One finds hidden symbolism in many aspects of Hinduism. It is mainly because the seers of Hinduism who contributed to its early development took many aspects of mundane life and applied them to their religious and philosophical teachings. They interpreted deeper aspects of spiritual experience and observations using familiar imagery. Thereby, they were able to translate complex ideas into simple analogies which common people could understand.
Their approach was similar to the manner in which the subconscious mind conveyed images to the conscious mind through dreams. As in dreams so in Hinduism you will find an explicit, manifest content and a hidden content, which reveals itself as your knowledge and insight grows. Thus, you will find hidden symbolism in many Hindu concepts such as birth, conception, marriage, rebirth, yoga, liberation and so on.
Many associated gods, vehicles (Vahanas), incarnations and emanations of the principal deities represent aspects of creation and human personality. Each object in creation represents a gross form and a subtle form. The following examples illustrate the extent of symbolism applied in Hinduism to a familiar theme, the human body. It reveals how the whole idea of God and creation can be found in it through simple metaphorical or symbolic descriptions.
Symbolism of the body in Hinduism
In Sanskrit, the body is known as deham. “De” means to protect. “Aham” means the Self or the ego. Thus, deham means that which protects the Self or the ego. Deham is the place where the embodied Self (dehi) lives. It is also where deva (the pure Self) lives. Hence, each body (deham) is described in the scripture as living abode of God (devalam). After the death, when the body is to be cremated, it is taken on a pilgrimage (dehayatra), the last pilgrimage (antimyatra), to the cremation grounds for the sacrifice to the god of Death.
The body is thus a good starting point to understand the symbolism in Hinduism. The following are few common symbolic descriptions of the body, which you will find in Hinduism.
- The body is a vehicle (Vahana) for the deity (soul) in the body.
- The body is a world in itself. It is the abode of Purusha, the Cosmic Being.
- The gross body is Shiva. The mind is Brahma. Intelligence is Vishnu.
- The body is a personification of Prakriti (Nature). It is made up of several tattvas (finite realities).
- The body is a Bhagavata (devoted servant) of the Lord (soul) within.
- The body is a battlefield (Kurukshetra) where good and evil forces wage constant battle.
- The body is a temple of God (soul) with nine openings or doors.
- The body is a city (Vaikuntha) of God with nine gates.
- The body is the field of God where he enacts the play of creation.
- The body is a mire of human suffering.
- The body personifies the bondage of soul to Nature or materiality.
- Sickness arises when the order and regularity (rta) of the body is disturbed by impurities.
- The body is food to the Lord of Death.
- The body is like a sacrificial pit where one offers food to the deities within.
- The body is subject to impermanence just as the world is.
- The body is like a cloth to the soul within. It is discarded at the time of death.
- The body is an impurity formed by karma or desire-ridden actions.
- The body is Nature itself.
The mind is like Hanuman to the soul, who represents Rama. Without the mind serving the soul, one cannot destroy the evil or the impurities (Ravana) within oneself.
You may compare the body to a chariot, the soul to Krishna and the embodied Self (jiva) to Arjuna.
Parts of the body
In Hinduism, you will also find parts of the body being compared to different aspects of Creation. For example, the bones in the body represent the earth, blood represents water, breath represents air, intelligence represents fire and consciousness represents the sky. They all are pervaded by the soul, just as God pervades the diversity of creation.
The lower body starting from the feet up to the pelvic region is compared to the mortal world. The middle body is compared to the mid-region (antariksha). The upper body up to the neck, where the heart and lungs are located is compared to Indra’s heaven and the region above the neck to the higher heaven. The speech is compared to Brahma, the mnd to Indra, the senses to gods (devas), breath to Brahman and eyes to the Sun and Moon.
The body is described in the scriptures as an aggregate of Prakriti tattvas, such as the elements, the senses, the mind, ego, intelligence, etc., which create the illusion of beingness, characterized by name and form (nama rupa). Attachment to them is the cause of suffering, egoism, delusion and bondage. Upon the death of a being, the aggregates of the body return to their primal source, while the soul departs to the next world according to its deeds.