The meaning of meaning

The ancient South Asian image, or mūrti, of Śiva as Naṭarāja – the Lord of the Dance – depicts the cosmic dance of creation, maintenance, and destruction of the universe as well as the concealment and liberation of the soul. Like all symbols, it requires interpretation. Naṭarāja is symbolic of the endless cycle of life, and no-one in their right mind sees it as anything more than a metaphor to remind us of the impermanent nature of the universe and the effects of time on our fragile human existence.

Nothing has inherent meaning; we make sense of things according to our culture, beliefs, fears, and desires. The fire that destroyed much of Paris’ 8-century-old Notre Dame Cathedral has been much talked about in the last few days; it may have been caused by an accident due to ongoing restoration work, but many people also see it as a symbol of Armageddon, the wrath of the Goddess (divine feminine energy), or announcing the end of the Catholic Church.

However, just because a number of people believe the same story does not make it true: Churches all around Europe have been damaged or completely destroyed by fire throughout history, and we’re still here to talk about it. For hundreds of years, we’ve seen how collective beliefs around religion or nationalism have led to defensiveness and separation, and even conquest and aggression.

Events such as this happen around the world every day, and far more dramatically than what we saw in Paris. When the National Museum of Brazil burnt to the ground last September, destroying virtually all of its centuries-old contents including indigenous artefacts and objects of worship, I didn’t hear remarks about a wrathful Goddess, a vengeful God, or the end of civilisation. It seemed to me that blame was laid squarely on the shoulders of an underfunded culture ministry, and poor fire safety.

We can’t simultaneously believe in a wrathful God, Goddess, or any other deity and also believe that we have agency and responsibility in life. The images and qualities attributed to deities are nothing more than symbols of aspects of ourselves and our own human attributes. They are not external energies to us; everything is woven together.

It’s childish to accuse a higher power or some amorphous deity of punishing us or being angry with us, thereby avoiding full responsibility for our own feelings, thoughts, and actions – and their consequences. Humans have caused suffering on earth; it isn’t done to us from an outside element but from within ourselves. And that suffering leads to further suffering until the cycle is broken.

Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly and wants to rip to shreds all your erroneous notions of the truth that make you fight within yourself, dear one, and with others, causing the world to weep on too many fine days… The Beloved sometimes wants to do us a great favour: Hold us upside down and shake all the nonsense out.

~ Ḥāfeẓ

Let’s be careful how we align with or ascribe meaning to the omens we see. Far too often these do not match what we actually believe – or perhaps they do align with what we believe, but not what we say we believe. The law of karma is clear: Karma is not something happening to us, it is something happening with us as a participant to a greater or lesser degree.

Many Catholics have emphasised that Notre Dame burned during the days leading up to the holy week of Easter. But, before we point to other-worldly intervention, we must remember that this holy week has for centuries been celebrated entirely based on a human agreement, which de-couples it from natural phenomena such as the movement of the Sun or the moon.

The story of the resurrection is a re-interpretation of the pagan understanding of winter solstice, when the Sun seems to disappear annually, only to “reappear” and rise again after three days and three nights. Dates and religious holidays in Christianity carry the meaning that was politically decided by the council of Nicea in 325 CE, which established Easter with the Nicene Creed and has since been indoctrinated by its followers.

The more we focus on the message of renewal and faith behind the resurrection story, rather than fixate on the myth itself, the more we can grow spiritually, which implies taking full responsibility for our thoughts and actions. It’s our actions that lead to the state of our communities, natural environment, and physical infrastructure.

Nothing lasts forever, and everything is always in a state of flux. The fact that something has existed for centuries does not mean that it will – or even should – always exist. That we happen to be alive at the time of its destruction does not mean that we are witnessing end times. These events are a natural, logical extension and consequence of human behaviour and engagement with the three-dimensional world, all of which is subject to the laws of impermanence.

Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living in better conditions.

~ Ḥāfeẓ

Vidyā means knowledge or understanding, as in the awareness of universal truth. Not seeing reality clearly is called avidyā. Imposing our ideas and beliefs of how things are is ignorant, and a cause of suffering. Such ideas and beliefs are created by the mind, by our human imagination, leading us to feel and act a certain way, all of which in turn lead to consequences – this is known as karma.

If Notre Dame – or any other tangible symbol – is crumbling and in disrepair, it’s because we have turned our attention away from it, distracted by personal interests, entertainment, or endless wars, not because the Divine Mother is angry with us.

Our spiritual practice is incomplete if we don’t question our thoughts and beliefs. Notre Dame was burning, and we were sad and perhaps even fearful because of our attachment to this cultural – and for many, religious – icon. The emotions and fears surrounding such events are our own; nothing is happening to us. No one is punishing us but ourselves.

With an endless cycle of love and light,