Learning, detachment, and sacred symbols

The swan, the lotus, the turtle, and the peepal tree (sacred fig) have been repeatedly used as metaphors in Indian spirituality and have specific interrelated meanings for seekers of God. Understanding what they stand for can be useful for our progress in devotional spirituality — bhakti yoga. At the same time, the frog and the crab represent tendencies that are antagonistic to the love of God.

Today, we do not have access to most ancient religious scriptures in their original forms. Because students and teachers of ancient times did not have a printing press, it came down do hand-written manuscripts being transferred from generation to generation and memorization by later scholars. As a result, over time, unnecessary words may have unintentionally entered our scriptures as later additions. What can be a solution to deal with this situation? While actively reading a scripture, we should refrain from developing a My favourite scripture is perfect or My favourite scripture is better than your scripture kind of paradigm. Instead, we should learn to absorb what is useful in any scripture and skip what is not relevant for us. This is what the swan as a symbol teaches. This may be an essential step towards learning in the mode of detachment.

Moreover, equally importantly, we can request God to directly guide us towards himself. God’s existence is not solely a scripture-dependent concept; it is more dependent on the personal experiences of devotional saints who have met him in person and the experiences of commoners, some of which have also been documented in scriptures. Remember that the swan is the vehicle for Gayatri, the Goddess of wisdom in Vedic thought, who has traditionally been requested by seekers to guide them in the right direction — towards God. In contrast, the frog-in-a-well tendency is all about sectarianism and defending one’s own preferred spiritual viewpoints rather than learning from a guru, scriptures, and/or one’s own experiences.

The lotus signifies detachment while growing spiritually. Whether this flower grows in pure water or in muddy water, it remains unaffected by the surroundings. This mode of spiritual learning resonates well with Swami Vivekananda’s saying, “You have to grow from inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.” Among animal symbols, the turtle has elements similar to that of a lotus; the turtle teaches us to detach the senses from material objects and to contemplate on God. It also indicates perseverance and steadiness in bhakti.

Among symbols that reflect what to avoid, the crab deserves special mention. The crab signifies mutual admiration and the famous crab-in-a-bucket tendency, which are two sides of the same coin. This animal symbol teaches seekers to avoid the company of people who flatter their companions unnecessarily, for such people can eventually pull us down in scenarios of speculative disagreement. We should yearn for the companionship of righteous individuals —satsang — who can share God’s love with fellow beings. Finally, the upside down peepal tree with roots on top and branches at the bottom signifies the universe, influenced by the modes of nature, as the Bhagavad Gita tells us. This tree teaches us to take the refuge of God, who is the cause of creation, and detach ourselves from the illusory branches of the tree, which indicate materialism. Refuge of God can definitely deliver us from the universe.

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