The Mystics all over the world and in all ages have clothed their sayings in proverbs and parables, in figures and symbols. To speak in symbols seems to be in their very nature; it is their characteristic manner, their inevitable style. Let us see what is the reason behind it. But first who are the Mystics? They are those who are in touch with supra-sensual things, whose experiences are of a world different from the common physical world, the world of the mind and the senses.

These other worlds are constituted in other ways than ours. Their contents are different and the laws that obtain there are also different. It would be a gross blunder to attempt a chart of any of these
other systems, to use an Einsteinian term, with the measures and conventions of the system to which our external waking consciousness belongs. For, there “the sun shines not, nor the moon, nor the stars, neither these lightenings nor this fire.” The difficulty is further enhanced by the fact that there are very many unseen worlds and they all differ from the seen and from one another in manner and degree. Thus, for example, the Upanishads speak of the swapna, the susupta, and the turiya, domains beyond the jagrat which is that where the rational being with its mind and senses lives and moves. And there are other systems and other ways in which systems exist, and they are practically innumerable.

If, however, we have to speak of these other worlds, then, since we can speak only in the terms of this world, we have to use them in a different sense from those they usually bear; we must employ them as figures and symbols. Even when they may prove inadequate and misleading; so there are Mystics who are averse to all speech and expression- they are mauni; in silence they experience the inexpressible and in silence they communicate it to the few who have the capacity to receive in silence.

But those who do speak, how do they choose their figures and symbols? What is their methodology? For it might be said, since the unseen and the seen differ out and out, it does not matter what forms or signs are taken from the latter; for any meaning and significance could be put into anything. But in reality, it does not so happen. For, although there is a great divergence between figures and symbols on the one hand and on the things figured and symbolized on the other, still there is also some link, some common measure. And that is why we see not unoften the same or similar figures and symbols representing an identical experience in ages and countries far apart from each other.

We can make a distinction here between two types of expression which we have put together indiscriminately, figures and symbols. Figures, we may say, are those that are constructed by the rational mind, the intellect; they are mere metaphors and similes and are not organically related to the thing experienced, but put it round it as a robe that can be dropped or changed without affecting the experience itself. Thus, for example, when the Upanishad says, atmanam rathinam viddhi (Know that the soul is the master of the chariot who sits within it) or indriyani hayanahuh (The senses, they say, are the horses), we have here only a comparison or analogy that is common and natural to the poetic manner. The particular figure or simile used is not inevitable to the idea or experience that it seeks to express, its part and parcel. On the other hand, take this Upanishadic perception: hiranyamayena patrena satyasyaphitam mukham (The face of the Truth lies hidden under the golden orb). Here the symbol is not mere analogy or comparison, a figure; it is one with the very substance of the experience- the two cannot be separated. Or when the Vedas speak of the kindling of the Fire, the rushing of the waters or the rise of the Dawn, the images though taken from the material world, are not used for the sake of mere comparison, but they are the embodiments, the living forms of truths experienced in another world.

When a Mystic refers to the Solar Light or to the Fire- the light, for example, that struck down Saul and transformed him into Saint Paul or the burning bush that visited Moses, it is not the physical or material object that he means and yet it is that in a way. It is the materialization of something that is fundamentally not material; some movement in an inner consciousness precipitates itself into the region of the senses and takes out from out of the material the form commensurable with its nature that it finds there.

And there is such a commensurability or parallelism between the various levels of consciousness, in and through all the differences that separate them from one another. Thus an object or a movement apprehended on the physical plane has a sort of line of re-echoing images extended in a series along the whole gradation of the inner planes; otherwise viewed, an object or movement in the innermost consciousness translates itself in varying modes from plane to plane down to the most material, where it appears in its grossest form as a concrete three-dimensional object or a mechanical movement. This parallelism or commensurability by virtue of which the different and divergent states of consciousness can portray or represent each other is the source of all symbolism.

A symbol symbolizes something for this reason that both possess in common a certain identical, at least similar, quality or rhythm or vibration, the symbol possessing it in a grosser or more apparent or sensuous form than the thing symbolized does. Sometimes it may happen that it is more than a certain quality or rhythm or vibration that is common between the two: the symbol in its entirety is the thing symbolized but thrown down on another plane, it is the embodiment of the latter in a more concrete world. The light and the fire that Saint Paul and Moses saw appear to be of this kind.

Thus there is a great diversity of symbols. At the one end is the mere metaphor or simile or allegory (´figure’ as we have called it) and at the other end is the symbol identical with the thing symbolized. And upon this inner character of the symbol depends also to a large extent its range and scope. There are symbols which are universal and intimately ingrained in the human consciousness itself. Mankind has used them in all ages and climes almost in the same sense and significance. There are others that are limited to people and ages. They are made out of forms that are of local and temporal interest and importance. Their significances vary according to time and place. Finally, there are symbols which are true of the individual consciousness only; they depend on personal peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, on one’s environment and upbringing and education.

Man being an embodied soul, his external consciousness (what the Upanishads calls jagrat) is the milieu in which his soul-experiences naturally manifest and find their play. It is the forms and movements of that consciousness which clothe and give a concrete habitation and name to perceptions on the subtler ranges of the inner existence. If the experiences on these planes are to be presented to the conscious memory and to the brain-mind and made communicable to others through speech, this is the inevitable and natural process. Symbols are a translation in mental and sensual (not vocal) terms of experiences that are beyond the mind and the sense and the speech and yet throw a kind of echoing vibrations upon these lesser levels.
Nolini Kant Gupta

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