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Symbols in Buddhism

By Devik Balami at
Symbols in Buddhism

In Buddhism, Symbols are used to represent certain aspects of dharma. These symbols are also regarded as Buddhist art which was first initiated in the fourth century BCE. Later anthropomorphic symbolism along with iconic Buddha statues was introduced from around first century CE. This was initiated from two different places- Mathura and Gandhara. The Mathuran art and Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara were formed along with the combination of early symbols. Other symbolic innovations were also introduced according to the expansion of the School of Buddhism, especially through Tibetan Buddhism.

Early symbols in Buddhism

Since the early symbolic and representative nature was not clearly explained in early texts, it is little or not known what the exact role of the image was in Early Buddhism. Among the earliest and most common symbols of Buddhism are- the stupa, the Dharmachakra or Dharma wheel, the Bodhi Tree, and the lotus flower.

As known about the stupa, it represents the path to nirvana. The most precious thing in the stupa is the relics that it holds and hence is the most scared in Buddhism.

The dharma wheel, on the other hand, is the represented with eight spokes which can have a variety of meanings. The symbol was gradually used in the Buddhism with the establishment of pillars of Ashoka during the 3rd century BC. This wheel is regarded as the historical process of teaching of Buddha and the eight spokes are referred to the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Bodhi tree represents the liberation as under this tree, the Buddha achieved nirvana. The lotus in Buddhism also has several meanings which are often referred to the quality of compassion and also the pure potential of the mind.

Along with these early symbols, there are also others symbols which are used rigorously in Buddhism. These include the begging bowl or singing bowl, the trishula, the Vajra. The singing bowl in the current context is also used in the healing therapies for different problems. The trishula was used as a Buddhist symbol only after the second century BCE.

The animals, mainly the lion, the riderless horse, and the deer, are also used symbolically in Buddhist art. In the different sutra, the lion's roar is regarded as the Buddha's teachings and this indicates the power and nobility. The riderless horse represents renunciation and the deer represent Buddhist disciples.

In early Buddhism, the Buddha was not represented in an iconic form. He has represented in an aniconic medium through empty throne and the Bodhi tree. It is recorded that the first hint of an iconic representation in the Buddhist symbolism was the footprint of the Buddha. Later the iconic representation, Buddha statues, was developed through Greco-Buddhist art and Mathurian art.

Symbols as presented in the school of Buddhism

Symbols in Theravada Buddhism

In Theravada Buddhism, the art strictly represented in the realm of the representational and historic meaning. Although in the early period, an aniconic form of art was used, the physical characteristics of the Buddha are described in the Digha Nikaya of the traditional Pali Canon. The title of the discourse is Sutra of the Marks which had explained the Buddha's physical appearance.

Symbols in Mahayana Buddhism

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhist figures and sacred objects are more inclined towards esoteric and more symbolic meanings. One such figure is the Buddhist hand mudras which describe the actions of the characters represented in only the most interesting Buddhist art.

Along with mudras, Mahayana Buddhist also follows a particular set of eight auspicious symbols in domestic and public art. These eight auspicious symbols are Lotus flower, Endless Knot, Pair of golden fish, Victory banner, Wheel of the Dharma, Treasure vase, parasol, conch shell, and swastika. These symbols are also used in the Vajrayana Buddhist art.

Symbols in Vajrayana Iconography

The central symbol in Vajrayana Buddhism is the Vajra. It is believed to be a sacred indestructible weapon of the god Indra which associated with lightning and the hardness of diamonds. The vajra also symbolizes emptiness and bears indestructible nature of reality. Other symbols include the ritual bell, the bhavacakra, mandalas, the Buddha's eye, and the number 108.