The wise have given lessons to the world in different forms suited to the evolution of the people at a particular time. And the first and most original form of education that the wise gave to the world has been symbolical. This method of teaching has been valued in all ages and will always have its importance. That is not beauty, which is not veiled. In the veiling and unveiling of beauty is the purpose of life. Beauty is that which is always out of reach. You see it and you do not see it, you touch it and you cannot touch it. It is seen and yet veiled, it is known and yet unknown. And therefore words are often inadequate to express the beauty of Truth. Therefore symbolism is adopted by the wise.
The religions of the old Egyptians, of the ancient Greeks, of the Hindus, and of the Parsis, all have symbols which express the essential truth hidden under a religion; there is symbolism in Christianity and in all the ancient religions of the world. Man has often rebelled against symbolism. But it is natural, man has always revolted against things he cannot understand. There has been a wave of opposition to symbolism in both parts of the world, East and West. It came in the East in the period of Islam, and in the West it re-echoed in the Reformation. No doubt when the sacred symbols are made as patents by the religious people who wish to monopolize the whole truth, then it gives rise to that tendency in human nature which is always ready to accept things or reject them. However, one can say without exaggeration that symbology has always served to keep the ancient wisdom intact for ages. It is symbology that can prove today the saying of Solomon, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
There are many thoughts relating to human nature, to the nature of life, relating to God and His many attributes, and relating to the path toward the goal, that are expressed in symbolism. To a person who sees only the surface of life the symbols mean nothing; the secret of symbols is revealed to the souls who see through life; whose glance penetrates through objects. Verily, before the seer the things of the world open themselves; and it is the uncovering of things in which is hidden beauty. There is a great joy in understanding, especially things that express nothing to everybody. It requires intuition, even something deeper than intuition — insight — to read symbols. To the one to whom the symbols speak of their nature and of their secret each symbol is a living manuscript in itself. Symbolism is the best way of learning the mysteries of life, and the best way of leaving ideas behind which will keep for ages after the teacher has passed. It is speaking without speaking, it is writing without writing. The symbol may be said to be an ocean in a drop.
The Symbol of the Cross
The symbol of the cross has many significations. It is said in the Bible, first was the word and then came light and then the world was created; and as the light is expressed in the form of the cross so every form shows in it the original sign. Every artist knows the value of the vertical line and the horizontal line, which form the skeleton of every form. This is proved by the teaching of the Qur’an, where it is said that God created the world from His own light. The cross is the figure that fits to every form everywhere.
Morally, the cross signifies pain or torture. That means that in every activity of life, which may be pictured as a perpendicular line, there comes obstruction, which the horizontal line represents. This shows the picture of life, and that, as it is said, man proposes and God disposes.
Somebody asked the great Master Ali what made him believe in God, Who is beyond human comprehension. Ali said, “I believe in God therefore that I see that when I alone wish, things are not accomplished.”
According to the metaphysical point of view this shows the picture of limitation in life.
The symbol of the cross in its connection with the life of Christ not only relates to the crucifixion of the Master but signifies the crucifixion that one has to meet with by possessing the truth. The idea of the Hindu philosophy is that life in the world is an illusion and therefore every experience in this life and knowledge in this life are also illusions. The Sanskrit word for this illusion is Maya; it is also called Mithy, from which the word myth comes.
When the soul begins to see the truth it is, so to say, born again, and to this soul all that appears true to an average person appears false, and what seems truth to this soul is nothing to an average person. All that seems to an average person important and precious in life has no value nor importance for this soul, and what seems to this soul important and valuable has no importance nor value for an average person. Therefore such a one naturally hides himself in a crowd which lives in a world quite different from that in which he lives.
Imagine living in a world where nobody uses your language! Yet he can live in the world for he knows its language. And yet to him life in the world is as unprofitable as to a grown-up person the world of children playing with their toys.
A human being who has realized the truth is subject to all pains and torture in the same way as all other persons, except that he is capable of bearing them better than the others. But at the same time when, while in the crowd, everyone hits the other and also receives blows, the knower of truth has to stand alone and receive them only; this is in itself a great torture. The life in the world is difficult for every person, rich or poor, strong or weak, but for the knower of truth it is still more difficult than for others, and that in itself is a cross. Therefore for a spiritual Messenger the cross is a natural emblem, to explain his moral condition.
But there is a still higher significance of the cross which is understood by the mystic. This significance is what is called self-denial, and, in order to teach this moral, gentleness, humility and modesty are taught as a first lesson. Self-denial is an effect of which self-effacement is the cause. This is self-denial, that a man says, “I am not, Thou art”; or that an artist, looking at his picture, says, “It is Thy work, not mine”; or that a musician, hearing his composition, says, “It is Thy creation, I do not exist.” That soul then is in a way crucified, and through that crucifixion resurrection comes. There is not the slightest doubt that when man has had enough pain in his life he rises to this great consciousness. But it is not necessary that only pain should be the means. It is the readiness on the part of man to efface his part of consciousness and to efface his own personality which lifts the veil that hides the spirit of God from the view of man.