Tattooing has been widely practiced across the globe since at least Neolithic times, with evidence of this practice preserved on mummified skin, and depicted in ancient art. The oldest discovery of tattooed human skin is found on the body of Ötzi the Iceman, dating from around 3370 BC.
Other tattooed mummies have been found at least 49 archeological sites including locations in Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, Mongolia, western China, Egypt, Sudan, the Philippines, and the Andes. One prominent preserved tattooed figure from ancient history is Amunet, Priestess of the Goddess Hathor from ancient Egypt.
In Egypt the majority of tattoos were found on women and indicated their status. They also used tattoos for healing, religion, and even as a form of punishment.
Today, in the west most people wear a tattoo for reasons of self expression, wanting to display a badge of loyalty (notably in the military and secret societies), or as a statement and reminder of their spiritual beliefs. And inking those spiritual beliefs onto skin is a widespread practise within the yoga community.
If you’re looking for some explanation of the significance of ancient symbols as inspiration for your own tattoo, or if you’re just wondering what the tattoos you’ve seen on others mean, read on.
The OM or “AUM” is believed in Hindu culture to be the sound that was made when all of creation came into existence. When Shakti (Energy) and Shiva (Matter) met, both Sound (Ganesha) and Light (Skanda) were born, and the upper curve, of the Om symbol is identified with the head or the face of Ganesha.
Many yogis begin and end their practise with Om and it is often the first and last sound uttered during yoga classes.
Om is sacred to the Dharmic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sanatana Dharma and Jainism. Linguists tell us that the Western languages have deep linguistic roots within the ancient languages of the East and many believe that ‘amen’ in Judaism and Christianity is the OM mantra transformed as it traveled from the East, to the Middle East and then on to Europe.
Everything in the Universe is created, maintained and governed by harmonic frequencies and vibrations. Pure vibrations can greatly enhance all of creation and the human state of consciousness.
OM is the primordial sound or word that was present at the moment of the creation of the universe. The original sound that contains all other sounds, all words, all languages and all mantras. And again we can see this similarity with Christianity
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” King James Bible, John 1:1.
Om is the sound of the universe, and in 2010 when NASA observed huge coronal loops emerging from the sun and recorded the vibrations of those loops, and then applied the corresponding vibrational sounds, it turns out that the sound of the sun had a striking similarity to Om.
Om is a sacred 3. Many faiths have a trinity at their root and Hinduism which created the practise of Yoga is no exception. Om is written in ancient Sanskrit and the sound is made up of the 3 syllables A U and M.
According to scholars these three syllables can represent a variety of things including
- the heavens, the earth and the underworld
- Brahma (creator god), Vishnu (sustainer god) and Shiva (destroyer god)
- the waking, the dreaming and the dreamless states
- the three Vedas, the Rigveda, Samaveda and Yajurveda
Om made its first appearance in the Upanishads, which are a collection of holy Hindu texts. One text, The Mandukya Upanishad, is entirely devoted to om and begins:
“Om is the imperishable word. Om is the universe, and this is the exposition of om. The past, the present, and the future, all that was, all that is, all that will be is om. Likewise, all else that may exist beyond the bounds of time, that too is om.”
The lower left curve or the bottom half of the ‘3’ is the waking state and represents the conscious mind which is focused outward on material objects and the outer world. This curve is called Vaishvanara
The ‘o’ to the right of the center of the ‘3’ is the dreaming state, the active unconscious which is focused inward to the thoughts in the mind. This part is known as Taijasa
The top curve of the ‘3’ is the causal plane of existence, the dreamless deep sleep state, deep meditation and latent unconsciousness. This curve is called Prajna
The dot above the upper curve represents, pure unity consciousness, Atma/Brahman Self. The ‘True Self’ in its purest consciousness where awareness of the world is completely obliterated. This dot is known as Turiya.
The true self, is separated from the other 3 states by the Nadi, a horizontal curve which means Sound and is also linked to Ganesha. Rising through the Nadi is how Maya, the illusory world is transcended.
Together, these make the states of human awareness or consciousness.
In ancient Sanskrit Mandala means ‘circle’ and represents the metaphysical universe, with cosmic harmony where all paths meet at the center. The mandala is also another way of representing a lotus flower in full bloom with its petals wide open to the world.
The pattern within the mandala is balanced and harmonized, symbolizing how we are connected and part of the wider universe. The mandala is an extremely versatile pattern and can carry any number of meanings that are limited only by the creator and the observer. The overall goal of a mandala is to be a tool on your spiritual journey.
The mandala’s design is meant to absorb the mind in a way that silences chattering thoughts and allows the observer to deepen meditation and gain a higher level of awareness.
Because mandals are so varied and so personal you have complete freedom in choosing your design and can select colors, symbols and shapes that have a special meaning to you.
Ahimsa (written in Sanskrit)
Ahimsa is the first of the five yama’s in yoga.
The Yama’s are social contracts and define the restraints, or what one should not do.
The Hindu mystic Patanjali wrote a text called the Yoga Sutras where he outlines yamas. He says that once ahimsa is mastered, even wild animals and ferocious criminals will become tame and harmless in our presence.
Ahimsa means non-harmfulness, to not desire to harm to any living creature or even any (seemingly) lifeless object.
This doesn’t mean that it’s forbidden to harm or kill, which can sometimes be unavoidable, such as when one eats meat or plants, or accidentally steps on insects. Instead Ahimsa is about the intent behind the action, rather than the action itself. It is an attitude of universal benevolence. An attitude of mind.
According to Swami Kriyananda, Ahimsa, when correctly understood, is the ultimate weapon; it turns one’s enemy into a friend, thereby making the possibility of further conflict impossible.
The perfect practice of ahimsa is very rare. For while few people would kill their fellows, it is common to find people attacking one another with angry words, or with contemptuous glances.
The lotus is a symbol of purity and divine birth, and it symbolizes the potential to expand and bloom physically, mentally and spiritually. The lotus has come to represent the enlightened soul, calm and at peace amidst the chaos of the physical universe. The bud of the lotus symbolizes potential. It is the bud from which spiritual awareness grows.
A lotus flower has its roots in the murky water at the bottom of streams and ponds, and because the lotus rises from unclean waters to bloom as a pure, uncontaminated flower, it is a symbol of purity and resurrection.
An individual traveling the path to enlightenment grows in spirit and then emerges from the impurities of unenlightened thinking in the same way that a lotus flower grows and emerges from the unclean water.
Buddhists compare the opening of the lotus flower petals to the unfolding of divinity within you.
The Hindu Goddess Mahalakshmi is also represented by the lotus. She is the Goddess of success, prosperity and abundance.
Lord Ganesha is a well known Hindu god with the head of an elephant. He is the ‘Lord of Good Fortune’, who provides prosperity and fortune and the ‘Destroyer of Obstacles’ of both a material or spiritual nature. He is also a patron deity of the sciences and arts.
Ganesha is associated with the first chakra which represents the instinct of conservation and survival, of procreation and material well-being.
In Hinduism, Ganesha refers to the ‘Lord of The Hosts,’ and is one of the most well-known and venerated representations of God (Brahman).
‘Ga’ symbolizes Buddhi (intellect) and ‘Na’ symbolizes Vijnana (wisdom). Ganesha is therefore known as the master of intellect and wisdom.
Ganesha is the symbol of one who has discovered the Divinity within himself. Ganesha is the first sound, OM, in which all other things are born.
He represents the perfect equilibrium between force and kindness and between power and beauty. He also symbolizes the capacity to discriminate and perceive the distinctions between truth and illusion.
Hindu’s believe that Ganesha brings good luck and moves obstacles out of the way if you are pure of heart and intent.
A description of all of the characteristics and attributes of Ganesha can be found in the Ganapati Upanishad (an Upanishad dedicated to Ganesha).
According to the strict rules of Hindu iconography, Ganesha figures should never be represented with only two hands. Therefore, Ganesha figures are most commonly seen with four hands which signify their divinity.
Some depictions of Ganesha may be seen with six, eight, ten, twelve and even fourteen hands, with each hand carrying a distinct symbol. According to scholars there are about fifty-seven symbols in total.
The image of Ganesha is made up from four animals, with man, elephant, serpent and mouse all contributing to the appearance of this figure. All of these individually and collectively have deep symbolic significance.
- The elephant head indicates fidelity, intelligence and discriminative power
- The wide ears denote wisdom, ability to listen to people who seek help and to reflect on spiritual truths
- the curved trunk indicates the power to discrimination between truth and illusion
- Ganesha’s pot belly contains infinite universes
- The four arms of Ganesha represent the four inner attributes of the subtle body, that is: mind, intellect, ego, and conditioned conscience.
- The mouse represents wisdom, talent and intelligence
- The serpent or dragon is an archetype for DNA
Throughout India and the Hindu culture, Lord Ganesha is the first idol placed into any new home or abode.
Namaste (in Sanskrit)
In Hinduism, Namaste is a commonly spoken salutation used upon greeting someone and again on bidding them farewell.
In Sanskrit the word is namah + te which together become namaste. ‘Namah’ means ‘bow’, ‘reverential salutation’ or ‘adoration’ and ‘te’ means ‘to you’. The full greeting therefore means ‘I bow to you – my greetings and salutations to you, and implicitly bestows the intention to ‘be well’
Namaste also contains the wish ‘may our minds meet’, with the bowing down of the head extending friendship in love and with respect.
A noncontact form of greeting is traditionally preferred in India and Nepal, and Namaste is the most common form this type of greeting takes. When spoken to another person, it is often accompanied by a slight bow and with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards, in front of the chest. This gesture is called Anjali Mudra or Pranamasana. This can also be performed wordlessly and carries the same meaning
Namaste is often the greeting used to welcome yoga practitioners to a class and to conclude the practice with the meaning ‘the divine spirit within me recognizes and greets the divine spirit in you’.
Chakra’s are the seven energy wheels, the vortexes of rotating energy within our bodies and within our beautiful earth. There are seven major chakras, each with its own meaning, significance and responsibility for different physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of our being.
Each chakra is situated near an endocrine gland which is responsible for regulating hormonal reactions in the body. The chakras also act as translators of energy, assimilating energy from surrounding influences, including your own emotions and the emotions, thoughts and the chakras of others.
- Base or Root Chakra (last bone in spinal cord)
- Sacral Chakra (ovaries/prostate)
- Solar Plexus Chakra (navel)
- Heart Chakra (heart)
- Throat Chakra (throat and neck)
- Brow or Third Eye Chakra (pineal gland or third eye)
- Crown Chakra (Top of head)
For the earth the chakras are considered to be at the following locations and all are significant spiritual destinations.
- Mt. Shasta in California is considered the root chakra.
- Lake Titicaca Peru/Bolivia is considered the 2nd chakra.
- Uluru, or ‘Ayers Rock’ in Australia along with Kata Tjuta are the home of the earth’s 3rd chakra.
- Glastonbury Tor in England is the earth’s fourth chakra and is also considered, since ancient times to be the spiritual heart of England. The tor itself resembles a seven layer stupa.
- The throat or voice of the planet is the located near the Great Pyramids
- This chakra can shift – it is called the Aeon activation Center. Now it is considered to be in Western Europe. This chakra is the one that opens portals and allows extra-dimensional energy to enter this world.
- Mt. Kailas in the Himalayas in Tibet is considered the ‘roof of the world’ and our earth’s crown chakra.
An individual traveling toward enlightenment, must balance their seven chakras to achieve harmony and peace, balance and healing in their life. In yoga, each pose works to increase the flow of energy into a specific chakra and clear negative energy from it.
As each chakra is associated with a different physical part of our upper body, it is often popular to tattoo the chakras as a line of symbols running up the spinal column.
Interestingly, Dr. Hiroshimi Motoyama has developed a way to measure the chakras of the human body and give them a scientific basis. In 1974 he was recognized by UNESCO as one of the world’s ten foremost parapsychologists.
The Hamsa is a hand-shaped symbol with all five fingers showing and traditionally with a picture of an eye at its center. Hamsa is a Hebrew and Arabic word for five and it is believed that this five represents the five senses of a person. The five fingers are also said to represent five chakras with each finger having its own energy.
- Thumb – solar plexus chakra.
- Forefinger – heart chakra.
- Middle Finger – throat chakra.
- Ring Finger – root chakra.
- Pinkie Finger – sacral chakra.
The Hamsa represents bravery and boldness, and is believed to be a talisman able to ward off evil and negativity, and able to protect and guide, with the ultimate form of protection bestowed when worn on the skin as a tattoo. Some communities believe that the hamsa represents the hand of God.
To some the eye on the hand represents the divine, paternally watching over you and bringing you good luck, but to others it is the evil eye able to place a curse on someone who has too much pride. The original Hamsa symbol is believed to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia before spreading to other regions and cultures around the world.
The hand can be perceived in two different ways. It could be used as a symbol to keep evil away or it could be used to draw good luck.
Tree of Life
The Katha Upanishad, a sacred Hindu text which unveils the secrets of death informs us that,
“There is an eternal tree called the Ashvattha, which has its roots above and its branches below,”
The Tree of Life is a universal symbol found in many spiritual traditions and ancient mythologies around the world. In various cultures it is known as the Cosmic Tree, the World Tree and the Holy Tree.
From yoga masters, to the ancient Druids, and even the Norsemen, all of the old religions knew this tree well. In Norse mythology the tree is called Yggdrasil and the Norse gods lived on one branch while mortals lived on another.
The Tree of Life symbolizes many things, including wisdom, protection, strength, bounty, beauty, and redemption.
The tree of life connects the ground and our physical existence to the skies and the heavens. It creates a unity for all forms of life and mother earth, with the universe. It represents faith and grounding and interconnectedness between all things.
Buddha is a Sanskrit word and title that means ‘the awakened one.’ It represents Siddhartha, an Indian prince who gave up his throne and riches to seek the root of human suffering and the true meaning and happiness in life.
The Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama in Nepal around 2,500 years ago. He was not a god or a prophet. He was a human being who became Enlightened.
He apprenticed for years with religious gurus and went on a six-year journey to share his beliefs surrounding the true way to achieve real peace and fulfillment in life.
During this time he sat down beneath a pipal tree and vowed to stay there until he’d gained Enlightenment. After 40 days, on the full moon in May, Siddhartha finally attained ultimate Freedom.
A Buddha is free from greed, hatred and ignorance, and endowed with wisdom, compassion and freedom. Enlightenment brings insight into the deepest mysteries of life, and into the cause of human suffering which was the problem that had sent him on his spiritual quest.
For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha traveled across much of northern India, spreading his understanding. The teaching of the Buddha is known as the Dharma. Through his teachings many people from all walks of life reached Enlightenment and they in turn taught others. This unbroken chain of teaching has continued all the way to our present day. He reached people from all walks of life and many of his disciples gained Enlightenment. Siddhartha affirmed the potential of every human to reach Buddhahood.
The Buddha symbol represents the journey to enlightenment and offers inspiration and encouragement along the way, for all who look upon it.