Endearing Icons of Mythology, Mysticism and Devotion Adorn Hindu Art, Architecture and Culture§
ymbols adorn our world at every turn, in our spiritual, social and political experience. A ring or gold pendant silently strengthens and attests to wedded love. A sign with a truck silhouette on an angled line warns drivers of steep grades ahead. The red cross signifies aid in crises. Golden arches tell vegans to beware. The best known symbols are simple numerals: 0 through 9, which originated in India in the ancient Brahmi script. Historic images are etched in the mass mind; the mushroom cloud of the atom bomb forever represents nuclear destruction. But it is our sacred symbols, icons of Divinity and higher reality, that wield the greatest power to inform and transform consciousness. Taoists gazing upon a yin-yang symbol, Navajo Indians “pouring” a feather symbol in a sand painting, Muslims embroidering the crescent moon and star, Buddhists contemplating a mandala, Christians kneeling before the cross, Hindus meditating on the Aum, Pagans parading the ankh at Stonehenge—all these are potent meditations on cosmic symbols that are gateways to inner truths. To societies of prehistory, living fully in nature’s raw splendor and power, symbols stood for supernatural states and beings—as they still can for us today. A stylized image of a snake coiled round a clay vase, for example, represented cosmic life and regeneration. Wielded as tools by mystic shamans, symbols can shape the forces of nature and invoke astral beings. To conjure power, a medieval alchemist would enclose himself in a magic circle filled with geometric pictograms symbolizing inner realities. Today, as in olden times, religious symbols derive from the world around us. The sun appears in motifs across cultures from Mexico to Mongolia, including the Hindu swastika and the wheel of the sun, honored by Buddhists as the eight-spoked dharma wheel. Hinduism has amassed a vast range of icons from thousands of years back. Coins found in the Indus Valley carry emblems of the cow and of a meditating yogi across a 6,000-year corridor of time. Images from the Vedic age are popular motifs in Kashmiri carpets and Chidambaram saris. These often serve to identify and distinguish members of a sect or community. The simple red dot worn on the forehead is both a mark of our dharmic heritage and a personal reminder that we must see the world not only with our physical eyes, but with the mind’s eye, the third eye, the eye of the soul. India’s adepts and seers have excelled at symbolic imagery, transforming mudras (hand gestures) into instantly recognized emblems and transmitters of a Deity’s power or a particular frequency of energy. Each accoutrement of the dozens of Deities in the Hindu pantheon conveys a cosmic function or force. Today this ancient magic is with us everywhere, from the temple priest’s invocation to the Indian housewife’s drawing of multi-colored designs, called kolams or rangoli, on the ground as auspicious auguries, household blessings and greetings.§
A deva holds above his head a golden vajra (a “thunderbolt” representing indestructibility), a celestial weapon wielded by the Vedic God Indra and other Deities. Other symbols, clockwise: shakti vel, cudgel, sword, noose, flag, mace, chakra with four flames, an umbrella and trident. In the background, a scene at night of the magnificent Meenakshi Sundareshwara Temple of Madurai, a bastion of Hindu culture.
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