Throughout its lengthy evolution, Hinduism has embraced numerous symbolic elements that play a significant role in its imagery, drawing their spiritual meanings from ancient scriptures or cultural customs.
The importance given to these icons can vary based on the region, era, and specific sects of believers. Symbols like the Swastika have gained broader recognition over the years, whereas Om remains distinctively linked to Hindu beliefs.
The most important 21 Hindu symbols
This is not just a word but a sound that is believed to contain the essence of the entire universe and consciousness in general.
It is considered the root of all sounds, existing even before languages were formed.
Similar to how an icon is a physical representation of a god, the “Om” sound is a sonic representation of the divine.
Chanting “Om” is said to resonate with the cosmic vibration of the universe.
Swastika and Sauwastika
The swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol, and its name is derived from the Sanskrit words “su” (good) and “asti” (prevail) and generally means wellbeing, prosperity, and good fortune.
There are two notable variations of this symbol: the swastika, which spins in a clockwise rotation, and the sauwastika, which spins counterclockwise.
In Hinduism, the clockwise swastika also functions as a solar symbol, which represents the movements of the sun as it appears from the east and disappears to the west.
The counterclockwise sauwastika has an almost opposite meaning, since it represents the night and is also a symbol of Kali, the goddess of time, doomsday, and death.
The lingam is an abstract representation of Lord Shiva, a central deity in Hinduism, and is often found in various Hindu temples or in the homes of Shiva devotees.
The Lingam is usually combined with a yoni base, an abstract representation of the goddess Shakti, the goddess that represents primordial cosmic energy.
Thus, the Lingam, when combined with the yoni base, usually represents the union of male and female aspects, or, in other words, the continual process of creation.
The lotus is a divine flower in Hinduism and is associated with numerous deities such as Vishnu, Lakshmi, or Brahma, who are often depicted standing within a lotus flower or holding one in their hands.
When used in connection with human beings, the lotus flower represents not only the divine or immortal aspects of mankind but also divine perfection.
The lotus flower also represents the unfolding and realization of one’s true potential, in the same way a lotus flower unfolds its petals once it reaches maturity.
In Hinduism, the Shankha is a trumpet made from the shell of the conch snail. The Shankha is considered a sacred emblem of the god Vishnu and was used in the past as a war trumpet.
In Hindu scriptures, the Shankha is said to bring one fame, longevity, prosperity, and the cleansing of sins.
The Shankha is also associated with Vishnu’s consort, the goddess Lakshmi, and in some traditions, it is said that the goddess herself resides in this holy item.
The Shankha could also be used to purify water and render it holy, which could then be used while bathing to cleanse one’s sins and misfortune.
Tilaka (or tika)
The tilak, or tika, is a mark usually placed between the eyes or on the forehead. This location represents the “third eye”, and is the location of the ajna chakra, the chakra of intuition, self-realization, inspiration, and imagination.
The tilak usually signifies adherence to a certain sect of Hinduism, as a celebration of certain rituals and religious occasions, or simply as a decoration.
There are many variations of the tika, depending on which particular sect the person belongs to.
This is a disk like weapon with 108 serrated edges, wielded by the god Vishnu as he fought demons and evil-doers.
The name is derived from the Sanskrit words “su”, meaning good, and “darshana”, meaning vision.
Through its association with Visnu, one of the central gods of Hinduism, and its role as a destroyer of evil and ignorance, the Sudarshana Chakra is a symbol of positive change and protection against misfortune.
This is the first avatar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu, where he takes the form of a fish to save the wise king Manu from a great flood, in a story that is remarkably similar to that of Noah in Christianity.
In the Hindu tale, Matsya, a tiny fish, arrives before King Manu in a bowl of water and asks for protection against the bigger fish who seek to swallow it.
King Manu is sympathetic to the tiny fish and protects it until it is big enough that other fish can no longer hope to hunt it. At that point, Matsya is released into the sea.
However, as a reward for his kindness, Matsya warns Manu of a great incoming flood that will destroy the world and asks the king to protect a giant ship that will protect him from the incoming doom.
As foretold by Matsya, the flood arrives and destroys everyone, except Manu, who becomes the father of the human race alongside the goddess Ida.
The tale of Matsya symbolizes hope and salvation, but also the duty of the strong to protect the weak, since the weak are destined to become the strong in the future.
Derived from the Sanskrit words “Rudra” (another name for Shiva) and “Aksha” (eye), legend says that these beads originated from Lord Shiva’s tears.
They are said to have medicinal properties and function as amulets of spiritual protection.
Thus, rudraksha beads are commonly used to make various types of jewelry, such as garlands, rosaries, or necklaces.
Rudraksha garlands usually contain 108+1 beads, since 108 is a sacred number and is thought to be an appropriate number to recite a short mantra. However, smaller garlands with 27+1 or 54+1 are also common.
The extra “+1” bead is called the guru bead and marks the beginning and end of a cycle.
Every time a person recites a mantra, they “tick” one bead and move on to the next.
This is a metallic vessel usually filled with water and decorated with mango leaves and a coconut at its mouth.
According to the Hindu Vedic texts, the Kalasha was said to contain amrita, or the elixir of life. As such, the Kalasha has become a popular symbol of good health, long life, wisdom, and prosperity.
The coconut on top represents divine consciousness, while the mango leaves symbolize life’s pleasures.
Also known as the Bodhi tree, under which Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment.
In Hinduism, it is said to be the abode of deities, and it’s believed that the trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) reside in its roots, trunk, and leaves, respectively.
For this reason, it is common for Sadhus (Hindu ascetic priests) to meditate beneath this tree and perform meditative dances as a mark of worship.
Nandi is the bull mount of Shiva and is depicted either as a human with a bull’s head and four hands or as a sitting white bull.
Nandi symbolizes strength, loyalty, and unwavering devotion since he is Shiva’s greatest follower.
Nearly every temple of Shiva is protected by a statue of Nandi, who faces the main shrine.
Because of his strong association with Shiva, Nandi has come to represent the Shaivism sect of Hinduism, which views Shiva as the supreme deity.
Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra)
The Dharma wheel is a symbol commonly associated with Buddhism, but its origins are as old as Hinduism itself.
The name “dharma” is derived from the Sanskrit root “dhr” which can mean law, doctrine, teaching, truth, or natural law.
The Dharma wheel in this case means the continuous circle of birth, life, death, and rebirth that repeats itself eternally.
The Bhagavad Gita best explains the power of the Dharma Wheel:
“From food, the beings are born; from rain, food is produced; rain proceeds from sacrifice (yagnya); yagnya arises out of action; know that from Brahma, action proceeds; Brahma is born of Brahman, the eternal Paramatman. The one who does not follow the wheel, thus revolving, leads a sinful, vain life, rejoicing in the senses.”
The trishula is a trident weapon wielded by Lord Shiva. Each prong of the trident represents various trinities:
- creation, maintenance, and destruction.
- past, present, and future.
- happiness, comfort and boredom.
- pride, repute and egotism.
- clarity, knowledge and wisdom.
- the three gunas (qualities) – sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (darkness) and many more.
Yantras are geometric designs that function as spiritual tools in Hindu rituals and meditation.
They’re considered conduits of cosmic energy, with each pattern being unique to a specific deity or purpose.
For instance, the Sri Yantra represents the universe and the union of Shiva and Shakti.
Yantras are ancient symbols, with the first ones thought to have appeared as far back as the year 10,000 BCE.
Nowadays, yantras can be used as home decorations, tattoos, engravings, or murals.
The jaapmala is the Hindu equivalent of the Christian rosary and usually contains 108 beads made from various materials such as wood, stone, bone, and others. Smaller versions of a jaapmala contain 54 or 27 such beads.
Like Christian rosaries, they are used to count the recitations of mantras. When not used to count prayers, the jaapmala is worn as jewelry.
Hinduism considers the number 108 sacred because that is the number of attendants and gopis Shiva and Krishna, respectively, have according to the Vedic texts.
The Tulsi plant is sacred to Hinduism since it is thought to be an earthly manifestation of the goddess Tulasi, herself an avatar of Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu.
According to Hindu belief, the tulsi is the holiest of all plants, and it functions as a threshold point between heaven and earth.
Because of the plant’s association with the goddess Lakshmi, the tulsi is seen as a distinctly female symbol that represents wifehood and motherhood.
The bindi is a bright, colorful dot placed on a person’s forehead, roughly in the space between the eyebrows.
This place corresponds to the anja chakra, and placing a bindi there metaphorically represents the opening of the “third eye”. In this sense, the bindi is thought to help improve concentration and retain mental energy.
Modern bindis come in various shapes, colors, and designs and are also a popular fashion accessory.
The bindi is sometimes interchangeable with the previously mentioned tilaka; however, the tilaka is mostly used on religious occasions and to display adherence to a certain sect of Hinduism.
Garuda is a large mythical Hindu bird and a mount of the god Vishnu.
In artistic depictions, Garuda is portrayed either as a giant bird with partially open wings or as a man with wings and various bird-like features such as a beak or talons.
In popular mythology, Garuda was thought to be a protector against demons and misfortune in general.
Over time, Garuda has become associated with military prowess and appears in the coat of arms of various militaries in Asia.
A large mythical bird, Garuda, is the mount of Lord Vishnu. He represents courage and determination. Garuda’s eternal enemy is the serpent, symbolizing the cycle of life and death.
Often carried by ascetics, sages, and deities like Brahma, this water vessel signifies a simple and contained life. It also represents the storage of amrita (the elixir of life).
The damaru is a two-headed drum used by the god Shiva to produce spiritual sounds through which the whole Universe was created and regulated.
In a religious sense, the damaru is known as a power drum that can generate spiritual energy when played.
The vajra is a weapon used by the Hindu god Indra in his wars against the Asuras. By wielding the vajra, Indra had the power to throw thunderbolts at his enemies.
There are multiple versions of how the vajra came to be created. According to one legend, the god Tvastr created the vajra to aid Indra in defeating the Asura demon Vritra.
In another version, Indra had to sacrifice a wise sage called Dadhichi and manufacture the vajra out of his spine.
Whatever the origin story, Indra’s vajra has come to symbolize spiritual power and steadfast resistance against evil.
- A dictionary of symbols by Cirlot, Juan Eduardo
- A dictionary of symbols by Chevalier, Jean
- Dictionary of symbols by Chetwynd, Tom
- A dictionary of dream symbols : with an introduction to dream psychology by Ackroyd, Eric
- Illustrated dictionary of symbols in eastern and western art by Hall, James
- Dictionary of symbols and imagery by Vries, Ad de
- Symbolism : a comprehensive dictionary by Olderr, Steven
- Dictionary of mythology, folklore and symbols by Jobes, Gertrude
- The complete dictionary of symbols by Tresidder, Jack
- 21 Essential Hindu Symbols (& the Stories Behind Them) - September 19, 2023
- 7 Most Important Nihilist Philosophers (& their Main Ideas) - August 28, 2023
- 35 Pagan Symbols and the Meaning & Stories Behind Them - August 28, 2023