Buddhist Symbols, The Becon Lights To Nibbana

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The Forms, figures, drawings, even animal’s heads, marks, color lights, all materials what the humankind uses in his day to day life act as symbols to give a different meaning and conveing a message to the ‘onlookers’ in a particular context and in a particular place. For example a symbol depicting a skull put on two thigh bones warns the seers ‘It is a danger thing and eventually may leading to death’. An ‘X’ made up of spoon and fork and displayed on the road side indicates the presence of a ‘motel’ or a place of ‘refreshment’.Like this we can give endless examples. Shortly speaking a symbol gives a message it may be a request or a warning or an order and even a spiritual intimation. Letters and numbers also be symbols, because the evolution of symbols would be a transition from an ideographic to a phonetic scripts which may be or a progress from the linguistic stand point or from the practical use. In ancient Egypt even figures of animals, birds and reptiles stood for letters. In Chinese language just lines either vertical or horizontal or crosswise or a triangle all stand for conveying the ideas rather than the letters and language. Shortly speaking a form or a figure which stands for an idea becomes a symbol as such a symbol is not mere a form or a picture but perfect manifestation or expression of experience.

Symbols at any rate are the most deep rooted elements of human consciousness. They may be developed into highly aesthetic forms yet their efficacy never depends on their aesthetic values. The success of religions of the world is due to development of symbols within the particular religion itself out of spiritual gain or experience of its followers. A wooden wheel just having eight spokes is nothing but a representation of entire teachings of the Buddha. Likewise just two wooden poles put crosswise is the symbol of entire Christianity. A small doll is also a symbol which gives several meanings to a playing child. So symbols are sign of development of human consciousness, in the field of art, literature eventually end in spiritual experience.

Type Of Symbols

There are various types of symbols in current usages; THE PATTERN OF SYMBOLS varies according to needs and various fields and disciplines. Like science and technology for example lay out and circuits (in electronic field) do the works of the symbols and in History for example just putting B.C or AD or CE along with numbers gives more information to reckon the years in the field of history.

Chemical Science: In periodic table Roman capital and small letters are marked to denote a type of metal or name of the metal or an element. ‘Au’ stands for gold, likewise ‘Hg’, ‘O’, ‘N’, ‘Nd’, ‘’Na’, ‘H’, ‘Al’, ‘Cl’, and ‘Mg’, all these stand for Mercury, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sodium, Hydrogen, Aluminum, Chlorine and Magnesium respectively.

Letters Standing For Numbers

In many languages of the world, the ‘scripts or letters’ of the particular language are used as numbers. Capital Roman letters are used as numbers, for example capital ‘I’ stands for number one likewise ‘I’ ‘II’ ‘III’ this sequential values1, 2, and 3 and capital ‘V’ stands for five, if capital ‘I’ is put on the left before capital ‘V’ value ‘one’ is deducted thus it will be the value of 4. If the capital ‘I’ is put ON THE RIGHT SIDE i.e after ‘V’ the value of 5 is increased, thus ‘V’,’VI’, ‘VII’, ‘VIII’ this sequential makes 5, 6, 7 and 8. Likewise the capital ‘X’ stands for value 10, if as above given method and if capital ‘I’ is put on left side the value ‘one’ is deducted as such it will be the value of 9. And when the capital ‘I’ is put on right side like ‘XI’, ‘XII’, ‘XIII’, the value is increasing as 11, 12 and 13. The capital ‘L’ stands for the value 40, if capital ‘X’ is put on the right side of capital ‘L’ the value would increase to 50. Shortly speaking in Latin language letters stand for numbers. On the same way the numbers in Tamil Language are only its letters not separate symbols or numbers used. For example the first vowel ‘A’ (Pronounced as ‘and’) stands for number 8 or value ‘eight’. The first consonant in Tamil ‘Ka’ (pronounced as ‘cut’) stands for the value of ‘one’. Suppose ‘Ka’ and ‘A’ written left right it will be the value of 18 i.e eighteen and the same way ‘A’ and ‘Ka” put left right, it will be the value of 81 i.e eighty one.

Symbols In Mathematics

When a child begins to do sums and calculations knowingly or unknowingly uses many symbols starting from ‘brackets’ ( ) ,‘(+)’ ,‘(-)’, ‘(X)’, ‘(%)’ ,’(<)’, ‘(>)’, ‘(|)’, ‘()’, ‘(/)’, ‘(=)’, and so on.

Symbols In Litterary Works

In Literary pieces also the role symbols are inevitable: ‘(,)’, ‘(.)’, ‘(;)’, ‘(:)’, ‘(?)’, ‘(!)’, and they express poetic values and emotions.

Symbols In The Hospitals

In all the hospitals, once we enter into it we come across many sign boards, figures which help everybody to reach or to get one’s requirement.

As explained above symbols’ role is inevitable in all the fields of science. Right from road to home.

Buddhist Symbol

The Buddhist symbols are not concerned with mundane purpose but they aim at spiritual goals and purpose.

A Good driver, if he follows all the road marks, sign boards, symbols, directions, signal lights he will be reaching his destination very safely in time. Likewise The Buddhist symbols are road signs to reach the abode of Enlightenment.

Buddhist symbols can be categorized into three major divisions A) Buddha’s personal 32 physical marks or features representing the spiritual characteristic of the Buddha. B) Buddhist famous Eight symbols representing the philosophy of Buddhism devised by Mahayana Buddhism C) Buddhist symbols or marks or practically speaking figures carved either on the palm of the Buddha or on the both feet(soles).

The first category of physical features of the Buddha has been mentioned in several discourses like ‘Lakkhana Sutta’ in Digha Nikaya of Pali canon The First Main Division ‘Sutta Pitaka’. So these marks or symbols or features can be considered as belonging to the Buddha’s time. The second category of symbols can be considered belonging to canonization period. The third category of symbols is obviously belonging to post canon era and also endowed majorly with Theravada characters. The third group of symbols or the figures numbering more than 120 have been carved in both palms and soles of the Buddha and 108 symbols in both soles. Some Myanmar tradition is numbering it into 132.

It should be noted that the Buddha’s image or statue carved only during the reign of Emperor Kanishka in 2nd C B.C. In the beginning the sculptures took the scales from the ‘Lakkhana Sutta’ to carve a Buddha image. It should be further noted that in the beginning the Buddha image was made in gigantic sizes especially in standing posture in rocky hills, not just for idolatry purpose but to depict him as a spiritual guide and master that is too after approximately 400 years of Buddha’s great demise, Mahaparinirvana. As such these symbols can be considered the development of Buddhist architect and a method of displaying or teaching and expounding of Buddhism.

Postures And Features Of The Buddha Image

Majorly, Buddha images are made in three postures sitting, standing, and reclining.
Signs of hand position and fingers: (both in sitting and standing postures)

Sitting Postures

I. The Abhaya Mudra: it is both protecting and blessings by the Buddha the focusing of right palm. For protecting the devotees and disciples the Buddha always focuses his right palm towards the gatherings.

This is Abhaya mudra by right palm

II . Upadesa Mudra: (Preaching sign – This sign is showed in sitting postures only) the sign related with Sarnath and connected with his sermon ‘Dhammacakapavathana Sutta’.

III . Bhoomi Sparsa Mudra: (Sitting posture only) After attaining of Full Enlightenment, ‘Nibbana’ as a sign of having conquered the evil Deva Mara, The Buddha touched the earth with his five fingers of right palm. This shows the great victory as well as Full Enlightenment.

IV . Dhyana Mudra (Sitting posture only) This Mudra, the meditative posture which is a common sitting posture can be seen throughout the world, either carved during 2nd C AD to modern times. It is a sign or symbol of spiritual strive as well ecstasy the Buddha attained out of his spiritual pursuit. This posture is related with Buddhagaya, where under the Bodhi tree he strived himself and attained Enlightenment.

This is Dhyana mudra at Buddha Gaya

Standing Postures

Reclining Posture

This reclining posture has two significances i) first, in a recline posture, if the Buddha completely rests his head on his entire right hand folded from elbow and the head of the Buddha rests completely on the right palm, almost both the right palm and head completely resting on the earth closing both eyes, this posture shows Maha Parinibbana, the great demise of the Buddha.

If the reclining posture makes a triangle of left alms and elbow make an ‘L’ shape and the Buddha rests his head on the right palm, it shows that the Buddha either meditating or relaxing opening of two eyes. Gigantic statues have been erected in Myanmar, even 400 feet from head to sole.

Tibetan Finger signs

Technically called ‘mudra’, which are only the position of fingers of either palm or both the palm at a time. Or keeping the fingers of the both palms in a particular position or pattern for a particular span of time, minimum 20 minutes and to the time of recommended time as taught by the teachers which is called ‘mudra’ practicing. There are only two purposes, generally for healing only. By keeping the fingers either mixed manner or touching manner or making a form through which the functioning of major elements in the physical body is set right, especially the proportion of five basic the elements at par with the cosmos. (As the paper concerns with only the symbols carved on the palms and soles of the Buddha, these symbols, mudras, signs, postures etc.,etc., are not extensively discussed here)

Some Examples For The Mudras

The Symbols, Figures, Forms In The Palm And Soles Of The Buddha

Symbols On The Palm

The for the period of 400 years after the great demise of the Buddha, the symbols were just Bodhi Tree, Stupas which were built just to store the relic of the Buddha and his belongings such as ‘razor’ ‘alms bowl’ ‘his stitching needle’ etc.,. Only during the reign of Emperor Kanishka the image for the Buddha was carved on the formula or the physical features of the Buddha as enumerated in the “Lakkhana Sutta” of Pali canon Digha Nikaya of sutta Pitaka. In the beginning the Buddha images were depicted majorly in gigantic appearance especially standing and slow by slow sitting postures and reclining postures came up. The concept of sole marks or symbols emerged only from the time of making Buddha images in reclining postures exposing his both broad soles. As already explained there are two types of reclining postures, generally resting posture keeping his on the right palm making a triangle between arm and elbow and resting of his head and this can be also called ‘Reclining Meditative Posture’. Another reclining posture is Maha Prinibbana, the great demise of the Buddha. In this posture the Buddha totally keeps his entire right hand folding the arm and resting on the ground and the Buddha’s head is completely kept on the right palm as sleeping. This posture denotes the great demise of the Buddha and not just ‘resting’ or ‘meditating’. However in the both postures the both soles of the Buddha completely exposed and various marks, figures, rightly speaking symbols are carved. In the history of Buddhism various symbols have been evolving to till date. The recent symbol internationally recognized is the Buddhist flag designed by Col.Olcott and others in Sri Lanka.

The Evolution Of Symbols Found In Buddha’s Soles

The concept of sole figures or symbols started when reclining postures of the Buddha’s images were carved. According to Myanmar tradition in Sole there are 108 symbols or figures carved. Almost in all images of the Buddha which are in reclining postures in the both soles depicting certain marks or Buddhist symbols. All these figures remind the Buddha and his spiritual evolution from the day of his birth to Maha Parnibbana the great demise. Hereunder only the spiritual aspects of marks or symbols are extensively discussed

  • I) Flowers and its varieties:Blue Lotus
    • red lotus (may be pink)
    • white lotus
    • The garlands of jasmine
    • Laired lotus Water lil
  • II) Water areas: (7-13) Seven Major rivers of the earth. (14 -20) Seven big lakes
  • III) The great Islands: the four great islands and small 2000 islands (21 – 25)
  • IV) The Mountains:
    • The seven great mountains (26 – 32),
    • 33. Himalayan Mountain
    • 34. Maha Meru,
    • 35. Mountains of the universe
  • V) The ocean 36
  • VI) The Planets: Planets37, the sun 38, the moon 39
  • VII) The Buddha’s royal articles:
    • 40. Large spear
    • 41. royal wax flower
    • 42. Ornament head band
    • 43. Table laid
    • 44. the javelin
    • 45. White parasol
    • 46. The royal scimitar
    • 47. Hand fan made up of pea-cock’s feather
    • 48. The royal whisk made up of antelopes
    • 49. Multi tired roof
    • 50. The arch-way
    • 51. the royal mansion
    • 52. The ruby
    • 53. Pot full of water
    • 54. cup full of water
  • VIII) 55. The sole mark depicting thousand spokes wheel depicting the Buddha the teacher of entire cosmos. That is he is the teacher of all sentient beings.
  • IX) 56. Many minor wheels
    X) 57.white conch shields
    XI) 58.pair of golden fishes
    XII) Celestial beings:
    • 59. Celestial Kite king (Garuda King)
    • 60. Crocodile King
    • 61. The Lion king
    • 62. Tiger King
    • 63. Celestial Noble steeds
    • 64. White Elephants
    • 65. Dragon king
    • 66. Golden Swan
    • 67. Golden boats
    • 68. Mount Kailas
    • 69. Celestial Palanquin
    • 70. Noble Bull
    • 71. Indira’s (the king of celestial beings) royal elephants
    • 72. Mythical Male bird (Kinnara the celestial singer)
    • 73. Mythical female bird (Kinnari the celestial singer)
  • XIII) 74 – 79 Six Deva realms celestial abodes
    XIV) 80 – 96 Sixteen Brahmas’ worlds
    XV) Miscellaneous:
    • 97.Palmyra hand fan,
    • 98.Alms bowl
    • 99.Celestial Peacock
    • 100. Celestial Crane
    • 101. Cow and her Calf
    • 102. Ruddy Goose
    • 103. Peasent Partridge
    • 104. Golden Leathern
    • 105-108 – Celestial Four Doorways

Commentaries On The Sole Marks and Symbols

As mentioned earlier these marks or figures are substantiating the Buddha’s spiritual character and nature who could observe the all the realms and abodes of the cosmos. The Buddha refuted only the existence of a ‘Creator God’ but at the same time approves of presence of many subtle and gross worlds, abodes and realms in the cosmos. As such approving of presence of ‘Deities’ or ‘celestial beings’ and even ‘demons’ confined for punishment for one’ own evil deeds these are basic teachings of the Buddha.

In item No I: Lotuses and other flowers are shown. From the beginning of the Buddha’s life this flower lotus does its major role. By his own words the Buddha explains “I was delicate, excessively delicate. In my father’s dwelling three lotus ponds were made purposely for me .Blue lotuses bloomed in one, red in another, and white in another”.[1]

Here the Buddha talks about a species of plant ‘blue lotuses’. In modern time this blue variety of lotus has completely disappeared and extinct.

“Night and day a white parasol was held over me so that I might not be touched by heat or cold, dust leaves or dew”[2]

In Dhammapada Buddha says that lotus grows in the mutter water yet it is not sustained by clay and dust, so as we all born in the world of evils and sufferings but not to be sustained by taint and sorrow.

The items shown in the number VII:
The symbols such as

  1. large spear,
  2. Royal mansion,
  3. ornament head bond
  4. royal cot,
  5. fan made of pea-cock feather etc.,

depicting early luxurious life style of Siddhartha and practically speaking imposed on him by his father the King Suddhodana eventually which made the prince saturated in the worldly life. The Buddha asked himself “why do I being subject to birth, decay, disease, death, sorrow and impurities, thus search after things of like nature”.[3]

The Buddha further continues “Cramped and confined is household life, a den of dust, but the life of homeless one is as the open air of heaven! Hard is it for him who bides at home to live out as it should be lived the Holy Life in all its perfection, in all its purity.”[4]

The symbols like Palm-leaf Hand fan, alms bowl etc., depicting his life of renunciation.

Once on his way to park the first time in his life his karmic forces helped him to encounter strange sights of a decrepit old man, a diseased person, a corpse and a dignified hermit. The first three sights convincingly provided to him, the inexorable nature of life, and the universal ailment of all sentient beings. The fourth signified the means to overcome the ills of life and to attain calm and peace. The Buddha declared “seeing the four signs, I set out on horse-back….”[5]

The items in II to VI: These marks depicting the Buddha as the knower of entire material cosmos. According to Theravada tradition the world of human being is called ‘Manussa’. The human realm is the mixture of both pain and happiness. Bodhisatvas prefer the human realm as the best abode to strive to attain Buddha-hood. As such all the Buddha are born in human realm.

The items shown in VIII and IX: These wheels represent Buddha’s characters that Buddha is either the temporal sovereign of the worlds or the spiritual master. Eventually Buddha emerged as the teacher of the sentient beings.

The items in X and XI are the symbols of good auspicious signs, that is ‘mangala’. There are eight major symbols in Mahayana tradition. For example mystical knot, a pair of golden fishes, urn and so on.

The items shown in XII depicting that the Buddha is the knower of all celestial worlds ‘Lokavidu’. By his own word the Buddha says in Anguttara Nikaya “Not to be reached by going worlds end”

The item XIII describes about the six realms of Deities. The followings are six realms of ‘Devas’ or ‘Deities’

  • i) Catummaharajika
  • ii) Tavatmisa
  • iii) Yama
  • iv) Tusita
  • v) Nimmanarati
  • vi) Paranimmitavasavatti
  1. Catummaharajika: Very lowest of heavenly realms where the guardian deities dwells[6].
  2. Tavatmisa: Thirty three types of deities dwells here for this realm is “The King Indra” , but according to Theravada tradition he is called ‘Sakka’.
  3. Yama: The realm of certain higher deities having killed the faculty of physical pain.
  4. Tusita: The realm of eternal happiness this may be called as temporary abode for Bodhisatvas who are to be born as future Buddha.
  5. Nimmanarati: The realm of certain deities who delight in their created mansions.
  6. Paranimmitavavatti: The realm of the devas who make others’ creation serve their own ends. These Deva worlds are temporarily blissful they are too subject to death and to be reborn in some other either higher or lower planes accoding to their ‘karmic effects’

The item XIV describes about the sixteen Brahmas world. Superior to the above mentioned six deva realms there are sixteen worlds of Brahma.

  1. Brama Parisajja – The realm of the Brahma’s retinue.
  2. Brahma Purohita – The realm of the Brahmas ministers.
  3. Maha Brahmas – The realm of great Brahmas. The Brahmas dwelling in this realm excel others in happiness, beauty, and age limit owing to good deeds in their past lives or existences.
  4. Paritabha – The realm of Minor Luster.
  5. Appamanabha – The realm of infinite Lustre.
  6. Abhassara – The realm of radiant Brahmas.
  7. Parittanasubha – The realm of Minor Aura.
  8. Appamanasubha – The realm of the Brahmas of infinite Aura.
  9. Subhakinha – The realm of the Brahmas of Steady Aura.
  10. Vehapphala – The realm of Great reward.
  11. Asannasatta – The realm of Mindless beings but endowed with conscience.
  12. 12) To 16) Suddhavasa the pure abodes with four sub-divisions
    • i) Aviha – The durable Realm,
    • ii) Atappa – Serene Realm,
    • iii) Suddassa beautiful Realm
    • iv) Suddassi Clear sighted realm and
    • v) Akanittha the Highest Realm.

In item No XV some miscellaneous symbols are added mixed item of bothe terrestrial as well as celestial beings. For example Cow and Calf, celestial pea-cocks, cranes, ruddy goose etc., these items my represents the protection of the spices. Example Asoka the great declared many animals and birds protected in his pillar edicts[7].

Analysis of Symbols found in the both soles of the Buddha: As mentioned earlier the concept of marks or symbols of soles emerged after making of the Buddha statue in reclining posture and it may be either the posture of great demise or relaxation. But it should be mentioned that the makers of such Buddha images did not leave the soles blank. When a person viewing the reclined postures of the Buddha in a sense of devotion the marks carved or painted in the soles reminded the life of the Buddha. For the illiterate populace in those days who cannot either read or write can recollect the life of the Buddha just seeing these symbols or marks carved on the soles. So these symbols act as telling the life history of the Buddha on, the other hand for the higher thinking people ‘Lokuttara Citta’, these marks or symbols helps to evolve spiritually and to attain Nibbana because these marks as already mentioned the spiritual strive what the Buddha exercised during his spiritual quest and also his achievements as the knower of all realms and the teacher of all sentient beings of the universe.

Let all beings live in Peace



Original Pali and Sanskrit Texts:

  • Digha Nikaya, Sutta Pitaka First Main Book
  • Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta Pitaka Second main Book
  • Anguttara Nikaya Sutta Pitaka Third main Book
  • Saddharmapundarika

Additional Bibliography

Secondary sources

  • The Hand Book of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, Serindia Publication Inc. 2003
  • Brief History of Symbolism in Buddhism, Web: Exotic India Art


M.A., M.A., M.Phil., D.I.R.D., D.G.Th., Ph.D.,(B.G.L)


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