The Study of Symbolism

By Alice A. Bailey

Reprinted from the April 1939 issue of The Beacon

A symbol can be defined as the outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual potency.It is literally an externalisation of forces or energy; the objective form which an idea, existent in the Universal Mind, has built for itself.Through this form the quality and purpose of the latent idea can express itself, and through the means of the symbolic form those who have developed intuitive perception can interpret the plans and designs of that great Life in which we live and move and have our being.

Symbols fall into three main groups though there are, of course, many minor and possible differentiations. These are:

1. All objective forms as found in the four kingdoms of nature.These are all of them, without exception, the outer and material mediums of expressions of the manifold energies and potencies which in their aggregate form the body of manifestation of the creating Agent of the world.With this first category of forms and symbols science is concerning itself and learning much of the mechanics and the nature of the material world.When the concept of an anthropomorphic Deity has given place to that of a God immanent in His Creation, then a wide and general understanding of symbolism will supersede the present ignorance.Then all our present lines of investigation, all our scientific and laboratory work, as well as all our various branches of education will form a part of the major Science of Symbolism.

2. Those basic and recognised symbols which are universally known.Instances of these are the Cross, the Triangle, the Swastika and the Rose.Throughout the ages, humanity has been constructing symbols to express and represent the cosmic processes and events, and to portray the method and nature of the human soul and its evolution.These simple forms, when rightly interpreted, prove to be summations and comprehensively brief signs which hold hid the truths which the vast literature of all the world religions is occupied in interpreting.This creative faculty is man, leading him thus to geometrise, is the guarantee of his relationship to God and a demonstration of his latent divine nature.

In the first class of symbols we have the geometrising of the Creator, producing the natural world, a world indicative of subjective forces and potencies.In the second class (which can also be extended to include the rites and ceremonies of all religions, and of Masonry) we have man’s attempt to construct a world of forms which will express to him the basic truths upon which the universe is founded.

3. There are finally those symbols, discoverable by those who have sufficient mental vision and concentration, which are in the nature of archetypal symbols.They are only to be found in the realm of mind, and are the primary forms, created by those who work as souls and so purely subjectively.This aspect of symbology is relatively new to the general public.The reason for this is that only those who have a certain amount of soul contact, or who are beginning to become aware of their subjective and spiritual nature, can discover them.Only those who are learning that they are souls, functioning through an outer and symbolic form, contact these symbols and bring them through into manifestation, so that others can become aware of their existence.

As the race progresses towards increasing spirituality we can look for a corresponding increase in the recognition of these subjective forms.Little is known as yet as to their true significance, and much of the inter­pretive work must remain for some time largely speculative, but certain suggestionsas to their significance may be in order.

1. They are the forms which, in the vast realm of mental activity, embody the teaching of the new age, plus the truths of the past.It is significant that as the world is transitting into a new astronomical sign, and as a new race is emerging in North America, New Zealand, and Australia, active interest in symbolism is awakening.The past two centuries have also seen the rapid development of the mind throughout humanity as a whole, and this has necessarily brought about a more general contacting of these archetypal forms, found only on mental levels.

2. They are the forms, in some cases, of beings, of angels, of forces, principalities and powers, or as true an expression of those forms as any particular interpreter is capable of bringing through into physical consciousness.

3. They are the forms through which the potencies and forces of the seven major streams of divine energy, the emanations, and rays work, prior to the inauguration of a new race and of a new natural world.Races, civilisations, continents, each with their varying physical characteristics, have come and gone, and all of them have emerged, so says the Ageless Wisdom, from the Universal Mind into objective existence.They pass from the realm of mind to that of desire, and thence into physical activity.Thoughts are things.Ideas take form, for as Plutarch says (De Placit Philos).“An idea is a Being incorporeal, which has no subsistence by itself but gives figure and form unto shapeless matter and becomes the cause of manifestation.”Many of these symbols are the mental forms which lie back of the outer physical forms.

Physical symbols of the inner potencies have always been seen through the medium of the natural world.But only in this fifth subrace of the Aryan race, wherein the mind has assumed importance and the triple personality of man (mental, emotional and physical) has been coordinated, has it become possible to contact these mental forms, and the seed forms which will eventually flower forth into the physical world of the coming race, civilisation and continent.

4. There are also those symbolic forms by the means of which the Elder Brothers of the race, the Masters and Initiates, teach Their disciples the facts of the creative processes, the laws which govern the evolutionary growth of the World Soul and of the individual soul, and those mysteries (contained in the divine Plan) which must remain hidden from those who are as yet swayed only by their emotional or desire nature and who cannot therefore be trusted with the knowledge which these symbols hold secret. Many symbols are therefore the custodians of new, and frequently, dangerous information.They contain, for those who have the key, the formulas whereby energies can be contacted and used, and the world of forces harnessed for the perfecting of the divine plan.They are the means whereby the Masters can teach those who are ready for such knowledge, and at the same time safeguard the truths of the unfolding world revelation from those who would utilise the knowledge for selfish and material ends.

The importance therefore of a study of symbology cannot be over-emphasized, but it must be a study carried forward along sane lines, and preceded by due preparation.The student of symbology should possess a keen mental perception, and be free from preconceived ideas and theories; he should have also that general character training which finds its consummation in the words of Christ Himself, “The pure in heart shall see God.”Purity of life and of motive, a controlled emotional nature, unselfish service, and the careful training of the intellect are the primary pre-requisites to this new science of symbology.To this must eventually be added the development of the intuition, and of spiritual perception so that the significance of the symbol can be grasped, and the purpose for which it exists can be apprehended.

The study of symbolism is therefore a form of meditation and the rules governing successful meditation can be fruitfully applied.In one of the oldest treatises on meditation in the world (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) four stages are outlined:

First, says Patanjali, there must be consideration of the form.This involves a recognition of line and of design, and of the total structure of the symbol.Its figure and shape, with the component subsidiary shapes, are apprehended by the eye.This is the first and least important stage,and for the experienced student is of no more real importance than the shape and number of the words and paragraphs in a book which is the subject of study.As the form is pondered upon, however, the realization begins to dawn that it is but a symbol of an inner reality.

Secondly, there must be recognition of the quality or nature of the form.What is the subjective energy which it expresses?What is the quality of the force which seems to flow through it?What is the emotion which the symbol arouses in the student.Here it is of value to quote the words of this ancient teacher, when he says, “These forms are cognized or not, according to the qualities latent in the perceiving consciousness.Inability to interpret or grasp any significance in a symbol indicates lack and deficiency in the student.Every human being is a spiritual potency or soul, expressing itself through a form which is symbolic of its stage of development and power of manifestation.This soul possesses a medium of expression upon the plane of mind, and passes then to the plane of emotion or desire through which its peculiar quality expresses itself.It is interesting to note in this connection that, speaking generally, we judge each other by the quality which emanates from us and not by our physical appearance.We like or dislike people because of their qualitative character.It is this idea which emerges as we study a symbol, and it is here that color plays its part.

The third requisite is still more subjective and it is in this aspect that symbols are primarily used in the training of disciples.From a study of the form and a consideration of the quality, we arrive next at the purpose, the motive, and the idea which the symbol has held concealed.As the student concentrates upon the significance of the idea he becomes aware of that archetypal world which is the pattern of all manifested things, and which he, as a disciple, must understand if he is to cooperate intelligently with the Plan.He comes to a knowledge of that part of the plan which is the motivating factor in form of the symbol.Thus, through the part the Whole can be contacted and an expansion of consciousness can take place.

The final stage has been called that of identification.One becomes at-one with the symbol; one shares its quality; one participates in its purpose and through these stages one arrives at a unity with the Creator of all forms.This is a stage difficult to define; it can only be grasped by the man who has appreciated the fact that he himself is a symbol, expressing a quality, and is animated by a purpose which is at-one with Deity itself.He becomes a conscious Soul, a corporate part of the world Soul, and finds himself united with the soul, animating all forms and symbols.

If these ideas are meditated upon and applied to the study of symbols, the student will gradually come into possession and use of an inner subjective mechanism of interpretation which we call by the unsatisfactory terms “intuition” or “spiritual perception”.Symbols are intended to develop this mechanism in the student and its use will open up to him a new world of forces, another dimension, and reveal to him the wonders of that fifth kingdom in nature which we call the kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven.