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About the Importance of Religious Symbols

October 28, 2009

in Theosophy

The first ‘lecture’ I ever gave, I gave for a very private audience: a few members of the Groningen lodge of the Theosophical Society. I was about 19 and still, ostensibly, studying chemistry. One of my fellow students went along. My main point that evening was that the importance of symbols was as a starting point for reflection and meditation. That no symbol had only one meaning. That the meaning of symbols was to be felt and approached from various directions. In other words: the proces was more important than any answer. My fellow chemistry student came away from that evening saying: they wanted the meaning of the symbols, they did not hear it when you said that they should find their own meaning. She was not wrong.

After all – don’t we all like answers more than questions? Don’t we do crossword puzzles for the sake of having finished them? In fact, crossword puzzles consist of a long series of questions with, within the game, only one right answer. The only people I’ve met who are able to sit long with questions are scientists. Science teacher after science teacher has told me that in order to write a paper, one doesn’t have to have the right answer to the question. Or something. I never quite believed even them. I have never read a science paper without there being some sort of answer to the original question asked – even if in the proces of writing it, the question changed.

But in the area of symbolism and spiritual growth – stagnation is death. Thinking you know is a certain way of not going any further. That’s why I was very glad to find that Sri Krishna Prem and Sri Madhava Ashish (I’ll refer to them together as ‘Ashish’ from here on)  in  their ‘Man the Measure of All Things‘ spend a whole lot of time explaining how to deal with the symbolism in The Secret Doctrine, and religion in general.

Those who know me, know I love facts. I love the feeling of knowing the answer. I will also express my opinion quite forcefully. I do hope I change my mind when I find out I’m wrong, but that’s as far as I’ll go. When I was 19 however, I was firmly steeped in not knowing. I was doing what I told my fellow lodge members to do: meditating on symbols, visualising them, conjuring up numbers and their relation to symbols. Aside from my own intuition, The Secret Doctrine was my main source of inspiration. In the end though, I’m afraid I did come to conclusions about what ‘one’ meant, and ‘two’ etc.

I can still conjure that hazy feeling of being immersed in feeling, thoughts and not knowing. It’s a bit like the feeling you have when you’ve just woken up from a particularly strong dream.

Ashish too refers to that feeling. On p. 29 he quotes Jane Harrison who says: ”Nor must we regard this haze of the early morning as a deleterious mental fog, as a sign of disorder, weakness, oscillation. It is not confusion or even synthesis; rather it is as it were a protoplasmic fullness and forcefulness not yet articulate in the forms of its ultimate births. . . . It is necessary to bear in mind this primary fusion, though not confusion, of ideas.” (Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion)

Blavatsky uses a lot of symbols in her The Secret Doctrine. Ashish rightly notes that she will use different symbols to describe the same thing (p. 32). For that reason there are teachers of The Secret Doctrine who make lists of symbols and have the students associate on them all, to prepare them for the understanding of the book. This is probably a good method, because it helps the mind become conscious of itself. Then combining all that again by reading The Stanzas will help do what Ashish says their whole object is: “to impart not the analytic knowledge of the discursive mind (manas), but the feeling-knowledge of the intuitive mind (buddhi).” (p. 30) “The intellectualistic logic of ‘B is either A or not A’ must be transcended if reality is to be grasped in its entirety. For this purpose the archaic symbolic thought, with all its fluidity and seeming vagueness, will be found an invaluable instrument.

From this perspective it becomes clear that the contradictions in the ancient scriptures are not there to be smoothed over – they are to be accepted and meditated upon. Because… they are the mirror of ‘the deep and dark emotive forces of all that side of our beings to which we refer when we use the word feeling in preferance to thinking.’ (p. 31) This is obviously a reference to a kind of Jungian understanding of both our own psyche and our relationship to the universe. Indeed, Ashish goes on to say: ‘Now, as at all times, these concrete symbols are the real and actual language of our psyches, and, whether our search is for knowledge of the macrocosmic universe or of the microcosmic self, we have to turn to our mistress Psyche for knowledge of the feeling half of life. Without this, our cognations will be as unbalanced as a world that should know no night, no dark fortnight of the moon and no southward path of the sun in winter, but only the shadowless light of an equatorial noon.’

I guess in this blogpost I’ve come full circle – after 14 years of studying theosophy, science and world religion, I still agree that ultimately the truth of symbols is to be primarily experienced – and any interpretation in words is a lesser reflection.

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