The Star of David (in Hebrew, the Magen David or Shield of David) is renowned as the sacred symbol of the Jewish faith. Indeed, the Star of David is the distinguishing feature on the Israeli flag and as an ornament of jewellery the Star of David is proudly worn by millions of devout Jews worldwide. Yes, the Star of David is purely Jewish. Or is it?
Recently, while visiting the holy city of Jerusalem, I purchased a silver pendant of the “Star of David” from a local shopkeeper and when I put it around my neck I was asked, “Why are you wearing a Jewish symbol?”
To this I replied, “This is Ṣaṭ-koṇa, the symbol of Goloka, the abode of Kṛṣṇa.”
This article is about the origins of Ṣaṭ-koṇa (the Star of Goloka or goloka-yantra), its transcendental significance, its historical use in Vedic and other ancient cultures, its use in Christianity and Islam, and its eventual adoption by the Jewish faith in the 17th century as a popular symbol of Judaism.
Symbols have long been a part of the histories of the world’s great civilisations and Ṣaṭ-koṇa is no exception. Before it appeared in the west, from the most ancient of times to the present day, Ṣaṭ-koṇa has been at the heart of spirituality in India. The Ṣaṭ-koṇa (the six pointed star with a hexagram within, defining sacred space), is constructed by joining two perfect triangles – one pointing upward signifying Puruṣa and the other pointing downward signifying Prakṛti. It is the oldest spiritual symbol known to the world. Ṣaṭ-koṇa has been around since the beginning of the universe. We do not expect to find any archaeological evidence to support this statement, however, from śāstra, Vedic literature, the evidence is there.
In the oldest known Vedic literature, Śrī Brahma-saṁhitā (in that it has been attributed to Lord Brahmā and composed shortly after creation), the Ṣaṭ–koṇa is mentioned in a description of the supreme abode of Goloka, the abode of Kṛṣṇa.
karṇikāraṁ mahad yantraṁ ṣaṭ-koṇaṁ vajra-kīlakam
ṣaḍ-aṅga-ṣaṭ-padī-sthānaṁ prakṛtyā puruṣeṇa ca
premānanda-mahānanda-rasenāvasthitaṁ hi yat
jyotī-rūpeṇa manunā kāma-bījena saṅgatam
“The centre of the divine lotus is the core – Kṛṣṇa’s residence. It is presided over by the Predominated and Predominating Moiety. It is mapped as a hexagonal mystic symbol (ṣaṭ-koṇam). Like a diamond, the effulgent Supreme Entity of Kṛṣṇa, the Fountainhead of all divine potencies, presides as the central pivot. The great mantra of eighteen syllables (Gopāla-Mantra), which is formed of six integral parts, is manifest as a hexagonal place with six-fold divisions.” (Śrī Brahma-saṁhitā 5.3)
tat-kiñjalkaṁ tad-aṁśānāṁ tat-patrāṇi śriyām api
“The core of that eternal holy abode which is called Gokula is the hexagonal land of Kṛṣṇa’s abode. The stamens or petals are the residences of the cowherds or gopas, who are Kṛṣṇa’s own, His dear most friends and high loving devotees that are a part of His own self. Those abodes appear like many walls, all beautifully effulgent. The extensive foliage of that lotus constitutes the sub-forests that are the abodes of the loving damsels of Kṛṣṇa, headed by Śrī Rādhikā.” (Śrī Brahma-saṁhitā 5.4)
In the practice of devotion (kṛṣṇa-bhakti) three important items are given to the devotee to help him/her realise the Supreme Reality, i.e. mantra, yantra and Śrī Murti. Mantra is the sound representation of the Supreme Reality, yantra is the mechanised or symbolic representation of the mantra and the Śrī Murti is the three dimensional (personal) form of the mantra made manifest to the senses of the devotee to receive his or her service.
Overall, in contemporary Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, yantras are no longer in vogue as they were in olden times. Preference has been given to Śrī Murti who is worshiped with the appropriate or corresponding mantras. Although yantras are for the most part no longer in use amongst Gauḍīyas, this was not always the case. In bygone days all branches of Vaiṣṇavism were frequently found to use yantras in their daily worship and meditation.
The description given in the purports of Brahma-saṁhitā says that the Gopāla-Mantra (klīṁ kṛṣṇāya govindāya gopījana-vallabhāya svāhā) manifests as the six sides of the hexagonal figure (kṛṣṇāya, govindaya, gopījana, vallabhāya, svā and hā) and that the bīja (klīṁ) is the central pivot.
Ṣaṭ-koṇa is set up in such a way that those who attend the yantra by meditation and who are deeply aspiring to enter into Kṛṣṇa’s divine pastimes must first realise six objectives of the mantra, i.e. 1) the intrinsic form of Kṛṣṇa (kṛṣṇāya), 2) the intrinsic form of Kṛṣṇa’ pastimes in Vraja (govindāya), 3) the intrinsic form of Kṛṣṇa’s intimate attendants, the gopīs (gopījana), 4) the intrinsic form of full self-surrender unto Kṛṣṇa, in the wake of those who are Kṛṣṇa’s beloved (vallabhāya), 5) the pure soul’s intrinsic form of divine cognition (svā), and 6) the intrinsic nature of the soul to render transcendental loving service unto Kṛṣṇa (hā).
One who by virtue of being well established in such realisations of the mantra attains firmness (niṣṭhā) in the soul’s engagement of divine service (abhidheya) and ultimately achieves the supreme goal of life (prayojana) by being engaged in spontaneous transcendental loving service to Kṛṣṇa in the ego of a maidservant of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī.
At the stage of practice (sādhana), by the grace of the mantra assisted by Ṣaṭ-koṇa, the manifest pastimes of Kṛṣṇa in Gokula may appear in the heart of a devotee. And at the stage of perfection (siddhi) a devotee may realise the unmanifest pastimes of Kṛṣṇa in Goloka.
At the beginning of the 20th century the great Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava ācārya, Śrī Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was inspired by the descriptions of Kṛṣṇa’ supreme abode in Brahma-saṁhitā and thus incorporated the Ṣaṭ-koṇa into the Gauḍīya Maṭha logo. Indeed, the logo of the Gauḍīya Maṭha is in itself a Vaiṣṇava yantra.
At the centre of the hexagonal in the Gauḍīya Matha logo, Sarasvati Thakura placed the bīja-mantra Oṁ (in place of klīṁ) along with nāma. In the six points (sat) of the Ṣaṭ-koṇa he placed the six opulences, i.e. fame (yaśa), beauty (śrī), knowledge (jñāna), renunciation (vairāgya), wealth (aiśvarya) and strength (vīrya).
In line with the purports of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura in Brahma-saṁhitā, Bhaktisiddhānta inserted Oṁ in place of Klīṁ to show that Klīṁ and Om are non-different. Sahajiyās, and others of his time were of the habit of neglecting mantras such as Oṁ and Brahma-Gāyatrī, whereas Bhaktisiddhānta was of the practice to show how everything in its deeper meaning is related to Kṛṣṇa. Bhaktivinoda’s purport states as follows:
“The Gopāla-tapanīya Upaniṣad states, tasmād oṁkāra-sambhūto gopālo viśva-sambhavaḥ, klīm-aumkārasyaikyatvaṁ paṭhyate brahmavādibhiḥ. Oṁkāra means Gopāla, who is both Potency and the potent, and Klīṁ means Oṁkāra. Therefore, Klīṁ or the primary desire seed (kāma-bīja) expresses the transcendental reality of Śrī Śrī Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa.” (Śrī Brahma-saṁhitā, purport, Verse 4)
Furthermore, Sarasvatī Ṭhākura used the Ṣaṭ-koṇa yantra as the floor plan for the temple of Śrī Śrī Guru Gaurāṅga-Gāndharvikā-Giridhārī at Śrī Caitanya Maṭha in Māyāpura.
In the Vaiṣṇava canon we find mention of numerous yantras such as the Viṣṇu-yantra, Lakṣmī-yantra, Gopāla-yantra, Rādhā-yantra, Sudarśana-yantra and Gāyatrī–yantra, etc.
The following is a verse in praise of Sudarśana from Śrī Vaiṣṇava pañcarātrika texts mentioning Ṣaṭ-koṇa:
śaṅkhaṁ cakraṁ ca cāpaṁ paraśuṁ asimiśuṁ śūla pāśāṁkuśāṁś ca
bibhrānam vajra-keṭaṁ hala musala gadā kuṇṭaṁ atyugra daṁṣṭraṁ
jvālā-keśaṁ tri-netraṁ jvalad-ānala nibhaṁ hāra-keyūra bhūṣam
dhyāyet śaṭ-koṇa saṁsthaṁ sakala ripu-kula prāṇa saṁhāra cakram
“O great cakra, remove the life of all our enemies. I meditate upon You, residing in the middle of the Ṣaṭ-koṇa holding conch, cakra, bow, axe, sword, trident, noose, goad, missile, thunderbolt, plough, pestle and mace. You have terrible fangs, fiery hair, three eyes and you have the intensity of a raging inferno and You are adorned with ornaments and necklaces.”
The above-mentioned yantras are today mostly used by orthodox sections of Vaiṣṇavas in India (Śrī Vaiṣṇavas and Madhvas) and are more or less ornamental, rather than functional, in the daily sādhana of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. But in due course these yantras may again find their way back into more popular usage.
Hindus, Jains, Tantrics, Smārtas, māyāvādīs, Śaktas, Śaivaites and Buddhist sects in India, Nepal, China, Tibet, Śrī Lanka and other countries in Asia use and have used the symbol of Ṣaṭ-koṇa throughout the ages.
Tracing the Ṣaṭ-koṇa through history has been an interesting research project. It was not possible for us to find all the places or cultures across the ages that employed the Ṣaṭ–koṇa in their symbolism. Nonetheless, it became evident that Ṣaṭ-koṇa had enjoyed a most extensive use both in the ancient and modern world – from the temples of India, to the Ring of Solomon, from the Carthaginians, to the Greeks, Romans, Christians (Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic), Muslims and Medieval Alchemists.
Indeed, all the examples of Ṣaṭ-koṇa that we turned up in our research were not necessarily of a particular religious or spiritual significance and could easily be seen as simply ornamental, such as some of those used in Roman mosaics, etc. Some of the more interesting specimens of the Ṣaṭ-koṇa that we discovered are as follows:
In the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin are presented several cylinder seals, dated to c.2500 BCE, decorated with celestial symbols showing stars with six, seven, eight and more points. These stars appear there in an astrological context or in an astronomical context. Among them there is a circle surrounded by six triangles, which are like the Ṣaṭ-koṇa.
A Ṣaṭ-koṇa can be found on the ‘Black Obelisk’ of Shalamaneser III in Iraq. This obelisk was erected in the Assyrian city of Nimrud as a public monument in 825 BCE at a time of civil war. In one of the panels on the monument there is a six-pointed star with a hexagram above King Jehu’s head.
In the Heraklion Museum in Crete there is the ancient Phaestos Disc made from fired clay. The disc has many carvings. One of the carvings is a circle with six dots in the shape of Ṣaṭ-koṇa with a seventh dot in the centre. Although at a glance the arrangements do not jump out at us as a Ṣaṭ-koṇa, still scholars assure us that it is. This disc dates back to 1700 BCE.
Coins have been discovered in Carthage (modern day Tunisia in North Africa) bearing the Ṣaṭ-koṇa insignia. These Phoenician coins date back to the 5th Century BCE.
The Kagome Crest can be found in some of Shinto oldest shrines in Japan dating back to the 5th Century BCE. At the Ise Grand Shrine that was built for the Imperial House of Japan, a symbol resembling the Ṣaṭ-koṇa is carved on all the lamps along the approaches to the shrine.
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York there is a Greek Terracotta Drinking Cup, which is dated to ca. 560 BCE. This cup shows Hercules fighting an Amazon. In the middle is a six-pointed star. Aside from the inner hexagram, the stylised composition imitates Ṣaṭ-koṇa when lines are drawn between: arms, toes, heads and knees.
7) Śrī LANKA
A Ṣaṭ-koṇa yantra was found at Kataragama in Sri Lanka, a famous pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists. The carving dates back to the 3rd Century BCE. This carving with a Tamil ‘Oṁ‘ in the centre is found in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Basel.
Several Stars of David (Ṣaṭ-koṇa) of great antiquity have been found in Israel, but all of them date back to before the Jewish faith had actually adopted the symbol to represent them. Ṣaṭ-koṇa has been found engraved on jar handles at Gibeon, Israel, and dated to the late period of the Israeli Kingdom of the First Temple (6th Century BCE). However, archeologists reckon that they were copies of Greek emblems from Thasos and Carthago that served for the marking of wines.
Other Ṣaṭ-koṇas have been found in Caperneum but may have belonged to Roman temples. On a wall of a room in Meggido there was found a Ṣaṭ-koṇa drawn in lines. This has been dated as 8th Century BCE. At Jericho a very large size Ṣaṭ–koṇa, the most famous in Israel, was found at Hisam’s Palace. The Muslim ruler Al-Walid ibn Yazid built the palace in 743 CE.
A Ṣaṭ-koṇa was found on seals dating back to the 3rd Century BCE in Egypt as well as weights dating back to the 2nd Century BCE.
Throughout the Roman Empire there were discovered tens of archaeological findings with the shape of the Ṣaṭ-koṇa. For example, more than ten such mosaics were discovered in Pompeii, Italy, and since it had been ruined by Mount Vesuvius Volcano eruption in 79 CE it is certain to date them to the first century CE at the latest. Similar mosaics were discovered in Gaul (Latin: Gallia), Hungary, Greece, Syria, Turkey, Tunis. Other such archeological findings from this period were discovered in Roman temples in Jordan and in Lebanon.
The Mayan citadel of Uxma in Mexico shows several examples that resemble the Ṣaṭ-koṇa. It is believed by Mesoamerican scholars that these symbols represented the sun. Uxmal was built around 700 CE.
A ring was found in the Lebanese city of Sidon with the shape of Ṣaṭ-koṇa, which was dated from the 7th Century BCE. Sidon was one of the most important Phoenician cities and may well have been the oldest.
In his book The Sacred Bride, Dr. Manoshi Bhattacharya wrote that the earliest evidence of the Ṣaṭ–koṇa symbol was found among coins from the excavation of the city of Ujjain in India. The coins have been dated to be 2000 -3000 years old. These coins came into the possession of Colonel James Tod, the Political Agent to the Western Rajput States of India in the early 1800s.
Also in India, the Mogul Emperor, Akbar (16th century CE) rode into battle and presided over his court with the Ṣaṭ-koṇa embossed on his royal shield.
With a little research one can find images of Ṣaṭ-koṇa almost everywhere and sometimes in the most unsuspecting places such as on the American one-dollar bill. There the symbol is placed above the American Eagle by aligning 12 stars in the shape of Ṣaṭ–koṇa with a 13th star in the middle. This very much resembles the Ṣaṭ–koṇa of the ancient Phaestos Disc.
Some other interesting places where Ṣaṭ–koṇa has appeared are as follows: Fort Santiago in the Philippines (1592 CE), Quanzhou, China (920 CE), Sinca Veche, Romania (100 CE), Mongol coins (500CE), a Saxon spearhead (200 CE), a three cent coin, United States of America (1851 CE), Saint Peters Basilica, Rome (1500 CE), a Christian tomb in Wales (100 CE), Bakhchysaray Mosque (1500 CE), Akbar’s Palace at Fatehpur Sikri (1500 CE), Samanid coin, Iran (800 CE), and a glass jar from Arabia (1000 CE).
Ṣaṭ–koṇa has also enjoyed popular use among alchemists. Alchemists of old and particularly those from the 5th century to the 15th century in Europe and the Middle East were very consistent in their use of Ṣaṭ–koṇa. For most cultures the Ṣaṭ–koṇa symbolised male (the upward triangle) and female (the downward triangle) or just something auspicious, but for the Alchemist the Ṣaṭ–koṇa symbolised fire and water. Alchemists also used the Ṣaṭ–koṇa to represent the six planets (each of the 6 points) and the sun was in the middle of the hexagram. The symbol universally represented the art of Alchemy for Muslims, Christians and Jews as the representation of the combination of opposites and transmutation.
In Medieval Europe the Ṣaṭ–koṇa was also accepted by common people as having healing powers and being able to ward off demons.
For the Jews themselves the use of Ṣaṭ–koṇa as the Star of David was a gradual development beginning with the Talmud sometime in the 3rd century CE. The Talmud mentions the Magen David (Shield/Star of David) but without connection to its shape. Later in the 6th century the Kabbalah again mentions the Star of David. However, the Star of David only takes shape for the first time between the 12th and 14th centuries.
It so happens that during the Middle Ages, the “Star of David” was frequently found on churches (such as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome) and even in mosques, but was absent in synagogues. It was also conspicuously absent as a symbol in Jewish books and on ritual objects.
From ancient times to the Middle Ages, the Jews possessed no particular national or religious symbol. It was generally the Menorah (seven flame candle stick) that was commonly associated with the Jews.
In 13th century Spain the Ṣaṭ-koṇa was known as the Ring of Solomon (Seal of Solomon) by the Jews; from the 13th until the 15th century, both names were used simultaneously, Ring of Solomon and Star of David. It was only later that the term Star of David gradually became dominant in Ashkenazi Jewish communities, while King Solomon’s Seal became identified with the pentagram (5 pointed star).
As a popular Jewish symbol, Ṣaṭ-koṇa did not find its place permanently in Judaism until European Jews adopted it in 1648 CE. The beginnings of Ṣaṭ-koṇa as a Jewish symbol are told in the following narrative.
The history of the contemporary Star of David begins in Prague. During the last part of the Thirty Years War, the Swedish army besieged Prague. The town was mostly defended by the citizens’ militia, including a Jewish unit. When the Swedes did not succeed in taking the city, German Emperor Ferdinand III wished to assign honour flags and other decorations to all the various units of the citizens’ militia. This included the Jews.
The Emperor couldn’t decide on what symbol to put on the flag, which was to be assigned to the Jews. Even the emperor’s ‘court Jews,’ the Openhaimer Family were perplexed on what to do. After some discourse it was decided that the two intersecting triangles, once believed to have been used by King David and also by King Solomon, was adopted’
The Jewish community liked this symbol and it spread to those towns that had ties with Prague, and began to be used in synagogues and during festive occasions. The new symbol became so popular that rumours circulated that it had magical powers. Stories of the power of the Star of David spread as far as Yemen where it was even said that the ancestor of the Rothschild family had succeeded in exorcising the devil from the emperor’s daughter by the power of the Star of David.
The Biblical (Old Testament/Torah) myth of King David begins when David as a simple Shepard boy slays the Philistine giant, Goliath. David fell Goliath with a stone from his sling and then cut off the giant’s head. David was promoted to commander of the armies of King Saul and married into the king’s family. Later Saul was killed in battle and David became King and the myth says that God shielded David during his many battles. The Ṣaṭ-koṇa has been adopted by Jews to represent the protection or shield that God provided for David.
King David was succeeded by his son Solomon. Ancient myth alludes to King Solomon possessing a ring of magical powers. The myth of the Ring of Solomon was principally developed by Arabic writers who claimed that God gave the ring to Solomon. The ring is said to have had the name of God engraved upon it. But this posed a problem with the Jewish community as Jewish law forbade the Jews to write the name of God. Thus it was conceded that the six pointed star and later the five-pointed star is what King Solomon had inscribed on his ring. Medieval Jewish, Christian and Islamic legends believed that King Solomon commanded demons and spoke with animals by the power of his ring.
One Islamic narrative says that the demon Sakhr deceived one of Solomon’s sisters into giving him (Sakhr) the ring. Sakhr then ruled for forty-years while Solomon wandered the land in poverty. Eventually Sakhr (for some unknown reason) threw the ring into the sea, where it was swallowed by a fish, caught by a fisherman, and served to Solomon. Having thus retrieved the ring Solomon then punished Sakhr by making him to build a great mosque for Solomon.
Although this story sounds quite similar to that of “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, scholars are of the opinion that the myth was actually derived from the Greek story of the Ring of Polycrates, related by Herodotus in the 5th century BCE.
That Ṣaṭ-koṇa became a universally auspicious and spiritual symbol throughout the ancient world there can be no doubt, but it is in the motherland of India that Ṣaṭ-koṇa was used and continues to be used most extensively.