Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Monday, December 21, 2009

How to Think freely

To think freely, we have to prepare everyone from childhood. It is very difficult to get off the “groove” as an adult. How do we prepare our children? A democratic free-thinking society, not afraid of letting people think is the first requisite. A full stomach and a roof over the head are needed. And then,

Parents have to teach the “roots’ to the children, and then let them to sprout “wings’ to fly

Parents have to practice their faith for children to see and learn from, but allow them freedom to explore

Schools and colleges should give not only accumulated knowledge to the learners,but also freedom to think and tools to think with.

If possible, it is good to live in another country for at least 6 months to 1 year. Live with and among the locals, not in clannish settlements. Eat their food. Listen to their music. Read their literature.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

More on Faith and Thinking on your own

The passage in the following paragraph is a reproduction of advice from Buddha, according to the translation of original Buddhist canons by Paul Carus published in 1894. I have not laid my eyes on the original. But I found this on a statement about this book with the title The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, published by Samata Books of Chennai. This was on the cover of another book by Samata Books on Yoga vasishta.

“Do not believe in what you have heard.; do not believe in doctrines because they have been handed down to you through generations, do not believe in anything because it is followed blindly by many; do not believe because some old sage makes a statement; do not believe in truths to which you have become attached by habit; do not believe merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Have deliberation and analyze, and when the result agrees with reason and conduces to the good of one and all, accept it and live up to it”.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Faith – Revisited

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

I continue to read and think about Faith in our daily lives. In the process, I came across two books recently. They are: Meditations for the Humanist by A C Grayling and Think for yourself by Steve Hindes. Professor A C Grayling teaches Philosophy at the University of London and Dr.Hindes teaches medicine and public policy at the University of Denver.

In the chapter on Faith in his book, Dr.Grayling makes several points that I did not touch on in my “blog” on Faith (March 2009). One example is “….. all faith is based on dogma”. He points out how “…. Matters of faith are tenaciously regarded as inviolable, irrefutable and unrevisable”. In this essay, he is comparing faith (as in religion) with reason (as in science). Prof.Grayling is a humanist and he sees no need for religion to explain beauty, love, greed, cruelty and similar noble and cruel human qualities. To his way of thinking, all these “…belong to us, to human experience in the real world. They neither need nor benefit from, some alleged connection with supernatural agencies of one kind or another”.

He also points out how “faith is negation of reason” and “faith is belief even in the face of contrary evidence”. Knowledge is also a kind of faith, but this belief is a state of mind based on proper observation and interpretation of facts and therefore true and justified. “Belief differs from knowledge in that whereas the latter is controlled by the facts, and depends upon the right kind of relationship between mind and world, the former is ALL and only in the mind, and does not rely on anything in the world. One can, in short, believe in anything”.

Doctor Steve Hindes is a physician. I am impressed with the number of physicians who write about thinking, although it is no surprise. Physicians are always making decisions in the midst of incomplete data and uncertainties. Therefore, they do have to be aware of the “full” picture even when they know that future is not fully knowable.

Dr.Hindes reviews all the the traps in thinking whether in history, science, religion or rhetoric. . He notes how irrationality may be found in any system of thought and “If irrationality is found in religion, science, education, government, business or the family”, it should be scrutinized. He is equally forceful in pointing out the dangers of following faith in making decisions. However, he separates out religion and faith in his discussion and he is also more interested in avoiding pitfalls generated by faith.

He points out how we hold on to old ideas not because they are true or just, but because it is useful to us – or at least to “some of us” and quotes Thoreau: “…. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof”. In his definition, faith is a type of thinking “that tempts us to claim that we can understand objective reality or act without adequate objective evidence (and perhaps despite compelling objective evidence)”.

He classifies faith into two categories: conditional and unconditional. Obviously,
we need conditional faith for daily living and to keep sanity. He compares this to the initial trust we give someone unless and until there is reason to change our judgment.

The unconditional faith is the impediment to being reasonable and fair in our thinking, since no amount of evidence can dislodge it. He then goes on to quote two aphorisms from ancient texts. In these texts, the Divine Teacher gives His discourse and at the end says: “Think for yourself”. In the first passage from Bhagavat Gita (Chapter 18: sloka 63) Lord Krishna tells Arjuna “Thus I have explained to you knowledge still more confidential. Deliberate on this fully; and then do what you wish to do”. The second passage is from the Bible ((Thessalonian 3:13): “Do not stifle the spirit. Test everything; retain what is good”.

These are interesting thoughts on faith and reason. My own interest is in being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of modes of perception of our minds and in developing our own methods of dealing with them. Obviously these thoughts lead me into the faith-reason, religion-science controversies. Immediately I sense resistance and arguments. More heat is generated and not light. Therefore, I wish not to dwell on these areas too much, although I have my own personal views. I am primarily for REASON. But there are areas we need to use Faith. Reason and Faith are like the left and right halves of our brains. They are like the close-up lens and telephoto lenses of the camera. We need both of them. The wisdom is in knowing which lens to use and when.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Daily Worship (Puja)

In the daily puja, a householder treats his or her favorite deity as an Honored Guest in the house. An image or an icon of the deity is at the center stage. The deity itself is a meta-representation of philosophical principles as pointed out in the section on Form and Substance. The puja may be very elaborate with 64 steps or simple with 16 steps. These steps are meant to help the performer focus on the deity and through that medium to merge with the Cosmos and The One Universal Force.

We already learnt that taking care of an unannounced guest is one of the five duties of every householder. Now, the deity is that honored guest. His presence is invoked in the idol (aavahanam) at the beginning of the puja with special mantra. His feet are washed , He is given sips of water, and is given a bath – not just with water but with honey, milk, saffron water, etc. He is then clothed, seated and is adorned with garlands and flowers. He is then worshiped with archana which consists of uttering His name and His glorious qualities. He is offered incense, food and fruits. There is a special ceremony called AArthi, (explained in the section on Form and Substance) with camphor or a special lamp with multiple wicks. This is followed by singing of His praise called bhajans. Finally, after He takes leave, the participants take part in the food and the water used to bathe the deity (Prasad).

In this process,the performer uses five specific items, called the saamagriyas. They are flowers, water, lamp (fire), incense and bell. They represent the five primordial elements of Samkhya philosophy namely earth, water, fire, air and space or ether. The flower stands for earth, water stands for water, lamp stands for agni or fire, bell stands for the sound or air and incense stands for space.

As mentioned earlier, there are two main streams in the Hindu religion on how to relate to the Supreme. Puja is the easy method suitable to all. But, the Upanishads say “saakare bhajas thaavath niraakare parey thathvey”. In other words, worship with the help of idols but remember the Formless Absolute.

The following is a sample sheet I prepared to teach children how to perform daily puja. You can use it too. Hope it helps.

A Practical Class on Puja for Children
Puja (or pooja) translates into WORSHIP. It is a religious service. It is an act of intense devotion to the Supreme, the God. It is an act anyone can perform, at home. It is not done only at the temple. It is a mere ritual when performed without faith and feelings. Performed with proper faith and attitude, it is a noble act, that benefits oneself and all of life forms, because it is one way of connecting our individual self (ATMAN) with the Universal Dimension (Brahman).

What is the PURPOSE of performing PUJA?
To show our respect and Love for the Supreme
To thank HIM/HER for all the bounties we receive
To ask for HIS/HER grace and guidance
To connect the individual (Atman, Pinda) with the Universal (Brahman, Brahmanda)
Of course, special pujas are performed to ask HIM/HER for personal favors, to help us during times of crisis etc and for the welfare of the society.

What are the requirements to perform PUJA?
Your Faith and your Attitude (called bhava in Sanskrit) are the most important ingredients.
Materials needed (with many variations, depending on your family tradition) are:
Image/Icon (made of clay, wood or metal) of a favorite deity (called vigraha). A painting will do. (Stone images are only for the temples)
A seat (aasana)
Few metal plates
A special vessel to hold water (called panchapatra – traditionally made of five metals)
A metal spoon
A bell (Ghanta – represents the SOUND/ Naada – Space/AAkasha element of the Universe)
Flowers (this and the next two items represent the SMELL/gandha – Air/vayu element)
Incense (agarbathi)
Sandalwood powder or paste (chandhan)
Lamp (represents LIGHT/agni element of the Universe)
Water (represents WATER/AApa element)
Fruits and cooked items of food (represent the EARTH/ prithvi element)
Raw Rice coated with turmeric, called akshata
Also, kumkum (vermilion), turmeric powder, milk , clean towels, a dress for the idol, a match box to light the lamp etc

What are the steps?
Consider the Lord as an honored guest in your house. What will you do to make Him feel welcome and comfortable?

Your preparation includes Your bathing and donning clean clothes
Get all the items (samagri) ready
Set the altar
Light the lamp - and say deepajyothi namosthu tthey
AAchamanyam (sip water three times)
Invoke Lord Gansha - and say
Shukla ambaradara vishnum shashi varnam chathur bujam
Prasanna vadanam dhyayeth sarva vigna upashaanthaye

Pranayam ( Gayathri will do for this purpose)
Sankalpa (determination, your intention to perform puja) - by saying
Mamopaktha samastha ddhuritha kshayadwara
Sri Mahaganapthi preeth-yartham aham Mahaganapthi pujaam karishye

Ring the bell - and say
Ghantaaravam kurvey
Sanctify the water and puja items (by sprinkling water on them)
Dhyanam – silent meditation and then say
Asmin bimbey Sri Mahaganapathim aa-vaa-hayaami (place akshata (yellow rice) on the idol (invoking Lord Ganesha in the idol)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – aasanam samaprpayaami (place akshata on the idol) (asking Him to be seated)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – paadyam samarpayaami (pour a spoonful of water in an empty dish) (washing feet)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah –arkyam samarpayaami (pour a spoonful of water in an empty dish) (water to wash hands)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – aachamanyam samarpayyami (pour a spoonful of water in an empty dish) (water to sip)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – snapayaami (sprinkle water on the idol) (bathing)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – vastram samarpyaami (wrap the idol in a clean piece of cloth) (dressing)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – gandhaan dhaarayami (place sandal paste on the forehead of Ganesh’s idol) (placing sandalwood paste on the forehead)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – akshaathan samaprpayaami (place akshata on the idol) (placing akshata/yellow rice)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – pushpaih pujayaami (place a flower or a petal at the feet of Ganesha) (placing a garland)
Now you perform the Ganseha Archana - with SIXTEEN names of Ganesha After saying each of the following names of Ganesha you place akshata or a flower at the feet of Ganesha.
Om Sumukhaya namah
Om Yekadanthaaya namah
Om Kapilaaya namah
Om Gajakarnaakaaya namah
Om Lambowdharaaya namah
Om Vikataaya namah
Om VigghnaRaajaaya namah
Om Ganaathipaaya namah
Om DDhoomakeythavey namah
Om Ganaadhyakshaaya namah
Om PPaalachandraaya namah
Om Gajaananaaya namah
Om Vakrathundaaya namah

Om Shurpakarnaaya namah
Om Heyrambaaya namah
Om Skandhapoorvajaaya namah
Om Mahaa Ganapathaye namah pushpaani samarpayaami

Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – ddhoopam aagraapayaami ( you hold the incense stick in your hand in front of Ganesha)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – dheepam dharshayaami (you
hold the lamp in front of Ganesha
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – mahanaivedyam niveydayami (you sprinkle water on the food or fruits being offered to the Lord)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – karpoora neeranjanam darshayaami (you now show the lighted camphor or perform AArti)
Then comes mantra pushpam, bhajan, and pradakshin (circambulation) etc
You then make your PRAYER (petition, requests)
1. Personal: avignam kuru mey deva sarvakaryeshu sarvadaa (please remove obstacles and help me perform my tasks)
2. Universal: sarvo janaah sukhino bhavanthu (Let everyone live in comfort/be blessed)
Now give Lord Ganesha a farewell: Thath sath brahmanaarpanam asthu

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rituals and Practices - 3

Other rituals

In his book on Gita Rahasya (Vol II Page 919),Tilak says that the Bhagavatha religion considered animal sacrifice as objectionable. Therefore this was replaced by sacrifice of wealth (hence the word thannamama). Later still other ways of obtaining moksha such as prayer (japa), austerities (vratha), pilgrimage (yatra) to sacred temples and rivers were prescribed. These were meant for those (women and specific castes) that were excluded from performing yagnas and homas and for those who do not have the means and as a means of getting rid of sins (prayaschitta).


Pilgrimage to rivers (Theertha yatra) such as Ganges and Kauveri is particularly common in India. The word theertha means “that which enables a man to cross an obstacle (a river)”. The river seems to have symbolic meaning at several levels.
1.The water comes from the sea and merges into the sea.
2.The water of the river is not different from that of the ocean and indicates flow of life.
3. Rivers contribute to prosperity. They also cause calamity.
4. The banks keep changing. Yet the unity of appearance is maintained.

Upaakarma and upanayanam

Sacred thread is a symbol worn primarily by the Brahmin men. Others belonging to Vaishya caste also wear the sacred thread. Women do not. There is a special ceremony when a young boy is vested with these threads at which time he gets his initiation into special daily japas. These japas are performed three times a day (at sunrise, middle of the day and at sunset).

What is the symbolism behind these threads (sutra)? Why are there three threads? The answers together with the mantra specific to wearing the threads are seen in a small Upanishad called the Brahmopanishad.

The word sutra means a thread. The word also denotes the unmanifested essence, the Absolute behind the entire universe. This Absolute holds together the Universe just as a thread holds together a string of pearls (thread as a support for the pearls). Thread is also what a cloth is made of (thread as inherent in a cloth). The Absolute spews out this universe, out of itself and takes it back into Itself, just as a spider weaves its thread out of itself. These symbolic ideas seem to be the basis for the use of threads or sutras.

Why the three threads? The sacred thread is called thrivit sutra, three strands. These three may represent the three gunas of the primordial prakriti from which all of this universe evolved, according to Samkhya philosophy. The three gunas are sattva (peaceful,tranquil), rajas(active) and tamas(ignorant,dull).

These three threads may also stand for thejas (fire), aapa (water) and anna (food). The three threads are tied into a knot which is placed on the left side in front of the heart where the prana or the vital force or the Divine Light resides.

The following is the mantra to be uttered while wearing the thread.
Yagnopaveetham paramam pavithram
Prajaapatheh yatsahaja, purasthaath
AAyushyam argyam prathimuncha shubram
Yagnopaveetham balamasthi thejah.

The exact meaning of this mantra is: “In the heart, the Devas live, the Pranas are present; in the heart, Supreme Light and the Immanent Cause with threefold constituents and the mahat reside. Let this sacrificial thread which is supremely sacred, which becomes manifest of yore with Prajapathi (the first created being), which embodies longevity, eminence and purity bring strength to you”.


Sipping three spoonfuls of water before and at the end of taking food is called aachamanyam. The origin of this practice may be traced to a passage in Chandogya Upanishad V.2.1. In this passage Prajapathi says that all food or anna (anna in sanskrit means that which is eaten; ath is to eat) is for the sake of Prana, the vital force. Then, “food” (anna) asks: “what is my garment?” Prajapathi says “water is your garment” (AApah ithi vaasah). Therefore people take water before and after food. (Yethath ashishyanthah purasthaath uparishtaath)


The practice of touching various parts of the body while uttering specific mantras is called nyasa. This routine owes its origin probably to the tantric system. During daily practice of sandhyavandanam (morning and evening ablution) and maadhyanhikam (ablution at noon) you will see the performer touch various parts of his body uttering the name of several deities. These names are Kesava, Narayana, Maadhava, Govinda, Vishnu,Madhusudhana, Trivikrama,Vaamana,Sridhara, Hrishikesa,Padmanabha and Damodara.

According to the Visishtadvaita, the Supreme Brahman abides in a four-fold form (vyuha) as Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. Paramapurushan, Parabrahman possess six divine qualities. What are those Divine qualities? They are: knowledge, strength, lordship, virility, potency and splendor.

Sri Vasudeva possesses all six of these qualities of the Supreme Brahman. From Him evolve Kesava,Narayana and Madhava; they are hypostatization of these six Divine qualities, two in each.

Sankarshana possesses knowledge and strength and from him evolve Govinda, Vishnu,Madhusudhana responsible for creation, maintenance and dissolution of the universe.

Pradyumna possesses lordship and virility and from Him evolve Trivikrama, Vaamana, Sridhara to protect individual souls.

Aniruddha represents potency and splendor, rules over individuation and helps liberate the individual. From Him evolve Hrishikesa, Padmanabha and Damodara.

This is also the basis of the presiding deities of the 12 months.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rituals and Practices - 2

Before discussing why Agni (fire) is so important in Hindu ceremonies, let me quote a few passages from a book on the Vedas by the late Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi of Kanchi. He defines Yagna as “offering libations to each deva through mantras”. Then he says “mantra means that by repeatedly meditating upon which, one is saved”. “The chanting of mantra in a yagna is like writing the address on a postal envelope, he says. Only if the oblations are made with the chanting would Agni carry the message to the devas”. He then comments that "the sacrificial fire converts the oblation to a subtle state before carrying it to the devas". More about these points later.

Why is Agni(fire god)so important? Fire is equated with the mouth of the Gods in several texts (eg: Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad). It is through the mouths and “tongues” of Agni that we can send our offerings to the rishis, Gods and ancestors. All of us know how the flames of fire are described as tongues in many languages. In Mundaka Upanishad there is a passage that recommends offering oblations to the Devas through the seven tongues of Agni (fire). There are even names for these seven tongues: kali, karaali, manojava, sulohita, sudhoomravarna, sphulingini and visvaruchi. The literal meanings of these names are: black, terrible, speedy as mind, very red, colored like thick smoke, emitting sparks and innumerable rays!

Also, in the Samkhya system of philosophy, the order of manifestation of the cosmos is space, air, fire, water and earth. Fire is the first visible element. This may be another reason why fire plays such a great part in our rituals. When you take a vow in front of Agni it is a covenant with the Gods.

When performing yagna, the offering to the fire is called aahuti (oblation) and is of three kinds. Those that flare when poured into fire (Yahuutha ujjvalanthi) such as ghee and wood are meant to please the deities. Those that make noise when poured into fire (Yaahuutha athinedhanthe) such as meat and wood sticks (called samith) are meant to please the manes. Those that go down when poured into fire (Yaahutha adhisheerathe) such as rice and milk and soma juice please the world of men.

Please note that items that make noise when poured into fire include meat. It appears that when this practice was given up(I wonder whether it was after Buddha's time), the priests started using special dry sticks called samith that make noise when deposited in fire. This is still practiced during homa ceremonies.

During the offerings, the performer utters several mantras. A mantra by definition is that which protects by being remembered (mananaat thraayate iti, mantrah). Each mantra is attributed to a particular rishi, is made in a specific poetic meter and has a specific deity in charge of it or associated with it. For example, Gayathri mantra is attributed to rishi Vishvamitra, is made in the meter Gayathri and its presiding deity is Savitha. Therefore, before starting the mantra, the performer mentions the name of the rishi and touches his head, then utters the name of the meter and touches the nose and utters the name of the deity and touches the heart. Now, you may see people doing this ritual daily and you now know why.

The performer of the yagna is supposed to say the mantra silently for meditation, and loudly while pouring the offerings. While performing yagnas and homas, the performer is asked to utter a mantra, use a moment of silence and then offer the oblation into the fire using words such as svaaha or thannamama.

Chandogya Upanishad and Aitreya Brahmana (25.8) say: “That which is sacrifice is a successive movement of speech and mind, activated by prana and apana”. In the Chandogya Upanishad, there are passages to suggest that there are two paths to performing sacrifices – the path of speech uttering a Mantra ending with the word svaaha and thannamama and the path of the mind (silence).

In a subsequent passage Chandogya Upanishad says: “atha yathra brahma na vyavadathi”. That is, the priest breaks the silence in the interval. This suggests that the performer is to meditate, break the silence to utter the mantra and offer the oblation. The next cycle of meditation, mantra and oblation starts again. We will come back to this silence aspect in a subsequent paragraph.

What do the words svaaha and thannamama mean at the end of each mantra. Svaha means one’s own. Svaaha means “this does not belong to me”. Mama means mine. Thannamama means “not mine”. In other words, the performer has to offer oblations saying “All of this belongs to you; not to me”. The feeling behind these words (bhava) is more important than the words uttered for the world to hear. Substance is more important than the ritual.

Thaithriya Kaathaka Prashna I - Final Anuvaaka 4th mantra states: “One who merely performs yagna without feeling the presence of God is merely feeding the fire with firewood and raises only smoke. He is a fool. He will never realize the Self”. There is also a sloka which lists six wrong methods of saying the mantras. That includes “anarthagna”, which means saying the mantra without understanding the meaning.

How does the oblation offered into agni help the devas? Why are we sending offerings to the lesser deities when our purpose is to please the Supreme? Kanchi Periyaval has an interesting answer in his book on the Vedas. It is as follows: ” …. For each ritual there is a separate mantra, Devata, sacrificial object, time etc. Thus, although there is a different procedure for performing each, the ultimate goal is to please the Supreme Being. We know that although paid in different offices, all taxes are credited to the government’s revenue.”Similarly……

Let me digress to another area which requires intervals between silence and mantra. This is the practice of japa with the aid of beads strung around a thread (rosary). This is a common practice in all traditions. The idea is to focus on a mantra or the name of your chosen deity and repeat that name while touching the beads in succession. This is to prevent the mind from wandering all over and help focus. Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan master explains the idea in his book on Meditation as follows. He suggests that we say the mantra while touching the beads one at a time, calm down, enter a moment of silence and then touch the next bead. The goal should be to prolong the period of silence in between the beads so that the moments of silence become predominant. Once you can do that, you do not need the rosary beads. The focus of japa should be the practice of silence in between the beads and not chanting of the mantra or pushing the beads!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rituals and Practices - 1

Photo of a homam: courtesy of Sharanya

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi,and Ariana

Rituals are symbolic languages of cultures. The root word for ritual is ritus in Latin, which means “to fit together”. The symbols of all cultures of the world are made of common elements: fire in the form of candles or lamps or open fire; water to pour or sprinkle; earth or stone or products of earth such as rice; and air in the form of sound (chanting or bell). These elements are combined with an altar and special gestures to complete the rituals.

Just as images help us visualize the formless, rituals connect us with the Universal principle. In addition, rituals help us connect with others in our society and rest of the humanity since these are practiced by members of a group.

People of Vedic (Hindu) religion follow several rituals, practices and sacrifices in their daily life. All of them are symbolic of certain beliefs current at one time in the history of the tradition. For example, samskaras are purification rites performed at crucial stages of one’s life such as first birthday, introduction of solid food, marriage etc. Another practice consists of special rites performed on new moon day or during eclipse for helping our ancestors. The reason was that our ancestors (pithru) were supposed to live in the chandraloka (moon) after death and we give them offerings to help them ease out of cycles of birth and death.

It is clear to me from my readings that the Tantric system has been the source of many rituals and taboos during prayers and pujas. The Tantric system is separate from the four major Vedas and has influenced both Hinduism and Buddhism.

Rituals and practices have become embedded in our culture and upbringing. They have become part of our tradition. Many of them have lost their meaning or relevance (for example, special rites on the day of eclipse). We do not know the symbolic meaning of many other practices and yet observe them. For example, I notice that Sudharsana Homam has become fashionable among the immigrant Indians in US. Did you know that Sudharsana is a meta-representation of Vishnu’s disc (chakra) which itself is a meta-representation of our mind?

Many of these rituals were prescribed to obtain specific benefits, such as success in studies, success in business, harvest bounty etc. We practice them because we wish to succeed and these rituals give us extra strength. Many of them are followed also because of fear of bad consequences if we do not observe them. Some of our ancient texts suggest severe consequences for the non-observers. For example, Baudhayana Dharma shastra says: “jaayamaanau vai brahmanah thribih runava jaayathey”. The meaning of this statement is that brahmins are born with 3 debts – one each to the Rishis (sages), Gods and the manes (ancestors). If one does not perform sacrifices to pay off these debts, it will lead to bad results (akaraney prathyavaaya). No wonder that these sacrifices were followed by our ancestors with diligence.

In this section, I take a few rituals and explain their symbolic meaning. I am not a vedic scholar. Nor am I a Sanskrit scholar. However, when I read many of our Upanishads and other books, I keep looking for passages that explain the meaning of symbols and rituals. The following explanations are based on passages I have read for myself. I will be glad to share the names of the texts and passages with interested readers.


Our ancestors performed several types of sacrifices (yagnas). Those mentioned in the Sruthi’s (Vedas) such as Asvameda Yagna and Vaajasneya yagna are not in vogue anymore. Wealth and power were required of the performers of these sacrifices. Usually Kshatriya kings performed these yagnas with the help of Brahmin priests. However, several other kinds of sacrifices mentioned in the smrithis and puranas are still being practiced.

Most of the yagnas are performed with agni (fire-god) at the center and as the conveyor of our offerings and oblations to the appropriate deity. There are several hundred such fire rituals. But, all sacrifices do not need agni in the center.

The primary idea is that we should be grateful to the Divine Power for all that has been given to us in our lives and we should express our gratitude by performing sacrifices. According to Manu Smriti there are five such sacrifices – panchayagnas. First is brahmayagna to satisfy the rishis. Study and teaching of the Vedas accomplishes this duty. Devayagna is to satisfy the deities. This is accomplished by the practice of pujas (daily worship) and fire rituals called homa. In the homa, one invokes the fire God (agni) and one makes offerings into the fire to various gods while uttering mantras and prayers. Pitru yagnam is meant to repay our debts to our ancestors. This is accomplished by a ritual called tarpanam and also the practice of shraardha (performed every year at the anniversary of the death). Shraardha is performed with fire in the center. Feeding the hungry, giving food to others, to the birds and animals is called bhuta yagna. The final and fifth is athithi yagna which is the duty to a guest who comes unannounced (athithi).

In addition, the vedic tradition recommends the practice of several purification rites called samskaras . These are meant to make the individual become aware of the sanctity of life and his connection to the cosmos. Some of them are meant to be performed every day (nithya karmas such as agnihotram), some are occasional (naimittika karma such as upanayanam) and some are performed for specific purpose, to gain a specific result. Many of these samskaras are performed with an altar of fire in the center.

Why is agni (fire-god) so important in many of these rituals?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Images and Icons

Dear Asha,Ajay,Ravi and Ariana,

Our ancestors maintained that there is ONLY one Original Source and that people call IT by different names. If so, how come Hindus worship so many Gods? In this essay, I wish to answer this question, as I understand it.

I explained the meaning behind the forms we worship in the previous essays. When you read them I hope you understood that the forms of Gods are symbolic representations of divine qualities. Their hands, head(s), the objects in Their hands and the ornaments adorning Their body represent concepts. They are metaphors for Divine qualities and reminders of our relationship to the Unity behind diversity. Images of “Gods” look like human and therefore approachable. At the same time those heads and hands and the objects they carried set them apart from us and made them half-human and half something else (eg: Ganesha, Shanmuga, Narasimha, Hayagriva etc. Some examples from Greek mythology are Medusa and Centaur.

Metaphysical discussions on the origin and the nature of the Universe and our relationship to the Original Cause have been going on since the dawn of civilization. There are two major basic and opposing points of view. One emphasizes the abstract concepts behind the singularity or the unity behind the multiplicity. This approach is philosophical, demands self-inquiry and needs personal effort and discipline. This is the path of spirituality and is very difficult to follow for most people. The other gives a name to that Primordial Unity, emphasizes a personal relationship to this Original source with a form (God), and gives an organizational structure to worship this God. This method is easier to follow for most people, particularly children. This is the path of religion.

“In the beginning, there was nothing” says a famous hymn from Rg Veda. How did something come from nothing? How did this universe start? This question has occupied the minds of philosophers and mystics for centuries both in the east and the west. There are, of course, several opinions. One group says that the universe came out of one or more primordial substances such as space, air, fire, water and earth and that there is no other original principle. This was the view of the Samkhya system of Indian philosophy and some Greek philosophers .

Another group follows the common human psychology which requires an explanation for everything in the form of a causative agent and an intention. This says that there has to be One original source just as there can be no clay pot without a potter and clay. The various activities of the cosmos (and of the world we live in) are not carried out by the material objects (made out of the five basic substances of speace, air, fire,water and earth) by themselves, but by an active spirit called variously as Purusha, deity, Deva, and angel. This spirit got Its energy from the Original source.

The One original source behind everything in this universe has different names in different cultures. For example , we call it Brahman (Parama purusha, parabrahman) in the Vedic Hindu tradition and this Primordial Source is called Wakanda in Sioux, Orenda in Iroquois, Mulungu in Bantu, Allah in Islamic and Yahveh in the Jewish traditions. In the Christian tradition, I have seen several names. One is God-head. The other is the Holy Spirit. Yet another is the “Father in the Heaven”. All the ancient traditions recognized such a single, primary “divine” central force or spirit from which everything flashed forth and from which they derived their energy for function

The derived spirits (purusha, deity,deva etc) common to all non-christian traditions were mistakenly called the Gods by western missionaries and writers. The more suitable word is angel, akin to the Sanskrit word Angirasa. True translation of the word angirasa is “the essence or the force behind (rasa) the parts (anga)”. Deity (Deva, similar to divine) is another appropriate word as mentioned earlier.

In the vedic Hindu system there are several such deities, so called gods. For example, there is Indra (the king of the devas or gods), Varuna (the king of rain or ocean), Soma (the lord of the moon), Rudra (lord of the beasts), Yama (the lord of death), Mrthyu ( the lord of diseases) and so on. That is at the cosmic level.

At the human level, specific intelligent energies present in the subtle plane are considered to be essential for the functions of the human body. Thus, at a personal level, Indra is the force behind the power of the hands, Vishnu of the feet, Agni or Fire is for speech, the Sun for the eyes, Varuna for the tongue, Ashvini devatas for the nose, dhik for the ears, Mithra of excretory organs, Prajapathi for generative organs. Indeed, the root for the word deva is div, which means to illuminate. The word deva was used originally to refer to the sense organs (eyes,ears etc) since they illuminate their objects and therefore the name deva is appropriate for the ruler of each of the sense organs.

There are corresponding sets of so-called Gods in the Greek and Roman mythologies also. For example, the supreme God in the Greek pantheon is Zeus, probably akin to Indra of Hindu mythology and Jupiter of Roman mythology. The Lord of the ocean is Poseidon in Greek and Neptune in the Roman mythology. Demeter is the presiding deity of agriculture in the Greek mythology and Ceres in the Roman mythology (the root for the word, cereals). Goddess of beauty and love is Aphrodite in the Greek mythology and Venus in the Roman mythology and so on.

Although all cultures believe in ONE superior power, they all personified this power. This is the projection of human features and qualities on the divine. This is what is called anthropomorphism, making “a God in man’s image”. Since all cultures also believed that the Divine Power is the force behind all of nature, they also personified the various aspects of nature – like the Earth, the Rain, the Sun, the Moon etc. These are the so-called “gods and goddesses” according to the western writers.

Christian missionaries applied the word “god” “as a general term for the usually non-personified greater power”. The missionaries used the word god to translate words they encountered such as Jumala (Finnish deity for sky), Mulungu of Bantu and Brahman of India. Of course, all these words referred to ONE supreme power “energizing” every aspect of nature – and not an individual “god” as the missionaries understood. In Sanskrit, the word closest to the English “god” is “deva”. In translation, deva is close to the word angel of the biblical tradition.

The jump from this attribution of the name “God” to the deities of the “other” groups to criticizing all earlier groups as “heathens” who worship multiple gods was easy. The Jewish prohibition of making “images” of God came out of the need “to separate its deity beyond all human descriptions from the anthropomorphic gods of semitic and Egyptian neighbours” . This anti-idolatory tradition of the Jewish roots was taken up by Christianity and Islam that grew out of Judaism.

Hindus and other polytheists realize that the symbols point beyond the intermediate “forms” or idols (or murthis or vigrahas) to the ONE Absolute Primordial Principle. To them these deities are many distinct aspects of the ONE reality. They know that “a deity is a limited being and not the ultimate Reality itself. Gods and Goddesses can, however, become portals to the Reality” (Feuerstein G. Tantra: The Path to Ecstasy. Shambala 1998)

Vedas themselves tried repeatedly to tell us that the Formless Unity is the only ultimate Reality and not the multitudes of Gods with forms. Yoga Vasishta 32.1.8 says: “Saakaaram bhajasthaavath …… Niraakare parey thathve” which means that we worship with forms (until our mind is clear) and we reach a stage of spontaneous abiding in the Formless Truth.

Gita 12.5 states:
“Kleshodhikatharah theshaam avyakthasakthachethasaam
avyaktha hi gathirdhukkam dehavadhbih avaapyathe”
which means that the man who wishes to concentrate his mind on the imperceptible suffers because to the human clothed in the body it is inherently difficult to reach the state of imperceptible.

In Chapter 7, sloka 24 of Gita, Lord Krishna says:
“Avyaktham vyakthimaapannam manyanthe maamabuddhayah
param bhavaavam ajaanantho maamaavyayanuththaman” I
which translates to “ignorant people worship my perceptible form with a human frame. That is not my true form. My imperceptible form is my true form”.

Finally, Vedantha Sutra says Na Prathike na saha which means “He is not in the symbols; He is beyond them”. In addition, Yoga Vasishta 31:55 states: “Nithyam avyapadheshyaapi kathamchit vyapadheshyathi” which translates to “although It cannot be named, somehow It gets named”. Brihadaaranyaka Upanishd 1.4.6 says
Thadhyadidamaahuh amum yajaamum yajethi, ekaikam devam
which means “people pay sacrifice to this God and to that God considering them to be separate. But, they are multiple projections of Him. He Himself is all the Devas”.

If so, how did we end up with multitudes of images and sects following different deities and their images? Bal Gangadhar Tilak quotes Yoga Vasishta in his remarkable book called Gita Rahasya (Volume 1, Page 575) and gives a possible explanation for the creation of images in our culture.
Aksharaavagamalabdha ye yatha
sthulavarthuladhrushath parigrahah shuddha
Buddha parilabdhaaya thatha
dharumrunmayashilaah mamaarchanam
which means “just as we arrange pieces of stones in front of a child to acquaint him with letters, so are idols made of wood (dharu), clay(mrit) or stone(shila) in order to acquire knowledge of the Pure Paramatman (the Supreme Spirit)”.

In spite of all these repeated assertions, the reality is that people cannot focus on an abstract spirit. Children certainly cannot. Therefore, our forefathers created several meta-representations of philosophical concepts and made images out of them. These meta-representations became the so-called Gods. The images are the vigrahas or moorthy’s of the Gods.

In Sanskrit, Pratika is a symbol (for example OM) and Pratima is an image or idol or figure. Indeed, Visishtadvaita (qualified monism) posits five forms of God or Ishvara (ruler), namely para (transcendent, absolute), vyuha (manifestation), vibhava (incarnations, 10 of them), antharyamin (indweller, atman) and archa ( an icon or idol). As you can see, idol or icon is considered a form of God. The Sanskrit word for the form or idol is “Vigraha”. The word “vigraha” is the opposite of “graha”. “Graha” is to hold or to contain. “Vigraha” represents that which cannot be contained.

Images and icons are symbols. We use symbols all the time. National flags are symbols. The Golden Arch of McDonald and the tri-colored ball of Pepsi are symbols. In the spiritual sphere, Jack Kornfeld pointed out that symbols are “images of awakening”. These outer images point to our inner world and the relationship between the inner world and the outer world. Images are used in all spiritual traditions – even those which prohibit image worship. In Buddhism which started as a renegade is full of images, such as the Bodhisattva of compassion and Manjusri of illusion and Avalokiteswara of listening.

In the Indian mythology, each one of the Gods was endowed with special qualities and elaborate stories (puranas) were created around each one of these figures. The idea is that each one of those Gods will appeal to different human personalities, so that each one of us can use our favorite “image” to meditate on. The ultimate goal however is to aim for the formless Brahman through this individual, private, favorite medium.

The problem however is that people get attached to one form, mistake the symbol for the substance, develop elaborate rituals for worship, follow esoteric practices, spin elaborate theology and create meta-representation of the meta-representation of that particular form. They then cling to the symbols,pujas and rituals. They do not proceed any further in their spiritual practice and enter blind alleys. That is the tragedy of blind faith and closed minds.

In summary, vedic Hindu tradition says that the Almighty is ONE, by whatever name we call IT. It concedes that ordinary men and women need an object, a sound, something to focus on. It recognizes that most of us, particularly children, cannot meditate on a Formless, Absolute, abstract Brahman or Atman. In order to help grasp the formless Brahman, the wise sages of India gave many forms to the formless. It is reasonable to start prayers and meditation at the altar of one’s favorite deity or god or angel with form or idol. Once we have reached a certain level, our tradition asks us to go beyond the form to the formless, from Symbol to Substance.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Arthi ( with Camphor)

Arthi is the act of burning camphor or using a lamp with wick as an offering to God. It is one of the 16 steps in Puja. Burning camphor has a symbolic meaning. When it burns, it leaves nothing behind. When we burn camphor, we are symbolically requesting the Lord that we become one with Him/Her and leave no residue behind.

Also, when camphor burns, the center is white; the middle portion is golden color; there is the outer smoke. These represent Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. We already saw that these three in turn represent creation, protection and destruction.

While performing arti, the priest may utter the following mantra. “Thameva bhantham anubhathi sarvam; thasya bhaasa sarvamidam vibhathi”. A simple translation is: “Because of Him, everything is illuminated,made visible and become perceptible”.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Anjali

This position of hands is well known, both when we worship and when we greet each other. There is a deep symbolic meaning to the fingers of the hand and to this anjali.

The little finger represents human ego. The ring finger stands for desire. The middle finger represents spiritual ignorance. The index finger stands for that aspect of God who is in everyone (Paramatma) and the thumb represents that aspect of God who is in us (Jivatma).

By placing our hands together in this way, we are reminding ourselves to get rid of the ego and desire (the two fingers representing them are away from our body), understand our ignorance (middle finger) which prevents us from recognizing that the Paramatma and Jivatma are the same and they are both close to our hearts.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Symbols and Substance: GITOPADESA

In the famous scene of Gitopadesa, there is a chariot with a flag,with Hanuman as the symbol. That flag tells us that the chariot belongs to Arjuna. Arjuna is standing on the side of the chariot. Krishna is at the helm holding the reins of the horses. The story behind this scene at Kurukshetra is well-known. The meaning behind the scene can be found in a couple of slokas in Kathopanishd.
Aathmaanam rathinam viddhi; shareeram rathameva cha
Buddhim cha saarathim viddhi mans prgrahameva cha.
Vignana saarathih ………………………….…..

In other words, the chariot represents the human body. The owner of this particular body is Arjuna. Lord Krishna, the charioteer is the Atman/Brahman. The horses represent the sense organs and the reins represent the mind. The message is that our sense organs and our mind are like uncontrolled horses. They will run in all directions. Hand over the reins to the Lord in you and let Him lead you safely through life. What a wonderful symbolism!

The same idea is expressed by Vidura in his conversations with Dhritarashtra in Vidura Niti (Sloka 60):
Rathah shariram purushasya rajan
Atma niyanthi indriyani asya cha ashvah
Thairapramatthah kushali sadhashvaih
Anthe sukham yaathi rathaiva dheerah.

The meaning is: “ A man’s body is the chariot, O king! The driver is the mind within and the senses are the horses. With the aid of these well-trained horses, a wise man, like a clever charioteer unerring goes on the journey of life comfortably”.

Interestingly, the Greeks also used the chariot symbol to represent human mind and its control, but with variations. In his famous piece entitled “Phaedrus”, Plato talks about a chariot with two horses, one white and one black. He says : “ And let the figure be composed of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. …one of them (horses) is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed. .. the right hand horse is upright and cleanly made; he is a lover of honesty and modesty and temperance…. He needs no touch of the whip. …. The other is a crooked and lumbering animal…. The mate of insolence and pride….”. Plato describes how it is very difficult to control the chariot with these horses pulling in different directions and how the charioteer (intellect) has to wield his reins.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Lord Krishna (with flute)

The flute is called Venu in Sanskrit. Venu is the word for bamboo. Venu is an instrument made of bamboo reeds. Krishna and flute go together! Therefore another name for Lord Krishna is “Venugopal”.

Flute used in South India has nine holes. It represents human body with nine “openings” namely, nostril (1), mouth (1), skin (1), eyes (2), ears (2), two for excretion. Flute is hollow to represent the human being who is free of ego and arrogance. It represents human being with humility. Lord Krishna is asking us to become hollow just like the flute, hollow and free of ego.

The flute represents us. He is always holding the flute (us) in his hands. If He is to play His Divine music through us, we have to get rid of our ego, become humble, and let Him play His music through us. That is the teaching in this form of Lord Krishna as Venugopal.

Now, how do we explain the north Indian flute (bansuri) with only 7 holes? This is always a problem with trying to find meanings in art, music and symbols without some documentation from the originator of the idea. One of the modern artists (Mr. Walead Beshty) points out “……how meaning is produced after a work leaves an artist’s studio”.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Lord Krishna (with butter)

Lord Krishna is described in several forms. This one is Bala Krishna ( the young one) with butter in His hands. The story is that he steals the butter. Critics of idol worship say “Why are you worshipping a thief?” Here is why.

What does the butter symbolize? Butter is made out of buttermilk by churning it. We make butter from the buttermilk by our efforts. Similarly, in order to attain Absolute and Divine Knowledge human effort is needed.

Butter is the essence, the cream of knowledge of the person who worked hard for it. Krishna says: “If you put the needed effort to evolve to Higher knowledge, you do not have to come searching for me. I will come and take (“steal”) you”. That is Divine Compassion (Karuna) and not stealing!!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Lord Vishnu and Adisesha

Here is the protector, Lord Vishnu, in his lying down pose – lying on a bed made of the coiled Adisesha. What is the significance of Adisesha, the Snake God?

Before I go any further, the discussion is not about mythology of Adisesha. It is about the snake as a symbol and what it stands for. This will apply irrespective of how many heads the snake has. Incidentally, snake is a symbol of longevity in the Chinese culture. Snake is also a symbol of renewal both in Indian and Chinese cultures. In the Tantric system, Universal energy is supposed to be in the shape of a snake with three and a half coils and is called the Kundalini. You will see this snake with three and a half coils around the base of some of the statues of Linga.

Now back to the snake as a symbol. Have you ever seen a snake and mongoose fight? I have. The mongoose will come from behind the snake’s head. That is because the snake can strike only when the head is facing away from the tail, in other words with the head turned outwards. When the head is turned inwards, it cannot strike. The snake represents human ego. Human ego is like a snake, venomous as long as it is turned outwards! Turn it inwards; it is incapable of striking. What is more, when it is turned inwards, it will start seeing the Lord within.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Lord Vishnu

Vishnu is one of the trinity of Gods of the Vedic Hindu pantheon. Cosmic cycles consist of manifestation, maintenance and dissolution of the universe. In the meta-representation of this cycle, Brahma represents manifestation or creation; Vishnu stands for maintenance or protection and Shiva represents dissolution.

It is interesting to note that Brahma’s consort is Saraswathi, Vishnu’s concert is Lakshmi and Shiva’s consort is Uma or Parvathi. Observe that each male figure has a female counterpart – matter and energy, as it were. It is more interesting to note that Saraswathi is the Goddess of Knowledge. How can Brahma create without knowledge? Vishnu’s wife is Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. How can you run a family without wealth? Shiva is the destroyer. His wife is the loving Universal mother, Uma. The original concept of our elders is so beautiful and logical.

The word Vishnu derives from the word Vish which means to enter or to pervade. One meaning of Vishnu is:
Vish vyaapaney nuk – meaning He who pervades the Universe.

Also: Yasmaat vishvam idham sarvam thasya shakthyaa mahaathmanah
Thasmaath yeva ucchyathey vishnuh vishadhatho praveyshannath

In substance this means that Vishnu is one who has entered into everything and everyone in the Universe. There is some connection to the ten avatars in this definition that I do not understand.

Let me digress a little here. In early writings, Vishnu is mentioned as one of the 12 Adityas, a solar deity. It appears that the term Ishvara got connected with the name of Vishnu later in history. In Samkhya philosophy there is no mention of Ishvara (God). It talks about purusha and prakriti as the origins of the universe. The obvious question is “Who created prakriti and pusursha?” Brahman, Parabrahman or Paramapurusha was posited as the Ultimate Source. This is Divine with no form, no beginning, no end, immutable. How did this Nirgunabrahman (Brahman without attributes) create everything? Therefore, the concept of Sagunabrahman, the original Creator with form came into use. However, this concept is interpreted differently by different schools. Advaitins say that sagunabrahman is none other than the supreme Brahman conditioned by maya. Visishtadhvaitham says that they are separate. In this system, Ishvara is the name for this separate sagunabrahman. This Ishvara manifests in this world in five forms. They are para(transcendent), vyuha(emanation), vibhava (incarnation), antharyamin (indweller) and archa ( a sacred icon). Vyuha in turn has several names. They are listed by Bhishma in his talk with Yudhishtra as follows: Hari, Vishnu, Narayana, Vasudeva, Dhamodara, Keshava, and Krishna.

Another version is that the Supreme Brahman abides in a four-fold form as Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. From these emanate (vyuha) a total of 12 deities representing different divine qualities. They are Kesava, Narayana, Madhava, Govinda, Vishnu,Madhusudhana,Trivikrama, Vamana, Sridhara, Hrishikesa, Padmanabha and Damodara. We will come to this later when we describe symbolism in rituals.

Now, let us take Vishnu as a concept of Lord of Protection and find out what is behind the physical description of his form. He has a disc (chakra) in one hand, mace (gadha) in another hand, a conch (shanka) in the third hand, bow and arrows ( Sharnga and shara) in other hands, and sword (khanga) in one other hand. He has mark of Lakshmi on the chest (Srivathsa), a garland of gems (kausthuba) and a garland of flowers (vanamala) around his neck.

The meta-representations are as follows: Chakra, the disc represents the human mind which is always spinning at enormous speed. A sloka in support of this explanation is as follows:
chalaswaroopam adhyantham javena antharitha nalam
chakraswaroopam cha mano dhatthe Vishnu karay sthitham.

The meaning of this sloka is that the human mind is like the disc in Vishnu’s hand spinning at enormous speed. It is only by His grace one can gain control.

It is interesting to note that this representation has been meta-represented as another God in the name of Sudharsana. There are elaborate rituals and homam for the worship of Sudharsana . It is a metarepresntation of a representation!

The mace represents Mahat, the first principle to come out of Prakriti according to the Samkhya philosophy. The conch represents ego or Sattvika ahankara and the bow represents Thaamasa ahankara. The sword stands for Gnaana or Divine Knoweldge and its sheath for Agnana or ignorance. The Kausthuba garland is the Purusha of Samkhya philosophy and the Srivatsa (mark on the chest signifying the presence of Lakshmi) is the Prakriti. The arrows and the vanamala are to denote the 5 primordial principles (space,sound,sight,smell and touch) or Tanmatras.
The sloka in support of this explanations is from Vishnu Purana:
Chetah chakrathi chetanasiramathi thathsamvrithimaalika
Bhuthaani svagunaih ahamkrithiyugam shankena sharngaayathey
Baanah khaani dashaapi kausthubamanih jivah praadhaanam punah
Shrivathsah kamalaapathy thava gadaam aahuh mahaantham budhah

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Symbols and Substance - Raja Rajeshwari (Lalitha)

It is no surprise that “God” is often represented as a mother figure in several cultures. When the Primordial Force and the Creator is visualized in the female form, She is Rajeshwari. She is the Universal Mother. She loves her children. She likes her children to realize the Divine Truth and not to go after the unreal, the false.

In order to kill Mahishasura ( a demon), She rode a lion and used swords, bows and arrows. She wants us to conquer our internal demons. How does She show that? She still has the bows and arrows in her hands. But, She carries a sugar cane in Her left hand instead of a bow and a bunch of flowers in Her right hand instead of arrows. She wants to remind us about the Divine Truth gently and without hurting. May be that is why She is using a bow made of sugar cane and arrows made of flowers?

In the vedic system, the Supreme Force is represented as both male and female – Matter and Energy; Shiva and Shakti. Shiva and Shakti may be worshipped as separate, as two parts of the same body (as in Ardhanareeswara), as female energy hidden behind male energy (as in Dakshinamurty) or as male energy hidden behind the female energy (as in Kamakshi).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Symbols and Substance - Dakshinamurthy

Lord Shiva is the Guru,the teacher in this form of Dakshinamurthy. The definition of Guru is given in the following sloka:
Gukaarasthu anthakaarah syat Rukaarasthu nivarthakah
Anthakaarnirodhithvath guru ithi ucchyathey buddhaih

The meaning is: Gu stands for ignorance; Ru stands for its removal. Since he removes our ignorance, he is called Guru.

Dakshinamurthy practices “mouna” (silence). When the guru and the disciples are in synchrony, words are superfluous.

His index finger and the thumb are touching each other, to tell us that the Universal God, Paramatma (index finger) and the Personal God, Jivatma (thumb) are one and the same. This is the entire essence of various philosophical teachings.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Symbols and Substance - Nataraja

Lord Nataraja

This is another form of Lord Shiva, made famous in the western world because of the icons of Nataraja of great artistic beauty.

Nataraja means the King of Dances. In His dancing pose, one foot is on the ground, standing on a demon. The other foot is free in space. There is fire in one hand and a drum in another. He has the river Ganges (Ganga)and crescent moon on his head. What do all these represent?

His dance is the Cosmic dance of creation. His dancing theatre is the Universe. Mayalaka, the demon on whom Nataraja is standing with one foot, is maya, the illusion (ignorance), suggesting that we crush our ignorance and illusion.

But the other foot is free, free of dependence and attachment. He says that even as we live in this world of reality, we have to keep one foot free. In other words, He asks us to learn to be free of attachment to worldly things.

One hand has the drum; the drum makes noise only when the hand moves, when His hand moves. The drum also represents cosmic sound, from which this Universe was created by Him. The drum, therefore, represents the world that He creates and controls.

The other hand holds fire. This represents human mind that like the flames of the fire, wavers and is unsteady. It also represents the opposite of creation (the drum), the dissolution of the universe.

On the head, the Ganges (Ganga) represents cool and refreshing wisdom and the crescent moon represents eternal, blissful and soft Divine Light.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Lord Shiva

Shiva is one of the trinities of the Vedic Religion. The other two are Brahma and Vishnu. These forms stand for each of the three functions of the Absolute Primordial Force – namely, creation (Brahma), protection (Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva). When all three faces are seen in the same unit, the name is Trimoorthy (three embodied forms).

Shiva is often shown living in cremation ground. He wears sacred ashes and a garland of skulls. His neck is black (Neelakantan). Why is Shiva in this form?

He lives in cremation ground so that you and I can live in comfort.

He wears ashes and skull so that you and I can wear sandal powder and jasmine powder and garland of flowers.

His neck is black because he drank a poison (visham). He swallowed poison so that you and I can have the Divine nectar (amritha).

These represent the thyaga(sacrifice) of the Divine for the human. That is why, Shiva is also called Thyagaraja.

Although Shiva (meaning auspicious) is often depicted as Rudra (the formidable), this form of Thyagaraja shows His compassion for His subjects.

The root Sanskrit word for Rudra is “rudh” which means “ to cry”. One meaning for the name Rudra is That One who can make you cry. In other words, frightful, formidable. Another meaning for rudh is driving away. Therefore rudra may also mean one who drives away suffering. It appears that the name Rudra used in Rig Veda became Shiva subsequent to the writings of Svetaswatara Upanishad.

The name Shiva denotes auspicious or ultimate reality.

In His “terrible” aspect Shiva’s names are: aghora, bhairava, ugra and rudra. In His benevolent form, His names are: shiva, shankara, shambhu, thyagaraja, and dakshinamurthy.

The name Nataraja seems to be related to His “terrible” aspect. We will look at the symbolism behind Nataraja in the next essay.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Lingam is used as a symbol of Shiva. This is a form with shape, but no details. From the Formless and Nameless comes a form with no details. This represents what is called the vyaktha- avyaktha stage in the evolution of matter according to the Samkhya philosophy. Lingam represents this intermediate stage in the evolution of forms from the formless.

Those who worship Vishnu as their chosen deity use a similar form with shape but no details. It is a special stone called saligram.

Lingam is called a cosmic pillar or sthanu, without a beginning or an end.

Lingam also symbolizes the Earth aspect of the five primordial principles (the others being water, fire, air and space).

Western scholars consider Lingam as phallic symbol, thanks to Freudian psychology. I cannot deny such an interpretation. Tantric texts give several indications for such an interpretation. But ancient texts written before the Tantric writings and Freudian psychology give plenty of explanations that support the concept of Lingam as the intermediate stage between the formless and the form, representing the earth element.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lord Subrahmanya

(This image is reproduced with permission from Exotic India,

Shiva and Parvathi have two sons – one is Ganesha and the other is Subrahmanya. Subrahmanya is also known by several other names. They are: karthikeya, shanmukha, muruga and devasenapathi.

We talked about the meaning of the form of Ganesha in the previous essay. Ganesha, alias Ganapathi is the chief (pathi) of ganas ( tribes, humans). Devasenapathi is the chief of (tribes of Devas). These could also be interpreted as chief of manushya gunas (human tendencies) and devagunas (divine tendencies).

The root word for Subrahmanya is Brahmam ( note the variations such as Brahman, Brahma). Brahmam means the embodiment of the Absolute Immutable Brahman. The word also denotes the sacred Vedas. Therefore, the name stands for the embodiment of the Absolute Primordial Principle described in the Vedas.

Another name for Subrahmanya is Shanmukha or one with six faces. The five functions of Shiva (Matter) and the one of Shakti (energy) combine to give us the six faces of Shanmukha. The following sloka in Subrahmanya Thathva summarizes the symbolism:

“Hantha they kathayishyami rahasyam shrunu sundari
Shivoham nishkalah poornah shakthisthvam anapaayani
Panchakrityaparah cha aham panchavaktrah sadaashivah
Ekavakthraasi bahudha bhinnaapi parameshwari
Thanmayo manmayo yasmaat shadvakthrah parikeerthithaha
Panchakrithyaparoyam cha prapanchasya asya leelaya”

In this passage, Shiva is talking with Shakthi (Parvathi, Uma), the female energy counterpart. He says: “ let me tell you what our son Shanmukha represents. I perform 5 functions – revelation, manifestation or creation, protection, destruction and dissolution (covering). You, my dear, are the energy, and although you are One, you manifest as multitude. Shanmukha is a combination of our forces and is a manifestation of our playfulness with this Universe.”

Subrahmanya was born in a reed lake forest (sharavana). Therefore, he is also called Sharavanabhavan.The word shara has another esoteric meaning. The letter "sha" stands for number 2 and the word "ra" for the number 5. Twenty five (25) stands for the components of the primordial universe of the Samkhya philosophy.

Subrahmanya took two wives. He had 9 assistants. He killed several demons. His flag has a peacock and a cock. Every one of these items symbolizes deep philosophical and metaphysical principles. If you wish to know more, please read Sri Subrahmanya Thathvam by Mr. N.Subrahmanya Iyer, published in Tamil language in 1940 by the Guhananda Brahmavidya Vimarshini Mandali.

Sunday, July 12, 2009



Lord Ganesha (Ganapathi, Vinayaka) has the head of an elephant, a huge big belly, large ears, a large trunk ( since he is in the form of an elephant) and has a small little mouse to ride on(vahana). What do these things symbolize?

The large head symbolizes knowledge and wisdom. The large ears emphasize the importance of listening. He listens to his devotees carefully. The long trunk can handle heavy logs of wood; it can also pick up small peanuts. This suggests that we need wisdom that can handle heavy philosophical truths and also small details of daily life.

The elephant head also symbolizes another basic teaching of the Vedic tradition – namely the “neti” philosophy. ”Neti” in Sanskrit is made of two words : Na (not) + Ithi (this) = neti. In other words, we are supposed to reflect on this world and the universe which are limited by time and space and keep realizing that “This is not the truth”. What has this got to do with an elephant? If you have seen elephants, you will see that they rarely stay still. They keep swaying their body and keep moving their heads from side to side very much like the way people in India say “no”.

Am I making this story? No. There is actually a Sanskrit Prayer explaining this simile. It is the 8th sloka of Ganeshashtakam in the Ganesha Purana and runs as follows:

yatho vedavacho vikuntta manobhih, sadha nethi nethi ithi yattha grunanthi.

We are asked to keep realizing that the elephant’s to and fro movements indicate the impermanence of material things and therefore the need to seek the eternal truth.

Ganesha’s belly is big – representing the fact that the entire Universe is contained in Him.

Ganesha is very large and heavy. But, to a true devotee He can be as light as a mouse. He can ride on a mouse (you) and the mouse will not even know He is on its back!!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Part 1: Introduction

(Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana, I am writing the following essays for the benefit of anyone, adult or child, Hindu or non-Hindu, who may be interested in learning about symbolism in the Vedic religion. I hope this explains why we have so many “gods” in the Hindu pantheon. I hope it also helps remove the misconceptions about idol worship in general)

There are approximately 1 million people of Indian origin living in North America. A recent survey indicates that approximately 5 million people of Indian origin are dispersed all over the world. Approximately 80 % of them follow the Vedic tradition. (Please note that I did not use the word “Hindu” here. The word Hindu did not come into use till the 18th century.) We are uprooted, but we need to keep our roots wet and fertilized, because as Tagore said “emancipation from the roots is not freedom for the tree”. Besides “We can but give only two things to our children: First, the Roots; next, the Wings”.

Children of “Hindu” parentage born and raised outside of India (my children included) often question the symbols and rituals of our tradition. In the early 1970’s, when my children were young they wondered why we do not go to a temple when their friends went to the church or the synagogue; wondered why they had to wear “thilak”; why we did not celebrate Christmas but celebrated Diwali. They asked me probing questions. They asked me about the forms and idols we worship. I had to find out why.

My studies ended in the completion of a book on Symbols and Substance. I wrote this book several years back. Two of these chapters were even published. Then, the Journal in which they were published went out of business. Since my intention is to reach all children of all traditions I decided to publish these essays at this website.

In the following essays, I take up the Hindu pantheon of Gods, one at a time and explain the philosophical meaning behind each one of these forms. There are many explanations to choose from, some deeper than others. I chose the simple ones and kept my explanations brief. I have also added the sources that explain the philosophical meanings. You may know other interpretations of these forms. Please share them with me.

If the following essays help our children understand the meaning of the images, forms and rituals of our tradition, this effort was worthwhile. Before I describe the individual forms, I wish to make some general comments.

The vedic tradition says that the Almighty is ONE, by whatever name we call IT. It is not possible for most of us, particularly children, to meditate on a Formless, Absolute, abstract entity called BRAHMAN. Ordinary men and women need an object, a sound, or something to focus on. In order to help grasp the formless Brahman, the wise sages of India gave a form - many forms - to the formless. The vedic teaching suggests that we latch on to a favorite deity (in the form of a “vigraha” or “moorthy”) for prayer and meditation; and once we have reached a certain level, it asks us to go beyond the form to the formless.

The tradition also concedes that men and women differ in their tastes and temperaments. Let us take the example of buying a car, a personal automobile. I like blue or green color. You may like red or black or harvest gold. I like Toyota. You may like BMW. Similarly you may like a big bellied, elephant-headed Ganesha; I may like the mischievous, playboy in the form of Krishna. Therefore, the tradition created these images of Gods and built elaborate stories (“puranas”) about each one of these deities, so that you can develop a relationship. At the same time, there are deep philosophical meanings about every detail of each one of the deities. This book is about some of the Forms of the Formless and the Substance behind these Forms.

Several people helped me in preparing this book. I would like to make special mention of the following: Nagam Atthreya, my brother, for stimulating my interest and his friend, the late Mr.C.S.Swaminathan, who suggested I help my children understand our traditions; the late Mr.R.Ramachandhran of the TVS Group of Companies, Madurai who provided all the photographs; the late Mr.G.V.Pillai, a Tamil scholar and a sage who verified the accuracy of my descriptions and added to them.

A special thanks to my children (Bama, Hari and Sheela who are in their early 40’s) who made me learn about my own tradition and Ramaa who made me share this with all the children of the world.

A final plea: in this age of fundamentalism, let us celebrate our tradition. But let us not deny others their freedom to celebrate theirs. Let us not become fanatic. Let us remember that Vedic Dharma (it is NOT a religion) and Tolerance are synonymous. The Vedic teachings say: “There is only one truth; people call it by different names”.

The next essay will be on Lord Ganesha.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Definition of the Dharma for the 21st century - An Explanation

Why do we need a new Dharma now? Why give a name for well-known precepts?

For several centuries, societies struggled under the tyranny of kings, despotic rulers, and dictators who claimed supernatural powers and direct communication with “God”. After renaissance and the French and American revolutions, individuals got liberated from the twin yokes of political and religious powers. Individual liberty and autonomy are flowering, at least in parts of the world.

Exercising the powers of questioning and reasoning has made it possible to study the cosmos we live in and study ourselves on a scientific basis. Scientific developments have spawned several new tools and materials that have become indispensable for everyday living. Science has also spawned several dangers threatening to destabilize societies, other species and the world itself.

The power of reasoning and questioning has liberated individual human beings to develop to their fullest potential. Scientific and industrial developments have increased quality of life in some parts of the world. But they have also increased the materialistic needs of individuals, inequalities and competition for limited resources.

Individuals endowed with liberty to do what they please and cash to get what they want (not necessarily what they need) tend to forget that others also have similar aspirations. When individual achievements define what you are, what you can get and get away with, competition becomes a part of the societal fabric.

When individual needs and roles intersect the needs and roles of others, we need boundaries and acceptable rules of conduct. We develop laws for this purpose. Laws are necessary for a civil society. But laws can also be corrupted, misused and circumvented. Laws can be used for power and privilege. There is also a risk of all relationships including parent-child relationship becoming legal relationships, as is happening already. Legal relationship has also the disadvantage of being an adversarial relationship.

When primacy of the individual is overemphasized, each one tries to defend his or her boundary. Each one becomes an island. We forget that we are interconnected. Yes, individual liberty and autonomy exerted in a lawful, law-abiding society is much better than the whimsical rules by kings and dictators. But, emphasis on individual freedom without any expectation of assuming associated responsibilities and emphasis on legal relationship at the exclusion of moral relationship lead to conflicts. Recognition of the common web of life and of interconnectedness is more likely to lead to a harmonious life.

Add to this the emergence of commerce and industry. One enters business to make money. If that is not the motive why would anyone want to do business? There is nothing inherently wrong with business, commerce and reasonable profit. Indeed we need them for a complex society. Businesses serve the needs of people. But the problem is when the owners and leaders become greedy. They forget that by greediness they cheat and thus lose the trust of the people. Profit motive is not the problem. Greed and misuse of trust are the problems. This happens because business owners sometimes forget that they are part of the fabric of the society and they have a social contract with the people.

The focus, in the past two or three centuries has been on individual liberty, social control and social contract (social compact as the British call it) and reliance on legal contracts. Now we have come a full circle and recognize the importance of personal virtue, morality and individual responsibility. If every one of us develops our own “inner policeman” we will have less need for outer policeman. We need a new set of guidelines for developing inner controls. These guidelines should be acceptable to people of all faiths and cultures. This is where the new Dharma comes in.

The word Dharma is a Sanskrit word. The root word is “dhru”, to support. Support what? The word Dharma represents virtues that support living in harmony with oneself, with others and with nature. The root word “dhru” also means “That which sustains” (law and order) and “that which controls” (human weakness). Dharma is a “collective term for the entire code of conduct, covering every sphere of human activity and in every capacity or role of an individual in relation to other individuals and the world we live in”.

Dharma is a “public system of morality”, with rules of conduct, which supports human virtues, sustains law and order and controls human weakness. Dharma includes justice, morality, duty, righteous conduct, charity and law, all rolled into one.

Practice of Dharma requires selflessness. It is virtuous, based on altruism, not on personal needs, personal rights, loyalty or legality.

Dharma is flexible. There is no one fixed dharma for everyone and for all times to come. It represents one’s virtues and morality depending on time, place and one’s station in life and natural human qualities. Therefore what is “norm” for you in one country may not be for someone in another part of the globe; what is “norm” now may not be applicable in the next century.

Exceptions to applications of rules of conduct of Dharma can be explicitly stated and debated. A remarkable example can be found in the India epic, Mahabharatha. Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas tells Yudhishtra when it is acceptable for a king (ruler) to break the rule of “Do not kill”. They are: “when someone is ready to kill you or one of your people; one who is trying to poison you; one who kills others for no reason and one who is trying to take away your wife”. Remember that these exceptions were spelled out for a ruler in the remote past.

This example of definition of exceptions to the rules and referred to in the earlier essay is an important aspect of dharma. It is obvious that this will vary from society to society and from time to time. But they can be defined and agreed on by “reasonable, impartial” people.

Yes. I suggest re-introducing the word, DHARMA to the English lexicon with a new emphasis and definition. This word is already in the English dictionary.

I suggest the new Dharma for the 21st century to balance the freedom of the individual with responsibility for others; to balance the needs of the corporate world with their social responsibility; to balance the freedom for celebration of our unique cultures with the need for others to celebrate theirs; to develop a set of universal guidelines which all cultures and religions can accept; to liberate the individual from the tyranny of dictatorial rule and ..isms of all kinds.

There are noble documents already in existence that recognize the inherent dignity and individual rights of all human beings and emphasize freedom, justice and peace for all, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of several democracies. These documents define the role of the governments in relation to their people and vice versa. These documents do not adequately emphasize responsibilities of the citizens to each other and to the world we live in. Dharma as proposed is intended to correct this deficiency.

Also, there is no mechanism to prevent people from creating in-groups and out-groups and excluding a few on the basis of religion or sex, or age or language. Dharma as proposed is universal and excludes NONE.

Premise of new Dharma

Desire for physical comfort and avoidance of pain are two basic characteristics of all living beings. Humans are also hard-wired for self-preservation and formation of groups.

Desires for comfort, acquisition of wealth and possession drive us all. In the process, our selfish needs come in conflict with those of others. Ideally, before we secure our comfort, satisfy our desires and acquire wealth we have to make sure they are done within the boundaries of Dharma. Values enshrined in the rules of conduct of Dharma come first; then acquiring comfort and wealth. This is best stated by the sage Vyasa, the author of the Indian epic, Mahabharatha.

OOrdhva bahuh viroumi eeshah na cha kah cha shrunothi maam
Dharmaath artthah cha kaamah cha sa dharmah kim na sevyathey.

The meaning is : I am shouting to all of you with both of my arms raised and waving. But no one seems to listen. When both wealth and desires can be acquired using proper means (following dharma), why can’t you follow such a path?

In a complex society, conflicts are bound to occur between individuals since we all seek the same comforts and share the same resources and work to acquire wealth to satisfy our needs. To prevent, and to minimize the conflicts we need preventive and curative methods. Punitive, curative method is Law. Preventive method is Dharma.

Guidelines I sought to arrive at the new Dharma

The rules will have to be simple, self-evident and flexible.

The new Dharma should not elicit resistance from any group. It should be acceptable to established thinking.

It should appeal to the common person. It should not need interpretation and interpreters.

People come with different personalities. Some work well with knowledge. Some need faith. Some have a need for action. (mesomorph, endomorph and ectomorph in the west; satva,rajas and thamas in the east) The guidelines should be simple enough for the faith – oriented and the action – oriented to follow. The knowledge – oriented can get into the depth of morality, virtues, ethics, theology and mysticism on their own.

The new Dharma should not perpetuate the “inside – outside” dynamics and tolerate violence towards the outsiders.

Reference: Morality: A new justification of the Moral Rules. Bernard Gert. Oxford University Press. 1988.