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The method of using words or images to stand for, imply, or suggest a range of ideas other than the literal meaning of the words or the specific graphic representation of the images. As such, it is related to a range of such methods, from the linguistic use of simile, metaphor, analogy, and myth to the pictorial use of sign, token, emblem, or logo. The term “symbol” comes from the Greek symbolon which is derived from syn + ballein meaning “to throw together.” Thus, its basic meaning is “something which stands for or suggests something else by reason of some sort of convention, resemblance, psychological association, or relationship.” Thus, for example, a red octagonal piece of metal mounted on a pole at the intersection of two roads stands for a traffic rule to stop before proceeding, i.e., a stop sign. That would be an example of a purely conventional symbol. For Christians, a cross (especially one with the figure of an agonized man on it) stands for the theological belief that Jesus was crucified, and evokes for the Christian a whole range of related theological ideas. That would be an example of a psychological association.

Thus, symbols can be either realistic representations of the idea they are intended to represent or non-realistic conventions. From a theosophical perspective, it is the latter aspect — the symbol’s lack of specificity — which is the most interesting. Thus, a well-chosen symbol is able to transcend the limitations of language and convey to the mind an impression, a mood, or a deeper understanding of reality. That, of course, means that what a symbol conveys may well be different for different observers, or for the same observer at different times. The most profound symbols have, as it were, layers of meaning.

Symbols can also be either simple or complex in both structure and intent. A stop sign is simple in both aspects. The Christian cross (without the figure on it) is simple in structure, but complex in intent. The major arcana of the TAROT cards are complex in both aspects. The emblem of The Theosophical Society is complex in structure, since it is composed of a number of different symbolic images, including the Sanskrit word “om,” the Indian svastika, a serpent swallowing its tail, interlaced triangles, and the Egyptian ankh. It is also complex in intent. These are explained in detail under the heading THEOSOPHICAL SEAL, THE. Generally speaking, the simpler the symbolic image, the more immediate and potent the impact it has on the viewer. A complex symbol requires thought and analysis, therefore is not as likely to have such an immediate impact, however profound may be its implication.

The essential nature of a symbol depends on what has been termed “the principle of correspondences.” Thus one well-known symbol, the lotus flower, can stand for the CHAKRA system, since individual chakras are said to have a structure reminiscent of the petals of a flower and the throat, brow, and crown chakras especially are said to resemble the petals of a lotus. Since the gods (devas) in Hinduism are often depicted as seated on a lotus, that would remind the devotee that they exist on a super-physical plane and have awakened all their spiritual faculties. Finally, the lotus is said to embody the struggle of humanity in its effort to rise above absorption in earthly matters into higher consciousness, since the lotus plant is rooted in the mud (symbolic of our physical and lower psychic nature), rises in growth through the water (symbolic of our emotional-mental nature or k€ma-manas), and flowers in the upper air (symbolic of our spiritual nature or buddhi-manas). That would make it an example of a symbol simple in structure but complex in intent.

It is obvious, then, that symbols extend over a wide range of significance. At one end of the spectrum we encounter the symbolism of the ancient gods with their depth of meanings; at the other end we have the relatively trivial iconic symbols, such as ladders and black cats, associated with superstition. In ancient Egypt, the god Osiris symbolized fertility and his wife and sister, Isis, fecundity. Also with the Egyptians we find in one of their hieroglyphs the ankh, said to be a symbol of life; this continues to be popular right down to the present time. The ankh could also be an example of a symbol drawn from association patterns, since it is possible that it evolved out of a drawing of the Egyptian mud-anchor.

It is equally obvious that all nations, without a single known exception, enshrine a rich heritage of symbols in their traditions. The Americans have their eagle, the British their unicorn and lion, the Welsh their leek, the Scots their thistle, the Chinese their dragon, the Japanese their stylized image of the sun. Some nations have self-consciously adopted ancient symbols from quite different cultures and perverted their original meaning; the most notable example of this would be the Nazi use of the Sanskrit svastika (originally a symbol of creativity and good fortune). Just as Christians have the cross, Jews the interlaced triangles (Seal of Solomon or Star of David), and Muslims the crescent moon, so Buddhists use a wheel with eight spokes to represent the Noble Eightfold Path. Native Americans use a variety of symbols to indicate our intimate interrelation with all Nature. And some students of the Ancient Wisdom even use Nature itself as a symbol for the totality of Reality, which some call God.

The advisability of a detailed analysis of the meaning of symbols is the subject of debate. On the one hand it is helpful to draw attention to the existence and universality of symbols, but on the other such action might tend to limit the significance of any given symbol. Detailed discussion of symbols has been likened to tearing apart a rose in search of the source or secret of its beauty. There might be little harm in citing as an example of symbolism, the rose. C. E. Circlot has suggested that the single rose is, in essence, a symbol of completion, of consummate achievement and perfection. When the rose is round in shape it corresponds to the MAïALA and the seven petalled rose corresponds to the theosophical septenary system in humanity. The eight petalled rose alludes to regeneration (A Dictionary of Symbols, p. 275). But, clearly, those are only four possible interpretations. Others would perhaps find other meanings. And it is important for the student to develop his or her own insights, using such analyses as those of Circlot only as suggestions. This is especially true of those who practice “divination” or “character reading” by means of such symbolic systems as the Tarot or Chinese I Ching.

Symbols are also imbedded in certain rituals, such as those of Masonry, where the arrangement of furniture, appurtenances, and officers in a Lodge, as well as the emblems of their offices, are intended to evoke a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose of the ritual. Such symbols are usually drawn from a traditional text (e.g., the Bible in the case of Masonry) and thus, when incorporated in the ritual actions, become a kind of psycho-drama reminiscent of the dramatic rituals in the Mystery Schools of old.

Helena P. Blavatsky, in an article titled Pagan Symbolism Indestructible — Why?, wrote, “Thus we find again the old truism that it is but names and forms that change — ideas remain the same; and the older a faith, the stronger it clings to the relics of its youth. If it be true of all religions what is said by Prof. Max Müller, who remarks that ‘If there [is] one thing which a comparative study of religions places in the clearest light, it is in the inevitable decay to which every religion is exposed’ then on the other hand, nothing of the kind can ever be said of symbolism. The primitive purity of a creed can become soiled; its apostles can degrade and soil it by the inevitable admixture of human element. But its symbolism as the concrete expression of some now lost idea of the founder will survive forever. It may have its meaning changed, nay even its outward form altered. Like the phoenix of old, it will continue periodically to revive from its ashes” (CW XIII:300).


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