Just as the work of art reflects the imagination of an artist, symbolism in religion expresses the attributes and the qualities of God as conceived by the seekers of Truth.
The word symbol comes from Greek 'symballein' meaning 'to throw together, to unite, to compare, to correspond'. Symbol is a fluid and dynamic word meaning of which in Sanskrit is 'Pratika'. Sankara says in his commentary on the 'Katha Upanishad' (1.2.15) that AUM is a 'pratika' of the Absolute. AUM is not a concept or precept.
Our ancient Rishies - Seers and Sages, dwelling at various planes of consciousness expressed the greatest spiritual messages in the most earthly language. This has given rise to symbols, parables, legends, myths and rituals that from the bulk of religious activities and religious communication. They keep the common man in touch with the most sublime religious truths and help him in participating in such activities.
Unfortunately not knowing the concealed message behind these dynamic representations most of the people either condemn symbolism in Hindu religion or
neglect their importance in development of our insight for Higher spiritual truths.
All religions have their symbols, often more than one. These may be visual like cross, or auricular like Aum. They may represent God as power like the Sivalinga, or point out the path to Perfection as in the case of the Dharmachakra and Mashal (burning torch of knowledge) or signify the Savior and his religious system as in the Cross. A reverent study and scientific explanation of these symbols is as fascinating as it is spiritually rewarding.
Om or Pranav:-
Pranav or OM is the universally accepted symbol of Hinduism. Literally the word Pranav means 'That by which God is effectively praised'. It also means 'That which is ever new'. The Yogasutras of Patanjali declare that Pranav is the symbol of God and that one can obtain Samadhi by its repetition, and meditation on Him.
Actually OM comprises three independent letters, A, U and M, each of which has its own meaning and significance. The letter 'A' represents the beginning (Adimatwa), 'U' represents progress (Utkarsha) and 'M' represents limit or dissolution (Miti). Hence the word OM represents the Power responsible for creation, development and dissolution of the Universe, namely God Himself.
The Swastika is a symbol of auspiciousness (swasti- auspiciousness). It also represents the world wheel, the eternally changing world, round a fixed and unchanging center - God. Swastika has been interpreted in many ways. Astronomy in ancient India used Swastika to depict ancient solar system of which the swastika indicated the position of Sun during the fall of winter. As an emblem of Lord Vishnu, it represents the spinning of the cosmic wheel on the axis. Four symbolizes the divine dominion in space. We have four Vedas, Hindus believed in four stage of life, there are four ideal duties to be performed - Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. The vertical and horizontal lines intersecting each other symbolize intercommunion of Purush (Man) and Prakriti (Nature), Dharma (religion) and Vigyan (Science). Swastika has an everlasting value in Indian cultural life. It is traced before starting any ritual or a pious work. It is painted on account books and door steps as a mark of prosperity. According to some vedic scholars it is an artistic representation of four AUMs mingled together.
The antiquity of Swastika finds its roots in the Indus Valley Civilization. In the Ramayana, the ships departing for Lanka were marked with Swastika. Swastika has inspired since ages the people around the world. The Buddhists and Jains regard this sign with utmost reverence. With Buddhism, Swastika passed on to the iconography of China and Japan. Swastika is considered the sign of life - a force of power; adopted throughout the world in some from or the other.
The Idol of Lord Ganesh
When we look at the idol of Ganesh, we find the head of an elephant, the body of a human being. The stomach is unusually big and a snake tied around it. One of the tusks is broken. This huge structure has a rat as its 'Vahana' - vehicle. The whole structure appears so ridiculous, so absurd. These only shows that such a person, in fact did not exist and something is connoted or indicated through this. Let us understand the connotation.
The head of Ganesh is of an elephant and body is one of human being. This means that the Lord or God or Truth includes in it both the Animal Kingdom and Human Kingdom.
If you observe the head of elephant, you see it is in the shape of 'Om'. This means that the thought vibrations of a wise person is the vibration of 'Om'. Thus the head is in the shape of 'Om' means that the whole vision, wisdom of an enlightened person, is a vision which includes the whole world.
The two great epics (Itihasas) of Hinduism are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These are the most popular books among Hindus. The Ramayana was originally written by Sage Vahniki. The story describes how Lord Vishnu appeared on earth as Lord Rama and killed King Ravana, who had oppressed his kingdom through his lust for power.The epic illustrates the ideals of personal, social, and public life. It also
illustrates the ideals of brotherhood, friendship, and chastity for both men and women.
Sage Vyasa is the author of the Mahabharata. It is a story of the great war that took place between the Kauravas and the Pandavas for the ownership of the ancient kingdom of Kurukshetra. On one side were the five Pandava brothers and on the other were their cousins, one-hundred Kaurava brothers. In the battlefield Lord Krishna was the charioteer of Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers. Upon seeing his friends and relatives gathered on the other side of the battlefield, Arjuna told Krishna that he was not prepared to kill his own people for the sake of a kingdom. Then the immortal dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna took place, known as the Bhagavad Gita.
The trunk is a very effective tool for an elephant. Using the trunk it can handle small things as dexterously as it can handle the big things. The symbolically means that an awakened person is like the trunk who has the capacity to effectively handle the big as well as small issues in life.
Ganesh has four hands. These four hands represent four aspects of mind i.e. Manah, Buddhi, Chitta and Ahamkara. In each one of the aspects of the Antahkarna (inner being) represented by hands, there is a certain instrument to achieve the mastery on these forces of inner being and realize their potential.
The eyes of Ganesh are purity and innocence personified. Its like a clear glassess. These clear glass represent a Pure mind. When the mind is pure, the eyes are glowing and luminous, sparkling. When the mind is jealous, the eyes reflect jealousy.
The body of Ganesh is very heavy with a big stomach. The big stomach represents the capacity to digest all problems of life. Problems are part and parcel of life. People are unhappy when they try to evade or get away from problems. One must realize that life without problems does not exist. A wise person is one who has the capacity to digest and assimilate all problems.
The elephant has two tusks. If you look at Ganesh, one tusk is broken. This means Duality (Dwandwa) is broken. Once the duality in us is broken we are released automatically from bondages.
Sweets & The Rat
In front of Ganesh we find a lot of sweets and delicious dishes. There is a rat looking at Ganesh. The plate full of fruits, sweets and dishes represents the colorful world of objects. The Rat represents 'Desires'. Generally rat will run to eat but here it is looking at Ganesh - meaning that for an awakened person who has discovered truth desires are waiting for orders, like the rat. Not that a wise person does not have desires, but the difference is he is a master of his desires.
Thus when we look at the idol in the temple with an understanding / awareness, each part of the idol represents something which is so profound and so sacred that the whole science of life, as it were, gets projected in front of us and makes every moment of life more effective, creative and cheerful.