Why use material analogies to illustrate spiritual truths?
Question: When God is spiritual, how can we use material analogies to explain his nature and related spiritual truths?
Answer: Material analogies serve an important but intermediate step in assimilating spiritual truths.
The process of assimilating spiritual truths involves the following broad stages:
- Know about them through scriptural revelation
- Understand them through reasoning that uses material analogies
- Realize and experience them through individual application and practice
The use of material analogies to illustrate spiritual truths is a time-honored Vedic tradition, known as upamana-pramana. It is often exemplified through shakha-chandra nyaya, the logic of using the branches to show the moon. Consider a group of children who are accustomed to looking only sideways and not overhead. If they are to be shown the moon, their vision needs to be raised. For this purpose, a teacher points first to a tree that can be seen by looking sideways, then to its branches that extend laterally and finally to the moon that lies between the branches.
Just as the children are accustomed to seeing only sideways, most of us are accustomed to seeing only in material terms: our senses cannot perceive anything beyond material objects and our mind cannot conceive anything beyond material concepts. Just as the branches help direct our vision toward the moon, material analogies help direct our understanding toward the spiritual truths .
This basic understanding can be obtained by using material analogies carefully, provided we use the following three steps:
- State the spiritual principle as given by scriptural revelation.
- State the analogy
- State the parallels between the analogy and the principle.
However, analogies being material can only point to, never fully explain the principle, as the principle is spiritual. Just as the moon doesn’t exist between the branches, the spiritual principle doesn’t exist within the framework of limited perceptions and conceptions that comprise the analogy. Just as the moon can be reached only by developing a sufficient escape velocity that takes one beyond the earth’s gravity pull, God can be understood only by developing a sufficient devotional velocity that takes us beyond our materialistic preconceptions and attachments.
To help us develop this devotional velocity, a basic understanding of spiritual truths serves as an essential launching pad. If we stretch the analogy and screw out a parallel other than the one for which it is intended, we end up with a perverted understanding. If we refuse to use the analogy, we fail to gain any understanding. If we focus on the intended parallel, then the analogy serves its purpose of increasing our understanding.
To recapitulate, reasoning using material analogies serves a valuable, even indispensable, intermediate step in assimilation of spiritual truths provided it is based on scriptural revelation and is followed by personal application and realization.