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Symbols in Art and Religion (The Indian and the Comparative Prespective)

Symbols in Art and Religion (The Indian and the Comparative Prespective)
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Item Code: NAZ799
Author: Karel Werner
Language: English
Edition: 1991
ISBN: 8120808339
Pages: 230
Other Details: 8.50 X 6.00 inch
weight of the book: 0.42 kg

The hope expressed in the Preface to The Yogi and the Mystic, the first collection of papers in this series, namely that the publishers would be able and willing to bring out a second collection, this time dedicated to the theme of symbolism, is being realized by the appearance of this book.

As with the first volume, the contributions included in this one also stem from the harvest of the Symposia on Indian Religions which took place during the ten years of the editor's convenership (1975 — 84). It was the Seventh Symposium, housed in the Cherwell Centre, Oxford, in 1981, which was concerned with the theme of symbolism in Indian religions and, like the previous one-theme conference on mysticism, attracted much interest which enabled eventually the present publication.

In the case of mysticism, the editor could offer a general framework for the way in which the inquiry into the different varieties of mysticism in Indian religions could be conducted; it was outlined in his introductory paper whose extensive synopsis was made available to the participants invited to contribute, although it was left to them whether they would choose to relate their contributions to the theory outlined in the synopsis or not. In the event, the editor subsequently felt justified in claiming that the structural pattern of mystical doctrine, experience and path as outlined in his introductory paper had a virtually universal applicability and was recognizable even in papers which did not directly relate to his synopsis or, in one or two cases, were written without their authors' knowledge of it.

The editor could make no similar claim to having a generally applicable theory in the case of symbolism. He was therefore delighted to receive the offer of a paper from a colleague with a philosophical back-ground who was preoccupied with general methodological problems of symbolism in religions. His paper was used to introduce the theme and some of its general implications to the Symposium and is published in this collection almost unaltered. Other contributors did not have a chance to read it beforehand and wrote their papers independently.

The imagination of one participant in the proceedings of the Symposium was fired enough to ponder over its theme for some time and to prepare a kind of 'footnote' to it for the subsequent year's Symposium. It was later finalized and published in a journal. The author reworked it again for the purposes of this collection after he had read all the other contributions.

Although this last paper tries to find some pattern in the creation, use and meaning of symbols and even suggests a theory which it attempts to illustrate with the materials of some of the other contributions, we can hardly claim to have a comprehensive grasp or clear understanding of the processes in human thought, experience and creative effort which lead to the birth of symbols and to their effectiveness. The assembled papers offer some valid, although only partial, insights into these processes, but their nature or essence is elusive and will require ever more attention and ever fresh attempts to elucidate them, without any guarantee that the problem will eventually be fully understood. This does not mean that effective use and new creation of symbols will not go on. It is as with language. One does not have to understand fully its nature in order to use it effectively and creatively, and the language itself, as well as its employment both in the creative process and in everyday affairs, will remain forever independent of the theories of language and of the contentions of linguistic philosophy.

The first paper, 'Symbols and Religious Language', takes as its starting point two clearly inadequate definitions of symbol, one ascribing the capacity of becoming a symbol to anything that has a meaning and the other one regarding the process by which a symbol comes into existence to be a matter of convention rather than of any intrinsic link between the symbol and the entity which it symbolizes. The author then proceeds to examine, first, the qualities which a symbol may be required to have, such as being 'acceptable' and having an 'innate power' or what is called 'necessary character', and, second, the relation a symbol has to what it symbolizes: whether it represents that entity and somehow participates in it, mediates its deeper meaning or even integrates into human life realities not normally encountered in everyday life, a point particularly relevant to symbols in religions. He then examines symbols as used in religious discourse, the claims Tillich makes for symbolic language as pointing to truth if it adequately expresses man's 'ultimate concern', and Wittgenstein's 'picture' theory of religious language — only to conclude that, symbols being the language of religion, we can never know the reality they point to; we can only elucidate the life which symbols have as a form of language.

Illuminating as the paper is in matters of theory of symbols and in the conceptual analysis of their place in the context of linguistic philosophy, it does little to prepare us for the way in which subsequent contributors take the reality of symbols and their effectiveness for granted and explain their meaning and role in their particular area of research.

This is immediately clear from the next paper, 'The Symbolism of Indian Art'. The author simply accepts that religions are founded on sets of symbols which structure man's intuitions about his world and its meaning and about destiny, and proceeds to show how the language of symbols has been incorporated not only in the scriptures, myths and legends of the Indian tradition, but most powerfully also in Indian religious art and even in the structural complexity of the Hindu temple. From here there is a direct link to the 'structural', or shall we rather say multidimensional, complexity of the 'temple' of the human personality itself which ranges from the gross level of the physical body through the suprasensory level of the 'subtle' body to the level of the divine energy, reaching even as far as the transcendental 'centre' of being itself, beyond 'the wasteful entropy of time'.

The editor's own paper, 'Symbolism in the Vedas and its Conceptualization', also unquestioningly accepts the obvious fact of the existence of powerful symbols and their multidimensional connection with the human world, both individual and social, and its link to the cosmic and transcendental realms. Focusing on a few examples as they were preserved in the ancient Vedic mythology of creation, it points out a further fact, expressed already in the title of the article, namely that, with time, the powerful mediation of subtle messages conveyed directly to the hearts of their recipients through the language of symbols wears out and they require interpretation in order to be understood. In this process of translating symbols into concepts, the message grows weaker, even to the point of becoming ineffective. The symbols which once shaped individual lives and even the social order are then no longer living forces. Does their interpretation help the original messages to become effective again? Does our conceptual knowledge of the meaning of symbols of so many ancient traditions influence our lives and society? One would have liked to have another paper which would address this problem, perhaps utilizing the insights of Jungian psychology.


Dr. Karel Werner studied Western Philosophy and Indology at the Universities in Brno and Olomouc, Czechoslovakia, got Ph.D. in 1949 and became a lecturer in Sanskrit and Indian Civilisation in Olomouc University.

When Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet army in August 1968, putting an end to the brief period of liberalisation, he emigrated to England. Since 1969 he has been the Spalding Lecturer in Indian Philosophy and Religion in the University of Durham.

He has published articles on Yoga and Buddhism in English, German and Czech and a book Hatha Yoga in Czech (Prague 1969, 2nd ed. 1971). He is currently engaged in research on the Vedas.

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