Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest religions, has a treasure trove of symbols that permeate the daily lives of its followers. If you have the opportunity to visit India, you will see that Hindu symbols play an indispensable role in the daily rituals, myths, art and prayers of the people here. These symbols are not just decorative elements; they contain many layers of meaning and occupy a special place in Hindu culture. In this article, LotusBuddhas will tell you about the meanings of the 10 main symbols in Hinduism.
1. Om (Aum) symbol
Om or Aum is a sacred sound and symbol in Hinduism, expressing deep philosophical and spiritual meaning. Written in Devanagari script, it appears as a unique character consisting of three curves, a semicircle and a dot.
The phonetic pronunciation of Om encompasses three primary sounds: “A,” “U,” and “M.”
- A (pronounced as ‘Ah’): Represents the waking state of consciousness. It covers the ordinary experience of sounds, sights, and sensations. In this state, the self is aware of the external environment and interacts with the tangible world.
- U (pronounced as ‘Oo’): Corresponds to the dream state of consciousness. Here, the sensory world is turned inward, and the self navigates the realm of dreams, memories, and emotions. This state bridges the conscious and the subconscious.
- M (pronounced with closed lips, as in ‘Mmm’): Denotes the deep sleep state, where neither dreams nor desires exist. It is a silent abyss of peace and unity, from which the self emerges refreshed and rejuvenated.
Following the pronounced sounds is a moment of silence, representing the transcendental state (Turiya) – a consciousness that goes beyond the previous three states, symbolizing infinite consciousness and spiritual realization.
The physical representation of Om, the symbol, is also laden with significance:
- The large bottom curve symbolizes the waking state.
- The middle curve, situated between the larger and smaller curves, signifies the dream state.
- The upper curve stands for the state of deep sleep.
- The dot, or bindu, represents the transcendental state, while the semicircle below the dot symbolizes maya (illusion), suggesting that the realization of the infinite is obstructed by the physical world.
Furthermore, the continuous chanting of Om is said to bring peace, balance and alignment with the universe, creating a harmonious resonance that aids meditation and spiritual practices.
2. Swastika symbol
The Swastika is an ancient symbol whose origins date back millennia, even predating the Indus Valley civilization. In the Hindu tradition, it holds a revered and meaningful place, engraved in religious rituals, ceremonies and iconography.
Built like a cross with each arm bent at a right angle, Swastika’s name comes from the Sanskrit word “svastika”, which can be translated as “conducive to happiness” or “auspicious”. In the Hindu context, this symbol represents many layers of meaning:
- Representation of Divinity: The Swastika is frequently linked to the gods, especially the deity of good fortune and prosperity, Lord Ganesha. It’s often inscribed at the beginning of Hindu scriptures, texts, or ceremonies to invoke divine blessings.
- Cycles of Existence: The Swastika’s rotational design is emblematic of the sun’s cyclical movement, symbolizing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth and the interplay of opposites.
- The Four Directions: Each of the four arms can be interpreted as the four cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west, representing the universe’s omnipresence and immortality.
- Eternal Principle: The continuous form of the Swastika, with no discernible beginning or end, stands for the eternal nature of Brahman, the ultimate reality or cosmic spirit in Hinduism.
- Harmony and Balance: The equilateral proportions of the Swastika depict balance and harmony, resonating with the duality and interconnectedness of existence.
Unfortunately, the significance of the swastika in Hinduism and other ancient cultures, including Buddhism and Jainism, was eclipsed in the 20th century when it was appropriated by the Nazis. The Nazi swastika, tilted at an angle and often black in a white circle on a red background, became a symbol of hate, intolerance and oppression.
In contrast, the swastika in Hinduism is traditionally red or saffron in color and remains a powerful symbol of happiness, auspiciousness and spiritual prosperity. In modern times, we must distinguish between the historical, spiritual significance of Swastika in ancient cultures and its unfortunate associations in the 20th century.
3. Tilak symbol
Tilak is a ceremonial mark drawn on the forehead and sometimes other parts of the body in Hindu tradition. Usually presented in the form of a paste made from a variety of substances including sandalwood, vermilion, turmeric or ash, its application carries both religious and symbolic significance in Hindu culture.
Seat of Wisdom: The forehead’s location, specifically the space between the eyebrows, is believed to be the Ajna chakra or the seat of concealed wisdom. Applying the Tilak here signifies invoking the inner eye or the third eye, associated with spiritual insight and perception.
Symbol of Blessings: After religious ceremonies or rituals, the priest or elders often apply a Tilak as a mark of blessings and protection against evil forces.
Delineation of Sects: The form and color of the Tilak can denote affiliation to certain religious sects. For instance, a U-shaped Tilak usually indicates devotion to Lord Vishnu, while three horizontal lines represent veneration for Lord Shiva.
Remembrance of the Divine: Daily application of the Tilak serves as a reminder of the spiritual realm, the importance of piety, and the presence of the divine in everyday life.
Symbol of Sanctity: The substances used to make the Tilak, like sandalwood or ash, are considered sacred in Hinduism. Sandalwood paste, with its cooling properties, signifies purity and calmness. Ash, especially from ritualistic fires, represents destruction of the ego and the impermanent nature of life.
Rite of Passage: In certain Hindu traditions, the application of a specific Tilak signifies milestones in one’s life journey, such as the passage from childhood to adulthood.
Cultural and Social Marker: Beyond religious connotations, the Tilak has cultural significance. It’s commonly applied during festivals, weddings, and other significant events as a mark of celebration, reverence, and auspiciousness.
Protection and Auspiciousness: In some beliefs, the Tilak is applied as a protective seal against negative energies or malevolent forces. Its application is seen as an act of sanctifying and making the individual’s presence auspicious.
4. Lotus Flower (Padma) symbol
The lotus flower in Sanskrit is called “Padma”, a quintessential symbol in Hinduism, imbued with multifaceted meanings intertwined with the core tenets of the religion. Its presence in scriptures, iconography and rituals shows its paramount importance.
Symbol of Purity and Transcendence: The lotus flower, with its roots in murky waters yet blossoming untainted above the surface, exemplifies purity, resilience, and the soul’s transcendence over earthly adversities. This portrayal underscores the idea that spiritual enlightenment can be achieved despite life’s inevitable challenges.
Embodiment of Creation and Cosmic Renewal: In Hindu cosmogony, the lotus is associated with the creator god Brahma. It is believed he was born from a lotus that emerged from the navel of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. This ties the lotus to themes of birth, evolution, and the endless cyclical nature of creation.
Seat of Divinity: Many deities in Hindu iconography are depicted seated or standing on a lotus, emphasizing their divine nature and supreme status. The lotus, in this context, is a pedestal of sanctity and reverence.
Center of Spiritual Consciousness: In yogic traditions and Hindu spiritual practices, the lotus signifies the highest state of consciousness and spiritual self-realization. The “Sahasrara” or crown chakra, represented by a thousand-petaled lotus, marks the pinnacle of spiritual ascent, where individual consciousness merges with the divine.
Allegory of Human Potential: Just as the lotus rises from the mud to bloom in full splendor, humans too have the potential to rise above their circumstances, limitations, and flaws to achieve spiritual enlightenment and realization.
Symbol of Beauty, Wealth, and Fertility: Goddess Lakshmi, the deity of wealth, fortune, and prosperity, is frequently depicted with lotus flowers, associating the symbol with material and spiritual abundance.
In short, the lotus with its petals emerging from the dirty swamp is a powerful allegory in Hinduism. It encapsulates the soul’s journey from material bondage to spiritual liberation, emphasizing the purity, potential, and ever-changing nature of life and spirit. It serves as a constant reminder of the spiritual heights one can achieve regardless of one’s origin or circumstances.
Reference more: The Meaning of Lotus Flower in Buddhism
5. Trishul (Trident) symbol
The Trishul is a prominent symbol in Hinduism and is commonly known as the Trident in English. Primarily associated with Lord Shiva, one of the major deities in the Hindu pantheon, Trishul holds many profound meanings.
Triadic Principles: The Trishul’s three prongs symbolize various triads intrinsic to Hindu thought. They represent the three primary deities or the “Trimurti” – Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). This alignment underscores the cyclic nature of creation, preservation, and destruction in the universe.
Three Gunas: The prongs also symbolize the three fundamental qualities or “Gunas” that govern human experience: Sattva (goodness, constructive, harmonious), Rajas (passion, active, confused), and Tamas (darkness, destructive, chaotic). These qualities interplay in every individual, influencing behavior and consciousness.
States of Consciousness: The Trishul represents the three states of consciousness – waking (Jagriti), dreaming (Swapna), and deep sleep (Sushupti). The central prong signifies the transcendent state (Turiya) that goes beyond these three, indicating a realm of heightened spiritual awareness.
Control over Mind: Lord Shiva’s wielding of the Trishul symbolizes his mastery over the mind and its three facets: intellect (Buddhi), ego (Ahamkara), and conditioned consciousness (Manas). This serves as a reminder of the importance of controlling one’s mind in the spiritual journey.
Symbol of Power and Sovereignty: The Trishul, as a weapon, underscores Lord Shiva’s role as the cosmic destroyer and his power to eliminate ignorance and illusion. It exemplifies the might of divinity in maintaining cosmic order and meting out justice.
Integration of Opposites: The central prong of the Trishul, which stands taller, represents neutrality and balance, while the flanking prongs represent opposing dualities. This design emphasizes the integration of opposites, a recurring theme in Hindu philosophy.
Time Dimensions: The three prongs can also be seen as a representation of the past, present, and future, highlighting the omnipresence of the divine across time.
Trishul encapsulates some of the key principles of Hindu philosophy. Both a weapon and a symbol, it emphasizes the need for balance, understanding, and transcendence in the quest for spiritual enlightenment. It is not merely a symbol of power but also a profound reminder of the creativity, duality and divinity that make up the Hindu worldview.
6. Conch Shell (Shankha) symbol
The Conch Shell is called “Shankha” in Sanskrit. This symbol has many spiritual meaning. Traditionally originating from the Indian Ocean, the Shankha is a symbol of both auditory and visual importance in Hindu rituals.
Divine Sound: When blown, the Shankha produces a distinct, resonant sound. This sound is considered the primal sound of existence, reminiscent of the sacred syllable “Om”. Blowing the Shankha is customary at the beginning of many Hindu rituals, symbolizing a call to the divine and an invocation for blessings.
Symbol of Vishnu: The Shankha is closely associated with Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. It is one of the primary symbols he holds in his hands, representing his power to disseminate the cosmic order and spread the sound of dharma (righteousness) across the cosmos.
Symbol of Victory: Historically, the Shankha was blown before and during battles, signifying victory and valor. In religious contexts, it symbolizes the victory of dharma over adharma (unrighteousness) and of truth over falsehood.
Purification: The sound of the Shankha is believed to purify the environment, dispelling negative energies and evil spirits. It’s used to sanctify spaces before rituals, emphasizing the creation of a pure and conducive spiritual ambiance.
Representation of Creation: The spiraled design of the Shankha, echoing the spiral of galaxies, symbolizes the cosmic patterns of creation, evolution, and existence. Its spiral, unfolding nature is emblematic of the endless creation and cosmic evolution.
Sacred Water Vessel: In rituals, the Shankha is often filled with water, which is then offered to deities or used for purification rites. This water is considered consecrated by the Shankha’s sanctity, infusing it with divine vibrations.
Symbol of Fertility and Prosperity: The Shankha’s association with water, the element of creation and nurturing, also makes it a symbol of fertility, prosperity, and abundance.
Confluence of Dualities: The Shankha comes in two varieties – one that spirals to the right (Dakshinavarti) and one that spirals to the left (Vamavarti). These dualities represent the balance and integration of opposites, akin to the Yin and Yang concept in Eastern philosophies.
7. Kalash (Pot) symbol
Commonly known as the pot in English, the Kalash is an indispensable symbol in Hindu rituals. Made of brass, silver or sometimes even gold, Kalash is usually filled with water and covered with a coconut, surrounded by mango leaves. This symbolic vase has deep significance in Hinduism.
Symbol of Abundance and Source of Life: Water, a primary element contained within the Kalash, is the sustainer of life, representing the life-giving and nurturing aspects of nature. The Kalash, brimming with water, signifies abundance, fertility, and prosperity.
Embodiment of the Divine: The Kalash is not just a vessel of water but is believed to embody the divine trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, making it a sanctified representation of the divine itself. The water inside symbolizes the life-giving essence, the unseen divine energy.
Representation of Cosmic Creation: The coconut placed atop the Kalash symbolizes the cosmic creation. The three eyes of the coconut represent the eyes of the deity, overseeing past, present, and future. The arrangement of the coconut and pot illustrates the union of masculine and feminine energies, essential for creation.
Purification and Sanctity: Water from the Kalash, considered to be ritually pure, is used in various ceremonies for purification purposes. Sprinkling water from the Kalash is a common ritualistic practice, believed to sanctify and prepare the surroundings for the divine’s presence.
Symbol of Immortality: The water in the Kalash, especially when mixed with Ganga Jal (water from the sacred Ganges river), signifies nectar, the drink of immortality. It represents the quest for eternal life and spiritual enlightenment.
Significance of Mango Leaves: Mango leaves encircling the mouth of the Kalash are symbolic of nature’s bounty and the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi. They are considered auspicious and are believed to ward off negative energies.
Integral to Rituals and Festivals: The Kalash is central to numerous Hindu ceremonies, including house-warming rituals, weddings, and religious festivals. It is also a focal point during the worship of specific deities, particularly goddesses like Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati.
8. Bindi symbol
In Sanskrit “Bindu” means “point” or “drop”, is a decorative mark traditionally worn on the center of the forehead by Hindus, especially women. Over time, it has transformed from a religious and cultural symbol into a popular cosmetic accessory, yet its deep significance in Hinduism remains undeniable.
Location of the Third Eye: The center of the forehead, where the Bindi is placed, is believed to be the location of the Ajna chakra or the third eye. This chakra is associated with intuition, perception, and spiritual insight. The Bindi, thus, serves as a reminder of an individual’s quest for enlightenment and the importance of inner vision.
Symbol of Marital Status: Historically, a red Bindi, known as the “Sindoor”, was specifically worn by married Hindu women, symbolizing their marital status and invoking the protection of the divine for their husbands. While this significance persists in some regions, Bindis of various colors and designs are now worn by unmarried women and girls as well.
Cosmic Unity and Fertility: The point where the Bindi is placed is considered the nexus of cosmic unity and fertility. It signifies the potential for creation and the cyclical nature of life.
Protection Against Malevolence: The Bindi, especially when first applied, is believed to ward off evil, protecting the individual from malevolent forces and negative energies.
Cosmetic and Fashion Statement: Beyond its spiritual and cultural connotations, the Bindi has evolved into a fashion accessory. Available in various colors, shapes, and designs, it complements traditional as well as contemporary attire.
Cultural Identity: For many Hindus, especially those living outside India, wearing a Bindi serves as a symbol of cultural identity, a connection to their roots, and a display of pride in their heritage.
Rite of Passage: In certain communities, the first application of the Bindi, often during adolescence, marks a rite of passage, celebrating the girl’s transition into womanhood.
9. Wheel (Chakra) symbol
The Wheel, known as “Chakra” in Sanskrit, holds significant symbolism in Hinduism. The term “Chakra” translates to “wheel” or “circle,” and in various contexts, it embodies concepts of cyclicity, divinity, righteousness, and cosmic order. One of the most iconic representations of the Chakra within Hinduism is the “Dharmachakra.”
Dharmachakra – The Wheel of Dharma: The Dharmachakra, or the “Wheel of Righteousness,” symbolizes the eternal cycle of life and death, the principles of dharma (righteousness), and the path to enlightenment. Its spokes often represent ethical principles integral to leading a righteous life.
Association with Divine Deities: The Chakra is also closely associated with Lord Vishnu, one of the principal deities in Hinduism. It is one of the divine weapons in his arsenal, known as the “Sudarshana Chakra.” This spinning, disc-like weapon symbolizes the destruction of ego, ignorance, and negativity, ensuring the preservation of dharma.
Cosmic Cycles and Order: In a broader sense, the circular nature of the Chakra represents the cyclical concept of time in Hindu cosmology. The universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation, and dissolution, emphasizing the transient nature of the material world and the eternal essence of the spiritual realm.
Centrality in the Indian Flag: The “Ashoka Chakra,” a wheel with 24 spokes, is prominently featured in the center of the Indian national flag. Inspired by the Dharmachakra, it signifies the path of truth, righteousness, and progress.
Seven Chakras of Human Energy: In yogic and tantric traditions within Hinduism, “Chakra” also refers to the energy vortexes or centers aligned along the spine. These seven primary Chakras, from the root to the crown, represent various levels of consciousness, spiritual energies, and facets of human existence.
Symbol of Teaching and Enlightenment: The Dharmachakra is frequently associated with the teachings of the Buddha, representing the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, and the path toward enlightenment and liberation.
Unity and Inclusiveness: The continuous, unbroken nature of the Chakra signifies unity, inclusiveness, and wholeness. It embodies the interconnectedness of all beings and the universe, emphasizing harmony and balance.
10. Cow symbol
The Cow, revered and often called “Gau” or “Go” in Sanskrit, occupy a revered place in Hindu tradition. Symbolizing purity, fertility and abundance, the cow is not simply an animal in the Hindu worldview but also a symbol with religious significance, profound culture and philosophy.
Embodiment of Non-Violence (Ahimsa): The cow’s docile nature epitomizes the principle of non-violence or Ahimsa, which is foundational to Hindu ethics. Revering and protecting the cow underscores this commitment to non-violence and compassion towards all living beings.
Representation of Motherhood: Often referred to as “Gau Mata” or “Mother Cow,” she symbolizes the nurturing and life-giving aspect of motherhood. Just as a mother nurtures her offspring, the cow provides milk, essential for nourishment.
Sacred Provider: Beyond milk, the cow offers various by-products, such as ghee (clarified butter) and dung. Ghee is vital for rituals, while cow dung, considered purifying, is used as fuel and in creating a natural antiseptic layer in rural homes.
Abode of Divinity: Hindu scriptures emphasize that all gods and goddesses reside within the cow, making it a mobile abode of divinity. It’s believed that by serving the cow, one serves all deities simultaneously.
Economic and Agricultural Significance: Historically, the cow has been central to agrarian societies in India. It aids in ploughing fields and, through its dung, enriches the soil, ensuring agricultural abundance.
Karmic Beliefs: The act of harming or killing a cow is believed to accrue negative karma due to the creature’s sanctified status. This belief bolsters the vegetarian ethos prevalent among various Hindu communities.
Cosmic Symbolism: The cow also represents the Earth, bearing hardships with patience and strength, similar to how the Earth supports life despite adversities.
Integral to Festivals and Rituals: Many Hindu festivals and rituals involve the worship or inclusion of cows. For instance, during the festival of Gopastami, cows are decorated and venerated.
Ties to Deities: The cow is closely associated with several deities. Lord Krishna’s childhood, marked by his role as a divine cowherd and his fondness for cows, further elevates the animal’s spiritual significance.
Symbol of Charity: Donating a cow, known as “Gau Daan,” is considered one of the most meritorious acts in Hinduism, ensuring spiritual merit and well-being.
In essence, cow in Hinduism transcends its animal identity, becoming a symbol of benevolence, prosperity, and harmonious coexistence between the divine, human, and natural realms. The reverence for the cow emphasizes the broader Hindu ethos of respect and appreciation for all forms of life.