Getting Closer to the Root of Buddhist Symbols

The Buddhist Channel, 1 April 2023

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Buddhism is a religion that originated in ancient India and has spread throughout the world, influencing countless cultures and peoples. To gain a deeper understanding of this religion, many scholars and researchers have undertaken a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach.

This approach would not only involve intra-disciplinary studies within various Buddhist traditions but would also include inter-religious comparisons such as Brahminism and Jainism, as well as wider, inter-disciplinary studies such as philology, archaeology, linguistics, and social anthropology.

One individual who has devoted his attention to research on Indian Civilization since 1995 is S. Kalyanaraman. He is the Chair of the Taksha Indic Sarasvati-Sindhu Civilization (TISSC) Centre, which is one of the units of Taksha Institute of the World’s Ancient Traditions (TIWAT). TISSC emphasizes research and studies of different civilizations. Kalyanaraman's PhD is in Public Administration from the University of the Philippines, and he is well-versed in Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, Sanskrit, and Tamil languages. He is the author of 16 books on Sarasvati Civilization, including a) Epigraphia Indus Script – Hypertexts and Meanings (3 vols., 2018); and b) Comparative Dictionary of Over 25 Ancient Bharatiya Languages.

One of Kalyanaraman's research interests is the hieroglyphs of Indian linguistic areas, particularly the hieroglyphs of the Indus Valley Civilization (Harappa script). The Indus Valley Civilization flourished some 5,000 years ago in present-day northwest India and Pakistan. Kalyanaraman has used the rebus method of decryption to analyse the hieroglyphs of the Indus Valley Civilization, applying it to the South Asian lexicon with a database of 8,000 semantic clusters in a dictionary of over 25 ancient Indian languages. Through this method, he has identified the artisans who created the hieroglyphs, including lapidaries, masons, carpenters, miners, and metal smiths. He has also identified the characteristics of the artefacts produced by them and the techniques used.

In addition to his work on the hieroglyphs of the Indus Valley Civilization, Kalyanaraman has also studied the Buddhist hieroglyphs of the early "aniconic" period of Buddhism, which used icons and images before the advent of Buddharupa. Aniconic symbols were prevalent in early Buddhism before the advent of Buddharupa. These symbols include the empty throne, Bodhi tree, a riderless horse with a parasol floating above an empty space (at Sanchi), Buddha's footprints, Dharma Wheel, Maya's dream, The Great Departure, Mara's attack, Enlightenment, and The Buddha Preaching. One symbol that personified early "aniconic" Buddhism is the Triratna, which is the most common icon of early Buddhism found in stupas in Sanchi, Amaravati, Bharhut, Bodhgaya, Anuradhapura, and embedded in coins.

The Triratna is a composition of a lotus flower within a circle, a diamond rod or vajra, an ananda-chakra, and a trident or trisula with three branches representing the threefold jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Kalyanaraman has traced the origins of the Triratna to a hieroglyph composition of fish tied to a pair of mollusks, which, when read in the Magadhi Prakrit/Magahi language, reads as "Ayira – fish, Dhama – to tie, Hangi – snail (mollusks), and ‘dul’ – pair." The central spine between the fish represents a parallelogram or "Makara" that represents the fourfold assembly of the monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. The two fish fins are attached to a makara, which signifies in Indus Script cipher, adhmakara 'forge-blower' dhamaka 'blacksmith' of akammaṭa 'mint, coiner, coinage.' Metal smiths were the wealth creators of those times, akin to the writers of today and the creators of these symbols.

Through the study of the Triratna and other aniconic symbols, Kalyanaraman has shown how early Buddhists had to create tangible art to convey spiritual abstracts, which were then carried to faraway lands and transferred from one to another. The Triratna was an Asokan era success, which enabled Buddhist teachings to be propagated far and wide, even outside of India.

The study of Buddhist symbols and hieroglyphs can provide insight into the history and philosophy of Buddhism. The hieroglyphs of the Indus Valley Civilization can shed light on the artisans who created them, and the Triratna symbol can provide a deeper understanding of the key elements of Buddhism. The research highlights the importance of being creative, adaptive, and rooted in Dhamma and community, as early Buddhists had to create tangible art to convey spiritual abstracts, which were then carried to faraway lands and transferred from one to another.

Further research is necessary to explore the significance of the Triratna symbol in contemporary Buddhism and its impact on the modern world.