In the modern world, vehicles are seen as the status or power symbol of the person riding it more than a mere means of transportation. In Hindu iconography, positive aspects of the vehicle are often representative of the deity that it carries. The vehicle of a particular deity in Hinduism has symbolic and philosophical significance. The symbolic meaning varies from deity to deity.
These Vahana are the representation of the various energies (animal energies) that exists in the universe as well as in human beings and they need to be controlled and channel properly so as to transform ourselves spiritually.
Below is a list of Hindu gods and goddesses and their respective ‘vahanas’:
- Aditya (Sun God) – Seven Horses
- Agni – The Ram
- Brahma – Hamsa (Swan)
- Durga – The Lion
- Ganesha – The Mouse
- Indra – The Elephant
- Subramanya – The Peacock
- Maha Lakshmi – The Owl
- Saraswati – The Swan or The Peacock
- Shani – The Crow
- Shiva – Nandi, The Bull
- Varuna – Seven Swans
- Vayu – A Thousand Horses
- Vishnu – Garuda: The Eagle & Adi Shesha: The Serpent
- Yama – The Male Buffalo
Vishnu – According to various Puranas, Vishnu is the ultimate omnipresent reality and one of the most important Gods among the Trinity. Vishnu’s vahana is the eagle King named Garuda. Garuda is depicted as having the golden body of a strong man with a white face, red wings, and an eagle’s beak and with a crown on his head. This ancient deity was said to be massive, large enough to block out the sun. Throughout the Mahabharata, Garuda is invoked as a symbol of impetuous violent force, of speed, and of martial prowess. Garuda symbolises the space element and the power of the sun, which can dry up the water. Hence Garuda is the natural enemy of snakes and he devours or controls them. He represents the spiritual energy of which devours the delusions of jealousy and hatred, which are represented by the snake. Garuda is also the openness: he can stretch out his wings and soar into space. Garuda represents the human thoughts which can fly in all directions at incredible speed. Lord Vishnu can help us to control our thoughts.
Another name for Garuda is “Veda atma”; Soul of the Vedas. The flapping of his wings symbolizes the power of the Divine Truth of Vedic wisdom. Also the eagle represents the soul. Garuda carrying Vishnu symbolizes the soul or jiva-atma carrying the Super soul or Param atma within it.
Lord Vishnu is seated on Adi Shesha, the serpent god, who represents the desire consciousness in us. The serpent Anantha represents thoughts, endless thoughts that pass through our minds all the time. That is why it has thousand hoods symbolising thousands and thousands of thoughts passing through our minds at any given time. In many pictures, the serpent is shown with five hoods, which represents our five senses, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching, based on which our thoughts are generated. Lord Vishnu can help us either to fulfil these desires or control them.
Vishnu is shown wearing two earrings: The earrings represent inherent opposites in creation — knowledge and ignorance; happiness and unhappiness; pleasure and pain. Similarly his vehicles also represent the inherent opposites in creation – Garuda and the snake Shesha.
Lord Shiva represents the aspect of the Supreme Being that continuously dissolves to recreate in the cyclic process of creation, preservation, dissolution and recreation of the universe. Lord Shiva is the Lord of mercy and compassion. He protects devotees from evil forces such as lust, greed, and anger. He grants boons, bestows grace and awakens wisdom in His devotees. Lord Siva rides the Bull, Nandi, which stands for the bullying, aggressive, blind and brute power in man. The bull symbolizes both power and ignorance. It also stands for unbridled sexual energy, Kama. Only Lord Siva can help us control these and transform them. Lord Shiva’s use of the bull as a vehicle conveys the idea that He removes ignorance and bestows power of wisdom on His devotees. Have you seen villains in Hindi movies, they are generally shown as physically strong persons with lack of intelligence or thinking power. They are the bulls, if under control will do whatever the master wants, or else it can destroy you also.
Brahma – The god of creation is called Brahma. Brahma, the infinite, the source of all space, time, causation, names and forms, has many interesting and instructive designations. Brahma is usually seen carrying the Vedas, a sceptre, a string of prayer beads, a water pot a spoon used in making offerings in the fire sacrifice, or a bow. Brahma is usually portrayed with four heads and four arms.
Brahma’s vahana is a hamsa or a swan. The bird hamsa is very beautiful, peaceful and graceful. It is suggestive of the fact that Brahma is the master of all the beauty and grace in the world, and He can help us in our effort to acquire these qualities. Hamsa also has more attributes, like being treated as symbol of purity, detachment, divine knowledge, cosmic breath (prana) and highest spiritual accomplishment. Such a high level of symbolism was attached to hamsa as it transcends the limitations of the creation around it: it can walk on the earth (prithvi), fly in the sky, and swim in the water.
This divine bird is bestowed with a virtue called Neera-Ksheera Viveka or the ability to separate milk and water from a mixture of the two. The significance of this is that justice should be dispensed to all creatures, however entwined it might be in a situation. Also, this virtue indicates that one should learn to separate the good from the evil and then accept that which is valuable and discard that which is worthless or evil.
The word “Hamsa” is a combination of two words, “aham”+ “sa”, which mean “I am He”. This awareness is that God exists only in enlightened persons. Rightly Brahma is the friend and philosopher of all the enlightened beings in the world and he has the power to give us this knowledge about our true nature. In view of the association of a hamsa with several attributes as indicated above, saints and other holy persons are given the title of paramahamsa, that is, the supreme hamsa. This title is affixed before the name and symbolizes that the particular person has reached a high level of spirituality and grace, such as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Lakshmi – “Goddess of Fortune and Wealth” – Lakshmi represents the beautiful and bountiful aspect of nature. As Bhoodevi, the earth-goddess, she nurtures life; as Shreedevi, the goddess of fortune, she bestows power, pleasure and prosperity on those who deserve her grace. To realize her, one must respect the laws of life and appreciate the wonders of existence.
Shri Maha Lakshmi rides on an owl called Uluka. The owl is a solitary creature that remains awake in darkness and asleep during the day time. It rarely trust human beings and seldom seen in the company of any other bird. It in fact stays away from people as if it has no interest in the humanity. Those who pursue riches should be aware of these negative qualities and pray to Shri Mahalakshmi so that she would inculcate in them the qualities of trust, generosity and social responsibility and would make them popular among people. She would also help them come out of the darkness of ignorance, avarice and selfishness, which are generally associated with the pursuit of materialism. The owl is also regarded as an inauspicious image by the Hindus, who believe that if an owl visits a house in which people live, it is an ill omen. Shri Mahalakshmi with her grace can remove all negative, inauspicious and adverse influences from our lives. If someone is suffering from adversity, they should pray to her because she, who controls all ill-omens and adversities, can ward them off and bring them prosperity. Thus She has rightly been shown as using a rare bird like an owl as her vehicle. According to one Christian tradition, owls represent the wisdom. Owl represents wisdom and knowledge because their nocturnal vigilance is associated with that of the studious scholar or wise elder.
Parvati – “Daughter of the Mountain” – The goddess that is Shiva’s wife in her most gentle form is called Parvati. Parvati is depicted as a beautiful woman. The Unconquerable and splendid manifestation of Parvati is known as Durga. Durga has the role of a warrior goddess who destroys demons. She is usually depicted with ten arms that hold the weapons of the various gods and contain within her the power of all the gods combined. She is the invincible power of Nature who triumphs over those who seek to subjugate her. Durga’s vahana is a lion. Her lion acts as her means of transportation and one of her many weapons. Lion stands for cruelty, mercilessness, anger, violence and hostility towards other beings. Pravathi with her grace can help man to control all these qualities in him and become an enlightened being like Lord Siva.
Saraswati – “The Goddess of Wisdom” – Saraswati, the goddess of art, music and learning, usually holds a book and a stringed instrument called a veena. She is the river of consciousness that enlivens creation and dispels the darkness of ignorance. Without her there is only chaos and confusion. To realize her one must go beyond the pleasures of the senses and rejoice in the serenity of the spirit. Saraswati’s vahana is a peacock or a swan. The peacock represents arrogance and pride over its beauty, and by having a peacock as her mount, the Goddess teaches Hindus not to be concerned with external appearance and to be wise regarding the eternal truth. The peacock also eats snakes, which symbolically means that she can help those who are accustomed to eating desires or for a better expression pursuing desires, by providing them with the divine knowledge and learning for which she is famous. The peacock is a graceful and beautiful bird and is known for its dance before the rain. This denotes that Shri Saraswati can immensely help those who want to pursue art and dance. Devi Saraswati is also shown riding a hamsa and the details are given above as the vehicle of Brahma.
Ganesh – “The remover of obstacles” – The chubby, gentle, wise, elephant-headed Ganesha, is one of Hinduisms most popular deities. He is the remover of obstacles, the deity whom worshippers first acknowledge when they visit a temple. He is usually shown in sculpture accompanied by or riding a rat. Since rats are seen as being capable of gnawing their way through most things, the rat symbolizes Ganesh’s ability to destroy every obstacle.
In India the rat, like the fox of our western tales, represents trick, cleverness, sagacity and political slyness. Therefore, as normally, the rat has been first conquered, then mastered and occupied by the One who is the incarnation of spiritual strength. After all, the rat had to bow to Ganesh, his Master, more efficient to guide him than his own insight.
At the Ganesh feet, on the ground, fruits or other food are often arranged. Near these offerings, the Ganesh rat is watching, standing on his back paws. The rat does not touch this food but looks at Ganesh to beg His permission. Food represents the properties, power and well-being. When a man uses to follow high principles in his life, prosperity may come naturally to him. Whatever prosperities are or are not at his disposal, this does not change anything in his mental attitude: he remains indifferent to these facilities. The rat symbolizes desire. This animal has a very small mouth and minute sharp teeth, but he is the most ravenous of all the animals. His greediness and eagerness are so strong that he robs more than he can eat and that he collects more than he may remember, so that he often leaves inadvertently burrows full of stock grains. This prominent characteristic of the rat fully justify that he is the symbol of greediness. Likewise, a small desire pervading the man’s mind may destroy all the achievements that he got for years on the material and spiritual levels. Therefore, looking up to Ganesh, the rat demonstrates that desires are fully controlled by a wise man.
Activities of a man having got these spiritual achievements are rather directed by his ability of discrimination and sound judgement than by the sensitive and irresistible wish to enjoy the whole collection of worldly things. Therefore, just as a mouse stealthily enters within things and destroys them from inside, unnoticed selfishness penetrates in our mind and quietly ruins all our undertakings. He can be used profitably only when he is mastered by a divine wisdom.
You may wonder how a small mouse can carry on its back a hefty personality like Ganesha. Here mooshika does not mean a mere mouse. It symbolises the darkness of ignorance because it is in darkness that the mouse moves about. Hence, Mooshika Vahana or Ganesha is one who subdues ignorance and dispels darkness. This also teaches us how humble and modest one should be. Ganesha in spite of his huge physical, mental and intellectual prowess conducts and carries himself so lightly that he can very well be carried by a very very small (compared to the size of Ganesha) and insignificant being-the mouse.
Additionally, our thoughts multiply many fold when left uncontrolled. Like mice attacking in the night, they stealthily attack us in the darkness of our ignorance. Ganesh seated on the mouse signifies His crushing our negative thoughts when we surrender our lives to Him. Our minds are extremely fickle and tend to run around here and there, completely leaving our control on it! Achieving control is a sign of great wisdom. The mouse at Ganesha’s feet signifies that He can bring our minds under his control and bestow grace and plentitude on us. Bowing to the Vighneswara’s also allows us to gain control over our minds, thereby, getting beyond our vighnas as well! The mooshika, staying at the Lord’s feet permanently, signifies the steady mind forever being in prayerful attitude, leaving aside all negativity and ultimately attaining bliss and oneness with Him.
Lord Subramanya’s lddPeacock represents as Vahana symbolising his conquest over ego, vanity and pride. Eyes of the peacock represents both SATH( existing) and ASATH ( non-Existence) This indicates “Maya”( Illusion) and the Lord has total control over ‘Maya’.
The Seven Horses – Surya’s vahana – Horses portray power, arrogance and speed. The Sun God’s seven horses represent the seven sins and his control over the same. It also represents the way we need to control our base emotions so as to climb further and higher in the spiritual realm of our own lives.
Surya’s seven horses also represent the seven chakras or spiritual centres in our subtle body, the blossoming of which leads to the rising of the power of Kundalini or the serpentine energy residing within us.