5.1 The Symbolism of Idols[3]

I wish I could go back and relive my childhood. For a few decades, like the idiot in the Chinese proverb, I had been focusing on the wise man's finger and missed all the heavenly glories of the moon that he was pointing to. Like every good epic, both the Ramayana and Mahabharata were truly mixtures of historical events and allegoric fiction that conveyed the truth on so many levels. In the Ramayana, the ten-headed Ravana, whose heads magically grew back every time they were cut off, represents the never-ending nature of human desires, while Sita is the human spirit, the Atman, imprisoned by Ravana. Sita is rescued by Lord Rama, God himself, with the help of all the animals and birds of the world, by vanquishing these human desires. This is the story of the Cosmic Fig Tree all over again.

The numerous Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism are symbols representing various aspects of the path of Dharma. For instance, Lord Ganesha is depicted as a man with an elephant head symbolizing the sacredness of all Life forms. He represents ingenuity as he famously won a racing contest over his brother through his cleverness. In a dispute with his brother over a sweetmeat, their parents agreed to give the treat to the brother who was the fastest at circling the universe three times. While his brother proceeded to rush around the universe, Lord Ganesha simply circumambulated around his parents three times and won the contest. That is ingenuity.

Lord Ganesha is usually shown with four or more hands, clutching the symbols for the characteristics that his devotee aspires to. One of his hands is held in a gesture known as "Abhaya Mudra" denoting courage or fearlessness. In another hand, he holds an axe reminding the devotee to cut off all his attachments. In a third hand, he holds a rope intended to pull the devotee towards a steady-minded spiritual path. And in the fourth hand, he holds a Modak, a sweet confection made with coconuts to remind the devotee to let go of his/her ego. The breaking of a coconut is a common practice in Hindu temples and it signifies the breaking of the individual's ego (coconut shell) to expel the fluid mind (coconut water) and to expose the sweet, steady mind (coconut meat) within.  

A Ganesha devotee is therefore praying to be a compassionate, inspired problem solver, while acting without desires and without ego, the two main characteristics of a Dharmic person. That is, if the devotee truly understands the symbolism of theGanesha representation.

Lord Shiva is usually shown with a seven-headed snake wrapped around his neck, signifying his mastery of desires. He is shown carrying a trident with which he is said to open the third eye of wisdom by shattering the ego. The third eye of wisdom, shown in the center of his forehead, allows us to see things as they are, not as we are, by eliminating the illusions in our minds. Lord Shiva is also shown seated in a meditative pose, reminding the devotee that the mastery of desires and the dropping of our egotistic illusions can be accomplished through the practice of mindfulness and meditation.

Lord Krishna is shown playing a flute which symbolizes the state of egolessness that a devotee aspires to achieve. In such a state, where the devotee is like the flute, Lord Krishna plays through the devotee to create beautiful music. If the ego tries to play the flute, then the result is cacophony. Suffering is an indication that the ego is trying to play the flute, which should then remind the devotee to let go. Indeed, our choice is to either surrender to Krishna, the flute player, and become a joyous, willing instrument of his intentions or we can resist and become a miserable, unwilling instrument. It is up to us to choose how we react, but in either case, the Hindu belief is that Krishna’s intentions will always be implemented.

Through such symbolic depictions, Hinduism steers us to be compassionate and detached in our feelings and to act in a state of desirelessness and egolessness, to become Butterflies. And despite the numerous gods and goddesses, Hinduism is truly PanEntheism. Its core belief can be summarized as

Everything is in Consciousness (Paramatma, God); (Paramatma, God) Consciousness is in Everything.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, "He who sees me in all and all in me is near and dear to me," encapsulating this core belief. As such, Hindus develop a very personal relationship with God and the Hindu concept of Moksha or Heaven is right here on Earth, in this life. Moksha is attained when we drop the illusion of separateness from all Creation and achieve a state of "Ananda" or bliss in that oneness. Since all Creation is a manifestation of Consciousness and is therefore sacred, the prescription for conducting an individual's life becomes the first Mantra of SriIsopanishads:

Take just what you need from the Earth and no more, for the Earth and all her bounty does not belong to you, but to the Lord.

But that's easier said than done especially when we have such clever minds that can easily redefine wants into "needs." Therefore, a practical, non-prescriptive formula is

Act according to your Dharma, but Let Go of the fruits of your actions.

But the path of Dharma is personal. To each his own, according to his circumstances. The Hindu sages were wise enough to know that the human mind works through stories. It is the stories that we remember that help us filter and process the vast inputs we receive through our senses from reality. It is the stories that we remember that help us choose the path of Dharma in any circumstance. So they bombarded us with stories full of symbols hoping that some of these stories would stick. But they didn't bargain on the fact that we would forget the symbolism of the stories and cease to teach that to our children. Furthermore, they didn't count on us being ensconced in a culture where, far from letting go of the fruits of our actions, we intensely cling to them as a matter of course, hiring entire phalanxes of lawyers, if necessary, to enforce our "rights" to those fruits, especially, if we are Corporations masquerading as Persons. We have even codified our clinging to the fruits of our actions in the heart of the US Constitution via the Patent clause, signifying the importancethat we attach to the clinging.

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[3] This section on the symbolism of Idols is drawn from Swami Yogananda Paramhansa's treatment in "The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita," Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2006. http://www.amazon.com/Essence-Bhagavad-Gita-Paramhansa-Remembered/dp/1565892267 and through osmosis from various other sources. The reader is welcome to interpret the idols in any way they like, but it is important to acknowledge that the depiction of fantastic figures with unusual limb and facial arrangements is not meant to be taken literally.