FREEMASONRY IN LIGHT OF VEDANTA
RAVI S. KUDESIA EXPLORES AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE CRAFT ACCORDING TO EASTERN WISDOM AND TRADITIONS
Published by: The PHILALETHES Society, Fall 2010 Volume 63, #4
The Craft of Masonry has, as its supreme strength and perhaps greatest inadequacy, a rather paradoxical nature: It is replete with meaning and yet completely devoid of it. All too often a candidate progresses through the three degrees with a sense of wonder and awe at the spectacle of ritual, yet upon attaining his master mason degree, comes to believe the purpose of his instruction as a simple moral teaching. The rather mundane understanding of the square and compass as tools to “square one’s actions” and “circumscribe one’s desires” hardly match the sense of wonder that these magnificent instruments evoke as symbols. So, many Brethren pass through the degrees unable to reconcile the immensity of the experience of the symbols and ritual with the rather straight forward interpretation provided by the institution of Masonry itself.
This is not unexpected as symbols, by their nature, both conceal and reveal. Unlike words, which are fully arbitrary in form, symbols are capable of containing inherent meaning — yet with out the proper knowledge to unlock their hidden meaning, one may only speculate what the symbol is attempting to teach. Symbols also contain a unique ability to convey a multiplicity if meanings, depending on the level of knowledge of the ones observing them. Then same working tools first seen by an Entered Apprentice gain a much deeper meaning by the time one becomes a Master Mason. That is not to say that the Entered Apprentice is deceived or a false understanding of the symbol, but simply a limited understanding, one which independent study must further build upon and develop.
For this reason, there can be no substantial innovations made to Masonry, as it contains “a minimum, and yet a sufficiency”.[i] The Craft speaks quietly through symbols- yet, according to some, when these symbols and rituals are approached with the right kind of attitude, they can take the initiate beyond simplistic moralizations to communicate a higher, more esoteric knowledge. Many of our venerable interpreters have insisted upon this point. For Example, Albert Pike said:
These degrees are also intended to teach more
than morals. The symbols and ceremonies
of Masonry have more than one meaning.
[…] They hint it only, at least; and their varied
meanings are only to be discovered by reflec-
tion and study.[ii]
While the Craft itself is certainly of relatively recent origin, many great Masonic interpreters, and some outside the fraternity, have frequently pointed to various cross-cultural sources as the keys to unlock the significance of our ritual work and iconography. [See Shai Afsai’s article in this issue. –ED.] Just as the Old Charges delineated the Craft’s intellectual origins from cultures both foreign and ancient, we know that from the early decades of the Grand Lodge era, Freemasons consciously drew inspiration from many sources, including archaic traditions. The tendency of the early brethren to express these connections in terms of historical linkages has been denigrated by modern scholars, but a more nuanced perspective might be that of W.L. Wilmhurst, who soundly responds:
All that I wish to emphasize…is that our present
system is not one coming from remote antiquity:
that there is no direct continuity between us and the
Egyptians, or even those ancient Hebrews who built,
in the reign of King Solomon, a certain Temple at Je-
rusalem. What is extremely ancient in Freemasonry
is the spiritual doctrine concealed within the archi-
tectural phraseology; for this doctrine is an elemen-
tary form of the doctrine that has been taught in all
ages, no matter in what garb it has been expressed.[iii]
In commenting on this passage, philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky notes that it is an example of the ideas of a philosophia perennis, the existence of a timeless expression of truth that appears in many guises and in many cultures, without a necessarily lineal historic decent. Piatigorsky holds that while the idea is controversial in some circles, “the thoroughly symbolic character of Freemasonry does admit such an understanding.”[iv] And there is no shortage of Masonic authors who would agree.
It is in the spirit of the perennial philosophy that I would like to invite the reader on a journey to explore some of the great truths of the East in a Masonic light.
THE BRAHMANIC MYSTERIES
While the archaeological and intellectual remnants of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and other high civilizations have generally become strangers in their own lands, the same cannot be said for India. In many cases, the ancient symbols and mythologies that enjoyed prominence thousands of years before Christ still remain to this day.
The primeval source of Brahman knowledge issues from the Vedas, among the oldest Indo-European language texts and most ancient holy text still in use today. Western scholars date the writing of these scriptures to a period of 1700-100 BCE, while its initiates gently remind us that its antecedent oral tradition predates written history.
The Vedas’ esoteric teachings were initially confined to an elite order of Brahman Adepts who conducted intricate rituals, studied the mysteries, and formed systems of initiation called samskaras. A great deal of their esoteric teachings have become more widely available to eager students of knowledge during periods of democratic reform. Looking into Brahmanic system initiation, there are points of interest worthwhile to any Mason.
For example, one of the samskaras was the sacred thread ceremony performed when a when a student was formally initiated into education of the mysteries. The initiate was invested with a thread, wrapped thrice around his torso, hanging diagonally from the left shoulder to below the right arm. Its threefold nature appropriately reminded the initiate to remain pure of thought, word, and deed. Initiation into the systems of yoga also had three degrees, depending on the quality of the seeker. The sadhaka, or apprentice, falls wither into a low, medium, or high category of qualification – practices and teachings of each degree are proportional to the respective ability of the apprentice.[v] Some students forever remain at their initiated degree, while others progress up through the three degrees.
First degree of Arukushu: One who desires to ascend is
placed in this category, where they work constantly
on the refinement and purification of the lower nature.
These steps are necessary before they can “climb the
steps of yoga.” Second degree or Yunjana: One
practicing towards ascension is placed in this category,
where they actually begin the deeper practice of yoga,
start to access their higher nature, and commence
mastery in the esoteric teachings of the mysteries.
Third degree or Yogaarudha: One who has ascended has
Fully transmuted their lower nature into a purely spiritual
self. Having realized all of this sacred craft’s goals,
third degree yogis are considered spiritual masters.[vi]
Although one could attempt the first degree without the guidance of a teacher, the other two certainly require initiation into particular lineage of gurus. It will also be of note that the word guru itself means “dispeller of darkness”[vii]
The Brahmans were hierophants of India, the keepers of the Vedas, and true mystics of the highest order. Over time, as the intellectual needs of the Indian masses grew, the knowledge of the Vedas gradually distilled from these learned men into the government and householder classes. The quintessence of the Vedas was called Vedanta, which has a dual meaning. As veda translates from Sanskrit as “knowledge” and anta as “end”, vedanta refers to the philosophical treatises at the “end of the Vedas” as well as the literal “end of knowledge” – the highest culmination of human learning and understanding. While much of the world’s esoteric theology concerns the particulars of a single religious faith, its dogma and tradition, the esoteric nature of Vedanta avoided such inquiries. Its mysteries sought to explain the fundamental nature of reality and life itself. This makes it especially helpful to our Masonic endeavors because we do not need to decode a system of esoteric symbols and reapply them to our own symbolism; Vedanta provides a consistent and universal worldview that one might consider in relation to our Masonic symbols and rituals.
Vedanta teaches a non-dualistic understanding of the universe. This means that all apparent differences are actually varying manifestations of a single Reality. The fundamental distinction in all religious thought is between matter and spirit, which they called Prakriti and Purusha, respectively. Philosophers of Vedanta posited that the truth underlying all existence was not a physical reality (prakriti/matter) but instead a conscious one (purusha/spirit). As such, the universe is more of a thought than it is a thing. Vedanta, and modern science, teaches the material world was created after the explosion of a primeval atom, which they called the Hiranyagarbha. Yet, most of us cannot fathom what could have possibly caused this event. What existed before matter, space, and time? The great seers taught that before the dream exists, there must be the dreamer. Thus before there was a material world or dream, there must have been a Consciousness, or Dreamer. This Prime Dreamer, existing before the Big Bang, must have been self-manifested, unborn, and undying – pure, formless, unconditioned Consciousness.
As all the dream world exists entirely in the mind of the dreamer, so too does everything in the universe exist within the mind of God. Thus any perceived separation between humanity and divinity is only in perception, not in actuality. This false veil of ignorance they called Maya. Instead of decreeing humans as sinful or fallen, they said that humans were by nature divine, being part of God, and only temporarily blinded by the illusion of separation. This illusion hinges on the tendency of individuals to view themselves as merely a body. A body, being matter, was created and will be destroyed; however the Consciousness within it, being part of the primeval Consciousness that manifested this universe through thought, was not created and thus cannot be destroyed. Among the great reformers to spread the Vedanta knowledge was Sri Krishna, whose famous sermon, the Bhagavad Gita is considered the concise distillation of the Vedas.
Consciousness cannot be wounded by weapons,
burned by fire, drenched by water, or withered
by the wind. Its reality pervades all of time and
space. It is not something that you can touch,
fathom, move, or modify.[viii]
Thus, in Vedanta, the Supreme Being is understood as the unbound Consciousness that underlies all existence. Brahmans, however, understood that their deep understanding of truth would be lost unless it continued to be directly experienced by initiates. They postulated that if humans learned to discipline their bodies, quiet their mind, and exercise their intellect, they could transcend the mortal and material elements of their existence and reach the pure and unconditioned Self, the embodied Consciousness within them. Instead of relying on external ritual dogma to bring a seeker to absolute Truth, they architected a program of reflection and meditation. Teaching that because the senses are by nature limited in ability, God cannot be perceived externally through the senses, but only internally by a direct transcendent experience. This experience, called Self-realization, marks the highest form of human accomplishment according to yogic philosophy.
THE ALL-SEEING EYE OF GOD
After an admittedly rudimentary account of Vedanta and its concept of Deity, it makes no sense to begin our Masonic inquiry at the analogous level of Deity; the All-Seeing Eye. This symbol is known in many cultures around the world. It is found in the Biblical text, and is well-represented in Christian art. At first glance, its adoption within the institution of Masonry seems natural: as it is not the exclusive emblem of any particular religion, it suits Freemasonry’s non-denominational purposes fairly well. Masonry imposes no definition of Supreme Being and accepts good men of all faiths. Still, this solemn symbol – if understood as a sort of “minimalist” God – should evoke a less numinous reaction than do the myriad other symbolic representations of Deity active in human history. Perhaps the Eye might be seen not as merely a “politically correct” symbol of Deity, but as a weighty instruction in the very nature of the divine?
Within the lands of India, two general forms of life emerged: the exoteric householder path and the esoteric path of the mystic. In the esoteric path, the chief deity was Shiva, portrayed as a non-interventionist recluse almost always in a state of deep meditation. Similar to the concept of God among the Western deists, Shiva’s primary role was in the destruction and subsequent creation of the universe, not in sustaining or maintaining it. Further, in the Brahmanic mysteries, he alone is bestowed with the visible Third Eye. This is placed vertically above the two horizontal human eyes. Consider the significance of the Third Eye’s placement in light of the Vedantic understanding of Deity. The two human eyes symbolize the material world, as understood by the senses, which appears to have duality and fragmentation. Above them sits the single Spiritual Eye, representing that above the material world, the transcendent spiritual world, which we learn by insight, is non dual. The inversion of the Third Eye teaches the initiate that the material and the spiritual world are as different as day and night:
Awaken yourself to a higher existence. Control your
senses and still your mind. This world of fleeting
happiness, which was day to you, shall fade into the
darkness of night. And the world of lasting peace,
which was night to you, shall be revealed, clear as
Thus, on a basic level, the Third Eye of Shiva teaches the initiate several important facts: that duality is resolved into non-duality, that godhead is represented by unity, and that even matter is but a manifestation of Spirit. This symbol reinforces the belief that God is the unborn consciousness from which the universe emerged. As the nature of consciousness is awareness and sight, not action, emotion, or thought, the single Eye and not a hand reaching down from heaven best represent God. The goal of the Brahmanic mysteries, however, was not merely an intellectual understanding of this truth, but instead a process of deep personal transformation as Krishna described. At the end of this process, the Adept will actually perceive the single unchanging Reality as ever-present throughout the universe. This newfound perspective fundamentally affects one’s relationship with their society, world, and cosmos. For this reason, Shiva is portrayed with his human eyes half-opened and half-closed; open to the truth of the Spirit but closed to the illusion of the material world. The Brahman thus learns to transcend the material world and overcome his physical limitations while still inhabiting a mortal body. Shiva’s meditative position represents this ideal Self-realized state, called Nirvikalpa Samadhi, which is the highest aspiration of all mystical paths.
The important symbol of the Divine Eye not only teaches us about the nature of reality, but the means of attaining the aforementioned liberation it promises. The Brahmans understood very well that Shiva was not himself God the Absolute. He represented the archetypal mystic and the path of initiation.
As Shiva represents every mystic, his Third Eye, according to the tradition, is latent power within every human being, which has yet to be awakened. To the highest students, they prescribed certain mystic yoga practices for this exact purpose. Although the practices cannot be described here, their nature is revealed in a saying of Krishna’s: “I know all creatures; past, present, and future, but none know Me.”[x]
This verse is often misunderstood by the uninitiated. Krishna here teaches that the mind may contain information, but only consciousness can be said to actually know anything. Because only consciousness is capable of knowledge, only consciousness can know Consciousness. Thus, while Consciousness knows all that can be known, nothing knows Consciousness. This is why the Vedanta teaches that meditation is the ultimate practice to merge into divinity – your eyes, your mind, and your body cannot know the All-Pervading Consciousness. One must first reach the seat of consciousness within to experience to full divine Consciousness without. The state of perfection cannot be reached by mere intellectualism, faith or ritual. Thus, while the idea of a personal intervening God with human emotions is efficacious for simplifying complicated truth into mythology, the single eye is perhaps the most accurate symbol for Godhead to an initiate in search for further light.
THE THREE GREAT LIGHTS
The process for perfection can be understood in three distinct stages that correspond both with degrees of external and internal understanding. External understanding refers to our outlook on how the individual and divinity are related; internal understanding refers to our conception of self. It is only logical that as one’s understanding of their being changes, so too does their understanding of their relationship to divinity. Among the most revered of Indian sages is Hanuman, who was considered to be one of the most ardent devotees of God. When he was asked to define his relationship with the Lord, he did so using three lines that each portrayed a different conception of self, and its resultant relationship with divinity. In doing so, he succinctly defined the three ascending stages of knowledge. His response is profound:
When I consider my body, I am Your servant.
When I consider my mind, I am part of You.
But when I consider my Self, You and I are one.[xi]
What Hanuman explained was the relationship between the internal and external understanding. At birth, bewildered, we take ourselves to be simply our body. The pleasures of the body are the only pleasures we know, the pains of the body are the only pains we feel. Our needs at this level are strictly physiological. As we mature, we consider ourselves our mind, our thoughts, our personality, and so on. The pleasures and pains we experience are mostly mental: success, love, anger, jealousy, etc. On this level, one’s needs are mostly emotional and social. Many folks remain on this level throughout their life. However, the great Adepts progressed to realize that their true identity is the Self, pure consciousness. At this point of Self-realization, one’s needs and pains altogether vanish and existence at this level alone is a source of never-ending bliss.
Corresponding to these three progressions in self-knowledge, one’s relationship with divinity responds appropriately. The body, being matter, is subservient to Spirit. The thoughts, being supported by consciousness, are a partial manifestation of Spirit. The self, being pure consciousness itself, is one and the same as Spirit. Thus a seeker presses through the three degrees of Yoga, different understanding and practices arise because different aspects of self are being studied. On the level of the body, the challenge is physical discipline and purification of body. On the level of the mind, the challenge is mental discipline and purity of thought. On the level of the Self, one has become a realized Master and thus reached the end of their life’s journey. Often these views of dualism, where God is separate from man, and non-dualism, where man is part of God, are seen as irreconcilable. However, the great yoga Master and brother Freemason, Swami Vivekananda explained the worldviews signified by the three stages as fully compatible and part of a system:
Our solution is that the Advaita [non-dualism] is not
antagonistic to the Dvaita [dualism]. We say the lat-
ter is only one of three steps. Religion always takes
three steps. The first is dualism. Then man gets to
a higher state, partial non-dualism. And at last he
finds he is one with the universe. Therefore the three
do not contradict but fulfill.[xii]
We thus see the meaning of the changing positions of the three Great Lights of Masonry, which indicate these stages of progress. As the Holy Bible is the foundation upon which the Square and compasses rest, so the basis for one’s growth is the immutable laws of Nature that the Volume of Sacred Law symbolically represents. These laws of nature are born from the properties of Consciousness and its interplay with matter – without them there would be no consistency or pattern by which the individual could study and adhere to. Because “man is subject only to those laws which he gives himself” our process is one of individual growth in understanding of the world and self.[xiii] Thus, being a creature of uniquely given free will, the questions become one of application – the proper end toward which we exert ourselves. As phrased by our Most Worshipful Brother, the Duke of Sussex:
What use then should man make of his privileged
autonomy of self-government, that he may prove
worthy of this high prerogative? What principle
should govern his actions? By what square should he
construct those laws which he gives himself? There
can be but one simple answer to these questions,
namely: “so to act, that the principle of his actions
may be exalted to a law of nature; to act in that man-
ner only in which he thinks that He who has given
to nature its immutable laws, would have compelled
him to act, had He chosen to introduce compulsion
into the realm of the mind, in order to realize his
According to several Masonic writers, such as Albert Mackey and Albert Pike, the process of lifting the ends of the Compasses over the Square in three distinct motions represents the process of lifting the higher spiritual principle over the lower material nature.[xv] The discernment to circumscribe desires must fully rest on the moral Square, as supported by universal laws of all true scripture, not man made laws. When the masculine Compasses of spirit is restored to its rightful position over the feminine Square of matter, the transcendence of Consciousness becomes apparent to the initiate.
At the final stage of a Master, one’s free will is completely utilized in carrying the Architect’s design without desire for reward or fear of punishment – only done for the sake of the work itself. In this stage, there is no distinction between the builder’s will and the Architect’s will. So too does the Self-realized Master dissolve his narrow ego in the immensity of pure unconditional Being.
ROUGH AND PERFECT ASHLARS
Indeed, each of us is born as a Rough Ashlar, in a state of ignorance believing ourselves to be our imperfect bodies. Yet, using the intellectual working tools of Masonry, we can use the Gavel to remove the chunks of attachment, selfishness, and ignorance that prevent us from reaching perfection. Most importantly, the perfection is not without us, it is within us. Thus we slowly make our lives into a continual process of turning our Rough Ashlar into a smoother and more perfect stone. We need not seek perfection abroad, but only remove the flaws that conceal our inner greatness. In doing so, we peel back the layers of Maya, or illusion, and work on transmuting our lower selves into a purely spiritual being.
It is for this reason that the first requests of any Apprentice in Masonry is for the Light of knowledge. By this Light, he can illuminate his own heart, hidden away in the Lodge of his body. Knowing his divine nature through self-knowledge, he thus escapes the poverty of ignorance. He rises up the ranks to become the Master of his own being and in this true state of enlightenment, he becomes perfect. As the perfectly squared stone, our duty is no longer to ourselves, but to the world. We become ready to be placed into the Great Temple of Humanity according to the blueprint laid down by the Grand Architect himself. For this reason, the Self-realized masters of the Brahmanic mysteries, and indeed all mysteries, have become the perfect custodians of the Brotherhood of Man as well as the perfect messengers of the Fatherhood of God. It is to the experience, and nit just intellectual understanding, of this high and mighty goal that our Craft of Masons aspires.
[i] W.L. Wilmhurst, The Meaning of Masonry, Revised Edition. (San Fransisco: Plumbstone, 2007), 19.
[ii] Albet Pike, Morals and Dogma (Charleston, SC: Supreme Council of the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite, S.J., 1871), 148
[iii] Wilmhurst, The Meaning of Masonry, 17
[iv] Alexander Piatigorsky, Who’s Afraid of Freemasons? The Phenomenon of Freemasonry. (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 26
[v]Alain Anielou, Yoga:Mastering the Secrets of Matter and universe. (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1991), 26.
[vi] Danielou, Yoga, 27.
[vii] Danielou, Yoga 130
[viii] Bhagavad Gita 2:23-25
[ix] Bhagavad Gita 2:68-69
[x] Bhagavad Gita 7:26
[xi] A. Parthasarthy, The Entities: Vedanta Treatise. (Mumbai: Vedanta World, 2007).
[xii] Swami Vivekananda, “Conversations at Harvard, 1896” In the Complete works of Swami Vivekananda. (Kolata: Advaita Ashrama, 1989), 5:299
[xiii] The Duke of Sussex, “The Lesson Taught by the Three Great Lights.” Masonic Monthly, 1865.
[xv] See Albert G. Mackey, An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and it Kindred Sciences (Philadelphia: Moss & Co., 1874), 789; and Pike, Morals and Dogma, 851