Hindu Symbolism

Site Map

The below is reproduced WITH PERMISSION from http://www.geocities.com/RodeoDrive/1415/index.html

Thanks to Giri.....

Perfection of the art of symbolism in Hinduism

Idol worships and rituals that look superfluous from outside have great religious and philosophical significance. The greatness of Hinduism prevails in its rich heritage, traditions and beliefs. This article hopes to demonstrate that "Hinduism has Perfected the Art of Symbolism."


Religion is an expression of human desire to communicate with God and Hinduism is no exception. In Hinduism, avatars (manifestations of God) are illustrations of such contacts between humans and God. Villages, towns, and states affiliated to avatars became holy lands for pilgrimage. This may explain how Hinduism is tied to local beliefs and traditions. Customs and traditions that may look superfluous, have contributed to a clearer understanding of Hindu heritage and Philosophy. The avatar of Hariharaputhra (son of Vishnu and Siva), was to destroy Mahishi (a female demon). The local name of Hariharaputra is Swami (Lord) Ayyappa and his worship is more prevalent in Kerala and adjacent states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The reason for the regionalized worship of Ayyappa is due to the fact that the human drama of Ayyappa was staged in Kerala. Ayyappa is the manifestation of the combined energy source of Lord Vishnu and Lord Siva. The Hindu trinity is represented by three Gods: 'Brahma - the creator,' 'Vishnu - the protector,' and 'Siva - the destroyer.' The devotees of Ayyappa call him by several favorite names that include, Dharma Shasta (one who established Dharma), Manikanta (born with a bell on the neck), Boothanathan (master of Lord Shiva's army consisting of Vapara, Katusabada, Veerabadhra, Koopanetra, Koopakarna and Gandakrana). Ayyappa is worshipped by followers of all religions including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. Ayyappa temples located in Sabari Hills, Achankovil, Ariyankavu, Kulathur and Thiruvullakkavu in Kerala attract more pilgrims than the remaining hundred or more situated in the southern part of India. This article will first give a brief background to Hinduism and then turn its focus to the role of symbolism. The local traditions behind the pilgrimage to Sabari Hills are used to unravel the philosophical significance of idol worship and associated rituals. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that Hinduism has perfected the art of Symbolism and Hindus have unraveled Unknown Ideals from Known Idols."

Relevance of Temples in Hindu Religion and Culture

Throughout Indian history, temples have exercised an enormous influence on religious and social life, and traditions. Famous Hindu temples such as Somanathpur had enormous wealth and became targets of foreign invasions. The Hindu temple is a place of worship like any other but it has unique features that elevate it to a greater spiritual excellence and appreciation. Orthodox temples are built according to Aagmas and the sacred ones are located in higher altitudes on top of hills. Elevated temples symbolize the importance of spirituality over worldly life. Kings and rich citizens in the community provided generous funds to the construction and maintenance of temples. Temples have contributed to the employment of architects, artisans, sculptors, and laborers. The shrines and icons have given peace to the frustrated minds. Music, dance and fine arts programs including religious and musical discourses staged in the temples have encouraged musicians, dancers, dramatists, artists and religious scholars. The granaries of temples were used to feed the hungry, and temple buildings have provided shelters to both scholars and students. Some temples were equipped to provide medical services to the sick, elderly, and disabled. Thus, temples have provided a variety of religious and social services and reinforced economic and social welfare of the Indian society. Hindu temples in the U.S. and Canada act as cultural ambassadors and provide spiritual and educational services to the Indian Community.

The temple also portrays God in the cosmic form. The statue of Nataraja (dance pose of Lord Siva) is a well known example for the artistic, scientific and philosophical significance of idols. Hundreds of articles and books have been written about the significance of the Nataraja's dance posture. In the PBS show, COSMOS, Professor Carl Sagan asserts that the dance of Nataraja signifies the cycle of evolution and destruction of the cosmic universe (Big-Bang Theory). The dance statue of Nataraja is a symbolic representation of Vedanta. The dwarfish demon crushed under the feet represents the demonic ego, which prevents humans to attain the inherent peace and bliss within. The ego should be crushed to regain the Supreme Bliss! A more complete description is beyond the scope of this article, and is therefore omitted.

Vedanta, the starting premise of Hindu Religion, asserts that Brahman (the abstract God) is the Absolute Truth. Brahman has multiple roles to play: the creator, the maintainer, and the destroyer all in one. Vedanta states that the universal soul, Brahman is eternal and the individual human soul, Atman ultimately unifies with Brahman. Advaita implies the ultimate identity of Brahman (Universal soul) and Jivatman (human soul). Dwaita opposes advaita on almost all points and maintains an ultimate diversity of Brahman and Jivatman. Visistadvaita (qualified non-duality) maintains a crucial differentiation as well as a fundamental identity. The Advaita Vedanta is revealed by the sitting and meditating pose of the Ayyappa Deity (replica of the presiding deity of Sabarimalai) in the Sri Siva-Vishnu temple. The temple brochure explains beautifully the symbolism of the sitting posture of Swami Ayyappa. The Lord sits with his thumb and forefinger crossed in a symbol of Chinmudra. The thumb represents the Atman and the forefinger is the Jeeva. There is no gap between the Atman and the Jeeva. Inside the sanctum sanctorum, devotees maintain single-minded concentration and meditation, experiencing the highest spiritual consciousness by the darshan (vision) of Lord Ayyappa.

The Hindu philosophy and logic provide unassailable strength to the concept of the fundamental unity in the worship of a multitude of gods. Hinduism is highly individualistic and Hindus love the freedom to worship their personal choice of an icon to visualize the abstract Brahman. That explains the rapid growth of temples, gods, and rituals across India and beyond. Even illiterate villagers are proud and enthusiastic to elaborate on stories about their temple gods and their significance. Such stories invariably are more adventurous and heroic than "Superman" episodes, but with a divine touch. The temple epitomizes God in a spiritual form and the various parts of his body symbolizes philosophical concepts. It serves as the symbolic link between Human and God, between Material and Spiritual and between Obvious and Ideal. Names of the miscellaneous segments of the temple designate different organs of the human body (garbhagraha (Sanctum Sanctorium) represents the human heart).

The symbolism in Hinduism is analogous to the modern communication methods adopted by the computer industry. They both adjust to the diverse tastes and needs of the world. Only a small segment of the general public look for sophistication and special features. The common folk who are in the majority, demand simple illustrations and practical examples rather than lengthy logic! The computer industry employs creative graphic displays of "icons" to satisfy the general public. Hindu symbolism seems to imply that it does not believe in a one-size-fits-all theory! Artistic temples with idols, heroic stories, and colorful rituals demonstrate this fact. Educated Hindus may grasp a lot more from such symbolism, and unravel philosophical and spiritual truths of Vedanta. Puranic stories create role models by dramatization of legendary events to preserve social ethics (Dharma). An ideal spouse, parent, offspring, or teacher is orchestrated to help the society to conduct its daily duties (nithya karma). Hinduism has perfected the art of symbolism as a powerful media to teach complex philosophical ideas to the common man. The communication values using the puranic stories in Hinduism, resemble the case study procedures in business management institutions.

Puranic Story of Hariharaputhra

The episode of Ayyappa is described in "Brahmananda Purana," and also in "Skandapurana." Our focus is on the symbolism of Lord Ayyappa and hence the story is presented in a summarized form. Ayyappa or Hari-hara-Puthra is the divine avatar as a consequence of the union of Lord Mahavishnu's Mohini avatar and Lord Siva. This avatar of Hariharaputhra was necessary to destroy the evil demoness Mahishi. Baby Ayyappa was found on the shores of the holy Pamba river by the heirless king of Pandhalam, Rajasekara, when he was out on a hunting trip. As the divine child was wearing a golden bell around his neck, the king named him Manikanta, and adopted him as his son. Soon the queen had her own child. As the children grew up, young Manikanta was loved and admired by all, and the queen started feeling jealous and wanted her own child to ascend to the throne. The queen feigned a strange ailment which required tiger's milk, and Manikanta took up the task of getting it for his mother. He ventured boldly into the forests, caught up with Mahishi and fulfilled the purpose of the avatar by killing the demon. The divine child returned home triumphantly riding a tigress and the queen realized the divine nature of her foster son. Prince Manikanta explained to his foster parents his divine mission, helped install his younger brother on the throne and went to the crest of Sabari Hills to be there eternally as a divine yogi. It is not important whether the story is true or false. The ideals reflected in the heroic and unselfish actions (bringing tiger-milk and killing the demon) are more significant.

Where and when this story took place is anybody's guess. Great number of temples in south India were built during the thousand years between 600 and 1600 A.D. Lord Buddha had great influence in the down south, especially part of the present Tamil Nad and Kerala. At the same time, both Siva worship (Shiva Siddhanta) and Vishnu worship (Vaishnavam) were also popular. There are historical evidence for intense rivalry between the Siva and Vishnu worshippers. It is probable that the dramatization of Ayyappa is a compromise between Buddha, Siva and Vishnu worshippers. The name, Dharma Shastha and the prayer song "Swamiye Saranam" are strong indications of the influence of Buddhism in Ayyappa worship. But the Vrath, Pilgrimage and associated rituals symbolizes a blend of Jnana (Advaita) and Bhakti (Dwaita) Paths to Liberation!


The Vedantic Pilgrimage to Sabari Hill Swami Ayyappa

Millions of men, women and children go to Sabari Hills every year on Makarasankaranthi (Middle of January). This auspicious day correspond to the time period when sun passes the winter solstice (one of the two points on the ecliptic at which its distance from the celestial equator is greatest and which is reached by the sun each year). The pilgrims visiting on this occasion undertake strict and rigorous preparations. They start with a 'Vrath' (pledge for religious observance) lasting for forty-one days, starting from the middle of November. All wear black or saffron clothes and thulasi beads, and strictly observe their daily rituals. The devotees observe austerities and self-control on those days. They eat pious vegetarian food, drink non-alcoholic beverages, and pray Swamiye Saranam (Thou protect me and I surrender). Before starting the pilgrimage to Sabari Hills, each devotee prepares an Irumudi (A bag with two separate compartments, and with two knots) for the long and strenuous journey through jungles. The front compartment contains the ghee-filled coconut and the other one includes food and personal belongings. The devotee walks by foot all the 8 miles from the shore of the Pampa river to Swami Sannidhanam (the open hall in front of the Sanctum Sanctorum), crosses the 18 steps and pours the ghee over the idol of the Lord.

On Makara Sankranthi day, millions crowd the hills to get a glimpse of the Divine Jyothi, a brilliant light that raises over the Kantha hill (adjacent to the Sabari Hill). Devotees consider this Jyothi to be a symbol of Lord Ayyappa, the highest spiritual consciousness. Nobody can confirm or deny that this is true. Such divine incidents are always unpredictable and beyond all human imagination!

The forty-one days of Vrath is to force the mind to withdraw from attachments to worldly possessions and to direct it towards the Absolute Truth. The walk by foot through the jungle symbolizes that the path to spirituality requires greater efforts. The coconut represents the human body, the outer shell of the coconut symbolizes ego, and the ghee is the Atman (human soul). Coconuts have three eyes: two eyes represent the intellect and the third eye is the spiritual eye. The idol represents Brahman. The rear compartment of the Irumudi symbolizes 'Praarabdha Karma' (accumulated worldly possessions). The devotee exhausts all the worldly possessions during the journey and reaches the Sannidhanam with the ghee filled coconut. The devotee is reminded that worldly possessions hinder the progress of liberation. The devotee opens the spiritual eye of the coconut, breaks the coconut and pours the ghee (Atman) on to the idol (Brahman). At this time, the devotee has detached the ego and worldly possessions. He or she has developed an attitude of total surrender to the Lord (infinite love for the Lord). The devotee begs Him to grant the total Unity of Atman with the Brahman. This liberation of Atman from Ego and Wordily Possessions is the Message of Vedanta in Symbolic Language. This Symbolism is flawless and complete. What a beautiful demonstration of the Artistic Perfection of Symbolism!

REFERENCES 1. "Essentials of Hinduism", by V. Krishnamurthy, Narosa publishing House, New Delhi, 1989.
2. "The Gazetteer of India, Volume 1: Country and people." CHAPTER Vlll: Religion by Dr. C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar, Dr.Nalinaksha Dutt, Prof. A.R.Wadia, Prof.M.Mujeeb, Dr.Dharm Pal and Fr. Jerome D'Souza. Delhi, Publications Division, Government of India, 1965.
3. Swami Harshananda "All About Hindu Temples." Book, Sri.Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1991.
4. A Parthasarathy, "The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals." Book, Shailesh Printers, Bombay, 1983.
5. Radhika Sekar. "The Sabarimalai pilgrimage and Ayyappan cult." Book, 1st ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1992
6. Pampa Sangamam 90, "Ayyappa darshanam - A Souvenir" Travancore Devaswom Board, Trivandrum, Kerala, 1991.
7. Vaidyanathan, K. R. (Kunissery Ramakrishnier), "Pilgrimage to Sabari." Book, 1st ed. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1978.
8. "Lord Ayyappan; the dharma shasta." Book, 2d ed. Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1966.

Excerpted from an article by Ram Chandran (chandra2@ers.bitnet) posted on alt.hindu. Thanks to him for giving me permission (to Giri...)