Sections: General Index   Present Section: Index



• An Introduction to Hindu Symbolism. I. K. Taimni. TPH, Madras, 1980. 118 pp.


            Information: This book is a valuable one to the students of the sacred Hindu Scriptures. Those interested in its study may buy the work directly from The Theosophical Publishing House.

            Below you have its title page, its Contents, and the links to the Html text of the first chapters of the work only, for it is still a copyright protected work.























            Chapters (pages)


I.          Introduction (1)

II.         Devis and Devatãs as Powers and Functions of the one God (9)

III.        General Principles of Hindu Symbolism (16)

IV.       Natural Symbolism: The Symbology of Shiva-Linga (24)

V.        Artificial Symbolism: The Symbology of Mahesha (35)

VI.       The Symbology of Trideva (53)

VII.      The Stories of Hiranyakashipu and Bhasmãsura (63)

VIII.     The Churning of the Ocean (Samudra-Manthana) (73)

IX.       The Allegory in Durgã-Saptashati (96)




(p. 1)





            ANYONE who studies Hindu scriptures is struck by the odd mixture of the highest philosophical doctrines on the one hand and crude fetish worship and myths on the other. And the most remarkable thing which strikes outsiders who have not studied these things deeply is how otherwise intelligent people can accept these things as a matter of course and even take part in ceremonies in which Divinity is worshipped in grotesque forms. You will find, for example, a professor of philosophy lecturing on Vedãnta in a university and explaining to the students very carefully the subtle conception of Nirguna-Brahman. The same professor comes home and in the evening takes part most enthusiastically in the worship of Kãli, the Goddess with a flaming sword and a garland of sculls round her neck. You find the same professor again, next day, offering Gangã water and bel leaves to an ellipsoid made of stone in a temple. And the strange thing about this religious life of the Hindus is that it does

(p. 2)

not occur to these people that there is any contradiction involved in their attitude to the many Gods whom they worship, sometimes in very strange forms.


            Another aspect of the same phenomenon is the ready acceptance of the innumerable stories of different gods and goddesses in our scriptures, specially the Purãnas, which are so popular among the masses. Many of these stories are absurd in the extreme, some of them are even revolting and insulting to our intelligence. And yet, not only illiterate and unintelligent people, but also educated and highly intelligent people, read the Purãnas with great devotion and derive real spiritual sustenance and inspiration from them. When a learned Pandit (scholar) reads a colourful account of the wedding of Shiva and Sati with great devotion, sceptics might feel amused at his credulous attitude, but he does not see any absurdity in the apparently absurd story. He knows in his heart of hearts that he is reading an allegorical account of a great occult truth. The very absurdity of the story shows that it is not to be taken literally and hides a profound truth.


            It is true that many common people among the Hindus take many of these things as literally true and this has led to the growth of superstitions and perverted religious idem. But I do not think there

(p. 3)

are many people, even among those who are illiterate, in whose sub-conscious mind there is not a vague conviction that behind these apparently absurd stories there are hidden great spiritual truths even though they may not understand what they are. It is this intuitive perception or conviction which is the basis of their faith and not lack of intelligence, or credulity or superstition, as is generally supposed.


            A close and careful study of the Hindu scriptures should convince anybody who has some insight into these things that it is not only the Vedas, Upanishads, the philosophical works, and such other high class literature which are the repository of the highest philosophical and religious truths, but even popular literature like the Purãnas contains, as an integral part of it, the highest wisdom though in a veiled form. In fact, it is this dilution of wisdom with stories and illustrations which has made it easily assimilable, and enabled it to survive the ravages of time and changing environment, and to be handed on from generation to generation almost intact. For one person who can study and understand the highly philosophical truths in their nakedness, there are a thousand who study them clothed in the popular form of stories, and that is how these truths have continued to influence and inspire the masses, generation after generation.

(p. 4)

And the fact that the wisdom and knowledge have survived and have been effective in keeping alive spiritual traditions and conceptions shows the wisdom of our Rishis (sages) who devised this popular method of spreading and transmitting ideal of great value to humanity. If our spiritual culture is to survive it is necessary that these truths and traditions be kept alive among the people as a whole and not be confined among a few erudite scholars.


            What has been said above with regard to the presentation of spiritual ideals through stories holds good also with regard to the presentation of spiritual and philosophical concepts in the form of symbols. The deeper truths of spiritual life are really beyond the grasp of the lower mind and are matters of direct realization in the deeper states of consciousness. But a keen and trained intellect may be able to deal with these truths, partially and indirectly, in the form of philosophical conceptions and concepts. These intellectual interpretations can give a faint glimpse into the nature of these truths, especially if the mind has been purified and the light of Buddhi illuminates it to some extent. But these purely intellectual conceptions are bound to be abstract and can be grasped only by people whose higher minds are well developed. The ordinary man finds it very difficult to understand them or to take any real interest in them.


(p. 5)

            Are the masses then to be deprived completely of the benefit of knowing these truths? The art of 'symbolism was created to enable the ordinary man to derive at least some advantage from these ideas, to keep alive his interest in them and thus make possible the transmission of these precious ideas from generation to generation as part of the general culture and heritage. A symbol is a concrete thing which every man can see and remember. If he understands its inner significance well, the symbolic representation does not interfere with his understanding of the truth. On the other hand, it helps him to fix it more easily in his mind. If he does not understand the inner significance, he, at least, knows that it represents some inner truth and has, generally, a vague idea about it. He can thus maintain, at least, a superficial contact with the truth and derive some inspiration from it. Even the most learned philosopher can, at best, know the truth very vaguely as long as he has not realized it directly. Even if he takes the thing literally, which is hardly possible for any sane person, he carries in his mind a form which can be invested with life and meaning quite easily. In fact, it will be difficult to find an individual in India, in whose mind these symbols associated with Divine life are not associated in some degree with meaning and who does not feel more or less devotion towards

(p. 6)

them. We thus see that symbols and allegories may to a certain extent step down the truths of the higher life and may even debase them, but they keep them alive and thus enable the common people to derive some measure of inspiration, from them.


            Most of us do not realize what an important part symbolism plays in our life. Language through which we communicate ideas is purely symbolical in character. We assign certain meanings to words and then use these words as coins or counters for the communication of ideas. There is no natural relationship between words and the ideas for which they stand except when they are used for their sound effect in Mantra Yoga. When, for example, the word prasannam is used in the dhyãna-mantra of Mahesha we use a sound for representing the state of ãnanda (bliss) in which He lives. When a smile is shown on His face in a picture we use a visual device for representing the same idea.


            The expression of religious and philosophical ideas through symbols is not an art peculiar to Hinduism. It has been practised since times immemorial in many parts of the world but perhaps it has never been developed to such a degree or practised on such a wide scale as in Hinduism. It is a great pity that the study of this art has been completely neglected in modern times with the

(p. 7)

result that our ideas regarding religious and philosophical truths have become confused and a lot of superstition has crept into our life. This ignorance of the symbolism hidden especially behind the forms of religious worship is to a great extent responsible for the declining faith in our religious ideals and an increasing interest in materialistic pursuits. In our modern scientific age what one cannot explain, one is inclined to relegate to the realm of superstition and the modern educated Hindu is thus reduced to the necessity of either believing in these things blindly or ignoring them as products of fancy or superstition.


            But decline in faith among the modern educated Hindu is not the only undesirable result of this lack of knowledge concerning the symbolical character of religious forms of worship and the religious lore of Hinduism. It has prevented the doctrines of Hindu religion receiving from the Western people the serious consideration which they deserve on account of their inherent reasonableness and highly philosophical character. It is true that Western scholars have given a lot of their time to the study of Hindu religion and 'dope much to spread this knowledge among Western people. But they have done it in a purely academic spirit, regarding these things as relics of the phases through which the Hindu mind has passed in the past and to which it

(p. 8)

is clinging rather credulously in the present. They can study and record the customs of primitive tribes in the heart of Africa with the same tare and the same detachment. For lack of the key to symbolism which lays open the inner meaning, they have not been able to take these things seriously as representing the truths of the inner life of the spirit based upon facts of experience of spiritually enlightened people.


            Many devotional people ate afraid to look into these things because they think that such a study will undermine their devotion. This is obviously a mistaken attitude. The truths hidden behind the symbols are so magnificent and of such deep import that devotion should become strengthened and not weakened on understanding the inner significance of the symbols. A new understanding dawns in our mind which not only illumines it and enriches our conception but also brings out a deeper and more intelligent kind of devotion. The understanding of the inner significance of the symbolic form does not deprive us of the form to which we may have become attached. It ensouls that form with a new life. This is a necessary step in our progressive realization of the reality hidden behind the symbol within ourselves.




(p. 9)






            BEFORE we deal with the symbolism underlying the many forms in which the Hindu worships God, it is necessary to say a few words about the conception of Devis and Devatãs in Hinduism. There is no aspect of Hinduism which is more misunderstood and misrepresented than the existence of a large number of forms, some of them grotesque, in which different people worship the Divine Being. People who are superficially acquainted with the basic conceptions which underlie Hindu religion and philosophy seriously believe that the Hindu worships innumerable gods and goddesses. Nothing is farther from the truth. It must be said, however, that there is some justification for this gross misunderstanding. The manner in which the different forms are worshipped, the large number of superstitions which have gradually grown round them, the misleading statements which are some times made in the Purãnas and other similar

(p. 10)

literature, all these things can easily give the wrong impression that Hindus are polytheistic.


            The misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding this subject are easily removed if it is understood clearly that the Hindu worships only one God and the different gods and goddesses who are included in the Hindu pantheon are merely representations of the functions and powers of that Supreme God in the manifested Universe. The Universe is not only a vast, but an extremely complicated organism, especially when we take into account the invisible worlds which are hidden within the visible physical world. If we examine the machinery of an ordinary modern government or the complex equilibrium of different natural forces which is hidden behind an ordinary physical phenomenon we derive some idea of the unimaginable complexity of the functions and powers which must be required for running the machinery of a universe or solar system. Taking the simpler unit of a solar system for our consideration, we find that according to Occult Doctrine it comes into being periodically out of the One Supreme Brahman and after functioning for some time within His consciousness again disappears into the same Supreme Brahman. The creation, dissolution and the preservation of this huge and complicated organism requires innumerable functions and powers

(p. 11)

of greater or lesser importance as in running the machinery of a government. Even the creative and destructive functions are not simple as is generally imagined. Creation does not come to an end when a solar system comes into being; destruction is not needed only when it goes into pralaya (dissolution). These functions continue throughout the period of manifestation. And so do all the other functions which are subordinate to, or are associated with, these time important functions. It is these various functions and the powers corresponding to them which are sought to be represented in the forms of different gods and goddesses or Devatãs and Devis as they are called in Hinduism. According to Hindu philosophy this Universe is merely an expression or manifestation of the Supreme Brahman outside whom nothing can possibly exist. So all these innumerable functions and powers exercised in relation to the manifested Universe must be rooted in that Brahman and must be ultimately His functions and powers. The Devis and Devatãs can, therefore, be nothing but representations of His functions and powers.


            The Devatãs and Devis are shown in male and female forms because the function and the corresponding power which enables that function to be exercised are related to each other as two poles, or

(p. 12)

positive and negative principles. In fact, the existence of the manifested Universe depends upon the primary differentiation of the one Reality into two polar aspects, one positive the other negative, the positive aspect being the source of all functions and the negative aspect the source of all powers. Both the aspects are conscious Principles for, in that transcendent state there can be nothing but consciousness.


            These two opposite aspects are called Shiva and Shakti and from them arise all the functions and powers which are required when a manifested universe comes into existence. The main functions are, of course, those of creation, preservation and destruction, but there are innumerable others which are derived from or associated with these. It is not possible to enter here into a detailed discussion of the relations existing between these various functions and powers but there are two points which must be made clear to enable the render to understand easily the details of some symbologies discussed later.


            The first point concerns the relations between Devis and Devatãs. It will be seen that not only are there innumerable functions and powers in action in the manifested Universe but that each function must be related to its specific power which can make it effective; so that the whole set of

(p. 13)

functions is matched by a corresponding set of powers like an object and its shadow, and the Devis and Devatãs can thus be paired off scientifically. This principle lies at the basis of the fact that particular Devis are related to particular Devatãs and are called their consorts. Thus Sarasvati is the consort of Brahmã, Lakshmi that of Vishnu and Kãli of Rudra. A great deal of confusion exists in Hindu, religious literature with regard to this matter owing to lack of proper differentiation between functions and powers on a scientific basis, but one can, at least, understand the general principle.


            The second point is concerned with the relation of Shiva, Mahesha and Rudra. These three names are used interchangeably in Hindu scriptures and for popular treatment of many subjects this does not matter. But from the strictly philosophical and scientific point of view this is not correct and leads to confusion. There are three clearly-defined and distinct functions we have to take into account in considering the mechanism of manifestation from the occult point of view and, for the sake of clarity and consistency, each of these mines should indicate only one of these functions.


            It is not possible to deal here at length with the subtle but real differences in these functions. It may be merely pointed out that taking everything

(p. 14)

into consideration – the meaning of the words, tradition, and symbology, etc. – it is desirable to confine the name Shiva to that underlying Reality which always remains unmanifest in polar relationship with Shakti. It is the hidden source of all functions which are needed in manifestation and the repository of all manifested systems when they pass into a state, of pralaya or dissolution. The name Mahesha – meaning the Supreme Ruler or Lord – should obviously be used for that Reality which is called Logos and which lies at the basis of a manifested system and rules, controls and energizes it through its three well-known aspects: Brahmã, Vishnu and Rudra. It is the base of a tetrahedron with its three faces, the triple bel leaf with its three separate leaves. The remaining name, Rudra, should thus be reserved for the more limited function of destruction. Rudra is thus the third member of the Trinity, the other two being Brahmã and Vishnu. These three aspects of Divinity called Shiva, Mahesha and Rudra, though distinct, are related to each other in a very mysterious manner and this partially accounts for the prevailing confusion with regard to their functions and the names which indicate them. But it is not possible to go into this subtle question here. The student should have a clear idea with regard to the three functions indicated above. It

(p. 15)

will then not really matter to him which name is used for the function involved in a particular context.


            A clear grasp of the fundamental principles underlying Hindu symbolism will enable the student not only to have a correct idea with regard to the essential nature of Devis and Devatãs, but also enable him to avoid the confusion resulting from the mixing up of these functions and names. This is rather a disconcerting aspect of the gradual degeneration and confusion which has crept into Hindu philosophical conceptions as a result of the static and orthodox tendencies which have characterized philosophic thought in this country for a long time. The whole subject requires to be studied carefully so that the fundamental doctrines and conceptions of Hinduism may become clarified and order and harmony may be evolved out of the chaos which Hindu religion appears to an outsider. This will not be easy and will require prolonged and painstaking research but this is very necessary if the ideas of Hindu religion are to be placed on a rational basis. In these days of free thinking and scientific enquiry, one cannot expect to satisfy people with jumbled-up ideas, but must present them, at least rationally, if not scientifically.


            The preliminary consideration of the points discussed above has cleared the ground and we can now take up the subject proper.




(p. 16)





            SYMBOLISM is the art of representing ideas, objects, Processes, etc. through signs or symbols. A thing which typifies or recalls something naturally by possession of analogous qualities is called a symbol. But we are not concerned in this book with symbolism in general but with the application of this art in representing truths of Hindu religion and philosophy. In the limited context in which we are using the word we may say that symbolism is the art by the help of which truths of religion and philosophy can be represented through forms, signs and stories. Let us not bother about definitions and academic aspects of the subject but come straight to the particular aspect of the subject which we want to study, namely the representation of religious and philosophical ideas through symbols and allegories. The underlying ideas will become clear only after we have considered different aspects of the subject, using a number of examples to illustrate the principles involved.


(p. 17)

            It would help us to understand more easily what is to follow if we first discuss briefly what may be called the general principles of Hindu symbolism. These principles, as far as I know, have not been studied or set forth systematically and one can only deduce them from a general study of Hindu religion and philosophy combined with the deeper knowledge of the realities of life which is found only true Occultism and Mysticism. Symbolism is an art and not a science and the symbols are selected, except in the case of natural symbolism, not on scientific basis but with a view to convey to the common man the underlying ideas as easily and effectively as possible. So, the study of symbolism is mostly a question of interpretation and not scientific investigation and presentation. The interpretation should be such as to appeal naturally to one's reason and commonsense. In fact, it is possible to have more than one interpretation of the same symbol both equally reasonable and illuminating. It is also possible that one may not be able to interpret a particular symbol or may interpret it incorrectly. The important thing about Hindu symbolism is not what is the exact meaning of everything, but that everything has a meaning and generally a profound significance connected with spiritual life.


            But this does not mean that a person is free to interpret the symbols according to his own sweet

(p. 18)

will. Those who devised the symbols were men of real knowledge. They had definite ideas in their mind which they sought to represent by means of these symbols. True interpretation means catching those ideas through intuition and reflecting them as faithfully as possible for the benefit of others. It is necessary to point out this fact because there is a tendency among a certain class of people to make all kinds of wild suggestions in the way of interpretation, based on very superficial considerations. This kind of interpretation makes confusion worse confounded and further weakens the faith of the average student in the profound significance of the symbols.


            In considering symbolism as a method of representing the truths of the inner life, it is necessary to distinguish first between symbol and allegory. The two methods corresponding to these may be called static and dynamic symbolism. In the first method we use a form to symbolize the thing to be represented. The form may be simple or complex. It may symbolize a particular law or quality or power or it may symbolize a number of these in an integrated form. The common characteristic of all such static symbols is that no movement in time or space is involved.


            Dynamic symbolism is generally known by the name of allegory. In this there is a narrative

(p. 19)

description under guise of which a moral law, a natural process or spiritual truth is sought to be conveyed in an interesting manner. The story may, or may not, suggest by an apparent similarity what is sought to be represented. Generally it does not, and that is why such stories are taken literally by the unwary. The general characteristic of dynamic symbolism is that there is movement in the form of a story or the unfolding of a gradual process with different stages.


            Static symbolism may be further subdivided into two classes, which may be called natural and artificial. An artificial symbol is chosen arbitrarily to represent a particular thing because it recalls the thing by virtue of its possessing analogous qualities or through association in thought. There is no natural relation between the two and it is possible to select another symbol which is equally or more effective in this respect. A natural symbol, on the other hand, not only symbolizes the thing in question but also manifests it in a mysterious manner on account of some hidden natural relation between the two. The difference between the two is like the difference between a name and a vãchaka used in Mantra Yoga. A name is chosen arbitrarily and has no natural connection with the object for which it is used. Another name could serve the purpose equally well. But a vãchaka is a special

(p. 20)

name which embodies in a mysterious manner the power and qualities of the vãchya, the thing which it indicates. So it is possible to establish a relation with, and draw upon, the power of the latter with the help of the former, as is done in Mantra Yoga. Similar is the relation between a natural symbol and the object it represents. These things will become clear when we consider illustrative examples of each.


            In considering artificial symbols which are used in the Hindu religion it appears to be a fundamental principle that in representing anything the symbol chosen is such that it naturally and easily suggests the thing which is sought to be represented. Symbols were meant to give to the common man a concrete object which he could visualize easily and through which he could associate the truths of the inner life in his mind in an integrated form. They were not meant merely for scholars who could grasp abstract ideas to a certain extent and do without any concrete representation. It was, therefore, essential that the symbols used were those taken from familiar objects and such objects as would naturally suggest the quality, state or power which was sought to be represented. Even when a person could grasp the abstract ideas and had to a certain extent outgrown the use of the concrete symbols, these symbols were meant to help him to fix the

(p. 21)

different ideal in an integrated manner in a composite mental image. The human mind needs something concrete to which to hold on. It cannot work in a vacuum. It also needs to keep before it an idea of the inner realities. A concrete symbol, therefore, satisfies very effectively both these needs and may be considered as a very happy synthesis of the concrete and the abstract.


            The second general principle which we should keep in mind is that in representing a Devi or Devatã, everything in the form, and associated with the form, is meant to have a symbolic significance though we may not be able to trace the relation between a particular symbol and the thing symbolized. The complexion of the skin, the smile on the face, the object held in the hand, the manner in which the hand is raised, all these things have their meaning as well as the more concrete .and prominent objects associated with the form. If, therefore, the sãdhaka (aspirant) keeps in his mind the total image with all its component parts and knows also what each part represents, he can have a very elaborate and comprehensive idea with regard to the nature and powers of the Devi or the Devatã. The need for such a concept becomes imperative when he tries to pass from the worship of the mere outer form to that of the Reality within. The bhakta (devotee) usually starts his meditation

(p. 22)

with forming an image of the form of his Ishta-devatã (chosen deity) in his mind. But the next stage is meditation on His qualities or attributes and this knowledge concerning the symbology of the Devatã helps him a great deal in this stage. It is only through such a meditation that he can draw nearer to his Ishta-devatã and prepare himself for the stilt higher stage in which he tries to transcend the mental concept and grasp the Reality by fusing his consciousness with the consciousness of the Ishta-devatã. The Devatã of the mere beginner is in the external form, that of the advanced sãdhaka (aspirant) in the re of the higher mind and that of the siddha (the perfected individual) in his heart, in the realm of consciousness which transcends the intellect.


            It should be noted that the remarks in the previous paragraphs are applicable only to forms which are truly symbolic in character and not those forms which represent historical figures, either Avatãras (divine incarnations) or spiritual teachers of mankind. These forms are generally the product of the imagination of artists who try to give expression in those forms to the traditional ideas with regard to those historical or mythological figures. Thus the form of Krishna is not symbolic in character while that of Vishnu is. The devotee may use such a form in meditation but he will

(p. 23)

have to draw upon historical or mythological accounts of the life of that Teacher or upon his imagination for the attributes, etc. associated with him. Sometimes such a historical figure is taken as an Avatãra or incarnation of Devatã and it is then permissible to see in the form of the Avatãra the attributes and powers associated with that Devatã.


            After considering the general principles of Hindu symbolism we shall now take a few examples to illustrate these principles and to show the profound significance hidden behind these symbols which most Hindus know and worship and very few care to understand. We shall begin with natural symbolism.



Sections: General Index   Present Section: Index