Masonic Symbolism





The state of mind of a new initiate into Freemasonary was described by Maj. Sanderson as “chaotic” 1. Many, if not most brethren from their own experience would readily attest and vouch to this fa’ct, and that it is indeed very easy for the neophyte freemason to be lost in the masonic forest of symbols and symbolism which he enters, as a fait accompli to initiation. Masonic symbology which uses abstract symbols of illumosinary impact, portraying profound and cardinal truths could be denoted the most interpretative and esoteric facet of Freemasonry. As Buck stated “it is in the ancient symbols of Freemasonry that its real secrets lie concealed and these are as densely veiled to the mason as to any other, unless he has studied the science of symbolism in general and masonic symbols in particular” 2.

The understanding of these symbolic connotations calls for quiet and ruminant contemplation, deductive intuition or a scientific type of inductive spiritual research. Even to the ‘thinking mason’, masonic symbols open a Pandora’s box of thoughts to moralise and speculate upon, what then to speak of the novitiate. However the fact remains even today as Steinmetz states 3 : ” the average Mason is lamentably ignorant of the real meaning of masonic symbology and knows as little of its esoteric teaching”. Masonic symbolism and symbols are a cognitive experience that one has to constantly search for in the threshold of one’s own “lodge”. Mackey 4 exhorts every mason: “to study the symbolism of masonry is the only way to investigate its philosophy. This is the true portal of its temple through which alone we can gain access to the sacellum where its aporrheta are concealed”. To the myriad of doubts, often as exuberant as the pomegranate seeds, that linger in the minds, of such a mason, who seeks enlightenment, and for the nucleation of his thoughts, this essay is directed. For convenience it will be considered in two parts – its dialectics and didactics.

Dialectics of Masonic symbolism:

The classical definition of Freemasonry is “A peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated with symbols” 5. A good starting point in understanding the alloying elements cont<;lined in masonic ritual is to distinguish and discriminate between "allegpry" and "symbolism". The definition of allegory is "a figurative representation in which something else is . intended to what is actually exhibited". This is typified by our masonic ceremonies, as they have two distinct and different meanings; an "exoteric" or the immediately obvious, and an "esoteric" or the mystical meaning. As apparent in the definition itself the veil that covers the allegory has to be parted by the masonic student and the hidden meaning of the allegory discovered for himself. A parallel can be readily drawn to lifting the veil of "Maya", that envelopes, the Atman, as per the Hindu scriptures. Symbol on the other hand is defined as "something that stands for, represents or recalls something else not by exact resemblance but by suggestions or associations in thought, especially an object that represents something abstract as an idea, quality or condition" 4. Far from its origins, symbolism and symbols has a wide and differentiated usage and application in diverse fields ranging from mathematics, geometry, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, to art, literary criticism, theatre, religion and most importantly in daily life. As Freemasons we ever recognize the profuse, effective and pervasive usage of symbols in our rituals and literature. Flumini 6, has described a symbol as "any element that refers to another independently of the methods by which the other is represented". Thr pre-requisite of a symbol is that "it must render the pr.esence of the represented in an immediately effective manner", and must not be "conventional". The distinguishing character of a symbol is that it must instantly "communicate" or immediately strike a chord in the "mind and heart" of the reader, beholder or the perceiver, that the "representative himself takes part in the represented reality" thus endowing it with an exceptional sensitivity. No where but in our Masonic ritual is such symbolical and allegorical application seen in action with such grace, fluidity and felicity. Masonic symbolism as contained in our rituals, induces in the candidate an instant rapport and develops a magical bond between the reality of our daily life and experience from the represented symbol. Coleridge has described this as the "bond between the representative and the represented". Goethe 6 has beautifully captured its essence thus: "....the mission of the allegory and of the symbol is to connect the peculiar to the universaL.... a vivid and instantaneous revelation of the inscrutable..." The distinction between allegory and symbolism is subtle, but indeed different; allegory through the concept searches for something outside itself; symbol instead finds it immediately demonstrating nothing more than itself. It is just through its self evident reason of existence that it carries within itself the essence of the universal". Symbolism is the very stone on which the edifice of Freemasonry has been built - a superstructure, perfect in its parts and the whole. We, can only marvel at the wisdom, strength and beauty of the symbolical working tools so aptly chosen by our founding fathers to inculcate, the great as well as sundry moral truths through the medium pf symbols and aphorisms. Symbolism then, is what endows Freemasonry its great depth and profundity of meaning that ranges from the surface of the earth to its centre or even as high as the heavens as the mind can sink or soar. Its interpretation like charity should have no bounds save those of prudence. Symbols have a great virtue, and accounts for their such wide spread and varied usage in Masonry. Symbols are virtually inexhaustible in import and interpretation, in as much as every new recipient finds in it, the meaning most accessible in the horizon of his knowledge, and the compass of his cultural attainment. To the recipient it is never too much or too little, whether he be rich or poor, scholar or laggard, as the radius of the circle of interpretation can be varied to suit the person and the persona. Symbolism always conceals just that much, to maintain the inexplicable mystery it carries. As the centre point of a circle is ever equidistant from its circumference, symbolism transcends the finite in space and time, and elevates those symbolically derived thoughts to a sublime level, endowing them with an ethereal quality and evanescence, so vitally needed in self realization of that divine spark within - "Aham Bhramasmi"! Masonry traces its history to antiquity. There is a fundamental question that baffles the casual and scholarly student alike - are we to believe that the craftsmen of the medieval guilds most of whom were illiterate, conceived the entire masonic philosophy, crafted its symbols and built the edifice of Freemasonry on it , with such consummate cunning? Or is it that the humble and mundane tool of the mason, was chosen just as a symbol? Why not other symbols? What was the grand object of such extensive sYrJ1bolism? Why not a more direct approach to instruction be adopted as in the religious texts? Such questions are legion, and no one answer can satisfy one and all, if there be one at all. Much like the meaning of the symbols, the answers to these perplexing questions has to be found not from without but from within, by quiet contemplation. It only suffices to say, such, my brother is the nature of masonic symbology; it conceals that teaching from those who do . not seek it out, as to reveal it to him, who of his own free will and accord earnestly attempts to pierce that veil of Masonic mystery 6 . Let us supplicate the G.G.O.U that the rays of heaven may shed their influence to enlighten us in the study of masonic symbolism as we now move to its didactics. The Didactics of Masonic Symbolism: Masonry symbolically speaks of three greater and three lesser lights and thereby it acknowledges the existence of a hierarchy and relevance in the moral truths it contains. No doubt, they all lead to the grand and the only truth, as the Vedas declare "Ekam Sath, Viprah Bahuda Vadanti" - the truth is only one, but it is spoken of differently and so it is with masonic symbols. It is my speculative thesis that the whole pantheon of masonic symbols can be reduced for an analytical masonic study into three classes of greater symbolisms and three lesser symbolisms. The three greater are the symbolism of death and immortality exemplified by the Hiramic legend, the acceptance of Omnific Supreme being, and the profound injunction - Know Thy Self. The lesser lights are three and oontained in the symbolism of the lodge - in its form, its ornaments, furniture and jewels etc, the symbolism of the rituals - such as in the knocks, the perambulation and the like, the sym~olism of the nobility of labour and refreshment, in constructing our spiritual temple - thus our destiny and that of humanity. These, the lesser lights are easy of comprehension, lie open in the lodge for the brethren to moralise upon, and many excellent treatises are readily available and will not be dealt with in this essay. Of all the symbols used in masonry, the use of the Hiramic legend as a symbol to teach, conquer and prepare the Masonic mind on the awful subject of death remains supreme. Death it is said, is the only true concomitant of birth. In this great and unsurpassed lesson that the ritual of raising teaches, its import and impact even goes beyond religion, in the lasting physical and spiritual experience it affords, and the transformation it effects in every reflective mind. No contemporary religion provides for such an all encompassing experience. Mackey 4 has vividly and cogently described the travails and frailities of human existence thus: "... Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward....temptations allure his youth, misfortunes darken the pathway of his manhood, and his old age is encumbered with infirmity and disease". The sublime symbolism of a resurrection from the grave and a new birth into a future life, is beautifully symbolized in the Hiramic legend of the masters body being transferred from the polluted grave into which it was cast by the murderers (read our mortal existence on this earth), its discovery (read spiritual emancipation) and its sepulchral internment in the precincts of the S.S, (read - soul liberation or moksha) are so figuratively symbolic of the great truth of life, death and the immortality of the soul. It also portrays the universal truth that mystical death must precede mystical rebirth - "know ye not that ye must be born again". The Vedas and Upanishads state that the nectarine, or ambrosic knowledge of the Paramatman, is sought not only by humans but even by celestials; such is the divinity of human existence. There is a striking analogy of the masonic raising to the principle of "Jeevanmuktha" propounded by Srisankara as the bedrock of Advaitha philosophy. It states that one who has attained liberation, freedom and immortality while in this human body is verily a true Jeevanmuktha. Many from the West have doubted if this is indeed possible, and contend that only death can liberate the soul. Kathopanishad declares (11-6-4): "Cedasad boddhum prah Sarirasya Visrasah Tatah Sargesu lokeshu Sariratvaya kalpate" "If one is able to comprehend Him before the death of the body, he will be liberated from the bondage of the world". Immortality, is the grand object and the final fulfillment of the struggle of evolution, and man is the only being that can hasten his spiritual evolution, and thus attain "Kaivalya mukthi". It is my speculative thesis, that Masonry affords us a working tool to attain this objective and its symbolism should be understood in this light. That this was the purpose of ritual is evident from the writings of the great Masonic scholar, Mackey who wrote: "... the whole design of Freemasonry, namely that, when man shall have passed the gates of life and have yielded to the inexorable fiat of death he shall then be raised at the omnific word of the G.M.O.U from time to eternity; from the tomb of corruption to the chambers of hope; from the darkness of death to the celestial beans of life and that his disembodied spirit shall be conveyed as near to the holy of holifs of the divine presence as humanity can never approach ~he deity". The only caveat of this great Masonic symbol, is that it has to be understood fully by the mason and sadly this is exactly what is lacking today. The second greater light of symbolism in Freemasonry is based on its most important landmark, namely the acceptance of one Supreme being - the omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God, the concept of immortality of the