The Ten Iconic Symbols of Hinduism


by Jayaram V

Hinduism is rich in symbolism. Hindu scriptures contain many symbolic references to various phenomena, aspects, entities and realities of our existence. The ritual aspect of Hinduism is mostly known and visible, but its spiritual aspect remains mostly unknown and hidden behind a rich tapestry of symbolism. By taking the visible aspects of creation and the truths of our existence into the subtle planes and finding parallels there, our seers discovered a convenient way to hide the deeper truths of our spiritual wisdom and higher knowledge of the Self behind a veil of symbolic imagery. They did so because they wanted such knowledge to be known only to those who were ready for the journey of liberation. The symbolism becomes self-evident only to those, whose knowledge and intelligence become purified in the fire of internal sacrifice. It is not possible to discuss the depth of symbolism found in Hinduism in this brief essay. I have already written several essays on this subject. In this discussion, we briefly focus upon the symbolism of ten most important concepts of Hinduism.

1. God

God is described in Hinduism as the universal dweller, indweller, cosmic soul, cosmic germ, light, pure consciousness, lord, creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer, teacher, seer, individual soul, purity, goal, freedom, infinity, rescuer, support, upholder of dharma, Aum, liberator, and so on. He is the Cosmic Male (Purusha) who creates worlds out of himself through an internal sacrifice.

Brahman, the Unknown, Asat

2. Nature

Hindu scriptures represent Nature as the Mother Goddess, energy (Shakti), mind and body, material world, universal womb, a collection of finite realities, God’s companion, female sexual organ, the natural state of things, a matrix of illusion (maya), deluding power, Kundalini, and so on. She is the universal female, who executes the will of God and creates the worlds and beings.


3. Body

The body is compared in Hinduism to a city of nine gates, an impure object, a sacrificial offering, the abode of gods, a temple, the bearer and the subject of the soul, a clothing which is worn and discarded in each birth by the soul, an animal, the material world, Nature, microcosm, the earth, the food of God, a sack of impurities, chariot, sacrificial pit, field (kshetra), battlefield, etc.


4. Mind

The scriptures describe the mind as an ocean, a lake, a receptacle which receives and holds thoughts, a subtle world or plane, a body or sheath, a chamber, a sacred temple, a finite realty (tattva) of Nature, a mischievous monkey, an undulating water surface, the sixth sense, the lord of the senses or Indra, the lord of the heaven, controller, the sky, etc.


5. Senses

The senses are compared to horses, gods of heaven, planetary deities, messengers of Indra, the source of desires, afflictions and attachments, agents of ignorance and delusion, restless creatures, power, force, breath, male seed (retas), number five, organs, virility,the power of Indira, witness, binding ropes, workers and so on. Besides, each of the five senses also has its own symbolic significance in Hinduism.


6. Earth

In Hinduism, the earth is symbolized as a goddess, fertility, a support, suffering, the nourisher, the producer, a source of wealth, an element, misfortune, a world, a plane, the body, materiality, mortality, the feet, gross matter, food, the mother, a sphere, a field, a property, the wife of a king, the sense of smell, a sacrificial altar and an impurity.


7. Water

Water is symbolized as a world, a deity, consciousness, life, life-support, libation, element, mind, the sense of taste, medicine (havir), an obstacle, the phenomenal world, a hiding place, materiality, a purifier, a constellation (purvashada), a form of energy, nourisher, and support. The whole existence springs out of the waters of life. Lord Vishnu rests in it upon his bed of Adishesha.


8. Fire

Fire is symbolized in Hinduism as a deity (Agni), three types of sacrificial fire (garhapatya, avhaniya, dakshina), the digestive fire, digestive power, bile, gold, power, energy, the sun, the eyes, the subterranean fire, consciousness (chith), life, recipient of sacrifices, source of life, divine messenger, an element, knowledge, desire, lust or passion, a weapon and destruction.


9. Air

Vayu, the god of air, is the lord of the middle world. He rides upon a million horses that run in all directions. Air is also symbolized in Hinduism as the vital breath (prana) of five kinds in the body, a bodily affliction, a sense organ, the soul, an element, the mind, swiftness, a subtle world, subtle plane, energy, the source of turbulence, a messenger, and the sense of touch.

Wind and air

10. Space

The sky is described in Hinduism as space, the medium of sounds, the abode of gods, the battlefield where gods and demons fight, the source of rain, the roof of the world, the region of the sun and the moon, the path by which the sun travels each day, the source of divine voice (akasa vani), the mind, the subtle plane, a substance (vaisheshikas), Brahman and infinity.



In Hinduism, you will also come across symbolic references to speech, the heart, the Vedas, the breath, the sun, the moon, heaven, clouds, rain, rivers, mountains, suffering, creation, death, time, intelligence, knowledge, words, letters, and so on. Just as creation is a projection of God in the field of Nature, symbolism is a projection of our minds upon the objects of creation.

The symbolism which our minds conceive is not real. It is a product of our conjecture or imagination. Yet, it plays an important role as an aid to our study and understanding. By bringing together two widely unrelated concepts, we make sense of the phenomenal and objective world. The symbol is a myth, but it plays an important role in objectifying the abstract and metaphysical truths and realms of our existence.

Suggestions for Further Reading








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