ascent and liberation spoken of in scripture.
Seval is the noble red rooster who heralds each dawn, calling all to awake and arise. He is a symbol of the imminence of spiritual unfoldment and wisdom. As a fighting cock, he crows from Lord Skanda’s battle flag.
Kuttuvilaku, the standing oil lamp, symbolizes the dispelling of ignorance and awakening of the divine light within us. Its soft glow illumines the temple or shrine room, keeping the atmosphere pure and serene.
Kamandalu, the water vessel, is carried by the Hindu monastic. It symbolizes his simple, self-contained life, his freedom from worldly needs, his con
Chandra is the moon, ruler of the watery realms and of emotion, teating place of migrating souls. Suriya sun, ruler of intellect, source of truth. One is pingala and lights the day; the other is ida and lights the night.
Vel, the holy lance, is Lord Murugan’s protective power, our safeguard in adversity. Its tip is wide, long and sharp, signifying incisive discrimination and spiritual knowledge, which must be broad, deep and penetrating.
Trishula, Siva’s trident carried by Himalayan yogis, is the royal scepter of the Saiva Dharma. Its triple prongs betoken desire, action and wisdom; ida, pingala and sushumna; and the gunas sattva,rajas and tamas.
Naga, the cobra, is a symbol of kundalini 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.
Dhvaja, “flag,” is the orange or red banner flown above temples, 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.
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.
Sivalinga is the ancient mark or symbol of God. This elliptical stone is a formless form betokening Parasiva, That which can never be described or portrayed. The pitha, pedestal, represents Siva’s manifest Parashakti.
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.
Pasha, tether or noose, represents the soul’s three-fold bondage 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.
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.
Rudraksha seeds, Eleocarpus ganitrus, are prized as the compassionate tears Lord Siva shed for mankind’s suffering. Saivites wear malas of them always as a symbol of God’s love, chanting on each bead, “Aum Namah Sivaya.”
Chandra is the moon, ruler of the watery realms and ofemotion, testing place of migrating souls. Surya is the sun, ruler of the intellect, source of truth. One is pingala and lights the day; the other is ida and lights the night.