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Hindu Symbols Overview
Hinduism is made up of a combination of different religious, cultural, and philosophical practices that find their roots in different parts of India. This religion is brimming with symbolism.
Some people actually believe that there is no other religion that employs the art of symbolism in such an effective manner as Hinduism.
While most of the symbols are invariably saturated with spiritual meaning, others are representative of their gods and goddesses, philosophies, teachings, and cultural traditions.
There are two main categories of the Hindu symbols:
i. Murti – These symbols are inclusive of drawings and icons
ii. Mudra – These symbols re inclusive of hand gestures and positions of the body
Symbols in Hinduism
When looked at on the surface, the symbols used in Hinduism may seem absurd. However, when you get to learn their deeper meaning you will discover so much- their hidden meanings are intriguing.
There are some Hindu symbols such as the conch and the lotus that are similar to Buddhism symbols.
In this list, we’ll have a look at some of the most common and sacred Hindu symbols and the meaning behind them:
1. Hindu symbol Aum ( Pronounced as Om)
In Hinduism, Om is a sacred sound that is considered the greatest of all mantras. Hindus believe that God first created sound frequencies and the universe arose from them.
The Om sound is considered to be a symbol that represents the essence of the universe; its threefold nature represents several important triads:
• The 3 worlds- earth, atmosphere, and heaven
• The 3 main gods- Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva
• The 3 Vedic scriptures- Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda
Om is to Hindus what the cross is to Christians. This root mantra is spoken at the beginning and end of Hindu prayers and meditations. In written form, Om is used to marking the beginning of a text in an inscription or a manuscript.
The Om symbol consists of three curves, a semi-circle, and a dot. The lower curve is the largest and is a symbol of the waking state of consciousness.
Its large size means that this is the most common state of the mind.
The middle curve represents the state between deep sleep and consciousness; also known as the dream state. In this state, one is able to view the world behind closed eyelids.
The upper curve symbolizes the unconscious state. In this state of deep sleep, the person does not get any dream. Overall, the three curves represent the entire physical phenomenon.
The semi-circle in the Om symbol separates the dot from the curves and is a representation of Maya. Maya is believed to prevent us from reaching the highest state of bliss as represented by the upper curve.
The dot on the symbol is used to represent the fourth state of consciousness where a person comes to rest and achieves the ultimate aim of all their spiritual activity. This fourth state is the absolute state that illuminates all the other three states.
Om is the most chanted sound in all of India. In addition to being used in sacred texts, prayers and invocations, the Om sound may also be used as a greeting. In a nutshell, Om is the god in the form of sound- a word of great power. It’s the most important mantra is both Hinduism and Buddhism as well.
2. Sri Chakra or Sri Yantra
This symbol is a complex yet beautiful geometry that has, for the longest time, been used for worship and meditation. The shape is made up of 9 triangles that radiate from a central point and interlock with each other.
Of the 9 triangles, 4 are upright and symbolize the masculine side (Shiva) while the other 5 are inverted and symbolize the feminine side (Shakti).
In totality, the Sri Chakra is used as a symbol of the unity between the masculine and the feminine divinity.
The triangles interlock to form a web of 43 smaller triangles with each one of them housing a particular deity that represents a specific aspect of existence.
The Sri Chakra is quite similar to a mandala; what sets it apart is that the Sri Chakra can either be a 3-dimensional object or a 2-dimensional diagram.
When in the 3-dimensional state, the Sri Chakra is a representation of Mt. Meru which is believed to lie at the axis of the universe. This cosmic mountain is the bond of everything in the cosmos and it’s also regarded as a place of a spiritual journey. The Sri Chakra is mostly used in the Sri Kula tradition in Tantrism.
The Swastika symbol is widely used in Indian religion specifically Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The term Swastika is derived from the Sanskrit term “svastika” and has two meanings. ‘Sv’ means ‘good’ or ‘higher self, ‘Asti’ means ‘to be’ or ‘being’, and ‘ka’ is a suffix.
The word basically translates to “to be good” or “being with higher self.” This symbol is mostly used as a representation of good fortune and other times it’s also used as a sun symbol.
The figure has right-angled arms which represent the indirect way that Divinity is apprehended by intuition and not by intellect.
The arms are usually right-facing (clockwise) but sometimes may be left-facing in the mirrored form. The anticlockwise Swastika is used as a symbol of magic, night, and the goddess Kali.
The Swastika is in the shape of a cross which has four arms, pointing in all the four directions to describe the four Vedas and to signify the omnipresence eternal nature of the Absolute.
The Swastika symbol may also be used to represent peace, honesty, truth, purity of the soul, and stability. One of the uses of the symbol is to mark the opening of account books, doors, and thresholds.
4. Shiva Linga
This term comes from the combination of two words: “Shiva” and “linga” which translate to auspicious and symbol respectively.
The term is used in reference to the Supreme Being. The Shiva Linga is a symbol of Lord Shiva and represents God Himself in all His three aspects: Creator, Protector, and Destroyer.
It symbolizes the power of fertility and strength. The symbol reminds us of the Omnipotent Lord which is formless.
The symbol is an elongated column that resembles an erect penis, the emblem of the generative power in nature. It symbolizes the cosmic creation which is effected by the male and female powers of nature.
The Shivalinga symbol is also a representation of truth, knowledge, and infinity. Depending on the mobility of the symbol, there are two broad classes of the Shivalangas:
i. Cala – These are made using stones, metal, crystals, or clay and can be moved from one place to another with ease.
ii. Acala – These are built using hard stone or heavy metal and are usually found in temples, fixed to the ground.
This symbol depicts Lord Shiva in a dancing pose. The beautiful avatar is intended to put a message across that ignorance can only be overcome by knowledge, music, and dance.
The sculpture is carved in stone or cast in bronze.
Lord Shiva is also referred to as Nataraja which means “Lord of Dancers” or “The King of Dance.”
In Sanskrit, “Nata” means dance while “Raja” means King. The dance pose that is represented in the avatar is blissful and depicts the Hindu god Shiva on an aureole of flames, balancing on one leg upon Apasmara.
The flames represent the creation and destruction of the cosmos in a never-ending cycle of time. Apasmara, on the other hand, is a demon-dwarf that symbolizes darkness and ignorance.
Shiva’s other leg is a representation of liberation from demons and other evils. His right hand, he holds a double-sided drum that makes the first sounds of creation and in his left hand, he holds a fire that will destroy the universe.
6. Shiva’s Nandi
Nandi is Lord Shiva’s mount or Vahana. The Nandi symbol is a huge white bull that has a black tail and kneels at the feet of Lord Shiva. This symbolizes disciplined animality which results in the ideal devotee to Shiva. The symbol is also a representation of Shiva’s strength.
7. Lotus (Padma)
The lotus is the holiest flower in India. It has, over the years, achieved a status that cannot be equaled by any other flower.
It’s used as a symbol both Hinduism and Buddhism and primarily represents untouched beauty and non-attachment. Even though the plant is rooted deep in the mud, the beautiful lotus remains to be clean and continues to float on the water.
This gives clear teaching of how humans should carry themselves throughout their lives, untouched by sin.
The lotus flower is also used as a symbol of etiquette and culture, creation, fertility, and perfection of beauty.
Many Hindu deities like Vishnu, Ganesha, and Parvati are depicted holding the lotus in their hands. In the East Asian cultures, you will find the lotus flower symbol on buildings and cars. Again, the lotus is associated with the chakras.
Here we’ll provide you with a basic overview of a series of chakras where the lotus flower holds special significance. These chakras are an important aspect of different types of meditation:
i. Muladhara: The Root Chakra
This chakra is depicted as a red lotus flower that has four petals.
The root chakra is related to instinct, security, survival, and human potentiality. Physically, it governs sexuality, mentally it governs stability, emotionally it governs sensuality, and spiritually it governs a sense of security.
ii. Swadhisthana: The Sacral Chakra
This chakra is depicted as an orange lotus that has six petals.
The sacral chakra is considered to correspond to the testes or the ovaries that produce the sex hormones during a person’s reproductive cycle.
This chakra is generally believed to physically govern reproduction, mentally govern creativity, emotionally govern joy, and spiritually govern enthusiasm.
iii. Manipura: The Solar Plexus Chakra
This chakra is depicted as a yellow lotus with ten petals.
The solar plexus chakra is associated with the metabolic and digestive systems that convert food matter into energy for the body.
Physically, the Manipura governs digestion, mentally it governs personal power, emotionally it governs expansiveness, and spiritually it governs all matters of growth.
iv. Anahata: The Heart Chakra
This chakra is depicted as a green lotus with twelve petals. The heart chakra is located in the chest area and is related to the thymus which is the site of maturation of the T cells. T cells are responsible for fighting diseases. Physically this chakra governs circulation, emotionally it governs unconditional love, mentally it governs passion, and spiritually it governs devotion.
v. Vishuddha: The Throat Chakra
This chakra is depicted as a blue lotus with sixteen petals. The throat chakra is associated with the thyroid gland which produces the thyroid hormone which regulates growth. Physically, the chakra governs communication, emotionally it governs independence, mentally it governs fluent thought, and spiritually, it governs a sense of security.
vi. Ajna: The Brow Chakra
This chakra is depicted as an indigo lotus with two petals. The brow chakra is associated with the pineal gland which produces the hormone melatonin which regulates sleep. Mentally, this chakra governs visual consciousness, emotionally it governs clarity on an intuitive level.
vii. Sahasrara: The Crown Chakra
This chakra is depicted as a violet lotus with one thousand petals. The crown chakra is described as having a total of 1,000 petals which are arranged in 20 different layers with each one of them having 50 petals.
The Sahasrara is a symbol of detachment from the illusion which is important in helping us to achieve a higher level of consciousness.
8. The Veena
This is a stringed musical instrument found in India that represents arts and learning. The Veena is also used as a symbol of the Hindu goddess Saraswati and the sage Narada.
9. The Conch Shell
The conch is also used as a Buddhist symbol but has a different interpretation. In Hinduism, the conch is a major article of prayer; the horn-trumpet is used to make announcements.
It is used as an attribute of Vishnu (the God of Preservation) who is said to hold a special shell as one of his main emblems.
In East Asian Cultures, the warriors blew the conch to announce battle. In India today, the conch is mainly blown as a part of religious practices such as worship.
In addition, this symbol is used to represent the sound that was used to create the universe.
10. Multiple arms and heads
The idea of multiple heads, arms, and other body parts is used to portray the illusion of “multiple conventions” in religious iconography.
The deities are depicted standing behind each other with their arms in different positions.
The visual effect created shows kinetic energy indicating the ability to be in different places and exist at all these places at once.
This symbol represents the divine omnipresence which means that the Supreme Being is able to control many things simultaneously.
In Hinduism, the Vahana (meaning vehicle) is a mythical animal that is associated with a particular deity.
In religious iconography, the deity is depicted riding on the mythical animal or at times, standing next to the Vahana.
Vishnu is one of the gods that make up the Hindu Triad. He is a protector and a preserver.
The Rig Vedic Vishnu is depicted as the sun in its three main stages – rising, zenith and setting.
In these three stages Vishnu cruises through the three divisions of the universe – the earth, the atmosphere, and the sky. Vishnu is believed to have taken these three steps for the protection, preservation, and benefit of mortals. The zenith is appropriately called Vishnu’s place.
13. The Tilaka
You will often find the tilaka symbol on the foreheads of devoted Hindus.
This symbol comes in different forms and designs depending on the religious ceremony or the custom taking place.
It’s, however, quite different from the bindi that is worn by the women. A U-shaped tilaka is a symbol of a Hindu’s devotion to Lord Vishnu while a horizontal one (Tripundra) is used by Shivites as a symbol of their devotion to Lord Shiva. The Tripundra has 3 horizontal lines which represent the three godly forces: creation, sustenance, and destruction.
This is one of the most common Hindu symbols. A bindi is a small dot, often in red, that is worn by women on the forehead. The dot is made using sandalwood paste, turmeric, or vermilion and is applied in the area between the eyebrows.
The area where the bindi is placed is considered to be the 6th chakra, Ajna, which is the exit point for kundalini energy. The bindi may sometimes be worn by either gender to offer protection from demons or other bad things. It is also used to show religious affiliation or ethnic affiliation.
Other names that are used to refer to a bindi are:
Bindis come in a variety of colors, designs, material, shapes, and sizes; some fancy ones are decorated using sequin, glass, or rhinestone.
15. The Rudraksha Tree and Seed
This tree is mainly found in Nepal, Southeast Asia and in the Himalayas. It has blues seeds that symbolize Shiva’s tear that he shed upon seeing how much his people suffered. It is from this tear that the tree grew.
The Rudraksha name is derived from “Rudra” which is another name for Shiva and “Aksha” which means eyes.
The Rudraksha seeds are as prized as the compassionate tears that Lord Shiva shed. They’re used to make necklaces, prayer beads, and rosaries. These are mostly worn by the Shivites and are a symbol of God’s love.
16. Fire altar
The fire altar is also referred to as the Homakunda. It’s a distinct symbol of the ancient Vedic rites.
Hindus made sacrifices and offerings to their gods at the fire altar. The homa fire was used to solemnize the Hindu sacraments.
17. Dhvaja (Flag)
The Dhvaja is a type of banner that is orange in color and is often flown above temples during festivals. The orange color symbolizes the sun’s life-giving glow.
This flag is a symbol of victory.
18. The Banyan Tree (Vata)
This tree is one of the most worshipped trees in India and can be found in front of many temples. The Banyan tree can grow and survive through many centuries without drying up.
It represents Hinduism in the sense that it has many roots, branches out in different directions, spreads shade far and wide but only stems from a single trunk.
The Trishula is a Sanskrit term that translates to “three spears” and refers to a trident spear that is the emblem of Lord Shiva.
The Trishula is a symbol of the empire and the irresistible force of transcendental reality.
Each of the spear’s pong represents Shiva’s three aspects:
The pongs also represent his three powers:
Generally, the trident is a symbol of the balance created by the three facets of consciousness which are cognition, affection, and conation.
20. The Yajnopavita (Sacred Thread)
The Yajnopavita is a thin yellow thread that is given to young Hindu males to signify spiritual awakening after they have undergone the Upanayana ritual. Once the young males have undergone the ritual, they are referred to as “twice born.”
The thread usually runs diagonally from the left shoulder to the waist. It is made using either cotton or wool.
This thread represents the acceptance of young males as religious students. They’re not supposed to take the tread off; they should bathe and swim with it on.
The person who has undergone the ritual is supposed to shave his head and wear new clothes. A priest recites the Gayatri mantra during the ritual and afterward, the initiate gives a traditional Dakshina to his teacher.
The sacred thread comprises of three intertwined threads that symbolize the Trimurti. This thread is also a symbol of the three Vedas texts: Rigveda, Samaveda, and Yajurveda.
21. Cow or “Gau”
Hindus consider the cow to be an ever-giving nourisher. The cow is a symbol of the earth which keeps on providing without making demands. The cow is a sacred animal and Hindus have a special affection for this gentle creature.
22. The Ghanta (Bell)
The bell is used in the puja ritual which engages all senses including hearing.
The ringing of the ghanta summons the gods and stimulates the inner ear to remind us that, like sound, we may perceive the world but not possess it.
23. The Water Vessel (Kamandalu)
The Hindu monastic carries a Kamandalu as a symbol of his simple, self-contained life, his freedom from worldly needs, his constant ‘sadhana’ and ‘tapas’, and his oath to seek God before anything or anyone else.
24. The Coconut
The 3 “eyes” that are present on a mature coconut are associated with Lord Shiva who is depicted as having 3 eyes- the 3rd eye is at the middle of his forehead.Again in Hinduism, the coconut may symbolize a human head. The coconut is smashed against a hard surface as a substitute for a “human sacrifice.”
The symbolic meaning of sandalwood comes from its highly fragrant aroma. It is strongly associated with the divine.
While certain religious objects may be curved from sandalwood, it’s also smeared on the body during certain rituals and ceremonies.
Indians use sandalwood as a key ingredient in oils and incense thanks to its pleasant smell.
Navarana means “nine gems” in Sanskrit and refers to an ancient Indian astrological system that had 9 gems that are representative of the heavenly bodies. These gems are often used to make jewelry and other adornments.
The pattern in which they’re placed depends on what heavenly body actually represents. Let’s have a deeper look at this:
• Ruby – this represents the sun and is always at the middle
• Diamond – this represents Venus
• Pearl – this represents the moon
• Red Coral – this represents Mars
• Hessonite – this represents the ascending moon
• Blue Sapphire – this represents Saturn
• Cat’s Eye – this represents the descending moon
• Yellow Sapphire – this represents Jupiter
• Emerald – this represents Mercury
27. The Standing Oil Lamp
The symbol of the standing oil lamp is referred to as Kuttuvilaku. It symbolizes the dispelling of ignorance and the awakening of the divine light within us.
The can lamp can often be found in temples or shrines where it produces a soft glow that keeps the atmosphere serene.
28. Anjali Gesture (Namaste)
This symbol is a gesture of both hands brought together near the heart. This gesture symbolizes honoring or celebrating something/ someone. The gesture is also used as a greeting.