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Volume XIV - The Smiling Forehead

Part II - The Deeper Side of Life

Chapter XXII
The Symbol of the Cross


THE CROSS which is usually taken as the symbol of the cross on which Christ died has many mystical meanings. It shows a vertical line and a horizontal line: everything that exists extends vertically and horizontally. This may be seen in the leaf: it has length and breadth. All that exists has come from these two lines, the vertical and the horizontal. The cross therefore, in its first meaning, is the symbol of manifestation.

Then, whenever someone begins to speak, to act for the truth, his way is barred, there is a cross against it. Speak the truth before the nation and there comes the cross, the bar from the nation. Speak the truth in the face of the world and the cross comes from the world against you.

You may ask, 'If all comes from the One, the Same, why is one thing truth and one falsehood?' Truth is that which lives, which remains, which stands upright. False is that which falls, which is dead. While we are alive we stand upright; when we are dead we have fallen down. What is dead? This false self, this mortal self. This is fana, destruction. The cross shows that in fana – in the ending of the mortal, of that which is changing, dying every moment, which lives upon mortal food in mortal surroundings – is the immortal life. What is not fani the Sufi calls baqi. This I can explain as ba-yaki, oneness. In the death of the mortal there is life, immortality, the one immortal life.

There is another great mystery of the cross which is very little understood. Everywhere without us there is space. We call space that which can accommodate, which can contain. Within us there is space too; the space within extends in another direction. It is always a puzzle for the materialist when he hears of the two worlds, this world and the other, the next world. He says, 'This world I know, but the other world I do not know. Where is the other world?' Our eyes can give us an idea, a picture of the other world. These little eyes, not an inch in length, contain so many miles of country, such vast tracts, the sun, the moon, the whole cosmos, millions upon millions of miles. These are not contained in the physical eyes but in the eyes within. The space within is much vaster than the space without; it can contain hundreds and thousands of times all that is in the world without. In this meaning the cross signifies the two worlds.

People have thought that the next world is above the sky, beyond the stars. It is not above but within. This world is contained in it.


Many think that this symbol has existed from the time of Jesus Christ, and no doubt it became better known after the time of the master, but in fact it is an old symbol known at different times and at all times known by the mystics. The mystery of the symbol contains a great truth.

There are two sides to this mystery. One side is the journey towards a spiritual ideal, the reaching of a spiritual ideal, and if any picture of this can be given there cannot be a better picture than a cross. The other side of this mystery represents the destiny of a teacher, the life of a teacher, signifying what he has to meet with when delivering the message of truth.

Besides this, the cross is a natural sign that man has always made from his artistic or from his reasoning faculty. It is the nature of light to spread rays, especially when the light is in its perfection. For instance, sometimes by looking at the sun – at the setting sun in particular – one finds lines forming on the sky and on the earth: first there is one straight line and if one watches that first line minutely a horizontal line develops out of it. By keen observation of light one can find that it is in the nature of light to form one perpendicular and one horizontal line. If it is the nature of the external light to form a cross it is also the nature of the inner light: the external light is the reflection of the inner light, and it is the nature of the inner light that is expressed in the outer light. So one can see that not only the inner light is manifest in the outer light, but that the outer light is the picture of the inner light.

We can also see by observing nature's forms – the form of a tree, of a plant, of a flower, the forms of the animals and birds, and in the end the most developed and finished form of the human being – that they all present a cross. One cross may be seen by observing the formation of man's head, the other cross can be seen by the whole form of mankind: it is ever a horizontal and a perpendicular line which suggest the symbol of the cross. There is no form that does not have a horizontal and a perpendicular line, and it is these two different aspects or directions which form the cross. In this way one can understand that in the mystery of form the cross is hidden.

Now coming to the first mystery mentioned above, namely that man's journey towards spiritual ideal can be pictured as a cross: in the first place man's ego, man's self is his enemy and stands as a hindrance to his progress. Feelings such as pride, conceit, selfishness, jealousy, envy and contempt are all feelings which hurt others and which destroy one's own life making it full of the misery which springs from that selfish personal feeling, that ego of man. The more egoistic, the more conceited he is, the more miserable a life he has in the world, the more he makes the lives of others miserable. It seems that this ego, which in Sufi terms is called nafs, is a natural development in man's life or heart. The more he knows of the world, the more egoistic he becomes; the more he understands and experiences the world, the more avaricious he becomes.

It is not that man brings his faults with him. He comes with innocence, with the innocent smiles of the infant, the friend of everyone who comes to him, ready to smile and ready to throw his loving glance on everybody, regardless of whether he is rich or poor, friend or foe; attracted by beauty in all forms. It is this in the infant which attracts every soul. This shows that the soul which comes with such purity of heart, purity of expression in the countenance, beauty in every movement it makes – that this same soul develops in his nature, as he grows up in the world, all that is hurtful and harmful to himself and others. This also shows that it is in the world that, growing up, he creates all this and this creation is called nafs or ego. Yet at the same time in the depth of the heart there is that goodness which is the divine goodness, that righteousness which man has inherited from the Father in heaven.

A longing for joy and rest and peace is in him, and this shows that in man there are two natures: one which is in the depth of his heart, another which has developed from his coming on earth. A conflict arises, a struggle between these two natures, when the nature which is in the depth begins to feel that it yearns for something, longs for something and feels it must have it: it must have goodness from other people, it must have peace in life. And when it cannot find these the inner conflict begins.

Man creates his own disharmony in his soul and then treats others in the same way; therefore he is not satisfied with his own life, nor is he satisfied with others because he feels that he has a complaint against others, although mostly it is caused by himself. What he gives he receives back, but he never sees that. He always thinks: what the depth of his being yearns for – love, goodness, righteousness, harmony and peace – everybody must give to him. But for him when it comes to giving he does not give because he lives in the other life he has created. This makes it plain that in every man a being is created; that being is called nafs and is the same as the conception of Satan which has always existed in the scriptures and traditions.

People have many times divided the world between two spirits: a small part of humanity for God and a great part of humanity for Satan, thus making the control of the Satan spirit larger perhaps than the control of God. But if only one could understand the meaning of the idea of Satan, one would understand that it is this spirit of error which has collected and gathered in man after his coming on earth; it is nafs and stands as Satan, always guiding man astray and closing the eyes of his heart to the light of truth.

But when a revolution comes in the life of a man, as soon as he begins to see deeply into life, to acquire goodness – not only to get but to give – as soon as he begins to enjoy not only the sympathy of others but giving sympathy to others, then comes a period when he begins to see this Satan-spirit as apart from his real original being, standing before him constantly in conflict with his natural force, freedom and inclination. Then he sees that sometimes he can do what he desires, and that sometimes this spirit gets hold of him and does not allow him to do what he desires. Sometimes he finds himself weak in this struggle and sometimes he finds himself strong. His experience is that when he finds himself strong in this battle he is thankful and satisfied, and when he finds himself weak in it he repents, he is ashamed of himself and wishes to alter himself.

This is the period in which another epoch begins in man's life; from this time there is a constant conflict between himself and that spirit which is his ego. It is a conflict, it is a kind of hindrance to his natural attitude, to his natural inclination to do good and right. He constantly meets with that spirit because it was created in his own heart and has become part of his being. It is a very solid and substantial being, as real perhaps as he understands himself to be, and mostly more real: something real in the depth of his being, which is covered by it. This constant conflict between his real original self and that self which hinders his spiritual progress is pictured in the form of a cross.

This cross a man carries during his progress. It is the ugly passions, it is the love of comforts, and it is the satisfaction in anger and bitterness that he has to combat first. When he has conquered these, the next trouble he has to meet is that still more subtle enemy of himself in his mentality: the sensitiveness to what others say, to the opinion of others about himself. He is anxious to know what anybody holds as an opinion about him, what anybody says against him, or if in any way his dignity or position is hurt. Here again the same enemy, the nafs, takes another stand and the crucifixion is when that thought of self, that nafs, is fought with until there comes an understanding that there exists no self before the vision of God.

It is this which is the real crucifixion, but with this crucifixion there comes still another, which has always followed and which every soul has to experience; the perfection of every soul, the liberation of every soul lies in this crucifixion. It is that part of his being which he has created in himself, that false part of his being, which is crucified, not his real self, although on the way it always seems that he has crucified his own self.

This is not self-denial, it is the false self that is denied. The mystery of perfection lies in annihilation – not in annihilation of the real self, but of the false self, of the false conception which man has cherished in his heart and always has allowed to torture his life. Do we not see this with our friends and acquaintances? In those who attract us and whom we deeply love and admire there is only one quality which can really attract us: apart from our other interests in life it is man's personality alone which attracts us. It is not only that selflessness and the extent of that selflessness attract us, but what repels us in the life of others is nothing else than the grossness of their nafs – or one might call it the denseness and hardness of that spirit.

The teaching of Christ when he said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit', is little understood. He does not mean poor in divine spirit, but poor in this self-created spirit. Those who are poor in this self-created spirit are rich in divine spirit, and those who are rich in divine spirit are poor in this self-created spirit. The word which is used in the scriptures for nafs is that spirit of grossness or spirit – but the better word is ego.

There have always been two tendencies: one of sincerity and the other of insincerity and falsehood. They have always worked together; the false and the true have always existed in life and in nature. Where there is real gold there is false; where there is a real diamond there is an imitation diamond; where there are sincere people there are insincere ones. In every aspect of life in the life of spirituality, in the acquisition of learning, in the arts and sciences – we can see sincerity and insincerity. And the only way to recognize real spiritual development is to understand to what extent there is selflessness.

However much a person pretends to spirituality and wishes to be godly or pious or good, nothing can hide his true nature, for there is the constant tendency of that ego to leap out. It will leap out without man's control, and if he is insincere he cannot hide it. Just as the imitation diamond, however bright it may be, is dull compared with the real one and when tested and examined will prove to be an imitation, so real spiritual progress must be proved in the personality of a soul. It is the personality that should prove that he has touched that larger Self where self does not exist.

Now coming to the next and still greater mystery of the cross: this mystery can be seen in the life of the messengers, the prophets and holy beings. In the first place no one has entrance into the kingdom of God, into the abode of God, who has not been so crucified as I have said just now. There is a poem by the great Persian poet Iraqi in which he tells, 'When I went to the gate of the divine Beloved and knocked at the door, a voice came and said – Who art thou?' When he had told, 'I am so and so', the answer came, 'There is no place for anyone else in this abode. Go back to whence thou hast come'. He turned back and then, after a long time, after having gone through the process of the cross and of crucifixion, he again went there – with the spirit of selflessness. He knocked at the door; the word came, 'Who art thou? ', and he said, 'Thyself alone, for no one else exists save Thee'. And God said, 'Enter into this abode for now it belongs to thee'. 1 It is such selflessness, to the extent that the thought of self is not there, it is being dead to the self, which is the recognition of God.

One finds this spirit to a small extent in the ordinary lover and beloved, when a person loves another from the depth of his heart. He who says, 'I love you but only so much, I love you and give you sixpence but I keep sixpence for myself, I love you but I stand at a distance and never come closer, we are separate beings' – his love is with his self. As long as that exists, love has not done its full work. Love accomplishes its work when it spreads its wings and veils man's self from his own eyes. That is the time when love is fulfilled, and so it is in the life of the holy ones who have not only loved God by professing or showing it, but who have loved God to the extent that they forgot themselves. It is that state of realization of being which can be termed a cross.

Then such souls have a cross everywhere; every move they make is a cross, a crucifixion. In the first place, living in the world, a world full of falsehood, full of treachery, deceit and selfishness, every move they make, every act they perform all they say and think, prove that their eyes and hearts are open to something else than that at which the world is looking. It is a constant conflict. It is living in the world, living among people of the world and yet looking at a place different from that which the world sees. If they tried to speak they could not. Words cannot express the truth; language is too inadequate to give a real conception of the ultimate truth. As it is said in the Vedanta, and as it was said in ancient times, the world is maya. Maya means something unreal, and to these souls the world becomes most unreal as soon as they begin to see the real, and when they compare the world with this reality it seems even more unreal. No one in the world can imagine to what an extent this world manifests itself to their eyes.

Think of people who are good – yet not having arrived at spiritual perfection – who are sensitive, tender and kind, and see how the world treats them, how they are misunderstood. See how the best is taken by the selfish, how the generous one has to give more and more, how the one who serves has to serve more and more, and still the world is not satisfied. He who loves has to love more and more, and the world is not satisfied. How jarring life is to these! Then think of those who have arrived at such a stage of realization that there is a vast gulf between the real and the unreal. When they arrive at that realization their language is not understood; they are forced to speak in a language which is not their own and to say something different from what they are realizing. It is more than a cross. It is not that Jesus Christ alone had a cross, but every teacher who has a portion of the message has a cross.

But then you may say, 'The masters of humanity who have come at all times and had such a cross to bear, why did they not go to the forests, to the caves, to the mountains, why did they stay in the world?' There is a beautiful picture that Rumi has made. He tells why the melody of the reed flute makes such an appeal to your heart. It is, he says in his poetry, because first it is cut away from its original stem, then in its heart holes are made and, since the holes have been made in the heart, the heart has been broken and it begins to cry. So it is with the spirit of the messenger, with the spirit of the teacher: by bearing and by carrying his cross his self becomes like a reed, hollow. There is scope for the Player to play his melody when it has become nothing; then the Player takes it to play his melody. If something was still there the Player could not use it.

God speaks to everyone, not only to the messengers and teachers. He speaks to the ears of every heart, but it is not every heart which hears it. His voice is louder than the thunder, and His light is clearer than the sun – if one could only see it, if one could only hear it. In order to see it and in order to hear it man should remove this wall, this barrier which he has made of the self. Then he becomes the flute upon which the divine Player may play the music of Orpheus which can charm even the hearts of stone; then he rises from the cross into the life everlasting.


1. similar story in Mathnawi I-3056-64, Jalaluddin Rumi

checked 11-Nov-2006