Hindu seers were among the earliest and the greatest artists of the world. They would often convey their observations and thoughts in the concealed language of symbols and icons. The richness and variety of symbolism used in Hindu scriptures is unrivalled! Few examples may be recalled to capture the beauty and significance of the symbols in the Hindu pantheon.
The portrait of Lord Shiva has deep symbolic significance. The matted hair proclaims the length and intensity of his austerities, or tapas, and the cobra around his neck signifies that even the most poisonous snake becomes harmless because the one who has identified with the Supreme has gone beyond all the effects of matter on his senses and organs. The third eye in the middle of the forehead represents the concentration of knowledge, or jnana, and it embodies the absolute power to destroy the sloth, tamas, and all its manifestations. The ashes that besmear the body recall to us that this body of which we are proud and obsessed is ultimately bound to end up merely as ashes.
With Lord Shiva, the dancing pose, nataraja, is symbolic of the cosmic dance. The Lord dances over the body of the demon Apasmara, who represents the ego. Nandi, the snow-white bull facing the Shiva temple, represents the human soul, the jeev atman, who is separated from the Divine due to animal tendencies but is attracted to God by divine grace.
The elephant head of Lord Ganesha signifies the highest intelligence, buddhi. It represents the largest brain matter. The trunk of Lord Ganesha signifies the discretionary power. He can pick up a needle from a heap of grass. The large ears of Lord Ganesha signify the importance of hearing—to accept what is good and reject what is not useful to us. The small eyes of Lord Ganesha symbolize concentration and the power to focus our attention on what we should while shutting out the rest. The Vedas of Lord Ganesha signify the importance of knowledge in our lives.
The famous mythological legend, of the churning of the ocean by gods (devas) and demons (asuras), is symbolic of churning the mind. Attainment of the nectar of immortality stands for the essence of wisdom.
The epic scripture, the Mahabharata, is studded with many symbolic presentations. The blindness of Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharata is the blindness of our minds, which cannot see right from wrong. So, too, is the war of the Mahabharata considered as a war within ourselves. There is a constant war in our minds as to whether we should go by the right path of God or the wrong path of Mammon.
The five Pandavas represent virtues that are few; the hundred Kauravas represent vices that are many in number. Draupadi represents our honor, when she was being undressed in the court of Duryodhana. Draupadi later asked the Lord, why he did not help her earlier; the Lord replied that as long as she was looking for help from others, he would not come. But as soon as the devotee wholeheartedly looks toward God and asks only his help, the Lord comes immediately. In the Hindu pantheon, the Supreme Lord always resides within one’s own self as the supreme wisdom. One must constantly strive to connect and unite with this eternal wisdom of the Divine, to conquer worldly problems. When Arjuna and Duryodhana went to the Lord before the commencement of war, the Lord declared, “On one side would be I without any material possessions and the army; on the other side would be all my wealth and army, but not I.” Arjuna–the man of virtue– preferred God, his counsel, and moral support; while Duryodhana–the man of vice–preferred the wealth and army.
Krishna is portrayed as the universal husband. The husband in the traditional Indian society is the symbol of provider, caretaker, and defender. The maids, or gopis, represent all human beings who look at this super model of a husband. He has all the qualities that a dependent, weak, and vulnerable wife would seek in her husband. They even turn their backs on their conventional husbands and seek his company. Human beings, weary from the conventional and material possessions, finally turn to God for the eternal support! Lord Krishna’s flute is the symbol of the soothing and comforting voice of God. We may listen to God’s divine music from within and become peaceful. We may also emulate the Lord, and bring peace and joy to others by our soothing and harmonious words
In Southern India, Deepavali marks the victory of Lord Krishna over the mighty asura, the demon Narakasura. It is after this victory that the Lord married the 16,008 wives. In this story, the 16,008 damsels represent our numerous desires. When we work selflessly, however, dedicating our actions to a higher goal, the desires remain in check and, most important, get sublimated through the blessings of the Divine.
Hindus have a special regard for the lotus flower, padma. Its one thousand petals have been associated with the mental convolutions, the chakras, finally culminating into sahasrara, the highest stage of spiritual evolution. The lotus, which arises from mud roots and blooms in beauty, is a symbolic reminder of the emancipation of the mind from the low to the high.
The swastika is the four-angled figure, formed from the shape of a cross, with the arms bent to the right, signifying auspiciousness and peace. There is evidence to suggest its presence in the ancient Sindhu-Saraswati culture, and it was later adopted as symbol by the Brahamin caste in Aryan rituals.94 Swastika is a Sanskrit word, where Su means good or auspicious. It is believed that this ancient Indian symbol, with slight modification, was misused as the anti-Semitic sign during the Nazi period. The saffron color of the flags on top of Hindu temples and the robes worn by Hindu seers represent the sun’s life-giving glow and purity.
NOTE: This chapter is mainly adapted from Nityanand Swami, Symbolism in Hinduism, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai, India, 2001.