Cultivating Symbols for Peace and Harmony

There are positive aspects of symbolism, be it in academics, music, art or nationalism. But there are also many situations where symbols act as negative, repressive and brutal features.

The world is full of symbols – religious, cultural, historical, archaeological, linguistic and nationalistic. Flags are a powerful symbol of a country. Their colours and shapes, stripes and stars represent the history and heritage of a country. For example, the flag of USA with thirteen stripes represent the thirteen original states that had declared their independence from England. The fifty stars signify the number of states that today comprise the United States of America. Flags are allowed to be put up in prominent places of any country. They flow half-mast when there is a serious tragedy in the country or a king, president or prime minister passes away. Thus flags are prominent symbols of peace and harmony of any country.

National anthems are other symbols of countries, and at any special event such as the start of a parliamentary session, or when a new judge of the Supreme Court is appointed, the anthem is sung with great enthusiasm and respect. The national anthem of India “Jana gana mana …” was composed by the eminent poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. Again, country’s anthems usually signify a yearning for peace and prosperity.

Most countries are represented not only by their flags or national anthems but also by some prominent site or building of that country. The White House is a well-recognised symbol of USA. So is the Kremlin of Russia. Eiffel Tower, Hyde ParkCologne Cathedral, Angkor Wat, and Taj Mahal are recognised symbols of France, England, Germany, Cambodia and India respectively. In academia, there are some well-known universities or centres of excellence such as Harvard or Caltech of USA, Cambridge, Oxford and London School of Economics of UK, Sorbonne of France, IITs and IIMs of India etc. These are all recognised symbols of scholarship of the respective countries.

When a person says “I studied in Cambridge” he/she feels proud and is claiming a certain distinction since this institution is recognised all over the world for its excellence which it has maintained for more than seven centuries. It was founded in 1209 and is supposed to be the second oldest university in the English speaking world. Cambridge University’s excellent background is undisputed in terms of its creativity and scholarship and the many Nobel prizes that have been awarded in various fields to its alumni. Some well-known names of the University are Isaac Newton, James Maxwell and several others.

India also had two ancient universities — Taxila and Nalanda. These were deliberately destroyed over the centuries and partly decayed in a natural way. Since these were great academic symbols of ancient India, the latter is being revived again by the Indian government. Taxila is no longer in the present day India. There are now about 330 universities in India, but the condition of most of them is rather deplorable. Except for a few institutes such as in Delhi, Mumbai. Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore, the others do not symbolise the academic excellence of India. Another well-known ancient university is Al Azhar which is a fine academic symbol of Egypt. It earlier used to teach courses in Arabic language and religious studies but today has courses in science and mathematics.

Literary heritage forms another symbol for many countries. Every person would know about literary giants such as William Shakespeare, Jean Paul Sartre, Victor Hugo, Rabindranath Tagore, Leo Tolstoy, Gunter Grass, and Heinrich Boll among the many other poets and novelists. In ancient times some classical Indian writers such as Goswami Tulsidas who compiled Ramcharit Manas stand out for their originality and wisdom. Another great literary figure Kalidas was a writer in the Gupta period (320-550 BCE); he wrote in Sanskrit language and is known as a great dramatist and poet. The Gupta period itself is generally known as a golden period of India and was marked by excellent discoveries in various fields of knowledge and human endeavour. The Gupta period symbolised peace and prosperity in ancient India.

The authorship of Bhagwad Gita is perhaps disputed by some but not its religious and philosophical wisdom. One of the principal characters of Gita,  Lord Krishna, is recognised worldwide as a religious icon, philosopher and a great human being. Lord Krishna and Lord Ram, among the many religious icons the world has known, represent and symbolise the good that is or was India. Similarly, Lord Buddha who was born in Lumbini, Nepal about 2600 years back, received enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree in India, is revered all over the world.

The world knows other religious and pious persons – Lord Jesus, Mother Mary, Nanak Dev, and Mother Theresa. Another great religious figure is Prophet Muhammad who established Islam that is now a powerful religious force all over the world.

Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Salvador Dali brought glory and fame to their respective countries with their unique styles of art and paintings. Vincent Van Gogh who lived and painted in France, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse are other giants in their fields.

What I have written above suggests positive aspects of symbolism, be it in academics, music, art or nationalism. But there are many situations where symbols act as negative, repressive and brutal features. One example is the holocaust which represents Nazism at its nadir – how Hitler exterminated millions of Jews and led to a large exodus of Jews to many countries — USA, Canada, UK, Australia etc. Other tragic events took place in the Soviet Union, Vietnam, China and India, to name a few regions, where brutality and killings occurred all in the name of some symbolic attachment to some ism or the other. Today we are witnessing the extreme narrow-mindedness and murder by Boko Haram and lately by ISIS. They hold extreme views and do not want to compromise in any way with others. They shoot, kill, behead people whom they believe to be against their narrow ideas of the religion. One should not call their ideology religion since Islam signifies peace and brotherhood and does not propagate the mass killings and murders taking place every day in one part of the world or another. How can such extreme and narrow-minded symbolism be addressed? This is a difficult question, but one needs to ponder over its consequences.

There are other less extreme forms of negative symbolism—smoking or drinking or large scale consumerism that is rampant in today’s world. Consumerism which is considered a symbol of modernity inevitably leads to excessive exploitation of our nature and of air, land and rivers. There are contrary perspectives about this issue. The state believes that development needs various infra projects. But for the local people it means displacement from their ancestral lands and becoming homeless.  This is leading to resistance movement which is a struggle between the pro-development ideology and fighting for one’s homelands and lifestyles.

Let us remember and fortify our good symbols. Let us avoid the pitfall of extreme negative, repressive and harmful symbolism that is becoming an inevitable part of modern life. (Source: Transcend Media Service (TMS)


By Dr. Ravi P. Bhatia
(Dr. Ravi P. Bhatia is an Educationist, Peace Researcher, and Retired Professor, Delhi University)