Symbolism of Hindu Concepts, Gods and Goddesses

Creation Symbolism

by Jayaram V

Ancient Indians had no external means to explore the universe except their senses. Yet, they intelligently used their natural tools to make sense of the world. They envisioned the universe as a living entity, a gigantic and infinite version of the world that existed within them. They believed that a human being was a miniscule replica of the universal Being, and by knowing it and exploring it one could arrive many truths about the world, God and existence.

You can see this approach in the scriptures as well as the ritual and spiritual practices of Hinduism. Meditation is an exploration of the inner universe. By going deeper within, and finding its most hidden secrets, one could unravel the secrets of creation and existence. The human personality is a universe in itself. By knowing it, one can know many truths about God and creation. In this essay, we present the hidden symbolism of the inner universe or the microcosm of the human personality.

Symbolism of the worlds

Vedic cosmology identified five worlds namely the underworld, mortal world, ancestral world, Indra’s heaven and the immortal world of Brahman. Our world is the mortal world, where embodied souls (jivas) live. They are bound to the cycle of births and deaths and subject to impermanence, karma and rebirth. Upon their death, they go to the ancestral world and live there until their karmas are exhausted.

Indra's heaven is the world Indra and his associate gods. They participate in the Vedic sacrifices for their nourishment and assist Isvara, the lord of the universe, in upholding Dharma and ensuring the order and regularity of the world. The immortal world of Brahman is the highest world (parandhama), where liberated souls travel by the path of God (devayana) to stay there forever. The underworld is a world of darkness inhabited by sinner and demons. These five worlds exists both in the macrocosm and the microcosm. In the human personality, they are represented by different aspects and principles as shown below.

Microcosm Macrocosm
The body Earth
Pleasure Indra’s heaven
Mind (memories) Ancestral world
Soul The immortal world
Pain and suffering Underworld
Dream world Moon
Indra’s World The world Above Clouds
Immortal World Sun

Symbolism of the gods and goddesses

Since the worlds and the universe (macrocosm) are replicas or magnified versions of the human personality (microcosm), it follows that what exists in them must also exist in humans. The Vedas draw our attention to the similarities. From them, we can infer that one can find God or Self by looking within. It gave birth to the transformative idea that the Vedic sacrifices could be performed externally or internally, or physically or mentally to invoke gods from within and without. The birth of Yoga as a spiritual discipline is rooted in that.

According to the Vedas gods live in the macrocosm as well as in the microcosm of living beings. They exist in the body as organs of action and perception and as gross and subtle energies, and remain as long as the body is alive and the soul is present. When an individual soul departs from the body, the deities in the body also leave along with it and return to their spheres.

Thus, in Hinduism, each human being is a personification of the Cosmic Being (Purusha). His duties upon earth are similar to that of the Supreme Being. As the creation of God, his life is a sacred opportunity to take part in God’s play (lila) and enjoy life, doing his part by performing his obligatory duties. Since gods live within him, his body is a sacred space. Since he represents Purusha, he is expected to live righteously upon earth, upholding Dharma and avoiding sin.

Thus, as human beings and as God's representatives upon earth, we are supposed to serve the gods who live in us and outside us, and ensure the order and regularity of the world. If the gods are weakened by our actions and desires, demonic influences will invade our bodies and grow in strength, making them virtual hells. The following is the symbolism of the deities in the human body and what they represent.

Organ Corresponding Deity
Mind Indra
Intelligence Brihaspati
Soul Brahman
Eyes Usha, Aditya and Surya
Breath Vayu
Desire Agni
Speech Brahma and Saraswati
Tongue (Taste) Soma and Vasus
Skin (Touch) Vayu
Ego Mitra and Varuna
Feelings and Emotions Rudras
Nose (Smell) Maruts
Ears (Hearing) Visvadevas
Feet Pusan
Hands Aswins
Death Kala
Fire element Seeing, intelligence body, light, sun, fire
Earth element Smell, food body, gross body
Water element Taste, mind, mental body, water world
Air element Touch, breath body, mid-region
Space element Hearing, bliss body, world of Brahman

Post Vedic symbolism

With further developments in the post Vedic period, Hinduism acquired great complexity. The rise of several rival movements such as Buddhism and Jainism challenged its authority and created the need for introspection. The growth of materialistic and atheistic philosophies and ascetic groups opened a flood of new ideas. Dissentions within the Vedic fold about the approaches to liberation created scope for further reform and improvement. The emergence of large empires and powerful rules, and the expansion of Vedic culture into unchartered territories created an atmosphere of introspection and internal reform.

With the integration of various sects, sub sects and schools of philosophy, new ideas were superimposed upon the existing ones, and new gods and goddesses were incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. While Vedic gods became secondary, Shiva and Vishnu and their associated gods acquired great prominence in the expanded universe of Hinduism which now consisted of multiple worlds and multiple planes of existence. In this upgraded version of Hinduism, we come across the following symbolism and metaphorical inferences. Their sources are mainly the Puranas and the Tantras, which became an integral part of Hindu literature, next in importance only to the Vedas.

Microcosm Macrocosm
Childhood Brahma
Adulthood Vishnu
Old age Shiva
Individual soul Isvara
Intelligence Hiranyagarbha
Mind Brahma
Body Viraj
Soul Purusha
Body Prakriti
Sattva Vishnu
Rajas Brahma
Tamas Shiva
Five Breaths Panchanana (Shiva or Vishnu)
Intelligence Ganesha
Mind Hanuman
Shakti Energy
Lower body Earth
Middle body Mid-region (antariksha)
Upper body Indra’s heaven
Above the body Immortal world
Gross body The earth
Subtle bodies Subtle worlds
Waking state (Vaisvanara) Mortal world
Dream state (Taijasa) Ancestral world
Deep sleep (Prajna) Indra’s World
Transcendence (Turiya) Immortal World
Chakras Planes of consciousness
Female sexual organ Shakti
Male sexual organ Shiva
Sexual intercourse Creation

The vehicles (vahanas) of gods and the association between gods and goddesses such as Shiva and Parvathi, Vishnu and Lakshmi also have symbolic significance. They are related to the functions or the actions they perform in creation as a part of their ordained duties. Hinduism is full of such hidden symbolism. They become self-evident to the discerning mind.

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