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Symbols and Reality

By D. R. Sharma

Symbols have always been an integral part of man's life. We have symbols in every walk of life; some are obvious, others not even though in every day use. In this modern world every organization public or private attempts to have a unique and distinctive identity by creating a symbol in the form of a logo or emblem. By very definition a symbol represents something that may be physical or even nonphysical such as an idea or a concept. It is not the "thing in itself," the substance or reality behind it. As long as the distinction between the symbol and the substance is clearly understood the use of symbol serves its purpose. The problem comes when it is confused with the substance. This occurs most frequently when a symbol represents something nonphysical; we find it happening in almost every human activity. For example, when we are reading a book or a newspaper we are hardly aware of the fact that the letters and words are only symbols that convey ideas through the medium of a particular language. In fact each letter forming the words on the pages is a symbol for a particular sound. The letter in itself means nothing. The same is true for numbers; there is nothing seven-like in number seven. It is just a symbol written in a certain way in a given language. Languages are man made and, in general, everything that is man made is a symbol for some idea.

When the symbol takes the identity of the real thing it results in a degeneration of the original idea and its very purpose is lost. The form becomes the substance and the principle becomes a dogma. The individual loses the ability of rational thinking which in turn stunts personal growth.

It is also important to remember that the symbol itself may not be physical. Statues are physical but institutions as symbols are not. For example schools, colleges, and universities are symbols for education as a concept. A government is a symbol for the concept of running the affairs of the country according to some well-defined principles. A religion is a symbol for the spiritual development of groups of people. Each one of the institutions may have its own distinctive symbols to depict things within it. Symbols can also be in the form of actions such as rituals prescribed within a religion. Everything symbolic has a concept behind it and it is for the individual looking at the symbol to keep that in focus.

Every symbol starts as an image in the mind of the creator while thinking about the concept he wants to illustrate. An inherent characteristic of the human (perhaps any) mind is that a thought is always accompanied by an image. The image is then given a physical form and becomes a specific object. In some cases it is taken to be real as in the case of a photograph. Looking at the photograph of a person one often identifies it as the real person knowing fully well that it is only a piece of paper depicting the person's image at a given time and place. A similar situation occurs in the case of image worship in religions. An image is simply a symbol for the god or goddess it represents; it is not the god or goddess. Unless the worshipper is aware of this the worship becomes a mechanical function devoid of any significance.

Symbols and Self-development
Now what significance does this relationship between symbol and reality have in the context of self-development? We shall consider a few examples here to answer this question. First we consider personal relationships of which marriage is the most intimate. Even the word marriage is a symbol representing a special relationship between two people of opposite sex, a union of two souls. It is the beginning of a lifelong relationship that has to be developed with mutual faith and respect. Looking at the number of marriages that end in divorce it would seem that very few couples understand the real concept of marriage. They may profess to be in love without realizing the true meaning of love. Love is the most noble of human emotions and true love is not based on mere physical attraction.

In the old days of matchmaking and arranged marriages there was no mention of love as such; love was supposed to start and grow from the union. Instead there was devotion and moral strength gained from a complete understanding of mutual responsibility. There were no undue expectations, just a determination to dedicate one's life to another for the betterment of both. In particular the bride's virtues had endurance far greater than that of physical attraction. With time the lust and passion would dwindle but they would have something more substantial to keep the bond in place. We cannot go back to those old practices now but it would help if people remember and try to inculcate those values.

Next we consider the modern system of education. It is commonly believed that education is meant to impart to a person sufficient knowledge in a given field. But knowledge is only a part of the process. The real purpose of education is to give the person the capability of independent thinking and generating new ideas. Knowledge is an accumulation of facts which can only serve as the basis for developing ideas. Without the capacity for thinking independently there cannot be advancement. The present system of education has become so rigid and stereotyped that it is not conducive to intellectual growth. The result is that students go to schools not to get education but to get a degree. The degree, which is just a symbol, has become the real thing instead of education. The society is partly responsible for this state of affairs by putting more emphasis on the degree for evaluating candidates for jobs. The motivation for higher education has also changed. The prospects of better and higher paying jobs increase for the holder of a higher degree. Students go for higher education not for the sake of learning more but for earning more. There are, of course, exceptions but they are very few.

The problem, which starts from elementary schools, is that the education has become fact-based instead of being idea-based. Right from the beginning the emphasis is what and how with little attention to why. Children are taught how to do something without providing the reasoning behind the process of doing. At high school and college levels it becomes more serious. Students are taught about a phenomenon and they know facts pertaining to it, but they usually lack the insight into the fundamental processes that go to make up that phenomenon. A superficial knowledge symbolically replaces the real understanding.

Religion and Science
We now move to a more abstract discussion of the relationship between symbol and reality and consider religion and science. In recent years there has been much discussion on the convergence (or a tendency towards) of science and religion, especially in view of new developments in quantum physics. The goal of science is to understand nature in all its manifestations. The goal of religion is to understand and (if possible) get in contact with the Ultimate Reality underlying nature and the universe. Physics deals with phenomena occurring in the universe which are always in space-time. Quantum physics pertains to the subatomic world lying at the lower end of the space-time scale, while the relativistic physics deals with the upper end of that scale. So the domain of physics is limited to space-time and the universe. Physics cannot go beyond. On the other hand the Reality that religion tries to reach is beyond space-time and, hence, outside the domain of science. Therefore, strictly speaking, there cannot be a convergence of science and religion. At the same time it is important to keep in mind that lack of convergence does not imply disagreement or conflict.

It also does not mean that there are no similarities between the findings of science and religion. The quantum void, the absence of cause-effect relationship, nonlocality and phase entanglement, the behavior of electrons in selecting orbits etc., all these quantum phenomena resonate with religious/spiritual experiences. But the reason for these similarities may lie in the fact that the underlying Reality of both the manifest and unmanifest existence is the same.

Now what has all this to do with symbols? All phenomena in physics are described by mathematical equations. At the quantum level in particular direct visualization of the results is not possible and everything is described in terms of probability and wave functions. Mathematical equations and wave functions are just symbols. All events in the universe result from the collapse of wave functions. Thus in effect here we are dealing not with the real universe or nature but only with its symbolic representation... In spiritual experiences the person is in contact with the Reality itself and at this stage there is no symbol involved.

Dharmbir Rai Sharma is a retired professor with an electrical engineering and physics background.
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