Research in Ancient Symbols
Medhananda and Yvonne Artaud called their research work in fundamental psychology and consciousness “Identity Research”. Why?
Assuming that ‘Consciousness’ embraces an interconnected whole that lies at the basis of all material forms and appearances, pervading them and animating them – in differing degrees of intensity and awareness –, nothing that is studied can be alien or purely objective, however differentiated from us it may seem; rather, the play of diversity implies an underlying Identity.
The studies and explorations include the following topics:
The symbolic imagery of ancient Egypt,
The symbol language in fairy-tales, myths, parables,
primatology (specially by Yvonne Artaud).
Medhananda’s Symbol and Consciousness Research
In his interpretations Medhananda attempts to show that in ancient symbols, myths and fairy-tales the different figures and events are expressing soul-forces and movements of consciousness in us. The consciousness of ancient peoples was not yet dominated by the analytical mind turned to outward things, but rather directed inwards towards dreams, processes of inner growth or mystical experiences. Such knowledge was communicated in a symbolic way. In order to understand the ancient messages of the Rishis (the seers of Vedic India) or the images of the ancient Egyptians for example, we should consider not only their mythological, religious, historic or artistic aspects, but focus mainly on their psychological contents, the messages of Gnosis once expressed in these images and their symbolic language, which is now veiled from us.
Medhananda’s view of symbols is based on the consciousness research of his teacher Sri Aurobindo, and his own spiritual experiences and insights: Consciousness is seen as a comprehensive whole that pervades everything, but manifests in different structures, planes and grades of intensity. It is involved in everything, including matter. There it reaches its lowest scale: Inconscience, out of which all evolves again towards consciousness. Early mankind evolved from an archaic consciousness to a magical one, then to mythical and later mental and over-mental levels of consciousness, while a supramental consciousness can be expected to emerge in the further course of evolution. All these different planes, of which we are conscious or not yet conscious, constitute ourselves. Medhananda explores this multiplicity: There are forces of the subtle physical, the magical, emotional, psychic the mental, over-mental, and supramental planes within us, some limited, some unlimited; some belonging to ‘higher’ and some to ‘lower’ planes than those of our normal waking consciousness. At one moment a particular energy or plane may be dominant us, in the next it may disappear as another comes to the fore. Inspired by Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Veda Medhananda shows us that ancient myths and fairy tales tell us in a symbolic way about this interplay of forces: A king, princess, animal, giant or dwarf, a god or a demon appear as the expression of a state of consciousness or an archetype which are aspects of our own multi-faceted being – a being and consciousness based on oneness.
Symbols as Identification Exercises
The key question for understanding a symbol is: “What can it show me about myself?” Everything in the universe can be seen as a symbol; a tree, flower, star, or butterfly can reveal a psychological function, a capacity, a potentiality in ourselves with which we can resonate. In ancient myths and images we can look for the psychological experience which a seer, a wise man has expressed by symbols, although most people simply consider these tales and paintings purely as fantastic imaginations. Today those ancient messages can become transparent to us again if we look at e them in a new light. In his book The Way of Horus Medhananda quotes Sri Aurobindo: “For in the old days these things were Mysteries which men left to the few, to the initiates and by so leaving them lost sight of them in the end, but the endeavour of this new mind is to reveal, to divulge and to bring near to our comprehension all mysteries .…”
Changes in Myths und Fairy-tales over the course of Time
Later, as they were handed down from generation to generation over long periods of time, myths and fairy-tales were altered and embellished, because they were no longer seen as expressions of inner experiences and modes of self-awareness, but simply as imaginary stories. Symbols and images degenerated into signs for words (as in ancient China or Egypt), devoid of psychological content. In the patriarchal period, many of them were tinged with moral hues and. feminine symbols became negative. For example, the Greek myth of Pandora shows her as the one who brought all things evil into the world; but if we examine her name, it implies that she is the one ‘who gives all’ (pan = all and dora = giving). Ancient names can reveal the true soul-forces (archetypes) behind the figures. In this way Medhananda attempts to find the original psychological content (self-knowledge, gnosis) in a myth, fairy-tale, image or ancient book of wisdom. He makes visible what has been distorted or added in later times.
Symbol Communication in Former Times and Today
Communication by symbols was widespread throughout the earth in the long period during which the mythical consciousness was dominant. In Polynesia and in ancient Egypt, similar or even identical images were used. According to Medhananda, expression by symbols goes back to a far earlier time than is generally presumed. A turning point in this mythical consciousness arose around 1000-500 B.C. when humanity developed a new mental capacity and ‘thinking’ gradually replaced ‘seeing’ in dominating human consciousness. Yet even today, symbol communication can be observed in human beings. Every child still goes through a magical and mythical period of consciousness before awakening to mental-rational consciousness; but also in adults, especially in artists, poets and geniuses, communication by symbols remains very active.
Verbal Communication and Symbol Communication
In their Equals One School in Pondicherry (South India), Medhananda and his partner Yvonne Artaud encouraged symbolic communication for young children through The Sand Game, the Aurogram Cards and the Eternity Game. They were able to observe many positive effects in the children from these opportunities for symbolic communication. Whereas present-day educational systems usually focus on a very early development of -analytical capacities, Medhananda emphasises that a young child still living in a holistic mythical consciousness should be adequately stimulated through symbol-images. Even at a later stage of development, an equal importance should be given to communication by both symbolic and intellectual expression. The former is considered to be inferior, but according to Medhananda both should be seen as complementary and of equal value (balancing the development of both hemispheres of the brain); otherwise, disharmony and one-sidedness may arise. If both are fostered during the child’s development it will be able to live more consciously from its inner roots and resources. As Medhananda explains, symbols can have a healing effect and should find a place in every genuine education. They can also help adults to rediscover their inner psychological world, become more deeply aware of it and remain in communion with it.
Different Views on Symbols
Medhananda emphasizes that a symbol cannot usually be translated by a single word, for its significance is too complex. Interpretation should remain flexible, not static. For every human being a particular symbol-image, fairy-tale or myth may have a different meaning, depending on his current state of consciousness. How and what we comprehend of a symbol can also change in the course of a lifetime according to the development of our individual consciousness. As Medhananda says, “Symbols grow with us, and we grow with them”.
Perceiving Symbols with the new Integral Consciousness
An important feature of the emerging integral or supramental consciousness, Medhananda points out, is that time and space (so important in our dominantly rational way of living) can be overcome: Events recounted in a legend which supposedly happened a long time ago if at all, can be seen as inner movements of consciousness that can occur in ourselves in the present. Locations such as a forest, a castle, a mountain, heaven or hell can be perceived as states of consciousness into which we may fall or rise, mount up or sink down. Medhananda encourages us to work inwardly in this way with our consciousness and thus gradually become liberated from the normal bounds of perceived time and space14. He is convinced that psychology will become of ever greater importance in the future, growing deeper, richer, more complete and complex. To perceive in oneself the multiplicity of structures and forces of consciousness and bring these elements together harmonising them around our central being and so gradually building up an integral whole, a true and unified individuality, is our most important task. This work will also have a positive effect on humanity at large, in Medhananda’s view, because consciousness is infectious or contagious, so that psychological progress achieved in one individual spreads to others, gradually pervading the whole earth-atmosphere.
Symbols in Education
Medhananda and Yvonne Artaud investigated the communication through symbols also in young children.
Besides the verbal communication, used almost exclusively today (the expression of the mental consciousness), there also exists the much more ancient mode of communication through symbols, which is more fundamental and which was fully developed in prehistoric times. Every child relives this phase in its early years, as in a kind of swift replaying of the course of evolution. So it is possible to study pre-mental consciousness-structures in both small children and ancient cultures.
At the present time, verbal communication tends to suppress communication through symbols, which is nowadays often considered an inferior means of expression, rather than a complementary one. This leads to disharmony and one-sidedness. Communication through symbols is particularly important in relationships with animals, children, and our own super- and sub-consciousness. It can be observed especially in babies and infants, but also in geniuses and mystics, non-human primates and prehistoric humanity.
In The Way of Horus (p. 23) Medhananda writes:
“A word and a symbol belong to two different worlds.
One activates more the left hemisphere
and the other more the right hemisphere of our cerebrum,
and so an entirely different intelligence.
One side starts analysing,
the other comprehending.
Reality is rendered into infinitesimal pieces by one side,
while the other perceives it as a whole or dreams of it.
For one side, reality is ruled by meaningless chance,
For the other, its secret meaning and intent is revealed. […] The difference amounts not only to another way of writing,
but another way of looking at the universe:
another way of being man.”
The multi-facetted investigations of Medhananda and Y. Artaud lead to the recognition that in education the communication through symbols should be encouraged just as conscientiously as analytic verbal communication. These modes complement each other. In combination, the two together lead to greater plasticity, harmony and integral human development. We become able to live more intensely and consciously from our roots and deep sources.
The images and symbols in Medhananda’s five books on ancient Egypt were originally collected for children. The child asks a question, and the image gives the answer. Since symbols speak to our depths, heights, vastness and wholeness rather than to our intellect, they are healing, in the sense of making whole, integrating, and are essential elements of every true education.
The Language of Symbols
In The Eternity Game booklet, p. 14, Medhananda writes:
“Whether or not mankind is conscious of it, the language of the symbol belongs to all peoples – from Panama to Africa, from Asia to Oceania, from Tierra del Fuego to the lands of the permafrost.
Symbols are as old as mankind itself.
They are felt or seen and are therefore not exhaustible by thought, but the forms and forces they represent become clear to us in meditation.
The inmost consciousness of man knows no difference between the Jule fire of Iceland and the Vedic fire of India. It knows only the fire.
It does not differentiate between the Christ child and the child called Horus by the Egyptians, Attis by the Greeks and Balakrishna by the Indians: it knows only the golden child.
And which mythology does not include the tree and the serpent – whether the tree be called Yggdrasil or Ashwattha or the Tree of Life?
The cosmic serpent broods on the cosmic egg in the cosmogony of the ancient Pelasgians. The Chinese and the Mexican give wings to the snake or dragon, and the Indians make it into the symbol of infinity.
You and I are also symbols, forms of the One.
We must learn to see all forms – the stone, plant and animal, the wind and water, sun and light – as symbols of that One, forms of its manifestation.
We may ask ourselves where we come from and what we are and where we are being led, but the true answers we can find only by perceiving all together as one, expressed in numberless symbols, in the love of being and becoming, in the joy and force which we are and which contain and indwell all life.
You and I are symbols in this whole, but symbols behind which, in many series of hierarchies other symbols arise, greater ones, nearer to the origin…”
Symbolic Language in Ancient Cultures, by Sri Aurobindo
In his book Hymns to the Mystic Fire Sri Aurobindo writes:
“I suggested an explanation of the ambiguous character of the Veda. My suggestion hinged on this central idea that these hymns were written in a stage of religious culture which answered to a similar period in Greece and other ancient countries, — I do not suggest that they were contemporary or identical in cult and idea, — a stage in which there was a double face to the current religion, an outer for the people, profanum vulgus, an inner for the initiates, the early period of the Mysteries. The Vedic Rishis were mystics who reserved their inner knowledge for the initiates; they shielded them from the vulgar by the use of an alphabet of symbols which could not readily be understood without the initiation, but were perfectly clear and systematic when the signs were once known.
These symbols centred around the idea and forms of the sacrifice; for the sacrifice was the universal and central institution of the prevailing cult. The hymns were written round this institution and were understood by the vulgar as ritual chants in praise of the Nature-gods […] with the object of provoking by the sacrifice the gifts of the gods, — cows, horses, gold and other forms of wealth of a pastoral people, victory over enemies, safety in travel, sons, servants, prosperity, every kind of material good fortune.
But behind this mask of primitive and materialistic naturalism, lay another and esoteric cult which would reveal itself if we once penetrated the meaning of the Vedic symbols. […] The outer sacrifice represented in these esoteric terms an inner sacrifice of self-giving and communion with the gods. These gods are powers, outwardly of physical, inwardly of psychical nature. […] The giving was an inner giving. All the offerings of the outer sacrifice, the cow and its yield, the horse, the Soma were symbols of the dedication of inner powers and experiences to the ‘Lords’ of Truth. The divine gifts, result of the outer sacrifice, were also symbols of inner divine gifts, the cows of the divine light symbolised by the herds of the sun, the horse of strength and power, the son of the inner godhead or divine man created by the sacrifice, and so through the whole list.
This symbolic duplication was facilitated by the double meaning of the Vedic words; go,
for instance, means both cow and ray; the cows of the dawn and the sun. Heaven’s boes Helioi, are the rays of the sun-god. Lord of Revelation, even as in Greek mythology Apollo the sun-god is also the Master of poetry and of prophecy. Ghṛta means clarified butter, but also the bright thing; soma means the wine of the moon-plant, but also delight, honey, sweetness. […]
The Mysteries in Egypt and Greece and elsewhere were of a very ancient standing and they proceeded precisely on this symbolic principle, by which outward myth and ceremony and cult-objects stood for secrets of an inward life or knowledge. […]”
Stories are Energy Fields
In The Way out is Up, Medhananda writes:
“Why should we care whether a legendary event really existed or not? The legend exists. It is full of life. It can even influence the life of a people for thousands of years. There are definitely very conscious forces that make use of stories and legends to shape the consciousness of the human race. They touch everyone, even children.”