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