Hindu gods

Brahma the creator is shown with four heads   facing all four directions symbolising that he has created the entire universe. He sits on a lotus which is a symbol of purity as the lotus grows in muddy waters but is untouched by the dirt from which it emerges. So also the true yogi should be unaffected by the world around him.
The feminine aspect of the creator is saraswati who is the embodiment of learning and wisdom. In her hands she holds the veena. The beads in her fingers bring out the importance of prayer and meditation and the palm leaf scrolls she holds represent learning and wisdom. She sits either on the pure lotus or on the peacock to remind us that the ego ( symbolised by the  peacock) is to be supressed. The graceful is also her vehicle.
Vishnu is represented as lying on the many headed cobra,ananta.vishnu is given the blue  color to symbolise infinity as he is as limitless as the blue sky. He holds the chakra or discus in one hand denoting that he maintains dharma or righteousness  and order in the universe. The shankha or conch shell is for the removal of ignorance  and is also symbolic of the music of the cosmos as the conch when placed to the ear has a deep humming sound. The gada or mace is for removing evil in the world and the lotus is the symbol of beauty and purity.
Garuda is the vehicle of vishnu. He is a man-eagle, a figure of great strength, power and piety.
Lakshmi is the consort of vishnu. The grace of god is personified in her as one who brings prosperity. She holds one hand in the abhaya mudra (with the hand held open with the palm facing the devotee with the fingers facing upwards ) which says “ do not fear” and the other in the varada mudra ( with the hand with the palm facing the devotee but with the fingers facing downwards ) symbolic of the prosperity and grace she gives to the human race. She sits on the lotus and holds lotus flowers in her hand emphasising the importance of pure living without which her grace and giving are meaningless and prosperity but an empty shell
Shiva the  destroyer of the universe, is often shown as nataraja, the king of dancers, his dance depicting cosmic energy. He dances on the demon, apasmara purusha, who represents our egos. Only by destroying one’s ego can one attain god-head. In one hand shiva holds a deer  which denotes man’s unsteady mind which darts hither and thither like the deer but has to brought under control. In another he holds a rattle-drum, the symbol of creative activity, and the third, the fire, the symbol of destruction. His fourth hand in the abhaya mudra says ,”do not fear. I shall protect as i destroy”. The circle of fire behind him symbolises the continuity and eternal motion of the universe through the paths of creation, preservation  and destruction.
The consort of shiva takes many forms. As uma or parvati she is the gentle one. As kamakshi or rajarajeshwari she is the great mother. In the form of durga she rides the tiger, the ego and arrogance that man has to subdue. With the weapons in her hand she fights the  eight evils    (hate, greed, passion, vanity, contempt of others, envy, jealousy and the illusions with which man binds himself ). In her angry form she is known as kali , the personification of time. In this frightening form  she destroys mahishasura ( the demon buffalo ) who is the symbol of ignorance which is man’s greatest enemy. Her arms and weapons are constantly flaying and fighting evil in all forms. The skulls she wears tell you that man is mortal. Her dark form is symbolic of the future which is beyond our knowledge, and as kali she tells you that time ( kala ) is immutable and all-powerful in the universe.
Ganesha, also known as ganapati or vinayaka, is the son of shiva and parvati and is the first deity to be worshipped during any ritual as he is considered a remover of obstacles. His huge body represents the cosmos or universe and his trunk the pranava or om the symbol of the brahman. His elephant’s head denotes superior intelligence and the snake around his waist represents cosmic energy. The noose is to remind us that worldly attachments are a noose and the hook in his hand is to prod man onto the path of righteousness. The rosary beads are for the pursuit of prayer and the broken tusk is symbolic of knowledge as it is with this tusk that he is believed to have acted as the scribe who wrote down the mahabharata as dictated by sage vyasa. The modaka or sweet in his hand is to remind us of the sweetness of one’s inner self. The physical form of ganesha is corpulent and awkward to teach us that beauty of the outward form has no connection with inner beauty or spiritual perfection. Ganesha, on his vehicle, the mouse, symbolises the equal importance of the biggest and smallest of creatures to the great god.
The other son of shiva, kartikeya, is also known as kumara, skanda, subramanya, shanmukha or muruga. As kartikeya he is designated the deity of war, guarding right and destroying evil. As  shanmukha, the six- headed, he teaches that we have five senses and the mind , and only when six are in harmony is there spiritual growth. He rides the peacock, reminding us not to let pride and egotism get the better of us. In his hand he holds the vel or sharp spear, symbolising the developed sharp intellect, and with it he guards the spiritual progress of the worldall.
The mystic syllable om, is known as the pranava and is the symbol of the brahman. This sacred word encompasses in itself the whole universe, the past present and future and goes beyond the periphery of time itself. Being the symbol of the brahman or the universal soul, it is the very essence of all that is sacred in hindu thought. It is used at the beginning and end of prayer, at the beginning of meditation, during practice of yoga, in fact at all times when the thought of the brahman pervades one’s being.
Vishnu, preserver of human life is one of the three gods of the trimurti. He is a generous god and known as being ‘sattvaguna’ (kind and merciful). Vishnu is the only god of the trimurti who is reborn whenever there is a crisis on earth.
If ‘dharma’ (righteousness) is disturbed, vishnu descends to earth as an avatar (a human form) to fight the forces of evil.
The puranas list the dasavatars’, ten avatars, vishnu took on to sustain the cosmos. Seen in order, they represent the evolution of mankind from the fish stage to ‘purusha’ (man).
These avatars were matsya (fish), kurma (tortoise), varaha (boar ), nara-simha (man-lion), vamana (dwarf), parashurama (a powerful warrior), rama, krishna, buddha and kalki (white horse).
A romantic aspect of the myths, is that whenever vishnu descends to earth he marries lakshmi (his goddess wife). They are destined to marry on earth as in heaven. When vishnu is rama, lakshmi is born as sita. As krishna he marries her as rukmini.
Matsya (fish)
The story of the fish avatar, is hindu, but the likeness to noah is uncanny. A great flood threatened to submerge manu (a patriarch who once ruled the earth). Manu asked a for a bowl of water which he needed for his religious rites. In the bowl was a fish who told manu that if he looked after him, manu would be saved from the flood. Manu agreed and took the fish to the ocean.
In the ocean the matsya grew to whale-like proportions. Taught by matysa how to build a ship manu could sail during the flood.
While the deluge ripped the land apart and treacherous waves rose from the ocean, manu was safe. Matsya was his tether who towed the ark to safety. When they reached the shores they found a dead and barren land ravaged by the storm .
Manu found the cargo contained the seeds for every form of life, from which he could sow the world. Vishnu as matysa supported brahma who renewed the world together.
After the deluge, many cosmic treasures sank deep into the ocean. The asuras (demons) were in race against the devas (minor gods) to churn the oceans for amrit (the nectar of immortality).
Vishnu appeared as kurma (the tortoise) who sided with the devas. Together, they decided they would create a churn for obtaining the amrit.
The serpent vasuki was threaded around mount mandara to create a churn. Kurma dived to the floor of the ocean and balanced mount mandara on his back. In the grip of kurma’s cosmic force, mount mandara could not sink into the ocean bed.
The gods churned, and the nectar of immortality came to their hands. As they continued to churn, fourteen treasures appeared. For kurma the most precious was lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and good fortune who would be his wife.
When the demon, hiranyaksha dragged bhoomi devi (mother earth) underwater, vishnu took the form of varaha (a wild boar). After a fierce battle he overpowered the demon and lifted bhoomi devi from the waters. He pushed with his snout and the land puckered forming the himalayan mountains. He dragged more land from the sea and shaped the indian subcontinent.
During the satayuga (first epoch) a tyrannical daitya (demon) tormented the world. No god could overcome him and with each battle he won, the daityas pride grew. Crazed by his invincibility he shot an arrow at a pillar to defy vishnu. Vishnu burst out as narasimha (man-lion) and tore daitya to shreds.
Later bali, the king of the daityas had become ruler of the world. He had wisely worshipped vishnu who had granted him a special boon. Protected by this boon bali became a cause for celestial concern. When all the other gods were overcome they pleaded to vishnu for help.
Vishnu took the form of vamana (a dwarf), and was born as the stunted child of kasyapa and aditi. He went as vamana to a yagna (sacrifice) being performed by bali.
Bali was offering sweets to all those present at the yagna.. Vamana held out his hands and said he was a poor peasant. He asked for as much land as he (vamana) could cover in three steps. Bali took a look at the dwarf peasant and granted him this boon.
Vamana expanded to a cosmic size. His first step covered the earth, the second reached heaven. Vamana’s third step would have reached the lower world but bali bowed before vamana realising he had to be vishnu. Pleased by bali’s humility, vishnu spared him and gave bali a kingdom of his own in the netherworld.
In the treta epoch, (the age of the sacred fires) the warrior class were becoming dominant. Their weaponry made them aggressive. They were subjugating ordinary people. The gods wanted power to revert to the priests. Vishnu appeared as parashurama, and took away the powers of the warriors returned it to the scholars.
As rama, vishnu came on earth to slay the demon ravana. A legendary man, his compassionate nature and his belief in duty elevated him as ‘maryada purusha’, ideal man.
In his eighth avatar, vishnu was krishna the greatest teacher whose words form a priceless hindu scripture, ‘the bhagwad gita’ or the guide to life.
As the buddha, vishnu is a great religious teacher of india. He revealed the secrets of moksha and the path to nirvana.
Vishnu’s final avatar will be as kalki (white horse). At the end of the present age (kal-yuga) he will come back riding a white horse. Predictions say kalki will brandishing a flaming sword and destroy last demons on earth.
In his cosmic form vishnu is seen reclining on a many headed serpent called ananta and the oceans lie subdued under him. He holds a chakra (discus) in a hand with which he maintains order in the universe. The shankha or conch was retrieved by him during the churning of the oceans, and its deep humming sound is an evocation of the sea. He holds a lotus for peace and a gada (mace) a controlling weapon. Garuda the eagle is his celestial vehicle.
As god and in each of his avatars vishnu plays the role of the preserver making the earth a safe heaven for his believers.

Brief history of symbolism in buddhism
Many buddhist symbols need to be considered within the culture of the people who follow it. Therefore, many of the early symbols relate to ancient india and can be found in hinduism as well, although possibly with a somewhat different meaning.
The historical buddha lived around the sixth century bce, but no buddhist artifacts are known from before the third century bce. In the scriptures, it is mentioned that the buddha did occasionally use images like the 'wheel of life' to illustrate the teachings. The first archaeological evidence, mainly of ornamental stone carvings, comes from the time of the emperor asoka (273 - 232 bce), who converted to buddhism and made it a popular religion in india and beyond .
In the second century bce, people started to excavate buddhist monasteries in rock, creating a large amount of artwork to withstand the ages. Probably the earliest typical buddhist monument is the stupa, which was often specially decorated. The first actual buddha images appeared around the first century bce, so until then the artwork was largely symbolic in nature.
With the appearance of buddhist tantra around the 6th century, a wealth of new artwork and symbolism appeared, as imagination and visualization form a major technique in meditation practices. From this moment on, a pantheon of deities and protectors appeared, together with a vast collection of symbolic items, such as the vajra and bell, mandalas etc.; see the page on tantric symbols. This tradition was mainly preserved in so-called 'tibetan buddhism', and partially in the japanese shingon tradition.
symbols for the buddha
It is said that the buddha was reluctant to accept images of himself, as he did not like to be venerated as a person. To symbolise the buddha in the very early art, one used mainly the eight spoked wheel and the bodhi tree, but also the buddha's footprints, an empty throne, a begging bowl and a lion are used to represent him.
The eight-spoked dharma wheel or 'dharmachakra' (sanskrit) symbolises the buddha's turning the wheel of truth or law (dharma = truth/law, chakra = wheel).
It refers to the story that shortly after the buddha achieved enlightenment, brahma came down from heaven and requested the buddha to teach by offering him a dharmachakra. The buddha is known as the wheel-turner: he who sets a new cycle of teachings in motion and in consequence changes the course of destiny.
The dharmachakra has eight spokes, symbolising the eight-fold noble path. The 3 swirling segments in centre represent the buddha, dharma (the teachings) and sangha (the spiritual community).
The wheel can also be divided into three parts, each representing an aspect of buddhist practice; the hub (discipline), the spokes (wisdom), and the rim (concentration).
the bodhi tree refers to the tree under which the buddha achieved enlightenment (see image on the right.).
Tree worship was already part of the existing culture in india, so the development of the bodhi tree and leaf as a devotional symbol was a natural one.
From a beautiful online book from the stupa page:
"after wandering the countryside for about six years the buddha finally came to rest in a forest beside the naranjara river, not far from modern day bodhgaya. Sitting under a bodhi tree, ardently practicing meditation, he finally realised his true nature. The next seven days were spent under the tree experiencing the bliss of freedom and contemplating the extent of his new understanding. The story then goes on to relate four other periods of seven days, each spent under a different tree - the banyan, the mucalinda and the rajayatana tree and then once more back to the banyan. Each of these 'tree scenes' has its own well known story which space here does not allow. The tree of enlightenment is called, in latin, ficus religiosa, or sacred tree. It is also known as the pipal tree. For buddhists it is generally called the bodhi, or bo tree. Bodhi is the pali and sanskrit word for enlightenment. There is a descendant of the original tree still growing at bodhgaya and bodhi trees are commonly found in buddhist centres all over the world."
The throne is both a reference to siddharta gautama's royal ancestry and to the idea of spiritual kingship - enlightenment as ruler of the spiritual world. The ancient stone carvings above show the dharmachakra and the bodhitree on top of the throne. Sometimes the base of the throne is decorated with other symbols such as lions and deer, both associated with the buddha's teachings.
the lion is one of buddhism's most potent symbols. Traditionally, the lion is associated with regality, strength and power. It is therefore an appropriate symbol for the buddha who tradition has it was a royal prince. The buddha's teachings are sometimes referred to as the 'lion's roar', again indicative of their strength and power.
the image on the left shows a capital from a pillar of asoka: the lions of sarnath. Sarnath is where the buddha first preached, and these lions echo his teachings to the four quarters of the world, sometimes called 'the lion's roar'. The wheel symbolizes buddhist law and also asoka's legitimacy as an enlightened ruler.
Especially in tibetan buddhist art, lions are often depicted on the throne the buddha sits on, but these are snow lions (mythical creatures), and they actually represent the eight main bodhisattvas (students of the buddha).
from the tibetan aid project page:
"footprints of the buddha traditionally symbolize the physical presence of the enlightened one. This image was reproduced from a rubbing of an ancient stone imprint at bodh gaya, india, site of the buddha's enlightenment."
The story goes that prior to his death the buddha left an imprint of his foot on a stone near kusinara, a reminder of his presence on earth.
These footprints often show dharma-wheels on them, one of the so-called 32 marks of a buddha. Other auspicious marks, like swastikas and lotuses etc. Can sometimes be found, but they are not part of these special marks.
the begging-bowl refers to the the story that shortly before the buddha reached enlightenment, a young woman named sujata offered him a bowl of milk-rice. At that moment, he was practicing austerity by eating extremely little. But he realised at that moment that he would need to have more strength for the final steps to enlightenment, and further fasting would only reduce his energy. After he reached enlightenment, he is said to have thrown away what little was left in the bowl to signify his renunciation of all material possessions. Finding the middle way between extreme austerity and complete attachment to life is an important principle of buddhism.
The bowl also points to the monk's way of life; going from the monastery into the village each morning and living off what is put into it by lay people.
What seems a much later development is the depiction of the buddha's eyes (especially on stupas), as is frequently seen in nepal. They look in all four directions, representing the omniscient mind of a buddha.
 At exoticindiaart.com you can find a very interesting history of the development of the buddha-image in art.
The three precious jewels or triple gem
the core of buddhism is made up of the three pillars of the buddha, the dharma (his teachings) and the sangha (monks and nuns). Simply explained, one could say that without the historical buddha shakyamuni there would have been no buddhist dharma, nor sangha. Without his teachings, the buddha would not have made much of a difference, and also the spiritual community would not have existed. Without the sangha, the tradition would never have have been transmitted through the ages. The buddha would have been 'just' a historical figure and his teachings would have been 'just' books.
Obviously, the triple gem is usually represented as three jewels...
Deer are a direct reference to the buddha's first teaching in the deer park, sarnath, also called dharmachakra parivartan. The suggestion is that so wondrous was the buddha's appearance and peaceful his presence that even the animals came to listen. In the tibetan tradition, a monastery which holds the kangyur and tengyur collections of texts would have this symbol of deer on both sides of the dharma-wheel on the roof.

Stupas generally represent the enlightened mind of the buddha. They were constructed since the early days of buddhism. One of the symbolic meanings is that they represent the five elements: the square base represents earth, the round dome is for water, the cone-shape is fire, the canopy is air and the volume of the stupa is space. Stupas are often used to store relics from important teachers.
On the subject of stupas, i can recommend a visit to the stupa page, which not only contains lots of information, but even a free downloadable book on stupas. Stupas come in many shapes and all sizes....
Making offerings is a very common practice in the east. Every offering has a specific meaning, for example offering light is to dispel the darkness of one's ignorance, or offering incense to increase one's ethical behaviour. Offering is considered a good training against greed and attachment.
In tibet, many or all of the offerings are often replaced by little bowls filled with water which symbolises the offering of water for drinking and foot-washing, flowers, incense, light, perfume and food. This relates to the ancient tradition of how a very important guest should be received.

The eight offerings:
Offering water to cleanse the mouth or face: it signifies auspiciousness or all the positive causes and conditions which bring positive effects. So, make an offering of water which is clean, fresh, cool, smooth, light, delicious, comfortable to the throat and stomach - these qualities are the qualities of auspiciousness.
Offering water to wash the feet: this is clear water mixed with incense or sandalwood which is made as an offering to all enlightened beings' feet. The symbolic meaning is purification. By cleansing the feet of the enlightened beings, we cleanse all our own negative karma and obscurations. By making offerings to clean the enlightened beings feet, we are really cleaning the "feet" of our own mind.
Offering flowers signifies the practice of generosity and opens the heart.
Offering incense symbolises moral ethics or discipline.
Offering light signifies the stability and clarity of patience, the beauty which dispels all ignorance. According to ven. Norlha rinpoche: "it is also excellent to offer the butterlamps, candles or light because this act of offering this light symbolizes burning away our mental afflictions of desire, aggression, greed, jealousy, pride and so forth. The other part of the symbolism is that it is a way to burn away our illness."
offering of perfume or the fragrance from saffron or sandalwood. It signifies perseverance or joyous effort. Through that one quality, one develops all the qualities of enlightenment.
Offering of food which has a lot of different tastes signifies samadhi, which is a nectar or ambrosia to feed the mind.
Offering of musical instruments. There are different types of instruments -- cymbals, bells, guitars, lutes - - all of these are offered. Their nature is wisdom, which makes an offering to the ears of the buddhas and bodhisattvas and all the enlightened beings. Sound represents wisdom because wisdom is a special power of the mind which penetrates phenomena. Compassion is achieved through great wisdom; interdependence of all phenomena is realised through great wisdom. Of course all phenomena have the nature of interdependence, causes and conditions, but sound is especially easy to understand.
The eight lucky articles or eight bringers of good fortune to support the practitioner's efforts at reaching enlightenment. Each of these also represents an aspect of the 8-fold noble path:
The mirror represents the dharmakaya or truth body of the buddha, having the aspects of purity (a mirror is clear of pollution) and wisdom (a mirror reflects all phenomena without distinction). Represents right thought.
Curd - just as this highly valued, pure white food is the result of a long process, so the clear nature of mind is revealed with practice over time as the defilements are dissolved. Represents right livelihood (no animal is harmed in its production).
Durva grass is very resilient and is a symbol of long life. This is considered beneficial because one needs time to practice and attain enlightenment. Represents right effort.
The wood apple or bilva fruit is offered to remind the practitioner of the emptiness and conditioned nature of all phenomena in terms of dependent origination. Why the bilva fruit was chosen to represent this is unknown. Represents right action - which bears the right fruit.
The right-coiled conch-shell represents the wish that the buddhist teachings will be spread in all directions like the sounds emitted when the shell is used as a horn. Represents right speech.
Vermilion/cinnabar are each red powders consisting of mercuric sulphide. In tantric buddhist colour symbolism, red represents control. Thus, this offering is concerned with having control over one's capacities which are to be put to the effort of gaining enlightenment. Represents right concentration.
White mustard seeds this relates to the buddha's response to a woman who came to him distraught at the loss of her child. He instructed her to collect a mustard seed (as common as salt or pepper at the time) from every home that never had a bereavement. As she returned empty-handed, the buddha showed her that she was not alone in her sorrow and that death is an inescapable part of life. Represent right understanding. Mustard seeds are also used in many rituals to expel demons. They therefore symbolise also wrathful means at overcoming obstacles.
Precious medicine - ghi-wang, literally meaning "cow essence", is a soothing and strengthening medicine obtained from gallstones in cattle or elephants. The substance's ability to deal with physical suffering symbolises to include suffering as part of the practice of dharma. It represents right mindfulness, which acts as an antidote to the disease of ignorance and the suffering that it causes.
The five qualities of enjoyment are also used as offerings, as when they come into contact with our senses, they give rise to the negative consequences of attachment and craving:
The mirror is a symbol for visual form.
The lute symbolises sound.
The incense burner represents smell.
The fruit refers to for taste.
The silk relates to touch.
In offering these qualities, one meditates on their nature and the intention of abandoning craving.
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The seven jewels of royal power
The seven jewels of royal power are the accessories of the universal monarch (skt. Chakravartin). They represent different abilities or aids that a king must possess in order to stay in power and can be symbolically offered to the buddha. These seven objects collectively symbolize secular power. They give the ruler knowledge, resources and power.
In the buddhist interpretation a comparison is drawn between the outward rule of the secular king and the spiritual power of a practitioner. To the spiritual practitioner the seven jewels represent boundless wisdom, inexhaustible spiritual resources and invincible power over all inner and outer obstacles.
These seven jewels can also be found in the long mandala offering ritual.
The precious queen - who represents the feminine pole, where the chakravartin is the masculine aspect. Those working to abandon negative mental states regard her as mother or sister. Her beauty and love for her husband are representative of the radiating, piercing joy of the buddha's enlightenment.
The precious general symbolises the wrathful power to overcome enemies.
The precious horse is able to travel among the clouds and mirror the buddha's abandonment of, or "rising above", the cares of worldly existence.
The precious jewel which is sometimes depicted on the back of the precious horse, deals with the themes of wealth and unfolding (power and possibility). The jewel is said to aid the chakravartin (wheel-turning or buddhist king) in his ability to see all things like a crystal ball. In the same way, a buddha can perceive all things; recognising the manifold connections between all events, the relentless chain of cause and effect, and the nature of compounded existence. The jewel can also symbolise a wish-granting jewel, a mythical gem which fulfills all wishes.
The precious minister or householder represent two different aspects of the rule of the chakravartin which are closely related. The minister aids the chakravartin in carrying out his commands expeditiously, while the householder provides the very basic support. The wisdom of the buddha, like the minister, is always present to him who has realised it, allowing him to cut through the bonds of ignorance. While the householder represents the support of the lay community, without which the monastic community could not continue.
The precious elephant is a symbol of the strength of the mind in buddhism. Exhibiting noble gentleness, the precious elephant serves as a symbol of the calm majesty possessed by one who is on the path. Specifically, it embodies the boundless powers of the buddha which are miraculous aspiration, effort, intention, and analysis. The image at the right says it all: a stupa - symbolic of the mind of a buddha with a basis of strong elephants.
The precious wheel, sometimes depicted on the back of the precious elephant, is the same as the dharmachakra, or the wheel of truth above.
the eight auspicious symbols
This set of symbols is very popular in tibet, but is also known in sanskrit as 'ashtamangala', ashta means eight and mangala means auspicious..
The umbrella or parasol embodies notions of wealth or royalty, for one had to be rich enough to possess such an item, and further, to have someone carry it. It points to the "royal ease" and power experienced in the buddhist life of detachment. It also symbolises the wholesome activities to keep beings from harm (sun) like illness, harmful forces, obstacles and so forth, and the enjoyment of the results under its cool shade.
the golden fish; were originally symbolic of the rivers ganges and yamuna, but came to represent good fortune in general, for hindus, jain and buddhists. Within buddhism it also symbolises that living beings who practice the dharma need have no fear to drown in the ocean of suffering, and can freely migrate (chose their rebirth) like fish in the water.
The treasure vase; is a sign of the inexhaustible riches available in the buddhist teachings, but also symbolises long life, wealth, prosperity and all the benefits of this world. (there is even a practice which involves burying or storing treasure vases at certain locations to generate wealth, eg. For monasteries or dharma centers.)
The lotus is a very important symbol in india and of buddhism. It refers to the complete purification of body, speech and mind, and the blossoming of wholesome deeds in liberation. The lotus refers to many aspects of the path, as it grows from the mud (samsara), up through muddy water it appears clean on the surface (purification), and finally produces a beautiful flower (enlightenment). The white blossom represents purity, the stem stands for the practice of buddhist teachings which raise the mind above the (mud of) worldly existence, and gives rise to purity of mind.
An open blossom signifies full enlightenment; a closed blossom signifies the potential for enlightenment.
From the website exotic india art:
"the lotus does not grow in tibet and so tibetan art has only stylized versions of it. Nevertheless, it is one of buddhism's best recognized motifs since every important deity is associated in some manner with the lotus, either being seated upon it or holding one in their hands.
The roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the heavily scented flower lies above the water, basking in the sunlight. This pattern of growth signifies the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. Though there are other water plants that bloom above the water, it is only the lotus which, owing to the strength of its stem, regularly rises eight to twelve inches above the surface.
Thus says the lalitavistara, 'the spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the lotus in the muddy water which does not adhere to it.' according to another scholar, 'in esoteric buddhism, the heart of the beings is like an unopened lotus: when the virtues of the buddha develop therein, the lotus blossoms; that is why the buddha sits on a lotus bloom.'
Significantly, the color of the lotus too has an important bearing on the symbology associated with it:
1). White lotus (skt. Pundarika; tib. Pad ma dkar po): this represents the state of spiritual perfection and total mental purity (bodhi). It is associated with the white tara and proclaims her perfect nature, a quality which is reinforced by the color of her body.
2). Red lotus (skt. Kamala; tib: pad ma chu skyes): this signifies the original nature and purity of the heart (hrdya). It is the lotus of love, compassion, passion and all other qualities of the heart. It is the flower of avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
3). Blue lotus (skt. Utpala; tib. Ut pa la): this is a symbol of the victory of the spirit over the senses, and signifies the wisdom of knowledge. Not surprisingly, it is the preferred flower of manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.
4). Pink lotus (skt. Padma; tib. Pad ma dmar po): this the supreme lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity. Thus naturally it is associated with the great buddha himself."
Teoh eng soon, in his book the lotus in the buddhist art of india, traces the first appearance of the lotus in buddhist art to the columns built by asoka in the 3rd century bce. However, the lotus is found frequently in the early buddhist texts.
the conch, which is also used as a horn, symbolises the deep, far reaching and melodious sound of the teachings, which is suitable for all disciples at it awakens them from the slumber of ignorance to accomplish all beings' welfare.
The auspicious or endless knot is a geometric diagram which symbolises the nature of reality where everything is interrelated and only exists as part of a web of karma and its effect. Having no beginning or end, it also represents the infinite wisdom of the buddha, and the union of compassion and wisdom. Also, it represents the illusory character of time, and long life as it is endless.
The victory banner; symbolises the victory of the buddha's teachings over death, ignorance, disharmony and all the negativities of this world, and victory over. The roofs of tibetan monasteries are often decorated with victory banners of different shapes and sizes.
The dharma-wheel (dharmachakra); it is said that after siddharta gautama achieved enlightenment, brahma came to him, offered a dharma-wheel and requested the buddha to teach. It represents the buddhist teachings (see above).
You can find a good article on the eight auspicious symbols at exoticindiaart.com.
The buddhist flag
a much more recent symbol is the buddhist flag. It was in designed in 1880 by colonel henry steele olcott an american journalist. It was first hoisted in 1885 in sri lanka and is a symbol of faith and peace, and is now used throughout the world to represent the buddhism.
The five colours of the flag represent the colours of the aura that emanated from the body of the buddha when he attained enlightenment.
Loving kindness, peace and universal compassion
The middle path - avoiding extremes, emptiness
Blessings of practice - achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune and dignity
Purity of dharma - it leads to liberation, outside of time or space
The buddha's teaching - wisdom
The swastika
The swastika is a well-know good-luck symbol from india. Unfortunately, it is too well known in the west, as the nazis chose it as their main symbol. In sanskrit, swastika means "conducive to well-being". In the buddhist tradition, the swastika symbolizes the feet or footprints of the buddha and is often used to mark the beginning of texts. Modern tibetan buddhism uses it as a clothing decoration. With the spread of buddhism, it has passed into the iconography of china and japan where it has been used to denote plurality, abundance, prosperity and long life.
(in india, hindus use the swastika to mark the opening pages of account books, thresholds, doors, and offerings, the right-hand swastika is a solar symbol and the left-hand version represents kali and magic. Among the jains it is the emblem of their seventh tirthankara. Other uses of the symbol: in ancient mesopotamia it was a favourite symbol on coinage, in scandinavia it was the symbol for the god thor's hammer. In early christian art it was called the gammadion cross because it was made of four gammas. It is also found in mayan and navajo art.)
From about.com:
"there are two key mountains in buddhist symbolism. The first is vulture peak in northern india where the buddha is said to have delivered a number of sermons. Vulture peak has particular significance in mahayana buddhism as one of its key texts, the lotus sutra, is said to have developed out of the buddha's teachings at vulture peak [also the very important heart sutra was taught here]. The second belongs to buddhist cosmology and is known as mount meru, the mythological center of the buddhist universe and the link between the hells below the earth and the heavens above."
In china, there are the so-called four sacred mountains (not to be confused with the taoist five sacred mountains). They are:
•    Pu tuo shan, buddhist mountain of the east, zhejiang province, 284 meters. Sacred to bodhisattva kuan-yin.
•    Wu tai shan, buddhist mountain of the north, shanxi province, 3061 meters. Sacred to bodhisattva manjushri.
•    Emei shan, buddhist mountain of the west, sichuan province, 3099 meters. Sacred to bodhisattva samantabhadra.
•    Jiu hua shan, buddhist mountain of the south, anhui province, 1341 meters. Sacred to bodhisattva kshitigarbha.
See also this page from sacred sites.
In tibet, the 6,600 meter high mount kailash is often identified as the mountain of the gods, and even mount meru (the axis of the universe) with its pyramid shape. See the page on tibetan symbols.
The four guardian kings (skt: lokapala)
This information comes from  ratna henry chia's world of buddhism.
The four guardian kings are the protectors of the four cardinal directions and are almost always found at the entrance to monasteries and temples. They each have two hands and are dressed in the ornate armour and clothing of a warrior king. They may be depicted either sitting or standing.
Dhritarashtra, the king of the east
white in color and plays a lute.     Virudhaka, the king of the south
blue in color and carries a sword and scabbard.
Virupaksha, the king of the west,
red in color and holds a small stupa in his right hand and a serpent in his left.     Vaishravana, the king of the north
yellow in color and carries a banner of victory in his right hand and a mongoose that vomits jewels in his left.
Web teachings on making light offerings by lama zopa rinpoche. A good collection of buddhist symbols is found at buddha mind
a huge collection of links on buddhist symbols
tibetan clipart in vector graphics to illustrate anything: support this project to educate tibetan youngsters
an interesting collection of symbols and their explanation can be found on the khandro website.
Also have a look at ratna henry chia's page.
A great collection of information on buddhist ceremonies in the thai tradition.
Altar offerings in the tibetan tradition.
Making waterbowl offerings by lama zopa rinpoche
making prostrations
offerings katas (silk scarves) in the tibetan tradition.
The images of the 8 auspicious symbols are courtesy of osel shen phen ling.
The symbolism of experience by chogyam trungpa rinpoche
making incense offering
If you are looking for chinese symbolism, check out gotheborg.com
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Last updated: december 15, 2005

Kamdhenu, the sacred cow deity is considered to grant all wishes and desires. It is believed that she emerged from samudramanthan (the churning of the ocean) and taken by seven gods, who compose the constellation of the great bear in the sky.
She is also called surabhi, shaval, aditi and kamduh.
She is the mother of all cows.

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