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The History and Symbolism of India’s National Emblem; The Lion Capital of Ashoka

The Lion Capital of Sarnath has always been India’s National emblem since independence. It’s all pervasive for any Indian starting from the coins and currency note to nearly every Government Document. Hence, Indians seem to forget its real meaning and take it for granted. Until the recent controversy regarding the replica built before the new parliament building nobody cared much.

Modern India adopts the Ashokan message of upholding equality and social justice in all spheres of life.

The original Lion Capital of Ashoka, 3rd century BCE, Sarnath Museum.

The symbol was erected at Sarnath atop the pillar proclaiming Ashoka’s edicts. On the capital four Asiatic lions stand back-to-back on a base that depicts other animals as well as the dharmachakra, the Buddhist wheel of the law comprising of 24 spokes, which became the ‘Ashoka Chakra’ on the National Flag, sitting on a base of an inverted lotus. The capital was installed atop the pillar in 250 BCE, by the order of Emperor Ashoka.

The Symbolism of the various elements

The Lions

The lions in the pillar symbolises the proclamation of the emperor’s dedication to uphold the dharma. According to Buddhism, the lions are meant to spread the words of the Buddha throughout the four directions. The lions were also the symbol of the 24th Jain Tirthankara Mahavira, whose message of ahimsa is roared by the lions in all four directions. Through the symbol, modern India adopts the Ashokan message of upholding equality and social justice in all spheres of life.

The lion capital excavated at Sarnath in 1904-05.

The wheels proclaiming that the Nation is ready for its future with open minds.

The Animals

The cylindrical base atop which the four lions sit are adorned by four animals.  The representation of a horse, a bull, a lion and an elephant. Originally, these animals meant the four stages of the Buddha’s life. While there is also a claim that they also represent the four parts of Emperor Ashoka’s reign of his empire. These animals also are represented to be pushing the wheels forward and just like it to make India move forward.

The Dharmachakra

In the abacus the animals are separated by 24 spoked Chakra(wheels).  This is a prominent Buddhist symbol signifying the wheel of law and the 24 qualities of a righteous life, those being-

Anurāga (Love), Parākrama (Courage), Dhairya (Patience), Śānti (Peace/charity), Mahānubhāvatva (Magnanimity), Praśastatva(Goodness), Śraddāna(Faith), Apīḍana (Gentleness), Niḥsaṃga (Selflessness), Ātmniyantranā (Self-Control), Ātmāhavana(Self Sacrifice), Satyavāditā(Truthfulness) Dhārmikatva (Righteousness), Nyāyā (Justice), Ānṛśaṃsya (Mercy), Chāya (Gracefulness) Amānitā (Humility), Prabhubhakti (Loyalty), Karuṇāveditā (Sympathy), Ādhyātmikajñāna (Spiritual Knowledge), Mahopekṣā (Forgiveness), Akalkatā(Honesty). Anāditva (Eternity), Apekṣā (Hope). 

For the modern India it represents moving forward in life and thus one avoids stagnation of the mind. Thus, proclaiming that the Nation is ready for its future with open minds.

The Chakra as in the National Flag of India

‘Satyameva Jayate’ stands for “Only truth prevails”

The Lotus

At the base is an inverted lotus, the most omnipresent symbol of Buddhism, and India’s National Flower. This is however, not part of the Emblem. The lotus has always been a symbol of purity in Indian culture and has been prominent in Buddhist symbolism throughout.

The National Motto

‘Satyameva Jayate’ is represented below the Sarnath capital in the National Symbol of India. The phrase is from Mundaka Upanishad that is embedded in the Atharva Veda, one of the four primary Hindu scriptures. The phrase means “Only truth prevails”. So, the motto of the Nation is to commit itself to upholding the truth above all else.

सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं सत्येन पन्था विततो देवयानः ।
येनाक्रमन्त्यृषयो ह्याप्तकामा यत्र तत् सत्यस्य परमं निधानम् ॥
Truth alone triumphs; not falsehood.
Through truth the divine path is spread out
By which the sages whose desires have been completely fulfilled,
Reach to where is that supreme treasure of Truth.

Being compassionate and caring to both the fellow beings and the nature at large is also significant in the symbol.

How India got its symbol

During the time of independence, the nationalist leaders knew that India needed a symbol to represent itself. In 1947, the symbol was suggested by Badruddin Tyabji, a civil servant and his wife Surrayya Tyabji, who even did the final design on the current national flag of India. Artist Dinanath Bhargava, then a student at Shantiniketan was tasked with designing the final emblem; he sketched it onto the first page of the Indian Constitution under the mentorship of Nandalal Bose.

Conclusion

In short, the National symbol of India has an overlooked history that’s both spiritual and fascinating. The symbol also recalls the past of the country and its long culture. The nation as the birthplace of Buddhism and the religion’s focus on being compassionate and caring to both the fellow beings and the nature at large is also significant in the symbol. Hence, it is representative of India’s rich history as well.

The horse motif on the capital.

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