After becoming a monk, Prince Siddhartha, better known as Gautam Buddha, began using objects as symbols to convey the stages of his spiritual journey. Ordinary objects such as the lotus, a parasol, and a pair of fish carried meaningful spiritual connotations. Each object has been interpreted as a milestone of Buddha’s journey and a lesson for his followers. One can see a combination of these symbols carved or painted on Buddhist monasteries to remind young monks of Buddha’s enlightenment. Following are the many holy objects and the hidden meanings behind them-
Parasols were traditionally used to provide shade to members of the royalty and nobility in Hindu kingdoms. The greater the number of parasols that sheltered a person, the higher his or her social status. Typically, Buddha is depicted with thirteen parasols, indicating his authority and influence over society. However, the parasol can be interpreted as a protective cover too. The umbrella can shield a human from rain and harsh sun. Metaphorically, the parasol protects humans from suffering and life’s vagaries.
2. Conch Shell
The conch shell is another symbol derived from Hindu kingdoms. During battles, the conch shell was often blown to either indicate victory or to begin the war. In Buddhism, the conch shell is used to symbolize the glaring sound of Buddha’s teachings. The shell’s sound is loud and vibrant enough to awaken those sleeping or those covered in a blanket of ignorance. Another attribute attached to the battle-horn is fearlessness since war implores soldiers to display bravery and courage. As a result, the shell could represent Buddha's fearlessness in seeking the truth and illuminating the world with it.
3. A Pair of Golden Fish
A Pair of Golden Fish
Traditionally, two golden fish were used to depict India’s two rivers- the Ganga and the Yamuna. In Buddhist teachings, the fish represents the ability to move freely through life. As fish swims freely in and against the direction of the tide, one must strive to be happy if life moves forward and oppose its tide if faced with difficulties. The carefree nature of the fish represents freedom from the cycle of rebirth.
4. Lotus Flower
The lotus flower is an emblem of purity in Hindu tradition. Even though it grows in muddy ponds and murky waters, it blooms beautifully. Adapting the flower in Buddhist traditions, the lotus stands for purity and teaches people to remain pure and unwavering even when surrounded by filthy elements. It represents Buddha’s space because he strived to remain pure in a world engulfed by materialism and attachment. Buddhist traditions associate the lotus flower with an ancient monk called Padmasambhava who is credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibetans.
5. The Banner of Victory
Banner of Victory
Popular in Indian warfare as a symbol of victory, the banner of victory represents Buddha’s win over material attachment, lust, desire, temptation, and pride. In Buddha’s quest for Enlightenment, he had to overcome the four maras namely Devaputra Mara, Skandra Mara, Klesha Mara, and Yama Mara. Each mara indicates a specific fear- that of choosing pleasure over pain, shrinking in the face of adversity, letting emotions get the better of us, and fearing the end of life, respectively. The banner of victory teaches followers to remember Buddha’s triumph over the four maras and his perseverance in the quest for truth.
6. A Vase
The vase is a powerful symbol of good health, wealth, and prosperity. It is
typically depicted in Buddhist architecture as a gold-painted object adorned with ornate designs. While many people associate wealth and prosperity with money, the vase represents the rich depth and wealth of meaning that Buddha's teachings and prayers possess.
7. The Eternal Knot
The eternal knot, also known as the infinity knot, symbolises the eternal relevance of Buddha's teachings and sermons. Despite the fact that Prince Siddhartha's story occurred many centuries ago, Buddha's lessons and teachings are still relevant and widely taught and practised today. His principles are timeless as they can be applied to human societies and civilizations of any era. The infinity knot is also a metaphor for the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
8. Dharma Wheel
The Dharma Wheel is frequently used to represent Gautama Buddha himself. In Buddhist architecture, the wheel is painted with eight spokes, each representing one of Buddha's Eightfold Path milestones. Right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness, and right concentration are the path's eight teachings. Buddhist followers must aim to move along the Eightfold Path in the same way that a wheel moves forward. One by one, a disciple must master the eight principles and achieve true knowledge and freedom.
Apart from the aforementioned eight symbols, there are other objects which are considered holy and meaningful in the Buddhist tradition. Some of them are:
9. Bodhi Tree
Bodhi Tree, Bhutan by Genke Hans
Buddha achieved enlightenment by meditating under a Bodhi tree. The Bodhi tree is a sacred object which reminds people to strive hard to achieve enlightenment and seldom denotes the experience of enlightenment itself.
Stupas played an important role in the spread of Buddhism in India and its neighbouring countries. Stupas are structures that house Buddha's relics and items that he may have used during his time on Earth. They remind followers of Buddha’s tangible presence on Earth and his intangible presence through his teachings.
11. Alms Bowl
Buddhist monks and disciples use an alms bowl to beg for food, water, and money. This is a tradition that has continued since ancient Buddhist practice in India. It is a reminder of the denunciation of material possessions for monks. On the other hand, when people donate/place money and food in the begging bowl, they acknowledge Buddha’s dharma and the monk’s perseverance in the quest for enlightenment.
Pratha Content Writer