Symbols are very much a part of our daily lives -- the letters of the alphabet, numbers, names, corporate and national emblems, and religious and secular rites, for instance. There seems to be an inherent propensity in human nature to make and use them. The sacred sciences of antiquity were all recorded in symbols that sum up certain occult principles and therefore form a mystery language. Most symbols condense a number of meanings into one and can be interpreted in either a cosmic or a human sense. The keys to the symbols which unlock the nature of things will give us some answers to the questions we ask: What is life? Where did I and the world come from? Where am I going? What really is the true nature of things?
Some of the ancient geometric symbols addressed cosmogonical questions. The circle, for example, can represent space -- not empty space, but the space referred to in Genesis as "the waters of space." Beyond this is infinity, which cannot be expressed by any form or shape. The perimeter of the circle indicates infinity in that it is beginningless and endless. If we put a point in the middle of this circle of space, we have the first stirring of spirit. The Pythagoreans would refer to this point as the Logos.
The circle can be equated with the egg, a sacred symbol in the cosmogony of every people, representing the entire cosmic process by which worlds and living beings are born. It contains the positive and negative forces which together produce manifested life. When the circle is shown as a spiral, it represents evolution, eternal change and growth. The circle with a horizontal diameter signifies divine Mother Nature. When the horizontal line is crossed by a vertical line, we have the symbol of Father Nature added, the two together forming a cross and representing the manifested universe. Generally, a vertical line stands for spirit, and a horizontal line matter.
The same idea is represented by the equilateral triangle and the Trinity. The upper point of the triangle, in the same sense as the point in the circle, is the unity, the one life, from which springs a duality of spirit and matter which can be expressed as energy and substance, positive and negative, or force and matter. This duality manifests from a unity which contains both spirit and matter and which is the source of all. The two sides of the triangle denote duality, and the base of the triangle is the offspring of spirit and matter, being either the inner cosmos or man -- for in the process of manifestation, whether of human being, planet, or sun, these three forces over an immense period of time together emanate physical matter as we know it.
The cross symbolizes eternal life and is used in various religions with slight differences. The Christians took it from the Gnostics and Kabbalists, who took it from the Egyptians; also present in the Mediterranean area were the Latin or Roman cross and that of Buddhist missionaries from India. The cross of crucifixion actually signifies the incarnation of Divinity, the "Word (Logos) made flesh" -- crucified on the cross of matter. In his letters, St. Paul dwells much on the Christ in us being crucified, and many religions have the story of crucified saviors.
The oldest Egyptian cross, which was also the Greek cross, has both lines of equal length. The horizontal line represents the feminine or passive principle of nature, and the vertical line the energic side, a symbol of dual generative power. Siva, Jehovah, and Osiris are all symbols of the active principle in nature: forces that provide for the formation of matter, its destruction and/or regeneration.
One variation of the cross is the swastika. Swastika is a Sanskrit word meaning "well-being" or "auspicious," and there are said to be seven keys to its inner meaning. This symbol is found in India, China, Tibet, Thailand, Japan, the Americas, Greece, Rome, and among early Christians. In Scandinavia it was known as Thor's Hammer; in India as Vishnu's discus or as the Jaina cross; in Buddhism it is a "wheel" denoting eternal motion and stands for evolution. Representing spirit-matter, its central point is the god principle, and its four arms represent in succession birth, life, death, and immortality.
Another form of the cross is the Hebrew letter tau, the handled or ansated cross, called in Egypt the ankh, which ages before had been used there, and was placed on the breasts of their mummies. Used by the Romans, it represented immortality. It has also been found on the backs of some of the mighty statues on Easter Island. Its meaning is similar to that of the swastika, except that it represents a higher plane of being: the primordial movements and states of cosmic being.
In a mystical sense the tau is also the Tree of Life or World Tree said to span heaven and earth. From the most ancient times trees were connected with gods and mystical forces in nature. Every nation had its sacred tree. For the Buddhist, it is the Bo or bodhi tree (ficus religiosa) under which Gautama is believed to have reached enlightenment; in Mexico, the dark cypress; and the sycamore tree of Assyria and Egypt, where its cones were carried in religious processions. Other trees that have been used as symbols were the fir, oak, tamarisk, palm, and vine.
In Scandinavia the sacred tree was the ash, and in the Eddas the cosmic ash or Yggdrasil is the symbol of universal life. It had three roots: one in the god-world, one in the realms of matter, and one in Niflheim (cloud-world), the formative world of undifferentiated substance. The Hindu cosmic tree Asvattha symbolizes the universe in its intellectual and moral character, its leaves suggesting the mantras of the Vedas. It was described as growing upside down, the roots having their genesis in heavenly regions. The Zoroastrian Tree of Life is the gogard or gokard, among whose branches lives a serpent which cannot be dislodged. This is reminiscent of the Tree of Knowledge in the Hebrew Garden of Eden. In this context, the serpent is the embodiment of divine wisdom and the symbol of spirit. Because of its ability to shed its skin, it also may represent regeneration, rebirth, or cyclic time.
Another widespread symbol is the lotus, sacred to the Egyptians, Hindus, Buddhists, Chinese, and Japanese. Exemplifying the miniature as a part of the whole, it includes all the forces of the macrocosm in the microcosm, for the seeds of the lotus, even before they germinate, contain perfectly formed leaves -- the miniature shape of the plants they will become. The lotus, representing all the forces of nature, lives in the four elements -- its roots in earth, its stem in water, its blossoms in the air and the sunlight -- i.e., in earth, water, air, and fire. Its likeness appears on objects of every description in Asia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and also America where it is found decorating Inca vessels and frieze paintings at Chichen Itza. In India, a bodhisattva is shown announcing the incarnation of Gautama Buddha by presenting a lotus to Mayadevi, his mother-to-be. The same idea appears in Christian paintings of the archangel Gabriel handing the Virgin Mary a spray of white lilies. Both symbolize, not only the incarnation of a spiritual teacher, but also the birth of divine awareness within an individual.
From times immemorial, knowledge superior to that of our present age has been preserved in symbol, sacred allegories, and myths. They formed a secret wisdom handed down from person to person and from age to age. There appears to be a system of symbols common to all religions around the world. According to H. P. Blavatsky, there never was, nor can there be, more than one universal religion, for there can be but one truth concerning the Divine. The symbolism of every people reflects the same spiritual principles, and the symbolism of all mythologies has a scientific foundation and substance reflecting spiritual potentialities.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press)
World Spiritual Traditions Menu