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

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.