The subject I have chosen for this afternoon could cover a vast field; but I have selected four symbols only: the swastika, the serpent, the interlaced triangles, and the Egyptian tau or ansated cross. I shall endeavor to give you a few general keys to their symbolic meaning, as a detailed study of each could easily occupy an entire afternoon's lecture; and then I shall show how these combine to form the Seal of the Theosophical Society. A true emblem, one rooted in the Wisdom of the Ages, should contain in its interpretation all aspects of what it stands for; and you will see that the T. S. Seal carries in its meaning the vast range of Theosophical doctrine.
ITS PRACTICAL APPLICATION
Today's subject might seem a far cry from the so-called "practical problems of living," but I shall endeavor to show that the Wisdom that these symbols contain is very close to the living of our daily lives. A Theosophist is often asked what is the value of studying ancient religion, symbolism, the histories of by-gone peoples, the future of the Race, etc. I think of the Theosophical conception of man as being really consciousness, which should not be such a far-fetched idea even to a non-Theosophist. You don't have to be a Theosophist to realize that very little of you is your physical body; it plays little part in your spiritual and intellectual life, (unless you should be ill, when it is sometimes difficult to remove the consciousness from the body!) And you certainly realize that what you love in your friends is something quite apart from the physical part of them. In other words, it is your consciousness that you live and function in — which indeed is you yourself.
So then I realized that man actually extends, both in time and space, as far as his consciousness can go; and when we study the Wisdom of the ancients as we find it in history, symbolism, literature, or archaeology, we are expanding our consciousness to embrace those egos of olden times. When we study the destiny of the human race in future aeons, we are expanding our consciousness into the future. When we study about the stars and the sun and other solar systems, we are expanding our consciousness out into space. Now, what do you suppose happens if students all over the world are also studying these subjects in their various aspects, each one expanding his consciousness (which is himself) in space and time? Don't you think these different consciousnesses must merge to a degree, thus proving that in the higher immortal part of man, each one of us is not separate from another? I shall presently show how that is illustrated in our Seal. I fully believe that widespread interest in and study of such lofty subjects would in time, because of this merging of the consciousness of one with another, do away with that spirit of 'separateness' which is the heresy of the present age. To me that is a very practical problem, closely affecting our every-day living.
FOUR TYPES OF SYMBOLISM
In a series of articles by Dr. Henry T. Edge, published in The Theosophical Forum during 1936, entitled "The Universal Mystery-Language," he states succinctly the part that symbols play in giving expression to truth. He says:
There are certain broad general truths which transcend the power of expression in ordinary verbal language; and this must necessarily be the case. For verbal language is the instrument of a certain portion of the mind which has limits; the knowledge of which we are speaking relates to powers of the mind which transcend those limits; and therefore they are beyond the power of words. Such profound ideas are expressed by symbols; the full meaning of these symbols has to be grasped intuitively by the exercise of higher faculties of the mind; but we can approximate to such a comprehension by studying the various meanings which the symbol conveys, and holding all these meanings in the mind, until finally we gain some sense of the real underlying meaning
I think of four general types in symbology: (1) Universal symbols which have come down to us from the mists of history (and it is some of these that we shall study today). (2) Symbolism in the mind of an artist which he portrays in color or sound, expressing his ideas in concrete form. (3) Literary symbols, that is symbolism by means of stories or legends, metaphors and figures of speech, or truths hid in parables. (4) There are what we might call fictitious symbols, those which from day to day may be used to portray some idea, but are not based on any universal key. I might instance the use we make of red signals to indicate danger.
We come now to the first of the symbols we shall study: the swastika, the origin of which can be traced in occult records back to Atlantean times, and which is so universal that even in historic times it can be found among many peoples and in widely separated parts of the globe. The swastika is really a cross, and all crosses symbolize manifestation, that is life as contrasted with death, waking with sleeping; and in the cases of universes which also sleep and wake, it would portray the active life of a universe when Spirit comes "down" as it were from above, and Matter rises from below, and the two conjoin. No manifestation is possible without the conjunction of Spirit and Matter, the vertical line of the cross representing spirit, and the horizontal matter.
In the swastika each arm is bent backwards in the same direction, indicating the whirling motion of evolution, whether of worlds or men. Nothing can stand still while in manifestation, it must go forward or backward. The question is often asked whether there is a special occult significance to the direction in which the arms of the swastika are bent, but there is none. Some students seem to think that if they are bent towards the left, it is a sign of traveling on the left-hand path; but it could as easily mean that, out of compassion for humanity, an advanced soul turned aside from his own forward evolution on the right-hand path, to help to lead "erring humanity" away from the left-hand. The swastika is found among many peoples with the arms bent either way.
As regards men, the swastika can stand for the dual forces in man at work all the time, energy and inertia, will and passivity. The center of the swastika is its neutral point, the focus towards which are drawn all evolving beings, who are "ground over and over" so to speak, on the wheel of evolution, by means of repeated lives, until they are transformed into something higher (which will be portrayed in another symbol).
This form of the cross was used by early Christians, and by the Greeks. It is also a favorite Buddhist symbol; and they use a beautiful metaphor in connexion with the periodic appearances of Teachers who come to give Truth to mankind: that each one comes and gives another "turning to the Wheel of the Law," which the swastika symbolizes.
This is really two symbols in one, the serpent meaning Wisdom, and in its form of a circle meaning immortality, endless cycles. The circle not only stands for Wisdom in the abstract, but for Those who have attained to Wisdom, in other words initiates and seers. In mythology the serpent has a dual meaning, the nagas and the sarpas, the nagas standing for initiates; the sarpas standing for those who are mean, tricky, wily, deceitful; but this may be only a man-made distortion. For instance, in the Bible narrative, the serpent is depicted as a tempter; but he really was a Teacher, 'tempting' Adam and Eve only in the sense of showing them that their way towards salvation lay in leaving the passive Garden of Paradise and going out along the Path of Evolution; and he persuaded them to "eat of the Tree of Knowledge." We also have in the New Testament the exhortation "Be ye wise as serpents." In this symbol, with its active head biting its passive tail, it is shown that there is never a beginning or an end to things, the cyclic course of nature. If you start at the head of the serpent and travel around to its tail, you come to the head again. In the same way, if you begin with the morning of a twenty-four hour day, and go on through it, you do not come to an end, but to another morning. So the serpent in its circle represents birth and death and rebirth again, in other words reincarnation. This is also signified by the serpent casting off its old skin, as we do our old bodies, and emerging forth again with a fresh skin or garment.
Another interesting phase of the serpent biting its tail, thus forming a circle, is this: the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is closely three to one, expressed by the mathematical constant pi. But if you try to work out the figure exactly, you will find that you never can obtain a finite number. There is an endless line of figures after the decimal point. This is symbolic of the unknown factor in human affairs, both in the sense of there never being a definite period or stopping of anything; and in the sense of life not being pre-determined and governed by fatalism. Each act we do produces its effect, which in turn becomes an act producing its effect, and so on and on: in other words the constant working of the karmic law in nature.
The scales of the serpent also can have a double significance: they can represent the various facets of truth, each facet being one aspect of Truth as viewed by an individual; and they can also represent the myriads of individual men traveling on the path of evolution in search of truth.
THE INTERLACED TRIANGLES
Here again we have Spirit and Matter combined, showing the worlds of manifestation. This symbol has been called the Seal of Solomon, also the Seal of Vishnu. The white triangle stands for Spirit, the dark one for Matter. The white one should always point up, showing the mastery of Spirit, or the forces of light, over Matter or the forces of darkness. If the black one pointed upwards, it would indicate a reign of darkness and evil over the world. The two triangles interlaced can also stand for Wisdom concealed and Wisdom revealed. In order to make the wisdom of the ages available to men, it is necessary that it be "brought down" from the spiritual realms and "revealed" to men. You will notice also that there are six points or angles and a central enclosed space. These can show the sevenfold aspect of nature; and as regards man, the six points may stand for six of his principles, and the central space for his Seventh, the Atman, the Divine. It is in this seventh or highest that all things become one. It is the "Universal Principle."
There is a fascinating paragraph regarding the Interlaced triangles as they appear in our Seal, in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, where the Master refers to them as "a geometrical synthesis of the whole occult doctrine," and says that they contain "the great problem of Life and Death, and — the Mystery of Evil." And then the Master says "The chela who can explain this sign from every one of its aspects — is virtually an adept." So we can safely leave it with this partial explanation.
THE EGYPTIAN TAU
This is also called the ansated or handled cross, and as a cross it bears all the general meanings that the swastika does, only it has perhaps a more cosmic significance. The vertical part surmounted by a globe serves to show the descent of spirit from the inner realms, until it is crossed by the horizontal line of matter in the worlds of manifestation. This symbol also stands for regenerated Man, or for an Initiate, and is indeed a sign of initiation. In ancient pictures initiates were often depicted carrying this cross. In Christian symbolism it conveys the idea of the "Word made flesh," mystically a crucifixion.
THE THEOSOPHICAL SEAL
Now we can place the serpent, with the swastika enclosed in a circle at its head, the interlaced triangles within the circle of the serpent, and the tau in the center; and we have the Theosophical Seal. The six points of the interlaced triangles almost touch the serpent, showing the reaching out by man, in all his principles, towards Wisdom and immortality during his evolutionary journey; and the tau, the regenerated man, stands in the center, which, representing the Divine or Atman, shows that man has become at one with his Divine part. But it is in our highest principle, the divine, that men find the realization that they are indeed not only brothers, but are in essence one and not separate entities. That is the aim of evolution: the realization of man's own divinity, and his kinship with all that is.