Symbolism and Significance of Vibhuthi in Hinduism

Vibhuthi The Power of God

by Jayaram V

In a general sense, vibhuthi (vibhuthi) means power, might, greatness, abundance, exalted position, splendor, etc. It is usually used in reference to spiritual or mystic powers (siddhis), the powers of God or Nature (mahima), or the perfections that manifest in beings as skills and faculties.

The Bhagavadgita contains a chapter called Vibhuthi Yoga which is exclusively devoted to the descriptions of the powers of God that manifest in numerous objects and entities as his greatness. The chapter declares that the powers of God are infinite and he manifests them in the world to ensure the continuity of creation and express his light and delight.

The eight great vibhuthis of God

Vibhuthi is also specifically used to denote the almighty power (vibhthva) of God, who has the power to create, support, delude, reveal and dissolve the worlds and beings. There are said to be eight kinds of his almighty power, which manifest in humans, gods, and the rest of creation according to the spirituality, divinity and the degree of purification.

What ensues from vibhuthi is vibhathi, the glitter, light, illumination, vigor, or the aura of perfection or of greatness. Like the light that spreads from the effulgent sun, the power of God radiates with great vigor to illuminate the worlds and keep them going. The eight mystic powers (vibhuthis) are as listed below.

  1. The power to become small (animan)
  2. The power to become excessively lightweight (laghiman)
  3. The power to attract, acquire, gain (prapthi)
  4. The power to fulfill desires or manifest will (prakamyam)
  5. The power to grow in strength, majesty, or size (mahiman)
  6. The power to wield supreme authority, lordship, or omnipotence (ishitha)
  7. The power to mesmerize, bewitch, delude, or subjugate (vasitha)
  8. The power to control or suppress desires (kamavasiyatha)

Vibhuthi, the sacred ash symbolism

Vibhuthi also refers to ashes from the burning of cow dung, cremation of bodies, or the residue or the remains of an object or offering made to the sacrificial fire (yajnasesham). It is in the latter sense, vibhuthi carries a great significance in Hinduism, and especially in Shaivism, as a symbol of purity, impurity, karma, sacrificial offering, impermanence, healing, protecting and absorbing power. Devout Hindus use vibhuthi for various purposes such as the following.

  1. As a sacred ash to wear marks on their bodies,
  2. As a sacrificial offering in rituals to worship of Shiva
  3. As a protective layer to prevent the dissipation of spiritual energy from the body
  4. As the symbol of Lord Shiva, renunciation, and detachment
  5. As the mark of impermanence and insignificance of worldly life
  6. As a medicine to heal the sick and the weak
  7. As a sacred substance to ward off evil powers or purify a place
  8. As the remains of sacrificial worship for purification purpose
  9. As a mystic substance in left-hand methods to delude, charm, exorcise, or frighten

Significance and Symbolism of Vibhuthi in Shaivism

Vibhuthi has a great significance in Shaivism as it symbolizes the mystic power of Lord Shiva and refers to his dissolving, destructive, and transforming power. According to the legends, he wears it upon his body as a symbol of his supreme power and lordship. At the end of each time cycle he reduces everything into ashes and goes into temporary restfulness. His third eye is the eye of knowledge and omnipotence. It has the power to reduce anything and everything into ashes.

It is said that once he reduced, Brahma, Vishnu and all the worlds into ashes and rubbed them on his body. Devout followers of Shiva invariably wear ashes or marks of ashes on their bodies as a sign of surrender and devotion. The mark of ash on their forehead may look odd and superstitious to the nonbelievers, but they do not mind to wear it and go into public or to their workplace. I have seen devotees of Shiva doing it without any discomfort even in the West where Hindus are a minority and where such marks may be viewed with derision or suspicion.

The Shaiva ascetics and followers of Shaiva renunciant traditions wear ashes on their bodies as a symbol of renunciation, detachment, dispassion, and devotion to Lord Shiva. Since most of them live in the cold climatic region of the Himalayas or remote mountainous regions and forests, people believe that the ash on their naked bodies protects them from intense cold or from insect bites. Wearing ashes on the naked body also symbolizes that the person doing so has renounced all types of attachment to his name and form, and for him his body is practically as good as it has already been consumed or cremated in the fire of spirituality and detachment.

In Shaivism, vibhuthi also symbolizes the residual power of procreation or sexual energy (retas). It is the sublime ash, which is generated when the sexual fluids in the body are withheld through celibacy and burned in the heat of intense austerities (tapas). According to the scriptures, vibhuthi represents tejas, the burnt remains of semen in the sacrifice of sexual desires. When the semen (retas) is controlled and sublimated through celibacy and intense austerity (tapah) it becomes converted into vigor (tejas) in the body and brilliance (ojas) in the mind. They are like the ashes formed from the burning of sexual desire. The vigor gives the body a radiant aura and sublime beauty.

It is believed that the seminal fluids in the body are burned into ashes through combustion and transformed into seminal energy by a special group of shining deities called Bhrigus, meaning cracks of fire. The entire process in the body is presided over by Shiva, who is known as Bhrigupathi, the lord of Bhrigus. The Rigveda Samhita (1.58.2) states that Bhrigus were a race of special beings who discovered fire and brought the knowledge of creating it to the mankind.

Vibhuthi (ashes) as the residual power of sexual energy is symbolized in the legend of Shiva, as an ascetic God, in which he burnt Manmadha, the deluding god of love and lust, into ashes by opening his third eye. In the legend associated with the birth of Kumara, we understand that the semen of Shiva itself was the residue of a great austerity (tapah). It was so hot that even the fire god Agni could not carry it for long.

The symbolism of ash also suggests that Shiva's anger is not destructive but transformative. He uses anger to destroy the impurities that are present in things into ashes and makes them pure and shining, just as does in case of retas, or an ash-wearing ascetic whom he burns in the suffering of life to turn him away from worldly pleasure and help him focus upon his liberation.

In Hindus spirituality, all phenomenal life and existence eventually ends into ashes. Nothing remains. There is nothing you can take away from the sacrifice of life, except the burnt remains of your actions (karma), desires and latent impressions (samskaras). You wear them on your soul as the residue of your past lives, as your breath is carried away into the mid-region by the divinities. Wearing ashes on your body serves you as a reminder of this harsh truth of mortal life so that you can cultivate detachment and live responsibly without burning yourself in the fire of lust and desire.

It is from the ashes (the elements) that the bodies are born and into the ashes that they perish. It is why we cremate bodies, not bury them. Anything that is touched by fire becomes pure. What is left after cremation is the soul, which is eternally pure. It may temporarily remain enveloped in the impurities of your past lives, as the burnt remains of your existence, just as the ashes that cover the bodies of ascetic beings. When their time comes, they will fall and let the souls escape into the highest heaven of the immortals. This is the tradition. Thus, ashes symbolize many things in Hinduism in different contexts.

Literal Interpretation of the word vibhuthi

Vibhuthi is derived from the root word vibhu meaning eternal, supreme, lord, eminent, firm, self-controlled, space, soul, lord, ruler, king, etc. It is essentially a reference to God, the lord of all. Vibhuthi is that which arises from Vibhu. It refers to the supreme power of God or to the supreme presence or manifestation of God.

Human beings are aspects of God. They have the soul, Vibhu, in them. They have the potential and the possibility to posses the powers (vibhuthis) of God. However, what prevents them from manifesting them is anubhuthi, the power or the manifestation of ego (anu). According to Shaivism, anava (egoism) which arises from the ego (anu) is one of the triple impurities, which bind the beings (jivas) to the mortal world. The other two are, attachments (pasas), and delusion (moha). These three impurities are responsible for anubhuthi (ego power), which prevents the supreme power of the soul (vibhuthi) from manifesting in human beings. Therefore, to manifest the power of God in you, you need to become detached from anubhuthi, the experience and the enjoyment of the ego.

Vibhuthi may also mean vi + bhuthi, meaning separated from existence, beingness, or the elements. 'Vi' means separated, distinguished, or discriminated. Bhuthi means existence, birth, or worldliness. Vibhuthi, thus, means that which is separated from existence or from worldly life.

Buthi in turn is derived from the world bhutha, meaning a being or an elemental body, or past time (bhuthkal). According to this interpretation, vibhuthi means that which is separated from beingness, elemental body, or from its past. In other worlds it is a residue or the remains of either the cremation of the body or its liberation.

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