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Religion Library: Hinduism

Symbolism

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

Some have seen the lingam as a phallic symbol, although this is a matter of significant dispute. There are myths that certainly resonate with this phallic imagery, but this does not mean that most Hindus who venerate Shiva in this form in any way associate the lingam with the phallus. Rather, the lingam is treated as an aniconic manifestation of the god. Lingams are typically human created images, but there are also important naturally occurring lingams. In cave temples in the Himalayas—Shiva's special abode—stalagmites are sometimes regarded as lingams. At Amaranath, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, there is a cave that is mythically associated with Shiva and Parvati in which an ice stalagmite forms each spring and summer and which is worshipped by pilgrims as a particularly auspicious lingam.

dancer making symbolic gestures (mudras) with her handsThere are also all manner of symbolically significant physical acts. Mudras are symbolic bodily gestures that denote particular religious sentiments or intents. For instance, the abhaya mudra, the gesture of "no fear" made by opening the palm outward, is often displayed by gods and goddesses to symbolize their protective abilities. Mudras are very important in classical Indian dance, in which each of the gestures of the dancer has specific symbolic resonance.

Many Hindus wear a symbolic mark, or tilak (in Sanskrit, literally "mark"), across their forehead. Although Sadhus (renouncers) and priests wear tilaks at all times, many people wear them only after a visit to the temple or on an important day, such as during a religious ritual or on a festival day. Indian flower seller with a tilak on her foreheadShaiva tilaks are typically three lines—sometimes chalk or sacred ash—representing the trishula, the trident that Shiva and his ascetic followers carry. Vaishnava Hindus, likewise, wear a variety of tilaks that symbolize their chosen deity, Vishnu.

One of the most commonly performed symbolic gestures is the anjali mudra. When Hindus meet one another, they typically display the anjali mudra, placing the palms together and raising the arms and bowing, usually saying "Namaste" as they do so. This is a gesture of respect and greeting, and is done not only when two people meet, but when a worshipper approaches a god.

Anjali mudra pose


Study Questions:
1.     What is om?
2.     Why is the lotus used frequently in Hinduism?
3.     Should the lingam be considered a Hindu symbol? Why or why not?
4.     Why are hand positions considered symbolic gestures? What are some examples of mudras?

 

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