The Use of Metaphor, Symbol and Myth in Spiritual Literature

Since I was young I have been able to look at ordinary objects like curtains, crumpled clothes or the shadow on a water jug on a table and I have seen the most extraordinary things. Perhaps you have had the same experience. Another example is driving, particularly at night, when I am tired. I have seen exotic animals, suspicious strangers and curious scenarios in hedgerows, under trees and beside motorways, which on closer inspection turn out to be nothing but the play of light and shadows.

The play of sunlight on water never seems to have the same effect on me, because it doesn’t create solid images where none really exist. It is more reminiscent of the spiritual in the world, because it has an ephemeral enchanting quality. This numinous quality is appropriate to the sense in which the divine shoots through the relative world, which is time and space bound. In Hindu philosophy the three human states of waking, dreaming and sleeping — which comprise a human life — are transcended and made spiritual in the fourth state, which is called turiya. To sublimate matters even further the fifth state of turyatita is the indivisible transcendence of unchanging pure consciousness.

The Hindu explanation presents us with a quandary. Wise and accessible as it is, it may nonetheless leave us asking 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. Much like words (and words too are symbolic of course) symbols make reference to something greater than themselves.

Now sometimes it is pleasurable to play with words for their own sake. When we do, even words which may sound profound have no real sense of a deeper meaning, of something beyond them. They are meant literally and understood to be shallow, superficial and devoid of deeper meaning. In contrast words used with precision and accuracy part the veils of confusion and guide us to understanding.

But when are terms or narratives symbolic and when are they literal? Because it is crucial that we know the difference.

Fantastic and extravagant happenings are commonly attributed to spiritual and religious adepts. Some of these accounts make incredible reading, ranging from the curious to the glorious. There is the unbelievable 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 to find Tikku-Baba’s body dismembered and his limbs stacked in a neat pile. Fearing a grisly murder had taken place the young fakir fled. But filled with curiosity he returned in the morning. To his astonishment he found Tikku-Baba in full health, beaming and carrying on as usual.

This obviously impossible set of events is made all the more difficult to evaluate when told by Nisargadatta Maharaj, an enlightened master who was very quick to scold aspiring adepts for their lack of logical thought.

In another fantastic story, this time from the Sufi tradition, compassion is obscured by atrocity. An entire family was the disciples of a Sufi master. One of the sons had a naturally smiling face. One day the master asked the boy, “Why are you smiling?” The boy kept smiling. In front of the whole family, the Master beat the boy with his stick until it was broken. 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 boy was a mass of broken bones, flesh and blood the Master went inside and chewed betel nut. When he came out, he pointed to the bloody pile and said, “Who is lying there?” Then, in a voice of authority, he exclaimed, “Get up!” and the boy arose without scars or any sign of harm, entirely whole. The master announced that the boy was now a Wali (Saint) and he remained one for the rest of his life. This was the family’s dearest wish and the Master had accomplished in less than an hour what would have been expected to take many years or lifetimes.

Again the normally sensible minds of Sufi leaders like Irina Tweedie or Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (who published this story) seem to consider this a literal story, since it was apparently witnessed and recounted by their 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 any other way. Why not? Because spiritual truths are not the same as literal truths. Spirituality pertains 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 hard to describe and when we get into a bi-partisan holy war about it, it is usually because we have become attached to the symbols and forsaken what they stand for.

There may be a different way to employ words if we experience their meaning in a different way. Defending the actor Steven Seagal, who destroyed his Hollywood career by making a film about planetary pollution which pre-empted Al Gores’s An Inconvenient Truth by more than a decade, the psychologist Robert Trager explained, “A part of Steven lived in Japan so long that he is Japanese, and in Japan the literal truth is not as important as the emotional truth. In Japan there is another level of reality, one where the literal facts don’t matter as much as the social and the emotional facts.”

Emotions predominate over scientific fact in the writing of Laurens van der Post: “Time became reluctant, for it is not only a movement in and through space but also a movement in feeling, and when feeling is fixed in one unforgettable moment, time only half exists.”

So, are words literal, symbolic, emotional, factual, fantastical, figurative, literal, representational, abstract or metaphorical? The answer is of course that they can be any, either, most, some or all of these. But our subject here is the use of symbol and metaphor to convey spiritual facts, or truths. Sometimes words are used to simply lie.

Extraordinary phenomena are, of course, not always as extraordinary as they seem. The Indian rope trick has been discredited: Sai Baba may not have materialized holy vibuthi or jewelry out of thin air and not all crop circles turn out to be the work of alien life forms.

Turning now to the crazy wisdom school of spiritual instruction, what does it mean when the fifteenth century, “enlightened madman” Drukpa Kunley is said to have instructed a female disciple in meditation, inseminated her and sent her off to a cave to meditate. Apparently a year later he returned to find that there had been an avalanche and that the cave entrance had been closed off for some months. However when he found her she was alive and well in spite of having taken only three days of rations with her into the cave the year before. After a short period of instruction she is said to have attained Buddhahood.

When the contemporary spiritual teacher Adi Da Samraj died, two expectations: first, that he would rise from the dead; and, second, that his body would show no sign of decay, indicating that he was a great yogi, were both disproved. Did this discredit Adi Da or simply show that his followers were literalizing symbols?

Spiritual metaphors are symbols over reality (i.e. reality of the relative world). When the symbolic and the literal become confused they disappoint and dishearten. The child-philosopher, less than the spiritual disciple, is gullible and ultimately materialistic. In his heart doing and having take precedence over being and being is close to presence and human presence is close to the divine. We meet the divine through our identification with it, through exhibiting those supernatural powers, and magical means developed through our spiritual discipline, sometimes known as siddhis.

Siddhis are those perfections or accomplishments mentioned in the Mahabharata. Clairvoyance, levitation, bilocation and materializing objects are some examples. However looking further into the manifestation of siddhis leads us into more mundane realms: knowing the past, present and future, tolerating heat and cold, knowing others’ minds, not allowing oneself to be dominated by another. Some are merely elementary meditation experiences, like experiencing your body as tiny or infinitely large, heavy or weightless.

Occasionally mystification is caused by 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 havoc is wrought in the misconception of the word apocalypse. Rather 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 truth embraced and accepted.

I have seen truth in a grain of sand, god in an in-breath, eternity in the ocean and endless mystery in the wind. None of these incline me towards becoming a worshiper of nature, anthropomorphizing natural phenomena or starting a religious cult. Metaphor and symbol are the ways in which those of us who are moved to convey timeless truths and deathless wisdom endeavor to help others towards understanding.

Source by Richard G Harvey