Om (also spelled Aum) is a Hindu sacred sound that is considered the greatest of all mantras.

The syllable Om is composed of the three sounds a-u-m (in Sanskrit, the vowels a and u combine to become o) and the symbol's threefold nature is central to its meaning. It represent several important triads:

Om symbol in black and white
Photo: Shivakumar Jayashankar.

Thus Om mystically embodies the essence of the entire universe. This meaning is further deepened by the Indian philosophical belief that God first created sound and the universe arose from it. As the most sacred sound, Om is the root of the universe and everything that exists and it continues to hold everything together.

The syllable is discussed in a number of the Upanishads, which are the texts of philosophical speculation, and it forms the entire subject matter of one, the Mandukya.

AUM is a bow, the arrow is the self,
And Brahman (Absolute Reality) is said to be the mark.
(Mandukya Upanishad)

The essence of all beings is the earth.
The essence of the earth is water.
The essence of water is the plant.
The essence of the plant is man.
The essence of man is speech.
The essence of speech is the Rigveda.
The essence of Rigveda is the Samveda.
The essence of Samveda is OM.
(Chandogya Upanishad)

All those activities which people start with uttering the syllable OM do not fail to bear fruit.
(Shankaracharya's Commentary on the Taittriya Upanishad 1.8.1)

In the Puranas the syllable Om became associated in various ways with the major Hindu devotional sects. Saivites mark the lingam (a symbol of Shiva) with the symbol for Om, while Vaishnavites identify the three sounds as referring to the trinity of Vishnu, his wife Sri, and the worshiper.

Aum in temple
A large Om as backdrop to a temple shrine in Jaipur, India. Photo: digitaura.

Om is spoken at the beginning and the end of Hindu mantras, prayers, and meditations and is frequently used in Buddhist and Jain rituals as well. Om is used in the practice of Yoga and is related to techniques of auditory meditation. From the 6th century, the written symbol of Om was used to mark the beginning of a text in a manuscript or an inscription. Om Parvat, a sacred peak at 6191m in the Indian Himalayas, is revered for its snow deposition pattern that resembles Om.






The linga or lingam (Sanskrit for "symbol") is the symbol of the god Shiva and the form in which he is most commonly worshipped. The phallic symbol is the main object of worship in Shaivite temples and homes throughout India and the world.

Shiva Lingas
Lingas with offerings. Photo: Matthew Logelin.

Shiva Linga
Shiva linga with flower offerings at Yavateshvar Temple. Photo: Borayin Maitreya Larios.

Shiva Linga
Shiva linga for the home. Exotic India Arts.

Shiva lingasThe largest linga in the world and thousands of smaller lingas at the Koti Linga Temple, Karnataka, India. Photo: Matthew Logelin.

Pancha Mukha Linga from Varanasi. Exotic India.

Shiva linga puja
Worshipping Shiva in a linga (with cobra on top) in Varanasi, India. Photo: Eli.

The linga is a simple stylized phallus that nearly always rests on pedestal of a stylized yoni, or female sex organ. Together, the linga and yoni represent the power of creative energy and fertility.

History of the Shiva Linga

Scholars believe that the linga was revered by some non-Aryan peoples of India since antiquity, and short, cylindrical pillars with rounded tops have been found in Harappan remains. The Vedic Aryans appeared to have disapproved of linga worship, but literary and artistic evidence shows that it was firmly established by the 1st–2nd century AD. The linga's form began to be conventualized during the Gupta period, so that in later periods its original phallic realism was to a considerable degree lost.

Types of Lingas

Lingas range from temporary versions made of sandalwood paste or river clay for a particular rite to more elaborate ones of wood, precious gems, metal, or stone. There are precise rules of proportion to be followed for the height, width, and curvature of the top.

Variations include the mukhalinga, with one to five faces of Shiva carved on its sides and top, and the lingodbhavamurti, a South Indian form that shows Siva emerging out of a fiery linga to demonstrate his superiority over Vishnu and Brahma. Some lingas are topped with a cobra, symbolizing the kundalini chakra located at the base of the spine (see Kundalini Yoga).

The most revered lingas are the svayambhuva ("self-originated") lingas, which were made directly from light without human assistance. Nearly 70 are worshipped throughout India and are places of pilgrimage.

Rituals of the Shiva Linga

In the primary religious ritual of devotees of Shiva, the linga is honored with offerings of flowers, milk, pure water, fruit, leaves and rice.


1.     "linga." Encyclopędia Britannica (2007). Encyclopędia Britannica Online.

2.     John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (2000).



The trihsula (also spelled trishul or trisula, Sanskrit for "three spear") is a trident spear that is the emblem of the god Shiva. The weapon symbolizes empire and the irresistible force of transcendental reality.

The three prongs of the trishula represent Shiva's three aspects of:

Trishula symbol
Trishul painted on an Indian temple.
Photo: Arno Benesch.

as well as the three shaktis (powers):

The fearsome goddess Durga also brandishes a trishula in one of her seven hands.


1.     "Hinduism." Encyclopędia Britannica (2007). Encyclopędia Britannica Online.

2.     Anna L. Dallapiccola, Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend


The swastika (Sanskrit svastika, "all is well") is a cross with four arms of equal length, with the ends of each arm bent at a right angle. Sometimes dots are added between each arm.

Swastika banner for Indian wedding
Swastika banner being hung for an Indian wedding, Mumbai. Photo: BigAppleOfMyEye.

Swastika on a house in India
Swastika on an Indian home. Photo: Premasagar.

Swastika ring
Indian man's swastika ring. Photo: Premasagar.

Swastika rangoli
Swastika rangoli (decoration welcoming visitors to a home). Photo: Azuric.

Swastika brick
Bricks carved with a swastika and script, India. Photo: Premasagar.

Swastika graffiti in India
Graffiti in Jamalpur, India. The Hindi writing is the mantra Baba Nam Kevalam. Photo: Premasagar.

The swastika is an ancient symbol that has been found worldwide, but it is especially common in India. Its name comes the Sanskrit word svasti (sv = well; asti = is), meaning good fortune, luck and well-being.

The swastika is most commonly used as a charm to bring good fortune (in which case the arms are bent clockwise), but it has a variety of religious meanings as well.

The right-hand swastika is one of the 108 symbols of the god Vishnu as well as a symbol of the sun and of the sun god Surya. The symbol imitates in the rotation of its arms the course taken daily by the sun, which appears in the Northern Hemisphere to pass from east, then south, to west. (It is also a symbol of the sun among Native Americans.)

The left-hand swastika (called a sauvastika) usually represents the terrifying goddess Kali, night and magic. However, this form of the swastika is not "evil" and it is the form most commonly used in Buddhism.

The auspicious symbol of the swastika is very commonly used in Hindu art, architecture and decoration. It can be seen on temples, houses, doorways, clothing, cars, and even cakes. It is usually a major part of the decoration for festivals and special ceremonies like weddings.

The Nazis adopted the swastika because it was understood as an Aryan symbol indicating racial purity and superiority. (The Nazis propogated a historical theory in which the early Aryans of India were white invaders.) There may also be a connection with the swastika's magical connections, for Hitler and other Nazi leaders were keenly interested in the occult.


1.     John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (2000).

2.     "swastika." Encyclopędia Britannica (2007). Encyclopędia Britannica Online.

3.     Swastika - Wikipedia (January 2007)





Lotus symbolWhite lotus
The lotus rises out of the mud with a pristine bloom. Photo: Lindley Ashline.
Pink lotus above the water. Photo: warryronin.

In Hinduism, the lotus (Sanskrit: padma) primarily represents beauty and non-attachment. The lotus is rooted in the mud but floats on the water without becoming wet or muddy. This symbolizes how how one should live in the world in order to gain release from rebirth: without attachment to one's surroundings.

"One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus leaf is untouched by water."
-- Bhagavad Gita 5.10

A similar meaning is given to the lotus symbol in Buddhism.

The lotus is associated with several Hindu deities. Krishna is described as the "Lotus-Eyed One," referring to his divine beauty. Brahma and Lakshmi, the deities of potence and wealth, are often seen with the lotus symbol. Other deities associated with the lotus include Vishnu and Sarasvati.

Finally, the lotus is also a symbol for the centers of consciousness (chakras) in the body.


1.     John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (2000).

2.     Nelumbo nucifera - Wikipedia (January 2007)

3.     God's Favorite Flower - Lotus Sculpture



The pratik ("emblem") is the symbol of the Ananda Marga ("path of bliss") movement, which was founded in India in 1955 and emphases social service along with yoga and meditation.

The pratik symbol consists of the following elements:


1.     Ananda Marga - official website

2.     Flickr Photo Group: Pratiks

Pratik symbol
Pratik symbol on an ashram in South India. Photo: Premasagar.

Pratiks on Ananda Marga door, Varanasi
Pratiks on the door of the Ananda Marga Baba's Quarters in Varanasi, India. Photo: Premasagar.

Pratik necklace

Pratik necklace. Photo: Premasagar.








A yantra is a geometrical diagram representing the universe. It is used in Hindu worship and meditation, especially in Tantrism. A yantra is quite similar to a mandala, but a yantra is different in that it can be a three-dimensional object of worship as well as a two-dimensional diagram.


Sri Yantra in brass

A three-dimensional Sri Yantra made of brass.
Image: Exotic India Arts.

Shri Yantra
Sri Yantra painting. Image: Exotic India Arts.

Sharbha Yantra
Sharbha Yantra painting. Image: Exotic India.

black Sri Yantra tattoo
Tattoo of a Sri Yantra. Photo: Rita Correia.

LIke the mandala, the yantra symbolizes cosmogenic development, from the absolute in the center to the material world at the edges. Yantras often have a seed mantra inscribed on them, and they are considered the verbal equivalent of a mantra.

A yantra is only created during a highly complex ritual in a purified and ritually consecrated place. A three-dimensional yantra is made of stone or metal plates and is imbued with the power of a deity.

It is then meditated upon as the deity, and is used as an instrument for visions of the unseen. A yantra is also drawn on the site where a temple will be built.

The best known yantra is the Sri Yantra or Sri Cakra, which is especially used in the Sri Kula tradition of Tantrism. It is made of nine intersecting isosceles triangles of different sizes: five "female" triangles pointing downwards to represent Shakti and four "male" triangles pointing upwards representing Shiva.

In the middle of the Sri Yantra is the power point (bindu), the highest, invisible, elusive center from which the entire figure and the cosmos expand. The triangles are enclosed by two rows of 8 and 16 petals, representing the lotus of creation and reproductive vital force. The broken lines of the outer frame denote the figure to be a sanctuary with four openings to the regions of the universe.

The Sri Yantra is considered the visual equivalent of the Sri Vidya, a mantra of 15 syllables. Each syllable represents a goddess who is located within the Sri Yantra.


1.     John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World

2.     "Hinduism." Encyclopędia Britannica (2007). Encyclopędia Britannica Online.





One of the most recognizable items in Hinduism is the bindi, a dot worn on women's foreheads. It is a form of the tilak, a symbolic mark worn by many Hindu men and women, but has less religious connotations than other tilaks.

Indian woman wearing a bindi
An Indian woman with a shy smile and bindi.
Photo: Paula Rey.

Bindis on mother and child
Bindis on a mother and daughter. Photo: digitaura.

Young woman with decorative bindi
Young woman with decorative bindi.
Photo: Faraz Usmani.

Woman with bindi
Young woman with bindi. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage.

Traditionally, the bindi is worn on the forehead of married Hindu women. It symbolizes female energy and is believed to protect women and their husbands. Bindis are traditionally a simple mark made with the paste of colored sandalwood, sindoor or turmeric. The bindi is most commonly a red dot made with vermilion.

In addition, the bindi is a way of accentuating the third eye, the area between the eyebrows where attention is focused during meditation. Men and women often apply a tilak after a puja ritual or on other religious occasions as a way of invoking religious feelings, concentration and focus. Sometimes a woman's bindi represents sectarian affiliation, like the men's tilak, but this is less common.

More recently, the bindihas become primarily a decorative accessory and is worn by unmarried girls and non-Hindu women. It is also no longer restricted in color or shape, and self-adhesive bindis made from felt in various designs and colors are common. Bindi styles often vary by the area of India in which they are worn.


1.     "tilak." Encyclopędia Britannica (2007). Encyclopędia Britannica Online.

2.     The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hinduism.

The tilak (Sanskrit tilaka, “mark”) is a mark made on a Hindu's forehead. On a man, the tilak takes the form of a line or lines and usually indicates his sectarian affiliation. On women, a tilak usually takes the form of a bindi dot, which has its own symbolism

Sadhu with tilak mark
Sadhu with tilak. Photo: Meena Kadri.

Man with tilak
Boy with Saivite tilak and plate for applying tilak in the Bull Temple, Bangalore. Photo: rcasha.

Sadhu with tilak
Vaishnava sadhu with tilak. Photo: Meena Kadri.

Tilak applied in a temple
Tourist receiving a tilak in an Indian temple.
Photo: Matthew Logelin.

Tilak at Indian wedding
A tilak applied for a wedding. Photo: Brajeshwar.

The tilak is worn every day by sadhus and pious householders, and on special occasions like weddings and religious rituals. A tilak is also applied by a priest during a visit to the temple as a sign of the deity's blessing, for both men and women (and western tourists, too).

Tilak marks are applied by hand or with a metal stamp. They might be made of ash from a sacrificial fire, sandalwood paste, turmeric, cow dung, clay, charcoal, or red lead. In addition to its religious symbolism, the tilak has a cooling effect on the forehead and this can assist in concentration and meditation.

Among some sects the tilak is made on 2, 5, 12, or 32 parts of the body as well as on the forehead. Often a tilak is just a smear of paste, but other times it is more precise and elaborate.

Saivites (followers of Shiva) wear a tilak of three horizontal lines across the forehead, with or without a red dot. Sometimes a crescent moon or trident is included. The devotees of Shiva usually use sacred ashes (Bhasma) for the tilak.

Among Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu), the many tilak variations usually include two or more vertical lines resembling the letter U, which symbolizes the foot of Vishnu. There is sometimes a central line or dot. Most Vaishanative tilaks are made of sandalwood paste (Chandan).

The worshippers of the goddess Devi or Shakti apply Kumkum, a red tumeric powder.


1.     "tilak." Encyclopędia Britannica (2007). Encyclopędia Britannica Online.

2.     "Tilak." Swami Shivananda,