by R.W.Bro. C.S.Madhavan
P.G.J.W. Grand Lodge of India
Was not all the knowledge Of the Aegyptians writ in mystic symbols? Speak not the scriptures oft in parables? Are not the choicest fables of the poets, That were the fountains and first springs of wisdom, Wrapp’d in perplexed allegories?
Ben Johnson: The Alchemist
The symbolism of Masonry is the soul of Masonry. Every symbol of a Lodge is a religious teacher, the mute teacher also of morals and philosophy. It is in the ancient symbols and in the knowledge of their true meaning that the pre-eminence of Freemasonry over all others consists.
It is possible to give a Christian interpretation to the whole of Craft Masonry, including all its symbols, … and no one can deny the correctness of that interpretation. But before Christianity existed systems similar to our own were known and venerated, and some of their symbolism and teaching has undoubtedly linked up with Freemasonry. It is therefore natural that a non-Christian interpretation should also exist, and be just as correct.
Colin Dyer: Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry.
All great religions of the world preach morals, compassion and charity and have subsisted through millennia. On the other hand, many institutions, which have preached and practised these admirable virtues in abundant measure, have become defunct after sometime. Proof enough that there is more to Religion than mere sermonising on morality and virtue. It fulfils a need, innate in every man, to realise the Eternal Truth -Satyam.
Freemasonry, like all great religions, is but Man’s quest for Truth. Truth indeed, is the most important of the three Grand Principles on which the order is founded Brotherly Love and Relief being only precursory or preparatory to it. Its symbols, allegories and ceremonials, in all their richness and variety are meant to awaken in every Mason a desire to know the Truth, and guide him in his search for it.
Scriptures of all religions employ parables and allegories to propound their philosophies. This essay atempts to project the symbolism of Freemasonry through the vivid imagery of the Upanishads, with excerpts from the Bible as counterpoint, and interpret it in the context of their teachings, to point out ‘Masonry Universal’.
WHAT IS TRUTH?
And the light shineth in darkness; and darkness comprehended it not.
1 John 1:5
. It is pure; It is the Light of lights; It is That which they know who know the Self.
Mundaka Upanishad 2-2-9
The Truth that Freemasonry teaches is ‘ that most interesting of human studies’ -the knowledge of oneself. There is an inner light, a divinity, in each of us, which is the genuine secret of a Master Mason and which, in our present state of darkness or ignorance, is lost to us. Freemasonry teaches us that the sole purpose of our existence is ‘ to seek for that which was lost’. That we must persevere in our search for this light and labour incessantly to make ourselves perfect till time or circumstances restore it., even though that goal may remain incomplete, as was the temple in our legend. Our rituals and ceremonies are specifically designed to guide us in this spiritual journey-to dispel ignorance, to know God, and finally to experience God.
ILLUSTRATED BY SYMBOLS
The way of Masonry is largely inculcated by symbols. It has been found in all ages that emblems and symbols expressing great truths by a few simple strokes appeal to the mind more strongly and are better remembered than words. To make the most of them it is necessary to grasp the meaning underlying them, and to carry the mind along with them.
F.V.Mataralay: The Masonic Way
The principles of Freemasonry are taught at two levels, exoteric and esoteric. Its moral and ethical teachings expound the duties that a Mason owes to God, his neighbour and himself, and are demonstrated by simple ceremonials and explicitly explained by using stonemason’s tools as symbols. The working tools most familiar to a Freemason are the 24-inch gauge, common gavel, chisel, plumb, level, square, and compasses. We are taught that the 24-inch gauge relates to the 24 hours of the day: to be spent in prayer, labour and refreshment, and in serving the needy. That the gavel, as the force of conscience knocks off all undesirable propensities, and the chisel representing education smoothens the rough ashlar into a perfect one. The level teaches equality and universal brotherhood, which is the fundamental creed of our fraternity. The plumb stands for uprightness and rectitude; the square, used for truing stones, is an emblem of morality and virtue; the compasses symbolise restraint and self-control -to circumscribe our passions within due bounds, and limit our desires.
These symbols impress their moral teachings forcibly on our minds, and act as constant reminders to practise them in thought and deed. However, all symbols are capable of more than one interpretation. As speculative Masons we are enjoined to contemplate these symbols and discover deeper, hidden meanings, as we make ‘ further progress in the science’.
VEILED IN ALLEGORY
Our teaching is purposely veiled in allegory and symbol and its deeper import does not appear on the surface of the ritual itself. This is partly in correspondence with human life itself and the world we live in, which are themselves but allegories and symbols of another life and the veils of another world; and partly also, so that only those who have reverent and understanding minds may penetrate into the more hidden meaning of the doctrine of the Craft. The deeper secrets in Masonry, like the deeper secrets of life, are heavily veiled; are closely hidden.
W.L.Wilmhurst: The Meaning of Masonry
Therefore I speak to them in parables; because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
St. Matthew: 13:13
O Sun! The face of truth is hidden by a golden disc. Unveil it that I who am in search of truth may behold it.
Isa Upanishad: 15
Esoteric Freemasonry is taught through veiled allegory. Masonic symbolism comprises essentially of two separate but interwoven allegories -the quest for Light, and the building of King Solomon’s Temple. To the Mason, the building of the Temple itself is a symbol of human life. He carefully builds his character, speculatively using the working tools of the stonemason, and progresses slowly towards the East in search of light. The culmination of his journey is the tragedy of Hiram Abiff, in which he portrays the Master.
Other symbols like the mosaic pavement, rough and perfect ashlars, the two pillars and the winding staircase, are embroidered into the fabric of these allegories to inculcate moral values that will enable him to live according to Masonic line and rule. All these are veiled because Freemasonry does not communicate its secrets indiscriminately. A Mason must properly prepare himself, mentally and spiritually, at every stage of his Masonic journey to understand their meaning.
SYMBOLISM OF THE FIRST DEGREE
Like unto that of a man blindfolded and carried away by robbers from his own country is a man’s condition. The folds of cloth over his eyes being removed by a friend, he recovers the use of his eyes and slowly finds his way home, step by step, inquiring at each stage. So also, the good teacher instructs the seeker of Truth and helps him to unloose his bonds of desire.
Chandogya Upanishad 6: 14:1/3
To open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light
Truth, penance, understanding and purity are essential requisites for this revelation of the Brahman within. When the heart is cleansed, Brahman is revealed, and He is seen shining like a burning light within oneself.
Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:5
From darkness lead me to Light.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:28
Man is essentially a creature of Light, whose existence in this world is in a state of darkness or ignorance. The ceremony of initiation depicts the first step in the spiritual quest; awakening from ignorance, and the search for light. Its climax is therefore, the restoration of light. The ceremony starts with the first stage of our existence, birth. The candidate enters in darkness, after having been divested of everything valuable, to show that we are born with nothing. After affirming his faith in God, he is taken round the lodge, its flooring representing the joys and sorrows of our chequered existence, and undergoes repeated trials and tribulations. Persevering in his quest, he approaches the East, which is the source of all Light, his steps growing bolder as he does so. Light is now ‘restored’ to him, and the cabletow, the emblem of his bondage, is removed. He is now permitted to wear the apron, that symbol of honourable labour, to imply that he should work ceaselessly on building himself. He is placed in the Northeast to indicate that the foundation of the building is completed -that from the stage of youth and learning, he has passed to adulthood. But the heart is not fit to perceive Wisdom and Truth until and unless it is purified from every baneful and malignant passion. So the first degree is also one of purgation. The force of conscience knocks off the vices and imperfections from the rough ashlar i.e. the candidate. He is taught to control his desires, have charity towards man, and faith and hope in God, so that as a living stone, he is prepared for that ‘ spiritual house not made with hands’.
SYMBOLISM OF THE SECOND DEGREE
And one only path between them both, even between the fire and the water, so small that there could but one man go there at once.
2 Esdras 7:8
Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, so the wise say—hard to tread and difficult to cross.
Katha Upanishad 3:14
Be free from the pairs of opposites, ever balanced, free from desire and avarice, and established in the self.
Bhagavad Gita 2: 45
The Purusha, no bigger than a thumb, is the inner Self, ever seated in the heart of man. He is known by the mind, which controls knowledge and is perceived in the heart. They who know Him become immortal.
Svetasvatara Upanishad 3:13
From the unreal lead me to the real .
Brihadranyaka Upanishad 3:28
Two powerful symbols -the two great pillars and the winding staircase dominate the Second degree. As the Fellowcraft approaches the temple, he passes between two great pillars, climbs up a winding staircase, and receives his just wages. The two pillars, like fire and water, stand for the ‘ pairs of opposites’, encountered in life, pleasure and pain, victory and defeat, praise and abuse, wealth and poverty. The candidate must warily tread the difficult path, while wisely maintaining equal distance between them.
The winding staircase represents Man’s instinct to rise, to excel, to explore the unknown. Climbing the winding staircase marks his progress in the spiritual path: That his intellectual faculty has so risen that it even reaches the ‘ throne of God himself ‘.
The candidate -now a perfect ashlar -learns that the sacred symbol he has been seeking is in the centre of the building, i.e. in his heart. This knowledge is the just wage he receives for his labour, and is illustrated by the sign of F. The second degree thus signifies intellectual development culminating in knowledge of God.
SYMBOLISM OF THE THIRD DEGREE
It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.
I Corinthians: 15:42-44
Leave sin and evil, seek anew thy dwelling, and bright with glory wear another body.
Rig Veda: 10:014:08
I know the great Purusha, who is luminous, like the sun and beyond darkness. Only by knowing Him does one pass over death; there is no other way to the Supreme Goal.
Svetasvatara Upanishad 3:15
There are three gateways to hell, which destroy the self -lust, greed and anger. Renounce these three.
Bhagavad Gita 16:25
From death lead me to immortality.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:28
The third degree is replete with many interesting symbols. The quest for Light is depicted as a drama, with the importance of the centre, which was only hinted at in the previous degree, being stressed. The three ruffians, stationed at the three entrances, show that one is destroyed from within oneself by the three deadly sins – desire, greed and anger. The f.p.o.f depict universal brotherhood, and instruct him on the duties he owes to his fellowmen. The tragedy of Hiram Abiff teaches us that, Good, even if temporarily overcome and buried by Evil, will ultimately emerge triumphant and be adored, while equally, justice will inexorably overtake Evil, and will mete out the punishment it deserves.
The candidate now comes to the end of his journey. Abandoning all attachment to ‘ worldly possessions’, and overcoming the fear of death, he walks over the tomb of transgression. But the purification and knowledge of the previous degrees avail him naught in experiencing God. They prove a slip. So, with a more firm hold on his faith, he surrenders his baser self, and is raised as the higher self, to a mystical union with the Supreme. Recovery of The penal sign symbolises this regeneration.
The ceremony of raising is at once sublime and surreal, and is the zenith of his Masonic experience.
We have now established that Freemasonry has synthesised the essence of different religions, which it teaches through its symbolism. Each of its symbols and allegories was culled from the wisdom of many faiths, and had a definite background and meaning when it was conceived. But while being handed down over centuries they have been mutated and modified gradually, till their original purpose and purport were forgotten. Freemasonry has the potential to become a great unifying force, which can to demolish all barriers, and destroy all differences that keep men apart. Brethren of all faiths can empathise with it, if only they can understand and practise its teachings. However we are more concerned with becoming expert in the punctilious observance of the ritual, than with its message. Should we continue to thus prefer form over substance, preserve the husk and discard the kernel, we shall be retaining only empty symbols and reducing Freemasonry to a mechanical rendering of the ritual. Symptoms like dwindling attendance and declining membership are already in evidence, and if left untreated much longer, could well result in the end of the order.
Freemasonry is too priceless a heritage to be permitted to perish through sheer apathy. It has to be nurtured and preserved. We have all been charged with making daily advancements in Masonic knowledge; a duty seldom discharged.
We owe it to the institution, and to ourselves, to delve into the meaning of the
symbols and the emblems, that the true beauty of Freemasonry may once again
be unfolded to us.
Throw wide open the shutters of your minds and imagination. Learn to see in Masonry something more than a parochial system enjoining elementary morality, performing perfunctory and meaningless rites and serving as an agreeable accessory to social life. Look to find it in a living philosophy … realise that its secrets, which are many and valuable, are not upon the surface … that its mysteries are eternal ones that treat of the Spirit …
W.L Wilmhurst -The Meaning of Masonry.