Hindu Icons and Symbols | Inner Circle IV


This part of series on Hindu icons and Symbols is dedicated to what we could call the Dharma Princes or Devas of Inner Circle - they are the most venerated deities right next to the Devas of Trimūrti and Divine Mother. I am speaking here about the 2 Divine sons of Lord Shiva - namely - Śrī Ganesha and Lord Murugan, the Lord Ayyappa - often described as a son of Shiva and Vishnu, embodiment of best qualities of both, and finally - we should mention the most beloved and powerful devotee of Lord Rāma - Šrī Hanumān.


Gaṇeśa is one of the most popular and well-known of all the Hindu gods and is always worshipped first. He is the god of Wisdom and the patron of learning.

Everything that we perceive in the universe must be grasped and expressed by the mind through the means of categories, therefore "category" is a fundamental principle of existence.

The 'principle' by which all classifications, and the relationship of one thing to another in the universe can be understood is called Gana-esha — "The-Lord-of-Categories".

Gaṇeśa — the Lord-of-categories has two wives Siddhi — Success, and Buddhi — Intelligence sometime his second wife is said to be Riddhi — Prosperity.

Gaṇeśa represents one of the basic concepts of Hindu Philosophy — the identity between the macrocosm and the microcosm. In religious terms this is the identity between the individual and the universe (humankind made in the image of God).

This idea of the potential divinity of the person and the immanence of God should be presented before the mind before beginning any undertaking.

This is the reason that Gaṇeśa is worshiped at the beginning of every enterprise. Not only this but his icon is seen at the entrance to almost every Hindu home and on every altar.

In iconography Gaṇeśa is represented as an Elephant-headed man:

The man part of Gaṇeśa represents the manifest Principle which is subordinate to the unmanifest Principle which is represented by the elephant's head.

The elephant head also represents certain qualities to which a sincere spiritual seeker is encouraged to aspire — strength, intelligence, endurance and gracefulness. The elephant is the only animal which has all its 5 organs in the head.

Thus we are taught that exerting control over the five senses is an essential pre-requisite to achieving knowledge and wisdom.


The noose [pāśa] — represents the three things which are the cause of our bondage to the material world which necessitate continued rebirth:

• Ignorance of our true nature [avidya] as eternal modes of consciousness and an erroneous identification with the material body and mind.,

• Our actions done in conformity with the false identification with the material vehicle and their inevitable reactions [karma].

• The habitual pattern formations which we create [vāsanā].

Many of these are useful such as performing acts of daily living, and also special skills needed for our convenience such as driving, working computers and other forms of machinery and mechanical tasks needed for earning a living.

But there are more subtle and invidious pattern formation which cause suffering to ourselves and to others. These need to be uprooted — de-conditioned — in order to progress towards enlightenment.

In the hands of a free and enlightened being these three become a mere ornament!

The axe [paraśu] — represents non-attachment. In order to progress on the spiritual path the essential virtue to cultivate is that of non-attachment to the sense-object and their means of gratification — the noose held in the one hand needs to be cut with the axe of non-attachment in the other.

The Elephant Goad [ankuśa] — represents perseverance on the path of spiritual practice. The spiritual path is very arduous and difficult but if we are committed then Gaṇeśa when propitiated will prod us by means of the Goad, and guide us to our supreme destination — union with the Divine. But that incentivization will require pain and suffering!!

The sweet [modaka] — represents the basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. One should never neglect one's physical well-being while one is practicing spiritual discipline. The spiritual life is to be followed in harmony with a material life — not in opposition to it.

ganesh mouseThe Mouse Vehicle [muṣika] — The mouse is the master of the inner part of every building, and as such it represents the Ātman or the Self. The Self lives in the innermost recesses of the intellect, within the heart of every being.

The mouse is called muṣika in Sanskrit. It is derived the word mush which means to steal.

The Inner Ruler (Ātman) steals everything that we enjoy, hidden from our view it enjoys all the pleasures and remains unaffected by virtue or vice. The inner ruler is the real enjoyer of everything yet the ego in ignorance thinks that it is the enjoyer!

The mouse also represents the uncontrolled and negative mind that lives in the dark hidden places and destroys for the sake of destroying. Gaṇeśa, representing wisdom can control the mind by riding on it but the mind can never be completely crushed.

One Tusk [eka-dantā] - Ganapati acted as the scribe for the Mahābhārata, on the condition that he would on no account interrupt the recitation by Vyāsa who was dictating the Mahābhārata for the welfare of the world.

When the pen broke, Ganapati broke off his own tusk in order not to interrupt the work. Thus out of great compassion for beings the Lord was prepared to mutilate himself! This is the symbolism contained in the iconographical representation.

Ganapati is always depicted as being obese because all the universe is contained in his belly, yet he himself is not contained in anyone.


(Subrāmaṇya, Skanda, Saravanabhava, Kārttikeya, Kumāra)

As the second son of Lord Śiva, Murugan the embodiment of skilful action, just as Gaṇeśa is the personification of wisdom. Skilful action (kuśala karma) is that which is direct at Ātmā bodha —self-realization. The several and collective human perfections are all personified in Murugan. When all the five senses and the mind as the co-ordinating factor are sublimated and directed towards enlightenment then one attains super-consciousness.

Lord Murugan was born from the Tejas or intense energy of Lord Śiva in order to relieve the gods of the oppression of Tārakāsura who had gained a boon of invincibility from Brahmā.

Tāraka-asura means the “demon-of-salvation” and he represents those factors which hinder real progress in both material and spiritual terms. The demon personifies our selfish delusions of what we think is in our own self-interest but is actually not.

A person with a migraine headache for example may think it in their best interest to have a hole drilled in their head to relieve the pressure —a misadventure which would surely result in death!!

So we as individuals and as a society are addicted to the pursuit of short-term self-interest goals which in the long term are detrimental to us. We see this in the environmental and economic policies of short-sighted administrators.

Skilful Means and real Universal Wellbeing requires that this demon of short-term self-interest be dispatched — requiring immense effort!

The 6 heads represent a number of concepts associated with spiritual growth and progress.

1. the organs of knowledge (jñānendriyas) i.e. touch, taste, hearing, smell, sight, and the mind as the 6th.

2. the six seats of consciousness in the subtle body — known as the Chakras: Mūlādhāra, Svādhiṣṭhāna, Maṇipura, Anāhata, Viśuddhā and Ājñā. The path of sādhana is a journey through these states of ever expanding consciousness.

3. They represent the 5 states of matter (earth, water, fire, air and ether) and the jīva.

4. The 6 qualities of the Supreme Being — omniscience, non-attachment, omnipotence, sovereignty, grace and glory.

He was born as 6 separate beings and was the coalesced into a single entity with six heads and twelve arms.

This is also indicative of the 5 kośas or sheaths and the jīvātman: The food sheath, the vital sheath, the mind, the intellect, and bliss sheath and the individual Self.

The 12 arms are symbolic of the skill and talent to perform multiple tasks and to progress skilfully materially. Both spiritual and material progress are inseparable from a well harmonised and integrated vision of the world and our place in it.

Murugan has many forms each one depicting a different aspect of his complex personality.

As Skanda or Kumāra he is the embodiment of chastity (brahmacārya) and conservation of the vital essence (retas) considered as essential for spiritual practice. In this form he appears as a young lad, a religious student clad only in a loin-cloth (kaupinam) and carry his spear.

As Ṣaṇmukha or Subrāmaṇya he is married to two wives:—

Valli (the earth) was the daughter of a humble farmer, unsophisticated and uneducated. She represents the casual or informal means of progress and growth. Through intuition and common-sense one can sometimes become more wise than an highly educated professor.

The other wife was Devasenā (army of the gods) or Devakunjari (divine celestial elephant) — these names are suggestive of ability and power of action. The Devas rose to their high position through sheer endeavour. Indra became king of the gods through the skilful performance of 100 yajñas. The eminence of the celestials is due to skilful means alone.


Among many weapons of Murugan the most important is the Spear. The spear (kunta or vēl in Tamil) represents the focussed mind directed at the goal to be obtained or the enemy to be slain in the form of self-referent desire (kāma), anger (krodha), delusion (moha), arrogance or feeling of superiority (mada), niggardliness (lobha), and malicious envy (mātsarya).

A weapon which is unique to Murugan is the tanka or chisel used by sculptors and stone-masons — śilpis. It represents the work that needs to be done on ourselves in order to manifest our true essence nature. – The figure is already present in the stone, but it takes the skill of the sculptor to liberate it. In the same way the Jīvātman is present within the body/mind casing, it takes the skill of a sādhaka to reveal it.

Murugan’s vehicle is the Mayūrapeacock which represents pride, arrogance and notions of superiority which need to be controlled in order to cultivate skilful means.

Another creature associated with Murugan is the insignia of cock which appears on his standard. The cock always symbolizes the immanent dawn of realization. The tame snake too is his companion, indicating the taming of anger and maliciousness.


Ayyappan is the son of Lord Viṣṇu and Śiva. The energy of compassion (dayā) of Viṣṇu and wisdom (jñāna) of Śiva coalesced into the divine refulgence tejas personified as Ayyappan.;

He is the embodiment of Tapas or austerity — deep meditation which generates the internal heat of both compassion and wisdom.

It is believed that Lord Ayyappan has his divine control over Lord Shani – the ruler of Planet Saturn (Shani) – which governs over karma and karmic debts, forcing the one to work them out through hardships and austerities – towards liberation.

His worship is confined almost entirely to the state of Kerala in South India.

Ayyappan’s iconography is simple — he sits in a yogic posture displaying the Varadā and Abhayā mudras, wearing a jewel around his neck, hence named Manikandan, Literally meaning "With bell around the neck".

Sometimes he is shown riding on a tiger carrying a bow and arrows — symbolizing the harnessing of our courage and sagacity and directing it at the achievement of spiritual development.


Hanumān is one of the heroes of the Rāmāyana and he’s the embodiment of wisdom (jñāna) and devotion to God (bhakti) as well as courage and fortitude (bālā).

He is the quintessential spiritual Vīra or hero/warrior who is humble and submissive but also capable of immense acts of valour in the cause of Dharma. He’s totally dedicated to the Lord and to the preservation of the Dharma.

He is usually depicted as a humanoid monkey in the posture of submission standing in front of the temple or shrine of Lord Rāma.

When enshrined alone he is usually shown holding up the mountain or brandishing his favourite weapon the club or Gadā. The club represents Cosmic Order (Rita) as well as Karma.