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

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.