Hinduism: Sacred Symbols | 6



Hinduism is known for its numerous icons and images:

Deities are represented in many postures and in various materials. The question of whether these are “symbols” or reality itself has been much contested within the Hindu traditions:

Some philosophical schools think of them as symbols leading a person through meditation and concentration to reality; others think of the icons in the temples as actual incarnations of the deity itself.

Some Hindus think that, just as the incarnations of the Supreme Being as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa are real manifestations and not illusory or symbolic, the infusion of the supreme in the material body of a sculpture or icon is real.

Gods and goddesses are identified with specific iconography and every position of the hands or feet. Many deities have several hands, each carrying a weapon or a flower to protect the devotees from harm. Some Hindus interpret the many arms of a deity as representing omnipotence.

The numerous attributes of the deities, as well as their weapons, are seen as symbolic of values, concepts, or qualities, and there is no general agreement on their interpretation:

For instance, the conch shell and wheel of Vishnu are sometimes understood to be the weapons he uses to destroy evil, but others think of them as representing space and time.

Many Hindu deities are associated with animals or birds. Although the sacred texts give traditional reasons for this, some believers understand the iconography in an allegorical way.

Vishnu reclines on a serpent and flies on a bird called Garuda. Lakshmi is flanked by elephants; Murugan rides a peacock; and Gaṇeśa has an elephant head and rides a small mouse.

There is no uniform understanding of what these represent or symbolize, but there are many viewpoints.

Vishnu’s serpent, called Śeṣa, is seen as a paradigmatic servant of Vishnu, transforming his form to serve the deity’s many manifestations. The serpent is also known as Ananta (literally “infinite”), and according to some people, it represents the coils of time.

For some devotees the bird Garuda represents the celestial forces in contrast to the terrestrial powers of the serpent. Garuda also symbolizes the Vedas in traditional literature.

Elephants are said to represent royalty, auspiciousness, and rain-laden monsoon clouds. Gaṇeśa’s elephant head, on the other hand, is thought to symbolize his ability to overcome obstacles.

Shiva and Pārvatī are frequently represented as abstract forms known as linga and yoni:

Linga means distinguishing mark or gender, and yoni is translated as a womb; thus, many textbooks on Hinduism tend to depict the linga and yoni as sexual symbols:

Most Hindus, however, do not see them as phallic or as having sexual connotations but rather as representing the masculine and feminine creative energies of the universe.

Many Hindus also venerate mandalas—large, geometric patterns that represent the Supreme Being in aniconic (abstract) form:

These square or circular designs are symbols of the entire universe or of various realms of beings. The diagrams are a visual analogue to the strings of words known as mantras:

The most important mantra in the Hindu tradition is “Oṁ,” which is recited either by itself or as a prefix to the many mantras dedicated to various deities:

Om” (AUṀ) is considered to be made up of three letters: A, U and . The various Hindu traditions give different meanings to these letters, which may be understood as aural symbols.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol in Hindu art is the lotus flower. Red and gold lotuses dominate literature, art, and theologies, and they have a wide variety of interpretations:

The lotus is said to be a symbol of auspiciousness; for others, it may symbolize the grace of the Goddess (she is often depicted sitting on a lotus).

Still other traditions think of the thousand-petalled lotus flower as being near the crown of the head and believe that the spiritual power that rises up a person’s spine reaches the lotus on enlightenment.