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Symbolism of Kamandalu & Kalasha

by Michael Smith

[Ed: Full article title The Symbolism of the Kamandalu & the Kalasha shortened to fit the page]

During the month of August, the STORYTIME Zoom sessions at The Meditation Center in Minneapolis featured a story from the Yoga Vasisththa about Queen Chudala and King Shikhidhvaja.


In this story, the King Shikhidhvaja becomes disillusioned with his life of luxury at the palace and decides to renounce his royal position to live the austere life of a renunciate monk. He goes to the forest, builds himself a meditation hut, and keeps only a staff, a dinner plate, a cup, a tray, mala beads, a garment to cover his body, a deerskin to meditate upon, and a kamandalu.

What is a kamandalu? A kamandalu is an oblong water pot, which has a lot of symbolism connected with it. For a yogi, it represents a simple, self-contained life of asceticism. In making a gourd kamandalu from a pumpkin, the inner pulp and seeds are cleaned out leaving only the outer shell, which is interpreted as the removal of ego, leaving a cleansed person who is fit for self-realization. The water in the kamandalu represents amrita (the elixir of life, the nectar of immortality.

The kamandalu also plays a part in Hindu mythology, and there are many depictions of the gods and goddesses holding a kamandalu or depicted on the hands of gods, such as Shiva and Agni, Varuna, Ganga and Sarasvati. In the Devi Mahatmya, the goddess slays demons by sprinkling them with holy water from her kamandalu. Dhanvantari, the god of Ayuvedic medicine, after the Churning of the Ocean between the demons and the gods, arises from the Ocean of Milk with the nectar of Immortality in his kamandalu. Some legends say that the origin of the ancient Sarasvati River flowed from Brahma’s kamandalu, and in Buddhism, Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya are shown carrying kamandalus.


In his book, Philosophy of Hatha Yoga, Swami Veda Bharati has written about a traditional Indian chalice or kalasha, which he relates to spiritual healthiness:

The kalasha is a water jar shaped like the head, used for bathing, to carry holy water, and so forth, as well as to make devotional offerings of water. And right from the very beginning a child is taught to take the vessel full — full of water, never empty — down to the river in the morning to sit and meditate after bathing. A person takes this full vessel of water — always fullness, symbolic of what a human being most cherishes as a child — mother's breast on the emotional level or human head full of thoughts — never emptiness, always full [purna]* — and sits with this full vessel of water. Sometimes, if you want to pray for a sick person, you place your hands on this full vessel of water and sit in meditation. In your mind at the end of meditation, surrender the fruit of that meditation with a healing prayer for that person and give him the water to drink, or sprinkle the water on him as a healing touch.

After the morning meditation under a tree on the grass by the river, one brings that full vessel of water home. The vessel is never carried home empty. It was thought, if you were leaving for a trip and someone brought a full vessel of water, it was a very good omen; it was symbolic of having a good journey. Fullness was always emphasized. Sometimes a few blades of grass or a few leaves would be placed in it before walking home. In fact, even in the modern languages of India asking somebody, "Are you well." is "Are you kushala?"  The word kushala means: he who brings something green in the morning after worship, meaning "Are you well enough mentally to wake up in the morning and go out and do your meditational worship, well enough to walk all that way, balanced enough to remember to pick something green and put it in that full water vessel and bring it home?" All of that is involved in the word, kushala. Are you kushala? Are you well?

*One of the Morning Prayers: in the Himalayan Yoga Tradition:

pūrṇaṁ adaḥ pūrṇaṁ idaṁ pūrṇāt pūrṇaṁ udachyate
pūrṇasya pūrṇaṁ ādāya pūrṇaṁ evāvaśhī ṣhyate
Om! Śhāntiḥ! Śhāntiḥ! Śhāntiḥ!

That is full/complete/perfect. This is full/complete/perfect. Perfection arises from the Perfect.
Taking the Perfect from the perfect, It remains as the Perfect alone.
Om! Peace! Peace! Peace!

(Translation by Stoma Parker)

Editor’s Note:

From The Meditation Center: “October 8th - Part III, the thrilling conclusion of “The Story of Chudala and Shikhidhvaja” with Michael Smith.” For more information and Zoom links, you can sign up to receive updates on classes and events at https://themeditationcenter.org/ (you will find the sign up subscription link towards the bottom of the page).



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