Why is India so colorful? Or, for that matter, any of the societies that embraced Sanskrit culture and dharma teachings? For one, color is a powerful way to shift mood. Bright colors also convey the vigor of life, the joy of good luck, and the radiant quality of virtuous deeds. More specifically, pure bright colors represent the universal powers that uphold cosmic balance and harmony.
From the beauty of flowering shrubs, to the glow of ripe fruit, recognizing the meaning of colors helps us to navigate the natural world. Vivid colors are among the easiest signals to recognize in nature. It is no wonder the human body is hard-wired to respond to color!
Modern science has also shown that color has a profound effect on mood, heart-rate, and even digestion. For this reason, psychologists recommend that hospitals be painted minty-green to soothe patients, and merchants often wrap commercial products in bright hues to excite potential customers.
Modern art also uses bright pigments. Most conventional artists use them in an expressive way to depict their personal values and emotional associations. For example, here is an iconic painting by the famous modern artist Piet Mondrian:
On the other hand, in traditional sacred art, colors have specific meanings that are usually shared within a culture. These meanings do not change based on the artist’s personal biases.
Sacred artists use colors systematically because they are a visual vocabulary. In traditional spiritual lineages that utilize art for meditation, each color is like a written word that has a specific meaning. And, just like with the sounds used to compose words, there are regional variations and cultural dialects.
For example, in the Liṅga Purāṇa, red is associated with the north, with the nourishing element of water, and with Vāmadeva, which is the most beautiful form of the great deity Śiva. Yet in the 4th century Nāṭya-śāstra, red is the color of the bhāva (state of being) of krodha (anger), and has the rasa (emotional flavor) of raudra (wrath).
Even as we recognize that specific colors have specific meanings, there is a shared understanding that bright colors in general are beneficial for daily life. They are extremely auspicious because they are associated with forces of light, awareness, virtue, and the vigor of life itself. In this sense, vibrant colors are also a form of protection from energies of confusion and suffering. For example, as mentioned earlier, we already know that they improve your mood.
For this reason, people in dharmic cultures often wear bright colors almost as a physical shield, or energetic armor. It’s a bit like joining a sports team and wearing a specific color. It helps others to identify what team you are on. It also helps you to recognize your own teammates: those who share your values and your understanding of dharma.
Bright colors (as well as sight in general) are related to the fire element. Of all the five fundamental elements, only fire transforms. It is the basis of all alchemy, and thus of yogic practices of transformation. For this reason, we not only wear bright colors, but use them in almost every ritual and worship ceremony – for example, in the bright reds and yellows of turmeric and kumkum powder. Turmeric is not just visually stunning, but also helps prevent a number of diseases, including cancer. So again we see the link between bright colors and well-being.
The only time that you would wear a single intense color is if you are participating in a ritual that focuses only on one specific energetic principle, deity, or sādhanā that the color represents. All-white, even though it’s technically a bright color, is associated with dissolution, ashes of the sacrificial fire, and the transcendent. It’s generally only worn for funerals or austerity practices such as meditation. For example, brahmin priests often wear white, representing austerity, but with a colorful border woven into the robes to invoke sacred life energy.
So how can we use this wisdom in our own lives? Wear bright colors! Keep bright things! Remember, it’s not about vanity or aggressively projecting a certain image. It’s about having gratitude and respect for your being here, for the love of life, and for the principles that you believe in. Surrounding yourself with cheerful and beautiful colors is not just for your own benefit – it’s a gift to everyone who sees you. You’re actually improving the lives of everyone around, and what’s better karma than that?