Why Understanding Religious Symbology is the Key to Your Spiritual Progress

Have you ever contemplated the deeper meaning of rituals and ritual offerings in your religious and spiritual traditions? Do you understand how the symbols in your external rituals relate to the inner depths of your spirit? If not, it is time for you to do so. This article, though centered around some of the Hindu Symbology, may provide you the needed impetus to delve into deeper meaning of the external rituals you perform in your own religious and spiritual traditions.

Flower and Fruit Offering

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Sanskrit Pronunciation Table

Every religion incorporates ritual worship as part of the tradition and all of those rituals involve offering some items that are considered sacred to the object of our worship. Each of these items point to a deeper meaning. When this is understood in proper light, it will help you to go beyond the rituals and deeper into your spirit. By gaining a deeper understanding you will be able to let go of external rituals and focus more on the internal rituals.

In this article, I will discuss some of the Hindu symbology such as offering Coconuts, Flowers and Fruits to one’s chosen personal deity during prayer rituals, wearing of the red-dot, red vertical line, ash or other symbols on the forehead, and the significance of the greeting “Namaste!” (pronounced namastE) Though this is only a short list of thousands, if not millions, of symbols in Hindu rituals, I hope that this article will provide a starting point for you to contemplate on the deeper meaning of symbols from your own spiritual and religious traditions, and help you to dive deeper to realize the divine within.

Don’t go empty handed!

While growing up I have heard my elders say, “When you go to a temple you should not go empty handed. You should always take a Coconut, Flower and Fruit as offering.” When I questioned, “Why?” I usually never got a satisfactory answer. My father once told me, “It is because everything in this creation belongs to God, and so we symbolically offer it back.” Though I was satisfied a little, it still left me with wanting a clearer answer. At other times, the question was why I should wear the red-dot/line on my forehead. 🙂

C’mon! Wrathful God!?

Many Hindus, who visit temples regularly, do not know the significance of the items they take with them for a ritual offering, or why they are doing what they are doing in a prayer. They are probably doing those things because their family priest or some elder in the family told them to do as they were told, or threatened them that if they didn’t, then god might become angry with them and that they would accumulate bad karma. If you are one of those people, I hope that the following explanation will give you some peace of mind and give you a glimpse into the greater meaning and depth to the rituals. All external rituals are created for people who are still not ripe enough to start looking inward. When you know the deeper meanings and start looking within for God/Self/Being, rather than without, then you can dispense with all the external rituals without worrying about the wrath of god. The concept of “wrathful god” completely goes against “anbE Sivam” (In Tamil language it means, “Love is God”). So, just drop the idea of “wrathful god!” 🙂

Symbology

Here are a few symbols. There are many more, but these are the common ones,

  • Om—Every mantra starts with the sound Om. Importance is given not only how it is uttered, but also how it is heard. It represents pure vibration or Om-field that entire manifest and unmanifest originates from. It is also known as Sabdha or nAda brahman. It defies mental understanding and translation. It can only be experienced but cannot be explained.
  • Fruit—A fruit symbolizes the results or fruits of all our actions, what we label as good and bad. Basically, by offering a fruit to the lord, what we are saying is, “Oh Lord! I am not the doer. I am just a vessel, a medium through which you act. Therefore, whatever result I am seeing because of those actions also don’t belong to me. They are yours. So, here take them.” Thus, by constantly offering results of all our actions to the supreme, we cultivate the thinking that we should not be solely focused on achievements and goals alone, since they are not ours to keep. This way we keep our egos in check and also eliminate fear of failure and success, since they both don’t belong to us.
  • Flower—A flower symbolizes the flowering of our consciousness or a spiritual awakening in our minds. So, when we offer a flower in prayer to the supreme being, we are saying, “Oh Lord! Even this flowering of my consciousness or spiritual awakening that is happening in me is not by my own volition, but it is your will. You are awakening my mind and asking it to look at you and know you. Even this awakening is not mine to keep. It is yours.” Thus, by constantly offering the flower of our consciousness to the lord, we keep our egos from inflating and becoming “spiritually arrogant.”
  • Coconut—The hard shell of a coconut represents our ego. Hard to crack by normal means. It prevents us from getting into the sweet inner core which is our “true self.” By offering a coconut, we say, “Oh Lord! Even the egoistic shell and the soft, sweet inner being also belongs to you. So, I offer them to you in prayer.”
  • Metal Rod or Hammer—A metal rod/hammer used to break the coconut symbolizes the spiritual practices that you engage in to subdue and break through the ego, to connect with your soft-n-sweet inner being.
  • Light—An oil lamp or candle represents the light of consciousness and eternal knowledge that is always present in all things manifest and unmanifest. Whenever you light a lamp or candle, you are telling yourself and those present to remember and focus on the inner light of your true self that is always accessible from the third-eye or brow chakra portal.
  • Tilak (pronounced, tilak), Kumkum, Red Dot or other symbol on the forehead—Represents the inner teacher, inner being or inner light, in all of us, who is accessible through the third-eye or brow chakra portal. When we make a connection with our inner teacher our spiritual progress becomes very rapid. When you put a red dot, because of its touch on our skin, we are constantly reminded to keep our focus on our inner teacher. When someone else looks you, their attention is drawn to the forehead reminding them to focus on their own inner teacher.
  • Namaste (pronounced, namaste)—This is my understanding of the word, na means without and maste means head. The word mastaka means head. Therefore, this word means, “without head.” More precisely, “without ego.” Why? When somebody is arrogant, egotistical or proud, you say, “Oh, he has his head high in the clouds. He won’t look at us people on the ground.” Therefore, when you bring your palms together, touch your sternum, bow your head and say, “Namaste!” to someone or even to your personal deity or any symbol that signifies divine, you are not just saying, “Hello!” or “Greetings!” you are actually saying, “We both are equal and One at a deeper level; at the level of the heart or being, no matter our worldly appearances and affiliations. By bowing to you and respecting you, I am respecting myself.”

Love is God—anbE Sivam. May you start your inner journey “right now.”

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24 thoughts on “Why Understanding Religious Symbology is the Key to Your Spiritual Progress”

  1. Hey Desika,

    Tis a beauty. I will be printing this out as it is going to become part of the family and community monthly havans. I specially like this article for children to be taught the meaning of these symbols and rituals.

    Cheers,
    Anmol

  2. This is an excellent post! I really enjoyed learning about the deeper symbology of these Hindu traditions. I agree with you that mindfulness is so necessary to apply to any ritual – religious or personal. By drawing on the religious symbology of our upbringing, we can also begin to create personal ritual that creates a path of spiritual awakening.

    Blessings,
    Andrea

    (stumbled! :-))

  3. To Anmol: Print away my friend, print away! 🙂 Your browser’s print functionality should print it out nicely without the sidebars, comments or ads. I thank you very much for your appreciation. You are very correct that we should teach our kids proper and deeper meaning of rituals which increases understanding and appreciation, and prevents rebellious attitude from arising. Kids know, and have the capacity to know more than what most adults give them credit for.

    To Andrea: Thanks a lot for the stumble! I completely agree with you that proper understanding of rituals will let a person to become more independent in his/her thinking and approach to spirituality and eventually to his/her own Self. Inner independence and freedom are the goals of all spiritual practices anyway.

    Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful comments.

    Cheers,
    -Desika

  4. Desika,

    It’s so true that many people “go through the motions” of rituals they were taught to do, but were never necessarily taught why they work the way the way or what they are meant to represent.

    It’s the energy of the conscious intent that powers any ritual, so not only does this post help inform or enhance that, it’s also helpful for those who wish to adopt, to create, to invent their own personal rituals.

  5. To Slade: You are so correct about the “conscious intent.” For example, take the chanting of Mantras. Most people (including myself until sometime ago) recite mantras without having an intent of why they are chanting a mantra. If someone wants to chant Lakshmi mantra (Divine Energy that creates Abundance), just chanting the mantra without the intent may delay the manifestation of abundance. It is all about one’s internal state of being (or the state of consciousness). Instead of rote chanting, having a focused intent during the chanting and carrying that consciousness the rest of the day will change one’s internal state to that of abundance which then rearranges the world around to bring about its manifestation. In Telugu (one of the Indian languages), there is a saying which goes, “Even mother won’t feed a baby without it’s crying or asking.”

    As always, I really appreciate your thoughtful comments which helps in my further contemplation.

    To Shamelle: I am very happy that this article led to your further contemplation and knowing about Symbology. I thank you for your appreciation.

    – Desika

  6. Fantastic post that I’m glad I stumbled upon. It answers a number of questions that I had but didn’t even know I had!

    It had me thinking back to childhood in the UK and the complete ignorance I and many of my peers had about Indian culture, I shudder with embarrassment of some of the nonsense we used to think.

    Thanks.

  7. Hi Tim,

    I am glad that my article was able to answer some of your questions.

    I my opinion, it is the lack of knowledge of the symbolism in various religions, and reading scriptures and symbols literally is the reason for today’s strife in the world. For example, most people think Hinduism is polytheistic religion, but it is not–it is monistic (different from monotheistic) in its primary philosophy, and in practice, it advocates infinite paths to realize the infinite. Therefore, a true Hindu believes that all religions, when practiced correctly with their essence in mind, will lead to the infinite. That is why there is no proselytization in Hinduism. Moreover, Hinduism was never a religion and we never called ourselves Hindus. Even the word, “Hindu” was coined, as far as I know, by the Persians. Before that caught on, Hinduism was just known as “Sanatana Dharma” (pronounced, sanAtana dharma), “The Eternal Way of Life.”

    Thank you for your candor and thoughtfulness in your comment.

    -Desika

  8. Thank You so much for posting this meanigful article. I myself an Indian and always wondered what these symbols meant. I new there was a deeper meaning and today I know. Thanks to you. I am passing on this article to all my family and friends since they are in the same boat as I am. we practice but don’t know why and hence produce a generation full of ignorance since it is practised without knowing the real meaning.

    Namaste,
    Falguni

  9. Dear Falguni,

    I am very happy that my article was able help you.

    Time is rapidly approaching for all humanity to go beyond external rituals, dogma, doctrine and all societal conditioning in order to live a life of freedom and joy. Let’s all collectively achieve that.

    Love and Light,
    -Desika

  10. Interesting personal take on “Namaste”. I have understood it as a compound of two Sanskrit words, namah (to bow, salutations) and te (thee, you). So, in essence it means, similar to what you correctly paraphrased, “the divinity in me recognizes and bows to the divinity in you”.

    Also, the significance of ashes (vibhuti) applied to the forehead by Shiva devotees and sadhus belonging to Shaiva sects signifies two things: first that our “ego” (more accurately ahamkar, or sense of a separate individual doer) must be reduced to ash, and second, a reminder that the body and the world is impermanent by its very nature. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

    You might already know all this, but I thought I’d enlighten your readers (ha!)

    — Vikram

  11. Acne Solutions,

    Is it not the attitude, of the past 2000+ years of, “My way is better and I hate your way,” the reason for the ever escalating turmoil in the world? This attitude is seen not only in religious (though it is most prevalent and much more deep rooted there), but also in political, racial and all aspects of human life. Why not you live your way and let others live in theirs?

    Every religion has its symbology or parables. Why not explore the inner meanings of symbology in your own religion, so that you can go deeper into the practice of your own faith?

    Thanks for your thought provoking comment,
    Desika

  12. Hi

    Great post, your comment on Hinduism is very much true as Hinduism is not a religion and a way of life
    It is a great ocean in which many rivers of various schools of thought have converged and yet maintained their own identity

    In addition to to what you have mentioned in your article I could like to add some more things like lightning of camphor in front if the god at the end of the pooja actually symblosises

  13. In continuation to the obove

    denotes the actual cremation of the mortal body and reminds us when we are burnt nothing remains remains as the champhor when burnt
    Kindly correct me if I am wrong

  14. Dear Vinaya,

    Thank you for sharing the camphor symbology. I go one step further and say that lighting of the camphor indicates the ascension of the physical body into light (i.e. increases it’s vibratory frequency) as demonstrated by our great Siddhas like Kriya Babaji, Siddhar Thirumoolar, etc.

    Thanks again for adding your thoughts. It was invaluable, for I had forgotten to write about it in the article.

    Desika

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