Ever since humans began using symbols they have been endowed with power beyond their immediate use. Symbols arose out of a need to communicate; however, their usage down the history has shown that they soon overpowered the mind that created them, for the better in some areas and for the worse in others. As social activities grew in number and complexity, the importance of symbols soon became apparent and consequently they began to appear in many different forms, shapes, sizes and colours. The purpose of symbols went far beyond simple representations of things – from merchant seals and regal emblems, through social bonds and tribal loyalties, to street signs and scientific notations, and wars, symbols have played a significant role in human affairs.
Historians tell us that symbols have been in use since millennia, going as far back in time as when humans were making stone implements more than 7000 years ago. Rock art and cave paintings of ancient human societies reveal that it was customary to use symbols in pagan rites. For example, the swastika, meaning ‘well-being’ in Sanskrit, was used by the Indus Valley people more than 5000 years ago. It is still in use today in most Hindu rituals for the same purpose. Very few symbols like the swastika have survived to the present day, though many like those used on coins and stone tablets have lost their significance. Some have undergone changes in form, but continue to serve the same purpose like the signs of the zodiac, which probably predate the swastika by a thousand years. Many cross-like symbols existed since pre-historic times before it evolved into the cross of Christianity as we know it today. The Egyptian sphinx and Aladdin’s lamp evoke feelings of wonderment and awe even to this day, though their original purpose and significance have been lost forever.
It is obvious that symbols have a definite purpose beyond their visual appeal and decorative function. A symbol stands for something that is out there in the world or in here in the mind. Before language was invented, people communicated their thoughts with symbols. It was the only way of communication in the ancient world, other than sounds and gestures, for language was not yet born. Whether you communicated with the dead, the nature or the people living around you, you used symbols. They were not limited to the pagan rites, however, but extended to the identity of the people that used them. Symbols fused people together, helped form societies and were expressions of loyalties to a tribe. Symbols eventually led to scripts like the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the rudiments of a language gradually took shape as people traded goods and the need to count became evident. As societies evolved symbols became more and more expressive until they stood for ideas beyond the representations of physical objects and social events. With the growth of symbols and the diversity of their usage, people came to depend on their use in almost all walks of life – rites, trade, astrology, counting – and eventually over centuries they came to stand for complex ideas that led to religion, culture, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.
As symbols became the nucleus of daily life, our dependence on them not only grew beyond measure, but also led to both happy outcomes and undesirable consequences. As abstract representations of physical objects or natural events in the world, symbols helped us develop ideas into scientific theories, drawings into works of art and other-worldly feelings and experiences into religious beliefs. In science, we deal with universally accepted symbols. In works of art, symbols are specific to the culture and traditions of a society. In matters of religion, however, symbols are treated not just as representations of inarticulate ideas and feelings, but as the reality they are purported to stand for. Symbols in religion have remained static for thousands of years, unlike those in science, art and other human affairs, which have happily evolved over time depending on our changing needs. The religious symbols have no common universal frames of reference such as those in science and therefore our dependence on them seems to be unjustified. While symbols have brought us together in the fields of science, art and commerce, they have also divided us in matters of religion.
A symbol is not the thing; it has no significance in itself; it has a meaning only in relation to the thing it represents. And yet, it has come to mean much more than the thing itself. A flag is not merely a colourful representation of a nation on a piece of cloth: you can be shot or incarcerated for despoiling it. A picture of a god is no more than an artistic representation of an idea or a mythical man or woman endowed with extraordinary capacities; but it can lead to insane acts of violence, instigated by unscrupulous people. The word God is obviously an idea of GOD, since there is no universally accepted God symbol. Therefore, the believer and the unbeliever both react strongly to that word, each according to his or her cultural background, which is made up of imagery and symbolic representations. The symbol zero, we learn, had met with a lot of resistance in the West because it signified nothingness or emptiness, which went against the then Christian theology. The followers of Shiva and Vishnu had clashed over the alleged superiority of one over the other and the symbols they adorned their foreheads with had immediately divided them into warring camps. The thin line that divides a symbol from the reality it is meant to represent vanishes at the merest whisper of opposition: the symbol becomes the reality.
Symbols have been used to harness mass power in order to achieve certain desired ends. Political parties use symbols in order to promote mass identification. Democracies thrive on voting the symbol representatives to power. This mass appeal sometimes helps legitimize political actions which may seem patently inhuman in other contexts. The rallying power of the symbol was fully exploited by the Nazis before the Second World War. Since they adopted Swastika as their party symbol, it became infamously associated with the most appalling crime in the history of humanity: six million Jews became victims of the Nazi’s racial bigotry. The communist ideology propagated by the symbol of hammer and sickle consumed the minds of a whole nation before it collapsed under the weight of its own tyrannical means to impose it on millions in the erstwhile Soviet Union. The advertisers use symbols to promote their product brands. And the well-known channels of advertisement, like hoardings, TV commercials, web banners and SMS ads on the mobile phones, are intended to lodge the symbols in the mind: the worth of the product (of which kind many exist in the market) hardly justifies this subliminal invasion and the resultant excessive cost to the consumer.
Not only in our waking moments, but even when we are sleeping, symbols affect us. They are the stuff of which dreams are made. We don’t want to know why we dream, but merely what a particular dream means. There are always specialists around to interpret them for us. Because most symbols make sense only in a cultural context, we have many kinds of dream interpretations like the Islamic, the Christian, the Hindu, the Freudian and so on. And the specialist thrives in a pluralist society like our own. However, the hidden meaning of a symbol eludes even the adept, not so much from a lack of adequate knowledge, but perhaps because the meaning has changed dramatically over time. Despite being open to several, and sometimes conflicting interpretations, symbols in dreams continue to invite the specialist to provide meaning to the dreamer. Wake up, dear reader, and know your symbols well, and their meaning in a dream context, for not a day passes without dreams.
Aldous Huxley wrote that “Man is an amphibian who lives simultaneously in two worlds – the given and the homemade, the world of matter, life and consciousness and the world of symbols.” He points out that the symbols in science have been carefully chosen to represent the physical world; however, in matters of religion and politics no such effort preceded the creation of symbols. Consequently, while the former helped us to grow technologically, the latter has held us back from overcoming our brute nature. No matter how many symbols we deal with in our daily life, it is perhaps more important, and urgent, to distinguish between those that aid our understanding and those that excite our passions, than merely to be overcome by their avowed meanings.