Land of South Asia is so rich in its cultural heritage. Most of countries of this region once were follower of Hindu faith. Later with the invasion of Islam, the ancient center of South Asian philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism went through a great transition. In spite of that entire disturbance, it has survived through the ages. Today Hinduism thrives in the heart of Nepali, Indian and some other countries of this region. Each country represents the same Hindu culture on their unique way, but they share fundamental similarities. And one of the similarities is the use of sacred symbol. Symbol is the most significant element we notice in Hindu culture. Here this research paper will look into the major symbol Aum, Swastika and Shatkona used in Hindu culture.
Entering into the world of symbol we need to know something about Hinduism. The historical meaning of the term Hindu has evolved with time. Starting with the Persian and Greek references to the land of the Indus in the 1st millennium BCE through the texts of the medieval era, the term Hindu implied a geographic, ethnic or cultural identifier for people living in the Indian subcontinent around or beyond the Sindhu (Indus) river. By the 16th century, the term began to refer to residents of the subcontinent who were not Turkic or Muslims. “Hindu” was a word which was uttered by foreigners referring to people living on the other side of Sindu river. Between the 13th and 18th century in Sanskrit and regional languages by the help of poets and scholars the word Hindu was localized and the developed the Hindu self-identity. So it is not original Indian Subcontinent. Originally Hindu religion was known as “Sanatana Dharma”. It means Anadi (beginning-less), Anantha (endless) and a-paurusheya (without a human funder). Dharma is comes from dhri, meaning to hold together, to sustain. Its approximate meaning is "Natural Law," or those principles of reality which are inherent in the very nature and design of the universe. Thus the term “Sanatana Dharma” can be roughly translated to mean "the natural, ancient and eternal way." Thus, basically it was the path of life or art of living, which path, tradition or culture have not fixed starting date or founder. To look into the symbols of Hindu religion let’s see what Talksofindia – TOI says about Hindu iconography:
Hinduism is swarming with symbolism, and a person cannot deny being introduced to any of its symbols in one form or the other, at some point in their lives. These symbols, that represent philosophies, teachings and the various gods and goddess are contemporary representatives of a pulsating culture, with more and more people from the western countries adopting them in their lives in some form. While on the surface, many of these hindu symbols may seem absurd, they all carry deeper symbolic meanings that are bound to draw attention to the rich cultural lineage of Hinduism. (1)
Through the ages of its development Hinduism has adopted several iconic symbols, forming part of Hindu iconography, that are imbued with spiritual meaning based on either the scriptures or cultural traditions. Significance accorded to any of the icons varies with region, period and denomination of the followers. Over time some of the symbols, for instance the Swastika has come to have wider association while others like Aum are recognized as unique representations of Hinduism. As we have known about the major root of Hinduism now we are ready to know about the symbols used in this ancient tradition. As we have seen many industries and popular brand also have their identical logo or symbol. But we don’t worship it, use it as lucky charm or identify it with a culture. But there are definite spiritual symbols like Om, Swastika and Shatkona, which are used for many religious purposes and as lucky charm. Let’s look into Om first.
“Om” also is written as Aum or Ohm and in Devanagari as ॐ. It is a sacred sound and a spiritual icon in Hindu religion. This word itself is mantra in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Om is part of the iconography found in ancient and medieval era manuscripts, temples, monasteries and spiritual retreats in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The symbol has a spiritual meaning in all Indian spiritual traditions, but the meaning and connotations of Om vary between the diverse schools within and across the various traditions. In Hinduism, Om is one of the most important spiritual symbols. It refers to Atman (soul, self within) and Brahman (ultimate reality, entirety of the universe, truth, divine, supreme spirit, cosmic principles, knowledge). The syllable is often found at the beginning and the end of chapters in the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other Hindu texts. It is a sacred spiritual incantation made before and during the recitation of spiritual texts, during puja and private prayers, in ceremonies of rites of passages (sanskara) such as weddings, and sometimes during meditative and spiritual activities such as Yoga. The syllable is also referred to as omkara, aumkara, and pranava. Katha Upanishad has explained the very essence of this supreme mantra. It says that:
The goal which all the Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which men desire when they lead the life of continuance, I will tell you briefly: it is OM. This syllable Om is indeed Brahman. This syllable is the Highest. Whoseever knows this syllable obtains all he desires. This is the best support: this is highest support. Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahma.”(22)
The syllable Om is referred to as praṇava. Other used terms are akṣara (literally, letter of the alphabet, imperishable, immutable) or ekākṣara (one letter of the alphabet), and omkāra (literally, beginning, female divine energy). Udgitha, a word found in Sama Veda and bhasya (commentaries) based on it, is also used as a name of the syllable. The syllable Om is first mentioned in the Upanishads, the mystical texts associated with the Vedanta philosophy. We find many saints and sages talking about the same Om with different other referrers like “Naam” (Name), “Ram” (One who is pleasing), “Ram rattan dhan” (A valuable treasure), “Surati” (Memory of divine), “Anhad Naad” (Music created by no friction or clap of one hand). In this sense most of the word makes no sense to an ordinary mind that have no idea of Hindu tradition. Fundamentally all these terms refers to some special entity which is pleasing to hear, but can be heard without the use of any instruments and is name of may be some extraterrestrial entity. In this way if we look from the perspective of Barthes he utters
Of course, it is not any type: language needs special conditions in order to become myth: we shall see them in a minute. But what must be firmly established at the start is that myth is a system of communication, that it is a message. This allows one to perceive that myth cannot possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form. Later, we shall have to assign to this form historical limits, conditions of use, and reintroduce society into it: we must nevertheless first describe it as a form. (1)
Therefore we will also look into all the details that Barthes tells to look. So let’s look into another major symbol used in Hindu culture that is “Swastika”.
Specially after the use of Swastika by Nazi Germany world came to know more about it. But it is ancient symbol. The “Swastika” is an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, in either right-facing form or its mirrored left-facing form. Archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments has been dated to the Neolithic period and was first found in the Indus Valley Civilization of the Indian Subcontinent. In Hinduism, the two symbols represent the two forms of the creator god Brahma: facing right it represents the evolution of the universe Pravritti, facing left it represents the involution of the universe, Nivritti It represents the four directions of the world (the four faces of Brahma) and thus signifies a grounded stability. It also represents the Purushartha: Dharma (natural order), Artha (wealth), Kama (desire), and Moksha (liberation). The swastika symbol is traced with “Sindoor" (Vermilion red or orange-red colored cosmetic powder) during Hindu religious rites.
“Su” here means ‘good’. “Asti” means ‘to-be’. Along with a diminutive suffix ‘Ka’, it becomes Su-Asti-Ka, which means “It is good” or “All is well”. With time, it became the synonym of good health and wealth. 5000 years ago, during the Indus valley civilization, this symbol was established and widely used. It was a synonym for sun, power, strength and good luck. Many believe that this symbol is actually the characters of Brahmi Script, written in calligraphic form. While some debate that the symbol used for Swastika is as old as 10,000 BC as it appears on a late Paleolithic figurine of Mammoth Ivory in Mezine, Ukraine. However, most of the historians and archaeologists confirmed that it is actually a stylized figure of stork in flight and not a true Swastika symbol. Hence, the honor of oldest use of Swastika is still with the Indus Valley Civilization. With time, people started migrating from the Indus Valley. They went to lands far-far away and established new colonies. With them, they also took this auspicious symbol of prosperity and luck. It was spread across the globe and became popular with many names. The swastika is considered extremely holy and auspicious by all Hindus, and is regularly used to decorate items related to Hindu culture. It is used in all Hindu Yantras and religious designs. Throughout the subcontinent of India, it can be seen on the sides of temples, religious scriptures, gift items, and letterheads. The Hindu deity Ganesh is often shown sitting on a lotus flower on a bed of swastikas. Analyzing these symbols we need to think of Roland Garthes utterance in “Myth today” he says:
In myth, we find again the tri-dimensional pattern which I have just described: the signifier, the signified and the sign. But myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second. We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech, however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth.
Moving forward let’s talk about another major symbol “Shatkona”. The Shatkona is “six-pointed star”, a symbol used in Hindu “Yantra” (is a mystical diagram) that represents the union of both the male and feminine form. More specifically it is supposed to represent Purusha (the supreme being), and Prakriti (mother nature, or causal matter). Often this is represented as Shiva / Shakti. The Shatkona is a hexagram and is associated with the son of Siva-Sakthi, Lord Murugan. Stylistically, it is identical to the Jewish Star of David and the Japanese Kagome crest. Heinrich Robert Zimmer in his book “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization” writes:
The God and Goddess are the first self-revelation of the Absolute, the male being the personification of the passive aspect which we know as Eternity, the female of the activating energy (Sakti), the dynamism of Time. Though apparently opposites, they are in essence one. The mystery of their identity is stated here in symbol. (42)
In Hinduism, the Hexagram is more commonly known as Shatkon or Satkona (Shat = six, Kona = corner/angle). It is the union of Shiva (Male) and Shakti (Female). Here, Shiva, Purusha (Male) and Fire is represented by symbol “△”, which is a symbolic representation of male organ. Shakti, Prakriti (Female or Nature) and water is represented by symbol “▽”, which denotes the female womb. They are both combined to form “✡”. This is called “Shanmukha” (Face to face) which represents “Origin”, or the formation of life. Hindu deity Kartikeya, Shiv and Shakti’s progeny is also represented with six faces. We also see the use of Sathkona in Tibetan and Jain Mandala as well. Basically symbol Shatkona is used in many rituals and it have a great cultural use. Any way in modern time this symbol is used in many school and colleges logo as well. And it is continuously in use for spiritual and religious purposes too.
After studying three important symbols of Hindu culture I have realized I have only studied small part of the symbolism of Hindu culture. There are so many other important symbols that each symbol can be explained in a separate book. Even the explanation that I have given is so brief that it is impossible to cover all the aspect of each symbol in this small term paper. Symbols are used for ages, today too we see apple as major symbol of I-phone which have become a major and popular symbol. If we look into those symbols used in Hindu culture there are so many symbols which were and are popular till this date. It is important to know that it’s the intention and positive attribute given to that particular symbol it has been more charged with massive amount of energy and vibration. With the course of time it also was associated with many philosophies too. But the major thing is the thought that we create when we think of that particular symbol. As thought is the most powerful entity. By the force of the power intention and meditation these symbols have become the powerhouse of positive energies. Thus, we come to conclusion that letters are signs of things, symbols of words, whose power is so great that without a voice they speak to us the words of the absent; for they introduce words by the eye, not by the ear.
Admin. "What is the Symbol of Hinduism, Symbols of Hinduism, Hindu Iconography." 12 Dec 2017, http://www.talksofindia.com/symbols-hinduism-hindu-iconography/. Accessed 26 June 2018.
Barthes, Roland. “Mythologies” Translated by Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang. Les Lettres Louvelles. New York. 1972.
Chattrjee, Gautam and Chatterjee, Sanjoy. “Sacred Hindu Symbols.” Abhinav Publications New Delhi. 1996.
Zimmer, Heinrich Robert. “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization“ Pantheon Books Washington D.C. 1946.