The Umbrella

by Helen Valborg @ Theosophy Trust


Arjuna held over the head of Shri Krishna, Lord of the three regions of the world, Protector of Dharma and King of the descendants of Madhu, a White Umbrella, the handle of which was set with diamonds and the fringe adorned with pearls.

Bhagavata Purana

  As above, so below. The first emanation of the primordial sound laid down the firm basis for the complex geometry of interdependent existence. When the Word became flesh, Mann proclaimed that Ishwara had established a sovereign for the protection of the whole of creation, and the White Umbrella (sveta chattra) was the symbol of supreme authority placed over his head at his coronation. The Ramayana depicts the ceremonial in which the sage Vasishtha installed Rama upon a golden throne wrought with jewels while Shatrugna placed a white umbrella over his regal head. From the ancient codes of Manu to the Sukraniti, the classic statement of Hindu political thought before Moslem ascendancy in the Indian subcontinent, the earthly sovereign was seen as the exemplar and custodian of Dharma, universal responsibility.

  Kings are vital centres around which the scattered forces of society converge. Like blood coursing toward the heart, the energies of the people sustain the strength of the sovereign, and his will is in turn mirrored in their collective wishes. The Nyakyusa of East Africa speak of this as "the Divine Will and the Breath of Men", a poised centrifugal and centripetal balance which flourishes for a time like a living organism. Kings come and go but the responsibility of their regal office is enduring and embodies the collective Dharma of all their subjects. The White Umbrella is extended as a protective, sheltering Dharma or 'Firmament of the Law', and the king is its indispensable custodian. Through him the humane ethics of natural law is exemplified and Raja Dharma is the royal code that restrains and sets limits upon the wanton acts of evil-doers. While many sovereigns conspicuously failed to fulfil their awesome responsibilities, the legendary Raja Rishis or Divine Kings upheld a truly celestial order on earth and magnanimously discharged the altruistic role of living entirely for the sake of public welfare. As Kalidasa showed in Shakuntala, King Dushyanta sometimes found the cares of supporting the nation to be onerous, and the poet likened them to the carrying of an enormous umbrella which protects the multitudes while sorely fatiguing oneself. "The sovereign, like a branching tree, bears on his head the scorching sunbeams, while the broad shade allays the fever of those who seek shelter under him."

  When Buddha blessed his disciples with the beatific vision of Buddha-fields, they saw stretching before them myriads of Buddhas serenely seated under trees and umbrellas. Gautama Buddha came to give another turn to the Wheel of the Law and he is especially associated with the symbol of the umbrella. The Jataka Tales describe how Brahma held a white umbrella over Buddha's head at his birth, and Queen Maya is sometimes shown holding a branch of the sal tree as he was painlessly born from her side, the tree itself being covered with the umbrella. According to some ancient interpretations, the support staff between the handle knob and the canopy ensures a space between heaven and earth in which the authority of the king can be properly exercised. This idea draws its inspiration from religious sources. In several Buddhist sculptures an umbrella is shown over an empty space signifying that the Buddha is present though invisible – for example, at Amaravati in the beautifully carved portrayal of 'the Great Departure'. The space between heaven and earth is suggestive of the superphysical realm of mediators between God and man, the transmitters of divine law. The canopy of the umbrella is thus the dome of the sky or the upper world, the body of the celestial Egyptian goddess Nut arched above the support of Shu. The Jains hold that the entire manifested universe may be represented as a colossal human form topped by an umbrella symbolizing the ultimate heaven, conveying that every man is capable of spanning the realm of the mediators.

  In ancient times the shade cast by the royal umbrella was believed to protect and imbue with righteousness, and it was also thought to be impregnated with the power of its owner. In ancient Egypt the umbrella shape was the hieroglyph denoting sovereignty and it signified the khaibit or shadow of a person in which resided his generative powers. Often this shadow was identified with the soul and the umbrella emblem was used in funeral motifs signifying that which is immortal. The word 'umbrella' is derived from the Latin umbra meaning 'shade', and the terms 'parasol', soliculum and 'sombrero' bear a similar derivation which suggests the practical function of providing shade from the sun. It is, however, a much more mysterious idea of shade or shadow that ancient peoples had in mind, and perhaps the use of the word 'penumbra', referring to that of the sun at the time of a solar eclipse, approaches more closely some of the older concepts associated with the umbrella. Even though the Egyptians used the umbrella emblem to refer to the soul and it figured prominently in sepulchral architecture in South India as well as on the tiers of Buddhist stupas, it truly points to what is beyond and of which it provides a shadowed reflection. This corresponds with the idea that the shade containing generative powers may be symbolized by the umbrella which, in many of its ancient forms, resembles the sacred lingam signifying the generative power of the universe and the continuous process of creation, preservation, destruction and regeneration. The Greeks made use of umbrellas in fertility rites connected with Demeter and Persephone, and the followers of Dionysus carried sunshades in their processions. In more recent times the heads of brides and grooms were covered by an umbrella or a symbolically derivative cloth in order to enhance the fruition of their union. In more direct usage, the old French verb ombrager and the German beschatten (both derived from words meaning 'shadow') referred to the covering of a cow by a bull.

  As a symbol of worldly power, the umbrella has taken on the proportions, colorations and embellishments that were inherited from ancient religious traditions and also from the inflamed imaginations of ambitious champions of hierarchical etiquette. While descriptions of nineteenth century royal African umbrellas – with their brilliant silk panels, inserted looking-glasses, gold swords, projected elephant teeth, leopard skins and crowned with stuffed animals – tend to put more sedate models in the shade, the classical Hindu umbrella code, the Yukti Kala Pataru, comprised rules for the proportions and designs of some inspiring styles. The kanaka danda had a frame of sandalwood and gold with a gold-threaded silk cover and was considered appropriate for a nobleman. The pratapa used by a prince had a blue silk canopy and pure gold fringe, while the prasada (the 'grace' or 'gift') of a king had bamboo ribs and a scarlet cover. For the highest state ceremonials a gold-framed umbrella called the nava danda was used. It had a ruby handle with a diamond knob and its gorgeous silk cover was fringed with thirty-two looped full strings of pearls. In China the size, colour and material of the umbrella used gave an exact indication of the owner's social and political position within the Confucian system. Commoners did not use umbrellas but merely wore large hats or crude covers to shed the rain. The widespread use of the functional umbrella today shows strikingly the erosion of the old hierarchical order with its rich tradition of symbolic aesthetics and the visible rise of the unrefined common man, each capable of carrying his own symbol of power and law over his often unwitting head.

  The Persian title “Sattrapas” was probably a corruption of ch'hatra-pati or 'Lord of the Umbrella', while in China and Burma a paramount king was sometimes designated as "he who rules over the Umbrella-bearing Chiefs". A commoner using a white umbrella ran the risk of losing his life – thus suggesting that Buddhist symbolism had been partially converted into political and social values in large portions of the Orient. The Mogul ruler of India "had twenty kittasols of state to shadow him and none in his empire dareth in any sort have any of these carried for its shadow but himself". Even the British, prior to gaining control of India, had to take care lest they offend by their use. Wherever Hinduism and Buddhism spread, there also was to be found the umbrella. Its presence among the Chechemecas in pre-Columbian times in Mexico strongly suggests not merely a trans-Pacific cultural contact but the actual diffusion of Hindu and Buddhist cultural influence into the New World. The umbrella was so closely identified with the mystical and worldly power of sovereignty that a Burmese king once chose his successor out of five sons by letting his umbrella fall at random towards one of them. This heir became known as Tilominlo, 'the king whom the umbrella placed on the throne'.

  The high status associated with the umbrella as a visible indicator of rank lends weight to the wry Telegu proverb: "When fortune smiles on a mean person, he orders an umbrella to be brought at midnight – so anxious is he to advertise his new position." It is wise to maintain a sense of humour in considering the grave pretensions affected by people everywhere and especially when noting some of the absurd inversions and pathetic distortions of the umbrella's use. While much has been written by the British about the French in the Battle of Waterloo and vice versa, one of the more remarkable accounts of the British by a French observer states: "It was raining and the English officers were on horseback, each with an umbrella in hand, which seemed to me eminently ridiculous. All at once the English closed their umbrellas, hung them on their saddles, drew their sabres and threw themselves upon our chausseurs." At least one inspired Britisher, gifted in the Island art of self-ridicule, contributed a rejoinder to the pages of Punch:

What though the foes may fly,
As they run we'll wing 'em,
Conquer we, or bravely die:
Unfurl, unfurl the gingham!

  The affectations of men are easily matched by those of women who abandoned the public pomp and arcane symbolism of the umbrella whilst twirling its ribboned canopy around endless intrigues and les affaires de coeur. How many charming smiles played under its corolla! How many emotions and dramas have been masked by its cloud of silk? Perhaps the fertile power of the eight-ribbed symbol lent its force to their romances, despite their light-weight and lacy nature. More persistent was the Chinese convert to Christianity who was touched by the words in the New Testament: "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." His umbrella being his most valued possession, he took it up and forthwith went on his religious mission.

  In the beautiful Buddhist bas-reliefs at Sanchi there are many representations of single, double and triple canopied umbrellas. While these in the early days of Buddhism were individually delineated and realistically rendered, they eventually became stylized into a pyramid of superimposed discs. As Buddhism spread to China and Japan, these stylized discs inspired the elegant and architecturally remarkable pagodas that mark the sacred precincts of Buddhist temple grounds. Each tier of umbrellas of the pagoda represents the cosmic spheres of deities or Bodhisattvas as well as bhumi or states of consciousness, meditation, maturation and enlightenment. They can be seen as stages on the Path and likened to the cosmic pillar at the centre of the worlds. Travelling along the Path from one tier to the next requires the progressive sacrifice of the pilgrim and is made possible by the compassionate umbrella of the Buddhas who grace the earth from their eternal watching place on this side of the threshold leading to blissful liberation. Long ago, in a meaningful consecration of the Great Stupa of Ceylon, King Dutthagamani dedicated his own umbrella to it, saying, "Thrice over do I dedicate my kingdom to the Saviour of the World, the Divine Teacher, the Bearer of the Triple Canopy: the Canopy of the Heavenly Host, the Canopy of mortals, and the Canopy of eternal emancipation." The king placed his umbrella thus under the universal sphere of the Law, and in so doing paid obeisance to the source of all power and order in the world and ensured a faithful reflection of supreme Dharma in his reign.

  In contemporary times, when kingship is dead, it is difficult to find the umbrella under whose shade a nation-state may find unity and concurrence of will and purpose. Political power based upon material might can never inspire such harmonious articulation, but older sacred traditions flounder at the edge of a vast sun-scorched desert leading into the dubious promise of the profane modern age. Aurobindo Ghose poignantly pointed to this when he wrote: "And that which must now awake is not an Anglicized Oriental people, docile pupil of the West and doomed to repeat the cycle of the Occident's success and failure, but still the ancient memorable Sakti recovering her deepest self, lifting her head higher toward the supreme source of light and strength and turning to discover the complete meaning and a vaster form of her Dharma." Perhaps the answer to this universal dilemma lies in the advice given in the ancient Sukraniti which, when defining Raja Dharma, states that the man who is unable to subdue his own mind cannot rule the world. The starting-point in becoming an umbrella for others is the gaining of self-mastery. Modern man is hardly in a position to concern himself with the rule of others as he struggles with the difficult task of discovering his own individual Dharma and learning how it dovetails with that of others. Gandhi put it plainly when he said that government over self is true swaraj and is synonymous with salvation. The first step lies with the individual, for as he goes, so ultimately does the universe. All this is firmly based upon the assumption that an individual umbrella exists and that it perfectly reflects supreme Dharma, which individuals can consciously and collectively mirror, each man being as a king unto himself. Taking the Jain teaching that the manifested universe may be symbolized by a colossal human form which is topped with an umbrella, man can be seen as the handle that both supports the canopy and reaches up to it. In order to realize the larger Dharma, he must grasp this handle which, paradoxically, necessitates that he gain full knowledge of his own nature.

Reveal, O Pushan, that face of the true Sun, which is now hidden by a golden lid.


  Standing in the relative shade of the visible sun, man appeals to Pushan, the Protector and Nourisher, who beholds the whole universe and is the unerring guide on the pathway leading to the other world. Pushan, of wonderful appearance and power, is identified with the sun and is, in fact, the golden lid itself. Without this protective obscuration of the Invisible Sun, destruction of the manifest world would ensue, for it is the source of the uncompromising Light of Absolute Truth. Its potencies of pure Light, Truth and Wisdom fall upon the umbrella lid and permeate its golden fabric, coursing along the ribs to its pearl-draped edges and sifting through its interstices in myriad lesser streams. The Universal Truth of the Central Sun radiates along the ribs of the umbrella which extend themselves out as the Rishis and Mahatmas who transmit the wisdom, which is resplendent as the One Eternal Word behind the Dharma of the entire manifest universe. They are the immortal filters and living conduits of Truth, a collective host which is seven-fold or eight-fold. Thus the Buddhist umbrella was usually divided into twice four sections, though in China there was frequent use of four times seven sections, or twenty-eight. The eight sections suggest the Buddhist emphasis upon the four elements related to the dual aspects of yin and yang, while the seven sections signify the seven classes of Pitris or Fire Dhyanis in the Hindu tradition. In ancient times there were elaborate rituals involving a large seven-ribbed umbrella surrounded by seven smaller ones symbolizing the Forty-Nine Sacred Fires. All ribs ultimately radiate from the centre where rests the heart of the manifesting Ray.

  Man, while grasping the handle of the umbrella, is connected with the sacred ribs of its protective covering, but he can receive the direct influence of the pure Ray moving down through the centre into the shaft. Man only becomes cognizant of the existence of the umbrella through the beneficent light that he slowly absorbs in its shade. He progressively becomes aware of an archetypal pattern in nature involving a series of sacrificial and compassionate transmissions from above below. Then he is in a position to take the handle in his hand and commence the arduous study of individual and collective Dharma. The true centre of the sun is related to the Dhyan Chohans, "the Lords of Light", or Divine Intelligences charged with the maintenance of cosmic order. They continually enact the Absolute Dharma, the architectonic design in which all the Dharmas are synthesized. An unprepared disciple attempting to approach the supreme pavilion would be incinerated in the merciless flame of Truth, and so he is counselled to approach the apex of lesser umbrellas through thorough knowledge of their nature and reflected function in the world. Only then is the disciple ready to attempt to grasp the handle of a greater umbrella whose shaft conveys a stronger beam of fiery wisdom. One who stands outside the shade of all umbrellas and brazenly looks into the sun does not realize that he yet stands beneath a vaster umbrella but one whose Dharma is so sweeping that it cannot afford him the particularized protection which his ignorance requires, and he will be blinded even by the reflected light of that which he audaciously seeks.

  The light streams through the central node of the umbrella and is the Heart of the Dhyan Chohanic Body. If one imagined the Light of that Heart radiating out through the Mahatmas of Compassionate Wisdom and down through the invisible spinal shaft of the potentially enlightened man, one could gain a conscious basis for understanding the beauty and power of the sublime instructions of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. He points to the Central Truth in saying: "There dwelleth in the heart of every creature, O Arjuna, the Master – Ishwara – who by his magic power causeth all things and creatures to revolve mounted upon the universal wheel of time." The disciple struggling upward begins to separate from the great mass of humanity and becomes connected with one of the ribs along whose axis the life-giving water (fire) streams forth, but he makes this connection within the heart which is in perfect alignment with the heart-light focussed at the apex of the umbrella-wheel. The fire of Ishwara spreads out from the apex of the pramantha-shaft and spreads through great friction created by tapas along the ribs or spokes of the revolving umbrella. It was by such intense tapas that the Buddha quickened the flame and gave a turn to the Wheel of Law (Dharma) by bringing down through his own being the light of illuminated wisdom.

  Tapas of this order is born of complete devotion to the Mahatmas and to the unerring Law which they so perfectly reflect. It is the nature of pure devotion generated through increasingly effortless sacrifice of everything which the disciple possesses – even including life itself – that causes the heart-bud to open up and give forth the nectar of compassion which is the golden lubricant that alone enables the emergence and growth of spiritual vitality. Unceasing and unwavering devotion is the sovereign means of realizing true universal compassion, "the Law of Laws".

  The beautiful emblem of the caduceus may be seen as a symbolical umbrella. Under the protective wings of the Guru, the pilgrim senses the workings of the dual serpents within him and seeks to bring their expanding and contracting, positive and negative forces into a dynamically oscillating balance around the neutral sushumna channel of the fiery Ray of the Hidden Sun. After long ages of perfecting this balance while remaining steadfast in devotion to the Ishwara within, the disciple moves up along the spiralling handle of the caduceus and is initiated into the mystery of the Compassionate Heart which spreads out its wings upon the sphere of Buddhic perception. The umbrella wings can thus be seen as both protecting and providing the means of flight into the realm of the pure light of Truth. The Buddhas of the Compassionate Law possess the 'winged radiance' of those who can absorb the intense heat of its divine flame and gently transmit its filtered rays to those who thirst below.

Wherever Krishna, the supreme Master of devotion, and wherever the son of Pritha, the mighty archer, may be, there with certainty are fortune, victory, wealth, and wise action

Bhagavad Gita

  Krishna as supreme master of devotion draws the aim of the son of Pritha toward the divine heart of Ishwara, which rests at the centre of the universal Wheel of Law, the umbrella which embodies the Dharma of the vast cycle in which we live. The great divisions of the time are known only to the Rishis who form the ribs of the revolving wheel but, like Arjuna, the man who longs for Truth can listen to Krishna and pick up the arrow of the mind in his right hand. Long he may see along that arrow, straining to hold its upturned shaft steady in the wind. He patiently aims and sees along that slender line of meditation, building it stronger and surer until he takes it to its symmetrically poised crown. He has then arrived at the point where he can reach out with his left hand and grasp the umbrella bow which will give him the expanded power to thrust the focussed beam of his conscious devotion into the heart of Truth, which is the divine goal of spiritual archery. In picturing an arrow pointed upward so that its tip touches the curved apex of the fully drawn bow, one sees a perfect depiction of an opened umbrella whose triangular canopy represents the higher Triad hovering over the world. The arrow shaft represents the handle, the divine man extending down as a ray touching the earth at its base. The mighty archer is one who can unlock the power of this symbol and penetrate the realm of the eternal flame.

Contemplate the vault of Great Memory, so far, far away. Graciously will it descend to the crown of the head, to the cave of the heart.

  To unlock the mystery of the umbrella the disciple contemplates actively, stirring up the yogic powers within him and causing them to rise with the heat of devotional sacrifice. The alchemized energy he draws upon has the same source as that manifested by the earthbound person. It is the generative power cast down through the shadow of the universal umbrella which inspired the use of worldly parasols in fertility rituals. He who would grasp this enormous potential and attempt to lead it upwards along his spinal shaft emulates the Mahayogin Shiva, who is the Master – Ishwara. In drawing up the great energy of the motionless Lord to that place between his eyes, the disciple approaches the flames surrounding the centre of the universe where Nataraj will make a burning-ground of his heart and his whole earthly nature will lose its hold upon his sense of being. The divine shaft will open out like the flowers placed upon its head, and the sacred fire of Ishwara blaze down upon the opened petals whose beneficent curves contain the great memory of those who form the white umbrella of universal Dharma.

Let me ever worship
Those compassionate Guardians
Who unceasingly protect and point out
The pathway leading to the Sacred Flame