Showing posts with label Symbolism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Symbolism. Show all posts

20 May 2011


swastika or svastika
THE URBAN MYTH that the Nazi swastika goes one way, but the sacred symbol of India goes the other way seems to still be current. Sadly, this is not true. The official National Socialist Worker's Party emblem, adopted in 1932, was the clockwise swastika, and this is often seen on Buddhist images as well. Jains even use the rotated svastika. Both clockwise and anticlockwise are used in Indian religious iconography, and both are found, for instance, in the Tibetan Unicode block: U+0FD5 (right-facing/clockwise), U+0FD6 (left-facing/anti-clockwise). The svastika is also a Chinese character, and is pronounced wàn. If you look at Google maps of Japan you'll see temples marked with the 卍.

In the Western world the swastika - the lucky symbol of India - seems indelibly associated with Nazism. Articles entitled "The Swastika and X" continue to be produced, and all of them examine aspects of Nazi Germany. There's some irony here as the Germans did not call it a swastika but a hakenkreuz 'hook cross' and elsewhere it is referred to as a Greek Cross. In China the association of the symbol with the Falungong movement has caused the Chinese government to react against it as well. [1]

Perhaps because of the Nazi connection in the early 20th century, it seems that Victorian Era sources are largely responsible for forming our views of the symbol. Most sources seem to recycle opinions first articulated in the mid to late 19th Century. In researching the subject I turned up a reference to Cunningham (1854) in The Migration of Symbols, by the wonderfully named Eugène Goblet d'Alviella (1894, but still in print) which also refers to a letter Max Müller wrote to Henry Schliemann and was published in Schliemann's book Ilios (1880). [2] These sources, with Monier-Williams's Sanskrit English Dictionary, seem to account for most of what's on the Internet in English. Note that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it came into use in English only in 1871, but Cunningham (1854) trumps this, and this is a rare case of the OED being wrong!

Despite the negative association in modern times the bent cross symbol appears in many disparate cultures around the world, and throughout history. The symbol is found in Indus Valley seals for instance (pre 1700 BCE), and has been used by Indigenous North Americans, and pre-Christian Europeans including Greeks and Celts. Goblet d'Alviella (1894) seems to see the ubiquity of the symbol as evidence of a single ur-culture that migrated around the world. Many explanations are found for the symbol - that it is a solar symbol, perhaps via a wheel symbol; that it originates in weaving societies, etc. In India, by the time we have good records for it, the svastika is simply a superstitious lucky symbol with no definite underlying symbolism.

The Wikipedia swastika page perpetuates another urban myth about the svastika that can be traced to General Sir Alexander Cunningham via the Monier-Williams Dictionary (1899). MW says s.v. svastika (p.1283a):
"...according to the late Sir A. Cunningham it has no connexion with sun-worship but its shape represents a monogram or interlacing of the letters of the auspicious words in the Aśoka characters."
MW supplies no reference for this claim, but it is repeated across the Internet, and in a variety of otherwise reputable sources. A bit of detective work shows that Cunningham, later the first director of the Archaeological Survey of India, makes the claim in: The Bhilsa Topes (1854). Cunningham, surveyed the great stupa complex at Sanchi in 1851, where he famously found caskets of relics labelled 'Sāriputta' and 'Mahā Mogallāna'. [3] The Bhilsa Topes records the features, contents, artwork and inscriptions found in and around these stupas. All of the inscriptions he records are in Brāhmī script. What he says, in a note on p.18, is:
"The swasti of Sanskrit is the suti of Pali; the mystic cross, or swastika is only a monogrammatic symbol formed by the combination of the two syllables, su + ti = suti."
There are two problems with this.
  1. While there is a word suti in Pali it is equivalent to Sanskrit śruti 'hearing'. The Pali equivalent of svasti is sotthi; and svastika is either sotthiya or sotthika. Cunningham is simply mistaken about this.
  2. The two letters su + ti in Brāhmī script are not much like the svastika. This can easily been seen in the accompanying image on the right, where I have written the word in the Brāhmī script. I've included the Sanskrit and Pali words for comparison. Cunningham's imagination has run away with him.
Below are two examples of donation inscriptions from the south gate of the Sanchi stupa complex taken from Cunningham's book (plate XLX, p.449). Note that both begin with a lucky svastika.

The top line reads vīrasu bhikhuno dānaṃ - i.e. "the donation of Bhikkhu Vīrasu." The lower inscription also ends with dānaṃ, and the name in this case is perhaps pānajāla (I'm unsure about ). Professor Greg Schopen has noted that these inscriptions recording donations from bhikkhus and bhikkhunis seem to contradict the traditional narratives of monks and nuns not owning property or handling money. The last symbol on line 2 apparently represents the three jewels, and frequently accompanies such inscriptions.

The word svasti (स्वस्ति) is a feminine noun probably deriving from su- + asti: where su- is a prefix cognate with the European eu- meaning 'good, well, excellent' and asti is from the verb √as 'to be'. Perhaps through constant use the word asti, originally the 3rd person singular present of √as, came be an indeclinable particle meaning 'existent, being'. Sandhi rules mean that su+asti becomes svasti which means 'well-being', and is used in the sense of 'auspicious, good fortune, luck, success, and prosperity'. In other words svasti is rooted in ancient Indian superstition. Note that in all modern transliterations of Sanskrit व is written va. So how do we come to spell our word swastika with a 'w'? There could be for two reasons: firstly modern Hindi and other North India IE languages transliterate व as wa, and we could be taking the word not from Sanskrit, but from Hindi; secondly Cunningham (back in 1854) was transliterating Sanskrit व as wa as well and other Victorians might have followed suit. The suffix -ka is adjectival and so svastika (स्वस्तिक) should mean something like 'related to well-being'. However in this form we would normally expect the root vowel to change to its strongest (vṛddhi) grade svāstika, and this does not happen in this case.

Müller (in Schliemann, p.346-7) notes that svasti occurs throughout 'the Veda' [sic; presumably he means the Ṛgveda where it appears a few dozen times]. It occurs both as a noun meaning 'happiness', and an adverb meaning 'well' or 'hail'. Müller suggests it would correspond to Greek εὐστική (eustikē) from εὐστώ (eustō), however neither form occurs in my Greek Dictionaries. Though svasti occurs in the Ṛgveda, svastika does not. Müller traces the earliest occurrence of svastika to Pāṇini's grammar, the Aṣṭādhyāyī, in the context of ear markers for cows to show who their owner was. Pāṇini discusses a point of grammar when making a compound using svastika and karṇa, the word for ear. I've seen no earlier reference to the word svastika, though the symbol itself was in use in the Indus Valley civilisation.

Müller says that the svastika only refers to the right-facing cross , while the left-facing cross is called sauvastika, and incidentally does not believe that the symbol is a monogram (Schliemann p.347). [4] The form sauvastika doesn't make sense to me. If the root vowel underwent vṛddhi (a > ā) then the word would be svāstika; but there are a number of words in MW which have this change: sva > sauva. If it is su undergoing vṛddhi (prior to combining with asti) then the form ought to be sāvasti (su > sau and au + a > āva). If sauvasti is the vṛddhi form, then we'd expect the weakest grade to be suvasti, but it is not. Others also insist on this difference between the two forms, but my impression of looking at Buddhist art is that no differentiation is made by artists. The BBC h2g2 webpage on svastika suggests that the distinction between svastika and sauvastika only dates from the 19th century, though the claim is not referenced. Sauvastika occurs in Sanskrit dictionaries, but not in relation to the symbol - a sauvastika according to Boehtlingk is a Hauspriester eines Fürsten 'The house priest of a prince'. MW suggests 'benedictive, salutary; family Brahmin'.

I would end by saying that the svastika is an element of pan-Indian superstition - a lucky sign. As such we should probably not mourn too much that it was taken over by the Nazis and given an indelibly negative connotation in the West. As modern, Western Buddhists we don't need lucky symbols, and we don't rely on luck. We practice. The svastika is really of historical interest only and there is no pressing need to rehabilitate it. 


  1. Craig S. Smith, "In China's Religious Crackdown, An Ancient Symbol Gets the Boot," Wall Street Journal 8 September 1999, p. B1;
  2. The relevant page references in the online version of Goblet d'Alviella (1894) are incorrect. I have located printed copies in the Cambridge University Library, and supplied correct references in this article.
  3. This story is well recounted in Allen (2002) - see esp. p.214f. I recommend this book. I gather from a brief conversation I had with Charles, last year at a lecture by Prof. Gombrich, that his next book will be on King Aśoka which I'm eager to read.
  4. Goblet d'Alviella (1894, p. 46) appears to use Müller's remarks to contradict Cunningham, but in Schliemann (1880) Müller specifically refers to the Sanskrit spelling, not the supposed Pali of Cunningham. So the two statements are not really connected.

  • Allen, Charles. (2002) The Buddha and the Sahibs. London : John Murray.
  • Cunningham, Alexander. (1854) The Bhilsa topes, or, Buddhist monuments of central India : comprising a brief historical sketch of the rise, progress, and decline of Buddhism; with an account of the opening and examination of the various groups of topes around Bhilsa. London : Smith, Elder. [possibly the earliest recorded use of the word swastika in English].
  • Goblet d'Alviella, E. (1894) The Migration of Symbols. London: A. Constable and Co. Online:
  • Monier-Williams, Monier. (1899) A Sanskrit-English dictionary : etymologically and philologically arranged with special reference to cognate Indo-European languages. [New ed. greatly enlarged and improved with the collaboration of E. Leumann, C. Cappeller and other scholars.] Asian Education Services : New Delhi, 2008.
  • Schliemann, Henry. (1880). Ilios : the city and country of the Trojans : the results of researches and discoveries on the site of Troy and through the Troad in the years 1871-72-73-78-79. London : John Murray.

See Also

Gary A. David. The Four Arms of Destiny: Swastikas in the Hopi World & Beyond.

08 January 2010

Mystical Grammar - oṃ & auṃ

oṃ in the Siddhaṃ script
oṃ in the
Siddhaṃ script
For the ancient Indians grammar was one of the major paradigms for understanding how the universe functioned. One product of this is in the understanding of the seed syllable (bījākṣara) oṃ in the Vedic and then the Hindu traditions.[1] The earliest references to oṃ are in the Yajur Veda. This Veda was composed sometime after 1000 BC but before the Buddha. In some rituals the hotṛ Brahmin shouts oṃ at the end of the invocation to the god being sacrificed to (anuvākya) as an invitation to partake of the sacrifice.

The analysis of oṃ as being made up of three parts (a + u + ṃ) originates in the Sanskrit grammarian tradition but is given ritual or religious significance in the post-Buddhist early Upaniṣads, especially the Māṇḍūkya and Praśna Upaniṣads. Let's look at how this works.

Vowels may be monophthong or diphthong - made up on a single sound (short or long), or made up of two sounds (short or long). Linguists might describe a diphthong as beginning on one vowel sound and ending on another. The vowels of Sanskrit can divided up like this:

monophthongsa i u ṛ ḷ
अ इ उ ऋ ऌ
ā ī ū ṝ
आ ई ऊ ॠ
diphthongse o
ए ओ
ai au
ऐ औ

Note that the anusvāra (ṃ) and visarga (ḥ) are often counted as vowels, but practically they are modifications of existing vowels: nasalisation and aspiration respectively. They can be applied to any of the vowels. The long vowel ḹ (ॡ) is a theoretical possibility but in practice is never used.

The vowel o is a diphthong which is made up of two sounds: a + u. However note that the vowel au is a long diphthong which is analysed as ā + u. The two vowels o and au sound quite different: o sounds like o in hope; au sounds like ou in sound. Similarly e can be thought of as a + i: and ai as ā + i. Technically (and metrically) e and o are long vowels. In Sanskrit the Proto-Indo-European short vowels e and o converged with a (which helps to explain why a is far more common than other vowels). Since there is no short e or short o in Sanskrit there is no need to write the long vowels as ē and ō, though this would be more consistent.

It is necessary to understand these distinctions in order to understand some sandhi phenomena, because in some cases o actually behaves as a+u. The conjugations of the verbal root √bhū 'to be' offer a good example. This is a class 1 verb and forms a stem in -a with guṇā (strengthening) of the root vowel: so bhū (with guṇā) > bho; and when we add the stem vowel -a we get the stem form bhava; and the 3rd person singular is bhavati. What happens here is that the o in bho is treated as a + u, and the addition of -a invokes sandhi rules governing when two vowels meet - in this case u + a > va: ie bha+u+a > bhava. (This kind of thing is what makes learning Sanskrit difficult).

auṃ written in the Siddhaṃ script

in the
Siddhaṃ script
From a purely technical point of view we can see that the analysis of o as a + u does not justify writing oṃ as auṃ using the long diphthong. Note that the syllable auṃ written in Siddhaṃ (left) looks like the modern Hindu ॐ which is frequently transliterated as auṃ, and suggests that some confusion about this crept into Hindu discourse. Buddhist texts did not adopt the practice of writing oṃ as auṃ as far as I have been able to discover.

Another purely technical point is that the notation oṃ indicates a nasalised o vowel. This should rhyme with the French 'bon', not with the English 'bomb'. In fact this distinction seems to have been lost for some time, and oṃ (ओं) is regularly pronounced as om (ओम् ) even in India (i.e. with the bilabial rather than the pure nasal). Note also that au is the vowel sound in the English word 'sound'. So auṃ should not sound like oṃ and vice verse.

These jejune distinctions were important to the Indian grammarians because it was thought that the Vedas were divinely inspired, eternally unchanging and true, texts. They were transmitted orally, and after some centuries the vernacular Sanskrit language was significantly different from Vedic [2] which lead to scholars making a thorough investigation of the language - both canonical and vernacular at around the time of the Buddha. It was important to get the pronunciation right if the meaning was to be preserved. Changing the pronunciation was unthinkable.

By the time the early Upaniṣads were being composed (beginning ca 800 BCE) there was quite a lot of interest in the relationship between words and reality. The existence of eternal, true words gave this a particular flavour. Also note that the word for 'true' and 'real' was the same: sat. It was the authors of the Upaniṣads, especially the Chāndogya (CU), who began to make the connections between syllables and aspects of the cosmos, though this seems to have been a natural development of the idea of correspondences (bandhu) between the macrocosm and the microcosm which was also a preoccupation in the Vedas. Oṃ in CU text is seen as a single syllable and equated with the udgītha, that is with the chanting of the sāman or hymns of the Sāma Veda. In other texts oṃ is associated with brahman. Then later, in the last century BCE, the technical breakdown of o into a+u was given esoteric significance. A key passage from the Māṇḍūkya reads:
so 'yamātmādhyakṣaramoṅkāraḥ | adhimātra pādā mātrā mātrāś ca pādā akāra ukāro makāra iti || ManU 1.8

On the subject of syllables, this syllable 'oṃ' is the ātman; on the subject of metre, the feet are the metre, and the feet are the syllables a, u, and ma. (my translation)
Here oṃ, the ātman, is likened to 'śloka' the poetic metre (mātra [3]) consisting of four lines or 'feet' (pādā) of eight syllables, with each of the lines likened to a constituent phoneme. The Māṇḍūkya then spells out the esoteric correspondences of the constituent phonemes. The fourth foot (pādā) is said to be without a phoneme (amātra) and ineffable (avyavahāraya).

I'm not aware of any canonical Buddhist text which restates the Vedic breakdown of oṃ into a+u+ṃ, though Kūkai does break hūṃ into ha+a+ū+m suggesting that the technique was not unknown to him. [4] For Buddhists the esoteric significance is typically based on the Arapacana acrostic which was originally a mnemonic for remembering aspects of an extended reflection on śūnyatā, for example: akāra (the syllable a) is the first syllable; which reminds us of the key word anutpanna (non-arising); and the full reflection subject is akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt (the syllable 'a' is an opening because of the primal quality of non-arising of all mental phenomena). Various versions of the Arapacana exist, the earliest date from around the 1st or 2nd century CE.

This method of analysing mantras is far more significant in understanding the function of a mantra than the words in the mantra. For instance Kūkai always seems to have broken down words (even sūtra titles) into syllables in order to understand their esoteric significant. In Tibetan Buddhism the fact that the Avalokiteśvara mantra has six syllables which enables it to match up with the six realms of conditioned existence is probably more important than the understanding of the word maṇipadme (which has been central to Western exegesis of the mantra).



  1. This distinction is a bit vague. I call the religion Vedic which is primarily based directly on the three Vedas (Ṛg, Sāma, Yajur) excluding the Atharva (which is a distinct tradition I think) and which is focussed on the sacrifice: it's main gods were Indra, Agni, and Soma - though several dozen deities were propitiated. Hinduism is a complex of various religious ideas and practices where the Vedas have faded into the background and practice is focussed on devotion (bhakti) or with Tantric rites (śakti): prominent Gods are Śiva, Viṣṇu, Brahmā and the mother goddess in many forms especially Lakṣmi and Kāli. This is of course a massive over-simplification. What seems important is to mark that there have been tectonic shifts in India religions over the millennia.
  2. Vedic is the most common name for the language of the Vedas. It has a number of differences from Classical Sanskrit which was codified by Pānini in the 5th or 4th century BCE.
  3. Note the phonetic similarity with the English word - both come from the same Indo-European root meaning 'to measure'.
  4. see Ungi gi in Hakeda Major Works p.246ff

Further Reading

25 September 2009

The Hero's Journey

OrpheusIn this essay I want to highlight the importance of myth. Carl Jung realised that many myths around the world have similar content and characters, and he made that the basis of a theory of a universal 'collective unconscious'. Whether or not we accept Jung's idea the one thing that he has done is highlight the universality of myth. Myths are stories which at their best reflect our unconscious motivations and attitudes - what Jung called the archetypes. Rather than simply being allegorical or stories with a moral, myths seem to reveal the (often amoral) inner workings of our psyche, though through symbolism not through logic - we understand them because we resonate with the symbols qua symbols. Joseph Campbell identified one myth - the hero's journey - which is so ubiquitous, and underlies so many other myths, that he called it 'the mono-myth.' In classical mythology it is the story of Orpheus, in fairy stories Jack and Bean Stalk amongst many others, and in Buddhism the biography of the Buddha also follows the same trajectory. In psychological terms it is the journey of individuation, but as Buddhists we look beyond this to a higher goal - liberation. I want to give an outline of that myth here and show how it relates to the spiritual life, indeed I will try to show that all spiritual practices are modelled on the hero's journey myth.

The Hero's Journey
  • The call to adventure
  • Crossing the threshold
  • Trials
  • Blessing
  • Return Journey
  • Benevolence
In The Hero with a thousand faces Campbell describes the journey in stages. I'll use his outline modified to fit a short essay. The journey begins with an invitation. Campbell calls this the 'call to adventure', and Robert Bly has called it the 'call in the night'. It can come in many forms but often the 'call' is felt as profound dissatisfaction, the yearning for something 'more'. Recall the story of the four sights: where the Bodhisatta sees old age, sickness and death and longs for some way to overcome them; and then sees a wandering holy man. It is at that moment that he feels the call - he joins the wanderers in the search for the deathless. The invitation is to adventure and usually results in a journey - the hero's journey. Very often the journey is to the underworld.

Having set out adventuring the hero must cross a threshold into the underworld. For the Buddha it was leaving home to taking up an itinerant, vagrant lifestyle. In some stories the threshold is literally a door. Some heros board a ship (or a rocket!). But there is a definite transition from the mundane world into another world which is most often talked about in myths as the underworld - though in Jack's case the threshold was a beanstalk and the other world was in the sky.

Having crossed the threshold the hero undergoes a trial or trials. For the Buddha there was his long period of austerities. For Jonah it is the belly of the whale. For Milarepa it is the building and taking down of towers for Marpa. The trial period can be seen as a period of purification and preparation. The hero must prove themselves worthy, and, having been purified and found worthy, the hero then receives some kind of blessing. The hero meets a powerful person, or at least a being in human form, who gives a gift. The nature of the gift may not be immediately apparent, and sometimes it does not reveal itself until the journey is completed. In many European myths the gift is the Holy Grail. In many world myths the gift is some form of immortality! What the Buddha finds is liberation from suffering. Milarepa receives Marpa's initiation. Jack finds the golden harp. Note that in early Buddhist myth the Buddha self-initiates.

On receiving the gift the hero must now make the return journey. This aspect of the overall myth often stands alone as a theme in stories. The return of the prodigal son, for instance, or the return of the Buddha to his home town Kapilavastu represent this phase of the journey. One of the most powerful evocations of the return journey myth is Homer's Odyssey. Sometimes the return journey is also full of trials and the hero may have many obstacles to over come. Finally having returned the hero understands the gift and uses it to enrich everyone around them. The hero in these myths is never selfish.

I've mentioned several episodes from the Buddha's biography to show that it fits this general pattern - a more detailed examination finds other resonances with the hero's journey. What I want to do now is to show how spiritual practice generally fits this pattern. I'll briefly describe meditation, puja, and Sādhana. The call is the same in each case - usually it is some insight into dissatisfaction with life: we wonder "is this it?", or perhaps a loved-one dies.

In meditation the threshold is when we sit down, close our eyes and find ourselves immersed in our own mind. Beginners can sometimes be surprised at how much is going on in their minds that they were not conscious of before! In meditation the hindrances to concentration correspond to the trials. The achievement of concentration is the beginning of the blessing, which may indeed culminate in Awakening. At the end of the period of meditation we open our eyes and go about our business. There may still be trials because the sensitivity we develop may leave us feeling vulnerable, or even irritable. But if we have achieved even a measure of calm then we are, even if only for a short time, a better person - more ethical, more kind. If we achieve some insight then we may be permanently changed for the better.

The Seven Fold Puja more explicitly draws on the metaphor of the journey. I treat puja as an acting out of the spiritual journey - a rehearsing of what we intend our lives to be like. In Worship and Salutation we experience the call of the Buddha and begin to respond to it. In Going for Refuge we form our intention to undertake the journey, and cross the threshold by committing ourselves. Confession of Faults and Rejoicing in merit are at once the preparation for, and the early stages of the journey - we unburden ourselves and find new reserves, but we also put into practice our commitment to be ethical. With Entreaty and Supplication we request a blessing, and with the reciting of the Heart Sutra we receive it. Finally with Transference of Merit and Self-Surrender we make the return journey and share the blessing we have received.

In Sādhana meditation we find an even more explicit version of the hero's journey. There is no space for more than a cursory look at it. Sādhanas are all based on the abhiṣeka ritual in some form, which in turn draws on royal coronation rituals. In this style of meditation we first imagine ourselves in a clear blue sky - the threshold to another world. In many Tibetan Sādhanas there are stages of renunciation, Going for Refuge, and purification which precede entering the blue sky, or even the whole seven-fold puja in compressed form. Then in stages the Buddha manifests in this other-world, and after a series of preliminaries bestows a symbolic blessing on us. This blessing is the abhiṣeka or initiation which communicates the Enlightenment of the Buddha through the medium of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala (or image). It is called abhiṣeka because it usually involves the sprinkling (seka) of water - a direct borrowing from the coronation. Having received the blessing, the whole pageant eventually dissolves back into the blue sky, and then we return to this world. If the initiation has been successful then our body, speech and mind have been aligned with the body, speech and mind of the Dharmakāya Buddha via the medium of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala and we have become a Buddha!

In effect then, spiritual practice is the hero's journey, when we sit to meditate, or do puja, or go on retreat, and even the whole process of taking on the higher evolution, the outline follows the path of the hero on their journey to and from the underworld. It is sometimes said that Buddhist is an Asian religion and that we westerners can't really understand it. The Dalai Lama, in his enthusiasm to not be seen as a proselytiser, has suggested that we pursue the religion we were born into. I disagree wholeheartedly with this view. Buddhism speaks to us because the myths that underlie it are universal stories reflecting universal concerns, and deep structures in the human psyche. Buddhist practices draw on myths which are as familiar in the West as in Asia (whether near or far, north or south).

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a thousand faces. Fontana, 1988 (first published 1949).

image: Orpheus playing his lyre.