The art of God-symbolism is ancient. Hinduism has perfected this art. For centuries it has been neglect with the result that the Hindu symbols, rituals and festivals have been shorn of their philosophical significance and reduced to mere superstition. The Hindus have either been blindly accepting or rejecting them. This book explains their symbolic character which gives the deep inner meaning to the different forms of Hindu worship.
Swami Parthasarathy is an acclaimed exponent of Vedanta, the ancient philosophy of India. His life is a dedication to the study, research and propagation of Vedanta. Swamiji’s resolve has emerged into four distinct fields of service:
The Vedanta Academy, founded in 1988 in India, offers three year residential courses for international students.
Swamiji has authored nine books presenting terse scriptural truths in contemporary thought and language. Two of them have earned bestselling status.
Public discourses on Vedanta have captivated audiences in India and abroad for over four decades.
Swamiji is a seminar resource for prestigious international organizations including the World Presidents Organization and World Economic Forum.
The Hindu scriptures are a unique blend of the subtle philosophy of Vedanta on one hand and gross, fetishist worship on the other. Hinduism appears a strange amalgam of the highest classical literature with gods and goddesses, rituals and festivals, ceremonies and celebrations. The Hindus themselves are confused and confounded by this mixture. The Vedas, the very source of the Hinduism, authoritatively proclaim that the Reality is one and one alone. Why then do the Hindus fall into manifold denominations and follow a variety of conflicting spiritual practices? Why so many gods? So many division? Sects, creeds and castes? Why then does not Hinduism concentrate on one god, one ritual and one practice like other religions? Such questions have baffled even intellectuals from time immemorial.
The Hindus are not polytheistic. Hinduism speaks of one God that is the supreme Self in all, Atman, Brahman. The different gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon are mere representatives of the powers and functions of the one supreme God in the manifested world. There is a general misunderstanding that the Hindu worships innumerable gods and goddess. The different forms of worship, the number of superstitions and misleading spiritual practices have all contributed to the wrong impression that the Hindus are polytheistic. This is far from the truth. In fact, the Hindu worships one God be it directly as Brahman or through manifested representations and expressions.
The Hindus religion is ingeniously designed to treat all types of disorders of the mind. The human mind is most complex. It suffers from multifold diseases. Religion is meat to cure these disease and regain the spiritual health of individuals. Each individual has to be treated separately according to his disease. There cannot be one doctor, one medicine, one cure for all diseases. Hinduism is like a hospital with its many words, sections and divisions. Each of them has a distinct purpose to attend to particular needs of a particular disease. They are taken care of by specialists in different departments. All of them put together cater to all types of ailments of all sorts of people so that everyone of them can come out of the hospital as a healthy person. So too does Hinduism have different treatment for different types of individuals to make them whole and realize their supreme Godhead.
The mind of man is in a chaotic state because of his vasanas, desires. As long as there are desires within, the mind helplessly runs in all directions seeking fulfillment of its desires. Consequently it is agitated. An agitated mind cannot concentrate. It is unfit for contemplation and meditation which alone lead him to the eternal bliss of Self-realisation. Religion is meant to help man to withdraw his mind from its preoccupation with the world at large and converge it to the singe-pointed thought of the Self within. When the mind is brought to single-pointedness it can be directed towards medition and realization of the supreme Godhead. Without practicing spiritual courses according to one’s own constitution, there can be no progress towards meditation and the bliss of realization.
One cannot stop the mind from its ramblings as long as it possesses desires. To circumvent this great hurdle Hinduism has thoughtfully brought in gods and goddesses, rituals and festivals, ceremonies and celebrations. The master plan of the Hindu sages is to divinize everything in this world since man’s attention has always been upon the world. The plan has been drawn logically, scientifically, practically. By this plan the mind is reminded of the supreme even as it is engaged in the desired objects of the world. For instances, Hinduism has personified wealth and riches in the form of the goddess Lakshmi. So a man who runs after material wealth is made to remember the goddess in all his transactions. Thus a touch of divinity is lent to his material pursuits. Another man may pursue knowledge. Knowledge is personified as the goddess Sarasvati. So his mind is also drawn to the higher even though he is engaged in the pursuit of wordly knowledge. Thus there are numerous gods covering the entire sphere of human activities.
The life of a Hindu is a series of prayer and worship. Everything is divinized from the cradle to the grave. There is a ritual associated with every aspect of the Hindu life. The entire passage from birth to death is nothing but a series of rituals and ceremonies, prayer and worship. The idea is to remind his dissipating mind constantly of the purpose of his existence in the world. That is to unfold his Self, to realize his Godhood.
The plan of Hinduism is to help the seekers reach the goal of religion. Religion is derived from the Latin terms re and ligare. Re means back, again. ligare means to bind, to unite, Etymologically, religion means “that which binds one back to the origin”. The origin of man is his real Self. Religion helps man discover his real Self, his supreme Self, to draw out the divinity in man. Hinduism deals with the process of this union most systematically and scientifically.
These pages cannot do justice to the master plan of the Hindu sages. The greatness of the plan is in its scientific approach and its practically. It is designed to serve as a friend and benefactor of the childish mind. It helps to pull the mind away constantly from its indulgence in the lower fields of sensuality and fix it on the higher thought of the realization of the Supreme.
India has always been accepted as a great spiritual country in the world. Hinduism has survived the ravages of time and changing environment. It has withstood the influences of many organized and rich religious institutions. The genius of the rsis sagas preserved the spiritual culture by keeping the truths and tradition alive among the people as a whole and not confining them to a few erudite scholars. The scholars were given the highest philosophical and religious truths directly through Vedanta- the Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutras. But these truths were beyond the grasp of the common man. Hence they have been presented in a veiled form through Puranic stories, rituals and symbols. The dilution of the supreme wisdom with such stories and illustrations proved more assailable to the ordinary man. The great truths of the Vedas were thus handed down from generation to generation with their pristine glory.
The Puranas contains innumerable stories of gods and goddesses. Many of them are exaggerated narrations bordering on absurdity. The very absurdity of these stories is meant to show that they are not to be taken literally but to be delved into deeper to recognize their allegorical significance. The Puranas are so popular in India not only among the illiterate masses but also the intelligentsia. Almost the entire Hindu population treats the Puranas with utmost devotion and derives spiritual sustenance from them. The Hindu is deeply aware of the allegorical reference to the supreme Truth in the seemingly absurd stories. The intelligentsia maintains an intuitive perception of the Reality hidden behind the superficial absurdities. But a good many have also taken these narrations literally resulting in superstitions and perversions of truths.
The Hindu philosophical and spiritual truths conveyed through the Upanisads and puranic literature have also been ingeniously presented to the masses in the form of symbols. A symbol is a known idol representing the unknown ideal. The art of god-symbolism helps both the literate and the illiterate Hindus. The illiterate derive at least some idea of the supreme Truth through the symbols which help them to maintain their ancient culture and heritage. As for the literate the understanding of the inner significance of the symbols establishers a greater conviction of the Truth that they represent. Symbolism plays an important role in life. Even language which man uses for communicating ideas is symbolic in character. The art of symbolism is not peculiar to Hinduism. Religious and philosophical ideas have been expressed through symbols in other religions as well. It has been an age-old practice.
But no other religion has ever developed this art to the extent Hinduism has done. Hinduism has perfected this art. Unfortunately, this art has not been studied at all by the modern generation with the result that the Hindu symbols have been shorn of their philosophical and religious significances and reduced to mere superstition. Thus Hindus have grown to accept them blindly or reject them as meaningless superstitious beliefs. Hence the need today is to revive this great art and educate the world with the knowledge concerning the symbolic character which gives the deep inner meaning of the different forms of Hindu worship.
This book is meant to initiate the reader into learning this art. It is by no means exhaustive. A few examples of the more popular deities, rituals, and ceremonies have been taken and their philosophical significance explained. It should give the reader an insight into the treasures of Hindu thought and unearth the deep truths represented by the symbols.
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