Symbolism, meanings and translations


Between 3500 and 1500 years BCE (opinions differ) a group of Central Asian cattle herding nomads, the Arya, arrived on the Indian subcontinent. Some centuries later they had transformed the inhospitable landscape into arable farming land and their philosophical belief system ‘Vedism’ had become the religion we know today as Hinduism.

With its myriad of deities and complex system of ritual, Hinduism must be the most interesting of todays theologies. A central triad of deities, Brahma (the creator) Vishnu (the sustainer) and Shiva (the destroyer) lead a seemingly endless line of Gods, Goddess’ and reincarnations. Believed to be 33 Crores, or 3300,000,000!

The cycle of birth, accumulation of karma, death and reincarnation typify a Hindus expectations. This continuous sequence, known as Samsara is almost impossible to break but this is continually sought by all Hindus.




The primordial Sanskrit sound, the one sacred sound from which all sound originates. This single syllable sound is believed to represent the Divine presence and power that is the Universe. Explained by ancient risis in India as having four parts, A-U-M reflect the first 3 stages of consciousness, inner, outer and subconsciouness (or in physical terms earth, middle region and heaven). The fourth, final part is soundless, unutterable. It represents the peaceful bliss of realization. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states, ‘When Aum reveals itself, introspection is attained and obstacles fall away’



Hinduism, deities and other interesting bits.


Being the creator of the universe, in this cycle of time Brahma has done his work and is not now a main focus of veneration. Due to this there are very few Brahma temples left in India. The most famous being in Pushkar.

He is depicted with four faces, Sarasvati is his consort and a swan his vehicle.



Vishnu is very much the god of the present. His role as the sustainer has called for a rich mythology to be created in his name. His has visited earth in many ‘Avatars’ or incarnations at different times to protect, teach or test the faithful.

He is portrayed with four arms and a dark blue body. His consort is Lakshmi and vehicle Garuda.



Commonly referred to as the ‘Destroyer’ he actually represents not only a destructive force but also a restorative one. It is probably more correct to think of him as a regenerator.

Often seen as a yogi in a seated position with long matted hair, the crescent moon embedded and spouting the sacred Ganges from his crown. His consort is Parvati and his vehicle Nandi, the bull.



When we see Shiva as Nataraj, he is dancing in a circle of fire. His right foot is crushing the dwarf demon Asapmara who symbolizes ignorance and suffering.



With a human body and the head of an elephant, Ganesha is worshipped as the god of wisdom and the remover of obstacles. He is always invoked before any major undertaking. He has a broken tusk (perhaps what he used as scribe for the Mahabharata) he is depicted in numerous positions but always has his vehicle, the rat, by his side.



8th avatar of Vishnu. He came to earth to teach humanity and is seen in the Bhagavad-Gita giving advice to the warrior Arjuna. He is usually depicted standing and playing the flute. With his consort, Radha, they embody the love shared between human and the divine.



The monkey headed god who in the Ramayana aided Rama against the king of Sri Lanka to save Rama’s consort, Sita



Female Deities


Whereas the male deities stand for ideals their devotees can only strive towards, the mother goddess deals with more earthly concerns. India itself is seen as the body of Devi and Shakti is her Divine power and energy.

Broadly speaking she is worshipped in many and numerous forms, the following being the most common.



The fierce form of Devi, she is honored each year by a nine day fast in recognition of her conquest over the demon Mahishasura and thus saving the world from evil.

She is usually seen astride her vehicle the lion.



An even more wrathful form of Durga! Although depicted with black skin, her red tongue protruding and a garland of skulls draped around her neck, Kali is adored as much as feared.



As consort of Shiva she is the ‘daughter of the mountains’.



Consort of Vishnu, she is the goddess of wealth and plenty. She brings the life giving rains and gold coins pour from her opened palms.



Consort of Brahma she is seen riding a white swan or a peacock and playing the vina to symbolize learning.





Sanskrit seed vowel that signifies the cosmic primeval sound that marks the beginning of creation. When chanting OM it should have four parts A-U-M- then a final silence.



The traditional Indian medicine. Based on the five elements of nature (earth, water, fire, air,ether) present themselves as elements in the body. Three body types or dosas, Vata, Kapha and Pitta must be balanced equally for perfect health but we all usually have a dominant dosa.



A universal symbol found in cultures from the Americas to Persia and beyond. The cross with four arms bent at right angles rotating clockwise is a symbol of good fortune. In India it has been dated back as far as 2500 BCE and is identified with the God Vishnu, seen on his chest as a symbol of the solar disk. In Buddhism it is considered a seal of Buddha’s heart. In pre-buddhist Tibet, the Bon tradition depicted it turning in the opposite way to represent eternity. It was this direction that the Nazis adopted.



A string of 108 beads used to recite mantras. The number 108, represents the 108 earthly desires to be overcome.



A phrase or hymn chanted to bring about a state of higher consciousness. Can also be only one syllable as in the case of OM, then called a bija or seed mantra



A mandala is a type of cosmological diagram used by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists as a visual device to help practitioners attain spiritual enlightenment. They represent a particular deity and are depicted within a circle.



Differing from mandalas as they represent a sound or vibration rather than a separate entity and abode they can be thought of as a physical expression of a mantra. Also Yantras can be identified due to their outer edge being square rather than circular.



Mudras are the hand position used in the Indian traditions. Each position represents a different intent and in yoga they are used to hold the prana within the physical body.


Linga and Yoni

The male phallic Linga is a symbol of creation and is also the symbol of Lord Shiva. Rising from the female Yoni (vulva) base it represents the union of male and female energy, symbolizing intercourse as cosmic union.



Lamp used for waving burning camphor in front of a deity during puja (worship)



The practice of uniting the body and spirit with the cosmos. Although the origins are uncertain and archeologist have uncovered five thousand year old carvings of adepts in yoga positions in Pakisthan, it is widely accepted that Patanjali was the first to compile the yoga sutras about 2000 years ago from teachings handed down orally.



The manner in which previous lives were lived. The sum of ones actions.



The endless cycle of reincarnation.


The Vedas

The foundation of Hinduism. Written in Vedic, an ancient form of Sanskrit they are the ultimate authority on the primeval religion.



An epic story of two warring families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Created between 1000 and 100 BCE it was passed down orally until 350 CE when it was unified into a 100,000-verse sacred text.



Within the Maha-Bharata is the Bhagavad-Gita, or as commonly known, the Gita. It is one of the oldest texts on Yoga and deals with the complex notion of the Ego.



A wonderful story of conquest over evil. It is regularly played out all over India and loved by all Hindus.


The Caste system

There are four main classes in the Indian caste system. Brahmins are the teachers and priests. Ksatriyas are the warrior caste. Vaishya are the merchants and the Sudras are the servant and artisan class. There is also fifth class, the untouchables also know as Dalits or as Ghandi termed them the Harijans or children of God. Within each caste are dozens of subcastes.



Originally a philosophy and not a religion we probably should look at Buddhism as a reaction to Hinduism. The original form of Buddhism turned away from the worship and ritual and the core of the Buddha’s teaching was to seek for one self the true meaning of existence. The Buddha taught a system devoid of authority, ritual, tradition and the supernatural. Instead he extoled the virtues of intense self effort and self realization.

Today, however, we see many forms of Buddhism and a cacophony of ritual and tradition that goes with each different lineage. Some of them could in fact now be considered a religion as the main focus has become the veneration of the Buddha’s image.




Siddharta Gautama- the historical Buddha

Around 560 BCE in Lumbini, southern Nepal, Siddhartha Gautama was born. As the son of the Hindu ruler of the Shakyas he led a charmed life and it wasn’t until the happened to witness real suffering that he began to think about the harshness of ‘normal’ life. Rejecting his privileged position he set about trying to come to terms with life and its true meaning.

Developing a philosophy that didn’t involve a creator but instead gave all beings an equal opportunity to break from the suffering of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, or Samsara, Siddharta became the first Buddha.

In his later years, when India was embracing his philosophy he was asked what he was. Are you a God? An angel? A saint? His answer was a resounding NO! Then what are you he was asked? ‘I am awake’ was his answer. 

Around 5 centuries after the Buddhas death a schism developed in the Buddhist theology. There were two main ideas of thought, Hinyana or ‘ Lesser Vehicle’ was a system where by you work towards personal enlightenment as apposed to ‘Mahayana or ‘Great Vehicle’ which believed in the concept of the bodhitsattva, a compassionate being who postpones their own imminent enlightenment in order to help others attain salvation.

With this new idea Buddhism developed a complex system of transcendental Buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities and even borrowed gods from the Hindu tradition.

Slightly later a third tradition emerged, Vajrayana or Diamond/thunderbolt’ with a close connection to Indian Tantrism. With it’s reliance on ancient Indian magical texts, elaborate imagery, rituals, hand gestures and visualizations to attain spiritual enlightenment this tradition soon took hold in Nepal and Tibet. In Tibet it also absorbed some of the shamanistic Bon traditions of that time and today we see a very colourful and interesting form of Buddhism there.




The Tibetan Pantheon



Is the name given to the historical Buddha, it means ‘Sage of the Shakya clan’ Derived from his Fathers Dynasty.


Adi Buddha

The primeval Buddha comparable to the concept of Brahma in Hinduism. He is most often depicted seated either dark blue or white in meditation pose and adorned with both a crown and jewels. He can also be depicted in Yab-Yum with a female consort. Known in this invocation as Samantrabhadra he is a dark blue colour and his consort, white.


Dhyani Buddhas-Five Family Buddhas

Under the concept of the Adi Buddha lives in a lower realm the Dhyani Buddhas. They each represent a direction or component part of the Adi Buddha and they are primarily for meditating on one aspect of the Buddha.

Vairocana, center, white. Akshobhya, east, blue. Ratnasambhava, south, yellow. Amitabha, west, red. Amoghasiddhi, north, green.


Avalokiteshvara- Chenrezig

The generic name of the most popular bodhisattva. He came to earth to relieve humanity of its suffering and the Dalai Lamas are believed to be his earthly form. When depicted in statue or painted form he can have as many as 11 heads and up to 1000 arms!



Bodhisattva of wisdom and knowledge. He is easily recognized with his flaming sword to cut through ignorance in his right hand and his left in vitarka-mudra, the gesture of giving instruction.


Medicine Buddha

Actually a series of 8, the most important is Bhaisajyaguru. He is depicted in the colour blue his left hand holds a begging bowl and his right hand holds a healing herb, myrobanal plum.



Buddha of the future. He sits on a throne with hands usually in teaching mudras and unusually both feet touching the ground.



Said to be born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara after looking down on Earth and seeing humanities suffering. White Tara or Sitatara represents pure compassion while Green Tara or Shyamatara represents compassion with action. White Tara is usually found seated in full lotus posture or standing while Green Tara is depicted sitting with the right foot touching the earth ready for action.


Yab Yum

The union of the male and female energy. The two deities can vary according to the intent to be conveyed and can be portrayed in many different poses. The most identifiable is the blue Samantabhadra and white Samantabhadri



8 auspicious symbols

  1. Parasol-Chattra for spiritual power
  2. Golden Fish-Suvarnamatsya two fish head to head a sign of fertility and salvation from suffering
  3. Treasure Vase-Kalasha spiritual abundance and fulfillment of spiritual wishes
  4. Lotus-Padma a lotus rises pure white out of muddy water. It symbolizes mental purity. In Buddhism this represents the potential of all beings to attain Buddhahood.
  5. Conch shell-Sankha used to call together the faithful
  6. Endless Knot-Shrivatsa with no beginning and no end it symbolizes the infinite knowledge of the Buddha. Also long life, eternal love and the interconnection of all things.
  7. Victory Banner-Dhvaja symbolizing the victory of knowledge over ignorance.
  8. Wheel- Dharmachakra the dharma is the Buddha’s teachings. The circular form or the wheel represents the completeness of the Buddha’s teachings.



A scroll painting that can be easily rolled up and transported. Around the 10th century Indian paintings known as patas and paubhas depicted deities and saints and aided in the understanding of difficult theory. On these lines thangkas were developed and used for protection and liturgical reasons. The most important function of a thangka is as an aid in meditation and a ritual guideline. There are numerous subjects for thangka paintings and an artist is commissioned usually after a guru or spiritual mentor has chosen the required composition.


Om Mani Padme Hum

The quintessential Buddhist mantra

Hail the jewel in the lotus, or simply, the perfection and purity of the Buddha’s teaching.


Kalachakra and All Powerful Ten

The Kalachakra is a deity but also a powerful Mandala that symbolizes a sacred tantra imparted by the Buddha in a mystical land called Shambhala. All Powerful Ten is a symbol made from the seven letters (ya, ra, va, la, ma, ksa, ha) and the three symbols for the Sun Moon and Flame. It’s interpretation is extremely complex.


Vajra and Bell

In Tibetant called a Dorje, the Diamond/Thunderbolt is used to symbolize the power of knowledge over ignorance, spirit over passion. In Tantric Buddhist practices the vajra represents the male cosmic force and compassion and the bell represents the female cosmic principle of virtue and wisdom.


Prayer Wheel

A cylindrical metal container which has a long, usually wooden, handle. A chain with a metal weight on the end aids the user to turn the wheel by rotating the wrist. Inside is a roll of paper containing repartitions of a mantra. The spinning of the wheel gives the practitioner as much merit as if reciting the mantra and releases the intentions into the atmosphere.


Singing Bowls

Traditionally made from bell metal (a mixture of copper and tin) and used at the beginning and end of meditation they can either be struck on the lip or the stick can be drawn around the outer rim to generate a strong vibration.

They are now used in many forms of natural healing techniques and sometimes made from crystal quartz


Prayer Flags

Pre Buddhist Tibet followed a Shamanistic tradition known as Bon. Strings of five coloured flags, blue, white, red, green and yellow had been used to symbolize the five elements. When Buddhism arrived they began to print mantras, auspicious symbols and deities on the flags thus combining the two traditions.


Kalachakra and All Powerful Ten

The Kalachakra is a deity but also a powerful Mandala that symbolizes a sacred tantra imparted by the Buddha in a mystical land called Shambhala. All Powerful Ten is a symbol made from the seven letters (ya, ra, va, la, ma, ksa, ha) and the three symbols for the Sun Moon and Flame. It’s interpretation is extremely complex.



A string of 108 beads used to recite mantras. The number 108, represents the 108 earthly desires to be overcome.


Buddhist Sutras

Main Buddhist sacred writings. Sutra means ‘to sew’ so they are a thread of discourse. Nothing was written by the historical Buddha but compiled by his disciples centuries later.


The Four Noble Truths

The essence of the Buddha’s teaching. The Truth of Suffering. The Truth of the Origin of Suffering. The Truth of Cessation. The Truth of the Path.


The Eightfold Path

Leading from the Four Noble Truths is the Eightfold Path. Where the Four Noble Truths explain the way things are, the Eightfold path shows the way to enlightenment. The path is divided into three parts. Right view and right thought lead to wisdom. Right speech, action and livelihood lie in the sphere of ethics and right effort, awareness and concentration belong to the practice of meditation.



Symbolizes the Deer Park in Saranath, Northern India where the historical Buddha gave his first sermon after achieving enlightenment.



Queen Maya, the Buddha’s mother had a dream she was impregnated by a white elephant and this was a sign she would have an extraordinary child.





Founded in the early 1500’s by Guru Nanak it was based on equality in retaliation to the Hindu caste system. When the 5th of a line of Gurus was brutally tortured to death by the Mogul Emperor, Jahangir, the followers or Sikhs abandoned their pacifism and slowly evolved into a society of warriors.





Claiming prehistoric origins Jains acknowledge their founder to be the last of 24 Fordmakers (prophets), Mahavira. In the 6th Century BCE Jainism concluded there to be no creator, savior, or god, the universe to be eternal and the human task was to raise themselves from this mire of the material world. They are strict vegetarians and are require to lead a very simple lifestyle.





The Beginning of the Islamic era is considered to be the year 622 when the Prophet Muhammad fled persecution in Mecca to Medina.

The first Muslims in India were not in fact rulers but traders. Some time in the 6th century Muslims were to be found trading in the eastern parts of the country. It wasn’t until the end of the 11th century that the first Sultanate was established in Delhi. Most of the Mughal Emperors did not attempt to subjugate but co-existed with the Hindu population and Akbar, their greatest leader even married a Rajput princess giving his descendants both Hindu and Muslim ancestry. This led to the blending of some of the finest artistic techniques and leaves India today with an amazingly rich and varied wealth of styles and artistic processes.



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