Review of Freemasonry

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by W.Bro.Chakravarthy Sampath Madhavan
Lodge Jyothi # 253, Salem
Grand Lodge of India

This essay was adjudged the winning entry in the Grandmaster's Essay Contest and awarded the Grandmaster's Trophy, Grand Lodge of India

Freemasonry was founded centuries ago, by a group of men believing in the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. The founders wished to teach mankind three basic ideals which are the quintessence of Freemasonry - Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth, and to encourage its members to practice them in their everyday activities. Freemasonry uses builder's tools as symbols to teach these basic moral truths. This is why the most popular definition of Freemasonry states that it is "A system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols."


The object of this essay is to examine whether those symbols developed hundreds of years back, have any validity in the modern context. This naturally brings up three questions:

The first question that arises immediately is "Why use symbols and allegories at all?  Why not plain statements which clearly define the concepts of morality'?"


The second is " What do these symbols and allegories really mean?


And finally, "Do these messages have any relevance to modern society?

Or, are they antiquated?"


Let us take up the first question. Anything that is defined is restricted to finite bounds. Using undefined symbols instead of precise definitions enables one to read, interpret, and apply them as one sees best. In other words, symbolism is a tool of abstract thought, which develops imagination; "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." said Albert Einstein. Thus, by using symbols, Freemasonry becomes as great a system of morality as the ability of the individual Mason to understand and interpret its symbols.


Another explanation is that Man experiences and understands at two levels. He perceives and understands this physical world through the five senses and the mind and at the metaphysical level he has a spirit, or colloquially, the heart, which comprehends matters which are beyond the mind. To quote de Saint-Exupéry, "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." So when ' My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky ', it is responding to a language which my mind does not understand.  A symbol is a word in that language. If it were to be reduced to mere words, the spirit of the meaning is lost. That is why the ancients taught the great truths of the scriptures through symbols and abstract aphorisms. Freemasonry uses symbols because it has as much, if not more, to do with the spirit as with the mind.


In the words of the great Albert Pike  " Masonry . . .follows the ancient manner of teaching. Her symbols are the instructions she gives; and the lectures are but often partial and insufficient one-sided endeavors to interpret those symbols. He who would become an accomplished Mason must not be content merely to hear or even to understand the lectures, but must, aided by them, and they having as it were marked out the way for him to study, interpret and develop the symbols for himself."


Or in the words of Claudy " Take from Freemasonry its symbols and but the husk remains, the kernel is gone.  He who hears but the words of Freemasonry misses their meaning entirely."


Let us next discuss the inner meaning hidden in these symbols and allegories.  While it is not my purpose to embark on an exhaustive exposition on Masonic Symbolism, it is necessary to elaborate at least on some of the key concepts so that their relevance might be discussed at a subsequent stage.


Freemasonry is an allegory of the human life. And as with temporal life, this allegorical life is also lived in two planes - the physical and metaphysical. It encompasses the entire life span - from the entrance of Man on this mortal existence, through adulthood, to his inevitable destiny - which, in physical life, stops at the grave, and transcends it in the metaphysical.


This Masonic life is lived in a world, from which the secular or profane world is as different as chalk is from cheese. This is a world without distinctions of class and creed, in which there are no differences of race, religion, or tongue. This is a world where order, peace and harmony prevail - in contrast to the profane world, plagued by chaos, conflict and discord.  The lodge room itself is the symbol of this world.


The world thus represented is the world of Masonry. To this arcane world comes the Entered Apprentice, of his own free will and accord. At the secular level, his mission is to improve himself, to develop those qualities that will make him a better human being.  The ritual of the first degree is replete with symbolic teachings, which promote his moral and ethical development.


The Volumes of the Sacred Law show that Freemasonry is beyond religion and is truly universal. The Square and the Compasses stress the conduct we should pursue in society; to be fair and honest in all our dealings; to keep within bounds our unruly passions lest they disrupt the harmony of society.


Freemasonry is a strong votary of the work ethic, and avers that 'skill without exertion is of little avail'. It offers no privileges or rewards except to those who are willing to earn them. The Entered Apprentice must be willing to work upon his own nature so that he may become a better man. Freemasonry places Working Tools in his hands for this purpose. The gavel and the chisel are active tools used to hew the stone into proper shape. The 24 inch gauge reminds him that a part of each day is to be spent in prayer to the Almighty, another in serving a brother in distress, and the rest in labour and refreshment; it does not allow him any time to waste.


The four cardinal virtues - prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice are extolled as proper guides to regulate our lives and actions. The apprentice is also exhorted to study the liberal arts and sciences, which symbolise education.


One of the most important parts of Initiation is the Rite of Destitution. It is strongly evocative of the Vedic injunction " Let the rich satisfy the poor implorer, and bend his eye upon a longer pathway. Riches come now to one, now to another, and like the wheels of chariots are ever rolling." It advocates that noblest of all virtues, Charity. Charity is not merely sharing one's riches with the needy.  It is compassion - feeling the pain of another's suffering.  It is giving of comfort and counsel, sharing of joy and sadness, extending sympathy and spiritual help.


In the spiritual plane, the Entered Apprentice is seeking the light of knowledge to deliver him from the darkness of ignorance, which holds him in bondage. But to see the Light he needs the guidance of, and is totally dependent on, a preceptor or a Guru. During circumambulation, the Junior Deacon acts the preceptor, walks with him along the dark pathways and guides him through progressive stages of preparation and attainment. When the candidate is finally qualified to see the Light, the preceptor sets him on the path to enlightenment, towards the East; the source of light; whence the sun rises to dispel darkness. 


The darkness from which the candidate seeks release is represented by the hoodwink. It is removed at the moment of enlightenment. And the cable tow symbolises the bond by which he is tethered to the state of darkness. It is not by chance, that the first act of the Master, after enlightenment, and acceptance of the candidate as a "Free"mason, is to remove the cable tow. That signifies the end of bondage. This, unquestionably, is one of the most meaningful symbols of the degree. At the physical level, the cable tow is the umbilical cord, by which he is connected to the profane world. Once he is delivered into the Masonic world, this cord is immediately removed. 


The Entered Apprentice is symbolic of infancy and youth, which is a period of learning fundamentals, a beginning. The word initiation itself means birth or beginning. The Fellowcraft is an emblem of adulthood. He is now the perfect ashlar smoothened by experience and polished by education, properly prepared to take his place in society. All three working tools of the Fellowcraft are testing tools, meant to try, examine, and prove himself. With them he learns discernment, to differentiate between Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, Beneficial and Wasteful. This faculty of discrimination is first put to the test when he steps into the porchway and stands between the two great pillars, which invite him to choose between a path of strength and power, and a path of wisdom. Hobson's choice indeed!  Neither can profit him, for unbridled power leads to destruction, while wisdom without power to act results only in attrition. His must be a path of stability where power is tempered by wisdom. Only then can he climb up the winding staircase to receive his wages. The winding staircase symbolises life. It turns at every step, and hides from his view whatever the future portends for him. He climbs on undeterred, for it is in Man's nature to climb, armed with the confidence born out of experience, knowledge, and education, and the hope of reward spurring him on, to reach the Middle Chamber.


The Middle Chamber is a symbol of wisdom, where the senses, mind and spirit blend together in perfect equilibrium or stability. And it is here that the intellectual faculty reaches the throne of God Himself. He perceives the ultimate truth, which is the immortality of the self and its oneness with the Supreme - aham  brahmosmi - I am that I am. " When ignorance is dispelled by knowledge of the self, knowledge, shining like the sun, reveals the supreme" says the Gita. At this point perception ceases. Intellectual thought can take him thus far and no further. What lies ahead lies in the realm of mysticism, and can only be experienced by the soul of the mystic.


Let us now move to the sublime degree of a Master Mason. There are two distinct aspects to the ceremonies of this degree. At the ethical level the Hiramic legend teaches us that that which is lost should be retrieved, and that Patience and Industry can repair the loss. That evil must be punished when it attacks the good. Above all it teaches that the Good will finally triumph over Evil, because the Good forgives, forgets, and accepts the frailties of Human Nature.


But it is the mystical interpretation of the ceremony of this degree, which makes it sublime, because, in the Raising ceremony, the self is sublimated. It sheds all impurities and thus purified, rises to a communion with the supreme. "Hitvaa yaavadyam punarastamehi sam gachhasva tanvaasuvarcaah" says the Rig Veda  "Leave sin and evil, seek anew thy dwelling, and be united with a lustrous body." 


Thus the Entered Apprentice is given light to deliver him from darkness, the Fellowcraft is led to differentiate the truth from the unreal, and finally the Master Mason transcends death to achieve immortality. This spiritual progression of the three degrees is best expressed by the  well known invocation of the Upanishad. 


Tamaso maa jyothir gamaya - from darkness lead me to light.

Asatho maa sat gamaya - from the unreal, lead me to the truth.

Mrithyor maa amrutham gamaya - from death lead me to immortality.


Having discussed the import of the truths contained in Masonic symbolism, we now come to the real purpose of this essay, to examine their relevance to the modern society.


In modern times the Mankind has degenerated. It is driven by avarice and greed, and riven by fear and hatred. Man has discarded those moral and ethical values, which set him apart from the Beast. Brother is set against brother, neighbour against neighbour. Humanity is a house divided against itself; it cannot stand for long. It can only be rebuilt by Masons who can reinvest it with all those noble qualities and ideals which have been unfortunately and unwisely abandoned.


As mentioned at the very beginning, the fundamental purpose of Freemasonry is to instill these very qualities and ideals in its members, and to encourage them to practice them. No other institution or organisation can match Freemasonry's total commitment to develop and promote every moral and social virtue. Very few possess its potential and power to influence society. Thus Freemasons, and only Freemasons, are in a position to render a signal service to society. They can set examples and standards for moral and ethical behaviour for others to follow.           " Whatever a great man does, others imitate; whatever he sets up as the standard, the world follows " says the Gita.


The secular teachings of Masonry are of immense value to society, and it might be no exaggeration to say that the very future of Mankind depends on its ability to absorb and act upon those tenets.


One might perhaps argue that brief sojourns to the whimsical world of Freemasonry would not materially affect or influence the perspectives, values or behaviour of Masons in their worldly lives. This argument predicates that Man is essentially cynical. That is not true; Man is inherently positive, intrinsically good. His inborn goodness might be temporarily clouded or distorted by Evil. But it can never be destroyed. Which is why he is constantly searching for spiritual fulfillment, which, literally, is his raison d'être. This yearning for spiritual consciousness is innate in every human being. It is the eternal and universal quest for the Holy Grail. The spiritual teachings of Freemasonry, presented as a three tiered system of symbolic dramatisation, offer an esoteric path to spiritual awareness. A path at once simple to understand and interesting to practice. " In this path there is no loss of effort or harmful counter effect. Even a little practice of this discipline protects one from great fear." as the Gita aptly puts it


We have now firmly established that the tenets of Freemasonry are best taught by symbolism; that they contain important moral and ethical values, as well as profound spiritual insights; and finally that they are not merely relevant but essential to modern society. Roscoe Pound's famous assertion  "Masonry has more to offer the twentieth century than the twentieth century has to offer Masonry." is equally true of the twenty -first.  


At this juncture I may be permitted to exceed my brief and beg the question.   Why at all do we doubt the relevance of the Masonic message? Is it because we feel that the movement is losing ground? Have the brethren become indifferent? Is attendance dwindling? Do we have difficulty in attracting new members or retaining existing members? 


If the answer is yes, it certainly is not because the message of Freemasonry is irrelevant, but perhaps because Freemasonry is no longer interesting. Our objective then should be to make Masonry attractive and worthwhile. In the Indian context, we must take into account the fact, that we in this country are not native speakers of English, and therefore many of our brethren might have constraints in comprehending the archaic language of the ritual. On the other hand, as the liberal sprinkling of references to Indian scriptures amply demonstrates, many of the ethical and spiritual precepts contained in Masonic ritual are indigenous to our ethos and are deeply rooted in the Indian psyche. Most of our brethren are familiar with them and will be able to empathise with the ritual if only they are taught to appreciate its import. Our present emphasis is more on faultless rendering of the ritual, than on educating our brethren about its profound meaning. We are trying to impart Masonic knowledge by rote, rather than by motivating the brethren to learn, contemplate, understand and appreciate it, as they ought.  


The venerable Claudy's cry of anguish rings true even today.  "The reason more Masons do not deserve the title is not altogether their fault. It's our fault! We don't know enough ourselves to teach them; we don't care enough about it to teach them. A good balance in the bank, a growing membership, a free feed, 'nice' degrees- and we call ourselves a successful lodge. But we make only ten men real Masons for every hundred to whom we give the degrees, and the fault is ours; not theirs; my fault, your fault, our fault because we don't study, don't learn, don't care to learn the real secrets of Freemasonry and so cannot teach them."


The need of the hour is a paradigm shift. We should revert to the original mission of the founders, which was to teach basic moral truths to the brethren and encourage their regular practice. We ought to institute modalities to explain to the candidates, in simple and easily understandable words, the spiritual and moral content of the ritual they had just experienced. That should enthuse them to learn more and become better Men by becoming better Masons. We might also design projects for brethren to work together to practice those principles, especially to extend relief and consolation to brothers in distress. Freemasonry will then become more meaningful to them and they will  prize their membership in this ancient and honourable institution. We shall then have Freemasons proudly holding their heads high and saying


We walk the path the great have trod,
The great in heart, the great in mind,
Who looked through Masonry to God,
And looked through God to all mankind;
Learned more than word or sign or grip,
Learned Man's and God's relationship.


To him who sees, who understands,
How mighty Masonry appears!
A Brotherhood of many lands,
A fellowship of many years,
A Brotherhood so great, so vast,
Of all the Craft of all the past.

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