SYMBOLISM IN HINDUISM
The Saraswati Concept
The form Godess Saraswathi sitting on a white lotus is familiar to most of us. Saraswati is the personification of knowledge and wisdom in the female form. This knowledge is within the body of man. The lotus depicts this human body. The white colour of the lotus indicates the attribute of purity (satvaguna). The lotus blooms in the muddy water. Here the muddy water or dirt represents the decadent society. That is, when a society has a downfall, from the path of righteousness (Dharma) Jnani (Knower of Truth) is born from this society. This is the principle behind the form of Saraswati. (Saraswati literally means, ‘the essence of one’s Self’.)
This Godess has a veena (a stringed instrument) in Her hand. >From this emanates the sound of Pranava (AUM- the sound form of the Supreme Self). Narayana Guru has mentioned in Atmopadesa-satakam (sloka-52) that one can hear this melodious sound, when one is realizing the Truth.
(On that day, the sky will glow as radiant sound. All visible objects will become extinct in that. There after, the sound that provides fullness to the three-fold knowledge, becomes silent and self-effulgent)
The sound referred to here is Nada Brahman (or the echo of AUM chanting). From this sound the manifest world of names and forms emanates. The Mandukya Upanishad starts with the sentence, ‘Hari AUM, om ityetad aksharam idam sarvam’-, which means, all that is past, present or the future, all this is only the syllable AUM.
In the Bhagavat Gita, Lord Krishna repeats this (chapter 4, stanza 7-8) as;-
‘Whenever there is a decay of righteousness (Dharma) and the rise of adharma, then I embody myself, O! Bharata, for the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked and for the establishment of Dharma, I am born age after age.’
This concept is depicted in the form of Saraswati.
The form of Lord Ganapathy has created a lot of confusion in people’s perception. A person finds himself in this state, due to his ignorance of the truth behind the concept of Ganapathy’s form.
Ganapathy means the leader of the ganas. ‘Gana’ means a group. Here the ‘gana’ can be interpreted as the group of sense organs (indriyas), and the leader of the sense organs as the mind. Only when the mind is awake and alert, these organs can function.
Think how it would be, if we were to give a form to the (formless) mind. That is, if the mind is good, it will behave and act like a human, and if it is bad or wicked, it will have animal tendencies. Therefore, after studying whether the form of one’s mind is human or animal in nature, our ancestors created a form connecting both man and animal.
Ganapathy is the eldest son of Lord Siva and Godess Parvathy. Siva is the embodiment of Aatma (Reality) and Parvati (Sakti) the representation of Maya (illusion). In the merger of Siva and Sakti, the mind evolves first. Then the indriyas (organs of sense) come in to action and through them man is able to perceive the world.
In any venture, success can be achieved only if the mind is steadfast. If the mind wavers, failure is sure to follow.
A steadfast mind leads a person towards success or victory; removing all the obstacles in the way. Having the quality of one-pointedness (ekagrata) is considered as a blessing from Lord Ganapathy.
Ganapathy is shown with having only one tusk. This single tusk indicates the ‘one-pointedness’ of the mind. In other words we should not pursue two aims at the same time. So one of the two tusks is chopped off in Ganapathy’s form. The one and only unique aim must be considered as the realization of Truth- called Atmajnanam.
Mind has a fierce greed. Ganapathy’s insatiable hunger represents this greed. Any amount of food cannot satisfy that greed for food. Only with God’s blessings, in the form of partaking the offerings made to Siva, this hunger can be satisfied.
Budhi (intellect) and Sidhi (achievement) are considered as the two consorts of Lord Ganapathy. Both these are intrinsically related to the mind as attributes.
Ganapathy has a great liking for Durva grass (Karuka- a sacred grass), and His devotees adorn Him with garlands made from this grass. Naturopathy also mentions about the benefit of this grass for maintaining good mental health.
Ganapathy’s vehicle is the mouse. Here ‘vehicle’ refers to the body. The human mind has great desire for sensual pleasures. Such a desire is much more in a mouse. When we consider the desires of the mind, the mouse is the best medium or vehicle to convey this meaning.
After the culmination of the annual Ganesh Festival, the idols are immersed (called Visarjan) in water (in a pond, river or sea). If we want to achieve salvation (liberation from births and deaths), we have to go beyond our minds. We have to offer our mind (mind-flower) to God. >From this point of view Ganapathy Visarja gets a meaning.
Subramania or Shanmukhan (six faced) is the youngest son of Siva-Parvati family. The first offspring from Siva (Atma) and Parvati (Maya) is Ganapathy. The mind emerges from this union. Then comes ego (the I-feeling) and the consciousness of time and space. Subramani represents the ‘year’ (time) and His faces can be interpreted as the six seasons. Among these seasons Subramania represents the spring season. Time or Kaala, depends on the sun. When the earth rotates on its axis we experience night and day. The seasons evolve with the revolution of the earth round the sun.
Further, based on the movements of the moon, we have the dark and light sides of he month (Krishna-paksha and Shukla-paksha) Thus a lunar month has two sides (fortnights) and then we have a lunar year.
In fortunate times everything turns out to be good. For this (to get good times) we pray to God of time (Kaala). Kaala (the God of Death) is a manifestation of Time. Thus, Kaala is associated with many concepts, in Hindu Scriptures. The feminine form of Kaala is Kaali. The most beautiful time of the year is spring, which represents Subramania.
We have no idea when Time started and when it will end. In a sense, Time is endless and eternal. The colour of the eternal sky and sea is blue. Hence Kaali has blue colour.
Time has evolved from Paramatma (The Supreme Self). Therefore Kaali is considered as Siva’s daughter. Time consumes and destroys everything. The very form of Kaali as a destroyer and sustainer of the world, clarifies this point.
Spring is the most beautiful season of the year. Therefore, the peacock, a beautiful bird, has been chosen as the vehicle of Subramania. Time moves according to the state of our mind. When we are happy we are not aware of the passage of time. When we are sad, we feel that time is moving slowly. Therefore, our ancestors decided on the peacock, which can walk slowly or fly fast, as the vehicle of Lord Subramania.
The peacock is perched on a serpent. The serpent is the real symbol of time, since Time (Kaala) symbolizes death, just as the serpent is a cause of death. The serpent can move only forward. Since Time also moves only forward, it is an important symbol of Time.
Man is bound by Time. The God of Death (Yama or Kaala) also binds the dead with his rope. We may infer that the consort of Subramnia, Valli (literally means rope) represents this rope. As mentioned earlier, time depends on the sun. The Vel (single pointed spear) in the hand of Subramania can be considered as the ray of the sun.
We can assume that the worship of Subramania has its origin in the worship of sun. The word savitr in the Gayatri Mantra also represents the sun.
The Concept of Siva
Saivism and Vaishnavism are two prominent schools of religious beliefs among Hindus. Each one claim that his concept of God is superior to the other. Today, most Hindus look at both these with equal reverence. Lord Ayyappa is an example.
The Siva family consists of Siva, Parvati, Ganapathy and Subramania. Here Siva represents the Self (Atma), Parvati (Maya), Ganapathy, the mind and Subramania the spring season (Time).
Lord Siva is the embodiment of Atma (the Self), with attributes (Saguna). Atma is an entity without attachment and attributes (Nirguna). Therefore, Siva is shown as always immersed in meditation. This is a beautiful (Sundara) and peaceful (Santa) pose. (Siva means the Auspicious). The face of Siva is full of brightness. The blue colour of His body represents infinity or eternity.
Siva is blue necked (Neela-kanta). His neck or throat, became blue by consuming the poison Kaalakoota, which emerged from the mouth of Vasuki, a serpent used in churning the ocean of milk. This sybolises the concept that those who strive for the welfare of the world, have to be prepared to undergo many difficult experiences.
The serpent adorning the neck of Siva is a symbol of Time, which represents the ‘end’ or ‘death’. Siva who destroys Time (Kaala), has conquered death (Mrithyunjaya). Thus he has made ‘death’ as an adornment.
The trident (three pronged spear) in Siva’s hand represents the three aspects, ie, the Knower, Known and Knowledge. These three aspects are the three branches of Supreme Knowledge (Paramatma). The observer attains consciousness of the world through these three aspects.
Naada is the first vibration or mystic sound from which all creations have emerged. The Upanishads proclaim that this is OM-kara or the three syllables A, U, M sounded together. From the Damaru (an hourglass shaped drum) hanging on Siva’s trident, emanates Naada, and from this, the universe is unfolded and all creations take place.
The river Ganges (Godess Ganga), is hidden in the matted hair of Siva. This Godess represents the enegy that arises from the Mooladhara-chakra (located at the lowest point of the Sushumna nadi (spine) and reaches upward to the 7th chakra, called Sahasrara-chakra. This is called Kundalini or Serpent power. From this point flows the Ganges. This flow of the river Ganges is the personification of the flow of Sat-Chit-Ananda (Being-Consciouness-Bliss), a state which represents the state of complete liberation (Moksha).
The crescent moon on Siva’s head, represents the concept of growth and decay. No creation can avoid this phenomenon. Siva adorns the crescent moon to make a devotee recognize this fact.
The third eye of Siva is ‘the eye of knowledge’ and also ‘fire’. It ca see the past, present and future. Knowledge is the fire or power of destruction. Siva reduced Kamadeva (the God of desire) to ashes, by opening this third eye. Desire is the enemy of Supreme Knowledge.
Siva’s body is smeared with the sacred ash (Bhasmam). This ash represents the burnt remains of the three Gunas (Satva-Raja and Tamas). Therefore Siva is beyond the three gunas (Gunatita).
Parvati, the consort of Siva represents Maya (illusion). Only with the help of Mayadevi (Sakti or the dynamic energy) Siva (the inert) can create the world. Without Sakti (energy), Siva is like a corpse.
The abode of Siva-Parvati is Kailasa. Kailasa means a high place, not easily accessible to the common man. It represents the 4th state (Turiya) beyond the three states, Jagrat (waking), Swapna (dream), and Sushupti (deep sleep)
The bull, Nandi, is the vehicle of Siva. The body is the vehicle (carriage) that carries Atma. The docile bull has been selected as the vehicle of Siva, since it represents peace and beauty. A person, who is aware of the existence of the body, must be aware of the existence of Atma, and hence you have to always face it. Therefore, the Nandi is installed facing the idol of Siva (Linga).
Vishnu-The Epitome of Effulgence
According to Vaishnavism, Lord Vishnu represents the Saatvik (pure, good and merciful) aspect of the Soul. Vishnu means bright light. >From this point of view, Lord Vishnu is the all-pervading light.
It is believed that Vishnu rests in the ocean of milk (Ksheerasagar) on the back of a serpent called Ananta. This state of rest is called Yoganidra (sleep meditation). Godess Lakshmi, in the form of Mayadevi, sits near Him. The effulgent energy of Vishnu and the illusory power manifested in Devi creates the world.
Ananta (without beginning or end) represents infinity, or Time). The Lord with His attribute of Satva rests on infinite Time. The Ocean of Milk represents the ocean of Sat-chit-ananda (eternal Bliss). It is improper to call this ocean as salty. Hence it is called the Ocean of Milk.
Ananta not only forms the bed for Vishnu but also guarding Him with the hoods spread over Vishnu’s head. Snake is the guardian of Dharma in hindu symbolism.
Vaikunda, (paradise of Vishnu) and Ksheerasagar are synonymous. ‘Kunditham’ means sorrow. Vaikunda means a place devoid of sorrow. Sat-chit-ananda is a state without any sorrow and only Eternal Bliss.
Vaikunda represents the 4th state (Turiya) beyond Jagrat, Swapna and Sushupti (waking, dream and deep sleep states). Hence Kailasa and Vaikunta represent the same principle of a place of eternal Bliss.
Vishnu, in His divine form, is depicted with four hands. These hands carry a conch (Panjajanya), a divine disc (Sdarshana-chakra), a lotus (Padma) and a club (Kaumudiki). From the sound of the conch, creation takes place. This is the primal sound AUM, as mentioned in the Upanishads.
The Chakra (discus) is the Dharmachakra. It is used to establish Dharma, by destroying those who are against it. This is called ‘the Turning of the Wheel of Law’.
The club represents power. The all-powerful God rules the world through His power. The lotus is a representation of both beauty and softness. Vishnu has both these attributes. These attributes should also exist in His devotees.
Lord Brahma sits on a lotus, that has sprung from the navel of Lord Vishnu. Brahma is Antakarana (inner organs, instruments). Antakarana has four components- namely- Manas (mind), Budhi (intellect), Chitam (dealing with memory) and Ahankar (egoism). Thus Brahma is shown with four faces. Saraswati (wisdom) is the consort of Brahma (Antakarana).
The Garuda (golden eagle) has been chosen as the vehicle of Vishnu, since divine light travels fast. The soul (Paramatma) is situated within the vehicle (body).
As a symbol for worship, Vishnu is the most appropriate for kings and householders. Students should worship Saraswati and the soldiers should worship Kaali.
(New lights on the concept of Dharmasastha)
Dharma (righteousness) is the basic foundation of Indian philosophy. Dharma is the path towards liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Artha (wealth or possession) and kama (instinctual desire) are the sights on both sides of this path. The pursuits of wealth and desire for possessions must be within the ambit of Dharma.
Dharmasastra is founded in the rule or principle that, “you reap what you sow”. Dharma is eternal because it sustains at all times. Therefore we call Hindu Dharma as Sanatana dharma (the absolute and eternal law of life). One who dictates, preaches or corrects Dharma is called Dharmasastha. Sastha is a synonym for Buddha as mentioned in the Sanskrit lexicon, Amarakosa. It was Buddha who proclaimed, “Dharmam Saranam Gatchami” (I am moving towards taking refuge in Dharma), for the first time in India. Though there were other masters for Dharma in the later years, Buddha stands out as the ‘first’ to preach Dharma.
The five precepts mentioned in Shri Narayana Dharma, ie, Ahimsa (non injury/non-violence), Satyam (Truth), Astheyam (non stealing), Avyabhicharam (un-adultery) and avoidance of intoxicants, are the same as Buddha Dharma. In Buddhism these are known as Pancha-silas ( 5 moral disciplines or obligations). The path of purity encompasses these teachings of Buddha.
Until 10th century AD, almost 85% of the people in Kerala were Buddhists or Jains. Following the attack that took place between 10th and 12th century AD, Hinduism established itself. It was Paramara Parasurama (970 AD) who conquered Kerala and initiated the process of conversion to Hinduism. This is the same Parasurama, who is mentioned in Hindu scriptures, as the one who threw his axe and reclaimed the land, which he later gave as gifts to Brahmins. The reference to ‘reclamation’ is to indicate the process of reclaiming Hindu Dharma from the influence of Buddhism and Jainism, or the country from their hold. The battle axe was the most common weapon used in those days by the soldiers. Parasurama took over the Buddhist places of worship and converted them into Hindu Temples. He then gave charge of these temples to Brahmins to run them according to Hindu rites of worship.
This was followed by the attack of Cholas (999 to 1102 AD). During this period, the Buddha vihars were converted into Siva temples. The Jaina vihars were changed into temples of Vishnu. The nunneries (where the Bikshunis lived) became Devi temples. What we see today as temples of Dharma Sastha were originally Buddha or Jaina vihars. (Vihars were Buddhist or Jaina monastic retreats.)
During the later period, under the leadership of king of Pandalam, a Buddhist pilgrimage centre, which is now known as Sabarimala, was conquered. In this conquest the king of Pandalam, must have taken the help of the Muslims residing in the precincts of Erumeli. As a result, Vavar (Babar), a muslim commander, finds a place in this story or legend. All these events took place around 1600 AD.
The place conqured by the King of Pandalam, belonged to the Maravars of Tamilnadu. After the conquest, the king became a believer in Hinduism. As a result, this shrine became a centre of Hindu worship. Both the Saivaites and Vaishnavaites tried to take control of this temple. Based on a compromise between these two groups, the story or legend of Hariharaputra (son of Vishnu and Siva) gained popularity. May be in order to ward any further onslaughts, a temples with 18 narrow steps was built, which made access to this shrine difficult.
Till recently, Brahmins did not visit this temple carrying the traditional bundle of coconuts and rice (Irumudi-kettu). They called the temple as a Pulaya (lower caste Hindu) temple. Even today, the clothes worn by the devotees represent those worn by the lower castes/tribals.
The Mudra (symbolic gesture) attributed to Ayyappa is unique, where the index finger of the hand is kept joined with the thumb, leaving the other three fingers free. This symbolizes the steadfast aim of the devotee to achieve nirvana, by taking refuge in the three jewels (Triratnas), Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the fundamental commitments of a Buddhist. (Buddha- the awakened one. Dharma- the truth and tenets expounded by him. Sangha- the community following these principles.) Lord Buddha is popularly depicted as sitting in Padmasana (lotus pose) with the fingers of both hands held in Chinmudra.
There is no class discrimination in Sabarimala. Everybody is an Ayyappa (a representative of the deity) or a Malikapuram (mother godess). Even this concept has its roots in Buddhism and its principle of equality. Though people practiced different professions or crafts, there was no caste distinction in Buddhism.
The chanting of Saranam (refuge in God) is part of Buddhism. Buddham Saranam Gachhami (I take refuge in the enlightened One), Sangham Saranam Gachhami (I take refuge in the community of Bikshus/Bikshunis,), Dharmam Saranam Gachhami(I take refuge in the practice of Truth and righteousness). Today, these have been changed to ‘Swami Saranam’ and ‘Dharmasastha Saranam’. That is the only difference.
The word ‘Palli’ means place of worship in the Pali language. The Christians named their churches as ‘Christian Pallis’ and the Muslims their places of worship as ‘Muslim Pallis’. The word ‘Pallikettu’ also must have its origin in Buddhism. Palli-urakkam (God’s sleep/ King’s sleep) Palli-unarthal (awakening God/King) indicates their relationship to the word ‘Palli’, in Buddhism.
Eighteen Nikayas (canons) are the basic tenets of Buddhism. Nikaya literally means ‘corpus’ or ‘collection of Sutras’. In the Sanskrit lexicon (Amarakosa), Buddha has eighteen synonyms. Further the concept of eighteen can be explained as follows: Aryasatyas (noble truths) -4, Ashtangamargas (paths) -8, Triratnas (jewel) -3, Chitbhavanas -3 (Maitri, Muditam and Karuna). The concept of eighteen steps in Sabarimala must have come from these concepts in Buddhism.
Till about the 10th century AD, Tamil ws spoken in Kerala. In Tamil, Dharmasastha had names like ‘Ayyan’ and ‘Ayyappan’. This like the use of Muthappan to describe some gods. Even the cry of ‘Ayyo!’, in danger or distress (as calling God for help) must have arisen from Buddhism.
After 5th century AD, Buddhism and Jainism declined steadily in Northern India, and in its place Saivism and Vaishnavism grew rapidly. Later Hinduism emerged from the combination of various forms of worship of God practiced by Hindus, viz, Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu and his incarnations), Saivism (worship of Siva), Saktheyam (worship of Sakthi), Ganapathyam (worship of Ganapathy), Souryam (worship of Surya). In kerala this transition took place mainly during the period 12th and 15th century AD.
Though Buddhism declined and was eclipsed from India, the Hindus in Kerala accepted Buddha in the form of Dharmasastha. In most temples Dharmasastha (Ayyappan) is installed as upadevata (secondary deity).