The Symbolism of the Stupa

The Symbolism of the Stupa

Item Code: IDD263
Author: Adrian Snodgrass
Publisher: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 978812080785
Pages: 474
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.9" x 7.8"
(b&w.illus.: 661)weight of the book: 934 gms
Weight 930 gm

The stupa is a symbolic form that pullulates throughout South, Southeast, and East Asia. In the Indian manifestations it is an extreme case in terms of architectural function; it has no usable interior space and its construction has a basic simplicity. In this "State of the art" study Adrian Snodgrass reads the stupa as a cultural artifact. The monument concretizes metaphysical principles and generates multivalent meanings in ways that can be articulated with literary texts others architectural forms.

Mr. Snodgrass came to his scholarly studies by a route increasingly untravelled in the second half of the twentieth century. Trained as an architect, he is self-taught in the complexities of the Asian cultures that interest him. At the age of twenty-five he went to India and Sri Lanka where he lived and worked for more than six years and acquired knowledge of Tamil and Sanskrit. He then spent seven years in Japan where he taught English and learned Chinese, followed by two years each in Indonesia and Hong Kong. He returned to Australia in 1976 and now holds a joint appointment in religious studies and architecture at the University of Sydney. He is currently finishing a doctoral dissertation, using Chinese, Indic, pre-Columbian, African, Christian and Islamic materials to analyze how temporal concepts and cycles of time are incorporated in buildings. Another as yet unpublished work, based on Chinese and Japanese sources, is a massive study of two mandalas in Shingon Buddhism.



In the traditional Indian view a building, if it is properly conceived, satisfies both a physical and a metaphysical indigence. It has a twofold function: it provides "commodity, firmness and delight" so as to serve man's psycho-somatic, emotional and aesthetic needs, and also serves him intellectually, acting as a support for the contemplation of supra-empirical principles.

In this view an adequately designed building will building will embody meaning. It will express the manner in which the phenomenal world relates to the Real and how the one "fragments" into multiplicity; it will carry intimations of the non-duality (Advaita) of the sensible and the supra – sensible domains. The fully functioning building will aid the attainment of the state of intellectual consciousness that the Indian traditions consider to constitute the goal and perfection of human life, that non-differentiated awareness or state of being "in which there is no longer any distinction of knower from known, or being from knowing".

To the extent that the building embodies meanings conducive to an intellectual vision of the non-duality of principal Unity and manifested multiplicity, it functions as a symbol, that is to say, as a "representation of reality on a certain level of reference by a corresponding reality on another". The belief that the building is capable of performing this symbolic function is founded on the Indian doctrine that there exists an analogous, or anagogical correspondence between the physical and the metaphysical orders of reality, that the sensible world is a similitude of the intellectual, in such a way that, "This world is the image of that, and vice versa". Everything that exists derives its reality from a transcendent, supra-empirical principal and translates or express that principle in accordance with the limitations and modalities that characterize its own level of existence. The orders of reality, that is, the multiple states of being and the multiple states of existence, are so many reflections one of the other, since each in turn is a reflection of the Unity whence it derives. This being so the objects of our sensory experience are seen as so many images or reflections, in varying degrees of obscuration, of paradigmatic forms existing at higher levels, and the laws operating at a lower domain can be taken to symbolize realities belonging to a superior order, "wherein resides their own profoundest cause, which is at once their principle and their end".

In one sense all things that exist – images, word, language, physical and mental phenomena – are symbols of the supra – empirical levels of reality. Every existent thing is the "reflection" of an archetypal form. In contrast to its accidental or actual form, which is its material cause, every thing also has an exemplary and essential Form, "the purely intellectual and immaterial cause of the thing being what it is as well as the means whereby it is known". The essential Form and the material substance of the entity respectively constitute its intelligible and sensible aspects, that by which it is recognized from other things, and that which gives it its perceptible existence. By the fact that it partakes of an essence or is the reflection of an essential archetype, every phenomenal entity is "not only what it is visibly but also what it represents – so that man may find in any object whatever an intimation of the supra – sensible reality that informs it". That is to say, every object of the senses or of thought is a symbol.

In a more specific and restricted sense, however, there is also a deliberate and calculated symbolism, one that crystallizes the doctrinal teachings of a tradition in the form of a prescribed figurative or spatial representation. From this arises the convention of confining the term "symbol" to objects or images which pertain directly to doctrinal formulations, and I which the symbolic content is clearly and explicitly manifest. Symbols, in this more specific sense, are clearer and more perfect reflections of principial relationships and processes, more cogent, direct and succinct expressions of transcendent truths, than are the generality of things. They possess dimensions of meaning and a resonance of significance lacking in ordinary objects.

These latter symbols, possessed of greater transparency than the usual run of sensible entities, are characterized by "adequacy", by an efficacy in producing in a qualified and receptive person an adaequatio rei et intellectus, which is to say a condition of true, intellectual knowledge. They are capable of provoking a recollection of a supra-mundane paradigm and, by that fact, are imbued with the sacred.

The adequate, or sacred symbol is deemed to have been "given"; it is revealed to the tradition from a non-human sources. It is adequate precisely of imagined or supposed resemblances, but is a true imitation of a supernal exempla, "not a matter of illusory resemblances, but of proportion, true analogy and adequacy, by which we are reminded of the intended referent". An adequate symbol is "true, analogical, accurate, canonical, hieratic, anagogic and archetypal".

It is seen that the term "symbol" as it used in the Indian context and as it is understood in this study, has a significance quite other than that given it in everyday language, by psycho-analysis, linguistics, "symbolist" art or in the current semiological theories of architecture. In these, what are termed "Symbols" indicate something within the empirical; world, knowable by the senses of conceivable by the mind, so that the symbol and its referent stand at the same level of reality, whereas here is is taken to indicate a referent that stands at a supra – empirical level, where it cannot be known by sense perception or by thought or by any means other than by analogy. In its Indian meaning the symbol points beyond itself, to a domain that transcends the sensible and the rational. The symbol (from GK. Sym + ballo, 'to throw together", suggesting the way the symbol carries the mind to its referent) in the Indian sense is anagogic (from Gk. anago, "to lead up to"), leading the understanding upward to a metaphysical meaning. Whereas symbols, as understood in contemporary thought, have but one level of reference, in Indian thought they have two: in Indian iconography, for example, the lotus refers on one level to the flower of our sensible experience, while on the other it means the Waters of All – Possibility, a concept that that it totally unsusceptible to any direct representation.

Architectural forms are eminently appropriate to act as symbols. Every symbolic construct is of necessity ground in the phenomenal; the ascent to exemplary levels must begin from the base of our sensible experience, must be expressed in the mode of the knower. In our world space occupies a fundamental position in our awareness; it is a primary datum of our consciousness of the corporeal world, and yet it itself ethereal and of a most rarefied corporeality. As such it is a suitable medium for conveying metaphysical notions and, as this study will show, spatial analogies and metaphors abound in the Brahmanic and Buddhist literatures: the properties of space provide a cogent means for symbolic expression. Space is also the medium and first concern of architecture, and buildings, perhaps more fully and more directly than any other art form, are capable of rendering spatial concepts in sensible forms. By way of its manipulation of space the built form incorporates an adequate symbolism.

In traditional India, therefore, architecture is viewed as symbolic in both content and import. It acts as an intellectual bridge between the visible and the invisible, the corporeal and the formless, the expressible and the ineffable; it affirms the analogical correspondence of the orders of reality; it is intended to function both physically and metaphysically; and its forms are largely determined by the exigencies of intellectual speculation and contemplation. The architectural work embodies in a tangible form, that is to say corporealizes, what is intangible and incorporeal. As a symbol it is a formal expression in and through which a supra – formal reality is perceived. It belongs to that "real art", which "is one of symbolic and significant representation, representation of things that cannot be seen except by the intellect".

The aim of this study is to exemplify, by way of the stupa, the manner in which the spatial forms of Indian and Indian – influenced architecture and symbols and function to express metaphysical notions. The stupa is particularly suited for this purpose since it clearly shows the spatial conformations that carry the main symbolic content of Indian buildings: a defined centre, an axis, orientation, a precise and succinct geometry, and the use of basic symbolic forms, such as the square and the circle and the cube and the sphere. The stupa also has advantage as a subject for the study of Indian architectural symbolism in that it is, in terms of its architectural function, an extreme case; it has no usable interior space and its construction is of basic simplicity, obviating explanations of its form as resulting from functional or structural necessity. On the contrary, it exists solely to satisfy the needs of symbolism and it has a clear and unambiguous metaphysical reference. In the stupa, therefore, the operation of symbolism as a determinant of architectural form can be viewed in sharp focus; in the stupa we can see, in their uncomplicated simplicity, symbolic patterns that are equally applicable, mutatis mutandis , to the layout of other Indian building forms, from cities and towns, to palaces, houses and temples.


This study attempts to analyse a pattern of interrelated meanings generated by the form of the stupa. It does so by reference to myth, to ritual and to doctrine, viewing the architectural form from within the conceptual framework of the tradition to which it belongs. This approach involves questions of aim and methodology.

The referent of the symbol, lying in the transcendent realms of archetypal paradigms, is ineffable: in the last analysis the meaning of the stupa cannot be expressed. The symbol, however, refers not only to realities of the principial order, but also to realities belonging to a superimposed hierarchy of levels and to realities belonging to any one from among those levels. The symbol contains a plurality of meanings; it is multivalent both vertically and horizontally. A causal relationship operates between the levels' the higher ones act as secondary causes to those that lie below, and since an effect expresses something that inheres within the nature of the cause, the things of the lower level participate in those of the higher, and can therefore be taken to represent them. This is the vertical multivalence of the symbol.

The symbol also has a plurality of meanings on the horizontal level. Every symbol forms part of a schema of interlocking referents; it forms part of a pattern of concordant interrelationships. It does not stand in isolation but interconnects with other symbols, which fit together to form a mutually reinforcing web of meaning. A deeper understanding of a symbol is gained by studying the grid or net formed by its symbolic homologues. The pattern of meaning that emerges from the juxtaposition of cognate symbols does not exhaust the significance of the symbol, which, as we have seen, is ultimately beyond words, but it reinforces its intimations, indicating a logical cohesion and integrity which in itself is an intimation of the all – pervasiveness of Principle. It is precisely this pattern of inter – reflecting symbols that his study attempts to delineate. By bringing together cognate symbols in apposition, that is, symbols that have the "field" of symbolic interactions which the stupa generates.

The metaphor of the Net of Indra given in the Hua Yen (Jap. Kegon) school of Buddhism indicates the nature of this process of discerning pattern in symbolic constructs. The Net, which hangs in Indra's Palace, has a jewel at each of the crossings of its threads. Each of these jewels reflects each and every other jewel and is in turn reflected in each of time. Symbolic correlates form a similar net: an exegetical analysis of a symbol's homologues throws light on the symbol; and as its meanings are thus clarified it in turn illuminates the other symbols. Further, the discernment of interlocking and inter-reflecting patterns is integrative; in the same way that the many jewels of the Net are reflected or "focused" within a single jewel, so all symbolic constructs can be found within the single symbol studied and can be unified within it. Thus Eliade can say that "the search for symbolic structures is not a work of reduction but of integration. We compare or contrast two expressions of a symbol not in order to reduce them to a single, pre-existing expression, but in order to discover the process whereby a structure is likely to assume enriched meanings".

The net of symbolic cognates is formed not only by visual and spatial symbols, but also by symbolic constructs expressed in other modes; myth, which symbol expressed in a verbal or narrative from; ritual, which expresses the symbolic concepts by gestures and words; and doctrine, which expresses them conceptually.

What the architectural symbol is spatially the myth is verbally. The one expresses the supra-physical referent in a geometric or figurative mode the other in a verbal and narrative mode. As used here the word "myth" is not, as in popular speech, synonymous with "fable", meaning an untrue story. It is, on the contrary, used in its strict etymological sense; whereas "fable", from Lat. Fabula, derives from fari, "to speak" "myth" is from the GK. muthos, which derives from the root mu, "to speak with the lips closed", which is to say silently. This suggests the true nature of myth: it is a spoken narrative that refers to silence and the inexpressible. As do graphic symbols, the myth affirms the silence that lies beyond words: the narrator of the myth remains silent while speaking.

Understood in this sense, myth: is "the proper language of metaphysics" and "represents the deepest knowledge man has". Myth unveils a mystery and reveals a primordial cosmogenetic act; it "reveals more profoundly than any rational experience ever could the actual presence of the divinity which transcends all attributes and reconciles all contraries". Therefore to speak of the Buddha's life as a "myth" is not pejorative but is rather an affirmation of its timeless significance, since "a myth is true now, or it was never true at all" and "myth spins out into a tale that is simultaneous and eternal".

Ritual is similarly symbolic. Myth, symbol and the rite are strictly linked. Every rite incorporates a symbolic meaning; it is a repetition of the sacred actions described in the myths, expressed by way of a series of gestures and words. The actions performed in the ritual – bodily and auditory – are symbols "put into action"; every ritual gesture is a symbol "acted". In reverse, the graphic representation of a symbol is a fixation of a ritual gesture and also as in the delineation of the stupa plan described in the following the drawing of a symbol is itself a rite. Rites, myths and symbols are various, closely interlocking expressions of a single reality.

Likewise, in the Buddhist view, the canonical texts, the sutras and commentaries which are a main source for this study, are also symbols. This concept is conveyed by the Mahayana doctrine that the teachings are not the Truth in any absolute sense but are expedients (upaya) to aid men to an understanding of the Real.

The network of homologous symbols, myths, rituals and doctrines that can be delineated by a process of comparative juxtaposition is capable of indefinite extension. Since all symbols within a tradition are so many variant reflections of one and the same Principle, they are all interconnected by way of this common reference, so that the analysis of the pattern of homologies generated from a given symbol as datum, if taken for enough, will eventually extend out to include all the symbolic forms of the whole tradition and even further to include the symbolic forms of all traditions, Guenon, Coomaraswamy, Eliade and others have traced the manifold correspondence and parallels that exist for various symbolic expressions among geographically and chronologically divergent peoples, demonstrating the universality of the web of symbolic affinities. Given the unlimited extent of this field of interconnected meanings, it is necessary to establish bound to the analysis, and here it has been limited to materials from Brahmanic and Buddhist sources. Space permitting, however, these materials could be matched by cognates and homologues from a wide range of cultures, Many of the symbolic configurations demonstrated by reference to the stupa apply to architecture universally and, in the analogy of a philosophia perennis , it is possible to speak of a body of architectural principles that are of universal application. In this view the regional styles of architecture are dialects of a single architectural language.

The stupa is a Buddhist building, but the field of analytical enquiry has been extended beyond the borders of Buddhism to include the symbolic formulations of Brahmanism. The Brahmanic texts are a particularly rich source of explanatory material and an appeal to them of indications of the meanings of the Buddhist formulae follows a precendent set by scholars of the caliber of Coomaraswamy, Mus, and many others, who not only demonstrated the interrelatedness and continuity of Brahmanic and Buddhist formulations but showed that they derive from a common cultural source. Insofar as architectural symbols and rituals and rituals are concerned we are justified in speaking of an Indian rather than a specifically Brahmanic or Buddhist tradition.

This approach admittedly runs the risk of "denaturing" the specific content of the symbol – in the present case the specifically Buddhist significance of the stupa – but it can be argued that "it is only through the use of universal conceptions making possible significant critical comparisons between singulars of the same kind that we are able to discover and express clearly what is distinctive of the singular phenomenon", and "An emphasis of universal religious structure need not reduce or compromise that which is singular".

In the Indian view the symbol has a horizontal reference that is indefinitely extended and a vertical reference that is truly infinite. An exegesis that does justice to the fullness of the symbol in both its horizontal and vertical dimensions will leave its meaning "open" and not confine it within the limiting configuration of a closed hypothesis. The nature of the symbol precludes a reductionist methodology.

When, for example, texts are cited to show that the stupa axis is homologous with the World Tree, this is not to be taken (as it was by Bosch) to show that the stupa is "nothing but" a development of tree imagery or that the stupa can be fully explained by this single reference. In the same way, the many references to the sun in connection with the stupa are not to be taken (as they were by Senart) as indicating that the stupa form arose exclusively as a three dimensional diagram of solar movements. By contrast, to retain the "openness" of the stupa symbolism, the Tree and the Sun are to be seen as parts of a scheme or pattern of interlocking and mutually reflecting symbols, no one of which predominates in significance over the others. Far from being self-sufficient as an explanation, the Tree is merely one among a number of equivalent and interchangeable axial symbols – Mountain, Pillar, Cosmic Person, the Vajra, etc., - whose referent is beyond themselves and is only to be known by a direct, intellectual insight. So likewise, when the spatial configuration of the stupa is referred to the movement of the sun or the other heavenly bodies, it is to be understand that the astronomical movement are not the "meaning of the symbol but another interlocking schema of Symbolic expression, in which the celestial phenomena are in turn taken to represent, by way of analogy, principles of a supra-physical order.

Approaching the study of the stupa from within the Buddhist tradition and with the intention of deciphering the pattern of symbolic constructs that it generates presupposes a synchronic method of analysis.

According to the traditional Indian concepts of the symbol, meanings are not "read into" symbols or added to them as a conceptual garnish. On the contrary, they are deemed to inhere within the form of the symbol in a manner analogous to that in which natural laws inhere within physical phenomena, or as mathematical principles reside in the very nature of numerical or geometrical phenomena. The significance of the stupa form, for example, is integral with the form itself, and lies there prior to its perception. This is one sense in which every religion and tradition ascribes a "non-human" origin to sacred symbols. Their principle traces back further and higher than to the constructs of the human mind. Because of this "the 'validity' of the symbol does not depend on its being understood; archetypal symbolisms preserve their structures and 'reappear spontaneously', even if not consciously understood". The symbol addresses not only the waking consciousness but the whole man; "symbols speak to the whole human being and not only to the intelligence". Symbols communicate their "messages" even if the conscious mind remains unaware of the fact.

This being so, the hermeneutic of a symbolic from such as the stupa is freed from the necessity of asking "how many individuals in a certain society and at a given historical moment understood all the meanings and implications of that symbol". If the stupa can be shown to have clearly expressed a meaning at a certain moment of its history one is justified in supposing that the meaning inhered within its form at an earlier epoch, even if not consciously perceived or explicitly affirmed in the writings of those who built it. In the same way, meanings continue to inhere within the stupa eve when they have been forgotten by later generations. "The 'cipher' of a symbolism carries in its composition all the values that man has progressively discovered in the course of centuries …" and "history does not basically modify the structure of an archetypal symbol".

These considerations are deemed sufficient to justify a non-historical and a – temporal exegesis of the symbolism of the stupa. The stupa itself provides the model for this methodological approach. The stupa plan, as will be shown, is a diagram of synchronicity; in the plan time is 'fixed' crystallized, rendered static; it is transmuted from a sequential and successive mode to an instantaneous pattern of relationships. The four seasons, for example, are "frozen" into the geometric configuration of the oriented cross; and in this cross they are seen in their momentaneity. So similarly, the aim of this study is to show the :successive" meanings of the stupa in their immediate, "spatial" pattern, as a structural lattice or web which, as does the symbol itself, lies beyond the limitations of historical contingency.

From the Jacket

In his preface to The Symbolism of the Stupa Prof. Craig Reynolds writes, "The stupa is a symbolic form that pullulates throughout South, Southeast and East Asia. In its Indian manifestations it is an extreme case in terms of architectural function: it has no usable interior space and its construction has a basic simplicity. In this 'state of the art' study Adrian Snodgrass reads the stupa as a cultural artifact. The monument concretizes metaphysical principles and generates multivalent meanings in ways that can be articulated with literary texts and other architectural forms."

About the Author

Dr. Adrian Snodgrass is an Australian architect with a lifetime interest in Asian culture. At the age of twenty-five he went to Sri Lanka and India, where he lived and studied aspects of Buddhism and Indian thought, art and religion for more than six years. He then spent seven years in Japan where he studied forms of Far Eastern Buddhism. This was followed by several years each in Hong Kong and Indonesia. In 1976 he returned to Australia and to Sydney University, where he was appointed Japan Foundation Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies. He now lectures on Design, and Asian Art and Architecture in the Department of Architecture at that university. He is the author of several books, including The Matrix and Diamond World Mandalas in Shingon Buddhism and Architecture, Time and Eternity. He is married and has one son.



1.  The Nature of Architectural Symbolism
2.  The Analysis of the Symbolism of the Stupa 




    1.  The Geometric Centre
    2.  The Sun as Centre

    1.  Measuring Out from the Centre
    2.  Measuring Out by the Sun

    1.  The Deployment of the Directions 
    2.  The Deployment of Space in the Brahmanic Myths 
    3.  The Deployment of Space in the Buddha Legend 

    1.  The Vedic Fire Altar
    2.  The Division and Reunification of the Body of Prajapati 
        - the Sacrifice 
    3.  Buddhist Parallels - the Proliferation of the Body of 
        the Buddha 

    1.  The Pneumatic Deployment of the Macrocosm 
    2.  The Pneumatic Deployment of the Microcosm 





    1.  The Meaning of the Mandala
    2.  The Mandala and the Cosmos
    3.  The Mandala as Plan: the Vastu-purusa-mandala 
    4.  The Symbolism of the Mandala Gridwork 
        a.  The Lines as Pneumatic Measures 
        b.  Breath-threads, Breath-knots and Breath-nets
        c.  The Symbolism of Weaving 
        d.  The Symbolism of the Spider's Web
        e.  The Symbolism of the Buddha's Urna 
        f.  Noose and Net Symbolism in the Myth of Varuna 
        g.  Noose and Net Symbolism in Buddhism
    5.  The Mandala Expressed in the Stupa 
        a.  The Stupa Plan as Mandala 
        b.  The Mandala Within the Stupa 
        c.  The Stupa as a Mandala of the Manusi Buddhas 
        d.  The Stupa as a Mandala of the Regents of the Quarters
        e.  The Stupa as a Mandala of the Jina Buddhas 
        f.  Borobudur as a Diamond World Mandala 

    1.  The Caitya-vrksa
    2.  The Place of Enlightenment and the Diamond Throne 

    1.  The Pillar and Cosmogenesis 
    2.  The Pillar as Deity
    3.  The Pillar in Buddhism
    4.  Cognate Symbols of Axiality: the Mountain and the Tree
        a.  The Mountain
        b.  The Tree
    5.  Stabilizing the Site by the Pillar  

    1.  The Dome as Centre and Container
    2.  The Womb (garbha) and the Egg (anda)
    3.  The Cave
    4.  The Lotus
    5.  The Sphere and the Cube
        a.  The Union of Complementary Principles
        b.  Purusa and Prakrti 
        c.  The Union of Complements in Buddhism
        d.  The Symbolism of the Cross  

    1.  The Stupa Types 
    2.  The Stupa as Mountain
    3.  The Mountain in the Egg - the Equivalence of the Stupa 
    4.  The Symbolism of the Levels 
        1.  The Spatial Significance of the Levels 
        2.  The Cosmological Significance of the Levels  

    1.  The Harmika as High Altar - the Amalaka 
    2.  The Harmika as Caitya-vrksa 
    3.  The Harmika as Bodhimanda 
    4.  The Mountain Summit
    5.  The superimposed Altars 
    6.  The Sun Door

    1.  The Symbolism of Ascension
    2.  The Symbolism of the stairways
        a.  The Symbolism of the Rainbow Bridge
        b.  The Rainbow Serpent and the Rainbow Makara 
        c.  The Upward and Downward Flowing Waters
        d.  The Marriage of the Currents 
        e.  The Symbolism of the Gander
        f.  The Kalamakara
        g.  The Astronomical Symbolism of the Kalamakara 
        h.  The Symbolism of Passage through the Doorway
    3.  The Interior Ascent 

    1.  The Post or Mast
    2.  The Spire as Sacrificial Post (yupa)
    3.  The Spire as Parasol
    4.  The Spire as Cosmic Tree
    5.  The Symbolism of the Spire Discs
    6.  The Buddhist Cosmology
    7.  The Akanistha Heaven and the Stages to Nirvana 
    8.  The Akanistha as the Place of Enlightenment
    9.  The Loci of Enlightenment 
   10.  The twofold Revelation of the Dharma 

    1.  The Vase
    2.  The Jewel 

    1.  The Stupa as Reliquary
    2.  The Stupa as Memorial
    3.  The Stupa as Votive Offering

    1.  The Identity of the Stupa and the Buddha 
    2.  The Identity of the Stupa and the Dharma 
    3.  The Identity of the Stupa and the Buddha in Shingon Buddhism




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