About the Importance of Religious Symbols

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.

9 thoughts on “About the Importance of Religious Symbols”

  1. “…ultimately the truth of symbols is to be primarily experienced – and any interpretation in words is a lesser reflection.” – The occult philosophy of Dyzan – which means Knowledge, through meditation – is cast in metaphor, a form of symbolism. The bridge between the unseen subjective and the seeing objective, between intuition and intellect, has the surest foundation in symbolism.

  2. Another excellent blog, Katinka, that prompts a few notes:

    I disagree with your opinion that the contradictions in ancient scriptures are “to be accepted and meditated upon.” The whole problem with metaphysics is its lack of a unifying principle. Oh, and outright fraud and “enlightened” self-interest. When I see a conflicting opinion in the scriptures of any kind – I throw it all out. Deception is afoot, and the Masters were not above using deception to acquire ill-gotten energy from their Slaves (to be a Master, you need Slaves, right?) in the form of prayers from adoring supplicants.

    The multidimensional nature of any symbol is not based on knowledge acquired by the mind. Symbols actually have a ‘life’ that’s just as valid as ours. Symbols are always given to us, Fishers of Men cast them as lures for the unwary.

    Symbol and the mind exist independently of each other. The mind does form a relationship with the symbol, where the symbol forms a copy of itself (relationship) within our essence, but the symbol would exist without a mind to relate to it. Just like the existence of mathematical law
    compared to the mathematics that the limited human mind can process.
    It would be a mistake to consider what human beings have accomplished in mathematics AS THE SAME Mathematics that exists in its Quantum Entirety within and without all of Time and Space. We do not know what exists outside our knowledge of Mathematics. Yet, those unknown symbols exist.

    Symbols are not created by the mind, although we have the ability to project and relate to symbols thru the mind, in the vain attempt to describe and associate the reality that surrounds us.

    The Use of Religious Symbols can lead to curious places, as demonstrated in this quote from Alice Bailey writing about the symbolical significance of the Holocaust:
    ‘Today the law of racial karma is working and the Jews are paying the price, factually and symbolically…”

    On the improbable mechanics of Karma, I will leave that aside for now, but this quote reveals that even the brilliance of Post-Theosophical Tradition as represented by Alice Bailey – can be occluded by the use of symbols seeking to justify suffering of any kind. With religious symbols, Inquisitions, genocide, pogroms and massacres appear.

    Knowledge and emotions are the worse methodologies for understanding one’s place in reality. For example, knowledge and emotions were the factors that led to the design and use of the Atomic Bomb. Revenge and Knowledge rising together as the Living Symbol of Evil. The Taoists cry, “Abandon Knowledge.” We would do well to listen to Laotsu when he says:

    ‘The Tao abides in non-action,
    Yet nothing is left undone.
    If kings and lords observed this,
    The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
    If they still desired to act,
    They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
    Without form there is no desire.
    Without desire there is tranquillity.
    In this way all things would be at peace.’

    I propose a post-metaphysical approach to Religious symbolism which in part features the total rejection of the lines of hermeneutical inquiry, and the total rejection of the notion that the mind can provide any answers to the question of Ultimate Reality, or else it would have done so already. It is unfortunate that religious symbols cannot provide any relief of the massive suffering that occurs every day in this world.

    What do we do instead of seeking Visions of Nirvana? We stop the mind and work towards ways to bring equality to all in this world. Then we can produce a Nirvana on Earth, which is something religious symbolism has utterly failed to accomplish.

  3. The question is, Darryl, whether a mind conditioned by it’s past can bring about equality any more than religious symbols can. Seems to me that no method has yet produced peace on earth – however worthy a goal that may be.

    I’m not suggesting it should not be attempted, don’t get me wrong.

    I’m merely saying that those who want to understand the wisdom religion underlying all religions need to meditate on the symbols without being limited by their theological meanings.

    For those who don’t want to understand all that and just want to change the world I say: Go right ahead. Please do.

  4. Emotions are part of the truth of any situation. Unless faced they will cause problems elsewhere. As Ashish rightly says: the Ultimate consists of all the aspects of the human being: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and divine (my favorite way to sum them up, but there are others).

    To ignore the emotional is to ignore a vital aspect of our experienced reality. It just doesn’t work.

    To make it very practical: try ignoring the emotions of people you are trying to help – you will only reap suffering.

  5. Certain questions have clear answers, but others do not. I too know that there are certain questions for which there are no complete answers, but one has to keep exploring and searching and one can find completeness and satisfaction in this. Certain questions do not have one answer and if one accepts one answer it’s like closing the door to knowledge.

  6. “The question is, Darryl, whether a mind conditioned by it’s past can bring about equality any more than religious symbols can.”

    – I would say that the mind is the reason why inequality and abuse exists. Well, that and DNA. What has the intellect and feelings of Mankind brought us? War, Capitalism, slavery, the Atomic Bomb? Peace and equality do not exist – and the world is nothing if not a separated mess.

    Besides, we are living symbols, anyway. The truth that we are is what we do and what we think and existence is showing us the reflection of who we are, and it is not a pretty picture.

    As for Feelings – I maintain that they cannot be trusted because they change. The only thing I agree with Aquinas is that whatever is not constant is not real. Whatever s based on energy is not real, because without a power source, energy depletes. When I watch the movie The Matrix, I am amazed at the metaphor of energetic vampirism.
    Replace the Machine with “Heaven,” and the movie becomes a chilling fable of how the spirit world requires energy through consuming “lower” versions of itself. This perspective explains why Religion & Spiirituality cannot sort this world out and why gaps and incongruencies exist in the Religious Traditions. Everything that I have – and I have studied these matters for over thirty years – points to deception. Jeez, I hate sounding like a crank and a conspiracy theorist, but there’s something fishy going on.

  7. I love you and the efforts you make to enlighten me (us). We, the royal prerogative, are, if a label is required, are Zen and find Osho and Krishnamurti liberating. We find our bliss in nature, poetry, music, and surreal art.

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