CHAPTER ONE
SYMBOLS : WHAT ARE THEY?


1.1 WHAT IS A SYMBOL?
We are all familiar with symbols because they pervade all our lives. It is a representation of an idea in a way that is sensible to our senses. Some examples will make this idea clear. Among the Christians we are familiar with the cross which appears in most churches. The symbol of fish was used by the early Church. Other familiar Christian symbols are the lamb and the open book. Each religion has a symbol which represent their core teaching. Thus we have cross for Christians, the crescent for Islam, the star of David for Jews, sign of Om for Hindus etc.

These are visual symbols. Visual symbols are also used by institutions, clubs, organizations, companies, political parties etc.


While visual symbols are widely used, the audible symbols are not that much popular. However they are found in all walks of life. Command whistles, siren soundings, theme songs of music groups, radio stations etc are examples of these.

The written word and the spoken word are the ultimate in symbols because of their communicative power. An essay or a a speech communicates more powerfully than a static symbol. That is why the title of "The Word of God", "Kalimut Allah" is given to Jesus to emphasize that the ultimate and clearest revelation of God came to man through Christ Jesus. We get the maximum communication power when the carrier itself if the content.

What then is a symbol? A symbol is something which communicates ideas and concepts of realities which are otherwise difficult to communicate. It is simply a means of communication or a medium of communication. The process of communication is as follows:

Notice that the spiritual reality is not realised as a spiritual realization through symbolic medium. It is realized as a mental concept realization. At best this can be only one to one and exact. Often it will not be an exact replication. Here is the probable problem. At this level it does not become a spiritual relaization.
 

1.2 SYMBOL AS A MEANS OF UNDERSTANDING

Symbols are therefore the means of teaching -learning. We go on inventing more and more symbols and better and better symbols to express our growing concepts. In language, a growing language grows in vocabulary. It constantly vary, modify and add new words to express new ideas. As the need arises new words are created and added. For example in some languages there are only three words for colors, because all colors are classified into three only. English languages have seven different colors and many others in combination and otherwise. A color palette of an artist will need many different names to express his needs. In India we have many words to denote minute details of human relationships compared to English. Uncle in English can be father's brother or mother's brother. But in most family oriented cultures these differences are important and are denoted by distinct names.In science we have been coining new names. We had in fact made a committee in Kerala to coin new Malayalam terms for science.

In Mathematics we have commonly understood symbols of +,-,x,/ at the lowest level. Then in the higher classes we come across new symbols for greater than, less than ,tends to, differentiate with respect to a variable, integral of, transform of, sum of etc. these new symbols are always used for presenting new concepts. They help in handling numbers, variables, functions etc in a better and easier way. The placeholder zero, is one of the greatest contributions of India to Mathematics. Can we conceive any mathematics without it. Imagine how poorly the Romans toiled with their numbers.

Thus a good symbol helps in our understanding of the concept involved and also in the manipulation of these concepts.

A perfect symbol will perfectly represent all the details of the original concept. Thus the symbols equal to, less than, greater than, congruent to, similar to, parallel to etc denotes the subtle differences in the concept of equality..

Symbols are therefore a means of understanding the concept in greater depth. This understanding of the concept changes our understanding of the reality of the concept behind the symbols. This in turn changes our life and dealings. The important thing here is that it is not the symbols that causes the change because of its inherent qualities, but its ability to make our understanding the reality.

Let us take an example. The mathematical model of the nucleus led to the concept of atomic energy which was then realized in actual practice in nuclear reactors and in the atomic bombs. the nuclear models did not release the nuclear energy. It helped us to understand it and our understanding led us to the realization of the nuclear energy.

1.3 SYMBOLS - ANALOGUE OR IDENTITY

In the Occident and in modern science symbols are treated as analogues - a mapping from reality to symbol. Some times these mappings are one to one and at other times we use a one to many or many to one mapping. Here the symbols are only an image or a representation of the original reality. By inversion of mapping, it is possible to regain the original reality. One outstanding achievement in this approach is the wonderful machine now called computers. In its simpler form sounds and letters in the alphabet; the words and the written letters; the the braille letters that stand for ordinary letters; the typewriter that is assigned a letter for a button and the print that result when that button presses are all such representations.

In the orient and in the ancient worlds however, symbols were almost (if not at times absolutely) identical with the concept itself. It is a mapping which is absolutely reversible as they are identical in form and content. In this it is analogous to Laplace Transform techniques widely employed in mathematics. Very often the Laplace Transforms or Fourier Transforms are much easier to handle and solve. finally the result is transformed back to the original form by inversion.

Laplace Transforms

The unilateral Laplace transform pair      laplace transform
 

 
Fourier Transform
$\displaystyle \hat{f}(t)= \int_{-\infty}^\infty f(x) e^{-ixt} dx
$from this definition we have the inversion formula $\displaystyle f(x)=\frac{1}{2\pi} \int_{-\infty}^\infty \hat{f}(t) e^{itx} dt.$
Parseval's theorem is $\displaystyle \int_{-\infty}^\infty f(x) \overline{g(x)} dx = \frac{1}{2\pi} \int_{-\infty}^\infty \hat{f}(x) \overline{\hat{g}(x)} dx.$
 \begin{displaymath}
\begin{array}{\vert c\vert c\vert}\hline
\text{Function} & \...
... \pi \operatorname{sech}(\frac{\pi}{2}t) \\
\hline \end{array}\end{displaymath}

 

The procedural reasoning is as follows:

Concept >> Symbol >> Analogue image in new dimension >> manipulation of images >> New relations in the image dimension >> Convert to the original dimension >> conversion to reality based on boundary conditions giving acceptable solutions.

Mathematically all solutions given by such procedures are not acceptable solutions. They are to be selected based on reality conditions and boundary conditions.

This oriental approach is based on the Maya philosophy of Sankaracharya. It rests on the philosophy that reality is simply the experience of the perceiver and has meaning only to the cognizant consciousness. Such an approach obviously gives the symbols a magical power or mystic power. The application of this is found in magic, witchcraft and spiritual healing processes. Indian magic relies heavily on Yantras, Mantras and Tantras. Yantras are visual symbols while Mantras are audible symbols. The manipulations of yantras and mantras is termed as Tantras. By tantric means the symbols are changed to produce changes in the reality itself.Chantings or repeating a name or prayer over and over again is a means of worship suitable for fixing mind on the object of worship. It is widely used in all religions and pseudo religions. This changes the personality of the worshipper in his attitude and relation to the deity. In its finest form it finds in applications in Christian liturgies, Sufi worship of repeating the names of God, Dhams of the Hindu worship etc.

A doll representing a person may be treated for cure of sickness or for torture in the hands of an African witch doctor. An Australian witch doctor can kill an ostracized person by pointing his bone at the victim . The Sudanese Kuku tribes execute the criminals by spearing the image of the criminal in water. A Shaman can heal hysteria through ritual drumming and dancing. The sick are instantly healed at the shrines of and healing meetings. The power of prayer and the healing by laying on of hands are undeniable. All these uses this transform technique.

A naive mechanistic materialistic approach will not admit any explanation for these realities. The explanation spreads over several dimensions of existence; material, psychological and spiritual. Man exists in all these dimensions and a change in one dimension will result in changes in other dimensions also. The strict cause effect relations are only vaguely understood between these dimensions.. As we have laws of physical dimensions, there are also laws in those other dimensions and also laws that govern inter-dimensional fields. Magic, witchcraft and psychology are attempts to discover these relations purely on an empirical basis based on long human experience. While there are effective applications based on generations of human experience, it has also led us into lot of fallacies and superstitions. We are still in the age of alchemy out of which have evolved the science of chemistry.

1.4 SYMBOLS BECOMES IDOLS

Because of the potency of symbols to interact with human consciousness, it is endowed with powers to transform man. The abstract symbols because of its transient nature do not produce a permanent t symbols as does the more permanent visual symbols. visible symbols in the form of pictures or sculptures becomes a permanent symbol and has tendency to degenerate into idols.



Word such as Allah etc. becomes the object of worship. This then leads to idol worship in the strict sense of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This degeneration of symbols is found in all religions. The most idolatrous of all living religions, Hinduism do not profess idolatry. They do not worship the stone or wood, they worship the deity represented by that idol. The great advaitic teacher of all time, Shree Sankaracharya of Kaladi at the end of his travel around India, installing idols and images, finally installed a mirror. When Aaron and the Israelites in the wilderness moulded a calf, they were not worshipping the calf, but Yahweh who brought them out of bondage from Egypt. When the ten tribes installed the Bull in Dan they were installing Yahweh who rides the bull. The Bronze serpent that was raised in the desert by Moses healed those who were bitten by the serpents. But eventually it became an object of worship and a snare that it was eventually destroyed. (Ex. 21:9 and 2 King.18:4) All visible symbols have this tendency to degenerate into an idol. Hence Lord gave the strict law:

"You shall not make for yourselves no molten gods." Ex. 34:17

"You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water or under the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them." Deut. 5:8

Thus the use of symbols are a very delicate matter. the more abstract the symbol, more potent it becomes and less likely to degenerate into idols. We cannot live without symbols, but we will have to distinguish between symbols and realities and the use of symbols for our edification and growth as against falling into the pitfall of idolizing it. When the symbols ceases to be edifying, it becomes an end in itself and thereby defeats its purpose. It leads to bondage that is typical of all superstitious fallacies.

Rom. 1:22-25 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator --who is forever praised. Amen.
 

1.5 HOW TO INTERPRET AND UNDERSTAND THE SYMBOLS

Symbols do not always have a meaning in itself. For example the symbol of cross in itself has no meaning. They derive their meaning because of their association. Cross has been a symbol of death to the Romans. Until the resurrection it was so. It became a symbol of victory over death, pardon for sin through sacrifice etc because of its association with Jesus. However in some ancient cultures, a modified form of cross was the symbol of life (as in Egypt and India) Hence we notice that the symbol receives its meaning in the context of the culture. This has actually created problems to Bible translators in some areas. For example, Jesus is pictured as the good shepherd. In some countries, the job of keeping the sheep is delegated to the mentally retarded or those whose skills are limited that they cannot enter into the status of a warrior. All symbols received their meaning by attribution. In the final analysis the written word and sound also are symbols and their meaning is simply attributed by the people who talk that language. Through the ages a word will change its meaning. One such example is the word "Charity" in English. Charity meant love in the period of King James. !Corinthians 13, the chapter on love was the chapter of charity. Today the word Charity has a totally different meaning.

So if we want to determine the meaning of the Lord's Supper we need to look into the Jewish cultural background. Any modern day attempt will probably give us only a vague and limited understanding. It may even mislead us into wrong conclusions. In the following pages we look into this aspect and look at it from various angles.