Since I was young I have been able to look at ordinary objects such as curtains, wrinkled clothes or the shadow in a jug of water on a table and I have seen the most extraordinary things. Perhaps you have had the same experience. Another example is driving, especially at night when I am tired. I’ve seen exotic animals, suspicious strangers, and curious settings in hedges, under trees, and by the side of highways, which on closer inspection turn out to be nothing more than plays of light and shadow.
The play of sunlight on water never seems to have the same effect on me, because it doesn’t create solid images where they don’t really exist. It is more reminiscent of the spiritual in the world, because it has an ephemeral and charming quality. This numinous quality is appropriate for the sense in which the divine shoots through the relative world, which is limited by time and space. In Hindu philosophy, the three human states of waking, dreaming and sleeping, which understood a human life, are transcended and become spiritual in the fourth state, which is called turiya. To sublimate things even more, the fifth state of turyatite it is the indivisible transcendence of unchanging pure consciousness.
The Hindu explanation presents us with a dilemma. Although it is wise and accessible, it may leave us with the question: How do we speak of the unspeakable? How do we use words to describe what is beyond words? The answer is through metaphor, mythology, and its use of symbols. Like words (and words are also symbolic, of course), symbols refer to something greater than themselves.
Now, sometimes it is pleasant to play with words by themselves. When we do so, even words that may seem deep have no real sense of a deeper meaning, of something beyond them. They are understood literally and understood as superficial, superficial and devoid of a deeper meaning. In contrast, words used with precision and accuracy separate the veils of confusion and guide us toward understanding.
But when are terms or narratives symbolic and when are they literal? Because it is essential that we know the difference.
Fantastic and extravagant events are commonly attributed to spiritual and religious adepts. Some of these tales are incredible read, from the curious to the glorious. There is the incredible story of Tikku-Baba, a fakir who had advanced powers and performed many miracles. Late one night, a young fakir who used to run errands for Tikku-Baba returned to the great fakir’s house and found Tikku-Baba’s body dismembered and his limbs piled up in a neat pile. Fearing that a gruesome murder had taken place, the young fakir fled. But full of curiosity he returned in the morning. To his amazement, he found Tikku-Baba in full health, radiant and as usual.
This obviously impossible set of events is made even more difficult to assess when recounted by Nisargadatta Maharaj, an enlightened teacher who was quick to scold would-be adepts for their lack of logical thinking.
In another fantastic story, this time from the Sufi tradition, compassion is obscured by atrocity. A whole family were disciples of a Sufi teacher. One of the sons had a naturally smiling face. One day the teacher asked the boy: “Why are you smiling?” The boy kept smiling. In front of the whole family, the Master hit the boy with his cane until it broke. The boy kept the smile on his face. The master took a heavier piece of wood and continued to beat him until his head entered his shoulders and his shoulders entered his body. When the child was a mass of broken bones, of flesh and bone, the Master came in and chewed betel nut. When he came out, he pointed to the bloody pile and said, “Who’s lying there?” Then, with a voice of authority, he exclaimed, “Get up!” and the boy got up without scars or any sign of damage, completely whole. The teacher announced that the boy was now a Wali (Saint) and remained so for the rest of his life. This was the family’s dearest wish and the Master had accomplished in less than an hour what was expected to take many years or lifetimes.
Once again, the normally sensitive minds of Sufi leaders like Irina Tweedie or Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (who published this story) seem to consider this story literal, as it was apparently witnessed and narrated by her predecessor, the Sufi master Bhai Sahib.
Metaphor, symbol, myth are the visible and verbal communications of choice for spiritual truths, which may not be truly expressed otherwise. Why not? Because spiritual truths are not the same as literal truths. Spirituality belongs to the life of the spirit, to transcendence and liberation, and ultimately to the Divine or God, Brahman, the Absolute. We have so many names for numinosity precisely because it is so difficult to describe and when we get into a bipartisan holy war about it, it is usually because we have become attached to the symbols and have abandoned what they represent.
There may be a different way of using words if we experience their meaning in a different way. Defending actor Steven Seagal, who destroyed his Hollywood career by making a film about planetary pollution that preceded Al Gores’s. An inconvenient truth For over a decade, psychologist Robert Trager explained, “A part of Steven lived in Japan for so long that he is Japanese, and in Japan literal truth is not as important as emotional truth. In Japan there is another level of reality, one where literal facts don’t matter as much as social and emotional facts. “
Emotions predominate over scientific facts in Laurens van der Post’s writing: “Time became reluctant, because it is not only a movement in and through space, but also a movement in feeling, and when feeling is fixed in an unforgettable moment, time is only half there. “
So are words literal, symbolic, emotional, factual, fantastic, figurative, literal, representative, abstract, or metaphorical? The answer is, of course, that they can be anyone, most, some, or all. But our theme here is the use of symbols and metaphors to convey spiritual facts or truths. Words are sometimes used to simply lie.
Extraordinary phenomena, of course, are not always as extraordinary as they seem. The Indian rope trick has been discredited: Sai Baba may not have materialized as a saint vibuthi or jewels out of nowhere and not all crop circles turn out to be the work of alien life forms.
Returning now to the crazy school of wisdom of spiritual instruction, what does it mean when it is said that in the 15th century, the “enlightened madman” Drukpa Kunley instructed a disciple in meditation, inseminated her and sent her to a cave to meditate? Apparently a year later he returned to find that there had been an avalanche and that the entrance to the cave had been closed for some months. However, when he found her, she was alive and well despite having brought only three days’ worth of rations to the cave the year before. After a short period of instruction, he is said to have attained Buddhahood.
When contemporary spiritual master Adi Da Samraj died, two expectations: first, that he would rise from the dead; and secondly, that his body would show no signs of decomposition, indicating that he was a great yogi, both were disproved. Did this discredit Adi Da or just show that her followers were literalizing symbols?
Spiritual metaphors are symbols about reality (that is, the reality of the relative world). When the symbolic and the literal are confused, they disappoint and discourage. The child-philosopher, less than the spiritual disciple, is credulous and ultimately materialistic. In his heart, doing and having primacy over being and being is close to the presence and the human presence is close to the divine. We encounter the divine through our identification with it, by exhibiting those supernatural powers, and the magical means developed through our spiritual discipline, sometimes known as siddhis.
Siddhis are the perfections or achievements mentioned in the Mahabharata. Clairvoyance, levitation, bilocation and materialization of objects are some examples. However, looking more deeply at the manifestation of the siddhis takes us to more mundane realms: knowing the past, present and future, tolerating heat and cold, knowing the minds of others, not being dominated by others. Some are simply elemental meditation experiences, like experiencing your body as small or infinitely large, heavy or weightless.
Occasionally, mystification is caused by a mistranslation, as in the mystification surrounding the virgin birth. Virgin simply means “maiden.” In the original Latin, the word refers to sexual inexperience or “uninitiated.” So the virgin birth simply means “born of a maiden.” Similar chaos occurs in the misconception of the word apocalypse. More than the end of the world, it actually means “lifting of the veil” or “revelation.” In the Kaliyuga, deception, illusion and falsehood must be transcended and the truth must be embraced and accepted.
I have seen the truth in a grain of sand, God in a breath, eternity in the ocean and endless mystery in the wind. Neither of these inclines me to become a nature worshiper, anthropomorphize natural phenomena, or start a religious cult. The metaphor and symbol are the ways that those of us who are moved to convey timeless truths and immortal wisdom strive to help others toward understanding.