Linguistic symbols are used to refer to objects in the external world and objects of abstract knowledge. In religious language symbols are sometimes used to bridge the two worlds together. In this case, the symbols refer to objects in the world that have a variety of interconnected abstract ideas that the object represents. Water symbolism is especially significant because water tends to symbolize this unified whole of interconnected potential forms. Throughout the different religions we see water symbolizing the feminine aspect of the divine and all its associations. These associations are used in rituals and religious texts in order to summon these particular divine attributes in the mind of the worshipper, by invoking their connection in the abstract.
The word water brings many images to mind and all of them are flowing, washing away, or submerging all the solid forms that spring from it. Water is thought of as a type of universal mother. Its darkness and mystery and vast depths of collective uncertainty make one feel humble and transitory. The sea seems eternal yet all its forms are continually changing and flowing back into the whole. There may be forms such as a wave on the surface, but even the wave is never separated from the whole of the sea. Nothing is ever taken away or added to the sea, yet it is in a constant state of flux.In religious texts we see a tendency to use water as a symbol of eternal life, as well as the source of all life. Whether it is the Taoist immortals that surrender to the flow of the Tao, or the Indian sage who drinks amrita, the immortal waters are a symbol of heaven and its infinite potential of being. As far as we are unborn of this heavenly source we are mere forms divorced from our true source. Jesus tells his disciples that only those who have come from above have ascended, and that they have to be born again of water and spirit in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (book of John). The idea is that this water is the source of all forms; so if one is only a single transitory form, than one has no real or lasting existence; but if one can transfer their identity to the source of all potential forms, that is the waters of cyclical time and the whole circle of life, one unites with the one and all.
Another main water motif is the idea of cleansing. This is the idea most often connected with ritual. Like in the Christian baptism, water cleanses away the decaying forms and clears the way for a new creation. Although to the Taoist sage, there was no cleansing and rebirth, at least for him. The idea for him was to remain an empty vessel, in order to let these abstract potentialities flow into him spontaneously as the Tao demanded. In either case the idea is similar. The only difference is between the ritual rites of the common believer and the experienced sage. For instance the Christian idea of the Great Flood was universally accepted as a punishment of the wicked and a cleansing of the Earth, so that Noah’s people could usher in a new era of creation. Ibn-al’Arabi, the great master of Islamic mysticism interpreted the Great Flood as a symbol of the waters of mystical intoxication. In one case the waters rush in and kill the existing structure, giving a symbolic death, or any destruction of form; thus allowing a new structure to arise that is more in harmony with the present mood of the rhythms of the time.
Symbolic deaths are a major type of religious experience, and this seems to be a function of many rituals. The waters are summoned in the mind of the priest of participant in order to wash away symbolically what might have happened physically (disconnect life force from decaying forms). The advanced mystic, however, is immortal in the sense that his life force is detached from all forms, and so he swims in and sustains these waters indefinitely. The idea for a shaman is to never be born, never let dust settle on a structure arising into ego. The immortal sage is not only empty but full, not of himself, but of the flux of existence. In this mystic sense the linguistic symbols are used not just to summon the power of this infinite potentiality, but sustain a living relationship to the whole of existence. Sacred time becomes not just a tool for cleansing and resurrection, but when used in conjunction with linear time, the ocean becomes a river, always connected to the whole, but pointing forever beyond it.
The Native American societies for the most part never lost touch with this source of life and consequently their use of language is closer to the ways of the advanced mystic than the religious rituals of literate societies. They realized human language was a type of meta- language. Human language has obviously grown out of the communication codes imbedded in language of nature, and its DNA. With human language we have broken through the formal rules predicted by the natural world and are free to subscribe meaning to the language of the world in accordance with but not constrained by the natural laws. Perhaps this is why literate societies seem to break from this ancient and efficient use of symbols. When things are written down, a new formal system is created from which another form of the meta-language has to be created in order to interpret it; but then that gets written down, which creates another system, so we develop rules for interpreting that system which creates another, and so on. The original point and novel quality of the meta-system, is its ability to cope with chaos. The rules for a meta-language are that there are no rules. This is why many non-literate societies have no separation between sacred and profane, or art and nature. There is no separation between sign and thing, no symbolism. If the word water was spoken, there would be no rules formally constrained by the linguistic categories of interpretation, and one could interpret it freely, but the intended meaning would still be conveyed due to the rules of the natural “profane” world. This is a difficult concept for the scientific mind to grasp but it is very simple to the American Indian. The myth means itself. Human language and any of man’s endeavors for that matter become art. Life is art, and art is communication.
The creative enterprise is conducted in all human activity, although the reality of the symbols seems to delude all but the few. When the reality of the symbols can be known (causal relationships), then the trajectory flips towards the non-linear, a-causal and imaginary, towards art and creation. Historical society has a problem in its inability to cope with the source of the symbols. Their idea of language is that the symbols used are arbitrary. This divorces us from the symbolic world, the source of our creations, the code we inherited in our genes and we remember deep in our cells. If we can just remember that Word, the original symbol, the infinite pun, we can be free to re-create the universe without the backlash of karmic debt that nature slaps in our face when we ignore the divine mother, the immortal water and source of all life and all possibilities.