Chapter 3: Why Hindus Worship Deities
Just as a single force in space can be mathematically conceived as
having various spatial components, the Supreme Being or God, the personal form
of the Ultimate Reality, is conceived by Hindus as having various aspects (see Chapter
2). A Hindu deity (god or goddess; note small g) represents a particular
aspect of the Supreme Being. For example, Saraswatî represents the learning and
knowledge aspect of the Supreme Being. Thus, if a Hindu wants to pray for
acquiring knowledge and understanding, he prays to Saraswatî. Just as sunlight
cannot have a separate and independent existence from the sun itself, a Hindu
deity does not have a separate and independent existence from the Supreme Being.
Thus, Hindu worship of deities is monotheistic polytheism and not simple polytheism.
Hindus declare that there is only one Supreme Being and He is the God of all
religions.3 There is no "other God." Thus the Biblical
Commandment "Thou shalt have no other God before me," really means,
"Thou shalt not deny the Ultimate Reality or worship any power other than
the Ultimate Reality." (See also Reference 5 in Works Cited.)
Hindus view cosmic activity of the Supreme Being as comprised of three tasks:
creation, preservation, and dissolution and recreation. Hindus associate these
three cosmic tasks with the three deities, Brahmă, Vishnu and Shiva. Lord Brahmă
brings forth the creation and represents the creative principle of the Supreme
Being. Lord Vishnu maintains the universe and represents the eternal principle
of preservation. Lord Shiva represents the principle of dissolution and
recreation. These three deities together form the Hindu Trinity.
One must clearly understand that Brahmă, Vishnu and Shiva are not three
independent deities. They represent the same power (the Supreme Being), but in
three different aspects. Just as a man may be called a doctor, father or husband
based upon the tasks he performs, the Supreme Being is called Brahmă, Vishnu or
Shiva when conceived as performing the three different cosmic tasks of creation,
preser-vation, and dissolution/recreation. "The oneness of the three gods
Brahmă, Vishnu and Shiva is brought out by the mystic symbol AUM ()
where 'A' represents Vishnu, 'U' Shiva and 'M' Brahmă."6
Hindu religion is often labeled as a religion of 330 million gods. This
misunderstanding arises when people fail to grasp the symbolism of the Hindu
pantheon. According to the Hindu scriptures, living beings are not apart from
God, since He lives in each and every one of them in the form of ătman (BG
10.39). Thus each living being is a unique manifestation of God. In ancient
times it was believed that there were 330 million living beings. This gave rise
to the idea of 330 million deities or gods. Actually, this vast number of gods
could not have been possibly worshipped, since 330 million names could not have
been designed for them. The number 330 million was simply used to give a
symbolic expression to the fundamental Hindu doctrine that God lives in the
hearts of all living beings.11
"The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realized, or
thought of, or stated through the relative, and the images, crosses and
crescents are simply so many symbolsso many pegs to hang spiritual ideas
on," explained Swami Vivekănanda at the World Parliament of Religions in
1893 (see Chapter 19). A Hindu thus uses a picture or an
idol (usually made of metal, wood or clay) to symbolize a deity. The picture or
the idol is used as an object of concentration to help concentrate one's mind on
the worship, contemplation and meditation. The idol itself is not God, but
serves as a symbol of God.
Just as people associate their ideas of infinity with the image of the blue
sky or of the sea, or connect their ideas of holiness with the image of a
church, a mosque, or a cross, Hindus associate their ideas of holiness, purity,
truth, and omnipresence with different images and forms. If somebody were to ask
me, "Where is the sky?" I would most probably raise my finger up
pointing towards the sky. My finger is not the sky, but it points towards the
sky. Similarly, an idol is not God, but a pointer which directs the attention of
the devotee towards the Divine.
The whole fabric of Hindu religious thought revolves around the freedom to
worship whichever aspect of the Divine one reveres most, based upon one's own
mental constitution. This catholicity of Hindu religious outlook is deeply
rooted in numerous revelations in Hindu scriptures, such as:
"In whatever way they [human beings] love Me [God],
in the same way they find My love. Various are the ways for them, but in the end
they all come to Me." (Bhagavad Gîtă 4.11)
"Truth is one, wise call it by various names."
(Rig Veda 1.164.46)
"He is the One, the One alone; in Him all deities become One
alone." (Atharva Veda)
"Just as the rain water that falls from the sky eventually reaches the
ocean, so also the worship offered to Him, by whatever name you wish, or in
whatever form you like, ultimately goes to the One (the only One) Ultimate,
Infinite Supreme Reality. (Mahăbhărata)
The symbolism used in Hindu scriptures expresses the attributes and the
qualities of the personal aspect of the Ultimate Reality (Saguna Brahman)
as conceived by rishis of the yore. Just as a map is used by a traveler as an
aid for reaching the destination, symbolism is used by Hindus as an aid in
comprehending the Infinite Reality, and for traveling on the spiritual path to
the final destination of union with God. The following discussion, based upon
the common symbols used in Hindu scriptures, illustrates the symbolism
associated with some of the popular deities worshipped in contemporary Hindu
religion. Following this discussion is a color plate of each of these deities.
Lord Ganesha-the Hindu deity in a human form but with the head of an
elephant-represents the power of the Supreme Being that removes obstacles and
ensures success in human endeavors. For this reason, Hindus worship Ganesha
first before beginning any religious, spiritual or worldly activity. In Hindu
mythology, Lord Ganesha is the first son of Lord Shiva and the Divine Mother Părvati.
Their second son is Lord Subramanya and their daughter is Jyoti. As explained
below, the portrayal of Lord Ganesha as the blend of human and animal parts (see
color plate 2) symbolizes the ideals of perfection as conceived by Hindu sages
and illustrates some philosophical concepts of profound spiritual significance.
- Elephant head, wide mouth, and large ears: the large head of
an elephant symbolizes wisdom, understanding, and a discriminating intellect
that one must possess to attain perfection in life. The wide mouth
represents the natural human desire to enjoy life in the world. The large
ears signify that a perfect person is the one who possesses a great capacity
to listen to others and assimilate ideas.
- The trunk and two tusks with the left tusk broken: there
is no known human instrument that has an operating range as wide as that of
an elephant's trunk. It can uproot a tree and yet lift a needle off the
ground. Likewise, the human mind must be strong enough to face the ups and
downs of the external world and yet delicate enough to explore the subtle
realms of the inner world. The two tusks denote the two aspects of the human
personality, wisdom and emotion. The right tusk represents wisdom and the
left tusk represents emotion. The broken left tusk conveys the idea that one
must conquer emotions with wisdom to attain perfection.
- Elephant eyes: the elephant eyes are said to possess
natural deceptiveness that allows them to perceive objects to be bigger than
what they really are. Thus the elephant eyes symbolize the idea that even if
an individual gets "bigger and bigger" in wealth and wisdom, he
should perceive others to be bigger than himself; that is, surrender one's
pride and attain humility.
- The four arms and various objects in the four hands: the
four arms indicate that the Lord is omnipresent and omnipotent. The left
side of the body symbolizes emotion and the right side symbolizes reason. An
ax in the upper left hand and a lotus in the upper right hand signify that
in order to attain spiritual perfection, one should cut worldly attachments
and conquer emotions. This enables one to live in the world without being
affected by earthly temptations, just as a lotus remains in water but is not
affected by it. A tray of Laddűs (a popular snack) near the Lord denotes
that He bestows wealth and prosperity upon His devotees. The lower right
hand is shown in a blessing pose, which signifies that Ganesha always
blesses His devotees.
- A human body with a big belly: the human body
possesses a human heart, which is a symbol of kindness and compassion toward
all. Ganesha's body is usually portrayed wearing red and yellow clothes.
Yellow symbolizes purity, peace and truthfulness. Red symbolizes the
activity in the world. These are the qualities of a perfect person who
performs all duties in the world, with purity, peace, and truthfulness. The
big belly signifies that a perfect individual must have a large capacity to
face all pleasant and unpleasant experiences of the world.
- A mouse sitting near the feet of Ganesha and gazing at the tray of
Laddűs: a mouse symbolizes the ego that can nibble all that is good
and noble in a person. A mouse sitting near the feet of Ganesha indicates
that a perfect person is one who has conquered his (or her) ego. A mouse
gazing at the Laddűs, but not consuming them, denotes that a purified or
controlled ego can live in the world without being affected by the worldly
temptations. The mouse is also the vehicle of Ganesha, signifying that one
must control ego in order for wisdom to shine forth.
- Right foot dangling over the left foot: as stated above, the
left side of the body symbolizes emotion and the right side symbolizes
reason and knowledge. The right foot dangling over the left foot illustrates
that in order to live a successful life one should utilize knowledge and
reason to overcome emotions.
Lord Subramanya - Kărttikeya
Lord Subramanya symbolizes a perfect individual who has realized the Self
(i.e. attained union with God). Hindus worship Lord Subramanya to acquire
worldly as well as spiritual prosperity. In mythology, Lord Subramanya, also
called by other names such as Kărttikeya, Murugan, Kumăra, Skanda, and
Shanmukha, is the second son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Părvati, their other son
is Lord Ganesha and their daughter is Jyoti.
In His popular images, Lord Subramanya is depicted in the human form
possessing six faces. He holds a spear in His hand. A peacock is shown next to
the Lord. This symbolism associated with Lord Subramanya illustrates the
following spiritual theme:
- Blue color symbolizes infinity. The blue background in the image of the
Lord (see color plate 3) denotes that the spiritual essence in all human
beings is the Infinite Reality in the form of ătman.
- The six faces of the Lord (for simplicity the color plate shows only one
face) signify that the Infinite Reality manifests Itself as God-in-man
through the six instruments comprised of the mind and its associated five
sense organs-sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.
- A spear in the hands of Lord Subramanya symbolizes His power to destroy
the enemies of man, such as lust, greed, fear, anger, pride, and hatred.
- A peacock feels extremely delighted to see its colorful feathers spread
out beautifully when it dances. A blue peacock next to the Lord conveys the
idea that man should be very delighted to know that he is essentially ătman-symbolized
by the blue color of the peacock-and is not limited by the body and mind.
- Some images show the peacock holding a live snake in its grip. Just as a
snake carries poison for its protection, the ego carries the mind for its
survival. The peacock holding the snake captive, but not killing it, conveys
the idea that man does not have to destroy the ego, but must control it so
that its energies can be channeled to discover the Supreme Self.
Lord Shiva represents the aspect of the Supreme Being (Brahman of the
Upanishads) that continuously dissolves to recreate in the cyclic process of
creation, preservation, dissolution and recreation of the universe. As stated
earlier, Lord Shiva is the third member of the Hindu Trinity, the other two
being Lord Brahmă and Lord Vishnu.
Owing to His cosmic activity of dissolution and recreation, the words destroyer
and destruction have been erroneously associated with Lord Shiva. This
difficulty arises when people fail to grasp the true significance of His cosmic
role. The creation sustains itself by a delicate balance between the opposing
forces of good and evil. When this balance is disturbed and sustenance of life
becomes impossible, Lord Shiva dissolves the universe for creation of the next
cycle so that the unliberated souls will have another opportunity to liberate
themselves from bondage with the physical world. Thus, Lord Shiva protects the
souls from pain and suffering that would be caused by a dysfunctional universe.
In analogous cyclic processes, winter is essential for spring to appear and the
night is necessary for the morning to follow. To further illustrate, a goldsmith
does not destroy gold when he melts old irreparable golden jewelry to create
beautiful new ornaments.
Lord Shiva is the Lord of mercy and compassion. He protects devotees from
evil forces such as lust, greed, and anger. He grants boons, bestows grace and
awakens wisdom in His devotees. The symbolism discussed below (see color plate
4) includes major symbols that are common to all pictures and images of Shiva
venerated by Hindus. Since the tasks of Lord Shiva are numerous, He cannot be
symbolized in one form. For this reason the images of Shiva vary significantly
in their symbolism.
- The unclad body covered with ashes: the unclad body
symbolizes the transcendental aspect of the Lord. Since most things reduce
to ashes when burned, ashes symbolize the physical universe. The ashes on
the unclad body of the Lord signify that Shiva is the source of the entire
universe which emanates from Him, but He transcends the physical phenomena
and is not affected by it.
- Matted locks: Lord Shiva is the Master of yoga. The three
matted locks on the head of the Lord convey the idea that integration of the
physical, mental and spiritual energies is the ideal of yoga.
- Gangă: Gangă (river Ganges) is associated with Hindu
mythology and is the most sacred river of Hindus. According to tradition,
one who bathes in Gangă (revered as Mother Gangă) in accordance with
traditional rites and ceremonies on religious occasions in combination with
certain astrological events, is freed from sin and attains knowledge, purity
and peace. Gangă, symbolically represented on the head of the Lord by a
female (Mother Gangă) with a jet of water emanating from her mouth and
falling on the ground, signifies that the Lord destroys sin, removes
ignorance, and bestows knowledge, purity and peace on the devotees.
- The crescent moon: is shown on the side of the Lord's
head as an ornament, and not as an integral part of His countenance. The
waxing and waning phenomenon of the moon symbolizes the time cycle through
which creation evolves from the beginning to the end. Since the Lord is the
Eternal Reality, He is beyond time. Thus, the crescent moon is only one of
His ornaments, and not an integral part of Him.
- Three eyes: Lord Shiva, also called Tryambaka Deva
(literally, "three-eyed Lord"), is depicted as having three eyes:
the sun is His right eye, the moon the left eye and fire the third eye. The
two eyes on the right and left indicate His activity in the physical world.
The third eye in the center of the forehead symbolizes spiritual knowledge
and power, and is thus called the eye of wisdom or knowledge. Like fire, the
powerful gaze of Shiva's third eye annihilates evil, and thus the evil-doers
fear His third eye.
- Half-open eyes: when the Lord opens His eyes, a new
cycle of creation emerges and when He closes them, the universe dissolves
for creation of the next cycle. The half-open eyes convey the idea that
creation is going through cyclic process, with no beginning and no end. Lord
Shiva is the Master of Yoga, as He uses His yogic power to project the
universe from Himself. The half-open eyes also symbolize His yogic posture.
- Kundalas (two ear rings): two Kundalas, Alakshya
(meaning "which cannot be shown by any sign") and Niranjan
(meaning "which cannot be seen by mortal eyes") in the ears of the
Lord signify that He is beyond ordinary perception. Since the kundala in the
left ear of the Lord is of the type used by women and the one in His right
ear is of the type used by men, these Kundalas also symbolize the Shiva and
Shakti (male and female) principle of creation.
- Snake around the neck: sages have used snakes to symbolize
the yogic power of Lord Shiva with which He dissolves and recreates the
universe. Like a yogi, a snake hoards nothing, carries nothing, builds
nothing, lives on air alone for a long time, and lives in mountains and
forests. The venom of a snake, therefore, symbolizes the yogic power.
- A snake (Vasuki Năga): is shown curled three times
around the neck of the Lord and is looking towards His right side. The three
coils of the snake symbolize the past, present and future-time in cycles.
The Lord wearing the curled snake like an ornament signifies that creation
proceeds in cycles and is time dependent, but the Lord Himself transcends
time. The right side of the body symbolizes the human activities based upon
knowledge, reason and logic. The snake looking towards the right side of the
Lord signifies that the Lord's eternal laws of reason and justice preserve
natural order in the universe.
- Rudrăksha necklace: Rudra is another name of Shiva. Rudra
also means "strict or uncompromising" and ăksha means
"eye." Rudrăksha necklace worn by the Lord illustrates that He
uses His cosmic laws firmly-without compromise-to maintain law and order in
the universe. The necklace has 108 beads which symbolize the elements used
in the creation of the world.
- Varda Mudră: the Lord's right hand is shown in a
boon-bestowing and blessing pose. As stated earlier, Lord Shiva annihilates
evil, grants boons, bestows grace, destroys ignorance, and awakens wisdom in
- Trident (trîsűla): a three-pronged trident shown adjacent
to the Lord symbolizes His three fundamental powers (shakti) of will
(icchă), action (kriyă) and knowledge (jnăna). The
trident also symbolizes the Lord's power to destroy evil and ignorance.
- Damaru (drum): a small drum with two sides
separated from each other by a thin neck-like structure symbolizes the two
utterly dissimilar states of existence, unmanifest and manifest. When a
damaru is vibrated, it produces dissimilar sounds which are fused together
by resonance to create one sound. The sound thus produced symbolizes Năda,
the cosmic sound of AUM (), which can be heard during deep meditation.
According to Hindu scriptures, Năda is the source of creation.
- Kămandalu: a water pot (Kămandalu) made from a dry
pumpkin contains nectar and is shown on the ground next to Shiva. The
process of making Kămandalu has deep spiritual significance. A ripe pumpkin
is plucked from a plant, its fruit is removed and the shell is cleaned for
containing the nectar. In the same way, an individual must break away from
attachment to the physical world and clean his inner self of egoistic
desires in order to experience the bliss of the Self, symbolized by the
nectar in the Kămandalu.
- Nandi: the bull is associated with Shiva and is said to be
His vehicle. The bull symbolizes both power and ignorance. Lord Shiva's use
of the bull as a vehicle conveys the idea that He removes ignorance and
bestows power of wisdom on His devotees. The bull is called Vrisha in
Sanskrit. Vrisha also means dharma (righteousness). Thus a bull shown
next to Shiva also indicates that He is the eternal companion of
- Tiger skin:. a tiger skin symbolizes potential energy. Lord
Shiva, sitting on or wearing a tiger skin, illustrates the idea that He is
the source of the creative energy that remains in potential form during the
dissolution state of the universe. Of His own Divine Will, the Lord
activates the potential form of the creative energy to project the universe
in endless cycles.
- Cremation ground: Shiva sitting in the cremation ground
signifies that He is the controller of death in the physical world. Since
birth and death are cyclic, controlling one implies controlling the other.
Thus, Lord Shiva is revered as the ultimate controller of birth and death in
the phenomenal world.
Goddess Durgă represents the power of the Supreme Being that preserves moral
order and righteousness in the creation. The Sanskrit word Durgă means a
fort or a place that is protected and thus difficult to reach. Durgă, also
called Divine Mother, protects mankind from evil and misery by destroying evil
forces such as selfishness, jealousy, prejudice, hatred, anger, and ego.
The worship of Goddess Durgă is very popular among Hindus. She is also
called by many other names, such as Părvati, Ambikă, and Kălî. In the form
of Părvati, She is known as the divine spouse of Lord Shiva and is the mother
of Her two sons, Ganesha and Kărttikeya, and daughter Jyoti. There are many
temples dedicated to Durgă's worship in India.
In Her images, Goddess Durgă is shown (see color plate 5) in a female form,
wearing red clothes. She has eighteen arms (for simplicity the color plate shows
only eight arms), carrying many objects in Her hands. The red color symbolizes
action and the red clothes signify that She is always busy destroying evil and
protecting mankind from pain and suffering caused by evil forces. Following is
the symbolism associated with Goddess Durgă:
- A tiger symbolizes unlimited power. Durgă riding a tiger
indicates that She possesses unlimited power and uses it to protect virtue
and destroy evil. The eighteen arms of Durgă signify that She possesses
combined power of the nine incarnations of Lord Vishnu that have appeared on
the earth at different times in the past. The tenth incarnation, the Kălkin
(a man on a white horse), is still to come. Thus, Goddess Durgă represents
a united front of all Divine forces against the negative forces of evil and
- The sound that emanates from a conch is the sound of the sacred syllable AUM
(), which is said to be the sound of creation. A conch in one of
the Goddess's hands signifies the ultimate victory of virtue over evil and
righteousness over unrighteousness.
- Other weapons in the hands of Durgă such as a mace, sword, disc, arrow,
and trident convey the idea that one weapon cannot destroy all different
kinds of enemies. Different weapons must be used to fight enemies depending
upon the circumstances. For example, selfishness must be destroyed by
detachment, jealousy by desirelessness, prejudice by self-knowledge, and ego
Lakshmî is the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, both material and
spiritual. The word "Lakshmî" is derived from the Sanskrit word Laksme,
meaning "goal." Lakshmî, therefore, represents the goal of life,
which includes worldly as well as spiritual prosperity. In Hindu mythology,
Goddess Lakshmî, also called Shri, is the divine spouse of Lord Vishnu and
provides Him with wealth for the maintenance and preservation of the creation.
In Her images and pictures, Lakshmî is depicted in a female form with four
arms and four hands (see color plate 6). She wears red clothes with a golden
lining and is standing on a lotus. She has golden coins and lotuses in her
hands. Two elephants (some pictures show four) are shown next to the Goddess.
This symbolism conveys the following spiritual theme:
- The four arms represent the four directions in space and thus symbolize
omnipresence and omnipotence of the Goddess. The red color symbolizes
activity. The golden lining (embroidery) on Her red dress denotes
prosperity. The idea conveyed here is that the Goddess is always busy
distributing wealth and prosperity to the devotees. The lotus seat, which
Lakshmî is standing upon, signifies that while living in this world, one
should enjoy its wealth, but not become obsessed with it. Such a living is
analogous to a lotus that grows in water but is not wetted by water.
- The four hands represent the four ends (see page 55) of human life:
dharma (righteousness), kăma (genuine desires), artha
(wealth), and moksha (liberation from birth and death). The front
hands represent the activity in the physical world and the back hands
indicate the spiritual activities that lead to spiritual perfection.
- Since the right side of the body symbolizes activity, a lotus in the back
right hand conveys the idea that one must perform all duties in the world in
accordance with dharma. This leads to moksha (liberation), which is
symbolized by a lotus in the back left hand of Lakshmî. The golden coins
falling on the ground from the front left hand of Lakshmî illustrate that
She provides wealth and prosperity to Her devotees. Her front right hand is
shown bestowing blessings upon the devotees.
- The two elephants standing next to the Goddess symbolize the name and fame
associated with worldly wealth. The idea conveyed here is that a true
devotee should not earn wealth merely to acquire name and fame or only to
satisfy his own material desires, but should share it with others in order
to bring happiness to others in addition to himself.
- Some pictures show four elephants spraying water from golden vessels onto
Goddess Lakshmî. The four elephants represent the four ends of human life
as discussed above. The spraying of water denotes activity. The golden
vessels denote wisdom and purity. The four elephants spraying water from the
golden vessels on the Goddess illustrate the theme that continuous
self-effort, in accordance with one's dharma and governed by wisdom and
purity, leads to both material and spiritual prosperity.
Goddess Lakshmî is regularly worshipped in home shrines and temples by Her
devotees. A special worship is offered to Her annually on the auspicious day of
Diwalî, with religious rituals and colorful ceremonies specifically devoted to
Saraswatî is the Goddess of learning, knowledge, and wisdom. The Sanskrit
word sara means "essence" and swa means
"self." Thus Saraswatî means "the essence of the self."
Saraswatî is represented in Hindu mythology as the divine consort of Lord Brahmă,
the Creator of the universe. Since knowledge is necessary for creation, Saraswatî
symbolizes the creative power of Brahmă. Goddess Saraswatî is worshipped by
all persons interested in knowledge, especially students, teachers, scholars,
In Her popular images and pictures, Goddess Saraswatî is generally depicted
with four arms (some pictures may show only two arms), wearing a white sari and
seated on a white lotus (see color plate 7). She holds a book and a rosary in
Her rear two hands, while the front two hands are engaged in the playing of a
lute (veena). Her right leg is shown slightly pushing against Her left leg. She
uses a swan as Her vehicle. There is a peacock by Her side gazing at Her. This
symbolism illustrates the following spiritual ideas:
- The lotus is a symbol of the Supreme Reality, and a white lotus also
denotes supreme knowledge. By sitting on a lotus, Saraswatî signifies that
She is Herself rooted in the Supreme Reality, and symbolizes supreme
knowledge. The white color symbolizes purity and knowledge. The white sari
that the Goddess is wearing denotes that She is the embodiment of pure
- The four arms denote Her omnipresence and omnipotence. The two front arms
indicate Her activity in the physical world and the two back arms signify
Her presence in the spiritual world. The four hands represent the four
elements of the inner personality. The mind (manas) is represented by
the front right hand, the intellect (buddhi) by the front left hand,
the conditioned consciousness (chitta) by the rear left hand, and the
ego (ahankăra) by the rear right hand.
- The left side of the body symbolizes the qualities of the heart and the
right side symbolizes activities of the mind and intellect. A book in the
rear left hand signifies that knowledge acquired must be used with love and
kindness to promote prosperity of mankind.
- The rosary signifies concentration, meditation, and contemplation, leading
to samădhi, or union with God. A rosary in the rear right hand representing
ego conveys that true knowledge acquired with love and devotion melts the
ego and results in liberation (moksha) of the seeker from the bondage to the
- The Goddess is shown playing a musical instrument that is held in Her
front hands, which denote mind and intellect. This symbol conveys that the
seeker must tune his mind and intellect in order to live in perfect harmony
with the world. Such harmonious living enables the individual to utilize
acquired knowledge for the welfare of all mankind.
- Two swans are depicted on the left side of the Goddess. A swan is said to
have a sensitive beak that enables it to distinguish pure milk from a
mixture of milk and water. A swan, therefore, symbolizes the power of
discrimination, or the ability to discriminate between right and wrong or
good and bad. Saraswatî uses the swan as Her carrier. This indicates that
one must acquire and apply knowledge with discrimination for the good of
mankind. Knowledge that is dominated by ego can destroy the world.
- A peacock is sitting next to Saraswatî and is anxiously waiting to serve
as Her vehicle. A peacock depicts unpredictable behavior as its moods can be
influenced by the changes in the weather. Saraswatî is using a swan as a
vehicle and not the peacock. This signifies that one should overcome fear,
indecision, and fickleness in order to acquire true knowledge.
Sîtă, Răma, Lakshmana and Hanűmăn
Lord Răma is the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The worship of Lord Răma
is very popular among all Hindus, as is evident by the numerous temples
dedicated to him in India. In the temple images, Răma is usually shown with his
faithful wife Sîtă, devoted brother Lakshmana, and his beloved devotee Hanűmăn
(see color plate 8). The life story of Răma and the main purpose of his
incarnation (to destroy the demon king Răvana) is described in the great epic Rămăyana.
A study of the epic Rămăyana reveals the following theme:
- Răma represents an ideal man, as conceived by the Hindu mind. In the
story of Rămăyana, Răma's personality depicts him as the perfect son,
devoted brother, true husband, trusted friend, ideal king, and a noble
- In images and pictures, Răma is shown carrying a bow and arrow. The bow
and arrow convey that Răma is always ready to destroy evil and protect
righteousness. He is himself an embodiment of dharma.
- Sîtă symbolizes an ideal daughter, wife, mother, and queen. Whereas Răma
symbolizes standards of perfection that can be conceived in all the facets
of a man's life, Mother Sîtă represents all that is great and noble in
womanhood. She is revered as an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmî, the divine
consort of Lord Vishnu.
- Lakshmana symbolizes the ideal of sacrifice. He leaves his young wife
behind in the palace and chooses to accompany his brother (Răma) in exile.
He sacrifices the amenities of his personal life to serve his elder brother.
- Hanűmăn, the great monkey hero, also called Maruti, assists Răma in his
battle with Răvana to rescue Sîtă, who had been kidnapped by Răvana. Hanűmăn
symbolizes the qualities of an ideal devotee of God, which can be
represented by the letters of his name, as follows:
H = Humility and hopefulness (optimism)
A = Admiration (truthfulness, devotion)
N = Nobility (sincerity, loyalty, modesty)
U = Understanding (knowledge)
M = Mastery over ego (kindness, compassion)
A = Achievements (strength)
N = Nishkăma-karma (selfless work in service of God)
After his coronation, following victory in the battle with Răvana, Răma
distributed gifts to all those who had assisted him in his battle with Răvana.
Turning towards Hanűmăn, Răma said, "There is nothing I can give you
that would match the service you have rendered to me. All I can do is to give
you my own self." Upon hearing these words, Hanűmăn stood by Răma, in
all humility, with hands joined together in front of his (Hanűmăn's) mouth,
and head slightly bent in the pose of service for Răma. To this day, this
picture of Hanűmăn, as a humble devotee of the Lord, is the most popular among
the admirers and worshippers of Hanűmăn.
The worship of Hanűmăn, therefore, symbolizes the worship of the Supreme
Lord, for acquiring knowledge, physical and mental strength, truthfulness,
sincerity, selflessness, humility, loyalty, and profound devotion to the Lord.
Rădhă and Krishna
Lord Krishna (see color plate 9) is the eighth and the most popular
incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He was born in approximately 3200 BCE in Vrindăvan,
where he was brought up by the cowherd family of Yashodă and Nanda. His
childhood playmates were gopas (cowherd boys) and gopis (cowherd girls), who
were greatly devoted to him. Of all gopis, Rădhă loved Krishna the most.
In the forests of Vrindăvan, Krishna often played his flute and gopis danced
with him in ecstasy. The Gopis represent the individual souls trapped in
physical bodies. Rădhă symbolizes the individual soul that is awakened to the
love of God and is absorbed in such love. The sound of Krishna's flute
represents the call of the divine for the individual souls.
The gopis' love for Krishna signifies the eternal bond between the individual
soul and God. The dance of the gopis and Krishna (Răsa Lîlă) signifies
the union of the human and Divine, the dance of the souls. In the forest, the
gopis dance with Krishna and are absorbed in their love for him. This
illustrates that when an individual soul responds to the call of the Divine, the
soul enjoys union with the Lord and becomes absorbed in the divine ecstasy.
Of all the incarnations, Lord Krishna is revered as a full and complete
incarnation (pűrna avatăra) of Lord Vishnu. He commands love, respect,
and adoration from all Hindus of all walks of life.
Jyoti means "light" and Goddess Jyoti (see color plate 1)
repre-sents the power of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) that illuminates
our minds and gives shape and form to all created things and beings of the
According to the Taittiriya Upanishad 2.1, the five great elements (Panchamahăbhutas)earth,
water, fire, air and spaceemanate from Brahman.32 These five
elements, together with the omnipresent cosmic consciousness of Brahman,
constitute all created things and beings in the universe. In Hindu mythology,
this creative process is symbolized by the family of Lord Shiva. The members of
this divine family are Lord Shiva, His spouse the Divine Mother, their two sons
Ganesha and Skanda, and their daughter Jyoti. Lord Shiva represents the cosmic
consciousness, the Divine Mother denotes the creative energy, Ganesha symbolizes
the elements of earth and water, Skanda represents the element of fire, and
Jyoti symbolizes the two elements of air and space. Since fire uses air and
burns in space, in Hindu mythology Jyoti is always associated with Skanda and is
known more as Skanda's sister than as Ganesha's sister. She is worshipped in Her
formless (arupa) aspect in all temples where Lord Skanda is worshipped.
According to Tantra Yoga, Jyoti is the aroused kundalini shakti
(latent energy) that resides in the ajna chakra (energy center between
the eyebrows in the forehead) and is experienced as light in deep meditation.32
In Her popular images, Jyoti is represented as a young girl, dressed in bright
clothes. The brightness of Her attire symbolizes the light of knowledge that
dispels the darkness of ignorance. Wherever a lamp is lit, Jyoti shines. By
worshipping Jyoti, a Hindu seeks God's blessings to acquire intelligence and
wisdom (jnăna), attain love for all of God's creatures and secure divine
guidance for spiritual progress, leading to spiritual perfection.
Since Jyoti is present in all beings as the light of consciousness, social
service and reverence for all forms of life are the hallmarks of Jyoti worship.
Jyoti shrines have been erected at many temples, including Houston Sri Meenakshi
Temple, New York Maha Vallabh Ganapati Temple, and Los Angeles Sri Venkateswara