Interpreting Religious and Mythological Symbols
“Myths are the norms of the unreasonable.” – James Hillman
I would like to start by relating a beautiful little cosmological myth drawn from the Hindu Kūrma Purāṇa. It was written down sometime during the first millennium CE, the golden age of Sanksrit literature that bore the great epics, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, as well as some of the finest Sanskrit poetry and plays.
At the end of the last Aeon when the three worlds were in darkness, there was nothing but a solitary sea, no gods and nothing divine, no seers. In that undisturbed emptiness slept the god Vishnu the Supreme, lying on the back of a great serpent. He was vast like a dark cloud, the soul of Yoga that dwells in the hearts of yogins.
Once during his sleep there arose in play from his navel a pure lotus, wondrous and divine, core of the three worlds. Spreading out a hundred leagues, bright as the morning sun, it had a heavenly fragrance, and was crowned with an auspicious calyx and stamen.
The lord Brahmā approached the place where Vishnu had long been laying. The Eternal-Souled Brahmā brought Vishnu upright with a gesture of his hand, even as he became mesmerized by the great god’s display. He spoke these sweet words: “Tell me, who are you, lying hidden in darkness in this dreadful, desolate sea?”
Vishnu smiled and answered, his voice like thunder. “Ah! Ah! Know me to be the great god Vishnu, creator and destroyer of the worlds, lord of yoga, the supreme person. See entire worlds within me, the continents with their mountains, the oceans and the seven seas, and also yourself, grandfather of worlds.”
Vishnu asked, though he already knew, “And who are you?” Laughing, the lord Brahmā, keeper of the Vedas, with lotus eyes, replied “I am the creator and ordainer, the self-existent ancestor; in me is everything established; I am Brahmā who faces all directions.
Hearing this, Vishnu, whose power is his truth, took his leave and entered into the body of Brahmā by yoga. Seeing all three worlds with gods, demons and men in the belly of the god, he was astonished.
And Brahmā laughed, and entered into Vishnu in turn. He saw these worlds in the womb, and moving about inside the great god, he saw no end or limit. At last he traveled out through Vishnu’s navel, and was born from a golden egg, the four faced Brahmā who had entered therein by the power of his yoga. He displayed himself on the great lotus. Lord Brahmā, self-existent, Grandfather, womb of creation, lustrous as the insides of a flower, shone there radiantly, resting on the lotus. (1)
The Hindu poets have a splendid vision of the vast magnitude of the cosmos, one that resonates well with the picture of the universe that we have today. Anyone who has marveled at the pictures from the Hubble telescope will recognize the sense of infinity and wonder, the stars and galaxies spiraling out endlessly through the void.
But Vishnu is the “supreme person,” the exemplar or archetype of our own individual egos, and somehow all of that magnitude is also within us. This, too, is increasingly the recognition of our greatest scientific minds. As Albert Einstein observed:
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison. (2)
One of the cardinal insights offered by the high mythological traditions is precisely this: all of the gods and demons and all of limitless space together form a symphonic interplay that is rendered as a unified experience by your own mind. The world in which we live is given from without, but also brought forth from within, and the power of the yogic traditions is to unite these two realms into a single image.
Nobel laureate Erwin Schödinger wrote:
The reason why our sentient percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it. But of course, here we knocked against the arithmetical paradox; there appears to be a great multitude of these conscious egos, the world, however, is only one. This comes from the fashion in which the world-concept produces itself. The several domains of ‘private’ consciousnesses partly overlap. The region common to all where they all overlap is the construct of the ‘real world around us.’ With all that an uncomfortable feeling remains, prompting such questions as: is my world really the same as yours? […]
Such questions are ingenious, but in my opinion, very apt to confuse the issue. They have no adequate answers. They all are, or lead to, antinomies springing from one source, which I call the arithmetical paradox; the many conscious egos from whose mental experiences the one world is concocted. The solution of this paradox of numbers would do away with all the questions of the aforesaid kind and reveal them, I dare say, as sham-questions. (3)
Compare to Eihei Dogen, the thriteenth-century founder of Soto Zen: “The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one.” (4)
A functioning mythological or religious symbol presents images of this kind in a way that people understand outside of the intellect. When we resonate with their imagery, mythological symbols work a kind of magic on us that has nothing to do with intellectual understanding. Anyone who has been swept away by Homer’s Odyssey, or felt sorrow at Christ’s crucifixion, or been uplifted and inspired by the life story of the Buddha, has felt this magical effect.
However, there is a lot to be said about mythological symbols and how they function, without trying to explain them. Just as a skilled musicologist can enhance our appreciation of a string quartet by calling our attention to its formal features, just as a film critic can make us think about movies in a different light, a consideration of how religious symbols function can greatly illuminate our understanding of the field.
The first essential point to be made with respect to mythological symbols is that they are symbols, and do not function as factual descriptions about the world.
When we are in the realm of empirical description, the realms of science and history, our statements are constrained by Aristotelian logic; things are either this or that. In the realm of symbols, however, that kind of logic does not apply. Brahmā is within Vishnu; Vishnu is within Brahmā. I am within you, you are within me.
“What is the divine?” asks the student in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad. “Neti, neti,” answers Yajnavalkya the sage. “Not this, not that.”
Religious and mythological forms are expressive of truths of human consciousness, and the degree to which they correspond to the actual state of affairs is entirely irrelevant to their character and effect. To interpret them as factual descriptions of reality is to miss the point entirely.
Consider the statement “Claudius killed Hamlet’s father.” Is it true or false? It is true insofar as it accurately describes what happened in Shakespeare’s play. But in a sense, it is neither true nor false, because it refers to people who never actually existed.
In other words, how we evaluate statements depends on what we mean by “true” in a specific context. Our criteria for truth differ according to what we’re talking about. When we’re discussing a play by Shakespeare, we tacitly agree to discuss it as if it refers to actual events. This is quite a different matter from evaluating the truth of, say, the theory of evolution by selective adaptation.
And there is a kind of truth in Hamlet, even though it is not an empirical truth. I have read Hamlet many times and have learned a great deal about myself and about the world, even though I’ve learned nothing about the history of Denmark.
The psychologist R. A. Hunt distinguished between three attitudes that people take with respect to religion; he called them literal, antiliteral, and mythological perspectives. (5)
Literalism simply means interpreting religious symbols and stories at face value, and accepting them as factual descriptions of the world. Someone with an antiliteralist perspective also interprets religious symbols as empirical statements, but rejects them as factually incorrect.
The mythological stance engages in a creative interpretation of religious statements in an attempt to understand their deeper meaning. Someone with this attitude asks of symbolic material, what is it getting at?
In our preceding example, the literalist would insist that there actually was a Hamlet, a prince of Denmark, and he actually saw the ghost of his father. Never mind what we know about history, or the literary sources for Shakespeare’s play, such as Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.
The antiliteralist rejects the whole thing, because there is no such thing as ghosts. In fact, Shakespeare is a waste of time, and reading this material is dangerous, because people get swept up in the drama and the emotion, even though the play literally means nothing.
It concerns me very much to see that the prevailing attitudes in my society are literalism and antiliteralism, with the former primarily represented by Biblical literalism, and the latter represented by increasingly-scornful forms of science-minded atheism. In my evaluation, both approaches are equally incorrect, because both read symbolic statements as if they were empirical.
The mythological systems that we have inherited simply cannot be accepted at face value, given what we know to be true on the basis of our scientific findings. The world is not six thousand years old, the Israelites did not come out of bondage from Egypt in the wake of national catastrophes, the world is not made up of four continents arrayed around a central cosmic mountain, as the Buddhists have taught. These are things that we know.
Neither can mythological symbols be simply rejected on this count, because they encompass other kinds of truth. Mythology and religion deal with a sphere of human nature that is ubiquitous and profound, and of great concern to nearly every known human society throughout history. It is a language that speaks directly to the psyche, and it illuminates aspects of human experience that lie beyond the ordered domain of the rational intellect.
If we try to wave the problem of religion away, as many do when they identify strongly with the rational intellect, then we leave ourselves at the mercy of the unconscious forces within ourselves that respond to symbols and images.
I’ve never seen this more clearly illustrated than in the career of Sam Harris, author of several prominent books on atheism, which are transparently motivated by his fear of the irrational. The degree to which his life concerns are motivated by fear of attack is obvious to any reader of his long article on self-defense, or this debate with security expert Bruce Schneier, in which he simply dismisses every rational, pragmatic objection to screening people who look like Muslims.
Yet he is the rational one, he insists.
We cannot ignore the power of the irrational mind, because it is a part of all of us. Its vocabulary is symbolic, not literal. Joseph Campbell made this point in an arresting way:
Clearly mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible forms of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations. There is a real danger, therefore, in the incongruity of focus that has brought the latest findings of technological research into the foreground of modern life, joining the world a single community, while leaving the anthropological and psychological discoveries from which a commensurable moral system might have been developed in the learned publications where they first appeared. For surely it is folly to preach to children who will be riding rockets to the moon a morality and cosmology based on concepts of the Good Society and of man’s place in nature that were coined before the harnessing of the horse! And the world is now too small, and men’s stake in sanity too great, for any of those old games of Chosen Folk (whether of Jehovah, Allah, Wotan, Manu, or the Devil) by which tribesmen were sustained against their enemies in the days when the serpent still could talk. (6)
Have you ever stepped into a Gothic cathedral? Many people feel an immediate and striking transformation of their attention and mood. Your eyes travel upward, tracing the soaring unbroken columns into the vault of shadow and light, and your mood becomes contemplative. The feeling is like Denise Levertov’s experience walking among great trees:
… my attention now
caught by leaf and bark at eye level
and by thoughts of my own, but sometimes
drawn to upgazing – up and up: to wonder
about what rises
so far above me into the light. (7)
Last year I read The Gothic Enterprise by the sociologist Robert A. Scott, and heard him lecture. I was amazed to find that he put aside all questions concerning the aesthetic, psychological or spiritual effects of the cathedral, focusing exclusively on the social phenomenon.
He wrote a perfectly good book, and there is nothing wrong with a sociological analysis of cathedrals and cathedral-building. But I was amazed that a scholar and academic would write a book on the subject, ignoring the single most salient fact about them: they produce a profound effect on a great many people. It is as though the objective, scientific way to study a lion is to treat it as if we don’t really know if it’s alive or not, and simply study the physics.
The wonderful video artist Bill Viola, in an interview with Jörg Zutter, also talked about cathedrals:
[I]n Florence I spent most of my time in pre-Renaissance spaces – the great cathedrals and churches. At the time I was very involved with sounds and acoustics, and this remains an important basis of my work. Places such as the Duomo [Cathedral of Florence] were revelations for me. I spent many long hours staying there inside, not with a sketchbook but with an audiotape recorder. I eventually made a series of acoustic records of much of the religious architecture of the city. It impressed me that regardless of one’s beliefs, the enormous resonant stone halls of the medieval cathedrals have an undeniable effect on the inner state of the viewer. And sound seems to carry so much of the feeling of the ineffable.
Acoustics and sound, a rich part of human intellectual and speculative history, are thoroughly physical phenomena. Sound has many unique properties compared to an image – it goes around corners, through walls, is sensed simultaneously 360 degrees around the observer, and even penetrates the body. Regardless of your attitudes towards the music, you cannot deny the thumping and physical vibrations in your chest cavity at a rock concert. It is a response beyond taste. When I discovered standing wave patterns, and the fact that there is a total spatial structure of reflection and refraction, a kind of acoustic architecture in any given space where sound is present, and that there is a sound content, an essential single note or resonance frequency latent in all spaces, I felt I had recognized a vital link between the unseen and the seen, between an abstract, inner phenomenon and the outer material world. (8)
It is perfectly possible to give a rational, enlightening account of cathedrals, if you approach the problem like an artist, asking what things mean and how they communicate. Otherwise you hit a brick wall, like our sociologist.
The intellect can shed light on mythology, but ultimately you have to hear the music. Viola again:
There is still such a strong mistrust in intellectual circles about things which speak to the mind via the body. It’s as if they can see that this direction will ultimately lead to opening the locked gate to the forbidden zone of deeper emotional energies. In my opinion, the emotions are precisely the missing key that has thrown things out of balance, and their restoration to their rightful place as one of the higher orders of the mind cannot happen fast enough. (9)
For a profound testimonial to the degree to which Viola heard and understood the message of the cathedral, I strongly urge watching this short video on Ocean Without a Shore, about a recent installation piece he did in Venice.
A vital domain of human experience is available by living in relationship to symbols, and there is no other way to get at it. The primary interpretive tools of this realm are similar to the tools used to analyze literature, poetry, music and philosophy, because these forms have a common genesis. They are expressive of the energies of the psyche.
1) Based on “The Origin of Brahmā from the Lotus in Viṣṇu’s Navel,” in Dimmitt CD and van Buitenen JAB. Classical Hindu Mythology; A Reader in the Sanskrit Purāņas. Temple University Press. 1978. pp. 30-1.
2) Quoted in Wilber K. Up from Eden; A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution. Shambhala. 1983. pg. 4.
3) “The Oneness of Mind,” by E Schrödinger. Quantum Physics; Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists. ed. Ken Wilber. Shambhala. 1984. pp. 84-9.
4) “Actualizing the Fundamental Point,” trans. by Robert Aiken and Kazuaki Tanahashi. Moon in a Dewdrop. ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi. North Point Press. 1985. pp. 69-73
5) Hunt RA. “Mythological-symbolic religious commitment: The LAM scales.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 11, 42-52. 1972.
6) Campbell J. The Masks of God Volume I: Primitive Mythology. Penguin Books. 1969. pg. 12.
7) “From Below,” by Denise Levertov. This Great Unknowing; Last Poems. New Directions Books. 1999. pg. 3.
8) Viola B. “In Response to Questions from Jörg Zutter, 1992.” from Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House; Writings 1973-1994. The MIT Press. 2002. pg. 241.
9) Ibid., pg. 242.
All images (c) Barnaby Thieme, unless otherwise noted.