The human mind and senses cannot perceive the Infinite or God directly; instead it can grasp what is concrete, finite or tangible. This is why it becomes easy to see or think of God through any of his physical forms and symbols (pratikas). The Shalagrama and Shivalinga, which are the forms of Narayana and Shiva respectively, are worshipped by Hindus. Many other symbols used in worship and prayer draw the mind away from material objects and direct it towards God. Hinduism has many sacred symbols and murtis of deities that inspire the transformation and elevation of the human mind. For example, the simple Tilaka or Bhasma applied on the forehead by men and women is not only a mark of their religious affiliation, but it also helps them develop self-awareness that they are devotees of God, and abide by his moral and spiritual commands, it is also a personal reminder that one must see not only with one’s physical eye but also with their mind’s eye, the third eye, the eye of the soul.
There are also many gestures and symbols that have both religious and social significance like Namaste, Aum and Swastika. All these and others ultimately proclaim the core of the individual – the resident God within.
Shivalinga (A Form of Bhagwan Shiva)
The Shivalinga is generally an elliptical and iconic black stone that represents Bhagwan Shiva. Literally, Shiva means ‘auspiciousness’ and linga means an ’emblem’, therefore Shivalinga means ’emblem of auspiciousness’. There are two types of lingas – natural and man-made – and chala (moveable) and achala (immovable). The linga is in two parts: the pedestal (pitha) and the linga proper. The base of the Shivalinga is called the Brahrnabhaga which refers to Brahms, the creator, the middle part is known as Vishnubhaga which represents Vishnu, the sustainer, and the uppermost portion is called Rudrabhaga representing Shiva, the destroyer. It is this uppermost cylindrical portion that is visible and worshipped. Therefore it is called pujabhaga. Sometimes the face of Shiva is carved on the pujabhaga. Such a linga is called Ishwaralinga. But if the whole figure of Shiva is carved then it is known as Rudralinga. Shaiva devotees worship the Shivalinga by performing abhisheka (ceremonial pouring) of water or milk and offering of bilva leaves. The twelve jyotirlingas of Shiva in India are believed to have come into existence without human agency or intervention. A Shaiva Sampradaya, called Lingayats or Virashaivism, insists that all its members wear a small Shivalinga on their body to remind them of their innate Shiva-like nature.
Light symbolizes knowledge and enlightenment. The deepa (diya) is a symbol of divine light. All worship rituals or auspicious beginnings commence by igniting a deepa. Philosophically the oil or ghee in the deepa represents the material desires (vasanas) and the wick the ego. When lit by the light of spiritual knowledge the vasanas become extinct and the ego perishes. Every Hindu aspires for the divine light of knowledge and freedom from the darkness of ignorance. This is reflected in a popular Vedic and Upanishadic prayer, Tamasoma jyotirgamaya … which means “Lead me from darkness to light.”
Purna Kalasha (Auspicious Potful of Water)
A husked coconut circled with mango or asopalava leaves placed on a pot filled with holy water is called a purna kalasha. It is a symbol of perfection and auspiciousness. Through chanting of Vedic and Pauranik mantras the holy rivers and the god of water, Varunadeva, are invoked into the pot of water. The sacred water from the pot is then sprinkled in all directions and on the devotees for sanctification, prosperity and peace. The kalasha is used during religious worship, in yajnas, weddings, inaugural functions and sanctification rituals of a building or land. It is placed near the home entrance as a sign of welcome, and held in one’s hand while receiving holy persons. The ceremonial kalasha is a replica of the Amruta Kalasha and therefore it also symbolizes immortality – the Amruta Kalasha was brought by Sage Dhanvantari during the churning of the ocean (samudra manthana). A kalasha is either made of gold, silver, copper or even clay. While performing rituals it should be filled with water. Other things that may be put inside it are precious stones, flowers and herbs. Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu and Devi are believed to reside in the kalasha’s mouth, neck, bottom and middle respectively.
The conch or shankha is a product of Varunadeva (the ocean-god). It is one of the common objects in the hands of murtis of many Hindu deities, especially those associated with Vishnu, and sometimes with the Devi. The conch is placed at the feet of God’s murti in mandirs as a symbol of Brahma or Aum, dharma, victory and auspiciousness. The sonorous sound of the shankha or conch is made to honour and please the Lord. It is also a victory call of good over evil. The sound of the conch elevates people’s minds to a prayerful attitude. It is often filled with water or milk and used in ritualistic worship of the deities. The shankha is held to be extremely important, like the Sudarshan Chakra, in Shri Vaishnavism. The famous shankha of Bhagwan Krishna in the Gita is called Panchajanya.
The ringing sound of the ghanta or bell is considered auspicious because it is associated with mandir and worship rituals like drati, puja and mahapuja. The ghanta, generally made of bronze, is always used in ritualistic worship. The sound of the bell is considered to be pranava or Omkara. The body of the bell represents Ananta (god of time), the tongue symbolizes Sarasvati (goddess of speech) and the handle signifies prana-shakti or the energy of prana (vital breath). The top of the handle is usually adorned with images of Hanuman, Garuda, Nandi (the bull-mount of Shiva), chakra (disc) or trishula (trident). The bell is rung during worship as an invitation for the deities to come, especially during the ceremony, and dispel evil spirits. The sound of the bell is also believed to awaken the power of the mantras chanted during worship rituals. Hence it is called mantramata or mother of mantras. The pujari or a devotee rings the bell prior to having darshan of or offering prayer to the deity and during the ritual arati. It is the usual practice to hang a bell or a few bells in a mandir or in front of the main shrine. The ringing of bells in a mandir is a call to prayer. The ringing sound facilitates the senses and the mind to focus on God, and it also drowns away irrelevant noises and other sounds.
The padma or lotus symbolizes truth, auspiciousness and beauty (Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram), which are the essential virtues of God. Also, many parts of his body are compared to the lotus: lotus eyes, lotus feet, lotus hands and the lotus of the heart. Furthermore its sacredness is associated with the fact that the lotus rose from the navel of Vishnu and is the seat of Brahma, the creator, Mahalakshmi and Sarasvati. The lotus, though born and rooted in mud, blossoms unaffected by it. Similarly, a person may be born in a low caste, but like a lotus he or she can blossom beautifully in character through his or her own good actions, like Viduraji and Shabari. The lotus also symbolizes a person of wisdom or enlightenment, who is untainted by the mud and muck of base instincts. Many Indian deities are closely connected with the lotus: Bhagwan Vishnu holds a lotus in his hand, his consort Lakshmi is seated on a lotus; and Bhagwan Shiva is worshipped by offering lotus flowers. There are many colours of lotus, i.e., white, red and blue, that suggests many splendours of the Divine. Patanjali Yoga shastra describes that our body has energy centres (chakras), and that each one has a lotus with different numbers of petals. The Sahasra Chakra at the top of the skull has a 1,OOO-petalled lotus which opens when the yogi realizes God.
Tilaka and Chandraka (Holy Marks)
The tilaka and chandraka (chandlo) are symbols of one’s affiliation to a specific Hindu tradition or organization. Vaishnava worshippers apply a U’-shaped (urdhvapundra) white or yellow tilaka of chandana with a streak of chandana or kumkum or a round-shaped red chandraka in the middle of the forehead. Shaiva worshippers apply three horizontal streaks of holy ash on their forehead. The devout also apply the tilaka and chandraka on his or her arms, chest and other parts of the body while chanting the various names of God. The V-shaped urdhvapundra represents the holy feet of God and the chandraka the ideal devotee of God. The chandraka also symbolizes a devotee’s fidelity to God. The application of both the tilaka and chandraka gives a devotee, feelings of sanctity, connectivity and allegiance to God. When marked on the forehead of the deity it may signify the power of that deity to uplift the devotees spiritually. And when applied on the forehead of devotees it reminds them of the need to take a spiritually upward path. Shiva worshippers apply a tripundra (three horizontal markings) of bhasma or holy ash and Devi worshippers apply only a red chandraka of kumkum. The tilaka covers the area between the eyebrows, which is the seat of memory and thinking (the ajna chakra) in yoga. Applying the tilaka and chandraka daily restrains one from wrong action and protects one from bad influences.
Bhasma (Holy Ash)
Bhasma or holy ash is generally applied by some devotees on their forehead, and some ascetics rub it all over their body. Bhasma is the ash from the homa (ritual fire), in which special wood along with ghee and other herbs have been offered in a yajna. Fire is believed to reduce all substances to their primal state of purity. Bhasma therefore purifies the body. The application of bhasma signifies destruction of evil and remembrance of the Divine. Bhasma is believed to give glory and protection to one who applies it. Bhasma is especially associated with Bhagwan Shiva and Shakti. Bhagwan Shiva applies it all over his body, signifying renunciation and total eradication of ego.
A japamala or mala (rosary) is used in chanting (japa) God’s name. It generally consists of 108 beads, made of rudraksha or tulsi or bilva wood. The mala is used by placing it on the middle finger of the right hand, and turning the beads in a clockwise direction with the thumb. The forefinger or index finger is kept away from the mala. The mala is usually turned in a cloth-bag. When it is turned without the cloth-bag, care is taken that it does not touch the ground in order to preserve its sanctity. One may wonder why a mala has 108 beads. The Hindu shastras instruct that one should chant God’s name all day together with each breath. So, if we consider twelve hours for the waking state, a person breathes 15 times every minute and 900 times in one hour. For twelve hours of the day one breathes 10,800 times. So in 24 hours a person breathes 21,600 times (Chudamani Upanishad 32-33). Because it is not possible to chant a mantra with each breath, the shastras state that the fruit of chanting it with each bead of a mala will be 100 times more. So, after chanting 108 beads of a mala it all adds up to 10,800 – which is equal to the number of times one breathes in 12 hours. Another reason for having 108 beads in a mala is that it is related to the number of configurations of stars in the universe. The ancient rishis divided the sun’s motion into 27 nakshatras or constellations (a group of stars). Each nakshatra has four sub- sections called charans (parts). So the 27 nakshatras have 108 charans altogether. Therefore the number of beads in a mala is 108. Where the two ends of the nakshatras meet, that region of the cosmos is called “Mount Sumeru”. Similarly, the largest bead that joins the two ends of the mala is called the Sumeru. While turning the mala one should not cross the Sumeru, but reverse the direction and resume chanting.
Kankana Sutra Bandhanam (Auspicious Thread)
As part of any religious or auspicious occasion a kankana-sutra-bandhanam or a string of red and yellow cotton thread is tied on the wrist of a participant or guest. It symbolizes a divine promise of protection and freedom from obstacles. The priest sings the mantra of kankana bandhanam that says, “Lord, protect him (the host) from obstacles and guard him from evil influences. Grant him long life and bless him with the fruits of good deeds.” The kankana-sutra is also tied for the same purpose by a mother or sister to her son or brother respectively.
Upavita (Sacred Thread)
Upavita or sacred thread is invested to a Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya child at the age of eight, eleven and twelve respectively. The Upavita ceremony, called upanayana, is one of the 16 sacraments performed in the life of a Hindu boy. After receiving the Upavita the child becomes a student and eligible to go to the gurukula to study and receive spiritual and temporal knowledge from the guru. During his period of study he observes brahmacharya or celibacy. The Upavita is worn from the left shoulder to the right waist. It has three cotton threads tied together. The three threads represent Gayatri (goddess of mind), Sarasvati (goddess of wisdom) and Savitri (goddess of virtues). Also, one who wears the upavita is reminded to be pure in thought, word and action. The three threads further signify the debt one owes to the guru, parents and society. The three strings are tied by a knot, which represents God – who is the creator, sustainer and destroyer. When one gets married one wears an upavita with six threads – the three more strings are on behalf of one’s wife.
Dhvaja is a flag or a banner fixed on a post or dhvaja-danda. It is a common feature of Hindu mandirs. The dhvaja is either made of a metallic plate, (i.e., copper or brass) or of cloth. The metallic dhvaja is attached to a staff placed in front of the garbha-gruha or in the compound before the mandir. The metallic flag is engraved with the figure of the vahana (carrier mount) of the presiding deity in the mandir. For example, a Vishnu mandir will have the figure of Garuda (eagle) engraved on its dhvaja, in the case of a Shiv a mandir one will find a bull on its banner and if it is a Devi mandir one will find the figure of a lion.
The dhvajas made of cloth flutter on top of the shikharas or pinnacles. The orange, red or white dhvajas, or a combination of the three colours, flutter from the flagstaffs of mandirs, and during festivals. They symbolize peace, sacrifice and victory of dharma. They also symbolize the presence of the Divine. The sanyasis of some Hindu sampradayas also carry a dhvaja on their staffs as a symbol of their tradition and designation.
The traditional Hindu form of namaskar is a gesture of friendship, respect and reverence. Hindus join their two palms together, placing them by the heart, and bow their heads while saying namaste, namaskar or pranama, which means “We bow down to you.” When a person greets another with namaskar it means may our minds meet like the folded palms placed before the heart. Bowing of the head is a gracious gesture that symbolizes respect, friendship and humility. The spiritual meaning reflects the sentiment that God residing in the other person is the same God within oneself. Therefore, namaskar is a symbolic recognition and gesture of reverence and humility to the Divine in the person one meets. That is why one usually closes one’s eyes while offering namaskar to a holy person or deity, as if to look within. The gesture is often accompanied by saying Jai Shri Krishna, Jai Siya Rama or Jai Swaminarayan.
Hinduism has a wide array of sacred symbols and sacred objects that are applied or used during a religious ritual, celebration or in mandirs. Only a few of them were elaborated upon in this chapter. Some of them are specific to anyone sampradaya, while others are applicable to all. However, in general they all enhance the spiritual consciousness of the devotee. The sacred symbols and objects also protect the devotee from evil and negative influences and actions. Their profound meaning and power to imbue devotees with spiritual faith reflects upon their importance and value in Hinduism.
1. The human senses and mind cannot perceive the divine form of God directly. They require a concrete, finite or tangible form. Pratikas or symbols in Hinduism represent the Divine. The sacred symbols and murtis of deities help in transforming and elevating the human consciousness and the soul.
2. Some of the many sacred symbols and objects in Hinduism include Aum, Swastika, Shalagrama, Shivalinga, Deepa, Arati, Purna Kalasha, Conch and many others.
3. In some cases the sacred symbols reflect the sampradaya to which one belongs to, but in general they increase spiritual awareness and protect the devotee from evil influences and actions.