Ritual Objects of Buddhism and Hinduism

Added over 8 years ago

Astamangala (Eight Auspicious Symbols)

eight_auspicious_symbolsThese are a suite or group of eight symbols endemic to a number of dharmic philosophies including Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.  They represent the enlightened mindstream and are also used as teaching tools, appearing together or singly in manuscripts and artwork and as a decorative motif on relics, statuary, buildings and jewellery.  The exact symbols vary with the pholosophy being taught and with time.  In Buddhism, the symbols often represent the gifts given by celestial beings to Sakyamuni Buddha on his attainment of enlightenment.  They are:

White Parasol - protects one from evil desires
Two Fishes - beings rescued from the ocean of earthly existence
Conch Shell - proclaims the glory of turning to the right path
Banner - signifying the victory of Buddhism
Endless Knot - represents the endless cycle of rebirth
Vase - treasury of all spiritual wealth
Wheel - representing transformation and teaching
Lotus - symbolising the progress of the soul



Buddhist bellThe bell, topped by a half vajra and clasped by lotus petals and leaves, symbolises wisdom in Buddhism, traditionally considered to be a female principal.  It is also the complementary object of the vajra, destroyer of ignorance, which represents the male principal. Used in harmony, the bell is held in the left hand while the vajra is held in the right hand.  Together their interaction leads to enlightenment.



a gau, worn around the neck or in the hairA small metal amulet container or prayer box carried by many Tibetan Buddhists as a portable shrine or altar. The Gau usually contains an image of a personal deity, a blessed written prayer or a sacred yantra diagram and a small offering of rice.  Gaus may vary considerably in size and shape, depending on the requirements of the owner.  Smaller gaus range in size from 2 cm to 10 cm in diameter are often worn as jewelry and thus may be made of beaten silver or gold and heavily decorated inside and out with precious stones or carvings.  Larger gaus may have a window in front to view the contents and are generally encased in a protective cloth bag and carried slung over the shoulde



The Kartika

A beautiful rock crystal kartika from Nepal, 18th-19th Century, from the Guimet Museum, Paris.  Kartikas are more usually fashioned from brass or bronze, particulalry when used in Chod and sky burial ceremonies.The kartika is a ceremonial Buddhist ritual tool shaped like a crescent knife or chopper, topped with a vajra that acts as a handle to the blade. It symbolizes the severance of all material and worldly bonds, while the vajra represents the destruction of ignorance, thus clearing the path to enlightenment.  While the kartika is used in several Buddhist ceremonies, usually in combination with the kapala (skullcap), it is particularly important in the Tibetan practice of Chöd, a ritual involving a form of self-sacrifice, whereby the practitioner visualizes their own body as the offering at a form of tantric feast.   The kartika is also famously used in the Tibetan sky burial ritual, whereby the deceased are cut into small pieces and left for the vultures to consume on top of special gats or burial platforms.  Interestingly, the kartika is also utilised in the practice of Feng Shui.



a complex Buddhist mandala painted onto canvasThe mandala may be described as a concentric diagram that has both spiritual and ritual significance. Important especially to Buddhists and Hindus (although mandalas may be found in every faith, including Judaism and Christianity), the word is Sanskrit meaning "essence" + "having" or "containing". Mandalas may be used to focus attention, as a spiritual teaching tool, to establish a sacred space and as an aid to meditation or trance induction.  They may also be used as a spiritual offering, particularly when made out of sand or some intemperate material. Every detail of a mandala is fixed in tradition and has specific symbolic meanings, often on several complex physical and spiritual levels.  A discussion of these meanings is beyond the scope of this article, however a very good description is given here at Wikipedia.



omOm, also written as Aum, is a mystical and sacred syllable that originated from Hinduism but is now common to Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism and the Bön faith.

According to the Hindu Mandukya Upanishad, which is entirely devoted to the explanation of the syllable, "Om is the one eternal syllable of which all that exists is but the development. The past, the present, and the future are all included in this one sound, and all that exists beyond the three forms of time is also implied in it". Although Om symbolizes the most profound concepts of universal creation including the three stages of existence (birth, life and death), it is in use daily. The devout begin their day, work, prayers or a journey by uttering Om, the symbol is enshrined in every Hindu temple and it is often found at the head of letters and at the beginning of important documents. Many wear the sign of Om as a pendant, and it is the first syllable of the sacred mantra "Om mani padme hum".

Interestingly, it is believed that the Christian "Amen" and Islamic "Amin" are both derived from Om. In western culture both the spoken word and the written symbol have become synonymous with eastern spirituality, meditation and the very concept of peace itself. Repetition of the word Om is said to slow the breathing, calm the nervous system and send the glands and organs of the body a gentle vibrational massage. Om is also a very popular symbol in contemporary body art and tattoos.


Om Mani Padme Hum

om mani padme hum mantraOne of the best known of all the Buddhist mantras, it's six syllables roughly translate to Hail the Jewel in the Lotus. It is the mantra of the Bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteswara, of whom the Dalai Lama is considered to be the 14th incarnation.  Because of this his devotees particularly revere it above all other mantras.  Tibetans and Nepalese commonly invoke Avalokiteswara during times of danger or hardship, and the mantra is recited in order to bring salvation, both to individuals and to the world at large.  Thus the mantra is often found on jewellery and other devices as a form of protection. By chanting this mantra one is said to "harmonize in the choral resonance of pure compassion", in turn producing a calming effect on the chanter. In China, Avalokiteswara is depicted in female form as Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion.



The three bladed PhurpaA triple sided ritual dagger which in Buddhism symbolizes the slaying or destruction of foe or obstructions.  Generally crowned with a Vajra (Dorje), a three-dimensional representation of a thunderbolt.  The Phurpa is not designed to cause actual bodily harm and is in heavily blunted – in fact it’s unusual shape is derived from traditional tent pegs used by nomadic Tibetans and Nepalis to secure their tents to the ground. The segments and the triple blade represent the three spirit worlds, while the Phurpa as a whole symbolizes the "worlds axis" bring all three worlds together.  It may be made of a number of materials including wood and bone, but is more generally crafted from brass, bronze or iron. The Phurpa is a powerful tool used by practioners to subdue evil spirits and negative energy, transforming them into positive forces.


Prayer Wheel

a row of prayer wheelsA prayer wheel is a cylindrical wheel on a spindle, in which a scroll is placed with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum written hundreds, even thousands of times.  The wheel is spun in a clockwise direction (based on the movement of the sun across the sky), allowing with each revolution the accumulation of as much merit as though all of the mantra inscriptions were read aloud. Thus the more prayers a wheel holds, the more powerful it is considered to be. Traditionally, Tibetans and Nepalis use prayer wheels to accumulate merit and good karma; any accumulated merits that an individual may gather during a session of use are freely given to all other sentient beings.  A prayer wheel should be held almost upright and spun smoothly and slowly; greater benefit is achieved if the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is recited as the wheel is turned.



hindu swastikaThe swastika is one of humankind's oldest known symbols. It has the form of an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, in either right-facing form or its left-facing mirror form. It originally arose as a repeating design created by reed edges in the basket-weave designs of early Neolithic cultures. As such, it has appeared in the motifs of many civilizations over the past 5000 years, variously representing perpetual motion (Greeks and Romans), the sun disk (ancient Egyptians and Bronze Age Europeans), the Christian cross and the Nordic thunder hammer. To this day the swastika is a holy symbol of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions, symbolizing good luck, auspiciousness, harmony and balance. The swastika's appropriation by the Nazi Party unfortunately stigmatized it in the eyes of the Western world and its continued use within Asian cultures may sometimes lead to confusion, particularly in Europe. However, it may be hoped that in time the overall goodness of this emblem will override the stain of its historically brief association with German Nationalism.


Vajra or Dorje

the vajra or thunderboltThe Vajra is a powerful symbolic ritual object common to Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.  Also known as a Dorje in the Tibetan language, Vajra is a Sanskrit word meaning both "thunderbolt" and "diamond".   Physically the vajra is shaped like a double-ended flower bud or club. In Buddhism the vajra destroys all kinds of ignorance and represents spiritual power, but is itself as indestructible as a diamond.  To the Hindus it is the weapon of the god Vishnu, while to the Jains it is the symbol of one of their Bodhisattvas, one who has achieved enlightenment but remains on earth while the cycle of human suffering continues.


Viswa Vajra

the viswa vajra or double dorjeThe double or crossed Vajra represents the stability of the physical world and is a powerful protective symbol in that it cannot be destroyed but itself destroys all evil.  Because of this the viswa vajra is often found stamped or applied to the base of statues or to canisters and containers that hold precious relics or prayers.  It is also associated with Amogasiddhi , one of the five Dhyani Buddhas whose mudra is Granting Protection or Fearlessness and whose consort is the Green Tara.

Tags: Bell, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Mandala, Mantra, Om Mani, Phurpa, Ritual Objects, Swastika, Vajra, Viswa Vajra


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