Human Body Symbolism in Hinduism

Shiva Blessing Devotees

by Jayaram V

The most common word used to refer to the body in Sanskrit is deha or deham. De means to protect and aham means the Self. Deham, thus, means that which protects the individual Self (Atman). The physical body not only protects the Self but also assists it in various ways during its continuation upon earth as a bound soul (baddha). The alternative word in Sanskrit for the body is sarira, which is probably coined from the root word, sarah, meaning five, to denote the presence of five elements in its formation. However, sarira is used to refer to the bodies of both animate and inanimate objects since the five elements are present in both. Another word associated with deha is daha, which means to burn. Dahanam, the Vedic ritual of burning a corpse in a proper manner to the accompaniment of Vedic chants, is the last rite (antyeshti) in Hinduism.

The human body is described variously in Hinduism. The scriptures view it as a necessary but troublesome companion to the Self with which it has to live until its liberation. The two have an inconvenient but significant relationship, which extends all the way to the highest Brahman and His dynamic energy, in which eventually the body has to sacrifice its desires and attachment to assist the soul in finding its way to its original source, which is the Abode of Brahman located in the sun. Depending upon the actions of each individual, the body may act as a friend or an enemy to the Self. It is a friend to those who live piously in the service of God and an enemy to those who pursue their own desires and subject themselves to ignorance and delusion. The scriptures caution against forming attachment to the body. One should not live solely to fulfill its every whim. That is the philosophy of the materialists (carvakas or lokayatas) who believe that the body is made up of only four elements and an individual entity perishes with death. One should rather live to liberate the soul that is held inside the body, using the body as the means to accomplish that difficult but austere goal. The body lives for itself. That is its natural tendency. We must recognize our spiritual identity and learn to live for the Self that exists within us.

There is a beautiful story in the Chandogya Upanishads (Ch.8) which illustrates the true nature of the Self. Once Virocana, a student from the demons, and Indra, the leader of the gods, went to Brahma, the creator god, and requested him to teach them about the Self. Brahma asked them to stay with him for thirty years and practice austerities. They stayed and practiced austerities sincerely for thirty two years and waited for Brahman to give them the knowledge. Satisfied with their resolve, then Brahma taught them that the body was the Self. Virocana was satisfied with that teaching and went back. He taught the same doctrine to the demons, who to this day follow that sincerely and live to fulfill their physical pleasures. Indra was not satisfied with that teaching. He persisted and after staying with him for over a hundred years and after receiving several incomplete instructions regarding the Self, he finally received the revelation from Brahma that the immortal and imperishable Self was different from the perishable and physical body and its numerous organs.

The story illustrates the importance of having a right understanding of the true and spiritual nature of our existence. Today, we have a vast number of people who regard their bodies as everything and live for their sake. They have even reduced yoga to a mere bodily exercise and would even dare tell you that yoga is secular rather than spiritual. They are disciples of Virocana in the modern world. They practice physical (bhautika) yoga. It is like throwing away the grains and eating the husk. This is not to say that one should ignore the body or one's appearance. Our gods personify beauty and radiance. We need to take good care of our bodies with love and compassion in the interests of our health and wellbeing. It is the attitude and the degree of obsession with the body, to the exclusion of everything else, which should be a matter of concern for those who want to rise above their animal nature.

It being a creation of Nature, the body is subject to certain modifications such as birth, death, aging, sickness, injury, and impurities such as uncleanliness, grossness and tamasic lethargy. However, despite these limitations, the body is also divine because it houses the divinities and the individual Self. It is the only place where a bound soul can continue its mortal existence and become liberated by the very actions of the body. Even gods do not have such an opportunity because they lack gross bodies. One should therefore develop a healthy and balanced attitude towards one's own body, take care of it properly and purify it sufficiently through yoga and right living to enable the Self to shine through and radiate its effulgence. Some of the symbolism and imagery associated with the human body are listed below.

1. The body is the physical universe. In the hymns of creation in the Rig-Veda and verses associated with Brahman, the Creator, the material universe is described as the body of Purusha, the Cosmic Self, who used it in a great sacrifice as an offering to produce from his own organs the worlds and beings. The dualistic schools derive inspiration from these and view the entire universe as the body of, Brahman, the Supreme Self.

2. The body is creation itself. The scriptures also describe the body as creation itself. The splendors of Brahman listed in the Bhagavadgita are manifestation of God only. He appears in the worlds both as the Creator and the created. He pervades them as well as envelops them. Whatever that issued forth from Brahman, first as a golden germ (Hiranyagarbha) or as a cosmic egg (brahmanda) or as the manifested world (viraj), constitute Brahman's bodies (murtam) only. The forms (bodies) of Brahman emerged from His formless state (amurtham). They are also often described as sambhuti (manifested) and asambhuti (unmanifested) respectively.

3. The body is Nature. The Manifested Brahman has a dual aspect, the Supreme Self and the Primal Energy, symbolized in the Puranas, as Siva and Shakti or Father God and Mother Goddess. They are also described as Purusha and Prakrit. Prakriti is God's material body. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna states that seated in Prakriti, He manifests the worlds and beings. He is the seed and Nature is the womb. At the individual level, the body houses the individual Self as part of Her eternal dharma. It is made up of several individual realities (tattvas), which keep the Self bound to the mortal world. The Purusha and Prakriti are the male and female components of creation, represented symbolically in the anthromorphic form of Lord Siva as Ardhanarisvara.

4. The body is a city. The body is described in the Upanishads, such as Katha Upanishad, as the city of eleven gates. They correspond to the eleven openings in the body, namely, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, mouth, anus, sexual organ, the navel and the aperture in the top portion of the head. The Upanishad suggested that whoever rules this city is freed from grief. In other words, whoever lacks control over the body suffers from sorrow and whoever has control is ripe for liberation.

5. The body is a chariot. The body is also compared to a chariot which is on its course towards some destination as determined by the decisions and actions of its owner (adhyatma), actions of others and circumstances (adhibhautika), and acts of God (adhidaiva). The horses yoked to the chariot are compared to the senses, the wheels to dharma, the reins to intellect, the occupant of the chariot to the individual Self, and the charioteer who drives it to God Himself. This is the symbolism we find in the narrative of the Bhagavadgita and with some variations in other scriptures. The Katha Upanishad (1.3.3), for example, compares the body to a chariot. However, it describes the Self as the lord of the chariot, the intellect as the charioteer and the mind as the reins.

5. The body is a field. The body is described in the Bhagavadgita as a field (ksetra) and the Self as its owner or enjoyer (kshetrajna). The body is compared to a field, because like the body, a field has boundaries, requires nurturing and care, owned by someone, subject to birth and decay, has seasons, bears crops, and serves the divinities by generating food and sustains life. The body is subject to modifications, such as aging and death, and the dualities such as heat and cold, happiness and sorrow, and purity and impurity. One is therefore advised to cultivate detachment from the body, stabilize the mind, and perform actions solely as a service or an offering to God so that one is not tainted by one's actions.

6. The body is a vehicle. This analogy is the same as the chariot. However in Hinduism, a vehicle (vahana) is not merely a mechanical contraption or a means of conveyance only. It is much more than that and represents an aspect of the lord of the vehicle. It symbolizes the powers and the qualities over which the owner or the lord of the vehicle has mastery and transformative control. Thus, each divinity has a vehicle upon which he or she rides. For the Self, who is the Lord (Isvara) of the body, the body is His vehicle. It carriers Him from place to place and facilitates His journey upon earth. However, even though it is the Lord, the individual Self does not actively control the body or its organs. The body cannot sustain life (prana) without Him. But He does not regulate it. He remains in the background as a silent occupant, a mute witness, seated within the heart, untouched by the impurities of the body and its activities, enjoying the sense objects. In a feudal society, from which this analogy was derived, a master or a king does not have to do any work other than sitting in his house and enjoying life, while his servants have to do all the work and bear the burden of keeping him happy!

7. The body is a battle field. The body is not only a field (ksehtra) of Nature in which modifications arise and subside like seasons upon earth, but also a battlefield where good and the evil forces wage a relentless war under the influence of the gunas. The body supports the bodily organs, who are the manifestation of various deities (devas) in the microcosm of a being. Fire, Air, Indra, Soma, earth, water have their counterparts in the body in the form of organs. They perform various actions and in return for their services receive offerings from the bearer of the body in the form of food. It is said that when these organs are used in the service of God or for promoting and preserving Dharma, they become increasingly divine, gather strength and act like true divinities (devas), but when they are used for selfish and destructive purposes they gather negative energy, become evil and act like demons (asuras). Thus in the body the good and evil forces wage a relentless battle for supremacy and the body becomes a heaven or a hell depending upon how each being lives upon earth and how he uses it.

8. The body is a prison house. As stated before, the Self does not take part in the functioning of the body, nor does it regulate any of its activities. It remains in the background as a witness consciousness, held inside the body, by Nature, almost in captivity. The Self is the Lord of the body, which is His house. But he is also its prisoner, under house arrest. He cannot escape from it on his own, unless the conditions are ripe for his departure. As long as the Self is held in the body, and remains bound to the cycle of births and deaths, he more or less remains in the body like a prisoner and the body acts like a prison house. In a bound state, the Self is rather like a king who is in exile living in a rather surreal environment like a shadow of his former self.

9. The body is an impurity. Some scriptures describe the body as impure (mala) in most negative terms, emphasizing the need to cultivate detachment from it, referring to it as a sac of skin filed with blood, urine, flesh and feces, subject to afflictions and modifications. These descriptions are meant to generate feelings of revulsion towards the body, and facilitate detachment, dispassion, and indifference to the body as well as the pairs of opposites.

10. The body is a sheath. The scriptures describe the body as a sheath (kosa) or a covering, made up of five sub-sheaths or bodies, namely the food-sheath (annamaya), the breath-sheath (pranamaya), the mental-sheath (manomaya, the intelligence-sheath (vijnanamaya) and the bliss-sheath (anandamaya). Of them the food-sheath is visible and gross, while the rest of them are invisible and subtle (sukshma). The self remains hidden behind the golden-sheath (the bliss body) and can be seen only when the remaining sheaths are stable and resting. Yoga is meant to accomplish this rather difficult goal. Upon death, the gross physical body is discarded by the soul and left behind. Parts of the subtle bodies accompany the soul to the ancestral world in the form of causative mind (karana citta) and past life impressions.

11. The body is a temple. Since the soul is housed inside the body, in the cave of the heart, the body is also compared to a temple of God and the heart itself to the sanctum sanctorum where the chief deity is housed and worshipped. Just as the temple is adorned with the images of various deities, the body is also adorned by various deities in the form of bodily organs. Just as the main deity in a temple receives services from the priests from morning until evening, the Self inside the body is also served by the body throughout the day in the form of offerings and services. Thus, symbolically the body is a sacred place where the Self is installed and worshipped with regular offerings of food and enjoyment.

12. The body is an elemental Self. The body is also called bhutatma, meaning elemental self, since it is made up of the five elements, namely fire, earth, water, air and space or ether. Since the elements are responsible for the manifestation of gross physical body, the body is also called the physical self (adhibhautika). The five elements manifest in the body as various organs and through them they seek corresponding elements in the sense objects from the external world and the food they consume. Upon death the body is consigned to flames and the resultant ash is mingled with the remaining elements to symbolize the return of the physical body to its natural elements.

13. The body is a formation or a superimposition. The body is perishable, and subject to aging and death. Since its existence is limited, it is also considered a temporary construct, very much like an illusion, projection or a temporary phenomenon. It is very much like a spider's web, weaved around the Self for the support of the Self. It comes into existence as a formation or covering around an individual Self when it is drawn by Nature into the phenomenal world. Nature uses its realities or components (tattvas) to build the bodies. Depending upon the beings involved, their number and composition may vary. Thus less evolved beings contain one or two senses only while the more evolved ones will have all the senses, the mind, the ego and intelligence.

13. The body is an obstacle. The body is responsible for the soul's bondage upon earth. Since it is made up of the aspects (tattvas) Nature and subject to the play of the gunas, giving rise to desires, attachments and demonic qualities such as anger and pride, it is also considered an obstacle to liberation. Classical yoga recommends rules and restraints, (yamas and niyamas), detachment, dispassion and renunciation to purity the body.

14. The body is the Self. The body along with the internal organ consisting of the senses, the mind, intellect and ego is also often described loosely as the Self only. This is done to denote the self-identity or the ego or reference to oneself (adhyatma) in the body and should not be confused with the immortal Self which is different and distinct from the ego or the physical Self. There are grades in self-awareness. The lowest of them represent the gross physical-self or the animal-self and the highest, the spiritual Self or the immortal Self.

15. The body is a sacrificial pit. One of the development of the post Rigvedic period was the internalization of the Vedic rituals and the use of Vedic symbolism to describe the various techniques of yoga such as the practice of breathing, meditation, concentration, worship, austerities and the like. In this symbolism the body is compared to the sacrificial altar, actions such as praying, enjoying and worshipping as offerings, the various bodily organs to the divinities, the Self to Brahman, the ego-self as the host of sacrifice, the digestive fire to the earthly fire (Agni), who accepts and distributes the food offered in the sacrifice among the divinities according to their share.


Thus, in Hinduism the body is regarded as an universe in itself. It is a microcosmic form of the Cosmic Being Himself, representing His entire creation down to the beings and the worlds. As a divine creation and part of the phenomenal existence, it is viewed both positively as a divine creation and negatively as a defilement. It is described both as having the potential to be a vehicle of truth and means of liberation and a vehicle of untruth and means of delusion and ignorance. Popular Hinduism discourages severe austerities and self-mortification as mortal sins since such practices subject the Self as well as the divinities to starvation. Yoga is not for one who lacks balance, who eats excessively or indulges in tortuous practices. However, the body needs to be controlled and regulated for self-transformation and increasing sattva through moderate and tested means such as practicing obligatory duties, cultivating knowledge, detachment and renunciation, and minimizing the vulnerabilities and dangers to which it is susceptible.

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