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Symbols play an important role in spirituality. They are a reminder of the values that people seek to achieve through their spiritual practices and have many different uses. Indeed, a single symbol can take on many different meanings depending on the specific beliefs, as many symbols are ancient. In this article, we describe the most common spiritual symbols as well as their history, uses and meanings.
Put simply, spirituality is an individual person’s search for deeper meaning, purpose or direction in life. Many believe that the essence of spirituality is to understand the nature of the soul – our truest form – and thus experience our nature in order to live an authentic life. Spirituality often touches on profound questions such as ‘what is the purpose of life?’; ‘who am I?’, or ‘where did I come from?’ Symbols are a reminder of spiritual teachings that can guide a person towards the answers.
Similar questions are posed in many of the world’s major religions, which leads many to question:
What is the difference between spirituality and religion?
Religions are often more organized and sectarian, that is, they operate to a specific set of organized beliefs and practices. Spirituality is more of an individual practice where beliefs and teachings are tailored to a person’s circumstances and level of growth.
Some spiritual symbols have religious roots and can be used in both organized religions and individual spiritual practices. This wide span of use means that each symbol can derive its meaning from different religions as well as histories and traditions.
The Om symbol (sometimes ‘Ohm’ or ‘Aum’) is the visual representation of the meaningful ‘om’ mantra used in spiritual practices and Hindu practices. The om mantra or chant is believed to energize the body’s energy centers (Chakras) and can envelop the practitioner in a powerful energetic glow.
The Om sound is a ‘seed mantra’ and is believed to be the sound of the universe. The Om’s visual symbol bears similar importance. The symbol has been found etched onto relic coins and written into ancient scripts throughout South and Southeast Asia. Modern use has seen the symbol on national flags and emblems of civil importance.
Om is displayed as a reminder of peace and harmony in the universe, and the unification of the self.
The Hamsa symbol is an image of an open right palm that is believed to bring protection. ‘Hamsa’ translates to five in Hebrew. In Judaism (as well as in Islam) the Hamsa is believed to protect against the negative energy of the evil eye. This is why the Hamsa is often depicted with an eye in the center, known as the Nazar Boncugu.
The Hamsa is commonly worn as jewelry to protect the wearer, but it is also painted above doorways (particularly over the room of an expectant mother) and displayed as a token around the home.
When the fingers point downward in a Hamsa, it is used more as a symbol of luck. The downward-pointing fingers welcome abundance, fertility and the manifestation of prayers.
Buddhist and Hindu practitioners believe that the five fingers of the Hamsa connect to an element of the chakra. From the thumb, each finger connects to fire (solar plexus chakra), air (heart chakra), ethereal (throat chakra), earth (root chakra) and water (sacral chakra).
The lotus flower is a widely used symbol throughout history. The lotus plant is an aquatic, flowering plant that is found growing throughout the world in muddy waters. The emergence of a beautiful flower from these surroundings has seen it adopted in many cultures as a symbol of enlightenment, growth and peace.
We now know that the flower loses old blooms and adds new blooms daily, but Ancient Egyptians mistakenly believed that the lotus flower sank at night and rose again in the morning. This is why many scholars believe that lotus flower symbols depicted ‘rebirth’ and ‘reincarnation’ when carved into the walls of tombs.
Buddhist and Hindu beliefs surrounding the lotus flower are similar as it is viewed as a symbol of eternity. However, it is also related to purity and peace. The lotus flower is often seen placed at the feet of Hindu deities, and Brahma (the creator God in Hinduism) is believed to have emerged from a lotus flower.
The color of the lotus can also imbue meaning. A white and pale pink lotus depict purity; red, purple or blue are related to enlightenment or rebirth, and green is analogous with new beginnings.
Tree of Life
The tree of life is an archetypal symbol in many world cultures and mythologies. Also known as the ‘world tree’ or the ‘cosmic tree’, it is depicted as a large tree, with roots and branches that spread into the earth and sky. The tree of life is associated with the cycle of birth, life and death; the connection of heaven and the underworld; the interconnected nature of all things, and our connection to mother earth.
Occasionally, the tree of life is illustrated as a tree within a sphere with roots growing deep into the bottom hemisphere and branches spreading into the top. This depiction is believed to show the bonding of the physical realm that we know and the spiritual realm that we reach for.
The traditional Chinese symbol of double happiness consists of two identical copies of the character for ‘joy’. It is a symbol of attraction that is worn or displayed to invite relationships, romance and bliss to those looking. For those already in a relationship, it is believed to bring strength and vibrancy, and for those that are recently married, it is believed to bring luck. These days, it is also commonly used as ornamental design for businesses to bring good luck.
The Dharma Wheel, Dharma Chakra or Wheel of Dharma is a symbol used widely in Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In its simplest form, it is depicted as a circle with a central hub, eight spokes and a rim. The central hub represents ethical teachings which center the mind; each spoke represents one of the major stages of Buddha’s path to enlightenment, and the rim represents concentration gained through meditation which encompasses the wheel and allows it to move forward. Together, the three aspects of the Dharma wheel are also believed to symbolize the three aspects of Buddha’s teachings of integrity, wisdom and attentiveness.
Because of its all-encompassing symbolism, the Dharma Wheel is displayed as a reminder of the central goals and beliefs of Buddhist spirituality. It is often found at the center of mandala’s Buddhist representations of the universe.
In Sanskrit, ‘mandala’ literally translates to circle and is usually configured of several geometric shapes interlaid and enveloped by a circle. In Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, a mandala is used as a meditative tool to aid focus and guide a person into a sacred space. The geometric shapes are a representation of the universe and patterns of nature. It is a common practice for Buddhists to draw intricate mandalas, only to later destroy them as a reminder of the mortality of human life.
In new age spirituality, mandalas represent the cosmos and the wholeness and interconnectedness of all things.
The Flower of Life
The flower of life is another circular symbol, more commonly used in new age spirituality. It is made by drawing a single circle, followed by drawings of circles all around it. The result is a geometric design of concentric circles enclosed by a larger circle that resembles a flower.
The way in which the flower of life comes to be is where it derives its meaning – that is a symbol representative of the creation of life from the great void. It is also commonly referred to as the ‘pattern of creation’, and the cycle of circles bearing more circles is believed to represent the fruit, seed, tree cycle – the cycle of life in nature.
The flower of life is seen throughout history in the relics of many cultures – from ornaments in Ancient Rome, to Islamic art, to medieval architecture.
The spiral is another archetypal symbol used in cultures throughout history worldwide. It is one of the oldest spiritual symbols and can be found in cave paintings and stone carvings dated as far back as 8000 BC. Many believe that the widespread use of the spiral is due to its common occurrence in nature – the unfurling of a fern for example.
The spiral represents many things to different cultures, but most use the spiral to depict ideas relating to growth. As a talisman, the spiral is worn as a reminder of the evolving journey of life as it happens; it represents the growth of consciousness, and in Eastern spirituality, it is the ‘Kundalini’ (coiled serpent) that rises through the body to energize the chakras.
The spiral is also associated with the mathematical principle of the ‘golden spiral’. The golden spiral or Fibonacci spiral is a logarithmic spiral that increases by the sum of the two proceeding numbers. It is seen in nature through the growth of a fern, the curve of the human ear and the spiral in a nautilus shell – the mathematics of this growth allow an organism to grow without changing its overall shape. Its widespread occurrence in nature lead many Greek philosophers to refer to the Golden Spiral as the ‘key to the physics of the cosmos’.
Yin Yang Symbol
The Yin Yang symbol that represents duality and balance found in the universe. The symbol is a visual depiction of this duality – each half of the symbol contains some of its opposite. It represents that all types of energy have an equally strong opposing energy. The important point is that these opposing forces are complementary, and one needs the other to exist successfully. This symbol is a reminder that the path to harmony requires balance.
The above symbols have existed for centuries and have re-emerged as spiritual symbols with relevance in modern day societies. They offer universal applicability and don’t require subscription to a religious faith in order to be appreciated. These symbols have something for everyone and their meanings are relevant to every day lives.