The Theosophical Forum – October 1948

THE LANGUAGE OF SYMBOLISM — Allan J. Stover

Every time the wind blows it is singing you a song of the gods. Every time a flower blossoms it is bringing you a message from the Higher Law. Every time you hear the ocean as it beats against the shore and recedes in musical rhythm, it is speaking to your soul — a voice from Nature, verily a voice from God. The magnitude, the grandeur of these things, the possibilities folded within them — these can truly be sensed only in the silence. — Katherine Tingley: Theosophy: The Path of the Mystic, p. 59

The language of symbolism runs like an undertone all through our lives. Metaphor and allegory enliven our daily speech, while signs, emblems, and symbols greet us on every hand. The very speed of modern life is once more bringing a pictorial and gesture language into daily living.

All nature is symbolic as reflecting on the physical plane inner truths, of repeating in the small a pattern of action which occupies eons of time on the cosmic scale. Other peoples, unlettered in the modern sense, have seen in every flower some living glyph of the mystery language of the gods; in every season of the year an act in the drama of cosmic evolution.

It is natural that certain plants, trees or animals should come to represent abstract or moral qualities: the strength of the oak, the courage of the lion, the purity of the lily, these and countless others have been built into the language and culture of our race. They are directly connected with ideas through analogy and suggestion. The rising of the sun at dawn is symbolic of the beginning of a manvantara or period of world-activity, because it is itself the beginning of a minor manvantara, that of a twenty-four hour day.

From the spiritual point of view, everything lives in a greater being and it in a still greater, on and on from the atom to the solar system. Each unit is inwardly formed on the same plan and obeys the same laws; it is this which links everything in the tapestry of universal life together in a unified brotherhood. Man in his life cycle from conception to death not only repeats the history of the race in its immensely long evolution, but his coming into being is analogous to the coming into being of worlds and universes. He has within himself not only portions of the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms; but of the various elements or nature principles forming the solar system in which he lives. Within his inner constitution is that which corresponds to Jupiter and Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, as well as Sun and Moon. He is indeed a microcosm of the macrocosm, at his heart an embryo god.

The study of symbols requires a different approach from that required by ordinary language. Words are literal, precise, and refer to particular things and events; symbols derived from nature are general and universal in application. A symbol may be compared to a mathematical formula — itself a symbol — in that it may be used to explain the life cycle and structure of any being large or small. Yet a symbol does not reveal its meaning to the unprepared. As a map of a bit of mountainous country may be meaningless to the casual tourist, but full of rich memory and significance to one who has camped beside its many streams, so a symbol may well be called a map of inward experience to those who have entered upon the path of self-conquest. Symbols cannot be understood by merely memorizing diagrams and definitions in a book. They must be lived, for they are essentially an introduction to the study of one's self and reveal their meaning as the art of self-conquest proceeds.

Amid the mass of emblems, glyphs, and pictographic characters of all races the true symbols stand out as distinctly as do the masterpieces of art or literature from the commonplace product of the many. These immortal designs were selected and given to mankind by great Teachers in the past — they are priceless volumes of instruction. Most of them depict, first of all, the higher and the lower self in their relation one to the other. This duality is found everywhere and in all things, on every plane of existence. When the student has discovered the higher and lower elements within his own nature, then by sympathetic analogy, understanding awakens in regard to other beings. Moreover, the momentary overcoming of the lower by the higher in the conflict of daily life may at some far day find expression in the great initiations wherein the successful candidate arises from the initiation trials an illuminated Christos. The square or cross in general signifies the materialized universe or the physical man. This with the four elements: fire, air, water, earth, and the four directions, represents the lower quaternary of the seven principles: Sthula-sarira, Linga-sarira, Prana, and Kama.

Symbols

The circle is everywhere representative of spiritual life and qualities, of the unmanifest as opposed to the manifested universe. The combination of these two elements, with the cross uppermost as in Fig. 1, is astrologically the sign for the earth, and it also represents a spiritually unawakened man, the cross being uppermost indicating the dominance of matter over spirit.

In Fig. 2 the same elements are shown reversed, with the circle uppermost. In this we see a symbol for a spiritually awakened man in whom the higher self is in control of the body. It is also the sign for Venus. A variation is shown in the ansated cross of an Egyptian initiate, Fig. 3. These and many others come to mind: the relative position of the square and compass as used by the Masonic fraternity, the round Chinese coin with the square hole, the interlaced triangles with the dark triangle pointing downward, the light one upward, Fig. 4, and the Yang and Yin design of the Chinese, Fig. 5.

Fundamentally the meaning is the same in all, but as the division of the sevenfold constitution into two parts is an elementary explanation of a very complex structure, so each of the symbols shown reveals different aspects of the inner nature and functions of man and the greater being in which he lives. In a larger sense these same symbols depict evolution and involution, the out-breathing and the in-breathing, the interblending of worlds or planes of spirit and matter. But whether in the large or in the small a thread of analogy runs through all the processes of nature.


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