Simple graphics or an iconic image, in his symbols man has sought across ages a moral-boosting energy and support. In art or in the course of day-today life, man has been using for millenniums symbols for portraying probabilities – the course that things might take as they occur or progress, and also for embodying the divine forces that steered his efforts into desired direction. The ‘desired’ being the goal of man’s efforts he would resort to anything that takes him nearer to it. He would not hesitate tying an ordinary black thread around the arm or wearing it on his child’s neck if it protected him against an ailment. Black was perhaps his means of infusing into his child’s being as much negative/immunizing energy as defeated the adverseness of a disease. Tying a rag of her used wear – a sari, to a tree a woeful woman has been lodging since ages her petition to the unseen powers of nature. She has always believed that this would redeem her of her distress. The tradition saw, perhaps, her wear, being long on her body, becoming her integrated part and by tying its fragment to the tree – a part of nature, she believed her woes shall shift to the tree and from the tree to the nature. The concept re-affirms when the mother of a newborn seeks to clothe her child in someone’s used garments preferably of the person whose character and ability she wished the child inherited. A few green chillis and a lemon, stringed and hung on a truck, crane, road roller or a mini tempo, secures his vehicle from every kind of mishap. In early morning when the eye has not yet divorced drowsiness some unseen messiah would emerge and hang the chilli-lemon chain along the bumper of his carrier, and soon after it is hung it acquires such magical powers as secures the vehicle against every mishap.
Whatever its operational area, the strength of a symbol or any such magical instrument – even a common man’s ‘totaka’ – charm or spell, such as chilli-lemon chain, or rags tied to the tree, is still the same as ever. A mud-figure of Ganapati, or the motifs of the sun and the moon on the hut’s mud-wall, or a Ganapati or Dasavatara relief on the lintel of the entrance of a royal mansion are believed to secure both, and their inmates, against every misfortune, calamity and everything untoward. Symbols, or such cumulated beliefs that time has often questioned and tested for their validness, have a very wide range and an unseen mechanism ensuring deliverance of the ‘desired’. This world of unmanifest powers that commands man’s life as effectively as – or more effectively than, his manifest world, is as wide as his manifest world. Besides mystic destiny, unseen forces of nature, planetary positions, cosmological diagrams, graphic condensations of universe this world consists of deity-images, auspicious signs, and a number of material things defining a status, such as a crown, the kingship, or a ‘mangal-sutra’, whatever its form, even a humble black thread, a woman’s marital status.
Ordinary material objects having a symbol’s status
A coconut, otherwise an ordinary dried fruit or the source of edible, or at the most, beauty oil, has always been revered as an auspicious object effecting good and well-being and the food that gods most loved, and hence some kind of divinity enshrining it. One shall always take care that he does not touch or hit it with foot.
Similarly, objects like conch, lotus, lamp, pot, book, birds like goose, peacock, aquatic creatures like fish, tortoise, animals like lion, cow, elephant among others, are believed to possess, besides their normal attributes, transcendental strength effecting good. As the attribute of Lord Brahma book is the symbol of Vedas; otherwise that of knowledge and man’s desire to learn and know. In Vaishnava tradition conch represents the end of demonic powers that the demon Shankhachuda, killed by Lord Vishnu, represented; otherwise, conch is the symbol of declaring a beginning of an event, a war or a rite, that effects a change. Besides the mount of goddess Saraswati goose is the symbol of purity and adherence to values. Most other things listed among symbols have besides a legendary context also independent symbol-status.
Omens, good or bad, ‘totakas’ – charms or spells, black magic, tantric practices among others are also the constituents of this unmanifest world; however, while a spell or charm, the crude local ‘totakas’, or even a tantric instrument, accomplishes the practitioner’s objective more often in an opponent’s destruction, damage or loss, a symbol is always auspicious doing good to oneself without harming any. Motifs representing sun, moon and other celestial bodies, tantric diagrams – various yantras, kumbha, or purna-kumbha – pots, simple or ritually accomplished or consecrated, conceptual or graphic icons like Shrimukha or Kirttimukha,
among others are the objects in which man has seen since ages the charismatic good-delivering power. Besides accomplishing the desired most symbols are also components of one ritual or other. They are often his means for defining a status, identity, cultural ethos and nationalism. Summarily, many of the symbols are representations of objects always held in utmost reverence; others are conceptual or those as evolved in the course of time, tradition of faith or by adoption such as national flag, emblem, currency, national song …, ritually nurtured or consecrated as the purna-ghata, or those inherited from other traditions even such as reached Indian land with invaders such as the mythical dragon form. Attributed with due rites and accomplished with auspicious components an ordinary earthen pot is elevated to the status of purna-ghata, and thus, that of a sacred symbol.
Deity images, the timeless symbols
In almost all religious cultures divine imagery to include besides anthropomorphic deity images also their names, characteristic verses or hymns lauding them, their mounts, attributes or an object inseparably associated with a divinity or such objects as the tree in the Buddhist tradition.
Anthropomorphic imagery also includes graphic representation if it represents a deity such as Sri-yantra, a representation of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi,
the part of an image used for representing the total image, such as Vishnu-pad – image of feet symbolic of Lord Vishnu, or foot-prints, symbolic representation of goddess Lakshmi.
Such objects as are integrally associated with a divinity such as cross – scaffold Jesus Christ was hung on in Christian culture. In contemporary times artists have represented Mahatma Gandhi by representing his glasses. The tree in the Buddhist tradition was later identified as Bodhi-tree, seated under which Buddha had attained Enlightenment.
Besides the Bodhi-tree the sacred syllable ‘Om Mane Pamne Hum’ and ‘chakra’ or the ‘dharma-chakra’, wheel also has a sacred symbol’s sanctity. Any Buddhist, a monk or a lay follower, might be seen wearing an amulet with the four words of this holy hymn embossed on it.
For a Christian a cross, or any cross-like form, even a neck-tie, or tie-pin, or a pendant in the shape of cross, is his most sacred symbol defining his Christian identity. A form of mihrab – arch in the mosque architecture, defining qu’bla – arched recess in a mosque’s western wall, the direction of the holy Mecca, holds in Islam a sacred symbol’s sanctity. The motif of a Kirtti-stambh with words that Lord Mahavira first uttered after attaining ‘Kewal-jyana’ – absolute knowledge, inscribed on its base-part, is the most pious symbol of Jainism. The Kirtti-stambh is the representation of Tirthankara Mahavira’s ‘Samavasarana’ – first sermon that he delivered after his twelve years penance. Nishan-sahib’ – the icon of double edged khadga with which Sikhs’ tenth pontiff Guru Gobind Singh had founded Khalsa, is Sikhs’ essential identity symbol. Besides, syllables like ‘Sat Sri Akal’ or even ‘Sat Guru teri ot’ have also a symbol-like sanctity for the people of Punjab.
In view of great breadth of Hindu pantheon the number of symbols related to deity images, attributes, mounts, hymns among others has far greater enormity. Though anthropomorphic icons of all deities, Vaishnava, Shaivite or any, have a symbol’s status, an image of Ganesha and even that of the monkey god Hanuman, Goddess Durga’s mount lion, ritual artifact bell among others have as symbols universal identity. Ganesha is the symbol of auspiciousness,
Hanuman, of redemption from a crisis,
Durga’s mount lion, of dauntless courage and valour, and bell of cosmic sound.
The American President Barak Obama had revealed after his historic victory that one of his inspirations leading him to his victory was the idol of Hanuman that he always carried with him. Elephant and lotus, the essential attributes of Goddess Lakshmi’s icons, are esoteric but as symbols of prosperity and accomplishment they have quite wider acceptance.
Among anthropomorphic icons the images of Vishnu, Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Mahakala and yogi form of Shiva, icons of Shiva’s mount Nandi, the bull, Durga’s mount lion, Krishna’s cow, Karttikeya’s mount peacock, Indra’s mount Airavata, besides a number of attributes that various gods carry, have symbols’ status. Lotus is the foremost symbol among flowers, thunderbolt, khadga – double-edged sword, conch, bell and bow, in weapons, mango among fruits etc have symbols’ status. Tri-punda sign – three horizontal lines on the forehead, is the identity symbol of a Shaivite, whereas a vertical strip, a Vaishnavite’s identity. Though not exactly symbols, some classes of amulets, at least those with deity icons for they portray the wearer’s religious identity, are like symbols. Amulets with icons of Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Hanuman, Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, Shiva mostly seated while Vishnu always as standing and also as Narsimha … are in wide use among Hindus.
Symbols prevalent since Vedic days : sun, foot-print, AUM
Body gestures and symptoms, signs, indications among others must have been the early man’s tools of communicating oneself and knowing and understanding the world around. Thus, his initial communicative mechanism must have evolved out of signs and body gestures. Symbols were only the sophisticated version of some of such signs, state of things or those obtained by decoding of mystic riddles of the cosmos. Such sophistication had begun taking place right since the period of Vedas. Seven of such symbols, namely, the sacred syllable AUM, sun, foot-print, purna-ghata or purna-kumbha, lotus, naga – serpent, and conch, are found occurring in the Vedic literature.
In Vedic literature the sun is hardly ever a planet or a celestial body but the source of entire cosmic energy and the supreme deity that accepts ‘havya’ – offering made to Agni of the ‘yajna’. Sun, the Rig-Veda’s ‘urugay’ walked with long strides and spanned entire universe every day. Later, the status of the sun was reduced to a subordinate deity; however, sun always remained an auspicious symbol in art to also include floor-drawings – alpanas and rangolis, decorative art embellishing various spaces on auspicious occasions and folk art, and entire architecture. Soon, the sun jointly with moon emerged as the symbol of time.
Foot-print was another important Vedic symbol. Initially foot-print was a symbol of the sun that the Rig-Veda saw as interminably spanning the universe, and hence, as foot, the most characteristic symbol of the ceaseless moving sun. The yajnika – performer of yajna, invoked the sun for accomplishing the yajna by accepting the ‘havya’ and placed the foot-print symbol on the entrance of yajna-shala – the yajna premises, believing that having accepted his invocation the sun is walking in. Later, Vishnu emerged as the yajna’s presiding deity who spanned the universe in three strides. Now he was the texts’ ‘urugay’ and the presiding deity of the yajna. Obviously, the foot-print symbol on the entrance door was also shifted to Vishnu. Now the symbol is widely known as ‘Vishnu-pada’ – Vishnu’s feet. The tradition later developed also another foot-print symbol, tender and feminine, perceived as the symbol representing the feet of Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, prosperity, fertility, fecundity … On her first entering her in-laws’ house the new-wed would dip her feet in red dye and print the floor of the house with foot-print marks. Equated with the goddess of prosperity she is believed to harbinger riches and good luck to her new abode.
Also spelt as OM the sacred syllable AUM is the symbol of Supreme. It is also the symbol of cosmic nada – sound, and Vedic seers seem to have developed it as an instrument of meditation. AUM – the most effective regulator of breathing, is the sound that resounds across all three cosmic regions, the earth, the sky and the ocean. Practically it puts the entire vocal region to act, that is, properly pronounced its AAH part requires the mouth to open, its OOH part, the lips to pucker and fold ring-like, and MMMM part requires the lips to purse together. From there the sound moves to the top of the palette. Here it ascends to further height, and then it descends into the throat. In equation lips define the middle level, that is, earth, palette, the top level, the sky, and throat or the root of the tongue, the bottom which is the ocean. The sound of AUM is strangely resounding and echoes all through the vocal region and beyond. Hence, it precedes recitation of all hymns so that the hymn echoes across all regions and enhances the quality and strength of breath.
Purna-ghata, naga, conch and lotus
An ordinary pot, purna-ghata or purna-kumbha is required to be consecrated by due rites and procedure to rise to a symbol’s status. It appears that to the Vedic seers purna-ghata was a component of paraphernalia used in the course of yajna. Later in Puranic era it was attributed a regular form, status and symbolic stretch. Naga was taken to illustrate the being’s dormant energies; later besides illustrating such energies associated with top divinities of almost all sects, Vaishnava, Shaiva, Buddhist, Jain and lately, Sikhism, naga was used for defining their supreme divine status.
The Vedic seers used conch for declaring initiation of yajna, and lotus, initially as a sacred flower. Later, both, the conch and the lotus, linked with different divinities acquired symbols’ status.
Kirtimukha, the universal symbol of auspices
Kirttimukha, also known as 'Shrimukha', is universally revered as an auspicious symbol. Almost all ancient cultures of the world discovered 'the auspicious' in something awe-inspiring and conceived a dreadful symbol which stood for good. It is obviously the symbol in which man sought immunity from fear and protection from the outside evil. Kirttimukha was initially conceived as a mystical mask. Kirttimukha symbol, often translated as the 'Face of glory', is composed using a dreaded animal form combined with some attributes of human anatomy. In India the Kirttimukha is a composite lion form. In China and many other countries it is composed of a dragon form – a python’s body and a demon head. This dragon form of Kirttimukha reached India with Greek and other invaders in early days but was not accepted immediately. Its best use is seen in later temple architecture, the temples of Chandelas in special, their temples at Khajuraho alone having eighteen kinds of them. They are composed of eighteen different animals all with ferocious bearings. In early contexts it was conceived to display the illusion and hide the 'real'. It seems to have some relation with devil worship for winning its favour or evading its wrath. In Tibet its form is almost like Tibetan Bon-po, the devil whose worship prevailed until the introduction of Buddhism. Though 'Kirtimukha' or the 'Face of glory', its name, Kirttimukha is a grotesque, ferocious and terrifying form. In Buddhism, the 'Kirttimukha' like looking fierce deities are revered as the Buddha’s guardians. In China, Nepal and many other countries Kirttimukha is revered as holy protector and guardian.
Bell, lamp, wheel and lion
Bell, lamp, wheel and lion are other objects that have symbols’ status. Used in rites of almost all religions lamp and bell have universal acceptance, though wheel as symbol, not as component of a mechanical device, is strictly of Buddhist origin. The lamp that breaks monotonous darkness, and the bell that breaks the monotonous silence are auspicious symbols operating against demonic forces of monotonous quiet and darkness. Wheel is essentially contextual to Buddhism and is symbolic of his first sermon that he delivered at Sarnath to his five fellow-pupils after he had attained Enlightenment. In Buddhist tradition the moment was named ‘dharma-chakra-pravartana, that is, putting the wheel of Law in motion. The wheel marks its presence in entire Buddhist iconography. Wheel motif is one of main attractions of the famous Surya-temple at Konark in Orissa and Indian Republic had incorporated it when designing her currency and is now its permanent feature.
Now the identity symbol of Jain Tirthankara Mahavira and goddess Durga’s mount, Indus people seem to have been little familiar or friendly with lion. Lion does not figure in the wide range of animal toys or figurines excavated from Indus sites. Even the yajna-performing Vedic seers seem to have been quite indifferent to lion as the Vedas are completely silent to the animal. As a matter of fact even in Buddhism lion gets eminence only in Mauryan era when Emperor Ashoka adopts Buddhism and for spreading the Buddha’s message of non-violence erects pillars with animal capitals topping them. Now the Indian Republic has on her entire currency the lion-capital which is now the national symbol of India. However, far more than India’s national symbol, lion has been to an Indian the embodiment of India’s most fundamental values – humility, balance, non-violence, respect for life, not taking more than what one needed and the like. A lion embodies all them. Besides, the lion-motif further stands for a mighty sovereign nation that believes in peaceful co-existence, respect for life and human values. Unlike the common perception, and despite entirely feeding on animal flesh, lion is never violent and does attack unless provoked or unless its own security is endangered. Blood-shed, violence, vanity, rage, enmity, revenge, rivalry, envy … are not his nature.
This article by P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet
References & Further Reading:
J R Santiago : Sacred Symbols of Buddhism
J R Santiago : Mandala
Ganga Somany : Shiva and Shakti Mythology and Art
Veronica Ions : Indian Mythology
Devadatta Pattanaik : Shiva
Dr Daljeet & P C Jain : Khajuraho
C Shivaramamurti : Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature
Ajit Mukharjee and Madhu Khanna : The Tantric Way.
P C Jain : Magic Makers, Folk and Tribal Art
Dalai Lama : A Meditation on Compassion
Tucci Guissepe : Sacred Symbols - Buddha
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