What is Your Sacred Symbol? (Math Circle January 14, 2014)
Students saw two items on the board when class began today:
“Name of this course: The Nexus of Sacred Geometry and Henna
Question: What is your sacred symbol?”

Our visiting instructor, artist/acupuncturist Gina Gruenberg, and I teamed up to start to explore this question with students.
“Is there anything you don’t understand in those words on the board?” I asked.
That opened up a world of questions that we discussed for about 45 minutes:
• What is a sacred symbol?
• Does it have any religious factors?
• Is Abraham Lincoln a sacred symbol of this country?
• If he is, are there other leaders who were shot who are also sacred symbols?
• What does symbol mean?
• What does sacred mean?
• Is the Olympic rings symbol sacred to an Olympic athlete?
• Are words sacred?
• Are words symbols?
• Why are Indian sacred symbols more spirally and Moroccan ones more geometric?
• Are squares more grounding than circles?
• What does grounding mean?
• Is henna based on things you see?
• Is the purpose of a sacred symbol to feel more secure?
• What does “the heavens” mean in the Indian tradition of the four (or is it five) elements?

We spent a looooooooong time coming up with a working definition of symbol. We started with “something that represents something.” We wrestled with the two “somethings,” got mired in circular reasoning (and defined this term), and used examples to clarify our thinking. We ended up with this definition:
SYMBOL: A thing that represents another something. The thing and the something don’t necessarily have to be similar. The thing can be a person (such as Shakespeare as a representation of a love of acting), object, thing you can draw, etc…. The something can be an idea, a place, and action, a person, etc…

We talked about a mathematical definition that I had read somewhere. It claimed that the something was “words.” The students disagreed with this, as words are symbols themselves. “Thing” and “something” sound vague, but these kids made them very specific. I did my part on behalf of mathematics and stressed the importance of precisely defining your terms. I required such precision, in fact, that the students reached to take the marker out of my hand and take over when I asked for precise instructions on how to draw the Olympic symbol (“Are the two outer circles tangent to each other? Do they overlap?”).

Armed with our definition of symbol, the kids moved on to define sacred. After much deliberation, the students settled on this:
SACRED: Something important enough that a person is in awe of it.
In this discussion, rather than defining the term with an ever-expanding list of qualifications, the process involved discarding characteristics that are NOT sacred. (See the photo gallery online for more details.)

After students created their own definitions, I read to them a number of definitions taken from assorted reference material. The students’ definitions were remarkably close to these, and so much more powerful because the kids owned them through struggling. I suspect that you need to struggle with something to really own it – another reason not to spoon-feed mathematical algorithms to kids.

Gina then introduced various symbols that are sacred in the Indian tradition. She put them on the board with their Sanskrit names, and then discussed their meanings. She got the kids started working with the application of henna – first on paper, then on the skin.
We’re off to a great start. Next week we’ll delve further into the math behind the symbols, and spend more time applying the henna – we’ll do both simultaneously.  By the way,  in the photo gallery below there are 30 photos posted, most of which are students creations.
Rodi
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