Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
One of the most common symbols in Hinduism is the Sanskrit letter om (or aum). This is the understood not only as the first letter (or sound) of the sacred alphabet, but the first sound in the cosmos that led to creation. It is thus the first principle of the universe. There are many philosophical discussions of om; some hold that it is actually composed of three separate sounds. The first embodies the three worlds—the earth, atmosphere, and heavens; the second embodies the three great gods—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; and the third, three of the Vedas—the Rig, Yajur, and Sama. Om typically begins Hindu mantras, sacred verbal formulas, and prayers, and it is often the first (and last) letter of sacred texts. Om is also used in various yogic meditational practices.
The swastika is another common symbol. Although the Nazis appropriated this symbol in the 1920s, the swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol that denotes well-being and auspiciousness. Temples are adorned with swastikas, and it is used in a wide range of context: weddings, festivals, all manner of rituals, and to decorate everything from trucks to cakes.
Lotuses are ubiquitous symbols in Hinduism. Hindu gods and goddesses are typically depicted with lotuses: they sit on lotuses, they hold lotuses, sometimes they emerge from lotuses. Gods and goddesses are also described using lotus imagery: Krishna, for instance, is called the "lotus-eyed one," and goddesses are frequently compared to lotuses. Lotuses are particularly associated with purity: although they begin in the mud, they grow up through the water and emerge on the surface. When they open, the flower is utterly cleansed.
The lingam is a symbolic representation of the god Shiva, although it is also more than a symbol in that like other images of the gods, it is seen as an actual embodiment of the god. In other words, it is not a symbol of the god; it is the god. It is one of the most prevalent images in all of Hinduism, and can be found in almost all Shiva temples. It may have its origins in the Vedas, where sacrificial posts, or stambha (or skambha), sometimes symbolized the gods, or it may have been borrowed from the Buddhists, who erected reliquaries, or stupas, to enshrine the relics of the Buddha. At any rate, the lingam is a quite complex sort of symbol.