There are stages of growth in which forms and symbols are necessary; they are the language that the souls in that stage can understand.
- Swami Vivekananda
Symbolism is essential for religious belief as they are used as a key to convey religious concepts and the visual, auditory, and kinetic representations of religious ideas and events. From the ancient times, symbols played a fundamental role to unite members of a common faith tradition to extend into social and political interactions, thus becoming an integral part of cultural identity.
Pranava (Om or Aum)
Pranava or Om is the universally accepted symbol of Hindusism. The word Aum is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Ava’, which has nineteen different senses. Om represents that power which is omniscient, rules over the entire universe, protects one from the evils of life, fulfills the cherished desires of its devotees and destroys ignorance and ensures enlightenment. ‘A’ signifies the physical plane and the waking state. ‘U’ signifies astral or mental plane and the dreaming state. ‘M’ signifies all that is beyond the reach of intellect, all that is unknown and the deep sleep state. ‘Aum’ taken as a single unit signifies a fourth state – ‘turiya’ which transcends the above three states. In turiya state, the mediator loses his individual consciousness and merges himself with the supreme soul, the all pervading Brahmic consciousness.
Swami Vivekananda has given a very simple but instructive explanation of the three letters comprising Om. According to him, “The first letter A is the root of sound, the key, pronounced without touching any part of the toungue or the palate; M represents the last sound in the series, being produced by closed lips; and the U rolls from the very root to the end of the sounding – board of the mouth.”
Aum represents all creation, but it has also a fourth nature, which transcends this distinction of Aum. It is called Amatra. Amatra is neither measurable nor audible. The immeasurable eternal nature of Aum is not a sound or even mere vibration, but it is just existence, pure and simple known as ‘Satchidananda Swarupa’- existence, consciousness, and bliss.
The Purna-Kalasha is considered a symbol of abundance and the “source of life” in the Vedas. The mango leaves associated with Kama, the god of love, symbolise the pleasure aspect of fertility. Apart from being considered as a sign of auspiciousness, it is also used as a symbol of the Divine Mother. One of the important methods of conferring great honour on a guest is to receive him with a purnakumbha. The Kalasha is believed to contain amrita or nectar – the elixir of life and thus is viewed as a symbol of abundance, wisdom and immortality.
The lotus bud is born in water and unfolds itself into a beautiful flower. The bud of the lotus symbolises potential, specifically of a spiritual nature as the lotus rises from the unclean water to blossom as a pure and sacred flower. It is also a symbol of spontaneous generation and so it also represents divine birth, spiritual development and creation itself. It is taken as the symbol of the universe coming out of the primeval waters and manifesting itself in all its glory. Lotus rises from the naval of Lord Vishnu and is the seat of Brahma – the creator. Psychic centres in the body associated with the rising of the kundalini power are pictured like lotuses.
The dharmachakra or the wheel of the law is the most important and the oldest symbol of Buddhism. Dharma wheel has three basic parts - the hub, the rim, and the spokes. The circle -the round shape of the wheel - represents the perfection of the dharma, the Buddha’s teaching. The rim of the wheel put emphasis on meditative concentration and mindfulness and the hub implies moral discipline. The three swirls often seen on the hub are sometimes said to represent the Three Treasures or Three Jewels--Buddha, dharma, sangha. The wheel cannot survive without spokes. As a result the dharma cannot sustain without the practice of these eight virtues, i.e., right view, right resolution, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
It is said that the Buddha himself drew on the ground, with grains of rice, the picture of a wheel, an ancient Indian symbol which signifies the rounds of births and deaths due to karma, and which man himself keeps in motion through his thirst for life.
Svastika and Chakra
The Svastika and the Chakra are the symbols frequently used in Jainism. A symbol recently adopted during 2500th death anniversary of Mahavira is more comprehensive. It consists of a digit of the moon, three dots, the svastika and the palm of a hand with the chakra.
Human beings suffering due to karmic bondage, need not be disheartened, since there is a way out. The palm of the hand signifies the assurance: do not be afraid! Svasti means auspiciousness. Svastika is a symbol of auspiciousness. The three dots represent the three worlds- in the nether region, middle region and upper region – along with all the living beings. The digit of the moon symbolises the region beyond the three worlds wherein reside the perfected beings.
The symbol, in effect, means that the denizens of the three worlds who are suffering from the miseries of existence, can have recourse to the path of dharma shown by the tirthankaras, thereby bringing about auspiciousness for themselves and after obtaining perfection, will live forever in the world of perfected beings.
Swords, Dagger and Shield
This is the symbol of Sikhism, the youngest of world religions, founded by Guru Nanak. The swords, the shield, and the dagger represent the martial spirit of the community. They signify that a Sikh must be prepared to fight and even sacrifice his life in defence of his dharma or faith.
Torii or Toriwi
Symbol of Shintoism, the ancient and native faith in Japan reminds of a significant event in Shinto mythology – the return of goodness and light to the world. The gate-frames in the picture in their simplest forms consist of two vertical posts supporting two horizontal ones. Originally made of unpainted tree trunks, modern Torii are often more elaborated. They may be made of concrete or bronze and are often painted in bright red and black. The torii also indicate a departure from the human world.
The Crescent and the Star
The sacred calligraphy, the creedal formula of the Muslims, taken from the Quran itself, is the most widely in use. The picture of the sacred shrine at Mecca, containing the holy Kaaba stone, is another. ‘The Crescent and the Star’ is however a very popular symbol most widely used. However, none of this symbol as such, is worshipped or honoured in a ceremonial way.
The Crescent and the Star originally associated with moon worship, was a symbol used in Byzantium. When the Ottoman Turks conquered the Byzantian empire, they borrowed it as a military symbol. Gradually, it came to be accepted as a symbol of Islamic culture. It often appears on the flags of states following Islam, stamps as also on the spires of mosques.
The Cross is one of the oldest symbols, found in almost all civilisations of the world. After Jesus Christ sacrificed his life on the Cross, it has become the perfect symbol of Christian religion as it represents the self-sacrifice and redemptive love of Christ for mankind. It has also become identified with the Christian religion and Christian Church. In the Greek cross, the vertical and the cross bars are of equal length and it is taken to represent the Church of Christ rather than his passion. The Latin cross has a longer upright and the shorter cross bar is fixed in such a way that, at the intersection, the upper and the two horizontal arms are all of equal length. The lower arm is conspicuously longer. This Cross symbolises the Passion of Christ. Very often a crucified figure of Christ is attached to this Cross when it is called Crucifix. The Calvary cross stands on three steps which signify faith, hope and love. This is a symbolic of finished redemption, of Christ have risen from the dead and reigning from the throne of heaven.
The Menorah or the seven-limbed candelabrum is the most typical and important of the symbols of Judaism, the religion of the Hebrews or Jews. The Menorah is a representation of the creation of the world by God. According to the Genesis of the Old Testament, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. The middle light indicates the Sabbath (last day of the week, a holy day and a day of rest). The seven branches may also represent the seven heavens created by God. The unique design of the Menorah endures as Divine Light spreading throughout the world; endures as an inspiration for universal enlightenment. The Menorah’s structure also inspires us to embrace holiness. The Menorah begins with a central stem that branches outwards, just as our demeanor, behavior, personality, and especially good deeds should branch out and influence others to illuminate the world around us.
The Cauldron of Fire
This is the symbol of Zoroastriansim popularly known as the Parsi religion. Spitama Zaratustra or Zoroaster lived in Eastern Iran who received divine inspiration from Ahura Mazda (the wise Lord, God) Himself and taught his religion. When Ahura Mazda revealed Himself to Zoroaster and gave him the teachings and the command, Zoroaster asked Him to give him a symbol. Fire was the symbol given since it burns away all evil and it can never be made impure. Fire to the Zoroastrian, represents God and typifies the divine spark within. Ahura Mazda is often pictorially represented like an old man with a cap and a beard as also wings.
The outer circle or Tao (the Absolute) is the unchanging unity underlying the changing plurality. The black and white shapes within the circle represent two energies - the interaction of two opposite but complementary principles, viz., the Yin and the Yang. The former is the negative, passive, destructive principle considered to be feminine. The latter is the positive, active, constructive, principle considered to be masculine. The dark area contains a white spot and the white area contains a black spot, thereby indicating that no element is absolutely positive or negative, and each inheres in the other. The entire diagram is surrounded by a circle representing the Tao or the Absolute. Like that the things in life are not completely black or white.
Religious symbols are used to put across messages associated with humanity’s relationship to the sacred or holy (e.g., the cross in Christianity) and also to his behavioral relationships with the social and material world (e.g., the dharmachakra, or wheel of the law, of Buddhism). Originated from the Greek word ‘symbolon’, which means contract, token, insignia, and a means of identification, symbol carries object, picture, sign, word, and gesture in connection with certain conscious ideas in order to fully express what is meant by them. Thus, every religious symbol is ultimately is an outcome of the psychic body of man and his mind.