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CHAPTER 9

S
ymbols adorn our world at every turn, in our spiritual, social and
political experience. A ring or gold pendant silently strengthens

Sacred Symbols and attests to wedded love. 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 vegans to beware. The best known symbols
are simple numerals: 0 through 9, which originated in India in the ancient
Endearing Icons of Mythology, Mysticism and Brahmi script. Historic images are etched in the mass mind; the mushroom
cloud of the atom bomb forever represents nuclear destruction. But it is our
Devotion Adorn Hindu Art, Architecture and Culture 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
vaq
painting, Muslims embroidering the crescent moon and star, Buddhists Vata, the banyan tree,
contemplating a mandala, Christians kneeling before the cross, Hindus Ficus indicus, symbolizes
meditating on the Aum, Pagans parading the ankh at Stonehenge—all Hinduism, which branches
these are potent meditations on cosmic symbols that are gateways to inner
out in all directions, draws
truths. To societies of prehistory, living fully in nature’s raw splendor and
power, symbols stood for supernatural states and beings—as they still can from many roots, spreads
for us today. A stylized image of a snake coiled round a clay vase, for example, shade far and wide, yet
represented cosmic life and regeneration. Wielded as tools by mystic stems from one great trunk.
shamans, symbols can shape the forces of nature and invoke astral beings. Siva as Silent Sage sits
To conjure power, a medieval alchemist would enclose himself in a magic
beneath it. Aum.
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 motifs across cultures from Mexico to Mongolia, including
the Hindu swastika and the wheel of the sun, honored by Buddhists as
the eight-spoked dharma wheel. Hinduism has amassed a vast range of
a r t b y s . r a j a m ; b a c k g r o u n d p h o t o o f t i r u va na m a l a i b y t h o m a s k e l ly

symbols art by a. manivel


icons from thousands of years back. Coins found in the Indus Valley carry
emblems of the cow and of a meditating yogi across a 6,000-year corridor of
time. Images from the Vedic age are popular motifs in Kashmiri carpets and

art by a. manivel
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
a mark of our dharmic heritage and a 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 svafistak[
emblems and transmitters of a Deity’s power or a particular frequency Swastika is the symbol of
of energy. Each accoutrement of the dozens of Deities in the Hindu auspiciousness and good
pantheon conveys a cosmic function or force. Today this ancient magic fortune—literally, “It is well.”
is with us everywhere, from the temple priest’s invocation to the Indian
The right-angled arms of this
housewife’s drawing of multi-colored designs, called kolams or rangoli, on
the ground as auspicious auguries, household blessings and greetings. ancient sun-sign denote the
indirect way that Divinity
is apprehended: by intuition
Left, a deva holds above his head a golden vajra (a “thunderbolt” representing
and not by intellect. Aum.
indestructibility), a celestial weapon wielded by the Vedic God Indra and other
Deities. Other symbols, clockwise: shakti vel, cudgel, sword, noose, flag, mace, chakra
with four flames, an umbrella and trident. In the background, a scene at night of the
magnificent Meenakshi Sundareshwara Temple of Madurai, a bastion of Hindu culture.
92 w h at i s h i n d u i s m ? chapter 9: sacred symbols 93
pa=Nava ‹ all sacred to Siva, liberation’s summit.
Pranava, Aum, is the root mantra and Planting Aegle marmelos trees around
primal sound from which all creation home or temple is sanctifying, as is
issues forth. It is associated with Lord worshiping a Linga with bilva leaves
Ganesha. Its three syllables stand at and water. Aum.
the beginning and end of every sacred
verse, every human act. Aum. paº
Padma is the lotus flower, Nelumbo
nucifera, perfection of beauty,
Mayil, “peacock,” is Lord heart, means to “honor or
gaNaexa Murugan’s mount, swift and associated with Deities and the celebrate.” It is our Hindu
Ganesha is the Lord of Obstacles beautiful like Karttikeya chakras, especially the 1,000-pet- greeting, two joined as one,
and Ruler of Dharma. Seated upon His Himself. The proud display of aled sahasrara. Rooted in the the bringing together of mat-
throne, He guides our karmas through the dancing peacock symbol- mud, its blossom is a promise of ter and spirit, the self meeting
creating and removing obstacles from izes religion in full, unfolded purity and unfoldment. Aum. the Self in all. Aum.
our path. We seek His permission and glory. His shrill cry warns of
blessings in every undertaking. Aum. approaching harm. Aum. mahak[ala gaaee
Mahakala, “Great Time,” presides Go, the cow, is a symbol
naind above creation’s golden arch. of the Earth, the nourisher,
Nandi is Lord Siva’s mount, or the ever-giving, undemanding
i}apauNz+ Devouring instants and eons, with
Tripundra is a Saivite’s great mark, a ferocious face, He is Time beyond
three stripes of white vibhuti on the time, reminder of this world’s
brow. This holy ash signifies purity and transitoriness, that sin and suffering
the burning away of anava, karma and will pass. Aum.
art by a. manivel

maya. The bindu, or dot, at the third


eye quickens spiritual insight. Aum. A\ku[xa
Ankusha, the goad held in Lord
Ganesha’s right hand, is used to
vahana. This huge white bull provider. To the Hindu, all
with a black tail, whose name remove obstacles from dharma’s animals are sacred, and we
naqraja acknowledge this reverence of
means “joyful,” disciplined path. It is the force by which all
Nataraja is Siva as “King of Dance.”
animality kneeling at Siva’s wrongful things are repelled from life in our special affection
Carved in stone or cast in bronze, His
feet, is the ideal devotee, the us, the sharp prod which spurs for the gentle cow. Aum.
ananda tandava, the fierce ballet of
pure joy and strength of Saiva the dullards onward. Aum.
bliss, dances the cosmos into and out
Dharma. Aum. kh';nfhyk;
of existence within a fiery arch of
A˝ila Mankolam, the pleasing pais-
flames denoting consciousness. Aum.
ibalva Anjali, the gesture of two ley design, is modeled after a
Bilva is the bael tree. Its hands brought together near the mango and associated with
kapy; Lord Ganesha. Mangos are
fruit, flowers and leaves are
94 w h at i s h i n d u i s m ? chapter 9: sacred symbols 95
the sweetest of fruits, symbolizing aus- k[laxa
piciousness and the happy fulfillment Kalasha, a husked coconut circled by
of legitimate worldly desires. Aum. mango leaves on a pot, is used in puja
to represent any God, especially Lord
Sa˜k[aeNa Ganesha. Breaking a coconut before
Shatkona, “six-pointed star,” is two His shrine is the ego’s shattering to
interlocking triangles; the upper stands reveal the sweet fruit inside. Aum.
for Siva, purusha and fire, the lower
for Shakti, prakriti and water. Their
GaNqa i}ak[aeNa
union gives birth to Sanatkumara, Ghanta is the bell used in
Fj;Jtpsf;F Trikona, the triangle, is a
whose sacred number is six. Aum. Kuttuvilaku, the standing oil lamp,
ritual puja, which engages all symbol of God Siva which,
symbolizes the dispelling of ignorance
senses, including hearing. Its like the Sivalinga, denotes His
mauiSak[ and awakening of the divine light
ringing summons the Gods, Absolute Being. It represents
Mushika is Lord Ganesha’s mount, the within us. Its soft glow illumines the
stimulates the inner ear and the element fire and portrays
mouse, traditionally associated with temple or shrine room, keeping the
reminds us that, like sound, the process of spiritual ascent
abundance in family life. Under cover atmosphere pure and serene. Aum.
the world may be perceived and liberation spoken of in
of darkness, seldom visible yet always but not possessed. Aum. scripture. Aum.
at work, Mushika is like God’s unseen

grace in our lives. Aum. k[maNzlau


Kamandalu, the water vessel, is car-
art by a. manivel

bfhd;iw ried by the Hindu monastic. It sym-


Konrai, Golden Shower, blossoms are bolizes his simple, self-contained life,
the flowering symbol of Siva’s honeyed his freedom from worldly needs, his
grace in our life. Associated with His constant sadhana and tapas, and his
shrines and temples throughout India, oath to seek God everywhere. Aum.
the Cassia fistula is lauded in number-
less Tirumurai hymns. Aum. nrty;
gaaepaur
Gopuras are the towering Seval is the noble red rooster
haemaku[Nz jpUto who
stone Tiruvadi, the sacred
Homakunda, the fire altar, is heralds each dawn, calling
gateways through which sandals worn by saints, sages and sat-
the symbol of ancient Vedic rites. It all to awake and arise. He is
pilgrims enter the South gurus, symbolize the preceptor’s holy
is through the fire element, denoting a symbol of the imminence
Indian temple. Richly feet, which are the source of his grace.
divine consciousness, that we make of spiritual unfoldment and
ornamented with myriad Prostrating before him, we humbly
offerings to the Gods. Hindu sacra- wisdom. As a fighting cock,
sculptures of the divine touch his feet for release from world-
ments are solemnized before the homa he crows from Lord Skanda’s
pantheon, their tiers liness. Aum.
fire. Aum. battle flag. Aum.
symbolize the several planes
of existence. Aum.
96 w h at i s h i n d u i s m ? chapter 9: sacred symbols 97
føa#a k[alacak=[
Rudraksha seeds, Eleocarpus ganitrus, Kalachakra, “wheel, or circle,
are prized as the compassionate tears of time,” is the symbol of perfect
Lord Siva shed for mankind’s suffering. creation, of the cycles of existence.
Saivites wear malas of them always Time and space are interwoven, and
as a symbol of God’s love, chanting on eight spokes mark the directions, each
each bead, “Aum Namah Sivaya.” ruled by a Deity and having a
unique quality. Aum.

naaga h\sa
ixavaila• Hamsa, vehicle of Brahma, is
canø saUya* Naga, the cobra, is a symbol
Sivalinga is the ancient mark or the swan (more accurately,
Chandra is the moon, ruler of the of kundalini power, cosmic
symbol of God. This elliptical stone is the wild goose Anser indicus).
watery realms and of emotion, testing energy coiled and slumbering
a formless form betokening Parasiva, It is a noble symbol for the
place of migrating souls. Surya is the within man. It inspires seek-
That which can never be described or soul, and for adept renunci-
sun, ruler of intellect, source of truth. ers to overcome misdeeds and
portrayed. The pitha, pedestal, repre- ates, Paramahamsa, winging
One is pingala and lights the day; the suffering by lifting the ser-
sents Siva’s manifest Parashakti. Aum. high above the mundane and
other is ida and lights the night. Aum. pent power up the spine into
diving straight to the goal.
God Realization. Aum.
Aum.

nty;
Vel, the holy lance, is Lord
maaedk[
Modaka, a round, lemon-sized
Murugan’s protective power,
sweet made of rice, coconut, sugar
our safeguard in adversity. Its
and spices, is a favorite treat of Gane-
tip is wide, long and sharp, signifying
sha. Esoterically, it corresponds to
art by a. manivel

incisive discrimination and spiritual


siddhi (attainment or fulfillment), the
knowledge, which must be broad,
gladdening contentment of pure joy.
deep and penetrating. Aum.
Aum.
Dvaja
Dhvaja, “flag,” is the orange
i}axaUla paaxa
or red banner flown above
Trishula, Siva’s trident Pasha, tether or noose,
temples, at festivals and in
carried by Himalayan yogis, is the represents the soul’s three-fold bond-
processions. It is a symbol of
royal scepter of the Saiva Dharma. Its age of anava, karma and maya. Pasha
victory, signal to all that “San-
triple prongs betoken desire, action is the all-important force or fetter by
atana Dharma shall prevail.”
and wisdom; ida, pingala and which God (Pati, envisioned as a cow-
Its color betokens the sun’s
sushumna; and the gunas—sattva, herd) brings souls (pashu, or cows)
life-giving glow. Aum.
rajas and tamas. Aum. along the path to Truth. Aum.

98 w h at i s h i n d u i s m ? chapter 9: sacred symbols 99