Symbols in Hindu Spirituality

By Swami Swahananda

Swami Swahananda was the head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California from 1976 until his passing on October 19, 2012.


A symbol represents or recalls a thing by possession of analogous qualities or by association in fact or thought. The original Greek word symbolon means a sign by which one knows or infers a thing. Symbols express the invisible by means of visible or sensory representations—the immaterial via the material.

All our contact with the outside world is based on symbols. The symbol-making tendency is innate in man. Languages are nothing but symbols. “We think in symbols, we act in symbols, we live in symbols, we learn in symbols.” As Carlyle’s professor in Sartor Resartus put it: “The universe is but one vast symbol of God; nay, if thou wilt have it, what is man himself but a symbol of God?”

“In a symbol,” as Carlyle pointed out, “there is concealment and yet revelation.” The symbol partly conceals the essential content from an ordinary person and partly reveals it by suggesting it. When the abstract is quite clear to a discerning mind, a symbol loses its concealing quality, but even then it may be used to suggest the abstract.

Because of its allegoric nature, a symbol gives rise to esoterism. This is true of every branch of learning. But this tendency is most evident in religion. Religious truth, being intangible, has given rise to much symbology. Every religion has its own body of symbols which suggest the ultimate Reality and other spiritual truths.

Hinduism has made use of symbolism profusely with a definite purpose, that of setting forth in visible or audible likeness what cannot be really or fully expressed or conceived. The highest reality in Hinduism is Brahman, the all-pervading divine Ground, which is absolute and indefinable. Symbols are used as intermediaries between the inadequate and limited capacity of man and his created language, and the incommunicable nature and fullness of Brahman.

Symbols of Brahman are regarded as a portion or aspect of the truth. They provide objects of reverence, but Hinduism does not consider them as ultimate. They are stepping-stones to higher conceptions, signposts or guides to better or higher thoughts. That is why Hinduism does not look askance at so-called idols, totems, or fetishes. It considers them to have a valid function since they remind the worshiper of the Reality. Swami Vivekananda explained this viewpoint on an occasion when he was asked to condemn the fetishism of the Hottentot: “Don’t you see that there is no fetishism? Oh, your hearts are steeled that you cannot see that the child is right! The child sees person everywhere. Knowledge robs us of the child’s vision. But at last, through higher knowledge, we win back to it. He connects a living power with rocks, sticks, trees, and the rest. And is there not a living power behind them? It is symbolism, not fetishism! Can you not see?”

For worship, various symbols of Brahman have been accepted—symbols which have become living because saints and holy men have visualized them and meditated on them. Of the most important ones a few may be mentioned. Brahman has been described as Satchidananda, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss absolute, or as Svayambhu, the self-created and self-existent One. But even these conceptions are difficult and elude our comprehension. So the Upanishads have prescribed for meditation the more tangible symbols of prana, the vital energy; vayu, the wind; akasha, the all-pervading ether; aditya, the sun; and so forth. Though the Vedic seers worshiped many deities, such as Indra, Varuna, Mitra, Savita, and others, they had even in those ancient times the knowledge of the supreme Brahman as the divine substratum of these deities. This is evident from sayings like the following one from the Rig Veda: “Truth is one; sages call it by various names.”

For the realization of the impersonal aspect of Brahman, meditation is enjoined considering the soul as a spark rising from a blazing fire, or as a river flowing into the sea, or as a fish swimming in the ocean of the Absolute, or as a bird flying through infinite space.

But the impersonal aspect of Brahman is too abstract for the ordinary person. Therefore most spiritual aspirants choose one or another of the innumerable form symbols of the personal aspect of Brahman which appeals to their particular temperament. Usually the chosen ideal of God is conceived as seated on the lotus of the heart of man. This conception is based upon the yogic principle that spiritual nerve centers, resembling the lotus flower in shape, exist in the human body within the sushumna, the path in the spinal column through which spiritual energy rises from the base of the spine to the brain. The lotus of the heart is considered one of the centers of spiritual consciousness most favored for the purpose of meditation. As the devotee meditates on the chosen deity seated on the lotus of the heart, the center of his very life, so externally also the deities are conceived as sitting on lotuses.

Worship of the incarnations of God is very common in Hinduism; Krishna and Rama are examples of divine incarnations of great popular appeal. The incarnations are regarded as veritable manifestations of God on earth.

All the gods in the Hindu pantheon have some identifying marks, some representing animal symbols placed beneath the deities, called “vehicles” or mounts, others representing articles upon their person. Each vehicle is a duplicate representation of the energy and character of the god. Thus the goose of Brahma, the eagle of Vishnu, the bull of Shiva, the elephant of Indra, the owl of Lakshmi, the swan of Saraswati—all are vehicles by which we can identify the respective deity.

The images of the deities themselves and the articles they carry also signify particular qualities or powers. Thus Brahma—God in his creative aspect—has four faces to give out the four Vedas. From the Bhagavatam we learn that Vishnu—God in his aspect as Preserver—has a discus, a club, and a conch shell, thus indicating his authority and power. The auspicious mark, srivatsa, usually represented on his breast in the form of a curl of hair, signifies his brilliance and capability. The garland he wears symbolizes the variegated maya—the universe of name and form—and his sacred thread the Om, the sound-symbol of Brahman.

Shiva is one of the most popular deities in Hindu worship. In one of his forms he is depicted with his three-pronged trident with which he has killed the demon of ego. The trident bespeaks his government and authority. The three prongs represent nonattachment, knowledge, and samadhi—that is, spiritual absorption. Shiva has three eyes with which he sees the past, present, and future. His third eye is the eye of knowledge.

Shiva as the Lord of the universe rides on the bull of dharma, whose four feet represent truth, purity, kindness, and charity. His symbol of destruction is the battle-ax. Shiva is the chosen ideal of the yogis; to the devotees of Shiva the constantly burning dhuni fire* symbolizes the fire of dispassion which burns all worldly attachments and desires. Shaivites—devotees of Shiva—besmear their bodies with the ashes of the dhuni fire as the Lord Shiva is said to do himself. The ashes represent what is left after the universe of diverse names and forms dissolves in the realization of the underlying Unity. Shiva here is the all-destroyer, for he dissolves all diversities in the one absolute Existence.

As Nataraja, Shiva dances. Nataraja means “Lord of the stage of this transitory world.” His dance represents his five activities: shrishti, creation and evolution; sthiti, preservation and support; samhara, destruction and evolution; tirobhava, veiling, embodiment, and illusion; anugraha, release from transmigration, grace, and salvation.

Shiva is the real guru, the teacher, for he teaches by being what he teaches. This idea is the keynote to the Nataraja symbol. The drum in the upper right hand means that God, or guru, holds in his hand the cause of the world—sound. The fire in the upper left hand represents the light of the Atman. The Ganges on his head represents wisdom, which is cooling and refreshing; and the moon represents the ethereal light and bliss of the Atman, the Self.

One foot crushes the demon Muyalaka (or maya, the great illusion which is the cause of birth, death, and rebirth); the other foot, to which the remaining left hand is pointing, is raised upward and represents turiya—the superconscious state, beyond waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep, beyond the mind and the world.

The second right hand bestows fearlessness and peace. The place of the dance, the theater, is the body—of the individual as well as of the cosmos. The body is spoken of as a forest because of its many components. The platform of the theater is the cremation ground, where all passions and all names and forms, which constitute the vision of this illusory world, are burnt away. The circle of flames within which Shiva dances has been interpreted by some to be the dance of nature contrasted with Shiva’s dance of wisdom. Others have identified Shiva’s dance with the mystic syllable Om, the fiery arch being the hook of the ideograph of the written symbol.

According to the conception of the Nataraja symbol, God the teacher teaches that maya, illusion, should be crushed, that egoism must be destroyed, and that man should ascend to the regions of pure, unconditioned consciousness and enjoy the blissful peace which is the Atman. Viewed in the light of this inner meaning, the image of Nataraja is a symbol of the highest teaching, one that can inspire and elevate.

The form of Kali, the Divine Mother, has given rise to much symbolic interpretation. She dances on the breast of the inert Shiva, her husband. Shiva here represents the transcendent aspect of Spirit and Mother Kali, the world-producing supreme Power, the dynamic aspect. Kali’s dance indicates that the whole universe of ever-changing diversities is an appearance of the one immutable supreme Spirit. Amidst all changes, Shiva remains unchanged. Mother Kali is worshiped in order that man, amidst all the vicissitudes of life, may realize the Absolute within himself. Usually Mother Kali is represented with four arms stretched out over all the four directions. She holds the bleeding head of a demon in the lower left hand, a sharp dazzling sword in the upper left; she bestows fearlessness with the upper right hand and offers boons with the lower right. Thus she destroys evil and ignorance, preserves world order, and grants salvation to her devotees. She is both the just Ruler and the affectionate Mother. She subdues evil forces and bestows her grace. Both are her aspects. The former is necessary to lead her creatures to the latter, so that ultimately they may be released from all bondage and find eternal peace.

In addition to form symbols, sound symbols or mantras play an important part in the Hindu religion. The sound symbols, like the form symbols, are embodiments of consciousness through which God may be communicated. In the scriptural teachings concerning mantras, it is pointed out that every form has a corresponding sound, and every sound must have a corresponding form.

The most important mantra is the Om, or Aum. It represents the undifferentiated Brahman. As the personal God, its three letters A, U, M, represent his aspects of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and their powers. The vibration of Om is the sound-Brahman or the first manifestation of the primordial Person. Om is the ground sound and ground movement of nature. Out of Om everything else has evolved. It is a symbol of universality. Every uttered sound is particular, produced from the strokes of the vocal organs and broken into parts. But Om is the universal unstruck sound behind all broken sounds. As an effective spiritual practice, repetition of the sacred syllable Om with steady and lengthened utterance is prescribed.

In the yogic tradition the mantras are regarded as the special manifestations of the supreme Power. The essence of mantra yoga—the way to God by means of the mantra—is the constant repetition of the divine name, which leads to illumination.

For spiritual progress, a mantra of a chosen ideal of God is prescribed. This sacred formula of the chosen deity is selected by the spiritual teacher in accordance with the nature of the devotee and his or her emotional disposition. The mantra is infused with the teacher’s own spiritual power and the power of the propounder who discovered it. While chanting the divine name, the devotee should contemplate the spiritual meaning of the mantra. [This idea is discussed in depth in Swami Shraddhananda's article "Mantra Yoga."]

Halfway between the sound symbols and the anthropomorphic symbols there is another type called the aniconic symbols. The Shiva lingam, a symbol of Shiva, and the Narayanasila or the salagrama, a symbol of Vishnu, are examples of these.

Lingam means symbol, or sign. It also means the place of mergence, in which all manifestations are dissolved and unified. Some scholars have tried to trace the origin of the lingam to phallus worship. However, no such association exists in the minds of devotees, and Swami Vivekananda strongly repudiated this view. He said that the lingam originated in the famous hymn in the Atharva Veda Samhita sung in praise of the Yupa Stambha, the sacrificial post.

Some have endeavored to identify the conceptions of lingam and yoni—the latter forming the base of the image with the former rising from its center—in Tantra with fatherhood and motherhood of the universe. The tapering Shiva lingam situated on the base also represents Purusha and Prakriti of the Samkhya system of philosophy. Lingam here means the unchanging axis round which the whole creation moves. It has also been pointed out that the temples of Shiva are generally built in imitation of Himalayan peaks with their bases on the earth and summits soaring toward the transcendent sky. Similarly, a devotee, although he lives in the world, should keep his mind on Shiva.

The salagrama represents the Absolute with attributes. It is a black and egg-shaped stone, and represents Hiranyagarbha, or the primordial Golden Egg, the undifferentiated Totality. The idea is that out of Hiranyagarbha the whole universe has become differentiated in course of time.

A Hindu temple itself is a symbol of the body: the human body is considered to be the temple of God. “This body of ours is a temple of the divine,” says the Maitreyi Upanishad. God resides in the heart of man, and the sanctum sanctorum of the temple represents his heart. The heart is a cave, and the king of the dark chamber is God. Hence the sanctum sanctorum is purposely kept dark without any windows. Lights in the temple represent the light of the soul. The clarified butter often supplied to the lamp stands for regular spiritual practice.

Spiritual growth comes through intense thought of God. With these and many more symbolic representations, Hinduism and other religions try to bring the divine within the grasp of the devotees and help them to keep their minds recollected in God. As the devotees’ spiritual life deepens, their vision of the Deity changes. God, who was first considered to be outside of oneself is next seen as the indwelling Spirit, then as immanent in all creation, and ultimately as the transcendental Brahman. Thus the devotee gradually climbs the ladder of spirituality and finally attains the vision of the Supreme.


* A fire lighted by wandering monks, beside which they meditate and sleep.—Ed.

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