Sacred Symbolism


1.    Religion as concerning the sacred, holy, ultimate – but we either have no direct access or we can’t describe or communicate experience of the sacred directly.

a.    Symbolic communication – “brings together” human and divine, sacred and profane

b.    Cf. religio – to bind together, bridge



2.    Symbolic communication – follows basic pattern of responding to experience with sound or gesture, become a means of communication

a.    Signs and symbols both point beyond themselves to something else

b.    Sign: “indicates the existence – past, present, or future – of a thing, an event, or condition” (Langer).  Animals tend to use signs.  They signal, point to, refer to, or remind us of something else.  E.g., swastika, crucifix.

c.    Symbol: A special kind of sign.  Used to convey and reflect upon what the symbol refers to.  Characteristically human, the engage abstractions

                                              i.     Representational symbols: Learned associations.  Tie together things that are distinct.  The symbol and what is symbolized are connected through convention, based on cultural context.   E.g., green light.  The color black can be associated with death in one context, whereas the color white is so associated in another.

                                            ii.     Presentational symbols: Participate in, or are similar to, the thing that they symbolize

1.    In a secular context, map represents a terrain, has basic simaliarity

2.    In a religious context, the symbol participates in or manifest the holy or sacred.

a.    An icon in the Orthodox Church – makes present the Divine

b.    A map of Mother India, makes present the goddess.

c.    Mudras: disclose certain aspects of the Buddha

3.    Religious language: symbolic or discursive

a.    First order religious discourse: metaphoric, poetic.  Experience near.

b.    Second order: more abstract and conceptual

4.    Master symbols or “root symbols”: Crucifix, reclining Buddha

a.    Bring together central aspects of a tradition, evoke its moods, sentiments, inclinations toward life (ethos)

b.    Through study of symbolism we can begin to know the deepest aspects of a tradition’s worldview, profound experiences, emotions.  Way of life.

c.    Example:  Siva Nataraja.