Political symbols in contemporary Hinduism
Political symbols in contemporary Hinduism
Indian Cultural Studies
- Dr. Amir H. Zekrgoo
Seyed Mostafa Mostafavi
- A Student
Faculty of world studies - University of Tehran
In the name of God the munificent the merciful
The question of this study is, dose Hindu political players use Hindu religion symbols during their activity to gain power or the goals? And how and which religious symbol are at the service of political contemporary Hinduism? My hypothesis is that, political Hinduism is borrowing and using religion symbols as their symbols during their work in political field and they try to catch Hindu people attention by using this way.
India emerges as potpourri of religions and cultures in 21th. Religion has deep roots in Indian mind and life; and most of Indian philosophy and world conceptions are the outcome of their different religious believes. There is a kind of combination between Indian culture, philosophy, Art and their religious believe in this old civilization. During long Indian civilization history, they tried to save or point out their religious or their philosophy of thought by a kind of artistic works. The masterpieces of artistic works like religious epic, novels, sculptures (which carving in stone or made in metal shape), or painting on the walls or papers... are received from ancient time. Based on this reality, we can say Indian religions took arts at their religious or philosophical thought service in the best and at high possible way. Thus most of their art works are related to their idea about three hundred thousand million of Hindu gods and goddesses (deva and deity) that estimate more than 330 million that they had been worshiped for long time in different stages of Indian religious history. Therefore India can be named as lands of gods and goddesses; the gods that every one regard as symbol of something in the being of world, from starting the world and its process till its finishing and its process. Bringing such vast amount of gods and goddesses to realty is fairly impossible; hence they change them to symbols and idols to make them visible and understandable for common men. Visualizing deep spiritual concepts and especially the concept of truth, which constructs foundation of religious art, is very difficult; but looking to Indian religions and arts show that during long history of Indian Civilization, religious thoughts and arts are accompanied each other and developed and flourished each other both. As a result today vast variety of arts in different shapes and branches are available in Indian subcontinent and especially in India; with association with Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism religions. The common character of most Indian religious arts and writing are, such valuable masterpieces were made by nameless and unknown artists; and they didn’t try to leave a name in the history of art and philosophy; although their work shows their developed minds and their skilful hands; consequently there are many fantastic books, artistic stone carving, well designed building, meaningful and beautiful painting… that their writers or artistes is not known. Maybe it can say they saw themselves against the gods and goddesses nothing, to mention even their names; and they considered their works just as what they have to do for them.
Now Hinduism is as a dominate religion in India, that official statistics announce its follower’s population more than 80% of Indian. And India the country which emerges as a most important country among south Asian countries, and also important in Asia which is seeking global level participate for itself in all aspects of human factors, especially economic, culture, politic...; India’s Hinduism is backing by an ancient culture and civilization which is still showing itself alive and presents itself in its people life strong, as much as necessary; and Indian are familiar with these old religious believes till now. It is a unique religion that had nonstop history of being and invaders or out comers could not change it completely. Although it takes some effects from them and experiences some reformer movements like Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism from inside and Islam and Christianity from outside which divert people’s minds to new way of thinking, but these new reformist religions also help Indian sacred arts as well as Hinduism arts to improve itself; Hinduism consider new Jainism and especially Buddhism as a new chapter in Hinduism development and they consider Buddha as the Avatar of one of the Hindu’s gods; but the fact is this, that Buddhism, Jainism and new Sikhism were a kind of protests against Hindu religious believe, but apart from this reality, this reforms also help Indian religious arts to find new branch of thought or new philosophy fields to flourish its spiritual’s arts. And these new religious characters in Hinduism also show themselves in the shapes of new architectures style, paints, sculptures and other kind of arts that engage with new icons and new ideas which create by new religions.
This people during tens centuries history, try to compress, mention and present their highest religious and philosophical thought through simple symbols, so symbolism has long history there, and still is using by them. Hundreds of symbols has been representing and are advocating of their thoughts and make it touchable and objective for inside and outside observes.
The religious arts (as most powerful one in the world), have an effective role in transferring and conveying of religion concepts. Hinduism as well as other subcontinent’s religions uses arts and symbolism in highest level in this regard. These arts had big role in continuous and making Hindu thought or religion visible and understandable, by using symbols and other visual artistic characters. As the gods and goddesses in Hindu religion has been reduced to some symbols and idols to make them easy to touch and understandable; worship process in Hindu religion have the same way as other Hindu religion aspects had, and they made a kind of “symbolic system” [S.DASGUPTA-pag.13-14] in this regards also, for instance the process of transferring Brahman and it shifting to symbol is drown as follow by Dr Surendranath Dasgupta in his book:
“The process of changing of the Brahman into the Aranyaka thought is signified by transference of values from the actual sacrifices to their symbolic representations and meditations which were regarded as being productive of various earthly benefits. Thus we find in the Brhadaranyaka (l. i) that instead of a horse sacrifice the visible universe is to be conceived as a horse and meditated upon as such. The dawn is the head of the horse, the sun is the eye, wind is its life, fire is its mouth and the year is its soul, and so on.” [S.DASGUPTA-pag.35].
As Dr Dasgupta explains in his book the values as well as gods or world life process represented by some symbols in Hindu arts; and if a bystander doesn’t be familiar with these symbols, cannot comprehend Hinduism as well. So an artistic display will be meaningful when the meaning of symbols is decoded.
The variety of symbols are chosen in this regards, from human body to some other natures phenomenon and they borrowed to used as symbols in eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism…This symbolism especially during Vedas and Vedanta era was expanded, the period that nature’s phenomenon, consider as god’s reaction to human actions; thus every things took a relation to gods, goddesses and Deva satisfied or annoyed. As a result they made un-visible gods and thought able to be seen and take touch ability form, and it is become possible by symbolizing everything and explains them by the set of symbols.
The founders of Hindu religion tens centuries ago expertly compress strong meaning in the form of signs and symbols and use them in their religion aspects; therefore a symbol is just an indication to a strong and deep thought. The art of making symbols is showing the complexity of the old generation minds and their dominance over their religious thought. Symbolising in Hinduism developed so much that even the sound of alphabets also borrowed to mention some religious thought:
“In this way the different consonant sounds are regarded as the prototypes of different manifestations of world-energy, and these again are regarded as the symbols of different kinds of gods or superintendents of energy. An assemblage of some of these alphabets in different orders and groups, called also the lotus or the wheel (chakra) would stand for the assemblage of different types of complex powers. The meditation and worship of these chakras would thus be expected to bring the objective powers typified by them under control." [S.DASGUPTA-pag.58-vol.3]
As a consequence the religious aspect of art in Indian religions is very strong. Carved sculptures convoyed the religious theories of life as base of every philosophy. And most of Hindu or others religious temples were decorated by pieces of art manufactures; and arts were completely at the service of religious desirers. Symbolism approaches in Indian religions borrowed so many objects like animals in full body or part body and others at their service to describe their thoughts and principle; Fish, loin, pig, snake, elephant, monkey, tiger, and cow… are the example of this process of changing animal or objects to symbolize characters. Study of religion development in India’s art show how early symbolization was established or detailed the meaning of historic or religious expression. In Indian symbolism development of life from animal to half-human and half animal and also full human embodiment of gods are obvious and it show a process in this regard.
Political symbols are the same as other kind of symbolic items, which are carrying by Hindu icon as well as gods and goddesses. The objects (as symbolize things) that artists or religious philosophers - who created them - put them in the hands of religious Icons, shows the role which they consider for them or, the expectations that the creators of such an artistic Icon had from them. This kind of symbolizing made some Hindu gods and goddesses as political characters that have especial political mission to change power direction among human players or political icons. Political symbolism is show itself more clearly when mythological epics or other kind of religious gods performances are come to exist, represent of several weapons - as tool of every political force - or various types of item like military wearing or armour etc that were used by Hindu Gods, shows their political aspects; and it is some example of mixture of religious mission as well as political mission for them. In the following line we will consider some important examples of weapons which used by Hindu gods and goddesses, the weapons that always used by political forces that seeking power or they want to restore a applicative situation:
The Narayanastra ( नारायणास्त्र ) is a deadliest and powerful weapon in the hand of Vishnu when he go down in his Narayan avatar shape. This weapon throws millions of missiles all together. The god Aswathama used this weapon against the Pandavas as it mentioned in Mahabharata.
The Varunastra (वरुणास्त्र) is the water weapon used by the god Varuna (as the master of the oceans and rivers in world). The most amazing reality of this weapon is that, this weapon can be carved in any shape just like flowing water. Many great warriors have made use of this weapon against their enemies like Arjun, Dronacharya, Dhrishtadhuymna or Satyaki and many more. This weapon could be gain by full mental concentration and meditation on Varuna or Shiva. This weapon must be used with great care and skills as one single mistake of the user or inexperienced warrior can prove to be fatal to him.
The Chakhrem (चक्रं) or Chakra is the circular weapon that has sharp cuts at the outer edge. The enemy is attacked by throwing the weapon at him. It is also recognized as circles or Chalikar. The Chakra has a very important position in mythology as it is upheld by Krishna. Now Sikhs are associated with this weapon as they wear it on their arms, around necks and sometimes on their turbans too. It is made of deferent metals. This weapon is used against the enemy by twirling it in the index finger and thrown out with spin to add more power and force. Krishna used to hold this every time in his index finger.
Shiva Dhanush (शिव धनुष) is the divine bow which upheld by Shiva. This weapon possessed mysterious energy and used against the enemy for its full devastation.
Brahmastra (ब्रह्मास्त्र) is the death defying weapon created and held by Brahma. It is said that when Brahma is upset he used it to destroy his enemy to maintain his Dharma and Satya. The weapon not only destroy the one for whom it was used but also annihilate the environment and the land where it was used became infertile. Sometimes it also becomes the foremost reason for the cracks in the land. According to Sanskrit mythology it is believed that invocation to this Brahmastra can be made through the key phrase and it can be used only once in a life time. It can be achieved through the distinguished amount of concentration. It is used by Vishvamitra against Vasishth, Ram against Ravana, and Arjun against Ashwatthama etc.
The Vajra (वज्र) is a metal weapon symbolizing spiritual power and strength. It was used by Indra for killing and destroying all sinners. It is generally considered as Diamond which can cut any substance but not itself and thunderbolt which has irresistible power and force. This weapon was made by divine instrument maker Tvastra for Indra. He used this against Vritra to kill him as he took the form of a serpent. Vritra was so powerful that no weapon till that date could destroy him so he (Indra) went to Vishnu for seeking help to recover his kingdom. Vishnu revealed him that this Asura would be killed only with the weapon made of bones of wise. And so after obtaining this weapon Vishnu successfully recovered his kingdom.
The Gada (गदा) or Gadha is a weapon holds an important position in the history of Hindu religion. It was carried by Hanuman, Bhim, and others who were symbols of power and strength. The Gada also moves around the user’s body to gather life force. It is the shape of a ball which symbolizes the earth rotating on its axis, the handle. It is a symbol of great power, spirit, bravery and strength.
The Sudarshana Chakra (सुदर्शन चक्र) is a circular disk like weapon which has 108 serrated edges, Vishnu used to hold it in one of his four hands. Chakra also symbolizes that Vishnu also used to own celestial bodies and the heavens. It is used for the ultimate devastation of enemy of law and order. Sudarshana is composed of two words Su which means divine and Darshana which means vision and Chakra alone signifies mobility. It is the mobile weapon used to shield the negative powers and devils from our body. Vishnu used to hold it in his index finger of the rear right hand and continue using to revolve around this finger.
The Trishula (त्रिशूल) symbolizes the ‘rich’ and polyvalent. It is the weapon of Hindu god Mahadeva and is said to have been used to sever the original head of Ganesha. Many other gods and goddesses also hold Trishula as their weapon, including Goddess Durga. The three points of the Trishula symbolize various meanings in various regard, commonly the trinities (creation, maintenance and destruction); the three Gunas (the past, present and future). Shiva’s Trishula is said to have devastated the three worlds: the physical world, the fore father’s world and the world of mind. Trishula also symbolizes the Triratna of Buddha; but it is obviously as war symbols recognized by the Hindu outfit and they use it as symbol of war against their enemy; Bajrang Dal is one them that we will see in follow lines.
So as it is cleared by this example the holly gods and goddesses of Hindu are armed and they use them to achieve their goal by these weapons and also give them to their follower or servants to help them also. Political aspect of Hindu gods is very clear and hardware with software power is at their service to gain the goals. Now we will consider some symbolic meaning in some political signs in contemporary Hindu community in India:
Symbolic meaning of India National flag:
The India national Flag (तिरंगा) as the national symbol of India in all formal position has three equal size horizontal colours with dark green in the bottom and white at its centre and deep saffron (केसर) on its top side. It has a navy-blue colour wheel (chakra or charkha) that have access to the Sarnath lion Capital of Ashoka the great, at the centre of white band. It is related to dharma. Chakra has 24 spokes. On 22 July 1947 just 24 days prior to independent’s day (15 august) in the constituent assembly Dr. S. Radhakrishnan described the meaning of these symbols as follow:
“Bhagwa or the saffron colour denotes renunciation of disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work. The white in the centre is light, the path of truth to guide our conduct. The green shows our relation to soil, our relation to the plant life here on which all other life depends. The Ashoka Wheel in the centre of the white is the wheel of the law of dharma. Truth or satya, dharma or virtue ought to be the controlling principles of those who work under this flag. Again, the wheel denotes motion. There is death in stagnation. There is life in movement. India should no more resist change, it must move and go forward. The wheel represents the dynamism of a peaceful change.” 
The Saffron as one of the holiest colour is strongly associated with Hinduism; it is colour of fire as the symbol of purity as fire burnt impurities. It is also symbol of Supreme Being. Fire worship is backed to Vedic era when the Aryans worship it as holly being even now fire has main symbolic meaning in Hindu prayer. This colour is used by holly men (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism) and they wear this colour as a symbol of seeking for light. The Rajput as warrior caste in Hindu hierarchy uses this colour in war.
The green colour is the symbol of peace and happiness, and represents the nature as it is very important respected in Hinduism especially during Vedic era and also now.
The white colour also represents purity, cleanliness; peace and knowledge, as the goddess of knowledge Sarasvati also wear white colour and position of white lotus. This colour associate to the highest Hindu caste, Brahmans and they use it, as Knowledge and purity directly associate with this caste. It also related to spiritual reincarnation and the philosophy of covering face with white ashes by religion leaders in Hinduism refer to this symbolizing. At the mourning time also Hindu families wear white cloth. So white colour that is take position in the middle of Indian national flag has also deep meaning in Hinduism.
Symbolic meaning of India National Congress Party flag:
India National Congress party (INC) flag is the same as India national flag; with this difference that instead of the Asoka’s Wheel, they put an open right hand in its white band; it also noticeable that the Republic of India’s flag, was INC flag before independent that changed to National flag after independent.
Some Hindu common Symbol meaning:
There are some common symbols in Hinduism that most of Hindu group use them in their flags and symbolic signs; one of them is the OM or AUM. That is the most important symbol for Hindu as the Cross is Impotent for Christian. OM is the combination of three Sanskrit letters A, U, M and it is related to Brahman or the absolute as the sources of existences and consider as sound of creation time. So most of Hindu prays are start with this narration.
OM as a religious Hindu symbol is added to flag of political Hindu outfits and show, there is a relation between the outfits to this religion. It is the holiest sign among them.
The swastika is another symbol for Hindu and from religious side is transferred to politic. It is like the Nazi emblem; as a broken Cross. It is a pictorial symbol of eternal nature of the Brahman. All its directions coverage shows absoluteness concepts. Swastika is a Sanskrit word with SU means good, and “Astati” that mean to exist.
Symbolic meaning of Bharatiya Janata Party flag
The BJP as second India party has three symbols in its flag; two vertical bands with green and Saffron and also a blue lotus flower in saffron colour part. So all the symbols that is available in this flag related to the Hinduism. This kind of using pure Hindu symbols is one of the differences between INC and BJB which the Hindu symbols have more presence in BJP flag than INC. This fact show that how much BJP and INC are careful about Hinduism as religion. Lotus had been associated with Hindu gods and goddesses. The Hindu gods have been used lotus to take position on it. So lotus is related to godly world and purity, wealth, rebirth, beauty, youth, life and enlighten. Lotus is growing in the water and mud but it is not same as the situation that is growing up in; it does not even touch water which live in. The relation between lotus and devotee describe as follow in Bhagavad Gita:
"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."
The Sarnath Ashoka loin Symbolic meaning:
The Lion Capital of Ashoka the great is the symbol of all government branches in India. They use it on the top of all formal letters, on the Indian money note, flags… also. It is the emblem of Indian government from 1950; four loins that standing back to back. It is belong to ancient India time that Loin, Chakra, bull, Horse as most symbolic factor in the mind of Aryans was collected in this historic object related to the Maurya dynasty. Chakra is as symbol of dharma and other symbols that rooted in long history of the people who made Indian civilization. An upside down louts whom these symbols are standing on it; is another part of this symbolic emblem. The Ashoka symbol which rooted to about 250 BC now is shifted to modern India government symbolic vision and they are using it as their symbol.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Symbolic flag:
The RSS (National Patriotic Organization) is one of the important radical Hindu organizations that are considered as mother of other Hindu nationalist groups (The Sangh Parivar). The symbol of this organization is a plain saffron flag. The RSS is founded in 1925 with the goal of Supporting Hindu nationalism and upholding Hindu Traditions. Although RSS announce itself as a social movement rather than a political party but it has important political movement so its activity have frozen so many time in its history by the government of India. Now it is known as socio-political organisation. RSS members have gathering in all corner of India and they have Physical and mental training program, through some group discussions, meetings and exercises which are organizing by their group, and they are trying to achieve readiness. This activity made them prepare for organization’s activities and involving in local civilian development. RSS as social worker have relief and rehabilitation activity during disasters. These activities have been organized by RSS base on its key principle of “selfless service to the nation”. Uniting all Hindus and construct a strong India is the most important idea for RSS. The organisations within the Sangh Parivar and many others groups work side by side with RSS that spread in all parts of society in India and abroad. Numerous other Hindu organisations take inspiration from the RSS's philosophy. The saffron flag is the main visible Hindu symbol that carries by this socio-political organization.
Symbolism in Bajrang Dal logo and flag:
The Bajrang Dal is founded in 1984 with “Service, safety, and culture" slogan. Actually is the armed wing of one of the main “Sangh Parivar” organization with the name of Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). It founded on the base of Hindutva Ideology. It is an Uttar Pradesh (UP) group that now vast itself all around India. Stopping cow slaughter and building Ram temple in Ayodhya (Fizabad in UP), Krishna temple in Mathura (UP) and Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi (UP) are their goal. It is noticeable that all this temple now are some masterpiece mosques that the Babri mosque in Ayodhya were demolished in 1990s by them and Mathura and Varanasi mosques are available and till now they could not destroyed them. They (same as other Sangh Parivar’s group) involved in so many sectarian and communal riots against minority all around India. Visible Hindu religious symbols like the Trishula that show itself in the shape of two knife and also the Hanuman, one of the holiest warrior in the Mahabharata with a Gada in the hand that is showing fighting time; and also riding on a tiger which related to the Shiva and OM sign that show religious aspects of Bajrang Dal in their symbolic sign; and also a map of India that add to this religious signs and make the political side of their symbolism are the characters of this hardliner Hindu group.
Symbolism in Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) logo and flag:
The Vishva Hindu Parishad (विश्व हिन्दू परिषद) or “World Hindu Council” is one of the important one among Hindu nationalist organizations that founded in 1964. Its youth wing is Bajrang Dal and women’s wing is Durga Vahini. The VHP volunteers are known for their hard work to promote and restore Hinduism, to expand unity and pride between all Hindus by its social service plans, encourage the construction and restoration of Hindu temples, confrontation with conventional practices in Hinduism like the caste system, conflicting to cow (as holly being in Hinduism) slaughter or confrontation with conversion of Hindus to other religions and taking up issues in the interest of Hindus such as decide on the Ayodhya dispute between Muslim and Hindu are some of their activities. Its symbol is the banyan (درخت انجیر معابد) tree as holly tree in Hinduism and saffron colored flag with OM, Swastika and sward signs on it. VHP considers Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs as part of the greater Hindu family. Their aims are strengthen the Hindu Society, protect, promote and propagate Hindu values. They consider world mission for him so the used world map as holder of their flag. Combination of religion and politics is clearly mentioned in their symbolic sign and flag.
Symbolic flag of Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha:
The Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (अखिल भारत हिन्दू महासभा) or “All-India Hindu Assembly” is a political party founded in 1914 in Amritsar to represent Hindus as religious majority of India. It red flag (Dhavja) is the flag that use on most of Hindu temple and festivals; means victory, that have an OM sign which covered by a sun a Swastika sign and sward. RSS was its competitor. It believed in the superiority of Hindu culture, religion and heritage. The Mahasabha promoters believe that Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists are also Hindu in terms of national and political identity. They believe that Islam and Christianity are foreign religions; and their holy places is located in other pleases out of India (Arabia, Palestine and Rome), and that Indian Muslims and Christians are Hindu family who were converted by force to these religions. At various points in its history, the party called for the re-conversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. The Mahasabha opposed socialism and communism as corrupt foreign ideologies that do not represent India's native needs and conditions. The symbolic flag of this party also is full of Hindu symbols and they also have mix religion and politics to gain their goals.
Symbolic flag of Shiv Sena:
The Shiv Sena (Army of Shiva) is another Hindu outfit that mostly is active in Maharashtra state. An agree tiger in a plain saffron field is its flag. The tiger is symbol of Shiva one the important Hindu god. Shiv Sena was founded in 1966 and we can say it was a Marathi movement and against migrant who were coming to Bombay (the capital of Maharashtra) but it Hindu religion factor also made them as extremist nationalist in this regard and they participate in numerous riots against minority especially against Muslim there. They were successful to gain power so many times in local state election and in nationwide size also allied by BJP.
There are a lot of Hindu outfit which use religious symbols in their flag and try to gain Hindu people attention to their activity and in some period of time they were successful to take power in India.
As it is clear so many Hindu religious signs and symbols are using and borrowing by religious-political groups and they were successful also in this regard and the history of this groups show some successes in their activity, for example BJP running national government during 1998 till 2004 and also state achievements by Shiv Sena in Maharashtra... can be name in this regards.
Combination of politics and religion put some of the member of majority (the Hindus) in front of minority; and affected constitutional Secularism factor which recognized by the founder of new India in constitution. So from the eve of independent till now, Indian minority faced with cruel mascaras that the three last ones was Gujarat riots in 2002 that Muslim families were killed and burnt and also the Orissa riot that the Christian Missionary were attacked, and the Muzaffarnagar riots that Muslim families were attacked and leaves so many lives. Sectarian and communal riot under flag of political parties who mix politics and religion lead communities with religious base to clash with each other systemically. It is the dangers full confrontation; because in these clashes the two sides feel himself as representative of God and so they will became crueller to do their duty from God. So the parties which shaped on religious nationalism borrowed their symbols from religion to following power in the name of religions.
1- A HISTORY of INDIAN PHILOSOPHY- By SURENDRANATH DASGUPTA - VOLUME I,2,3,4,5 - CAMBRIDGE AT THE UNIVERSITY PRESS – 1957
4- Other various available sources on the net
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