Dr. D. Balaganapathi

Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Dravidian University – Kuppam


It was the exercise of the symbolic faculty that brought culture into existence and it is the use of symbols that makes the perpetuation of culture possible. Without the symbol there would be no culture and man would be merely and animal, not a human being.

       Leslie A. White

The above quote from Leslie White puts the significance of symbolic faculty of man at the centre of cultural process in toto and makes it a differentiating mark of human and animal. In this sense, as argued by Gita in her paper symbol is the possibility of culture. ‘Symbol’ as a sign or an identifying mark, typifies, represents or recalls something ‘by possession of analogous qualities or by association in fact or thought’. It is a sign for expressing the invisible by means of visible or sensuous representations.             All our contact with the world outside is based on symbols. Our language is nothing but symbols. The scripts are still more so. Our art, our poetry, in fact, every aspect of life is based on symbols.

We think in symbols, we act in symbols

We live in symbols, we learn in symbols

Though man and his life also ultimately are symbolic, there are more evident symbols in man’s creation. These symbols are the substitutes or suggestions of abstract things. They are more concrete in nature. Thus, superimposing an idea on a thing or invoking a deity in an image is nothing but symbolisation. Symbols are used for both concealment and revelation. They conceal partly the essential content from an ordinary person and partly reveal it by suggesting it.

Leslie defines a symbol as a thing the value of which is bestowed upon it by those who use it. This implies that the meaning of the symbol is derived from and determined by the individuals who use them. To use the phrase of John Locke, symbols have their signification from the arbitrary imposition of man. The creative faculty of human beings which makes them bestow values upon things freely, actively and arbitrarily driving them towards symbolization.

This symbol making tendency is innate in man. Melanie Kline, a noted psychoanalyst argues that, it is by the symbolization process that an infant apprehends reality and endows it with value. Kilne, further, adds that, ‘Failure of symbolic substitution leads to a state of autism in which the external world is lacking in  interest’. This implies that symbolization is innate to humans and this nature keeps their interest and involvement in the external world alive. Devereux (1979:28) stressing this fact mentioned that, ‘symbolization helps to hold man’s segmental capacities together and fosters a broader direct involvement  with the situation’.

A symbol reduces the enormous complexity of communication by using a concrete sign as a kind of shorthand for a complex interrelated concepts, ideas, and values systems. The larger the collective to be held together  by the symbol, the more complex is the signification process, that is, the process of attaining a meaning to a symbol to which all members or subsets of the group can subscribe. Because of this,  symbols make the easy transmission of culture possible. Stressing the significance of symbols in the cultural life of human beings, Clifford Geertz (1973:89) stated that culture is “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about the attitude towards life”. For Geertz symbols not only make transition of cultures possible but also make the communication, perpetuation and development of knowledge and attitude of human beings towards life possible. The meanings that these symbolic forms transmit are complex. Instead of standing for a single referent; they evoke a variety of meanings, some of which may be ambiguous. At times they evoke powerful emotions – think how many people have died for a flag – and can often both unite and disrupt social groups. Unraveling the tangled webs of meaning or analyzing the relationship between symbols and things exactly as they are is needed to understand the cultures.

Geertz in his cultures consequences argued that symbols appear at the outermost superficial layer of the culture. The reason behind his argument is the dynamism of the symbolic mode which negotiates and renegotiates with its own cultural group in preserving the identity and with the other cultural groups in communicating and influencing the meanings of identity. In contrast, to Geertz argument symbols are the core of the culture groups. They are the keys in preserving the identity of the group by negotiating the change.

Change is natural to all phenomenon, symbols and symbolization being no exception. Though some of the symbols ascertain their place for a longer time, no particular symbol can said to be either permanent or eternal. A particular symbol may continue to be in the culture, without being used or without being replaced by another. In this case it continues its place in the culture but lost its relevance. Some symbols may in course of time change their original referent and start referring something else without losing their place in the culture. In this case the referents may lose their relevance but not the symbol. Sometimes a particular symbol may in due course of time give place to a new one. In this case the referent may be the same but the symbol changes.

My aim in this paper is to explicate the diversity of Indian Symbolism and to show the changing patterns of symbols. The first part is mostly descriptive and interpretative and tries to bring out the different forms of Indian Symbolism. The second part tries to bring out the different kinds of changes that are possible with regard to symbols.


Given that cultural identities are mostly expressed in the form of symbols and symbolic expression of cultural identity is primitive and is very much akin to the specifically human. Now let us see the place of symbols in a country like India where there is immense diversity in every aspect of life.

The basis of every culture and every identity is determined by its own established common symbolic expression. India, which is a land of diverse religious, linguistic, social, cultural and racial groups, is very rich in its symbolism. Each of these groups – be a religious one or a racial one or a cultural one or a linguistic one – has its own set of symbolic forms to maintain its identity. These different sets of symbols exhibit the rich diversity of Symbology of India. This diversity should not be mistaken to be a complete divergence or with lack of unity. In fact, cutting across all these different cultural, religious, linguistic and political groups, there runs a pan-Indian identity and symbolism which proves the unity of the country. The greatness of Indian culture is that it leaves space of various groups to preserve and practice their own culture and at the same time accommodates them under one pan-Indian culture.

Let us look at the rich diversity of symbolism available in India. For the sake of convenience I have divided them under five heads viz., National Symbols, Political symbols, Social symbols, Objects as symbol, Nature symbols and Religious symbols. It must be noted that this distinction is neither exclusive nor exhaustive. There may be a few overlappings in between. Since it is very difficult to include all the available symbols in each of the selected spheres, I am here providing only a representative sample of each sphere. Mostly I have taken the symbols of Hindu culture with which I am familiar. Here it should be noted that by Hindu culture I mean the native culture of India which excludes the foreign religious cultures that have established themselves in India.

I   National Symbols:

National symbols, stated Michael Geisler (2005), serve as a markers for the collective memory of the nation and thus represent the power of the state to define a nation. National symbols of India are deeply rooted in historical antiquity and Nationalist movement.

i)                    National Flag: India’s National flag is a horizontal tri-colored one with deep saffron at the top, white in the middle and dark green at the bottom in equal proportions. The ratio of the width of the flag to its length is two to three. In the centre of the white band is a wheel, in navy blue, which represents the charka, wheel of dharma. Its design is also that of the wheel which appears on the abacus of the Saranath lion capital of King Asoka. The wheel has 24 spokes.

Saffron of the national flag stands for courage, sacrifice and renunciation, while white stands for truth and purity. Truth in words and actions and purity in thoughts. Green is the symbol of life, abundance and prosperity. Charka is the symbol of progress and of movement and its 24 spokes symbolize division of time i.e., 24 hours of the day. The cloth used for the flag should be home spun and hand woven khadi representing the nationalist feeling.

ii)             National Emblem: The State Emblem of India is an adoption from the Saranath Lion Capital of king Ashoka which was designed to mark the place where Buddha first initiated his disciples in the eight fold path of salvation.

In the State Emblem adopted by the Government of India, out of four lions only three lions are visible, the fourth being hidden from view. The wheel appears in relief in the centre of the abacus with a bull on right and a horse on left and the outline of the other wheels on extreme right and left.

The lion is a symbol of majesty and disciplined strength; the bull of steadfastness and hard work and the horse of energy, loyalty and speed.  Four lions symbolize the four feet of Dharma, where as the wheel symbolizes the circular movement of time.

iii) National Bird:  The Indian peacock, the national bird of India, is a colorful bird, with a fan-shaped crest of feathers, a white patch under the eye and a long, slender neck. The elaborate courtship dance of the male, fanning out the tail and preening its feathers, is a gorgeous sight. Peacock is taken as the National Bird as a symbol of Indian Tradition, because of its place in Indian tradition and art. It has found its place in Indian art from the ancient times. It has a place in most of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina paintings and other art forms.

iv) National Animal: The magnificent tiger is a striped animal. It has a thick yellow coat of fur with dark stripes. Because of the combination of grace, strength, agility and enormous power it has become the symbol of pride of the nation. Out of eight races of the species known, the Indian race, the Royal Bengal Tiger, is found throughout the country except in the north-western region.

v) National Flower:  Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is the National Flower of India. It is a sacred flower and occupies a unique position in the art and mythology of ancient India and has been an auspicious symbol of Indian culture since time immemorial.

vi) National Anthem:  The song ‘Janaganamana’ composed by Rabindranath Tagore is the National Anthem of India. National Anthem like National flag is the sacred symbol of India as a free nation. It is a call to all our country men to be united and strong.

vii) National Song: The National Song of India ‘Vandemataram’ is taken from Bakim Chandra Chatterji’s novel Ananda Math published in 1882. The song Vandemataram is a symbol of nationalism and was a source of inspiration to the Indian people in their struggle for freedom.

II Political Symbols: Along with the National Symbols, we can find in India a variety of Political symbols which are the symbols of political parties. These symbols mostly represent the spirit and the ideology of the parties. The existent Multi-party system of India gives scope for the existence of number of parties at both national and regional level with rich variety of symbols. Let us look at the symbols of the political parties and how the symbols communicate their ideologies and spirit.

i)                    Congress I: The roots of Congress party are based in the freedom movement of India. Indian National Congress, which was started by A.O. Hume and S.N. Benerji in the year 1885 and which played a major role in the freedom movement as a symbol of National movement, was transformed after the independence of India into a political party.

The present brand of Congress party is Indira Congress named after Indira Gandhi, the first and only women Prime Minister of India till now. Open palm and tri-color flag comprising saffron, white and green with Charka (spinning wheel) in the middle are the symbols of the party. Open palm in Indian tradition symbolizes ‘readiness to help or save’. This is adopted by the Congress party from the Hindu theism where most of the Gods are picturised with open palm representing their readiness to help or save the good.  Congress party through this symbol tried to convey that it is the only party which can save the Nation.

The tri-colored flag is adopted from the National flag with the only change of Charka instead of Ashoka Chakra in the middle. The Charka again symbolizes the spirit of Nationalism. It was used by Gandhi as a symbol of nationalism which defied the intrusion of foreign machine made cloth into India. Thus, the flag of Congress is a symbol of nationalist spirit.

ii) Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): Bharatiya Janata Party, which means party of the Indian masses, always tried to locate its roots in Indian tradition. The party always tried to represent itself as the symbol of Hinduism.

            Lotus and saffron colored flag are the symbols of BJP. Lotus has a significant place in the Indian theology. It is the seat of Brahman, the creator God and the preserver of Vedas, the knowledge. This way lotus for BJP symbolizes the seat of Indian tradition. Saffron, which is the color of ascetics, represents their disinterestedness in the family affairs, both material and sexual. These ascetics, since they practice celibacy, would become the symbols of masculinity. In this way saffron for BJP symbolizes masculinity.

iii) Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M): The influence of communism is very strong on India. Though initially there was only one political party with communist ideology, there developed different verities of communist parties on the basis of diverse ideological distinctions. The symbols of Marxist Communist party are hammer, sickle and star, and a Red flag. Hammer and sickle symbolize industrial and agrarian means of production to which the laborers belong as they are the instruments of laborers of industries and agriculture respectively. The star is a symbol of their ideal or the goal which is bright and shining.  Red color symbolizes revolution only through which communists believe that proletariat can gain power.  Red also symbolizes the blood through which laborers of different forms of means of production and laborers of all the countries can be united.  

iv) Telugu Desam Party (TDP): TDP is a regional party of Andhra Pradesh, which came into power as a symbol of the greatness of Telugu people and culture. The party chose common people’s symbols such as bi-cycle and yellow flag. Bi-cycle is the common man’s vehicle of transport and yellow is the color of turmeric which symbolizes the purity of the women in Indian tradition. The name given to the party as ‘the party of the Telugu country’ projects it as a symbol of the pride of the people.

III Social Symbols: Social symbols, which are peculiar to different societies, are the constructs of socialization process over a period of time. India has a variety of social symbols which are mostly rooted in the tradition.

a)                  Caste: Caste, though originated as a symbol of profession, froze its domain and has become a symbol of class in a social hierarchy. Traditionally there are four castes the Brahmin (priestly class), the Kshatriyas (ruling class), the Vaisyas (trademen) and the Sudras (labor class). Brahmin class is believed to be a symbol of learning and priesthood; Kshatriya caste is a symbol of valor and strength; Vaisya caste is a symbol of trade and commerce and Sudra caste is a symbol of labor. Though all the four castes are equally important for a society, class hierarchy is induced into it placing Brahmins at the top and Sudras at the bottom with Kshatriyas and Vaisyas respectively in the middle of the social order.

This inducement can be understood from the symbolic representation that is available in the purusha sukta of the Rigveda. According to it, the Brahmins were created from the mouth, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaisyas from the thighs and the Sudras from the feet of the supreme being called Purusha. This is an example of religious symbolism of a social hierarchy. It exhibits how social hierarchy or the caste hierarchy is legalized through the help of religion and made it natural to all classes of people. It states that people of all castes have come from the divine but they have different social positions and roles to perform according to the place from which they have come. In other words it gives place in the divine to all the caste, so that none of them would rebel, and at the same time their place in the society is fixed basing on the place of origin of the divine. This mystic representation forms an explicit example of ideological practice through symbols.

b) Suffix names: Certain names are suffixed to the given names which symbolize the Caste into which a person is born. Names such as Sastry, Raju, Chetty etc., which symbolize the caste Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaisya are suffixed to the given names in Andhra Pradesh. It is interesting to note that there are no specific suffix names for Sudras.



Suffix names


Sastry, Sarma, Rao etc.




Setty, Chettiar, Seth etc.



            Because of this particular way of naming even the names symbolize the caste and place of a person in the social hierarchy.

c) Family Names: Along with suffix names, family names are prefixed to the given names. The family names or the surnames come from the male member of the family and continues down the generations. Though there are different criterion basing on which the family names are derived, mostly these family names also symbolize the caste to which the person belongs. There are certain family names which are specific to a few castes on the basis of which people understand the caste of a person.

Also, there are certain family names which have come from the totems to which they originally belong. For instance, family names such as puli (tiger), meka (goat), pilli (cat) are common in Andhra Pradesh.

d) House names: There is a peculiar tradition in Kerala, in which house names change according to the caste. Here house name is the word by which the house is referred. For instance if a person say ‘x’ says that he is coming from etam, by the use of the term etam through which x is referring his house, the caste of x is understood to be the  Achan of Palghat region. By the word one refers his house the caste of that person also can be understood. House names are thus the symbols of the caste in this particular tradition. Some of the house names along with their referring caste are given below.


House name

Caste to which it refers


(Kavalappara) Nair (a sect of Nair community in Palghat )




Elayathu, moothathu


Atikal or Brahmins from outside










Izhava and other lower castes

Kuti / Chala / Cherra/ Pati

Dalits (pulaya, pariah, kurava, Nayati etc.)


            Thus, the referring names of the houses symbolize the caste of the people in this particular tradition of Kerala.

e) Festivals: Festival[1] is a social congregation where the Gods are worshipped with intense contemplation by giving respite to the everyday activities of life. It is a collective ritual of rites and a public religious observance. N.B. Ghodke (1995:187) after analyzing the essence of the festival stated that ‘Symbolically it (festival) means the overcoming of all that is base in us by the higher or real self’.  The expressed purpose of these rites is to recall the past and in a way make it present by means of variable dramatic representations. Though the primary theme of most of the Festivals is religious they have their social and psychological ends as well. Festival is essentially social in nature and symbolizes the feeling of a whole community, which promotes ‘we’ feeling and group or cultural identity among the members.

IV Objects as Symbol: It is common to use different material objects as symbols. Sometimes even the living beings are objectified and used as symbols. Indian tradition is specialized in this form of object symbols. It uses human body, different animals and birds, color etc as objectified symbols.

a) Human body as Symbol: Human body, depending on the context, symbolizes various levels of social status and social addressing.

i)                    Body marks: Body marks are common to most of the popular and ethnic traditions of the world. Forehead marks are a special form of symbols used in Indian tradition to symbolize the Caste, Religion and the marital status in the case of the women.

Some of the forehead marks such as vibhuti (ash) and bottu are specific to men of Brahmin caste, especially in Andhra Pradesh. Among these Brahmins a particular variety of forehead marks with ash symbolize the religious sects, Saivism and Vaishnavism. The followers of Saivism put the forehead marks horizontally with ash and the followers of Vaishanvism put the forehead mark ﺍﺍﺍ   vertically with ash. Thus, these two varieties of forehead marks not only symbolize the Caste, but also symbolize the religious sect to which they belong.

With regard to the women bottu, red round forehead mark, represents the marital status of the women in Indian tradition. Use of this bottu in the beginning of the parting of the hair along with its usual place in between the eye brows symbolizes the married status of the women. If the mark is not there in the parting of the hair and is there in between the eye brows then it symbolizes the unmarried status of the women. Nonexistence of bottu on the forehead symbolizes the widowhood of the women.[2]

ii) Tattoos: Tattoos are the common ethnic symbols that are variedly available in India. Tattoos are the symbolic representations used by different ethnic communities or social groups to represent their belief system. Tattooing is of  various forms in India. In some of the tribes such as Chenchus,[3] Kanikkar[4], Mannan[5] etc., tattooing is common to the people of both sex, but in some of the tribes such as Toda tattooing is there only for women. Though it is common to use the pictures of Gods as tattoos in some of the tribes like Chenchus and Mannan, some of the tribes such as Kanikkar, Toda etc., use circular, semi-circular forms with dots as tattoos. In the case of Kanikkar tattoos differ on the basis of gender; for men circular forms and for women half-moon with dots. Though tattooing is usually done on the foreheads and forearms among many tribes, among certain tribes such as Toda[6], where it is specific only to women, it is drawn on chin, chest, breasts, back, outer side of upper arms, back of left hand, above ankles and across the dorsum of feet. 

iii) Wishing: Wishing each other, when people meet, is a common phenomenon in every day life. This wishing is of two kinds, basing on the status of the other person in Indian tradition. They are namaste and prostration. Namaste is a common way of wishing and it is used irrespective of age and social status. It is a combination of two Sanskrit words ‘namah’ and ‘te’ which means ‘salutes to you’. Along with the utterance of these words, both the palms are joined as a physical gesture. Namaste symbolizes the recognition of God in all human beings and by saluting the other person we are actually saluting the God in them.

Prostration, which is very unique to Indian tradition, is a form of showing respect in which the person lies on the stomach on the floor and by joining both the palms and offers his salutations. This form of salutation is usually done to the God, to the parents and to the teachers and to the other elders who are considered equal to above three. This salutation is a symbol of a complete surrender of oneself, one’s ego, to the other person. It expresses one’s subordination and honor paid by placing the purest part of one’s own body, the head, below the most impure part of the other person’s body, his feet. Since this salutation is done only to the elders, when a person prostrates it is obligatory for the other person to bless him with good things. Blessings of the elders are the symbols of the goodwill which are believed to cause good happenings in life.

b) Creatures as symbols: Indian tradition gives equal status along with the God to different animals and birds by objectifying them as the symbols of the vehicles of God[7]. Animals such as Lion (vehicle of Parvati), Bull (vehicle of Shiva), Mouse (vehicle of Ganesh), Elephant (vehicle of Indra) etc., and birds such as Eagle (vehicle of Vishnu), Peacock (vehicle of Kartikeya), Swan (vehicle of Brahma) etc., are represented as the carriers or the vehicles of the Gods. Among these animals and birds, Lion is a symbol of power and greatness, Bull is a symbol of majesty, Mouse[8] is a symbol of fickle mindedness of the individual, which is to be controlled and brought to the service of God, Elephant is a symbol of royalty, power, wisdom, fertility and longevity, Eagle is a symbol of speed, Peacock is a symbol of royalty (an appropriate emblem for the general of the army of the gods [O’Flaherty; 1995:183]) and Swan is a symbol of the transmigrating soul. Along with these, stallion which is a symbol of royal, martial and fertility functions, mere which is a symbol of voracious female who must be tamed, cow which is a symbol of all values of the society representing motherhood, nourishment, chastity and non-injury (O’Flaherty:1995:183), dog which as Bhairava (Keith: 1998:237) is considered to be a form of Shiva and snakes which slough their skin to become the symbol of rebirth have significant place in Indian symbolism.

c) Color: Color symbolization is observable in many traditions and Indian tradition is one among them. Along with many other traditions of the world, Indian tradition also symbolizes the opposites black and white with good and bad; true and false; desirable and undesirable. There are a few exceptions to this symbolization. For instance, though white is used as a symbol of peace, its opposite violence is always depicted with the color red. The opposite of red is not white all the time. For instance, in the folk tradition of Kerala the opposite of red is black. In Mudiyettu, a folk performance in Southern Kerala, the two characters kali (mother goddess) and kooli (evil) are colored with red and black respectively. Kali which is in red color is a desirable, loved and auspicious deity whereas kooli which is in black color is most undesirable, ugly and evil spirit. Thus, good and bad in this tradition are symbolized by red and black colors respectively.

The color red symbolizes not only violence but also fertility in Indian tradition. For instance, in the above referred folk tradition of Southern Kerala Mudiyettu two pots of water, one with red color and one with black color, are prepared during the performance. The red colored water is poured towards North and black colored water is poured towards South. In this particular context, North and red are the symbols of fertility and prosperity whereas South and black are the symbol of barrenness and death. This aspect of attributing qualities to directions may have its own affinity with the Vedic tradition where North is said to be ruled by Kubera, the God of prosperity and South is said to be ruled by Yama, the God of death. On the basis of the qualities of the rulers, even the directions are attributed with the qualities. Further, red color is a symbol of beauty and black is a symbol of ugliness in South Indian tradition. For instance, in Kathakkali, a traditional art form of Kerala, red color is applied to the lips and leer or the outer corner of the eye to symbolize the beauty. It is common to name people as manikyam which means sapphire, a red colored precious stone, in South India. Though black is always a symbol of ugliness and evil, it is interesting to note that black forehead mark is being put to the infants to save them from the eyes of the evil or to save them from the evil effects of the eyes of the people. Thus, the color-trinity black, white and red determine their connotation basing on the context in Indian traditions.

The color yellow has a significant place in Indian tradition, as it is the color of the turmeric which is a part of the every day life of Indians. Interestingly, the word for both turmeric and yellow is same in Telugu. Both are referred by the term pasupu. The turmeric has a close affinity with women as it is applied to the body; it is used in the preparation of food and also in the rituals. Yellow is the symbol of sanctity and purity. The color green, as the India is an agriculture based country, is very closely related to the life of the people. It symbolizes abundance and prosperity.

V Nature Symbols: One unique feature of Indian tradition is that it perceives divinity in every aspect of nature. Different aspects of nature such as rivers, oceans, mountains, earth, trees, ant-hills, air, sun and moon etc., are used as symbols in Indian tradition. Rivers were symbolized with purity and feminity whereas oceans are symbolized with masculinity. Sagarasangamam, the meeting place of a river and the ocean is considered to be a place of sanctity. In the same way earth is symbolized with feminity and mountains are symbolized with strength and masculinity.

Trees[9] such as banyan tree, tulasi-holy basil (ocymum sanctum) and bel (aegle marmelos) which is used to refresh the symbol of Shiva are worshiped as the symbols of divinity along with ant-hills which are the hiding places of snakes. Air is a symbol of strength and masculinity and is worshipped in the form of Vayudeva. Sun and Moon, though they are the representatives of opposites light and darkness, are worshipped equally as symbols of heat and cold, both of which are necessary for the human existence.

VI Religious Symbols: Of all the religions of the world, religions of Indian origin have consciously and boldly accepted symbolism. However, I would confine in this work to Hindu religious symbols with which I am well acquainted. Two types of Symbolism  is available in Hinduism. First, the verbal or the sound symbols found in mantras and the second, the visual or the form symbols of different types of figures revealed by conceptions of deities, the anthropomorphic forms of which are often worshipped as aspects and instruments of God. The images are built according to the dhyana-slokas (meditation verses) of the particular deities. The images of the deities as well as the mantras referring to them are the embodiments of consciousness, through which God may be communed with. They are based upon the idea that every form has a corresponding sound at the back of it and every sound must have a form.

a) Verbal symbols: Verbal or Sound symbols are helpful in visualizing the images of the deities while in meditation. Aum and Bija-Aksharas are a few examples of verbal symbols.

i) Aum:             Aum is considered to be, in Hinduism, the first sound, the most elementary sound, the undifferentiated natural sound, and the most spontaneous self-expression of energy or power in audible form. Aum is a universal continuous sound behind all broken sounds. Regular repetition of Aum with steady and lengthened utterance is prescribed. Aum represents the undifferentiated Brahman. Its three letter AU M  represent His three aspects viz., Brahman, Vishnu and Siva; creation, maintenance and destruction. Out of Aum everything else has evolved. So Aum is understood to be a symbol of universality.

ii) Bija Aksharas: Bija is the seed and akshara is the imperishable. Bijaksharas means seeds of imperishable. Aim, klim and hrim etc., are a few such bijaksharas. These sound vibrations have great mystical significance. By vocal pronunciation or mental thinking they give illumination.

b) Visual symbols: Fundamentally, a symbol is necessary to conceive and meditate on the Lord who in essence is beyond the ken of thought and mind. So each system develops through centuries of spiritual practice certain symbols, representations and diagrams in accordance with the genius of the people.  Yantra, God, Worhsip and Temple are a few of such visual symbols of Indian tradition.

i) Yantra: Yantra is a diagrammatic representation of reality in lines. The yantra with its lines, circles and triangles is a better symbol of reality. For instance, the well known Srichakra, which is a yantra, represents elements, elementals, the various presiding deities, the complete phonetic system, charkas as well as union of Siva-sakti in the centre. Such a comprehensive unity can be conceived only in a yantra which with its endless lines and circles can encompass the whole universe. There is an intimate relationship between yantra and mantra and the deity dwells in yantra when real potency is given through invocation.

ii) God: According to Hindu philosophy, the divine has both personal and impersonal aspects. Symbols of the personal aspects satisfy the philosophic sense of the devotee, yet make easy the grasping of the absolute. The higher reality is Brahman which is indefinable. So, symbols are used as intermediaries between the inadequate and limited capacity of man and the created language and incommunicable nature and fullness of Brahman. But symbols of Brahman are not false. They are a portion or aspect of the truth. For worship, various substitutes of Brahman have been accepted. Some of the symbols such as Satchitananda (existence-knowledge- bliss) and Svayambhu (the self created and self-existent one) etc., are quite comprehensive and suggestive but Brahman transcends them all. The Vedic saying ‘Truth is one, sages call it variously’ shows that Hinduism used the symbols knowing them as partial manifestations of the higher reality.

Hinduism has profusely made use of symbolism in religious worship with a definite purpose. Its main aim is to set forth something which cannot be really or fully expressed or conceived in visible or audible forms. The image or symbol of God serves the purpose of providing in material and suitable form a convenient object of reverence. But Hinduism never considered them as ultimate. They were the stepping stones to a higher conception, something like the signposts or guides to better and higher thoughts. That is why Hinduism does not look suspiciously at the so-called idols, totems or fetishes. It considers them as symbols, for they remind of the reality and that is their function, for the highest reality cannot be approached through the senses.

Indian theism gives way to two varieties of Godhood; one representing the pan-Indian theism and the other representing the region or place or community specific local theism. The term local here is used not in a denigrated sense rather to represent its limited prevalence. Pan-Indian theism or popular theism is said to have three crores of Gods in its fold. These include innumerable nature Gods[10] such as Vayu(air), Varuna (rain), Surya (sun), Megha (cloud) etc., which represent the various aspects of the nature, along with the Creator God Brahma (who is different from Absolute Brahman), Preserver God Vishnu (who is worshipped in 10 different forms which are said to be his incarnations) and Destroyer God Shiva (who is worshipped with the symbol linga along with the given physical form). The wives and children of these Gods are again given the status of God.

Along with these popular Gods, there are certain local Gods and Goddesses such as Gangamma, Maridemma, Poleramma etc., who are worshipped by different local communities in South India. These are the village Gods and Goddesses who are believed to be the protectors of the village from the natural calamities and the endemic diseases such as cholera, measles etc.

Along with the Gods who are the symbols of the Absolute, there exist a few symbols of the Gods. Linga and Salagrama are a few of such symbolic representations of Siva and Vishnu. Linga means symbol, sign. It also means the place of mergence, in which all manifestations are dissolved and unified. Some have tried to trace its origin to phallus worship. Some have endeavored to identify the conceptions of Linga and Yoni as fatherhood and motherhood.

The salagrama of Vishnu represents the absolute with attributes. It is black and egg shaped and represents Hiranyagarbha or the primordial golden egg, the undifferentiated totality. It is out of Hiranyagarbha that the whole universe becomes differentiated in course of time.

iii)  Worship:            There is much of symbolism in ceremonial rituals and worship in India. There are two major strands of worship that are now visible only in a mixed form; they are fire worship called archana and idol worship called puja. Though these two represent two different strands of belief systems, they are mixed up, adopted each other and gave place for a mixed form of worship where both worshipping through fire and worshipping the idols by offering flowers and food are being done. The present form of this mixed worship has following forms each of which has a distinct symbolic representation of God.

i)              Puja or Idol worship: in this form of worship, a physical object is worshipped as a symbol of God.

ii)             Prayer or Prarthana: it is supplication of God for his mercy and grace. It symbolizes God verbally and mentally (inwardly) and aspires for his union.

iii)           Recitation of Mantra or Japa: Mantra is a compact symbol of the deity as the object of contemplation or worship. Japa is the recitation of this mantra. Since mantra is believed to be the compact symbol of God, by constant recitation of this it is believed that the God can be invoked.

iv)           Meditation or Dhyana: In this form of worship the worshipper himself becomes the symbol of the deity and finally gets united with Him.

Among the four forms, puja or idol worship is said to be for the laymen and meditation is considered to be the highest form. Whatever may be form the chief function of this ritualism is determined by its symbolism. S.D. Sarma (1971:23) while bringing out the symbolism in worship states that most of the rites performed are intended for visualizing belief. The gratitude to God is visualized by the offering of grain and fruit on the altar. In the temple worship god is treated as an earthly king and royal honors are paid to him. The ritual acts of cleaning and washing, purificatory baths and ceremonies etc., are nothing but the external marks suggesting purity of mind and the spirit.

iv) Temple:             Temple is an outward symbolic representation of the existence of God in the heart of human body. The heart is a cave and the king of the dark chamber is the God; hence the sanctum sanctorum is purposely kept dark without any windows or ventilators; except for a small lamp in front burning day and night. The light represents the lamp of wisdom that would be lit in the heart and keeps burning constantly. Lights in the temple represent the light of the soul, the ever resplendent atmajyoti. The ghee often supplied to the lamp stands for regular spiritual practice. The system of burning camphor before the deity means that our ego etc., are to be set on fire with the flame of divinity.  When all desires etc., are consumed in the flame, the jiva becomes one with the Lord. The suprabhata song sung early in the morning for the purpose of waking up the Lord is really the waking up of sleeping divinity in man. Generally, every temple has three prakaras or rounds representing the three bodies, gross, subtle and causal. Every temple has a Balipitha in front, which suggests to the devotee to sacrifice his entire ego and desires before he enters the temple.

To sum up, there are two basic and major strands of culture that are available, sometimes moving parallel sometimes intermingling, in the above represented symbolism of India. One of the major strands is local culture which is region specific and folk in nature and the other is popular culture which is followed by almost all the sub-cultures of India, may be with minor modifications. Ethnic symbols are more primary in nature and represent the emotion or feeling of the people towards that symbol. Whereas popular symbols are secondary in nature and represent the rationale and the intellect of the people, along with emotion and feeling. Both these symbols are mixed in the above discussion. No attempt has been made to explicate the distinction between the two, as it needs a lot of field study to understand the background of folk symbolism.



Change is universal and natural to all objects of the world and aspects of life as well. Symbol being a bridge between empirical and empirical; empirical and metaphysical is no exception to this change. The causes of this change in symbols are internal in a few instances and external in a few others. If the cause of the change is internal, it is natural if the cause is the external then it is the artificial and imposed.

At least three aspects of change can be viewed with regard to symbolism. Given that through signifier we understand that which it connotes, we can have change of the sign but not the symbolic purport or we can have change of symbolic purport but not the same sign or we can also have change of both sign and symbolic purport. In the first instance, the sign or signifier changes and the symbolic content or signified continues to stay in the tradition, but only as an attachment to another sign. For instance, in Hinduism, Vedic texts are the sacred works that were read and worshipped as the symbol of holiness. The symbolic content of holiness and sacredness is, now attached to epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, where you will find a close link between the empirical and the metaphysical. In this way the Vedas have to give away their symbolic purport to the epics which are read and worshipped in almost every Hindu household. Now though many Hindus know about the Vedas, they no longer read or worshipped them. In the second instance though sign continues to retain its place in the symbolic structure it loses its control over the symbolic content that it carries and gives place to another content. This is often seen in different cultures especially in languages, when a word changes its meaning over a period of time. For instance in Hindu caste system, ‘Brahmin’ used to be symbol of chastity, purity and knowledge, now the term is still in use losing its symbolic purport and merely becoming a caste name. In the third instance, where both sign and symbolic purport change, the result could be either the disappearance of both from the symbolic order or adoption of other sign or symbolic content, about which we have already noted above.

Accommodation and adjustments of different aspects of life as a response to the dispositions of nature can be understood as the natural change. Responses and reactions of a particular culture or society to the dispositions of the other cultures and societies would lead to an artificial change. Natural change is slow when compared to the artificial. Since the changes of nature move at a slower pace, reactions of the human life to that would also be slow. Accommodation and adjustments are the characteristics of natural change, but often forcefulness and compulsiveness are added in the artificial change.

Keeping these aspects of change in the mind let me try to look at the change as it is available in different aspects of symbolism of India.

A cursory look at the history of India would reveal that, though it has a strong and rigid metaphysical structure around which all the cultural aspects are woven, it is also open in its character with regard to the interactions, adaptations and offerings with and to the other cultures. This is evident from the numerous foreign cultures which have invaded the country starting from Aryans who came around 600 BC to the most recent British who came around 16th Century AD. In between Kushans, Muslims, Dutch, Portuguese etc., have come to India. These external impositions interacted with the material culture of India. But not with the metaphysical, except that of the Aryans. Only the Aryans have interacted, modified and contributed to the Metaphysical. Since the symbolic always is seen with a metaphysical purport in India, symbolism in India is untouched by external influences in many contexts.

However, when the material culture changes the non-material culture or metaphysical culture which includes practices, beliefs, folkways etc., also would change in response. Since the pace of the changes in the material culture is relatively faster than the pace of the changes in the non-material culture, there would be a possible gap  which William Ogburn (1922) terms as ‘cultural lag’. This cultural lag can be seen even in the symbolic order. This ‘cultural lag’, which I would call as ‘symbolic lag’ applying it to the symbolism, whether is evident in the Indian culture is an interesting issue to pursue. Let us look at the change that is visible in various types of symbolism in India.

National symbols are the symbols of the country as a unified unit. They express the greatness or pride or uniqueness or emotion of the nation. National symbols of India are mostly created during the freedom movement. Symbolizing the country as mother (chained all over), adaptation of national flag with three colors and a wheel in the middle, were the pre-independence Indian symbols which were retained even after independence with a few modifications.  Other national symbols such as national emblem, national bird, national animal, national flower, national anthem and national song were adopted as national symbols after independence. National symbols are usually taken from the tradition to represent the unity. They are mostly secular or common to all groups of individuals. These national symbols are subject to change when the public consensus or their ability to hold the collective memory of the people changes. Since the national symbols are conventional, they need to be constantly recycled, actualized, challenged, renegotiated and reconfirmed. This brings the necessity of creating space for these national symbols in the public sphere. However, this rises an interesting problem; the problem of restricting the use of these national symbols from using them in an improper way.

Political symbols are the symbols of the parties. They are subject to change depending on the shift of the ideology of the parties. These symbols have an interesting restriction in the form of Election commission. A party may like to adopt a particular symbol as representing its ideology, but it has to be approved by the Election commission to be authentically used. In countries like India, where multi-party system is existent, allotting the symbols to parties is a difficult task, especially when two or more parties insist for the same symbol. There arises different problem when a particular party divides into two or more parties on the basis of ideological issues.

The role played by social symbols is not only in unifying and regulating the social order, but also making the communication within the social group possible. In India most of the social symbols take the source of their authenticity form religion. Change in the source of authenticity often creates the need for change in the dependent. But change within religion is often very slow and it needs to be natural. This makes the possibility of rapid change in the social sphere a difficult one. To cope up with this, the changes in the social sphere are forced by the States. This shift in the source of authenticity of social symbols from religious to political often creates a kind of symbolic lag or a crisis in the social order of the country. This is the present situation of India, where the ‘marginalized social groups’ under the protection of the state law oppose the hegemony of the class hierarchy and try to create their own symbolism, which makes their communication with other groups sometimes very difficult.

Every culture symbolizes certain objects and communicates different meanings within and across cultures through these objects. These meanings can be either social or political or religious. These object-symbols change according to the change in the social or political or religious spheres. As mentioned earlier religious sphere in India is the source of authenticity for most of the social symbols, if not the political ones. So, most of the object symbols resist change. Symbols such as body marks and wishing have though negotiated with the change, they did not completely leave their symbolic meaning. Since symbolisms of creatures and color have their roots in tradition and ethnicity, they resisted change and still continue to preserve their place as they are. In the same way nature symbolism that is found in India is rooted in either religion or ethnicity, because of which changes in this symbolic order are not visible.

Religious symbolism, as mentioned earlier, is the most important and stable form of symbolism in any culture. There was a major shift in the Hindu Pantheon in the later Vedic period, during which the Puranic gods came into prominence without completely rejecting the place of Vedic gods. This change is an internal one and it took a lot of time for this change. This change is occasioned by the synthesis of the Vedic culture with that of the non-Vedic culture. There are no modifications after that and it would be interesting to note that Hinduism is still adding to the list of its deities, without denying the place for the existent ones. With regard to the worship, since the tradition has advocated different forms of worship for different people who are in different stages of life, people have adopted the mode of worship that suits them most. Some of the modes of worship which include a rigid ritualistic form are restricted to only a few contexts. Thus, though there is a shift in the concentration of different aspects of religious symbolism in India there is no real modification or denial of a particular religious symbol.

The above discussion brings out the dynamism of change within different symbolic spheres. The point that is to be noted here is that wherever there is a natural change occasioned by its own internal mechanism after negotiations within its particular group is more peaceful and welcoming. Whereas the change occasioned by external or alien forces – whether it be the State or the organ of State or any other – is the cause of crisis (For instance, Political Symbols and Social symbols discussed above). Due to the changes occasioned by external causes some of the aspects of material culture such as national, political and social life may lose their Metaphysical connections, thus, losing their symbolic value and becoming mere ‘indexes’ of Peirce (1955).[11] Affinity to the metaphysical and at the same time attraction to the material culture is creating a ‘symbolic lag’ in some spheres of life. Symbolic lag cannot be found where the affinity to the metaphysical is very strong. This metaphysical affinity is strong in religious sphere and the aspects which drew authority from the religious sphere. Symbolic lag in these spheres in less evident.




The two best debated issues of the contemporary times – Symbol and Global - are brought together in the present theme of the seminar. Interest in Global was initiated by the move of Capitalism of the West, whereas interest in the symbol, as discovered by Mircea Eliade in her book Images and Symbols (1961), is initiated by the Europe’s interest in so called ‘historic, archaic and primitive’ non-European cultures for alternative instruments of cognition.[12] This brings us to an interesting debate – Global versus Symbol. Global as a move towards universalisation and symbol as a core of cultural identity. One advocates change, a rapid change, and the other insists stability and resists change. One is for homogenization and universalisation, whereas the other is for heterogeneity and diversity. This does not mean that they are opposites, in fact they interpolate each other. There is symbolization within globalization and there is generalization involved within the process of symbolization. Understanding the relation between the two and placing them appropriately in the discussions is a major task of contemporary times.

Let me try to bring out the distinction between global symbols and cultural symbols by taking the hints from Perry (Hyper-reality and Global Culture, 1998). Cultural symbols are based on long history and tradition, whereas global symbols are mainly economy-media driven constructs. Symbols of local and national cultures have strong emotional connotations for large number of people, but global symbols are bereft of such ‘ethnic-based’ appeal. While global symbols can certainly draw upon symbols of folk and national cultures it is not based on shared global stories and memories. In this sense they are ‘memory less’, syncretic and dependent upon the profit seeking production of mass-mediated signs.  Lastly, cultural symbols are closely tied to place and time whereas global symbols free themselves from these constrains; as such they are ‘disconnected, disembodied and deterritorialised’ and exist outside the usual reference to geographical territory.

It is precisely because of these reasons globalization is often understood as a euphemism of domination, since it suggests something entirely different from what it actually attempts to achieve. It seems to be representing an ideal process of equal sharing and voluntary participation. But in actuality, in the contemporary global order of uneven development any relationship cannot but be unequal. As argued by KN Paniker (2002), when post-colonial societies without ‘post-coloniality’ are being re-integrated into a global order, it could only ensure the subordination of the economically weaker countries. For countries like India, globalization only heralds subjection, argued Paniker, because it does not augur freedom and progress rather it would ensure the necessary climate for domination and hegemonisation by the world capitalist countries.

Keeping aside the evaluation of globalization, let us come back to the change in symbols in a time of global. As mentioned earlier, symbols in the process of preserving the identity negotiate and renegotiate with the community and thus resists rapid change. Globalization, in the process of compressing and annihilating the temporal accessibility of space with the aid of high speed technological growth attempts to accelerate the pace of the change in all spheres of human activity. This accelerated pace of change poses formidable challenges to the symbolic mode of the different cultures. Only cultures with rich variety of symbolism can contests the rapidity of change. The richness and diversity of symbolism of India that was brought out above is to show the difficulty of globalization process in overpowering or homogenizing the Indian culture. Since symbol resists change, richness and diversity of symbols help the culture to be stable in resisting the rapid moves of globalization.

Globalization has to enter the cultures only either by modifying or destroying the symbols. Though essentially symbols resist change, some of the symbols such as social and political, accommodate change with less resistance. In contrast with these, the ethnic, religious and cultural symbols appeal strongly to the emotions of the people and cannot be modified or destroyed easily. In India, since all the spheres of human activity are influenced by religion, the resistance to change in more in all the spheres.

            A unified structure, though difficult to intrude, once intruded at a particular point the whole structure would become vulnerable. In contrast, a diversified structure, though may look easy to intrude, needs maximum strength and time and is less vulnerable. India is a country of diverse cultures, religions, languages, ethnic groups and practices which is unified with a sense of oneness. It is difficult for any particular alien power to easily intrude and overpower the diverse unification of Indian culture, which is rooted in a long historical tradition. The very fact that Indian tradition continued to exist until today, unlike the other ancient civilizations of the world, is the surest proof of its great power of assimilation. Indian tradition was invaded by many cultures since the pre-Aryan times which dates back at least to 6th c. BC. Each fresh incursion of culture and idea found the Indian temperament more malleable than before and accelerated the process of assimilation and synthesis. These new ingredients continually added to the richness and complexity of Indian life and brought to birth a new organic way of life. Today whatever is Indian, whether it is an idea, a form of art, a political institution or a social custom, is a blend of many different strains and elements. In spite of this derivation from many sources and the consequent variety of forms and types, we find a remarkable unity of spirit. Unity and uniformity serve as the basis of the continuity of Indian tradition. It is only in India that the old civilization and culture have grown and changed, but not at the expense of an underlying unity. This has been possible only through the capacity of readjustment and elasticity that has rarely been equaled. One ground of this adjustment is found in the spirit of toleration that has characterized Indian history throughout the ages. As noted by Humayun Kabir (1946) ‘Live and let Live’ has been the policy of the India in all spheres of life. Thus, the unity that is found in India was never a dead uniformity; rather it carried with it the demand for variety and particularity. This variety and particularity with an underlying unity gave rise to the rich and varied symbolism that is available now, which is difficult to modify or to destroy easily.

            To sum up, by following the discussion on symbolic as a distinguishing faculty of human from the animal, I explicated the richness of Indian symbolism followed by a brief discussion on the possibility of changes in the different symbolic orders. In conclusion, I tried to place symbol against global, and argued that richness and variety of symbolism of India will resist the rapid pace of change that globalization is striving to bring forth.


 Bibliography and Reference:

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[1] The Hindu festivals are spread over all the months of a year. Some festivals are seasonal, some celebrate the fecundity of the earth, some are dedicated in honor of deities, some are devoted to important events, some are dedicated to the nature, animals, plants etc., some take the form of purificatory fasts and so on. The one common thread that runs through all the festivals is that they create a spiritual climate for the people and renew their contact with the God.

[2] It must be noted that sometimes the black bottu is preferred by the widows instead of leaving the forehead blank.

[3] Among Chenchus, tattooing is common to both male and female. It is usually done on their forehead and forearms. They draw the pictures of their gods, which includes the Gods of Hindu pantheon (Encyclopedia of Dravidian Tribes Vol 2. (EDT:2) 1996:90).

[4] Among Kanikkar, a tribe of Kerala, tattooing is common to both male and female. For men circular forms are used and for women halfmoon with dots are used as tattoos (EDT:2: 1996:98). 

[5] Among Mannan, a tribe of Nilgiri hills of south India, tattooing is done one their arms and forehead. Usually, along with various forms of Gods, Sun, Moon, Fish etc., were also tattooed (EDT:2: 1996:256).

[6] Among Toda, a tribe of Nilgiri hills of South India, tattooing is a ritual decoration for women only. It is to be done at different ages on different occasssion after attaining puberty. It is done on chin, chest, breasts, back, outer side of upper arms, back of left hand, above ankles and across the dorsum of feet in patterns of dots and rings. If any women dies without the marks of tattooing then the marks are painted on the corpse before cremation (EDT:2: 1996: 331).

[7] This association, says Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (1995:183), means not only that the god is literally carried about on such a animal (for the elephant-headed Ganesa is awkwardly mounted on a bandicoot, or a large rat) but also (and most importantly) that the animal “carries” the god in the way that a breeze “carries” perfume, that the god is always present in that animal, in all its manifestations (the bandicoot, for example, shares Ganesa’s nimbleness of wit and ability to get past anything and so is indeed an appropriate vehicle for god). This is the only sense in which animals (including cows) are sacred in India.

[8] The mouse – his (Ganesa’s) vehicle – which is smallest of animals – and elephant which is the biggest of animals on the earth as embodies in his forms are regarded as symbols of his mastery over everything from the lowest to the highest.

[9] The belief in the tree-spirit which is found in the Rigveda is prominent throughout the popular religion. The Maghs of Bengal would fell trees only at the instigation of Europeans and in their presence: on cutting down any large tree one of the party used to place a sprig in the centre of the stump when the tree fell as a propitiation to the spirit which had been displaced…The pippala or asvattha (Ficus religiosa) is said to be the abode of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, but the cotton-tree is the home of the local gods, who can more affectively watch the affairs of the village since they are less occupied than these great deities. The nim-tree harbors the demons of disease, but its leaves serve to drive away serpents….The tulsi-plant or holy basil (Ocymum sanctum) has aromatic and healing properties….The bel (Aegle marmelos) is used to refresh the symbol of Siva and its fruit is fabled to be produced from the milk of the Goddess Sri. The Palasa, (Butea frondosa), bamboo, sandal, and many other trees are more or less sacred and are applied to specific ceremonial use or avoided as dangerous (Keith: 1998:238-9).

[10] Some of these nature Gods are also the guardian deities of the different direction. There are ten such deities guarding ten directions such as East, West, North, South, North East, North West, South East, South West, Up and Down. They are Indra, Varuna, Kubera, Yama, Isana, Vayur, Agni, Nairuti, Dyaus and Prithvi respectively (Ghodke: 1995:284-293).

[11] For Peirce, indexes are the causes or consequences or co-currents of their referents.

[12] Mircea Eliade in her book Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (tr. Philip Mairet, New York, Sheed and Ward, 1961) states that the invasion of Western Europe by Symbolism coincides with the arrival of Asia on the horizon of History. Study of Symbolism, she adds, gained prominence when the Westerners understood that they are no longer the only people to ‘make history’, and that there are other ways of knowing the other scales of values than their own.