Was not all the knowledge
Of the Aegyptians writ in
Speak not the scriptures oft
Are not the choicest fables of
That were the fountains and
first springs of wisdom,
Wrapp’d in perplexed
Ben Johnson: The
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
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
Scriptures of all religions
employ parables and allegories to propound their philosophies. This essay
attempts 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
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
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
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.
The Meaning of Masonry
I speak to them in parables; because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear
not, neither do they understand.
O Sun! The face of truth is
hidden by a golden disc. Unveil it that I who am in search of truth may behold
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
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
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
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
the sharp edge of a razor is that path, so the wise say—hard to tread and
difficult to cross.
Katha Upanishad 3:14
free from the pairs of opposites, ever balanced, free from desire and avarice,
and established in the self.
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.
the unreal lead me to the real
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
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.
death lead me to immortality.
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
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.
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 …
– The Meaning of Masonry.