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Hinduism is a religion rich with iconic symbols that represent the teachings, philosophies, gods and goddesses of the faith. Many of these symbols have made their way around the world and are recognizable even to those outside of the Hindu faith.
It’s important to note that there are two general branches of symbols in Hinduism: ‘Mudras’ which means hand gestures and body positioning and ‘murti’ which refers to drawings or icons. In this article, we’ll be looking at murtis.
If you’re a fan of Bollywood movies, then you’ve probably seen several if not all of the symbols we’re covering at some point, but what’s the story behind them? Let’s explore the significance of some of the most revered symbols in Hinduism.
1. The Swastika
The Swastika is an equilateral cross with the arms bent to the right at 90 degree angles. It’s considered a sacred and religious Hindu icon. Although it’s been found historically in all corners of the globe and appears in many major religions, it’s said to have originated in India, rooted firmly in the Vedas.
Stigmatized after being adopted by Adolf Hitler, the Swastika is now viewed by many as a symbol of racism and hatred. In Hinduism, however, it represents the sun, good fortune and prosperity. It’s also a symbol of spirituality and divinity and is commonly used in Hindu marriage ceremonies.
The word ‘swastika’ means ‘conducive to well-being’ and certain variations of this symbol stand for honestly, purity, truth and stability. While some say the four points represent the four directions or the Vedas, others say the symbol signifies the auspicious footprints of Lord Buddha and in several other Indo-European religions, the lightning bolts of the gods.
Om or Aum is a spiritual Hindu symbol and sacred sound known as the sound of the entire universe used in meditation. The first syllable in any Hindu prayer, it’s chanted independently or just before a spiritual recitation and considered to be the greatest of all Hindu mantras. Here’s what each element, the crescent, the dot and the curves represents:
- Bottom curve: The waking state
- Middle curve: The dream state
- Upper curve: The state of deep sleep
- The crescent shape above the curves: The illusion or ‘Maya’ which is the obstacle that’s stands in the way of reaching the maximum state of happiness.
- The dot above the crescent: The fourth state of consciousness, absolute peace and bliss.
The Om sound encompasses the essence of ultimate reality, unifying all elements of the universe. The vibrations created by the sound are said to energize the chakras (the 7 centers of spiritual power in humans) which makes it easier to connect with the divine self.
3. The Tilaka
The Tilaka is a long, vertical mark, typically with a dot at the end. It’s made by applying paste or powder on the forehead of Hindu devotees, starting from just below the hairline down to the end of the tip of one’s nose. The U-shape and horizontal lines of this symbol indicate devotion to the gods Vishnu and Shiva respectively.
An important spiritual symbol in Hinduism, the Tilaka indicates immense power and piety. The Tilaka is believed to be the point of focus from where one can tap into the powers of the Ajna, or Third Eye chakra.
This symbol is sometimes mistaken for a bindi (discussed below) but the difference between the two is that the Tilaka is always applied on the forehead with powder or paste for religious or spiritual reasons whereas a bindi is made of paste or a jewel, used for decorative purposes or to symbolize marriage.
4. Sri Yantra
Also known as the Sri Chakra, the Sri Yantra features nine interlocking triangles radiating from a central point called the ‘bindu’. The elements of this symbol have various interpretations. The nine triangles are said to represent the human body and the totality of the cosmos. Out of these nine, the four upright triangles represent Shiva or the masculine side, whereas the five inverted triangles symbolize the feminine, or the Divine Mother (also known as the Shakti).
The symbol as a whole indicates the bond of the unity of both masculine and feminine divinity. It’s used for meditation purposes with the belief that it has the ability to create positive changes in life. It’s also said to represent the lotus of creation.
Used for thousands of years in regular worship, the origin of the Sri Yantra remains clouded in mystery. It’s said that regular meditation using the symbol will clear the mind and motivate one to reach one’s goals.
5. Shiva Lingam
In Hinduism, the Shiva Lingam is a votary object symbolic of the god Shiva. It’s thought to be an emblem of generative power. Also referred to as Shivling or Linga, this symbol is a short, cylindrical pillar-like structure. It can be made of various materials such as stone, gem, metal, clay, wood or other disposable material.
The symbol signifies Shiva to be the root cause of all creation and it’s said that the elongated column is representative of Shiva’s genitals. According to Hindu mythology, unmarried women are prohibited from touching or worshipping the Shiva Linga as this will make it inauspicious.
The Shiva Lingam is comprised of three parts: the bottom which remains underground, the middle part which is on a pedestal and the top which is the part that’s actually worshipped. During worship, devotees pour milk and water on it, which is drained through the passage provided by the pedestal.
Rudraksha are seeds from the Rudraksha tree, found in Nepal, the Himalayas, South Asia and even in Australia. These seeds represent the tears of Lord Shiva which are also known as Rudra and are usually threaded into a necklace for praying or meditation purposes, much like the Catholic Rosary.
Rudraksha beads symbolize the Divine power and its link to the physical world. They provide a better understanding of the connection between humans and God and it’s believed that those who use the beads resonate with vibrations of fulfilment, prosperity, increased vitality and wealth.
The beads create an aura around the wearer, causing a positive influence on physical health. It also significantly reduces one’s mental strain, fears and low self-esteem, promoting success and solutions to problems.
The Veena is a stringed musical instrument, mostly used in Carnatic Indian classic music. The Hindu Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswathi, is often depicted holding a veena. Like the Goddess herself, this instrument represents knowledge and purity which radiates in all directions when played.
The music produced by the veena is symbolic of life and the strings are said to represent various feelings. The sound signifies the primordial sound of creation which fills the universe with vital energy. It’s also a symbol of the melody of mantras which brought peace and order at the time of creation when everything was in chaos.
Although the Veena is becoming rare and harder to find in North India, it still remains a predominant solo instrument in Carnatic music in South India.
In Hinduism, the lotus is a significant flower as it’s associated with many gods such as Lakshmi, Brahma and Vishnu. The gods are usually depicted with lotus flowers, a symbol of purity and divinity.
The lotus flower is an ancient symbol with different interpretations. However, the meaning of the flower originates from the way it grows in nature. It’s symbolic of working towards a spiritual enlightenment in spite of all the struggles faced in life similar to the way it works to rise from the muddy depths of the water and blossoms, reaching its full potential. If the flower is still a bud, it symbolizes that the person hasn’t reached their full potential. A fully opened lotus above the water represents achievement of nirvana and letting go of worldly suffering.
The bindi is a vermilion dot worn in the middle of the forehead by Hindus and Jains and is commonly referred to as ‘pottu’ or ‘bottu’. It’s a decoration that was initially for religious purposes. The Hindus believed that the forehead is the area of cloaked wisdom and the main reason for applying it was to generate and strengthen this wisdom.
Also considered a symbol for warding off bad luck or the evil eye, the bindi has now become more of a fashion trend than a religious symbol. The traditional red bindi symbolizes love, honor and prosperity and was worn in the past only by married women. It was believed to protect them and their husbands from evil. However, the bindi is now commonly worn by young girls and teenagers as a beauty mark.
In Hindu or vedic tradition, the Dhvaja is a red or orange flag or a metal banner fixed on a post and commonly featured in temples and religious processions. The Dhvaja is made either of copper or brass, but there are those made of cloth as well. These are hoisted temporarily in temples for special occasions.
The Dhvaja is a symbol of victory, signalling the prevalence of the Sanatana Dharma, the absolute set of religiously ordained practices of all Hindus. The color of the flag represents the life-giving glow of the sun.
11. Fire Altar (Vedi)
A Vedi, also known as fire altar, is an altar upon which burnt sacrifices are offered to the gods in the Hindu religion. Fire altars are a prominent feature of certain rituals in Hindu festivals, weddings, births and deaths. It’s believed that whatever is offered into a fire is consumed by it and sent upwards to Agni, the Vedic Deity of fire, to whom they pray and ask for protection.
Fire is considered the supreme symbol of purity because it’s the only element that can’t be polluted. It represents warmth, the illuminated mind and the light of god. It also denotes divine consciousness through which the Hindus make offerings to the gods.
12. Vata Vriksha
In Hinduism, the Vata Vriksha or the Banyan Tree is considered to be the most sacred tree of all. The tree is believed to be immortal and has been greatly revered since the Vedic times. The tree is a symbol of strength and wisdom while also being a source of various drugs for medicinal purposes.
There are many legends surrounding the Vata Vriksha, including one of the most famous about a woman who fought against the god of Death to bring back her husband who died under the banyan tree. After fasting for fifteen days, he was returned to her. As a result, the Vata-Savitri Vrata festival became very popular among Indian women who fast every year for the longevity of their husbands.
In popular depictions of Hinduism, images of a god with a large elephant head and a human body, riding a giant rat, are common. This is Lord Ganesha, one of the easiest Hindu deities to identify and quite difficult to miss.
The story goes that Ganesha was created when Shiva’s demons cut him in half after which Shiva felt guilty about his actions and replaced the missing head with the first animal head he found. It turned out to be that of an elephant.
Ganesha is said to guide one’s karmas by clearing obstacles and paving the way to move forward in life. He is widely revered as the patron of arts and sciences and the god of intellect and wisdom. Since he’s also known as the god of beginnings, the Hindus honor him at the beginning of any ceremony or rite.
The Tripundra is a Hindu symbol featuring three horizontal lines made from sacred ash applied on the forehead with a red dot in the center. It’s a type of Tilaka.
The Tripundra is symbolic of sustenance, creation and destruction, known as the three godly forces. The ash signifies purification and the removal of karma, illusions and ego by burning. The dot in the middle of the lines represents the rise or the increase of spiritual insight.
Also known as the Trident, the Trishula is one of the main divine symbols in Hinduism. It’s associated with Lord Shiva and was used to sever the original head of Ganesha. The Trishula is also seen as a weapon of Durga, the goddess of war. She was given the trident by Shiva and used it to kill the demon-king Mahishasura.
The three points of the Trishula have various meanings and stories behind them. They’re said to represent various trinities such as maintenance, destruction, creation, the past, present and future, and so on.
As the weapon of Shiva, the Trishula is said to destroy three worlds: the world of the forefathers, the physical world and the world of the mind. All three worlds are supposed to be destroyed by Shiva, resulting in a single plane of existence which is known as supreme bliss.
Today, Hindu symbols remain just as sacred and revered to Hindus as they have been in the past. Some of these symbols have grown to have more universality and are used around the globe in various contexts, including in fashion, art, jewelry and tattoos.