The English word ‘Symbol’ owes its origin to the Greek word, ‘Symbolon’ meaning ‘a sign’ by which one knows or infers a thing. Swami Swahananda, in one of his articles states that, “a symbol, typifies, represents or recalls something by possession of analogous qualities or by association in the fact or thought”1. Human beings use symbols so much so that it has become an innate tendency in them.
In due course, symbols began to be used to interpret more and more abstract things, thoughts, human virtues, beliefs, and faiths and so on. Naturally, artists, poets and writers took to symbols as fish take to water. While artists including painters and sculptors used symbols to depict variety of moods and thoughts in their colouring schemes and models respectively, poets with their rich imagination weaved tapestries of scenarios in words with rhymes and rhythms, which came to be called as poems, sonnets etc. Symbols are also used to educate the common man who doesn’t have the calibre to understand higher knowledge and that is what our Puranas, and Itihasas do. One of the best examples, as told by Dr, Muralidharan3 is that churning of the milk ocean by the Devas and Asuras for getting divine nectar is nothing but the training of the mind. The human mind struggles between good and evil thoughts (ocean of milk), and after a lot of conflicts, troubles and strains (symbolised by churning), the sadhaka is able to win over the asuric tendencies and approach the divinity (nectar) His mind is able to conquer the evil thoughts and retain the good ones. The poison (evil deeds and thoughts) which comes out, in him, is neither let out, for the fear of destroying others nor is swallowed for the fear of one’s own destruction. The chit shakti has the force to retain it at the background and hidden in him for some time and as the sadhaka advances in his sadhana, these thoughts slowly fade away into oblivion. Swami Swahananda also expresses a similar thought when he says, “….or the fight between the gods and the demons mentioned in the Upanishads, has been explained as the spiritual fight between good and evil forces in individual mind or in the world at large.”4
Symbols also have a mystical force behind them without which the effect of the symbol will come to a nought. It is this force coupled with the psychic energy of the user which gives the desired result. Sanatana dharma being the oldest one is heavily loaded with innumerable symbols. These symbols bring out the inner meaning of the thought to be conveyed, and are mainly of two types - one for the eyes and the other for the ears. Reiki symbols serve as an excellent example for this. This mystic force will be dealt in more detail, when we come to vedic symbols a little later in this essay.
There is a very lucid explanation of ‘symbols’ in the doctorial thesis of Dr. Prema Nandakumar on Savitri. According to her, there are two terms to every symbol which are to be equated; on the one side there is the visible image or sign and on the other side the idea or the force that the image or sign is meant to signify. She goes on to explain the uniqueness of our religious symbols. She goes on to explain the uniqueness of our religious symbols. She takes the help of Thomas Carlyle (as quoted in Baker’s ‘The Sacred River’) for this. In her opinion, for a symbol to be efficient and legitimate there must be concealment yet revelation. She goes on to explain that “if it is immediately and perfectly understandable, the symbol is superfluous; if it cannot be understood at all or if any arbitrary meaning is imposed upon it, the symbol fails to achieve its purpose.5” Thus inference becomes very important in understanding the symbols. She adds that, “it is simply the process of grouping one’s way from the twilight to the dusky regions, from the more known to the less known. And the process can be endless.”6 The hitherto unspoken and hidden meaning is brought about by using the symbols....
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