The Bow

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


The best bows do not assert their full weight until the last inch or so is drawn.

 In a time of legendary splendour when the flashing shields of battle-hardened soldiers displayed the merciless punctures of successive years of war, Lycean Pandarus seized an opening upon the field of Illium. Slyly goaded on by Athene, he hoped to gain glory through the killing of Menelaus and was ignorant of the violent repercussions his action would unleash. He unsheathed his polished bow made from the horns of a wild ibex which he had shot as it dashed from behind a rock. Its horns of sixteen hands in measure had been worked by a craftsman who joined them cunningly together and set their tips with gold. Pandarus strung the mighty weapon and drew the string of ox's sinew until it reached his breast. He bent it into a crescent so that "the horn twanged and the string sang aloud and the keen arrow leapt eager to wing his way among the throng". His aim was perfect and his matchless weapon faultless in its resilient spring, but the gods were against the noble Lycean prince and they diverted his shafts from their target. Despite his aim he could not kill, and his regal bow hummed its thwarted potency against his outstretched arm like an echo of his own anguish. As though an emblem of his frustrated manly powers, it fell beneath him when, pierced by the relentless bronze of Diomedes' spear, he crashed from his chariot onto the ground.

 The bow, which is the symbol of masculine will-power and the feminine crescent moon, had not been invincible in the hands of the ill-fated Pandarus. Though an archer of unequalled reputation, the desire which had curved its polished arc in full draw had rendered it an agent of his own demise. The crescent moon which heralds a quickening and change of forms had brought death instead of the growth of the newly born, as though the flashing eye of Shiva had darted back from 'neath the crescent on his brow and incinerated the hapless warrior. Such lightning punishment is usually associated with an intrusion upon the meditative focus of the great Mahayogin, and perhaps there is that in the power of the bow which requires a similar caution in approach. The penetrating flash of Shiva's Third Eye is conveyed or surmounted by the silver arc of the new moon which, bow-like, adorns his forehead. He is called Chandra-Sekhara, 'the moon-crested', and within his grasp lies the shining curve of his bow Ajagava, 'the eternal unborn ox'. This bow, like the lingam, is an emblem of Shiva's power and its shape seems to reflect the crest upon his brow. The user of the bow must exercise a wisdom and skill similar to that observed by the yogi who attempts to tap the power of the crescent moon. Such a warrior would be as one with his bow and comprehend the power and consequences of its directed force.

 In the Mundaka Upanishad the pranava or Aum is said to be the bow, the arrow the self and Brahman the mark. The Word may be viewed as the power of God, symbolized in Islamic tradition by a bow analogous to that of Shiva. In Buddhist symbology the bow represents the volitional power of the mind which dispatches the five arrows of the senses. Thus, the pranava may be thought of as emanating from the microcosmic spark of divine will as well as the one macrocosmic Source of all. In this way one may understand the words of Yahweh in the Book of Genesis: "I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and earth." The spiritual will is thus a rainbow weapon against chaos, against the onslaught of the all-enveloping deluge. It is an assertion of being, and therefore a maker of karma. Kahlil Gibran alluded to this when he wrote: "You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth." The bow is both a covenant based on the Word and an instrument of karmic action. Both ideas relate to law; one as that which is absolute and at the centre of all things, the other as karma directed and diffused in the world. Owing to his association with an unwavering law, Apollo was regarded by the Olympians with great awe. It is said that "As he fares through the house of Zeus, the gods tremble, yea, and rise up all from their thrones, as he draws near with his shining bended bow."

 In myth and sacred scripture, bows have often been depicted as living, divine entities. Arjuna's bow, which he used with such devastating effect in the great Mahabharatan war, was called Gandiva. It was given by Soma to Varuna, passed from Varuna to Agni and from Agni to Arjuna. It was said to make perpetual music, arrows leaping from it faster than the eye could follow. At the great Swayamvara hall in Kampilya, Arjuna had, earlier in his career, encountered another great bow when competing for the hand of the beautiful princess Draupadi. Hundreds were gathered to compete when Draupadi was presented by her brother Dhrishtadyumna. The Mahabharata relates how "the kings went near the bow one by one. The bow was divine. It was called Kindhura and its string was of steel. It was a very hard task to bend the bow and string it. Kings went near it with hopes high in their hearts. Unable to tackle it, they returned crestfallen. . . . Arjuna approached the great bow. He made apradakshina to it. He prostrated before it. Then, with a slight smile on his lips, he took up the bow in his hand. He strung it. After twanging the string, he sent the five arrows in quick succession. The target was hit in a moment."

 Assurbaninpal of Assyria left an inscribed tablet which reads: "I, Assurbaninpal, king of hosts, King of Assyria, whom Ashur and Belithave endowed with might, slew four lions. I held the powerful bow of Ishtar, the Lady of Battle, over them, and poured a libation upon them." The conquest of the four great beasts symbolizes divine kingship over the raging animal forces of the world, and the inscription implies that the bow of Ishtar embodied this power of subjugation. The reverence with which a bow was held by many of the ancient peoples of the world was beautifully typified by Ishi, who, as the last of the Yahi Indians in California, had much to teach his white brethren. He suggested that his bow had a head and a foot and was a living thing. It was always left unstrung when not in use and could not be touched by women or uninitiated children. Ishi believed that no one must ever step over the bow, as this would break its connection with the powers of the sun and sky. That it was a symbol of initiation for the Yahi shows them as one of the many cultures in the world who signified the transmission of sacred teachings with the actual presentation of a bow.

 No other weapon, from earliest times, has received so much attention and its mystique still remains, though it has been replaced as a weapon by the gun. The Hittites used it in magical ritual to overcome any weakness or temporary impotence experienced by a man. They and the Persians wore very light armour in warfare and depended upon accuracy and a volley of arrows to keep the enemy from entering their ranks. They fought with one row of kneeling archers backed by two rows of standing, the rearmost of which shot their arrows in a high arc, causing havoc in the enemy ranks. In the battle of Marathon they bore simple wicker shields and lost their advantage more from mistaken strategy than anything else. Numerous campaigns throughout the Mediterranean world demonstrated the superiority of the bow over heavier armed, slow-moving infantry or cavalry. The Scythians were masters of their short recurved composite bows, and Alexander of Macedonia was dismayed to observe them as they shot with devastating accuracy from horseback while never holding still enough to present themselves as a target. They who rode as one with the horse also moved so skilfully in their manipulation of the bow that it appeared as part of them - the bow, the man and power of both were as one.

 During the reign of Henry VIII, Roger Ascham announced that "the purpose of shooting is to hit the mark!" To the worldly warrior this is readily translated into the notion that conquest is the aim of the wielder of the bow. This has been borne out in history and needs no verification. One may merely point to the five hundred thousand mounted bowmen of Genghis Khan, about whom it was said that "the grass went brown when the bowmen of the great Khan rode by". But the Buddhist notion of Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, suggests a method which aims at a less tangible mark. Zen archery has been described as "probably the most royal of all the martial arts ever practised". It is far more than a sport or a mode of making war. It is a way of life and every detail regarding the manufacture and use of the bow is considered a subject of serious meditation. The Japanese bow is a composite instrument made of bamboo strips placed lengthwise on the back and belly of the bow and edgewise in the centre. Many, like the English longbow, are self-bows made of yew or lemon wood or some such resilient material. Others, like the Greek or Siberian bows, were made of horn and antler. Typically, this Oriental-style reflex bow is fairly short and has an extremely fast cast. These were either composite or grafted bows, made from half-staves joined in the middle. The American Indian, like many Asians, moulded sinews longitudinally and in cross-lacing to the bow. The combination of ox or buffalo sinew and the backing material enhanced the elasticity and strength of the bow.

 Of those made of wood it is known that every bowstave is unique. It is almost a law unto itself. All bows have horns at the end, the nocks where the string is attached, the limbs on either side of the grip, a convex back and concave belly; but the material used for each one presents a new combination of factors. The strength of the material should reflect the strength of the archer and the purpose of the bow. When fashioned, it should be capable of a full draw, the best bows asserting their full weight at the last inch or so. Additional weight or strength of material will not increase the cast once the maximum speed of the material itself is reached. The real art in bow-making lies in finishing the weapon so that a point of maximum resiliency is reached at just about the position of full draw. Of greatest value is an active recoil, a brilliancy in cast and a lively resiliency. There should be proper balance and distribution of action in the arc of the bow so that it recoils evenly and does not 'kick'. Bad balance produces a 'harsh bow', while good balance produces one that is 'sweet'.

 In fashioning a wooden bow, each stave must be treated separately. Knots, pins, cross-grains and blemishes appear unexpectedly and every defect must be dealt with by the maker. Allowances and corrections should be made to counteract them rather than attempting to conceal them. Knots, pins or worm holes can be neutralized by raising or plugging them, while cross-grains in mid-limb are to be avoided. It has been said that bowstaves are like people: "Those grown in protected localities, though beautiful to observe, are often weak, supple and lack character. Whereas those that have had to struggle along for existence often come through scarred and unsightly, but of tougher texture and more able to carry on with real burdens." So, though blemished, the best wood is often that of tougher, even coarser grain and simply requires patience in working it. Anyone who labours over such staves and becomes proficient in using the finished product comes to know it very well and does not easily change to another bow. Years of training are needed to produce perfect cooperation between the archer and the bow.

A bow too tensely strung is easily broken.

Publilius Syrus

 The greatest strain, when drawn, is on the back of the bow. Ideally it should have its grain running in practically unbroken lines from one nock to another. With a composite reflex bow, enormous tension must be withstood in order merely to string it. While tension is experienced along the convex back of the bow, considerable compression is taking place along its concave belly at the time of drawing. The danger is that the tension might break the back or that compression may pinch the material of the belly of the bow, causing it to crystallize. A multitude of little transverse cracks may appear at midpoint of the belly, and if there is a knot there, severe compression will wear away its core, causing it to collapse. Such a knot must be protected by leaving a small hump around its core but the innate resiliency of the material is a key factor. Homer frequently applied the epithet παλιντονος‚ palintonos,which signifies the recurving nature of the horn bow when unstrung, where the horns regain their natural shape. This word best translates as 'reflex', a return to the original condition. When one considers the enormity of pulling the limbs of such a bow into a fully opposite curve at the time of stringing and drawing the bow, it becomes easier to appreciate the great stresses of tension and compression that accompany what is often a brilliant cast. A bow with very fast cast is difficult to control but its potential power is great. Overbalancing one factor at the expense of another results in inefficiency. Indeed it might be said that "archery is a matter of eternal compromise". Tension is fundamentally basic to the symbol of the bow and is just as relevant to the great weapon of Shiva as to the Homeric warrior's bow. Heraclitus related the tension of the drawn bow to the spiritual life-force which, in its very preparedness, hearkens back to an original condition.

 That capable of producing the first vibrations of the Word must be an original state which is mirrored in the potential pranava within every person. For every individual this utterance is distinct, as in each bow. Man's complex karma is like laminae or grafted staves which are never combined in precisely the same way, and one's resiliency and hidden strength remain a mystery until one is drawn out to the fullest. It is only then that it is discovered whether a person is like the best bows which assert their full weight at the last inch or so of draw. Within the central section of every bow there is a longitudinal neutral layer which is neither under tensile nor compression strain, and so it is with man. The difficulty is indeed that this beam of homogeneous material which simply flexes is of no use if the back or the belly of the bow cracks or breaks. Thus while everyone possesses an analogous neutral beam which passes through one's own centre of gravity, it is of little avail if one becomes overwhelmed with mental or physical tension, or turns in upon oneself so as to compress some bitterness or sorrow into a knot of human anguish. Perhaps the name of Shiva's bow, 'the eternal unborn ox', Ajagava, refers to the neutral layer and the horn and sinew of the animal which was to be his vahan. Though largely a theoretical conception, the neutral layer is present in every bow like an unborn line stretching from nock to nock very much like a silver spine which is flexed but relaxed. It is not difficult to imagine this bow within the grip of a person's hand or even within the torso, curving up to the base of the head.

 Just as every blemish in the material of the bow must be corrected and allowed for rather than concealed, so too with anyone who would prepare to become a vehicle for the pranava. All the karmic knots and cross-grains in one's character must be neutralized and one should resist every temptation to cover them up. Like a cosmetically beautiful but inwardly brittle or flabby bow, a person will crack or drop out of the endeavour if one persists in merely looking good to others. If one overprotects oneself or is unwisely pampered by others, one may fail to develop the toughness required "to carry on with the real burdens". The toughness and the resilience come not from standing out against all opposition but from weathering storms and eking out a life from the rocks and crevices of circumstances. Like the wise bamboo used in the Japanese bow, a wise man or woman learns to bow with the wind but always retains the power ofπαλιντονοςand never forgets their original nature. The widespread prevalence of back trouble in modern society may well reflect a self-protectiveness and a lack of spontaneous resilience which many primitive or poor people in the world possess as a result of their more difficult, demanding and unpredictable lives. Either the back of our bow is brittle or we tend to draw it impatiently in egotistic efforts. It is possible that the compressive forces causing crystallization in the belly of the bow are reflected in modern man's alimentary problems, the inability to assimilate food and smoothly distribute the action of digestion and elimination so that there is no harshness or imbalance.

As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto man is woman.
Though she bends him, she obeys him,
Though she draws him, yet she follows,
Useless each without the other.

Song of Hiawatha

 The string, because it follows the bow, is in many cultures likened to its feminine aspect, and a good string is said to have maximum strength with minimum bulk. While it is crucial as a demonstration of resiliency, it must not itself stretch at all. Good strings are tensile and sing like harp-strings when plucked by hand or tapped with an arrow. They are like the strings of an instrument which are expected to produce a pure and true melody. If a bowstring is weak it can endanger the bow, for if it breaks at the point of full draw, the drawn limbs have nothing to restrain them and will fly past their initial position of rest. The force of this places them in a badly reflex position in which the bow will almost always break. When not strung on the bow, the bowstring should be coiled up and waxed before being restrung so as to minimize the tendency to fray or become brittle to the point of breakage. When Longfellow took his ideas about Hiawatha from the Iroquois, he was able to convey a natural symbiotic relationship in his poem. This seems to have come naturally to most people in the world, and many are the stories handed down in myth and song that tell of the significant role played by a woman at the time when her husband was in a critical (fully drawn) position relative to some enterprise or other.

 Whosoever picks up the bow and makes archery a way of life will experience a long series of ups and downs. In the Zen tradition this is called Nana korobi Ya oki, 'Seven times down, Eight times up'. When each of the Seven Ways of the Warrior, Bushido, is attempted, myriad factors come into play and, like the complex balancing of variables encountered in making a bow, they must be mastered in fluidic conjunction with one another. When the Bushido novice becomes overly ambitious in regard to one aspect of his training or anxious about another, he is out of balance and the stresses will be reflected in the action of the bow. The neutral layer which corresponds to the centre of gravity within his abdomen cannot exert its stabilizing power when overshadowed by superfluous activity related to the forces of tension and compression. "Those who practise the way of the warrior ideally seek to overcome the most tenacious fears in the human heart", that of suffering and of dying. In this striving the ego and its futile attachment to life are reduced to nothing, and one lives intensely in the moment. The Zen masters say that "you find your own character at the moment of shooting", and this is linked up with the bow never knowing when the arrow is to go. Once the arrow is released, the archer at once reaches Zanshin, a calm reflective state of mind, and the ultimate goal of Bushido. How different this seems from the assertive pronouncement made in the sixteenth century by Roger Ascham. Indeed the purpose of shooting is to hit the mark, but which mark? How does one hit an invisible mark and why may a Zen master tell the novice that he has hit it when his arrow has missed the physical target?

 Kama, who poignantly paid his karmic debts by dying in the Mahabharatan field under the onslaught of Arjuna's Gandiva bow, placed his full trust in a deeper aim when he said: "Radheya (Kama) will never change the aim once it has been taken. It is not befitting a good archer to send a companion arrow thinking the first will fail." Contemplating such a proud but noble statement, one becomes deeply impressed in realizing the power and total mastery that must have been his. Such a warrior must have possessed exacting knowledge of his inner command over his outer weapon and his bow must have curved as a veritable arc of his own will, a complete and commanding statement of his innermost goal. If Karna made mistakes in his life and had failed to penetrate the highest spiritual mark, it was significant that Krishna alone could affect his death through the total devotion of Arjuna. The great nobility of the Surya Kshatriya was fully noticed by Krishna, but as a Sage whose conscious essence is the highest spiritual mark of Brahman itself, he could not be swayed from asserting the necessity of destroying all lesser devotions and targets.

 The bow is called the great weapon of the Upanishad and is "that which destroys ignorance and produces liberation". Thus did Arjuna's greater wisdom act through his kingly Gandiva bow to destroy the ignorance represented by Karna and a host of lesser foes. The true Kshatriya must raise the bow, bringing it and the gaze around squarely to face the target. As he sights it along his forearm, the left of the bow cuts the target into a half moon. Thus he perceives the goal, poised midway between manifestation and dissolution, caught at that hair's breadth that divides day from night, being from non-being. The target of Brahman is only glimpsed in that transcendent point between the pairs of opposites, and the archer must mark the point with his bow, with the inner sound of the Word that begins to rise within him. In line with this, there must be a perfect balance between the bow hand and the draw hand, and he must always keep his left arm and bowstring straight while his head remains on centre. The pranava rising up from the cave of the heart in echo to the universal utterance of the Aum from above must be held steady in the breath before its release. If the novice would avoid the kick or harshness that can spoil the perfect sounding, if he would avoid the cracking and splintering of tone, then will he master the steadiness of holding the breath like the bow at full draw. When the bow is held correctly at full draw before the release of the arrow, the breath takes on a mystical quality and enters into the bow itself. In the perfect sounding of the pranava the life-breath enters into the Word.

 The Spirit (Shinki) is linked to the target by the union of man, bow and arrow. A Zen master of the bow would typically indicate to a novice the noble form which the weapon assumes when it is strung and which appears even more dramatically when it is drawn. He is taught that "when drawn to its full extent, the bow encloses the 'All' in itself and that is why it is important to learn to draw it properly". When the bowstring flies back at release, it emits a deep thrumming which is unforgettable once heard. The thrumming inner bow is not easy to grasp at first, and the 'Seven times down, Eight times up' is only achieved by the warrior-novice who is willing to spend years, perhaps lives, in apprenticeship. The grasp he must achieve involves an inner balance of Buddhi and Manas and an unwavering sighting of the transcendent target. At this stage the warrior is either fully in the Word or outside it. He is running the risk of Pandarus or Karna who, even while drawing their bows in its utterance, unleashed against themselves the incinerating power of Shiva's unerring eye which scorches all that is not directly in line with its focus. Any wavering or loss of this higher focus will be instantly echoed in the bow, in the utterance of the Word. To avoid this the mind must be as calm as a shoreless lake and the breath must move in and out as smoothly as the wax upon the bowstring, rendering itself ever ready, ever relaxed and ever in tune with the bow.

 The shape of the drawn bow is like the quarter of a circle whose midpoint marks the grip of the draw hand. It symbolizes man in the world, enveloped in his material quaternary whilst attempting to aim his spiritual bow towards a greater mark. The target lies as a point within a full circle and symbolizes the way to Brahman. It is as though the quarter of the circle of the drawn human bow is a triangle aspiring towards the fullness of the All, It is the triadic spark within man, drawn to its fullest, poised, conscious only of the mark, only of its longing to merge with the One. It is the spark from above which is mirrored in the flame kindled by the bow-drill or pramantha in the sacred sacrifice wherein the lower is raised up to its source. When the arrow leaves, the bow becomes perfectly calm like the crescent moon on Shiva's brow that symbolizes an awakening to the Noumenon and embodies the purity and coolness of the newly born. The bow rests, the Word has been uttered and the arrow pierces the target unveiling the blazing eye of Spirit in Shiva's brow.