What Is Religion?
Asking what is religion? seems like an intimidating question—is there really any kind of answer to this? While many theories give explanations of human religious tendencies, this article focuses more on the symbols of religion and their meanings. Still, it is helpful to have a brief overview of religion before jumping in further.
According to Collins Dictionary, religion is defined as "belief in a god or gods and the activities that are connected with this belief, such as praying or worshipping in a building such as a church or temple." However, this is only a dictionary definition, and so it's a bit narrow. Religion can also be thought of as a way humans deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and what might happen after their eventual deaths.
Additionally, many religions deem certain texts as spiritual authorities or life guidebooks. Further, most religions are interested in interpreting and applying these texts to help create systems of daily moral conduct as well as rules for the proper veneration of sacred and divine dimensions of life.
What Is a Symbol?
According to Merriam-Webster, a symbol is "something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance." If you think about it, the flags of countries often include many symbols.
For example, the 13 stripes on the U.S. flag represent the original 13 colonies. The colors are also symbolic. The Public Broadcasting Service states that "red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white symbolizes purity and innocence, and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice."
In this article, we'll take a look at the following nine religious symbols and dive into their meanings:
9 Religious Symbols and Their Meanings
- The Ankh (Crux Ansata)
- The Anchor
- The Star and Crescent
- The Conch Shell
- The Mandala
- The Padma (Sacred Lotus)
- The Om
- The Bhavacakra
- The Hamsa (Hand of Fatima)
1. The Ankh (Crux Ansata)
The ankh, or crux ansata (Latin for "cross with a handle"), is a symbol that represents the key of life. The symbol is a representation of eternal life, corresponding to the soul instead of the body.
The ankh has roots in ancient Egypt and is also called the crux ansata, which translates literally as "the handled cross." This symbol represents the male triad and the female unit as one body.
Although historians have not been able to trace back the origin of the ankh to a specific date, time, or person, it is believed that the symbol was a popular hieroglyphic for the Egyptian people. It has been found in many sarcophagi, possibly as a talisman ensuring life after death for the deceased. It has also been found in temples of major Egyptian deities such as Osiris, Isis, and Ra.
The ankh is a symbol recognized in many world religions today.
2. The Anchor
The symbol of an anchor has roots in early Christianity and is regarded as a Christian symbol. However, other faiths use the anchor as well to represent unwavering faith.
This symbol can be found in many forms but always combines numerous components of the Christian faith, including the cross, the dolphin, the boat, and the fish.
The anchor is a nautical-themed religious symbol that represents hope in Christ. An anchor is strong, steady, and helps hold a boat in place. According to Christian scripture, the anchor is the symbol of a steadfast faith in Christ: "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure" (Hebrews 6:17).
3. The Star and Crescent
A simple crescent moon with a star is the most recognizable religious symbol for the Islamic faith. The star and crescent was originally used as the flag of Constantinople. When the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, they adopted it as their own flag. The Turkish (Ottoman) Empire controlled much of the Muslim world, so the flag grew increasingly synonymous with Islam.
Today the symbol is still found on the flags of numerous countries with large Islamic populations, like Turkey, Pakistan, and Malaysia. This symbol now represents a life lived in service of Allah and was used in the mid-20th century by movements such as Islamism.
When the symbol is green or is depicted with a green background, the image carries an even stronger faith in Allah because green is thought to be the favorite color of the prophet Mohammed.
4. The Conch Shell
Conch shells are commonly found on beaches all over the world; however, these shells hold powerful meanings for those of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.
Also known as the shankha shell or the chank shell, the conch shell represents the power of faith and is commonly used in religious rituals. The sound made by blowing into a conch shell is said to ward off evil spirits and is believed to represent life.
Some followers of Hinduism and Buddhism believe that blowing into a conch shell enhances positive psychological traits like courage and hope.
5. The Mandala
A mandala is a religious symbol most commonly affiliated with the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.
A symbol with Sanskrit origins, the mandala is a circle designed to represent balance. It can also be thought of as a representation of order—in the cosmos, the self, the world, and so on. Mandalas are believed to be very powerful, depicting radial balance and inner harmony.
Mandalas are used in many religious traditions, helping to establish a person's sacred space, enhancing meditation and prayer.
A mandala is always circular and typically comprised of several levels. The outer circle is meant to represent wisdom, while the innermost part of the mandala represents divinity and nirvana.
In Jungian psychology, the presence of mandalas in dreams represents the dreamer's search for wholeness or unity of self.
6. The Padma (Sacred Lotus)
The Padma is also known as the sacred lotus. This aquatic plant is very symbolic to the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist faiths.
Sometimes called the "Indian Lotus" or the "Bean of India," the Padma symbolizes creation and cosmic renewal. The lotus is considered the flower of renewal because it grows in muddy soil yet comes out unstained (pure).
The lotus flower is considered the union of all four elements: wind, water, fire, and air. The lotus represents perfection on earth, as well as a spiritual emergence into a higher world—essentially the path to enlightenment.
7. The Om
The sound "om" is represented in symbol form in many languages, but most often, in Sanskrit.
Om, also spelled "aum," is a prolonged noise used in meditation to relax the body and the mind.
A nasally sound consisting of a rounded-out vowel, the om is a recognized symbol in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist faiths.
The syllable "om" is often used to start and end meditation, prayer, or invocation.
In Sanskrit, "om" means pravana, which translates into "shout."
According to the Hindu faith, the "om" sound was the syllable that created the universe.
8. The Bhavacakra
The Sanskrit term bhavacakra translates into "wheel of life." Most prominent in the Buddhist faith, the bhavacakra refers to the circle of life and reincarnation.
The symbol represents the process of being reborn again and again until the soul can reach nirvana.
Legend has it that Buddha himself created the design that represents bhavacakra, in an attempt to educate others about the process of life and the teachings of the Buddhist religion.
The bhavacakra symbol is a diagram that consists of seven parts, with the innermost part focusing on human flaws and the outside focusing on the perfection of Buddha
The seven layers from the center to the edge include:
- Images depicting arrogance and attachment.
- A layer to represent karma.
- The six layers of samsara.
- The twelve links of dependent origination.
- A fierce being holding the inner layers to represent impermanence.
- A moon to represent the transition from the wheel of life.
- An image of Buddha to represent the potential of reaching nirvana.
9. The Hamsa (Hand of Fatima)
The hamsa symbol, also referred to as the Hand of Fatima, is a religious symbol designed to ward off evil.
The symbol looks like an extended right hand with an eye in the center of the palm and dates back to Mesopotamian times.
The hamsa symbol carries many meanings, including protection against evil, proof that God exists in everything, as well as strength for the weak and protection during pregnancy.
The symbol is popular in amulet form because of its many powerful healing qualities. Hanging up a Hand of Fatima amulet is said to protect a person from evil, strengthen the body and mind, promote fertility, and help pregnant women.
The hamsa is a popular symbol in the Islamic faith, the Jewish faith, the Christian faith, and other smaller religions.
Sources and Further Reading
- Symbol Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster
The meaning of "symbol" as defined by Merriam-Webster.
- religion | Definition, Types, Beliefs, Symbols, Examples, Importance, & Facts | Britannica
Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence.
- Definition of 'religion' – Collins dictionary
Definitions of "religion" from Collins online dictionary.
- History of the American Flag – A Capitol Fourth | PBS
Discover the history of the American flag and learn how to display it.
- Symbolism of Anchor | Early Church History
The author of Hebrews uses the anchor as a symbol, a metaphor of hope and stability for the Christian in the storms of life and during the death of life.
- Ankh – Egyptian Symbol of Life | US National Park Service
The ankh symbol—sometimes referred to as the key of life or the key of the nile—is representative of eternal life in Ancient Egypt.
- The Star and Crescent | Welcome to Portsmouth
The Star and Crescent symbol featured on the Portsmouth Coat of Arms is also used by various countries, has religous connections to Islam and historically to the Ottoman Empire.
- Why is the color green so important in the Muslim world? | Slate
The main rival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian elections, Mir Hossain Mousavi, has adopted green as his signature color.
- Shells as Religions and Spiritual Objects in Hinduism and Buddhism | Seven Seas Media
- Mandala | World History Encyclopedia
A mandala (Sanskrit for “circle”) is an artistic representation of higher thought and deeper meaning given as a geometric symbol used in spiritual, emotional, or psychological work to focus one's attention.
- The Hamsa Symbol Is Found in Many Cultures, But What Does It Mean? | HowStuffWorks
The hamsa, a depiction of a human hand, often with a central eye motif, is a protective symbol meant to ward off evil.
© 2014 Kathleen Odenthal
Reyna Flores on April 23, 2020:
I didn't expect that there were so many, since i am a Christian.
Frimpong Gregory on January 24, 2020:
thanks for helping me know the signs of the various religions
AngelLeigh1010 on December 02, 2019:
Religions separate us. Race does too, but it will slowly fade away over time. I think the "thing" that will ultimately segregate us all will be our finances. Race, religion, sex, sexual preference, age & everything that divides use doesn't count if you have money.
Déïtane on March 26, 2019:
All religions (sect) are only controls on the human to do what they want: to dispossess them physically and mentally.