Reflection on Symbols

Aristotle defined human being as a rational animal. Just as this definition is criticized, it is impossible to define him/her through the mathematics or science alone. Surely, they help us to understand one aspect of them. Leave aside human beings, any aspect of reality can’t be fully captured. It is truer for ideologies, national sentiments, religious feelings, understanding of God. Thus, we need to use symbols, which is our perspective or our expression of that reality. In the famous example of 5 blind men seeing the elephant, each of their understandings become a symbol for them. Symbols point to the reality and symbols are the only way when you can’t have something that capture the reality fully.

Paul Ricoeur (and later Kuruvilla Pandikattu) would speak of symbols and idols. A symbol points to a reality. (eg: national flags, religious symbols, cultural traditions). But symbol becomes an idol when it fails in the essential role of pointing to the reality it represents. A statue becomes idol when we consider God rests in that statue alone and we take that image to be God, rather than a representation. When we attack even the physically challenged people, who don’t rise the national anthem, we are trying to making the anthem an idol rather than symbol. I definitely don’t think it was their disrespect to the country. Many a times, this symbol to idol conversion happens so that some gain petty benefits.

Who creates symbols and who authorizes them? Different authorities try to do it on behalf of others. For a democratic country, the constitution had definitely authorized certain symbols. But successive governments try to put their own symbols and they force it on others. Jawaherlal Nehru (with all the limitations he has) is a strong symbol of Indian Freedom struggle. But some others wanted to eliminate his role from the factual history. Eliminating Symbols are one of the best ways to change history and facts.

There are attempts to universalize the symbols of groups as the symbols of larger communities. It may come from the genuine love for one’s own community, but can they deny the freedom of others. Why all don’t have the right to form their symbols, respecting others? Are national anthem, national flag and some others only symbols for patriotism. Surely soldiers are another well-accepted symbol for it. But I feel anti-corruption crusader, working for poor and downtrodden, providing employment for others, planting trees for future, caring for the neglected, teaching the uneducated, taking a preferential option for the underprivileged are also genuine symbols of patriotism, which we neglect many a times. There are two persons, one says, ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ in the morning and does his normal work and the other works for the poor in a rural area (like Medha Patkar), I would consider the latter to be more patriotic and nationalistic if you are forcing me to compare. Symbols are a necessity; but let’s not be blinded by them. Let the vision of reality be not lost in the rush to preserve symbols.


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