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Universal Gnostic Ministry & Study
Affirming Unity + Celebrating Diversity
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The Lotus and the Serpent:
symbols and their meanings


Symbols are used in various religious, philosophic, and scientific traditions. This is a brief exploration of two symbols that are used in the Circle of the Free Spirit, as shown above -- the Lotus and the Serpent.

The Lotus is taken from Buddhism, one of the great Gnostic paths of the East. The Lotus has many meanings. It can symbolize the human potential for enlightenment, or the enlightened heart or mind itself, or human potential in general. The path of Gnosis is one of unfolding one's full potential, particularly one's mindfulness and capacity for wisdom and compassion. The Lotus is to the East what the Rose is to the West. Our red Lotus may remind one of a red Rose, the symbol of romantic love, which evokes the Sacred Marriage of Nature and Spirit, Humanity and Divinity. The union of the two has been symbolized by the alchemical Rose Cross -- a Cross with a Rose in the center, where horizontal and vertical intersect.

The Lotus evokes the Lotus Sutra and the various Bodhisattvas or Enlightened Beings, particularly the Bodhisattva of Compassion called Avalokitshvara in India, Chenrezig in Tibet, Kwan Yin in China, Quan Am in Vietnam, and Kannon in Japan. The mantra of Avalokiteshvara is the famous "Om Mani Padme Hum" often translated along the lines of "Homage to the Jewel in the Lotus". Interestingly, as Avalokiteshvara moved into China, he transgendered from male to female -- embodying androgyny in motion. Spiritual androgyny is a path and practice found in many esoteric traditons. It was advocated by Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. In Kwan Yin's case of male-to-female androgyny, the Lotus, like the Rose, symbolizes more the Feminine all-embracing Compassion than the Masculine all-penetrating Wisdom. Yet, it must be said, the two are interdependent and sides of one coin.

The Serpent, on the other hand, seems to symbolize more the Masculine than the Feminine -- more Nature than Spirit, more Wisdom (or Gnosis) than Compassion. However, all so-called opposites are really complements, and "Ouroboros", the Sepent curving back on itself, consuming (or even "knowing" in a "sexual" way) its own tail, symbolizes this. Head united with Tail -- it is the union of opposites.

The Ouroboros also has other meanings. The particular image above is from a 14th century alchemical manuscript, and the Greek words within the serpentine Circle are "hen to pan" or, in translation: ONE IS THE ALL, or literally, ONE THE ALL. According to Kurt Rudolph (Gnosis, 1987, HarperCollins, page 70) the dark upper part symbolizes earth and the light lower part starry heaven. Taken together it is an ancient Gnostic symbol for the cycle of eternal becoming, a universal doctrine that the ancient Gnostics and esoteric Christians taught along with Buddhists, Hindus, Kabbalists, Wiccans, and others. One can also see that this particular image is similar to a Moebius strip, rotating as it also curves around, the figure-eight symbol for eternity.

Another, perhaps more esoteric meaning of the Circular Serpent is that of consciousness curving back on itself -- becoming aware of and uniting with itself. Subject becomes Object. The One MInd sees itself as All Things: ONE IS THE ALL. This is the One Reality that is evoked in the Liturgy of the Circle of the Free Spirit, The Yoga of the Christos (on this site). There is yet another esoteric meaning to the Serpent. The Serpent is Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus likens his upcoming crucifixion to Moses lifting up the Serpent in the desert. There have been many images made of a Serpent coiled around a cross. This is similar to the cadusis of Hermes (the messenger of the Hermetic teachings), which still also symbolize the healing professions today. Both Hermes and Christ are types of the Divine Messenger and Healer. Orthodox Christian Bishops carry a staff that is similar to the cadusis. It is easy to see the cadusis as a representation of the kundalini energy said to be sleeping at the base of the human spine, and awakened by yogic or spiritual practices.

Some Gnostics also interpert the Serpent in the Garden of Eden as a symbol of Christ, who opens the eyes of Eve and Adam, and awakens them from the blissful darkness of unselfconsciousness to the disturbing light of selfconsciousness. As such, Christ is the "Light-Bearer", the "Lucifer"! And it is the Christ-Serpent who causes the primordial "reptilian" mind to develop and transcend itself. This phase of awakening from animal to human consciousness casts the human being out of the Garden into the World of conscious identities, boundaries, needs and limits, and the resulting conflict, suffering, failure and death. To take Humanity beyond this phase of human psychology into the next, Divine Spirit, requires Christ to take the human being, symbolized and realized by Jesus, through and beyond human failure and limitation (a.k.a.,"sin") -- from Crucifixion to Resurrection. And so Humanity, redeemed by the serpentine Christ within All, is returned to Paradise -- now fully Human and fully Divine -- and the Cosmic Drama comes Full Circle.

The Lotus and the Serpent are optimistic symbols. Gnostics and Buddhists who believe in reincarnation, transmigration, or rebirth, also believe that fulfillment of this cycle or destiny, which some call "salvation", is both possible and inevitable for all beings. This complete restoration of All in Christ, the return of the sparks of Light to the Pleroma or Fullness of Divine Glory, is represented by many fables (Christian, Gnostic, and Buddhist). These fables portray the awakening and return of a young Prince, or a Prodigal Son, to his Home or Source. Another way of looking at this, of course, is that this is already accomplished and always true, in the present moment, the eternal moment, outside time.

Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas: "I AM the Light that is above All things. I AM the All. All come forth from me and all attain to me. Split the wood, I AM there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there." The Cosmic Drama of the Light going forth and returning is symbolized by both the Lotus and the Serpent.

+ Mark Aelred
Circle of the Free Spirit

16 January 2007

Revised: 11 April 2008