Perfection of the Art of Symbolism in Hinduism
Idol worships and rituals that look superfluous from outside
have great religious and philosophical significance. The greatness
of Hinduism prevails in its rich heritage, traditions and beliefs.
This article hopes to demonstrate that "Hinduism has Perfected the
Art of Symbolism." This article is prepared for the Temple
Souvenir on the occasion of Swami Ayyappa Prathishtapana
Kumbhabhisheka Mahotsavam (Vedic Cermony associated with the
installation of the Deity) during July 7-9, 1995. It is a great
privilege to get an opportunity to participate such holy occasions.
It is my pleasure to dedicate this article to Swami Ayyappa and Sri
Sri. Siva Vishnu Temple (6905 Cipriano Road, Lanham, Maryland
20706), a beautiful tourist landmark in the Washington Metropolitan
area is located ten miles north east of Capital City. It is built
and consecrated as ordained in the Agama Sastras and Silpa Sastras
(Science of temple architecture). Pujas are conducted daily
according to the Vedic traditions as outlined in the Srutis and
Smritis. In addition to the principal deities: Siva, Vishnu and
Venkateswara, the temple houses Ganesh, Parvati, Subramanya and His
consorts Valli and Devayani, Durga, Saraswathi, Mahalakshmi, Andal
(Bhoodevi), Krishna, Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman, and the
Navagrahas. Sri. Siva-Vishnu Temple is adding the Ayyappa Deity,
a replica of the presiding deity of Sabarimalai and the
Kumbabhishekam is scheduled during July 7-9, 1995. Religious
ceremonies for Kumbhabhishekam will be performed by Sri. Thazhamon
Kantaru Maheswararu Thantri, the supreme Priest of Sabarimala
Temple. Those interested, please contact the temple at Tel: 301-
552-3335 or FAX: 301-552-1204 for additional information.
Editorial assistance is generously provided by my wife Shanthi
and my son Jayanth. I am responsible for the remaining errors and
PERFECTION OF THE ART OF SYMBOLISM IN HINDUISM
Religion is an expression of human desire to communicate with
God and Hinduism is no exception. In Hinduism, avatars
(manifestations of God) are illustrations of such contacts between
humans and God. Villages, towns, and states affiliated to avatars
became holy lands for pilgrimage. This may explain how Hinduism is
tied to local beliefs and traditions. Customs and traditions that
may look superfluous, have contributed to a clearer understanding
of Hindu heritage and Philosophy.
The avatar of Hariharaputhra (son of Vishnu and Siva), was to
destroy Mahishi (a female demon). The local name of Hariharaputra
is Swami (Lord) Ayyappa and his worship is more prevalent in
Kerala and adjacent states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The reason
for the regionalized worship of Ayyappa is due to the fact that the
human drama of Ayyappa was staged in Kerala. Ayyappa is the
manifestation of the combined energy source of Lord Vishnu and Lord
Siva. The Hindu trinity is represented by three Gods: 'Brahma - the
creator,' 'Vishnu - the protector,' and 'Siva - the destroyer.'
The devotees of Ayyappa call him by several favorite names that
include, Dharma Shasta (one who established Dharma), Manikanta
(born with a bell on the neck), Boothanathan (master of Lord
Shiva's army consisting of Vapara, Katusabada, Veerabadhra,
Koopanetra, Koopakarna and Gandakrana). Ayyappa is worshipped by
followers of all religions including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains,
Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. Ayyappa temples located in Sabari
Hills, Achankovil, Ariyankavu, Kulathur and Thiruvullakkavu in
Kerala attract more pilgrims than the remaining hundred or more
situated in the southern part of India.
This article will first give a brief background to Hinduism
and then turn its focus to the role of symbolism. The local
traditions behind the pilgrimage to Sabari Hills are used to
unravel the philosophical significance of idol worship and
associated rituals. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate
that Hinduism has perfected the art of Symbolism and Hindus have
unraveled Unknown Ideals from Known Idols."
Hindu Scriptures are broadly classified into Sruti (heard and
transmitted), Smriti (remembered and collated), Itihaasa (epics),
Purana (stories and values) and Aagma (temple related rules for
prayers, rituals and construction). Vedas constitute Sruti. The
four Vedas: Rig, Saama, Yajur and Atharva are treasured as the most
ancient heritage and Hindus believe that Vedas are eternal and
never created! The subject-matter of Vedas is classified into
three categories: Karma, Upasanaa, and jnana. Karma discusses
obligations of each individual. Upasanaa provides guidance for
divine communion and worship. Jnana is the philosophical
disquisition about Brahman, the supreme reality. These
philosophical discussions in the last portions of each Veda are
known as Upanishads. Scriptures, compiled by the great sages,
Yajnavalkya, Manu and Parasara are known as Smriti . Itihasa
comprises of the two epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata written
respectively by sages Valmiki and Vedavyasa. Vedavyasa also wrote
the eighteen Puranas and eighteen Upa(sub)-puranas. Each purana
emphasizes a specific Hindu value and dramatizes a story with a
virtuous hero, an evil villain, and supporting characters on either
side! In general, the hero is a favored deity, who represents the
Supreme Reality and others become demigods and play subordinate
roles. Aagmas define elaborate rules for temple construction and
rules for conducting rituals and prayers in the temple premises.
Relevance of Temples in Hindu Religion and Culture
Throughout Indian history, temples have exercised an enormous
influence on religious and social life, and traditions. Famous
Hindu temples such as Somanathpur had enormous wealth and became
targets of foreign invasions. The Hindu temple is a place of
worship like any other but it has unique features that elevate it
to a greater spiritual excellence and appreciation. Orthodox
temples are built according to Aagmas and the sacred ones are
located in higher altitudes on top of hills. Elevated temples
symbolize the importance of spirituality over worldly life. Kings
and rich citizens in the community provided generous funds to the
construction and maintenance of temples. Temples have contributed
to the employment of architects, artisans, sculptors, and laborers.
The shrines and icons have given peace to the frustrated minds.
Music, dance and fine arts programs including religious and musical
discourses staged in the temples have encouraged musicians,
dancers, dramatists, artists and religious scholars. The granaries
of temples were used to feed the hungry, and temple buildings have
provided shelters to both scholars and students. Some temples were
equipped to provide medical services to the sick, elderly, and
disabled. Thus, temples have provided a variety of religious and
social services and reinforced economic and social welfare of the
Indian society. Hindu temples in the U.S. and Canada act as
cultural ambassadors and provide spiritual and educational services
to the Indian Community.
The temple also portrays God in the cosmic form. The statue
of Nataraja (dance pose of Lord Siva) is a well known example for
the artistic, scientific and philosophical significance of idols.
Hundreds of articles and books have been written about the
significance of the Nataraja's dance posture. In the PBS show,
COSMOS, Professor Carl Sagan asserts that the dance of Nataraja
signifies the cycle of evolution and destruction of the cosmic
universe (Big-Bang Theory). The dance statue of Nataraja is a
symbolic representation of Vedanta. The dwarfish demon crushed
under the feet represents the demonic ego, which prevents humans to
attain the inherent peace and bliss within. The ego should be
crushed to regain the Supreme Bliss! A more complete description
is beyond the scope of this article, and is therefore omitted.
Vedanta, the starting premise of Hindu Religion, asserts that
Brahman (the abstract God) is the Absolute Truth. Brahman has
multiple roles to play: the creator, the maintainer, and the
destroyer all in one. Vedanta states that the universal soul,
Brahman is eternal and the individual human soul, Atman ultimately
unifies with Brahman. Advaita implies the ultimate identity of
Brahman (Universal soul) and Jivatman (human soul). Dwaita opposes
advaita on almost all points and maintains an ultimate diversity of
Brahman and Jivatman. Visistadvaita (qualified non-duality)
maintains a crucial differentiation as well as a fundamental
identity. The Advaita Vedanta is revealed by the sitting and
meditating pose of the Ayyappa Deity (replica of the presiding
deity of Sabarimalai) in the Sri Siva-Vishnu temple. The temple
brochure explains beautifully the symbolism of the sitting posture
of Swami Ayyappa. The Lord sits with his thumb and forefinger
crossed in a symbol of Chinmudra. The thumb represents the Atman
and the forefinger is the Jeeva. There is no gap between the Atman
and the Jeeva. Inside the sanctum sanctorum, devotees maintain
single-minded concentration and meditation, experiencing the
highest spiritual consciousness by the darshan (vision) of Lord
The Hindu philosophy and logic provide unassailable strength
to the concept of the fundamental unity in the worship of a
multitude of gods. Hinduism is highly individualistic and Hindus
love the freedom to worship their personal choice of an icon to
visualize the abstract Brahman. That explains the rapid growth of
temples, gods, and rituals across India and beyond. Even
illiterate villagers are proud and enthusiastic to elaborate on
stories about their temple gods and their significance. Such
stories invariably are more adventurous and heroic than "Superman"
episodes, but with a divine touch. The temple epitomizes God in a
spiritual form and the various parts of his body symbolizes
philosophical concepts. It serves as the symbolic link between
Human and God, between Material and Spiritual and between Obvious
and Ideal. Names of the miscellaneous segments of the temple
designate different organs of the human body (garbhagraha (Sanctum
Sanctorium) represents the human heart).
The symbolism in Hinduism is analogous to the modern
communication methods adopted by the computer industry. They both
adjust to the diverse tastes and needs of the world. Only a small
segment of the general public look for sophistication and special
features. The common folk who are in the majority, demand simple
illustrations and practical examples rather than lengthy logic!
The computer industry employs creative graphic displays of "icons"
to satisfy the general public. Hindu symbolism seems to imply that
it does not believe in a one-size-fits-all theory! Artistic
temples with idols, heroic stories, and colorful rituals
demonstrate this fact. Educated Hindus may grasp a lot more from
such symbolism, and unravel philosophical and spiritual truths of
Vedanta. Puranic stories create role models by dramatization of
legendary events to preserve social ethics (Dharma). An ideal
spouse, parent, offspring, or teacher is orchestrated to help the
society to conduct its daily duties (nithya karma). Hinduism has
perfected the art of symbolism as a powerful media to teach complex
philosophical ideas to the common man. The communication values
using the puranic stories in Hinduism, resemble the case study
procedures in business management institutions.
Puranic Story of Hariharaputhra
The episode of Ayyappa is described in "Brahmananda Purana,"
and also in "Skandapurana." Our focus is on the symbolism of Lord
Ayyappa and hence the story is presented in a summarized form.
Ayyappa or Hari-hara-Puthra is the divine avatar as a consequence
of the union of Lord Mahavishnu's Mohini avatar and Lord Siva.
This avatar of Hariharaputhra was necessary to destroy the evil
demoness Mahishi. Baby Ayyappa was found on the shores of the holy
Pamba river by the heirless king of Pandhalam, Rajasekara, when he
was out on a hunting trip. As the divine child was wearing a
golden bell around his neck, the king named him Manikanta, and
adopted him as his son. Soon the queen had her own child. As the
children grew up, young Manikanta was loved and admired by all, and
the queen started feeling jealous and wanted her own child to
ascend to the throne. The queen feigned a strange ailment which
required tiger's milk, and Manikanta took up the task of getting it
for his mother. He ventured boldly into the forests, caught up
with Mahishi and fulfilled the purpose of the avatar by killing the
demon. The divine child returned home triumphantly riding a
tigress and the queen realized the divine nature of her foster son.
Prince Manikanta explained to his foster parents his divine
mission, helped install his younger brother on the throne and went
to the crest of Sabari Hills to be there eternally as a divine
yogi. It is not important whether the story is true or false. The
ideals reflected in the heroic and unselfish actions (bringing
tiger-milk and killing the demon) are more significant.
Where and when this story took place is anybody's guess.
Great number of temples in south India were built during the
thousand years between 600 and 1600 A.D. Lord Buddha had great
influence in the down south, especially part of the present Tamil
Nad and Kerala. At the same time, both Siva worship (Shiva
Siddhanta) and Vishnu worship (Vaishnavam) were also popular.
There are historical evidence for intense rivalry between the Siva
and Vishnu worshippers. It is probable that the dramatization of
Ayyappa is a compromise between Buddha, Siva and Vishnu
worshippers. The name, Dharma Shastha and the prayer song "Swamiye
Saranam" are strong indications of the influence of Buddhism in
Ayyappa worship. But the Vrath, Pilgrimage and associated rituals
symbolizes a blend of Jnana (Advaita) and Bhakti (Dwaita) Paths to
The Vedantic Pilgrimage to Sabari Hill Swami Ayyappa
Millions of men, women and children go to Sabari Hills every
year on Makarasankaranthi (Middle of January). This auspicious day
correspond to the time period when sun passes the winter solstice
(one of the two points on the ecliptic at which its distance from
the celestial equator is greatest and which is reached by the sun
each year). The pilgrims visiting on this occasion undertake
strict and rigorous preparations. They start with a 'Vrath' (pledge
for religious observance) lasting for forty-one days, starting from
the middle of November. All wear black or saffron clothes and
thulasi beads, and strictly observe their daily rituals. The
devotees observe austerities and self-control on those days. They
eat pious vegetarian food, drink non-alcoholic beverages, and pray
Swamiye Saranam (Thou protect me and I surrender). Before starting
the pilgrimage to Sabari Hills, each devotee prepares an Irumudi (A
bag with two separate compartments, and with two knots) for the
long and strenuous journey through jungles. The front compartment
contains the ghee-filled coconut and the other one includes food
and personal belongings. The devotee walks by foot all the 8 miles
from the shore of the Pampa river to Swami Sannidhanam (the open
hall in front of the Sanctum Sanctorum), crosses the 18 steps and
pours the ghee over the idol of the Lord.
On Makara Sankranthi day, millions crowd the hills to get a
glimpse of the Divine Jyothi, a brilliant light that raises over
the Kantha hill (adjacent to the Sabari Hill). Devotees consider
this Jyothi to be a symbol of Lord Ayyappa, the highest spiritual
consciousness. Nobody can confirm or deny that this is true. Such
divine incidents are always unpredictable and beyond all human
The forty-one days of Vrath is to force the mind to withdraw
from attachments to worldly possessions and to direct it towards
the Absolute Truth. The walk by foot through the jungle symbolizes
that the path to spirituality requires greater efforts. The
coconut represents the human body, the outer shell of the coconut
symbolizes ego, and the ghee is the Atman (human soul). Coconuts
have three eyes: two eyes represent the intellect and the third eye
is the spiritual eye. The idol represents Brahman. The rear
compartment of the Irumudi symbolizes 'Praarabdha Karma'
(accumulated worldly possessions). The devotee exhausts all the
worldly possessions during the journey and reaches the Sannidhanam
with the ghee filled coconut. The devotee is reminded that worldly
possessions hinder the progress of liberation. The devotee opens
the spiritual eye of the coconut, breaks the coconut and pours the
ghee (Atman) on to the idol (Brahman). At this time, the devotee
has detached the ego and worldly possessions. He or she has
developed an attitude of total surrender to the Lord (infinite love
for the Lord). The devotee begs Him to grant the total Unity of
Atman with the Brahman. This liberation of Atman from Ego and
Wordily Possessions is the Message of Vedanta in Symbolic Language.
This Symbolism is flawless and complete. What a beautiful
demonstration of the Artistic Perfection of Symbolism!
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publishing House, New Delhi, 1989.
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Pal and Fr. Jerome D'Souza. Delhi, Publications Division,
Government of India, 1965.
3. Swami Harshananda "All About Hindu Temples." Book,
Sri.Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1991.
4. A Parthasarathy, "The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals."
Book, Shailesh Printers, Bombay, 1983.
5. Radhika Sekar. "The Sabarimalai pilgrimage and Ayyappan
cult." Book, 1st ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers,
6. Pampa Sangamam 90, "Ayyappa darshanam - A Souvenir"
Travancore Devaswom Board, Trivandrum, Kerala, 1991.
7. Vaidyanathan, K. R. (Kunissery Ramakrishnier), "Pilgrimage to
Sabari." Book, 1st ed. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1978.
8. "Lord Ayyappan; the dharma shasta." Book, 2d ed. Bombay,
Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1966.
" Have a Good Day "
"Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path
whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. Truth, being limitless,
unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be
organized; nor should any organisation be formed to lead or to
coerce people along any particular path." J. Krishnamoorthy
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