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Reconstructing the Tantric Body (Part I)

Tantric visualizations, similar to various other yogic meditations, are instrumental in facilitating the mind’s entry into varied forms of absorption, eventually liberating it from its habit patterns (saṁskāra). I will illustrate five key constituents of Tantric meditation that focus on transforming experiences regarding the body.

The Sāṁkhya system vividly describes in dualistic imagery the world order where two central categories of puruṣa and prakr̥ti are metaphorically related to two genders. Deviating from the Sāṁkhya paradigm of liberation where the self isolates itself (kaivalya) from prakr̥ti, Tantras use this imagery to depict their understanding of liberation in terms of the mingling (sāmarasya) of the binaries. The significance of the body becomes relevant in this reading, as the body is not only a consequence of the union of male and female aspects, but also a fusion of two polarities, as displayed in the image of Ardhanārīśvara. This androgynous image has been a center of attention for various scholars of Indian iconography.

While relying on early Sāṁkhya categories, the fundamental shift in Āgamas involves the centrality of the deity, identified as the highest principle (tattva), and this emphasis reciprocates the shift in meaning of Sāṁkhyan terms such as puruṣa and prakr̥ti to describe the polarity of the divine couple. The basic Sāṁkhya concept of three guṇas is expanded in Tantras, with the deified Prakr̥ti having the cosmic function of these guṇas through her triadic emanations. The Trika system adds a different layer of meaning, placing volition (icchā), cognition (jñāna) and action (kriyā) in the central triad, when the deity maṇḍala is inverted to describe self-awareness. The Sāṁkhyan prakr̥ti in this altered paradigm becomes the mother-goddess while being described as comprised of three guṇas, an appropriation that is not unique to Tantras, as other examples can be found also in Purāṇic literature. Deviating from the early dualistic model, this Prakr̥ti is also identified with pure consciousness (citi), the description previously limited to the transcendent self, or Puruṣa.

While adopting the Sāṁkhya concept of the transcendence of the self, the triadic depiction of divinity in Purāṇic/Tantric imagery also provides a monistic framework of the immanence of the self. In one Purāṇic depiction, the primordial Mahālakṣmī is comprised of all three guṇas. She herself fills the empty space by assuming the form of Mahākālī. When she takes on this form by the power of mere darkness (tamas), this image is identified as Mahāmāyā. In this emanation, she is also addressed by other names such as “Epidemic,” “Hunger,” “Thirst,” “Slumber” and “Craving.” Mahālakṣmī assumes yet another form of pure sattva, resulting in Mahāsarasvatī. Among the names given to her, the significant ones are “Great Wisdom,” “Great Speech,” “Speech” and the “Mistress of Wisdom” (Prādhānikarahasya 4–16). Based on the Sāṁkhya notion of three guṇas, the three shades red, dark and white are successively and convincingly assigned to rajas, tamas and sattva. The Purāṇas and Tantras expand on this and bring these primordial energies to life. In this process, abstract concepts gain corporeality, allowing graphic representation in a myriad of forms. The emanation of the triadic deities to form a maṇḍala is vivid in the Purāṇic literature.

Tantras shift meaning while adopting early categories, and add new categories that modify meaning without altering the image. For instance, while adopting the Sāṁkhya assignment of colors, Tantras introduce a new triad of volition (icchā), cognition (jñāna) and action (kriyā) that is central to the decipherment of the imagery of Parā, Parāparā and Aparā. All visualizations of Parā depict her as luminous white. Her ornaments, clothes, and posture display sattva and by extension volition: she is sitting on top of a lotus, wearing the crescent moon, holding counting beads or a book. The red Parāparā and dark Aparā relate to the highest manifestation of rajas and tamas, as well as representing the cosmic emanation of cognition and action. It is evident that, without displacing early imagery, the Trika system assigns new meaning that fits within their monistic paradigm. In this new depiction of energies, they are not mutually exclusive, but are rather the emanations of the self, identified with pure bliss and awareness (cidānanda). While the Tantric triads —such as that of Parā, Parāparā and Aparā or their consorts, Bhairavasadbhāva, Ratiśekhara and Navātman — rely on Trika cosmology and have been deciphered following the monistic worldview, this understanding emerges without discrediting the early Sāṁkhya symbolism of guṇas.

The above description is the basis of the concept that Tantric images and philosophical systems are inherently interconnected. Visualization is thus not possible without the awareness of this background. Bringing philosophies to life through visual images introduces the body to discourse, and this process culminates with an embodied cosmology. Additionally, although the theme of the imagery may be universal, the depiction may be quite specific. What is an image of compassion or passion? If we were to create an image of wisdom, what would it look like? While these experiences transcend cultural boundaries, it is unlikely that all cultures will come up with Bodhisattva images for depicting compassion; Rati, Kāmadeva or Kāmeśvarī images for passion; or Prajñāpāramita for wisdom. Lacking awareness of the literary culture compromises even the aesthetic experience of these images.

Vedic texts such as Śatapathabrāhmaṇa establish the link between the ritual sacrifice and the cosmic Puruṣa (for instance, In these depictions, ritual objects parallel the limbs of Puruṣa which are in turn mirrored within the human body and the body is at the center of contemplation. Knowing the ways in which the body has been viewed is thus essential for understanding the meaning of images. Common understandings grounding the conceptual body can be summarized in five essential concepts: (i) The body of the deity is comprised of mantras. (ii) The deity emanates in the form of the maṇḍala. Thus the body of the deity is the maṇḍala itself. (iii) The human body is a temple (deha-devagr̥ha). (iv) The human body is identical to the cosmos (piṇḍa-brahmāṇḍa). (v) The body is an expression of bliss and awareness (cidānanda).

(to be continued...)

(Excerpts re-adapted from Ācārya Sthaneshwar Timalsina's article "Reconstructing the Tantric Body: Elements of the Symbolism of the Body in the Monistic Kaula and Trika Tantric Traditions.")

Mahākālī, Mahālakṣmī, Mahāsarasvatī

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