* HINDU SYMBOLS *
The supreme symbol of Hinduism is undoubtedly the OM. As OM is such an important and extensive subject, we have dedicated a separate article to it which can be read by clicking on this link: The OM Symbol
This present article explains five of the main symbols that are often seen and used in the Hindu religion.
* THE DOT ON THE FOREHEAD
The dot worn on the forehead is called the bindi. Instead of the bindi, some Hindus apply a vertical line between the eyebrows and this is called the tilak. When three horizontal lines are applied across the forehead, this is called the tripundra.
The bindi and tilak symbolise the Third Eye, the eye of wisdom and enlightenment which opens for all on the spiritual path when they have finally succeeded in purifying their mind and raising and elevating themselves in spiritual self-consciousness to the state of God-realisation, also called Self-realisation.
The tripundra symbolises various triads that the spiritual aspirant must transcend in order to reach the great goal. These include the A-U-M of the OM syllable, representing the Avastha-Traya (three states of consciousness) of waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep…the three gunas of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas…and the vehicles of the gross body (Sthula Sharira), subtle body (Sukshma Sharira), and causal body (Karana Sharira), above which is the transcendent Self or Atman.
Thus the wearing of the bindi, tilak, or tripundra serves as a constant and beneficial reminder to the individual of his or her ultimate goal of Self-realisation.
* THE ARDHANARISHVARA
The Ardhanarishavara (literally meaning “The Lord who is half woman”) is a symbolic representation of the synthesis of the masculine and feminine energies of the universe. In the mystical symbolism of all religions, the masculine always represents Spirit and the feminine always represents Matter. In the Sanskrit terminology of Hinduism, Spirit and Matter are called Purusha and Prakriti.
Spirit can only manifest itself through Matter. Without Matter, Spirit remains purely subjective and entirely unconditioned, undifferentiated, and unmanifest in its no-thing-ness. Without Spirit, Matter remains entirely purposeless, senseless, void, and barren. An important principle of Hindu philosophy is the cyclic appearance and disappearance of the universe and everything in it. Each time the universe comes into being – or manifests itself, in other words – both the Universal Spiritual Principle and Universal Material Principle are needed. Purusha is positive and active whilst Prakriti is negative and passive and serves as the vehicle for the objective manifestation of the subjective spirit.
In fact, the eternally unmanifested SOURCE of both Purusha and Prakriti is ONE. That Source is Brahman, the Absolute. Brahman is both primordial Spirit and primordial Root-Matter or Mulaprakriti. The two are ultimately one and the same. Matter is materialised Spirit and Spirit is spiritualised Matter. There is only One.
The Ardhanarishvara simply and directly illustrates this truth by showing Shiva and his Shakti (“energy of manifestation”), Parvati, as one. Shiva is the right side and Parvati is the left side. Shiva symbolises Purusha while Parvati symbolises Prakriti. Were it not for the balanced union of the two, the universe could not exist. On a more practical level, the Ardhanarishvara – which in its Shiva-Parvati form has been in existence as an image and symbol for over 2,000 years – points to the fact that man and woman are perfectly equal and complementary to each other. Woman has always been revered and held in high regard in Hindu spirituality and the worship of many different goddess figures as the Divine Mother attests to this.
* THE NATARAJA
The Nataraja icon shows the four-armed Shiva dancing, surrounded by a circle of blazing fire. In his upper right hand he holds a drum, called damaru in Sanskrit. In his upper left hand he holds fire. His lower right hand is in abhayamudra, the gesture of protection and his lower left hand is pointing or gesturing towards his uplifted left foot which is in the air, in the motion of dancing. His other foot, the right, is resting on the demon Apasmara.
But what does this all mean? It illustrates a tremendous amount of esoteric and metaphysical truth.
Shiva’s dancing indicates the continuous cyclic process of the creation (or actually evolution), preservation, and destruction of the universe, for in reality Shiva is not a Being or an entity but the living Universe itself. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are merely three different names for the three different aspects and stages of manifestation of the one all-ensouling Life of the Universe.
The damaru or drum represents the principle of sound, or shabda in Sanskrit. Sound is considered to be the one quality of Akasha and Akasha is the same as Mulaprakriti, the primordial Root-Matter or Root-Essence which enables the objective manifestation of the universe to occur.
Fire is “Agni” in Sanskrit and the fire in Shiva’s upper left hand in the Nataraja is representative of pralayagni, “the Fire of Destruction.” This is no physical fire but rather the mighty divine force of dissolution which eventually brings the universe to an end, when the universal cycle or manvantara draws to its appointed close. Holding the damaru in one hand and the pralayagni in the other hand is indicative of the continuous cycle of manifestation and dissolution.
The lower two hands indicate that the person who takes refuge at the feet of the Lord and develops spiritual self-consciousness will have nothing to fear throughout the universal cycle.
Apasmara, trampled beneath the foot of Shiva, symbolises ignorance. Ignorance (avidya) is the cause of desire and desire is the cause of humanity’s suffering. Ignorance must be trampled underfoot and destroyed and the consciousness turned instead to the knowledge of spiritual realities.
* THE SWASTIKA
It must be repeatedly emphasised that the Swastika was never thought of in any way by anyone as being an evil or “dark” symbol until Hitler misappropriated it as the symbol of Nazism. Tragically the image of the Swastika continues to strike fear and horror into the hearts of many, due to their not knowing its true spiritual origins and meaning.
The true and literal meaning of the Sanskrit word “Svastika” is “All is well.” In one sense it is a symbol of auspiciousness and has been used in Hindu symbolism to represent the Sun or Vishnu or Ganesha. The four arms bent at right angles also refer to the continual motion and revolution of the invisible forces of the universe and of the Cycles of Time. The conjunction of the two lines symbolises the union of Spirit and Matter whilst the central point represents the fixed, unchanging, eternal centre…the Infinite Divine Principle Itself…the ONE Ultimate Reality that Hinduism refers to as Brahman or Parabrahman; the Supreme Self.
The Swastika is also a widely used and highly venerated spiritual symbol in the Indian religions of Jainism and Buddhism and was even a much cherished symbol in early Christianity where it was called the “Crux Dissimulata” and often accompanied with the inscription “Vitalis Vitalia” – “Life of Life.” The early Christians used the Swastika for centuries, long before the Crucifix form of the Cross was ever invented.
* THE LOTUS
Think about the beautiful lotus. The lotus bud is born in water and unfolds itself into an exquisite flower. It is thus used in Hinduism as a symbol of the universe which comes forth into manifestation out of the primeval cosmic waters of abstract Space.
The lotus can also be thought of as a symbol of the sun and the sun in its turn can be thought of as a symbol of the Great Central Sun which is the glory and all pervading Life of the universe. When the chakras or psychic centres in the body are illustrated, they too are often pictured like lotuses.
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For more information about some of the concepts that have been briefly mentioned here, please see The Om Symbol, The Self in Hinduism, Hinduism and Vegetarianism, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva – A Clearer Understanding of the Hindu Trinity, and The Aim and Goal of Hinduism. There is also an article on the site explaining the “Namaste” greeting at Namaste – Its Meaning, Purpose & Spiritual Significance.