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



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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