The science of symbols constitutes a fascinating study in itself. It is by means of this science of symbols that the Unknown becomes the Known, the occult the obvious. Symbols enter into almost every phase of human endeavour and pursuits: in mathematics, mysticism and music, in art and architecture, in the diverse rituals and ceremonials of the esoteric religious systems and their practices, in alchemy and in astrology, in the traditions of esoteric teachings, from the most ‘primitive’ mind’s early perceptions to the most modern artistic apperceptions, and in the intricate dialectics, in every field it is this science of symbols that so ensures the satisfactory transmission and appreciation of the essential ‘intent’ of what is thus taught.
The dictionary defines a ‘symbol’ as that which ‘by custom or convention represents something else, a compendium of doctrines, a typical religious rite such as the Eucharist. A symbol is a visible sign of some thought, emotion, or experience seeking to translate what can really be grasped by the mind and imagination only by something that enters the field of observation. “The Hindu Faith had at its service the language of the utmost delicacy and flexibility with a vigorous and fertile growth and an almost unlimited vocabulary. Thus, it came to be so profuse in type and symbol.”
Clear distinction between symbol and sign is essential; - symbols are less obvious and are more artificial than mere signs, require convention, are not only abstract, but metaphysical in their content and meaning, and often need explanation for history, religion and customs. They do not depict but suggest subjects, do not speak directly through the eye to the intelligence, but presuppose in the mind the knowledge of any event or fact that they so recall. Sign language can undoubtedly be and is employed to express highly metaphysical ideas, but to do that in a symbolic system requires a development of the mode of expression consequent upon a similar development of the mental idiosyncrasy of the gestures. In terms of modern Linguistics/Semiotics, a sign is “arbitrary” while a symbol is not, since symbols are specific in their “significations”.
(Dr. S. A. Sarma from his book “Kena Upanishad”, a Bhavan’s Publication).