The Symbolic Stage Governs the Early Phases of Human Civilisations

Humanity has evolved to the present stage where we apply scientific methods of knowledge, systematic thinking and development of mechanical and, nowadays, digital forms of understanding the world around us, but we can look back at the historical basis of various ancient civilisations and see that today’s stage is not the actual and consistent mode of understanding employed by earlier humanity.  When we did not have science to explain to us the workings of the cosmos, the patterns of the weather, and the movements of sun, the earth and the planets, humanity frequently treated the apparent causative factors as personified beings, or else, forces brought into play by some greater beings than we could conceive.  This led to a religious mentality which looked upon events as symbolic of some message that was being provided.  Those who could interpret such messages held roles of great importance and power in their communities, whether they were known as Shaman, Priest or some other intermediary to help the community understand what those higher beings or powers were trying to communicate.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Undoubtedly, wherever we can seize human society in what to us seems its primitive beginnings or early stages, — no matter whether the race is comparatively cultured or savage or economically advanced or backward, — we do find a strongly symbolic mentality that governs  or at least pervades its thought, customs and institutions.  Symbolic, but of what?  We find that this social stage is always religious and actively imaginative in its religion; for symbolism and a widespread imaginative or intuitive religious feeling have a natural kinship and especially in earlier or primitive formations they have gone always together.  When man begins to be predominantly intellectual, sceptical, ratiocinative he is already preparing for an individualist society and the age of symbols and the age of conventions have passed or are losing their virtue.  The symbol then is of something which man feels to be present behind himself and his life and his activities, — the Divine, the Gods, the vast and deep unnameable, a hidden, living and mysterious nature of things.  All his religious and social institutions, all the moments and phases of his life are to him symbols in which he seeks to express what he knows or guesses of the mystic influences that are behind his life and shape and govern or at least intervene in its movements.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pg. 7


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