Symbols of Animals in Buddhism

Symbols of Animals in Buddhism
Lion figure protecting the Buddha

Lion figure protecting the Buddha

A few days ago while mindlessly surfing channels on the television; I came across an interesting program on Nepal, a Buddhist country. The specific moment when I stopped, the program was covering Ani Choying Drolma, the singing Buddhist Nun. Having heard her name for the first time it was obvious that I would search more about her on the net and try and download some mantra recitations made by her. While searching for her I came across another interesting topic – ‘Symbolism of Animals in Buddhism’.

Just a passing thought at this moment is how thought travels – Nepal, Ani Choying Drolma, Buddhism and animals as symbols. Without deviating much I come to back to the topic Symbolism of Animals in Buddhism’. Symbols have been a part of ancient cultures and are often used as representations and manifestations. There are symbols of animals that are used in Buddhism.  In Buddhism a particular symbol is associated with a concept because of its Karmic value. In the current article we are looking at the use of animal symbols in Buddhism.


The lions are proud and majestic kings of the animal kingdom. It has always been associated with royalty, wisdom, pride and protection. In Buddhism, lions are seen as a symbol of the sons of the Buddha. They are people in who are spiritually developed, the bodhichitta is developed in them and yet they vow to remain in this world and work to free all people from suffering.

The lions in Buddhism are the protectors of dharma, Buddha and bodhisattvas. They have the power to subdue and silence all beings. They are usually found on the entrances of Buddhist shrines.


The elephant is known for its strength and steadfastness. It is a symbol of both mental and physical strength. Elephants have played an important role in Hindu mythology. The white elephant that emerged from churning of the ocean is considered to be a vehicle of Indra and are considered to have power to bring rain.

In Buddhism, the elephant represents mental strength. The uncontrolled mind is a grey elephant. It runs wild and causes destruction but when one follows a path of dharma, the mind is tamed and in control and represented by a white elephant. The elephant is the vehicle of the Tathagata Aksobhya and the deity Balabadra. It guards the temples and Buddha.


Since times immemorial, horses have been used as means of transport. It was also said that they had wings and could also fly. Horses are known for their energy, loyalty and swiftness. It is said that when Siddhartha Gautama left his palace, his horse realized the fact that he would never see his master again and it died.

In Buddhism, the horse is a symbol of energy and effort. It also represents the prana (air) that is essential for our existence. The neigh of the horse is voice of Buddha that has the potential of awakening a sleepy mind.


Peacock is a bird that has symbolized different things in different religions and cultures.  Christians associate it with immortality, ancient Mesopotamians associated a symbol of a tree flanked by two peacocks with the dualistic mind, while the bird and its feathers have been used in Hindu religion and mythology. In Buddhism, it represents wisdom.

Peacocks are associated with bodhisattvas. Peacocks are capable of eating poisonous plants with out any harmful effect and similarly a bodisattva is able to transform ignorance into enlightenment, desire and hatred to positive feelings. When a person comes across an enlightened thought or bodhichitta his mind opens just like an open tail of a peacock that exhibits all colors.  Excatly how a peacock uses poison to nurture his body and become healthy a bodhisattva uses negativity to emerge more beautiful in all colors. They are considered to be a vehicle of Buddha amitabha representing desire and attachment.


Garuda is known as the king of birds. It derives its name from the root ‘Gri’ meaning ‘to swallow’. It represents power of the sun which has the potential of drying up water and hence it is an enemy of the snakes. Jealousy, hatred and other negative thoughts and feelings are snakes that a

Garuda with a Human Upper Portion

Garuda with a Human Upper Portion

conscious and an aware mind devours the snakes the moment they appear. It also represents space for it comes out of its egg fully grown. Difficult to be tied down, it can stretch its wings wide and soar in the sky. It represents a free mind that refuses to be tied down by conflicting emotions. It represents the power of the sun. While it dries up all the water and devours the snakes, it has the potential of giving life to earth.

For Hindu’s Garuda is the vehicle of bhagwan Vishnu and for Buddhists it is a vehicle of amoghasiddhi, meaning the Buddha who has accomplished all wisdoms.



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