The rainbow exemplifies the power of beauty. It is also a prime example of the illusory display that we experience as the physical world: It is patently not something "real", but rather an ephemeral or transitory "object" produced by the interplay of light and water.
Attribute of the Gods
In iconography, which is the decoding of formal images, a symbol that is indicative of the special qualities of a deity is called an attribute. It is usually an object grasped in the hand, but it can also appear separately as a symbol of the deity that serves as a metonymy. In a twist on computer terminology, nowadays we can call it the god's "icon."
The rainbow is a good example of attribute. It is frequently interpreted as a sign of the presence of the sky deity. It is his weapon, her necklace, the Creator's palette of colours or the hem of his or her glorious garment.
In some Tibetan tangkas, the circular rainbow stands for the presence of Buddha Samantabhadra, the All-good.
However a bow is primarily a weapon, and so from the Americas to northern Asia, the rainbow is thought to be that which propels the arrows or thunderbolts of the storm deity. For example, the Buriat people of Siberia say that Tengri fights evil spirits with fiery arrows shot from his bow.
The Navajo say that during a period of darkness 12 men, one from each of the directions of space, once tried to use the rainbow as a lever in an unsuccessful attempt at raising the fallen sun.
In many cultures the rainbow is a distinct deity. To the ancient Greeks, she was Iris the brightly gowned, winged daughter of Thaumas, god of wonder, and the sea goddess Electra, who was a messenger to Hera, Zeus' lawful wife. Iris' attributes are a staff and a pithos or jar. In her role as Hecate, Iris travels to the Underworld to testify to the oaths of the dying and she also has the power to detain their souls.
The Mayans used to make offerings of gold and silver to Ix Chel, goddess of the moon, water and the rainbow, who also ruled childbirth. She is depicted with clawed hands and her skirt was decorated with crossbones. She controlled the rain and her attribute was the jug of deluge which could visit devastation on the land. She also manifested as a sky serpent.
A rainbow is also seen as "The serpent that quenches its thirst in the sea" and in Africa, it is a guardian of treasure. In China, it is a sky dragon uniting heaven and earth -- the union of Yin and Yang. In Australia, it is the mother-source of all creation.
Road, Bridge, Staircase
The iridescent ornament of the Mesopotamian Great Goddess, Inanna-Ishtar, the rainbow also serves as a bridge to heaven. Though Ishtar allows the souls of the chosen to ascend to The Great Above via the multi-hued band, she once blocked the way of the sky god when he harmed her children with the Deluge.
In Thai (Buddhist) mythology, the rainbow is a staircase linking the earth to the heavens down which the nagas can descend. Here the colors do not stand for distinct elements, but represent aspects or qualities of the unity that is their source. Hence the rainbow links Samsara -- the world of illusion and suffering, to Nirvana -- formless Emptiness.
If it is usually viewed as a link between heaven and earth, the rainbow is also a path between earthly realms. For example, Irish folklore gives us the notion of a leprechaun's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The Navajo say that gods travel the rainbow which is a rapidly moving road. They believe, too, that no matter how fast we may run towards its end, we can never reach it. Similar in the nature of Samsaric existence, that which is unsatisfactory, disappointing.
The Sioux say that the rainbow is where all the bright flowers stay before and after their brief blooming period on the earth. Similar to Nirvana, non-existence.
In Buddhist iconography, the five colours: blue, white, green, red and yellow stand for the five Buddha families. Orange is the hue associated with Bodhisattva, Manjushri. Violet (pale purple) is associated with the protection afforded by Tara.
When people see seven colors in the rainbow, they relate them to the seven traditional celestial planets, or the seven celestial spheres. In Indian mythology, the various hues are the veils of Maya, goddess of illusion, whose garments are depicted with bright bands of colour.
Homer saw only the colour purple in the rainbow. Later, Xenophanes found crimson, yellow and blue. Medieval Christians also saw three, and in the Islamic view, there are four colours -- red, yellow, green and blue -- corresponding to the four elements. Newton found seven, which suited his numerologic theory, and that is how we expect to see it. In actuality there are as many colors as wavelengths of light, aren't there?
Though rainbows are often explained as the bridge from the realm of the gods to the earth, more often, they are seen as a kind of omen. As a sign from heaven, they are interpreted in a variety of ways: a portent of impending war or conversely, a seal of the Creator's promise not to destroy the land in another global Flood.
In India, the rainbow is poetically called Indra's Bow. But for Buddhists, the rainbow recalls the Prajnaparamita teaching on the Emptiness of Form. These striking atmospheric manifestations that occur at transitional times of the year, or of changing weather, are also understood in Tibetan Buddhism as indications of blessings from the buddhas, bodhisattvas, dakinis or deities.
From Namo Buddha Newsletter of 2002-10-12:
"Historic accounts of the lives of great masters have told of rainbows and other special signs, ... " ~ Rainbows and the Jamgon Kongtrul.
For example, in the midst of the cremation ceremony of the 16th Karmapa, a giant rainbow ringed the sun although the weather was clear and dry. What remained of his heart was seen to roll out of the pyre on the side facing Tibet, and later a small footprint appeared in the ashes in the same direction. Many people from all over the world witnessed those signs.
http://www.kagyu.org/monastery/pho/phos03.html#four shows the rainbow reflection of the 16th Karmapa stupa at Crestone, Colorado, USA.
And, from Karmapa (Scotland: Altea Publishing, 1996) by Ken Holmes:
At one point during the Karmapa's first international press conference on April 27, 2001 during which he was referred to as a "900-year old teenager," there was a clap of thunder followed by a brief shower which, when the sky cleared, was followed by a rainbow.
Even in the most secular of societies, a rainbow is usually taken as a blessing or at the least, an auspicious sign. Its appearance has the capacity of adding glamour to an otherwise mundane event. In fact the word glamour has a connection with that remarkable optical phenomena.
In Lhasa, on May 1st, International Workers' Day, people were amazed to see the sun surrounded by two bright homocentric rainbow circles, said Chinese news agency Xinhua. These "glories" are aureoles formed by the presence of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, but many interpret it as an omen. Its description resembles the one photographed in Europe in 1997.
The Times of India, May 2, 2001 quotes Xinhua:
Jhalu or The Rainbow Body
A teacher or yogi who has acquired the highest forms of accomplishment can manifest what is called "the rainbow body" or "body of light." Usually this happens after death, but it has been known to happen at other times. For example, one of the 8 forms of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) is The Rainbow. HH the 16th Karmapa was observed by many people as he temporarily dissolved in this way during a Black Crown ritual.
Those who have mastered the trek-chod phase of Dzogchen in which pure and total presence is stabilized, are able to do to-gal. This is the final Dzogchen practice which enables the yogi at the time of death to dissolve his or her physical body into the essence of the elements. The yogin then disappears into a " body of light" leaving behind only the hair, toe and finger nails, and the nasal septum.
Sogyal Rinpoche wrote, "
Green Tara is often depicted wearing a rainbow of leg-wrappings resembling striped stockings. They are a sign of her ability to manifest in this world.
<- Mummified man's body wearing similar garb, northern Eurasia
Metonymy is a figure of speech in which we say a significant object instead of the person's name, eg. the Crown rules that ... .
Sogyal: Chapter10 of Tibetan Book of Living & Dying. We decry Sogyal Lakar's abuse of his personal influence as a lama, but we do not deny that his book has helped people understand certain concepts.