This is a general educational piece on common Hindu and Buddhist deities, mantras and
archetypes/practices written by Dr. Manoj Chalam. You can find information about all the deities in the latter half of this page.
Please use these in your practices.
Internalizing and working with your archetypes actually helps you realize the pinnacle of
Vedantic philosophy – the non-duality of Jiva and Ishwara. The practices and the form
help you realize your formless true nature – everything is One.
Yogic Deities: Archetypes & Self Realization
Often when you visit a yoga studio or an ashram or just about anywhere in India, you
see Hindu and Buddhist deities such as Ganesh, Shiva, Lakshmi, etc. You can
understand and approach a deity at many levels. The easiest way to relate to them is as
your personal archetype.
What is an Archetype?
The word archetype was coined by the Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung. An archetype
is a symbol or a form that is imprinted in your subconscious. Jung was inspired by the
yogic archetypes and originally called them devis and devas and Shiva-Shakti. Later on,
he amended them to anima (feminine) and animus (masculine) archetypes.
You may have archetypes from many traditions. For instance, the Sun god is called Ra
(Amun Ra) in the Egyptian tradition. The same Sun god in the Roman tradition is called
Mitra while in the yogic/Hindu tradition, the Sun god is also Mitra or Surya. Even though
the cultures were thousands of miles and thousands apart, these are Universal
archetypes. Interestingly, Mitra was born of a virgin mother on December 25, was a
wandering preacher with 12 disciples and when he died, he was resurrected 3 days later!
The cross is another beautiful archetypical symbol. The Hawaiians call these
archetypes as Aumakua such as Pele, Goddess of the fire and volcano. You have many
archetypes from Greek traditions such as Athena, Isis, Zeus, etc. however these yogic
archetypes such as Ganesh, Shiva, Lakshmi, Durga etc. have persisted over centuries
while fewer people work with the Greek and Egyptian archetypes. That’s because the
entire philosophy of yogic Self Realization is embedded in the symbols of these
archetypes. The fact that you are embarking on a yoga teacher training means there is
a good chance one or more of these yogic deities is your archetype.
These archetypes lie deeply embedded in our Causal Body and are available for the whole human race.
They pop up in times of transition in our lives and help guide us to achieve the higher ideals in life.
One of the biggest knowledge about ourself we can find out is to know who our
archetype is and how to invoke that and incorporate those superhuman ideals in our
lives. At its very core, these teachings are not a Religion (theism, polytheism,
monotheism, etc.) nor a Philosophy (Dualism, Monism, Non-Dualism, etc). It is a
Sadhana (Spiritual Practice) of actualizing human potential of becoming the best at
every stage of our lives. It is always Perfecting as opposed to Perfection and looking at
the good in everything around us.
The Sanskrit word for archetype is Ishtadevata. Ishta means desired and devata means
deity. I feel Ishtadevata is more heart-oriented than the intellectual sounding archetype.
These murtis (statues) are not “out there” but within you as archetypes. Not only do they
help you in your transformation but they lead you to Awakening. As Joseph Campbell
said, “Myths are Collective Dreams while your dreams are Personal Myths!” When your
Personal dreams, hopes and aspirations are in tune with the Collective myths, there is
amazing harmony in your life.
How to find your Archetype (Ishtadevata)
It is like falling in love: the form of the deity has to appeal to you. It is like walking into a
room of new people and liking someone off the bat or going into an art museum and
connecting with a piece of art.
Similarly, I encourage you to look at these deities, touch them, feel them, understand
their Symbolisms and myths.
Sooner than later you will find yourself gravitating to one, two or three deities.
Usually, you have one primary archetype and secondary ones. They change
during your life because you change!
These archetypes give you the reason to live with joy and help you in your personal,
professional and spiritual aspects of your life. They also remind us of the grander ideals
we can all live for. They bring out the yearning some of us have to make an impact on
people and society and leave a legacy beyond the transitory nature of our lives.
Murtis are Yogic Statues
When the Yogic statues are energized, they are often termed as Murtis. A murti can be
made of metal (brass or bronze), stone or marble and is usually on the main altars
(sanctum sanctorum) in temples. You can energize these Murtis in a couple of ways.
One technique is called Prana Pratishta where usually the priest invokes Vedic mantras
to imbibe Prana into the murti. This is usually done in temples. I don’t recommend this
method for most householders because you then have to do Puja every day the murti
and dress and feed the murti. We live busy lives and it’s difficult to meet this
commitment. What I recommend is Mantra Pratishta where the Murtis are energized by
mantras. That’s what we do in our temple. You can actually measure the energy in
these Murtis by a technique called GDV (Gas Discharge Visualization) which is an
enhancement of the aura photography technique (Kirlian effect). Several companies
had made these measurements on Murtis and have shown they hold energy and that’s
why the Murtis need to be metal, stone or marble.
Are these archetypes part of the Hindu religion?
Firstly, Hinduism is not a religion and this fact is not known to most people. Hinduism is
a set of spiritual practices to realize the Self and is called Sanatana Dharma, the
dharmic living to realize the eternal Self. It has never been a religion. When the British
came to India several centuries ago, they found the Indians engaged in various spiritual
practices such as asana, meditation, chanting, tantric rituals, etc. The Western mind
which was used to a monotheistic religion was quite frankly, mystified, and tried to make
sense of the whole thing. At that time, the people of the Indus Valley river civilization
were called Hindus by the Persian traders. So the British came up with the name
Hinduism and coined it as a religion. The Hindu tradition has always been based on
spiritual practices to realize the Self.
At first sight, these deities may appear as polytheistic. When you go deeper, you realize
that they are different facets of the One. For instance, such Lakshmi is for abundance,
Saraswati for knowledge, Shiva for transformation, etc. – so it can be termed Monism.
When you go deeper into the teachings of the Upanishads (Advaita Vedanta), you
realize that it’s actually non-dualism. You cannot objectify the Self, it is the eternal I Am.
If you talk or even think about it, it’s not that. That’s why it’s termed non-dualism or
Advaita (Not Two).
The origin of these deities comes from the Puranic scriptures which is often called the
fifth Veda. Often the Vedic philosophy of the Upanishads is extremely rigorous, complex
and need years of study under a Guru who is a Shrotriya Brahmanishta (one who is
enlightened and can teach you the method in the Upanishads). Most people in ancient
India (not unlike today) had regular jobs and businesses and didn’t have the time to
commit to such a study. That’s why these deities with their myths and symbols came
about to explain the same philosophies in very vivid and colorful detail.
Storytelling is an important art in this tradition, most children in India grow up with these myths.
Working with your Archetype
Creating an Altar and Meditating in front of your deity
You may set up an altar anywhere in your home and make it a sacred space for you to
have a daily meditation practice. Place your deity archetype on a cloth and decorate the
altar with candles, flowers, incense, pictures of teachers or anyone meaningful in your
life. You may have multiple archetypes however you meditate only on one deity at a
time as the energies are different. The time period in meditation is totally up to you and
there is no fixed time. For instance, anywhere from 2-60 min, whatever is comfortable
for you. It’s more important to be natural and relaxed while meditating and not try to still
the mind. Instead of trying to quench the thoughts (which takes a lifetime of practice if
not more, and is the entire premise of Patanjali yoga), you focus on the gap or
space between your thoughts. This gap is pure consciousness because your thoughts
are overlaid on consciousness. This gap is similar to the gap between mantras so
mantra-based meditation may be useful here. When thoughts recede, your mind is
suffused with pure consciousness. In this state, your mind is like a vacuum. You then
open your eyes to the deity in front of you. Subconsciously, your mind starts “sucking” in
the deity’s attributes and qualities and you slowly start to awaken the archetype within
you. This is a simple but powerful technique that yogis have been doing over the years.
Four Practices you can do with your Archetype
When you want to work with your archetype towards Spiritual Awakening, what you do
is to elevate your Archetype to pure Consciousness. Ultimately, pure Consciousness is
without form and beyond time and space. But our minds come from Time and Space
and cannot fathom the unfathomable. Here is where these archetypes come in.
There are four practices to incorporate the murti (statue) of your archetype in your life.
One practice is meditation and the other three are in your day to day life because yoga
is everywhere and not just to be performed inside a room. These practices are adapted
from the teachings of theBhagavad Gita.
1) Karma Yoga – view any event in your life as a prasad (gift) from your archetype. Its
like when you visit a temple, a priest sanctifies some almonds in front of the deity and
gives it to you as “Prasad” – you accept it gratefully and don’t demand ice cream!
Similarly, you view any event in your life, be it good or bad, as a Prasad from your
Ishtadevata. This weakens the feelings of “doership” by the ego. This is the single most
important sadhana we can do in today’s society. Its deceptively simple but consistent
practice brings great peace of mind.
2) Meditation in front of your archetype and open your eyes to your archetype: This
brings out the “devatabhava” (feeling of godliness) within you. This is Raja Yoga and is
the 8 fold path of the Yogic path of Lord Patanjali.
3) Puja and Bhakti Yoga – Opens your heart chakra. This feeling of love to the divine
affects the feelings/emotions part of the mind. Kirtan chanting to your deity is an
important aspect of this practice.
4) Jnana Yoga: Understand the philosophy, symbolisms and mythology. This affects the
intellect part of your mind. We are literally reliving all the myths of these Gods and
These four Yogas address the four components of your mind.
Understanding our Mind
Our minds have 4 components and each type of Yoga addresses every component.
Ego, the subtlest aspect of the mind – Karma Yoga deals with this sense of “doership.”
Buddhi – the intellect part of the mind – This is Jnana Yoga, understanding the
Symbolisms of your archetype, their myths.
Chittha – the Unconsciousness part of the mind where Impressions are stored:
Meditation in front of your Archetype and the 8 fold path of Raja Yoga of Lord Patanjali
deals with this.
Manas – the feelings/emotions part of your mind – Bhakti Yoga is the path that refines
this aspect of the mind.
The easiest way to understand the four aspects of the mind is to do a thought
experiment: Suppose there is a fire in the room you are in. The sense organs detect the
fire and relay it to the Manas part of the mind. The intellect, Buddhi then consults with
the Chittha and determines that somewhere in the past you have been burnt and fire is
not good. The Buddhi then tells the five organs of action (Karma Indriyas) to get out of
the room (hopefully the room has multiple exits). What does the ego do? It actually does
nothing, it rushes in to claim ownership that I did this!
You work on all these four aspects of the mind by doing these four yogas together.
Ultimately you start cutting the strands this dualistic world has on you. Finally, the last
strand is cut not by you (or your ego) but by Grace. This is a direct and intuitive
realization that you are the Self and not the body or mind. It is an identity shift as
opposed to an experience of Samadhi and characterized by a state where one is
practicing Samadhi all the time. This is Awakening.
Mantra: Om Gam Ganapataye Namah
Summary: Ganesha will not only ground you, remove obstacles and give you success, he leads you to Self Knowledge. Anything new you would do such as a new job, new event such as a birthday, new teacher training, new day etc., you get the blessings of Ganesh. He is The Lord of thresholds.
Symbolisms: Ganesh is considered to be the remover of obstacles, bringing protection to you and family. Ultimately, he leads you to enlightenment.
As you know, Ganesh removes obstacles in a physical sense with the weapons he holds in either hand. However, the “real way” he removes obstacles in our lives is in the following manner: Ganesh usually is shown with a Mouse at his feet. (If the Ganesh murti doesn’t come with a mouse, then your mind is the mouse and you make Ganesha complete!). The mouse is the transport vehicle (Vahana) of Ganesh, in other words, he rides on the mouse. However, the mouse symbolizes our minds which wander all over the place like the way the mouse scampers around. By riding on the mouse, Ganesh controls the mouse, he, therefore, controls our minds helping “still” our minds. Ganesh thus gets you in a state called “Practicing Samadhi” where the thought patterns in your mind are uniform. In that state, you do not experience any obstacle. So the obstacles we face in our lives are not outside you but inside our mind as vrittis (though fluctuations). That is the secret how Ganesh removes obstacles by giving you an inner calmness.
Other Symbolisms: “Surrender” to Ganesh. The “abhaya mudra” (blessing gesture with his hand) is very powerful. It means, when you surrender your ego and yourself to Ganesh, he will dispel all fears and insecurities from within you. Just do your duty (Karma Yoga) and leave all the results to Ganesh. We have far less control over our lives than what we think.
The trunk of Ganesh symbolizes the ability of discernment (Viveka). Just like the way an elephant can carry a heavy log with his trunk or pick a single blade of grass with the same trunk, we need to have the ability to “discern” in our dealings with people. The ultimate discernment is seeing the Unity of Consciousness in this World of Multiplicity. The twisted trunkof Ganesha is called Vakratunda. This represents the path of sadhana, spiritual practice. An elephants trunk usually hangs down, this is the path of least resistance in the New Age which says you are already enlightened and don’t need to do any work. The twisted trunk of Ganesha represents that the path of Sadhana that leads to the sweet he holds, the bliss of enlightenment, SatChitAnanda. Sat is truth of what Is, the I Am. Chit is Awareness. Ananda is bliss. So when you are truly aware of the Self, the I Am, the only thing there Is, you are in bliss – this is the sweet Ganesha wants us to taste.
The broken tusk of Ganesh signifies non-duality (only one tusk is left, that is Consciousness, One without a second). The other reason he broke his tusk is to write the Mahabharata. Ganesh is the God of Writers and enhances our intuitive writing abilities.
The large Ears of Ganesh represent the ability to really listen and not merely hear. Many people hear and are thinking what to say next in their minds.
The large belly of Ganesh (Lambodhara) represents the ability to go beyond the opposites of life (duality) and realize the non-dual consciousness within us (intuitive Self-realization). It also represents the Fullness (Purna) of Consciousness. He says life is about Perfecting while feeling perfect at every stage. In other words, we can always get better and better with a feeling of contentment and fullness at every moment.
Cobra wrapped around his belly represents the arousal of the dormant Kundalini Shakti within us. Ganesh lies at the Muladhara chakra and guards the Kundalini Shakti (metaphorically he guards the cave of his mother Goddess Shakti who was taking a bath).
The Axe Ganesh holds in one hand chops the pull this world of Multiplicity has on our ego. His other hand holds the Noose, with which he pulls the ego into pure non-dual consciousness, so enlightenment happens to your Ego – we know who we are, pure unbounded consciousness.
To explain this further, Vedanta teaches us that our Ego straddles a line between this world of Duality and Pure non Dual Consciousness. This was actually one of the greatest teachings of Shankaracharya in his Adhyasa Bhashya of the Brahmasutras. The ego gets enmeshed in the world and we start basing our happiness on whether our desires are fulfilled in the world. The axe of Ganesha chops this pull and the noose he holds in the other hand pulls your ego home where it belongs, pure Consciousness.
The Sanskrit word for ego is AhamKara (the “I” maker) and the Sanskrit word for the vast nature of consciousness is Maha. Interestingly when Ganesh chops the pull of this world on our Ego and flips it back, it is the same as flipping back Aham and you get Maha! Thus the individual becomes the Macrocosmic. That is why Ganesh has an elephant head on the human body. The elephant head represents Maha and the human body is Aham. Ganesh thus represents the great Mahavakya (Great Saying) of the Vedas: Tat tvam Asi. (That thou Art). It literally means you are infinite. The little known Ganapati Upanishad (Ganesha Atharva Shirsha) elevates every aspect of Ganesha as symbols of Consciousness and starts off with this Mahavakya of Tat tvam Asi as an homage to Lord Ganesha.
Dancing Shiva (Nataraja)
Mantra: Om Nama Shivaya
Summary: Nataraja is the archetype of anyone in radical change in their life, be it a new relationship, career or a spiritual path. Shiva teaches us to embrace life with joy and a sense of wonder.
Symbolism: Shiva Nataraja – The Lord of the Dance
Life is Uncertain. Anything can happen anytime to anyone of us. The real question is how does one live such a life of uncertainty with Certainty?
By Embracing the Dancer, the Shiva Nataraja, the Joyous Dancer. Nata means the Dance and Raja means King.
This is the dance of creation and destruction of the Universe that each of us co-creates. The circle of flames represent the world we have created. Everything we experience is due to the karmas we have incurred from the past, including past lives. The Sanskrit word Loka doesn’t just mean world, it means the world we experience.
The circle of flames thus represent our destiny coming from previous karmic patterns. We possess free will however, and this is represented by the flame Shiva holds in his hand. This is likened to the fire in the belly we need in order to transform and get out of our comfort zone.
On the other hand, Shiva holds the Damaru, the Drum, the pulse beat of Creation. Time and Space comes from this beat. The whole Universe vibrates from the Damaru of Lord Shiva. There is an ancient 10th century, the Spanda Karikas which talks about the Universe as vibrations or Spanda. This is something the scientists only discovered last century.
Thus the top two hands of Shiva symbolize creation in your life. However, when you engage in creating something new in your life, the old thoughts, patterns and relationships drag you down. This is represented by the being of forgetfulness, Apasmra under Shiva’s feet. The word Smra comes from Smriti which means “to remember”. For instance, the Bhagavad Gita is a smriti, a remembered text. Apasmra means you literally forget, you get paralyzed by change, you get stuck in the same rut of life, you become like a deer caught in the headlights! Apasmra also represents the demons within us, the old ways of thinking, the old patterns (samskaras) and addictions that sometimes drag us down.
What Shiva does is to crush the back of Apasmra with his right foot and teach us that life is about creation and destruction, simultaneously. These demons are always there in our lives, that’s why Shiva steps on the back of Apasmra after breaking it, but the head is upturned upwards. One needs to always manage these demons with Sadhana or Spiritual Practice.
However, another conundrum we face during conscious change is that we worry about the results of our transformation. It comes from our ego, we remember the past mistakes we have made or become uncertain of the results of our transformation and feel what if it doesn’t work out. It’s very natural to feel this uncertainty and its part of the human experience.
To address this, Lord Shiva does two things. He raises his left foot and brings his left arm over to point to his raised left foot (Sharanagati Mudra). This literally means “Let It Go”, “Surrender” as shown by Shiva’s hand gesturing to one of his feet. The word surrender to an average person means giving up or losing something. To the yogi, surrender is like a drop of water merging with the Ocean. You essentially gain the Infinite. The individual drop is indistinguishable from the Ocean and that’s where the Certainty in our lives comes in: We realize that we are the Ocean that is never born and never dies.
When we truly surrender, Shiva raises his right hand in the Abhaya mudra (blessing).
This mudra means that he removes fears and uncertainties from within us. But the process starts when you surrender. So the entire yogic path is a combination of effort and Grace. We do the effort, the sadhanas, the yogic practices to surrender and Grace smiles at you.
Interestingly, when Lord Shiva points to his left leg with his left hand, he crosses his heart. The crossing of the heart represents the deepest, darkest moments in our lives (the proverbial dark night of the soul). This miserable time is actually an opportunity to surrender and exponential gains can come in your spiritual path. That is why in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna received the highest teachings from Lord Krishna when Arjuna was at his most despondent state.
Most of humanity lives on the circle of the wheel of samsara, as shown by the circular flames around Shiva. We are buffeted by waves of change, of creation and destruction. Change is inevitable whether we seek it or not. By the time you are reading this, you are not the same person you were a second ago; thousands of cells in your body have died and thousands have been born. But in a spinning wheel around Lord Shiva, something never changes; this is the Center. If you look carefully at the murti of Nataraja, the center is where the Heart is. This is the seat of pure Consciousness, the “I Am”.
The Upanishads talk about this pure Consciousness residing in our Heart space. So Lord Shiva tells us: Life is a dance, it’s inherently chaotic, engage with it, create, destroy. Do not, however, make the dance into a drama. Know who you are, you are pure Consciousness, the stillness that is never born nor dies.
Symbolisms of the Cobras wrapped on Shiva:
The cobra represents desire because desire is like a cobra injecting its venom: when you get infected, it’s very hard to remove it. But Shiva is the ultimate yogi. He has desires but the desires don’t control him. He wears the cobra as an adornment, as a decoration, as jewelry and even they are flying in the dance symbolizing that he is the Master of Desires. Finally, just like the way the cobra sheds its skin representing transformation, Shiva’s cobra represents the alchemy of transforming our desires into the highest desire for Spiritual Awakening. This is also represented as the three and a half-coiled spring cobra that resides in our muladhara chakra. This Kundalini serpent energy uncoils through us upon Kundalini Awakening and rises up through all the seven chakras.
Mantra: Om Dum Durga Yei Namah
Summary: Goddess Durga is goodness in a fierce form. She removes the negative energies that don’t serve us: both within as well as directed towards us.
Symbolism: There is always a story around which the philosophy is intertwined.
There was this demon king Mahishasura (Mahish means Buffalo and Asura means Demon). He meditated on Lord Shiva – Shiva gets easily pleased when you meditate or do Puja on him. Shiva gave the demon a boon that no existing God or Goddess could kill him, essentially the boon of immortality. A boon is nothing more than an intention coming to fruition (like your intention changes the water molecular structure as per the water experiments of Dr. Emmoto). This demon symbolizes our deepest rooted samskaras or ingrained patterns which are seemingly immortal and no existing ego can vanquish it. This is what results in addictions or stuff that holds us back from reaching our highest potential.
This demon Mahish-Asura becomes arrogant and starts to torture a lot of people, just like our deepest pattern tortures us over many lifetimes.
All the Gods and Goddesses then got together and essentially created a new Entity, Maa Durga. So she wasn’t an existing deity and thus the boon didn’t apply. Each of them gave an aspect of themselves to her so Durga is an amalgamation of all the Gods and Goddesses. Lord Ram gave the Bow, Kali gave the Axe, Hanuman gave the mace, Vishnu gave the discus and conch, Parvati Shakti gave the beautiful Face, Lakshmi gave the Lotus. This incredibly beautiful Goddess comes riding on a fierce Lion bobbing up and down. The Demon King takes one look at her and falls in love. He tells her, come, marry me and we will torture the world together! She couldn’t have it and chopped his head off.
There is a powerful symbolism in this story. The reason our Ego is powerless to deal with these samskaras is that our Ego is the subtlest aspect of the Mind which is a part of the Subtle body. The Samskaras are ingrained in our Causal Body (That is why some of these samskaras come from earlier lifetimes). Ego is like the proverbial flashlight while these samskaras are like the battery controlling the flashlight, the flashlight tries to look for and control the battery but it can’t.
Durga as your archetype resides in your Causal Body, the same plane as these samskaras. She is thus able to kill the demons that plague us. Durga cleans out the patterns of repetitive behavior that holds us back and attenuates the effects of the samskaras that can lead to addictions. She gives us inner strength and outer compassion so you can help people while having an inner firmness. Durga is goodness in a fierce form.
The lion she rides on is like a dream lion (swapna simhata) that pounces on you and in fright, you are awakened into a higher state. Similarly, the Lion Ma Durga rides on wakes you up into a higher state of consciousness (Turiya).
hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa
kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare
hare rāma hare rāma
rāma rāma hare hare
Summary: Krishna Radha is the archetype of the highest relationship where one sees the divine spirit as Shri Krishna in each other.
Symbolism: At the core of every person is a longing for Love, both to receive and give it. Unlike many systems of philosophy that attempt to subdivide Reality, Prema or Love has no boundaries or divisions. The highest epitome of Prema is felt through a relationship where the Divine is experienced so intensely that the overwhelming joyous nature of Sat Chit Ananda reveals itself. This archetype of the highest relationship is represented as Radha-Krishna.
Krishna means the intensely attractive one and Radha is the beloved. When you visit Vrindavan in India, the land where Lord Krishna grew up, people address each other as Radhe-Radhe. It’s a bit disconcerting in the beginning to be called Radha but the realization dawns that we are all Radhas wanting to merge in the supreme bliss of Love with Krishna. Our personal relationships need to be viewed therefore as a personification of Radha-Krishna. Most relationships based on body-mind chemistry or compatibility are challenging to maintain in the long run because of the ever-changing nature of our bodies and minds. However, when the relationship is based on seeing the divinity, goodness and auspiciousness (as Shri Krishna) in one another, it is everlasting and becomes a vehicle for the supreme bliss of Awakening. Jai Radhe!
Mantra: Om Anjaneya Namah
Summary: In a nutshell, Hanuman represents superhuman strength and superhuman intellect with a high degree of devotion. He resides in the heart chakra. If there is one deity who embodies Bhakti, it is Lord Hanuman.
Symbolism: Hanuman carries a mace that represents his weapon that he clubs the demons with. It is akin to the hammer Thor wields (but Hanuman is way smarter!). Hanuman is the ultimate superhero.
Many aspects of yoga come from Hanuman, including many asanas. His father was Vayu, the wind deity so he taught the yogic world pranayama. His guru was Surya, the Sun god so he taught the world Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). He is so intelligent that he is able to reconcile the three main systems of Vedanta philosophy: Dwaita (Duality), Vishishta Advaita (qualified non-duality) and Advaita (non-duality).
This is best illustrated in this story: When this unassuming monkey becomes a superstar of the Ramayana, at the end Ram asks Hanuman “Who are you?”
deha bhavena dasosmi – when I take identification with my body, I am your (God’s) servant. This is Dwaita, duality where you are separate from God and thus express devotion, the path of Bhakti.
jiva bhavena twadamshakaha – when I take identification with the traveling soul, I am a part of you – this is Vishishta Advaita, qualified non-duality where you are part of God.
Atma bhavena twamevaham – when I take identification with pure Consciousness, I amYou – this is Advaita, pure non-duality.
Saying this, Hanuman ripped his heart to reveal his Ishtadevata, Lord Ram.
This is a little-known story: Hanuman is actually an incarnation of Shiva and Shakti. Shiva was meditating on Mount Kailash one day and came to a realization that he shared with his wife Shakti. He said Lord Ram is the main ruler of the Universe. His wife Shakti said, “What are you saying, You are the main man!” Lord Shiva replied, “No, things have changed. People are living too much in their head and excessive egotism has lead to divisiveness, jealousy, wars, etc. So I’m going to incarnate as a lowly monkey so people will take me for granted. Through my selfless service, I’m going to show everyone the power of Devotion and living from the heart. “. Shakti replied, “In that case, I’m going to incarnate as your tail so we will always be together”. So Hanuman is Shiva and his tail represents the Kundalini Shakti. The word Shakti also means power and that’s how he lights fire to the entire island of Lanka in the great epic of Ramayana.
Mantra: Om Shrim Maha Lakshmi Yei Namah
Summary: Lakshmi teaches us to embrace life with abundance: both material and spiritual. She is also the Goddess of Shri: that which gives you luminosity and enables to create beauty in every aspect of our life.
Symbolism: Lakshmi holds Lotuses in each hand because it represents purity or sattva. A Lotus can bloom in mud or a dirty pond. She says your true nature is like a Lotus and can bloomregardless of your surroundings. With her right hand, she does the Abhaya Mudra which is the palm facing out. This means protection and fearlessness where she removes fears and uncertainties within you on your way to Abundance. With her left hand, she gives abundance and prosperity, the Varada Mudra. The abundance she grants you is universal abundance where everything in the Universe is part of you. This signifies the Tantric way of Awakening where the realization dawns that everything is Shri, this is the Pravritti path of expansion in Tantra. This is the symbolism of the peacock that spreads its beautiful feathers in the spring. Lakshmi is also the Goddess of Shri which is the luminous quality some people have, the way they talk, the way they dress, the way they look, the way they do any job – there is a luminous glow about them. Even menial tasks are done with Shri – I once saw a sweeper clean the floor of a toilet with Shri. Every moment is life, be it good or bad, is embraced wholeheartedly. This Pravritti path involves worldly duties; this is the path of Awakening through the path of the Grihastha or the householder Yogi.
The worldly Goddess Lakshmi teaches us to be Grihastha Yogis, the path of the householder. She teaches us to bring the ashram home!
Mantra: Om Eim Saraswati Yei Namah
Summary: Saraswati is the Goddess of Knowledge, Speech, Intuitive Wisdom, Music, Dance and Creativity.
Symbolism: Saraswati literally means Flow because she was a river in ancient India (5000 years ago) around which the Vedic civilization existed. (Everything flows with her Grace). She says the way to Awakening is twofold: One is through the scriptures, this is the path of Jnana, intellectual knowledge of the Vedas and the Agamas. The other path is through the Heart – this is represented by the large veena or the sitar. Chanting opens the Heart chakra. Great insights can happen when the Heart chakra is opened. In this age of Kali Yuga, Darkness, where Greed, jealousy, wars predominate, the way of the Heart is what she recommends and that’s why the sitar is prominent.
The flow of intuition Saraswati grants you is of the highest kind (Pashyanti Vak) where you become so good at what you do that eloquence flows naturally from a source of deep wisdom. This flow leads to great creative advancements in knowledge, music, dance and the arts.
Saraswati gives you the highest power of Matrika Shakti, the inherent creative energy behind the letters that make up words. Your words and teachings start to carry potent Shakti or power. It is said that each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet has a corresponding sound vibration both in the subtle energy channels of our bodies and in the cosmos. When these sound vibrations resonate with a corresponding vibration within us they create thoughts, then these thoughts gradually manifest the grosser forms of feelings and then speech. This Matrika Shakti resides as the archetype of Maa Saraswati in our causal body and rises of its own volition into consciousness, manifesting as our thoughts.
The swan’s head is shown on one end of the sitar. The swan metaphorically represents Viveka, the key quality of Discernment a spiritual seeker should possess. Just like the mythical swan is able to separate milk from water, the highest Viveka enables one to separate Reality from Maya. The Swan called Hamsa also glides gracefully through water without water sticking to it, similarly, the great sages are called Parmahamsas: they glide through life without events sticking to them. But under the water, the swan scurries furiously. This means the great sages do Sadhana (spiritual practice) in order to maintain their Swan like appearance.
Mantra: Om Buddha Yei Namah
Summary: Buddha brings us calm, peace of mind and ultimately spiritual awakening. In addition, the medicine Buddha from the Tibetan tradition heals you, both in the body and mind.
Symbolism: The Buddha, the deity for compassion, healing and bringer of Liberation.
Buddha means the awakened one, he awoke from this living dream, got enlightened and Moksha (release from the cycle of birth and death). It comes from the root Buddhi, the intellect. Thus Buddha means the intellect has awakened to the Self. The Buddhi is the closest mental faculty we have to the Self. This is the main purpose of chanting the Gayatri mantra from the Rig Veda:
Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ
bhárgo devásya dhīmahi
dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt
Where the dhi used in the 3rd and 4th lines denotes the Buddhi. It means let the light of all lights, the light of Consciousness illuminate the Buddhi to awaken to the Self.
The murti of Buddha has the Jnana mudra where the forefinger forms a circle with his thumb. Forefinger is the Ego as it represents our sense of individuality – we point at ourselves to take credit or at others to indicate it’s their fault! Thumb represents the Self because we always use the thumb for all tasks such as writing, lifting, (even texting these days!). The other 4 fingers are powerless without the thumb (physiologists know this!). Ego meets the Self and forms a perfect circle that has no beginning or end, something changeless. This is Enlightenment. Ego leaves behind 3 aspects associated with it, viz, body, mind and intellect – these are represented by the other 3 fingers.
The ears of Buddha is shown elongated, this represents inner detachment. Buddha was originally Prince Siddharta who used to wear heavy gold jewelry and left his worldly possessions to realize his Buddha nature.
The Bodhi Tree was the tree under which Buddha sat for 49 days until he attained nirvana. The peacocks represent the universality and abundance of spirit just as the way the peacocks spread their feathers in the spring. They also get attracted to places where enlightened sages meditate. I was in South India in Tiruvanamalai, the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, one of the greatest sages in the last century. The tree where Ramana used to meditate still attracts peacocks even thoughit’s been many years since he passed away.
Mantra: Oṃ Tāre Tuttāre Ture Svāhā
Summary: Tara is the Goddess of compassion, healing and bringer of people to liberation.
Symbolism: Going up the mountain for internal and external peace is a metaphor for the spiritual path. That is what Buddha did: he retreated from society, meditated and went within. Buddha means the awakened one, he awoke from this living dream, got enlightened and Moksha (release from the cycle of birth and death). That means Buddha doesn’t reincarnate amongst us. HoweverAvalokiteswara, (the Lord who looks down), the enlightened, feminine aspect of Buddha sheds tears upon seeing the suffering in this world of samsara. Motivated by great compassion she decides to reincarnate amongst us as Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings).
Thus beings such as Goddess Tara descend down the mountain into this world of chaos and uncertainty so they can help people with love, healing and ultimately moksha (liberation).
At the highest level Tara continues to reincarnate until everyone gets Awakened. Tara is similar to Kwan Yin in the sense they are both Bodhisattvas (living liberated), the difference being that Tara comes from a Nepal/Tibet/India tradition while Kwan-Yin comes from China and the Far East tradition.
In our daily lives, Tara appears as an archetype in people who are great healers and/or serve selflessly. Prominent examples are Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi. The Bodhisattvas never get tired because they are aligned with the divine energy. The tiredness comes when there is a selfish ego-based intention and when that is not met, the mind generates static. With Gandhi for instance, he couldn’t be bought with money nor with political power and there was no selfish ego-based intention out there. People sensed his genuineness and a billion people followed him and he changed world history, including Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela who were inspired by him. That is the power of the Bodhisattva, a Living Liberated who serves unconditionally by being aligned with the divine shakti.
Interestingly Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by the essays on Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau whose teacher was Ralph Waldo Emerson who in turn was profoundly inspired by the Bhagavad Gita!
All the yogic sadhanas (practices) you do such as meditation, chanting, Karma Yoga, etc are designed for chitthashuddhi (purifying the mind). It is like cleaning the dust off the mirror of our mind. The sun is always shining, however when the mirror of the mind metaphorically has dust, it’s difficult to see the light of pure consciousness. We have had millions of incarnations and what incarnates are the samskaras that lead to a heavy coating in the mirror of our mind. The yogic practices are designed to purify the mind for the highest teachings of Jnana (Self Knowledge) that leads to freedom or Moksha.
This freedom comes from the flame Lord Shiva holds in one hand. It represents the fire of Jnana, where all lifetimes of darkness are lit up with the fire of Knowledge. The latin word video (to see) comes from the sanskrit Vidya (knowledge). Avidya means we are ignorant of our true nature as unconditioned consciousness. So lifetimes of Avidya are dissipated with a single source of illuminative wisdom. It is because the darkness of Avidya was never there; it’s been an absence of light during all these lifetimes.
The hand going back on Shiva represents ultimate freedom. The Damaru (drum) Shiva holds in the other hand means that Time and Space comes from within you, one side of the drum is this world of multiplicity whereas the other side represents pure non-dual Consciousness, the Self, the ‘I Am’. In other words, the Universe comes from within you.
A spontaneous alchemy of transformation happens where then legs go up and the hands go down. All sense of doership is gone in this state. When you do a handstand in Yoga, the muscles of your hands and legs are contorted with stress. In Moksha Tandava, it is just Effortless Grace because you realize that nobody really does anything. The main aspect of enlightenment is that the sense of doership is gone. Besides “up and down” are relative terms in maya. Somebody looking at us from outer space thinks we are upside down. There is no up, no down. Everything is Shiva, the divine auspicious consciousness.
The Apasmara under Lord Shiva’s foot represents the old Karmic patterns which still need to be exhausted.
These Prarabdha Karmas are always there giving rise to our embodiment, it’s like a fan being switched off, it takes a while coming to a stop. Lord Shiva managing these Prarabdha Karmas with his hand represents the sadhanas (spiritual practices) one must do to maintain these karmas. For instance, one of the great sages of the last century, Ramana Maharshi had throat cancer after enlightenment. He never felt the pain because of his sadhanas. It’s like the famous Zen saying, after Enlightenment one still chops wood, carries water and does the dishes!
The Upanishads talk about Moksha Samsaraat that means the cessation of all suffering. It means you may have desires but you do not base your happiness on the fulfillment of external desires. That is because your true nature Is Joy. Moksha thus means you have discovered your true nature.