Symbols

As the divine permeates all things, almost anything can serve the purpose of pointing us towards it. There are many symbols used in Hindu art and ritual, which are often given multiple meanings. The images of deities are often recognisable from the symbols they carry, stand upon, or are surrounded by. For example, Vishnu holds in his four arms a lotus flower (purity among other meanings, see below), a discus (either a weapon symbolising power or the disc of the sun), a club (again a weapon against evil symbolising justice and righteousness), and a conch shell (used as a trumpet in the fight against evil, or in worship).

Deities can be represented in symbolic forms such as the ammonite for Vishnu or the lingam (pillar) for Shiva (see Images and image worship). Probably the best-known symbol is 🕉 ‘Om’ or ‘A U M’, the primordial sound, the sound of the universe, also used in prayers, hymns, chants and meditation (see Mantra and the power of sound).

Other commonly encountered symbols include the svastika/swastika, an ancient symbol whose meaning is not to be confused with its later adoption by the Nazis in the twentieth century. This can cause concern when first encountered in a Hindu context – it does not mean that Hindus are anti-semitic! In the Hindu tradition the swastika means good fortune, possibly originally representing the rays of the sun. The four arms can also be interpreted as the four directions (North, South, East, West), the four corners of the world, the four seasons and/or indeed anything in the tradition which comes in fours such as the four Vedic collections, and some use it as a symbol for world peace. Yantras, geometric diagrams, also called mandalas if they take a circular form, are used in tantric ritual and meditation. The best known yantra is the Shriyantra that represents the cosmic form of the supreme deity Tripurasundari (the Goddess who is beautiful in the three worlds).

The lotus flower, often carried by or used as the throne of some deities, symbolises purity, detachment, or liberation. Flowers, fruit, sweets, lights, incense and implements used in worship are given multiple symbolic meanings. For example, the conch shell used as a trumpet can be seen as calling the attention of God, a call to righteousness, the sound of the origin of the universe or a symbol of the feminine.

Tilaks, marks made on the forehead, can be symbolic. A mark made in the middle of the forehead can represent the ‘third eye’ or spiritual vision. Three horizontal lines denotes a worshipper of Shiva, and U shape with a dot in the middle a worshipper of Vishnu and/or Krishna.

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Hindu Worldview Traditions

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