Common Symbols of Hindu Iconography
Continued from Part XXXIV
Hinduism is not only unique for its attributes of being the oldest and culturally rich diversity among human beings but also for the fact that it attaches equally great significance to other living and non-living objects in the world so much so that it goes to the extent of adoring and glorifying them. Hindu scriptures and cultural traditions have adopted many iconic symbols which are imbued with spiritual meaning and implications. The significance attached to these symbols varies with period, region and denomination of the adherents and followers, and cumulatively all these developments became the part of the Hindu iconography. These include universal symbols like Aum, Swastika and Tantra; sacraments like Tilaka, Vibhuti and Yantra; and symbols linked with deities such as Lingam, Sankha, Chakra, Lotus, Veena, and so on so forth.
Aum or Om
Aum is the most important symbol in Hinduism in as much as almost all Vedic mantras (sacred utterances) start with it. The sound of Aum, also known as the pranava nada, represents Brahman (God) Himself and is often regarded as the sound-form and word-form of the unmanifested God. Its importance could be understood by the fact that Hindu scriptures, particularly Upanishads, symbolize soul, space, all manifested deities and even food with Brahman Who is ultimate recipient of all offerings. The corresponding term in world’s two other major religions namely Christianity and Islam is “Amen”; the difference being Aum is used before Hindu mantras while Amen concludes with Christian and Islamic prayers.
In Sanskrit, Aum is written as number “3” with a curved line going out from the centre on the back side of three with a moon shaped curve and a dot above three. Ancient rishis held that Aum is the vibratory sound by which Brahman brings all material things into manifestation. According to many scholars and Indologists, the three letters of Aum represent vibrations inherently associated with the creativity in universe. Of this, “A (Akaar)” represents the vibration that brings into manifestation the created universe, “U (Ukaar)” represents the vibration that preserves what is created and “M (Makaar)” represents the destructive vibration that dissolves the manifested universe back into the Infinite Spirit.
Hinduism has a concept of Trimurti (Trinity), with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as manifested forms of Brahman who represent creation, preservation and destruction respectively of all worldly manifestations. Aum is believed to encompass all the three vibratory energies required to create, preserve, and destroy. Then there is a tradition of chanting it three times before any prayer or offering. In Hindu philosophy, the soul is embodied with three encasings namely physical, astral and causal, also referred to as three universes, and chanting it three times is to invoke blessings all the three aspects. This syllable is also referred to as Omkata, Onkara and Pranava and many Hindus wear it around their necks as pendulum.
In different Hindu scriptures and texts, it is linked with Atman (soul), Brahman (Ultimate Reality), entirety of the universe, cosmic principles, Jnan (knowledge), and so on so forth. This syllable is often found at the beginning and the end of the chapters of Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and other Hindu texts. Aum is chanted either independently or before a mantra and is considered the most important spiritual sound. For example, the Gayatri mantra, followed by most Hindus and comprised of a verse from the Rigveda Samhita (3.62.10), is prefixed by Aum followed by the formula “bhur bhuvah svah”. Various Upanishads have described the syllable with various meanings. The Chandogya Upanishad opens with the recommendation that "let a person meditate on Aum". The Katha Upanishad highlights that the essence of Veda is to make man liberated, and one for this essence is the syllable Om. The Maitri Upanishad discusses the meaning and significance of Aum asserting that it represents Brahman-Atman. The Mundaka Upanishad has recommended that the means of knowing the Self and Brahman through meditation, self-reflection and introspection is the syllable Aum. The Mandukya Upanishad opens by suggesting Aum is this whole world representing all states of Atman, consciousness, time and Jnana.
Swastika is another symbol only next to Aum in importance and is drawn on Kalash at many social and religious rituals, and printed or engraved on the walls of temples, other holy places and devotional objects. The word swastika has been used in the Indian subcontinent since fifth century BCE and is derived from the Sanskrit root Swasti, which has two components namely “su” meaning good and “asti” meaning it is. Then “ka” is a common suffix that makes the word a noun. The word Swasti has been frequently used in the scriptures and other classical Hindu literature as greeting that denotes good health, luck, success or prosperity. Many Hindus wear Swastika comprised of metals like brass, silver or gold as pendant.
In fact, Swastika is a symbol of divinity and spirituality in most other Indian religions too. Even in the Western world, historically it was a symbol of auspiciousness and good luck in many parts until it became a feature of Nazi symbol as an emblem of Aryan identity. However, the Swastika differs with Nazi symbol in that the former appears standing on a horizontal plane while the latter on one point. Apart from its religious consideration referred to in the foregoing paragraphs, the swastika is commonly used before entrances and doorways of houses, as the starting page of some financial statements and mandalas constructed for rituals such as weddings and other social occasions. It is also associated with Diwali drawn in rangoli or with Deepak lights, wall hangings and other decorations associated with Hindu houses symbolizing good luck and prosperity.
In diverse traditions of Hinduism, Swastika is found in both the clockwise and counterclockwise pattern conveying different meanings. The clockwise pattern is called swastika which is considered a solar symbol suggesting the motion of Sun with its traditional way of emerging from the east, ascending to the south towards the midday and then moving to the west at the end of the day. The counterclockwise pattern is called sauvastika which symbolizes night, and in the tantric traditions it is designated icon for the goddess Kali. This symbol also represents karma, action, motion, wheel, and even lotus. According to the Arya Samaj which is a sect of Hinduism started in the nineteenth century, the Swastik represents Aum written in the ancient Brahmi script.
Tilaka is yet another symbol of Hinduism commonly used as rituals in religious and social ceremonies like wedding, thread ceremony, birthday and other auspicious occasions. It is a vertical sign made of kumkum and/or sandalwood paste applied on the forehead between two eyebrows among males and females as well. Depending on regional customs, some priest classes and adorers worn Tilaka on forehead routinely on the daily basis while others use it for rites of passage or on special occasions only. It is also part of the Hindu tradition that organizers of social functions and many families mark forehead of their guests or loved ones with a fragrant paste, such as of sandalwood or vermilion, as a welcome and expression of honor on their arrival.
The application of Tilaka has many variants among Hindus traditions. For illustration, The Vaishnava Tilaka comprises of a long vertical marking beginning from just above one's nose tip to nearly the hairline of the person, technically referred to as Urdhva Pundra and intercepted in the middle by an elongated U. Another major Tilaka variant is Rudra-tilaka or Tripundra which is worn by the Shaivites, the followers of Shiva. Tripundra is traditionally made of sacred ash from fire sacrifices and structurally comprises of three horizontal bands across the forehead with a single vertical band or circle in the middle. Then the Shaktas use kumkum, or powdered red turmeric and the followers of Lord Ganesha use red sandal paste. In ancient India, there was a tradition of Raja Tilaka and Vira Tilaka applied while enthroning kings and anointing warriors going to war or coming back as victor.
While Tilaka was more common among males, traditionally Hindu married women used to wear a red Bindi (dot) on the forehead as a cultural tradition. This was made with vermilion powder on the forehead and between her eyes symbolizing the love and prosperity in life. The widow women used to wear a black Bindi that suggested the loss of her husband. In modern times, Bindi is largely decorative and both married and single women wear it as a fashion statement, which is commercially available in various colours and designs. The terms Tilaka and Bindi overlap somewhat, but are essentially not the same. Remarkably, a Tilaka is always applied with paste or powder, whereas a Bindi could be both paste or jewel. Besides, the Tilaka is mainly applied for religious or spiritual reasons, or to welcome and honour a personage, while the Bindi signifies marriage status or used simply for the decorative purpose.
Lingam is a symbol of God Shiva and is also called Shivalingam. Most Hindu devotees worship Shiva in this form that represents eternal and infinite nature of Shiva. Some In Hinduism, and more particularly Shavism, the Shiva Lingam is symbolic to the generative power of all existence, all creativity and fertility at cosmic level. According to Swami Vivekananda, the Shiva-lingam had origin in the idea of Yupa-Stambha of the Vedic rituals, where the term meant the sacrificial post which was idealized as the eternal Brahman. Lingam is revered in temples, other worship places, or as self-manifested natural object. It is often represented within a disc-shaped platform and some Hindus symbolize it with the union of the divine linga of Shiva and yoni of Shakti. Lingayats, a sect of Shiva worshippers, wear a lingam inside a necklace called Ishtalinga.
The Linga Purana glorifies Lingam, the symbol of Lord Shiva, and the origin of the universe. It also contains many stories of Lingam, one of which entails how Agni Lingam solved a dispute between two other manifested forms of Brahman, namely Vishnu and Brahma. As per this Purana, Shiva is beyond any shape or color, taste or smell, word or touch, without quality, motionless and changeless; an analogy to Brahman which is vindicated by the Lingam’s structure. The lower part is a square base called the Brahmabhaga or Brahma-pitha, symbolic to the creator Brahma while the middle is the octagonal Vishnubhaga or Vishnu-pitha signifying sustainer quality of Vishnu. The top cylindrical portion is the Rudrabhaga or Shiva-pitha, which symbolizes the projecting flame of fire and is the worshipable part. Another major Purana, the Shiva Purana, describes the origin of the lingam, as the beginning-less and endless cosmic pillar (Stambha) of fire, the cause of all causes.
A kalash is a metallic vessel comprised of brass, copper, silver or gold with a heavy base and relatively small opening at top (mouth). Ordinarily, this is large enough to accomodate a coconut with five intact green leaves of plants such as mango of banana considered sacred and placed at mouth with coconut at the top. The Kalash is used in many Hindu rituals and rites in social and religious ceremonies as per Hindu iconography. It is often kept near the entrance as a sign of welcome and used in a traditional manner while receiving holy personages. The entire arrangement of the pot filled with pure water, leaves and coconut is called Purna-Kalasha, Purna-ghata or Purna-Kumbha. Occasionally, the Kalasha is filled with grains, coins, gems, gold, or even a combination of such items too in place of water.
The Purna-Kalasha is symbolic to abundance and source-of-life in the Hindu scriptures including Vedas. Available literature suggests that the Kalash has remained a preeminent Vedic motif since the time of Rigveda and often found a reference in different names as Soma-Kalasha, Chandra-Kalasha, Indra-Kumbha, Purnaghata, Purna-Virakamsya, Bhadra ghata, Mangala ghata, and so on in Vedic and other literature. The Kalasha with its contents was symbolized with amrita (divine nector or ambrosia), the potion of life, and therefore viewed as a symbol of abundance and immortality. It is also shown in Hindu iconography as an attribute or hallmark in the hands of deities like Brahma, Shiva and the goddess of prosperity Laxmi.
It is also believed to be a symbol of auspiciousness envoking deities like Ganesha - the remover of obstacles, Gauri or Parvati - the goddess of household bounty and Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth and prosperity. The coronet mango leaves is usually placed in a combination of 5, 7 or 11 in such a manner that the tips of the leaves is merged with water in the Kalasha. The coconut placed on top is often wrapped with a red thread or cloth while the top is left uncovered. A sacred thread is also tied around the neck of the metal pot. As per available accounts, the Kalasha has been used as a ceremonial object and decorative motif in Indian art and architecture since at least fifth century CE. Symbolically, the vessel represents material aspects including a container of fertility - the earth or the womb - that nurtures and nourishes life while the mango leaves represent the pleasure aspect of fertility.
Yantra is a mystical diagram, abundantly used in the Tantric traditions of the Indian religions. They are used as an aid in meditation and for the invocation and worship of deities in temples, home and other places. Tantrik traditions use it for the benefits of their supposed occult powers as documented in Hindu astrological and tantric texts. Yantra is a Sanskrit term which literally means machine or contraption that looks like a geometrical figure. Traditionally, the specific yantras are used for invoking specific deities. It could be drawn on a flat surface or it could be three-dimensional; it could be drawn or painted on paper, engraved on metal or even on any flat surface. They are also made on temple floors for embellishment on account of their aesthetic and symmetric qualities.
Originally, the Yantra finds a reference in Rigvedic text, implying an instrument for restraining or fastening. The literal meaning is also evident from Sushruta’s medical terminology where it refers to blunt surgical instruments such as tweezers or a vice. Several Sanskrit syllables as Mantras are found inscribed on Yantras, which essentially represent various divinities or cosmic powers that exert their influence through sound-vibrations. Specific Yantras are associated with specific deities for specific benefits. Such intended benefits could be in meditation, development and sustenance of specific powers, protection from harmful effects of evil powers and acquisition of wealth or success, etc. They are also used in ritualistic worship in temples or homes and even worn by people as talisman.
Hinduism has adopted it official flag in Saffron colour and used in many temples. The saffron flag literally means Bhagwa Dhwaj or Kesariya Pataka. The flag looks like two partial triangular waves joining each other in the middle and flat at the other end. Saffron color is symbolic to sacrifice and renunciation of materialism. This colour also symbolizes purity and fire wherein all impurities are burnt. It also connotes religious abstinence and accordingly it is a chosen colour of ascetics and other holy men who intend to renounce the world for good. The saffron flag has been historically used by many Indian political entities especially Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. Currently, it is used by nationalist political parties and Hindu groups. The saffron colour and saffron flag is widely respected by Hindus as it also represents courage and sacrifice.
Lotus is a water-borne flower with a great significance in Hinduism as it is symbolic to culture and chivalry. In a way it represents all that is divine and immortal, to which most Hindus attach great importance. The lotus is also attributable to sun, fire gods and their radiant energy. In Tantric and Yogic traditions, it symbolizes the potential of an individual to harness the flow of energy moving through various chakras (depicted as wheel like lotuses), the one at the top of the skull being symbol of enlightenment. At material level, the Rhizome, stem, seeds and flower of lotus are consumed by humans and variously used in water treatment. Lotus is often gainfully used for checking the growth of undesired algae in water. It is also colloquially called a water lily and has many varieties, of which indigenous species Nelumbo nucifera is the sacred lotus found abundantly in India.
Lotus is linked with many Hindu deities including Brahma (creator god) and Vishnu (sustainer god). Lord Brahma is mostly shown sitting on lotus and other deities like goddess Laxmi and Ganesha are shown carrying lotus in hand. Hindus rever lotus with Lord Vishnu and goddess Lakshmi often portrayed on a pink lotus in iconography. Vishnu is also known as Padmanabha (Lotus navel) because he is often depicted resting on the Seshanaga (the Divine Serpent) with a lotus resting on his navel with Brahma on it. Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, art and wisdom, is also portrayed with a white-colored lotus.
In Hindu philosophy, the unfolding petals of lotus are symbolized with the expansion of the soul. Despite its origin from the mud, its pure beauty reminds a benign spiritual promise. The lotus plant finds extensive reference in the Vedic and Puranic literature. Even Bhagavad Gita attaches great importance to lotus in the context of spititual growth in the following verse:
Brahmanyadhaya karmani sangam tyaktva karoti yah
Lipyate na sa papena padma-patram ivambhasa.
(Bhagavad Gita Chapter 5, Verse 10)
(Those who dedicate their actions to God, abandoning all attachment, remain untouched by sin, just as a lotus leaf is untouched by water.)
Shankha is a conch shell of ritual and religious significance in Hinduism. This shell is product of a relatively big sea snail, Turbinella pyrum, abundantly found in the Indian Ocean. It is a Hindu symbol and trumpet used in many rituals and religious functions in Hinduism. The shape of the main body of the Shankha is oblong or conical. In its oblong form, it has a protuberance in the middle that tapers at each end. The upper part is corkscrew-shaped while the lower end (the spire) is twisted and tapered. It is traditionally kept inside Hindu alters and worshipped by the brahmanic class. In Hindi mythology, the Shankha is also a sacred emblem of Lord Vishnu as also a symbol of longivity and prosperity. The shankha is praised in many Hindu scriptures as a giver of fame, longevity and prosperity, the cleanser of sin and the abode of goddess Lakshmi, who is the goddess of wealth and prosperity as also consort of Vishnu. In some places, it is also linked with female fertility and serpents. In ancient times, it was kept by warriors who blew it at the beginning of war.
Vishnu, the preserver god, is always seen holding conch in the upper left hand so much so that he is also known as god of sound. The sound of the shankha symbolises the sacred Om sound. The significance of Shankha in the context of Vishnu is documented in many Puranas. According to Brahmavaivarta Purana, the shankha is the abode of both Vishnu and Lakshmi and Vishnu, and bathing with the waters led through a shankha is akin to bathing with all holy waters. Somewhat similar significance of Sankha is also documented in Padma Purana where at one place it says that what to talk of its worship, the mere sight of the conch (shankha) dispels all sins as the Sun dispels the fog. Among the Indian states, the state of Kerala emblem symbolizes two elephants guarding the Royal Sri Padmanabha's Shanku (Conch) in its imperial crest. The Conch (Shankha) was also the emblem of the princely state of Travancore in the past.
Rudraksha bead is a product of the tree of same name whose seeds are traditionally used by Hindus for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Rudraksha is a Sanskrit word comprising of Rudra and Aksha while the former is one of the Shiva’s vedic names, the latter means teardrop. These are dark brown colored seeds with linings or wrinkles which are commonly used as prayer beads in Hinduism, more specially among Shaivites. Rudraksha beads are believed to have 1 to 108 faces: while one face bead is scarce and of rare occurrence, most others are multi-faced in abundance. Although the string of beads is generally used for devotional purposes but it is mainly associated with Lord Shiva used for chanting mantras such as Aum Namah Shivaya. They are also worn for protection from evil spirits and eyes but the beads are abundantly used in India and some other Asian countries as organic jewellery and garlands and in that they are valued as semi-precious stones.
The parent tree Elaeocarpus ganitrus grows to 60–80 feet and found from the Indian Gangetic plain in the foothills of the Himalayas to China, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and neighbouring islands in the Pacific Ocean region. Of about 300 known evergreen tree species of Elaeocarpus producing Rudraksha, 35 of them grow in India. The Rudraksha tree starts bearing fruit in three to four years from germination. In the Indian medicine system Ayurveda, the bead, bark and leaves of the Rudraksha tree are known to have antibacterial effects, and are used for treatment of mental disorders, headaches, fever, skin diseases and other ailments. There is a long tradition of using a string of 108 Rudraksha beads in India, particularly within Shaivism, for the devotional and self-protection from evil forces.
Rudraksha beads are strung together by Hindu ascetics and common householders as a garland for devotional purpose to provide the ease of counting of the mantra or prayer. Most such garlands contain 108 beads plus one extra which is considered sacred and suitable for reciting short mantras, ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ being the most common japa with Rudraksha beads. Apart from the devotional use of Rudrakdha rosaries, Hindus have also used it for meditation and purification of the mind, body and soul for centuries. The extra bead is called the "Meru, Bindu, or Guru bead" that facilitates marking the beginning and end of therecitation of mantras.
Trishul is the main weapon wielded by Shiva, the destroyer god, and is highly revered in Hinduism. It comprises of three points of which the middle is one straight and sharply pointed while the outer two points are sharp and outwardly curved at the end. A famous mythological legend is associated with Trishula which is said to have been used to sever the original head of Ganesha and was later substituted by a baby elephant’s head. Goddess Durga is also shown holding a Trishula, as one of her several weapons. Since ancient times, devotees of Shiva and many other Hindu householders were known to possess or hold Trishula that carries various meanings and significance in Hinduism with several legends attached.
According to different citations and belief, the three points of Trishula is said to represent infinite trinities of which some are as follows: creation, preservation and destruction; body, mind and atman; dharma, bliss and emanation; past, present and future; happiness, comfort and boredom; pride, repute and egotism; clarity, knowledge and wisdom; heaven, mind and earth; prayer, manifestation and sublime; death, ascension and resurrection; creation, order and destruction; the three gunas of sattava, rajas and tamas, and so on so forth. In the human body too, the Trishula is said to represent the place where the three main nadi (or energy channels) namely ida, pingala and shushmana meet at the brow point. Of this the central one, Shushmana, is said to continue upward to the seventh chakra (energy centre) while the other two ends at the sixth chakra.
Other significant weapons of gods such as Sudarshana Chakra of Vishnu, Vajra of Indra and a host other celestial weapons find references in Puranas and other Hindu literature. Many of them are recognized and revered in Hinduism but they do not have same significancve as Trisula.
Apart from the aforesaid symbols, many other symbols such as Dharmachakra, Lamp, Banyan tree, Kamndalu, Kamdhenu, Garuda, Veena, Shree etc. - the list is long – are abundantly used by Hindus with social, religious or other significance. For instance, Dharmachakra comprises of eight spokes representing dharma or eightfold paths namely right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right union. Lamp is always placed near Hindu alter and temples before the deities which is a symbol of light and piousness. The Banyan tree is a symbol of longevity and prosperity and many Hindu women worship it on Vat Poornima for the longivity of their spouse.
The Garuda, a legendary bird and vahana (the vehicle mount) of Lord Vishnu, is symbolic to courage and valour. The Nandi, depicted as bull, is the gate-guardian of Mount Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva. He is revered by Hindus and is symbol of auspiciousness and wisdom. Shree is another very important symbol in Hinduism which is said to auger auspiciousness so much so that it is used as prefix before the names of Hindu males and females (as part of Shriman and Shrimati). Kamandalu is an oblong vessel mostly used by ascetics for meditation and storage of water. Kamdhenu, a divine cow, is a mythological cow symbolic to prosperity, purity and fertility in Hinduism. Veena is the musical instrument of Goddess Saraswati and a symbol of knowledge, art and wisdom in Hinduism.
Hinduism is also unique for its attributes of inquisitive knowledge, non-violence and tolerance. Consequently, human beings have been taught in Hinduism to be considerate and rever every living and non-living being that has some positive impact and influence on life in this universe. Perhaps this was the main reason why Hindus cultivated the spirit of acknowledging the divine presence in other living beings as well as natural objects like rivers, mountains, sky, trees etc. Consequently, various symbols were adopted with various meanings and interpretations in Hinduism over a span of time so much so that Hindu iconology is the most evolved and discussed among all the religions of the world today. Other Indian religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism developed under considerable influence of Hinduism, hence they too had adopted several religious symbols with similar or slightly different interpretations.
As against this, the dominant Abrahamic religions of the world such as Christianity and Islam were strictly monotheistic in nature and material representation of both the natural and supernatural worlds remained prohibited. Consequently, these religions remained largely aniconistic in nature. However, symbolism developed to some extent in Christianity over the years as can be seen by the iconic representations of the Cross and Crucifix, Ichthys, Alpha and Omega, Staurogram etc. as early Christian symbols and symbols like The Good Shepherd, Dove and Peacock in later period. However, the core of normative religion in Islam is consistently aniconic; hence there is no specific symbols of Islam. At many places, a star inside a crescent moon is used as a symbol which was originally the Ottoman Empire's symbol and later adopted by many Muslim countries in the world. Among the few known symbols in the Muslim world are Stars and Crescent, Rub el Hizb and Inscribed Flags.
Continued to Part XXXVI