The following is a passage from Sri Krishna Prem’s book, Initiation Into Yoga, from an essay entitled ‘Symbolism and Knowledge’. Thanks to Don Salmon for posting it elsewhere so that I could borrow it. The point about language here, and the variability in the language of mysticism, would be of crucial importance, since this variation in language might be seen as a variation in the message, while any such variation would render the message implausible. If the knowledge of the seers is empirical, as is claimed, then it should not vary from case to case except in extent and depth of insight.
“Many who study mystical literature from outside think that because the descriptions of the Path vary, they therefore refer to different paths, and some even make the further inference that they are ‘purely subjective’. But no conclusion could be further from the truth. The teachings of all genuine seers are in reality in complete agreement; it is only the verbal descriptions which vary. All descriptions, whether those of ordinary common-sense or those of so-called exact science, are symbolic. The words refer to something beyond themselves, something whose nature they can only suggest.
There is a story of a small boy who was being given a lesson in elementary astronomy by his teacher. Having been told that such and such a star was Sirius, and such another Aldebaran, the boy became thoughtful and said, “how do we know that those are their names?’ It is doubtless a truism, but it is one which we too often forget in practice, namely, that words mean only what we have agreed that they shall mean.
The work of scientists is seen to refer to a common body of experience because we have hammered out a common terminology. If, instead of being in very general touch with one another, scientists had to work in little, independent groups, scattered in time and space, each group evolving its own terminology, it would by no means be easy to correlate their researches, though it would always be possible for one who had both sufficient first-hand experience of science and sufficient patience.
The writings of seers are in a somewhat similar case to such hypothetical scientific studies. They are the products of isolated individuals or groups of individuals, often quite out of touch with similar groups elsewhere, and each of them has used such terms to describe his experience as were suggested by the tradition with which he was most familiar. The results often appears chaotic; but anyone who cars to follow the Path for himself will soon find that the chaos is only apparent, and that the various terms used in any one system are easily translatable into those of another. There will not always be a one to one correspondence, for the groupings of experiences under one head is also largely a personal matter. Whether a given complex of experience is to be taken as a whole or divided into aspects which are given various names is a matter which will vary with the point of view of each individual experiencer.
In the ancient world such ability to translate from one symbolism into another seems to have been more common than it is at present. We read how Greek priests could visit Egypt or Chaldea and at once recognize a given ‘foreign’ God as a correspondence of such and such a Greek one. The equation of Thoth with Hermes is a well-known example, but its by no means unique. It was possible for any initiated priest of the ancient religions to wander, like Apollonius, over the whole world and recognize his own Gods wherever he went.
The decay of this ability seems to have been connected with the development, somewhere in the first millennium B.C., of the power of abstract thought. Such thought is itself a symbolism, as philosophers are now once more beginning to realize. It is a symbolism, and a very powerful one for certain purposes, but it seems to carry with it a fatal tendency to take itself too seriously and to pose as being more than symbolism. To say that the world is a product of the union of consciousness with content-form is no less symbolic and no more true than to say that it is the marriage of the sun and moon, the union of the Sky God with the Earth Mother; and to say that the universe is an interrelatedness of atoms is as definitely symbolic a statement as that it is the morning stars singing together.”