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Reconstructing the Tantric Body (Part II)

Updated: Jun 4

The Body as Mantra

One of the most ubiquitous concepts found among Tantras is the correlation between the body and mantras. Tantras equate the deity with mantras and assign specific phonemes as different limbs of the deity. Tantric visualizations depend on the practitioner identifying his body with mantras and thus also with the divine body. Expanding on the concept that the world is the materialization of speech, found in seminal form in the Vedic literature, Tantras describe the world as an expression of Mātr̥kās, the term used to denote both the Sanskrit phonemes and the mother deities. In these presentations, deities and their mantras become interchangeable and the image becomes the representation of the inner/real body of the deity that is comprised of mantras. Furthermore, the term mūrti is often used in Tantras to refer to this very sonic body of the deity. This concept is explicit in Kubjikāmatatantra passages, such as “the goddess born of the sixteen syllables.…She is Mālinī.…She is Maheśvarī whose body is made of mantras” (17.76cd–84). These “Mothers” are aligned with Sanskrit letters and segmented into eight groups. The most external square in the maṇḍala is surrounded by these Mātr̥kās, associated with their Bhairava consorts.

Historically, Mātr̥kās may have evolved in different contexts and been assigned different roles. When these deities are invoked in Tantras, they follow particular structural patterns that rely on Sanskrit phonemes with specific roles. The Śivasūtra relates to Mātr̥kās as the foundation of cognition that arises when the self qua consciousness is manifest and confined in objects (see 1.4, 2.3–7). Kṣemarāja’s etymology of Mātr̥kā as the unrecognized mothers/matrices (ajñātā mātā) (1.4) relates to the rise of mantras in the state when self-awareness is confined. Mātr̥kās and their Bhairava consorts are always visualized and invoked together, and when Mātr̥kās describe the extrovert state of consciousness, Bhairavas relate to the sudden rise of spontaneous self-reflexive awareness (1.5). The same text affirms that the esoteric aspect of mantra is the expression of the awareness that the body is comprised of vidyā (see 2.3). The correlation between deities such as Māheśvarī with groups of phonemes is common in Tantras (see 3.19; see also Prapañcasāratantra 1.1). This threefold recognition of the identity between mantras, deities, and the aspirant’s body is essential to the visualization of images.

The concept that the power in mantras is inherent to these Mātr̥kas means that deities and mantras are interchangeable. The visualized forms are thus the very mantras incarnate. When the maṇḍala of a deity is visualized, each of the phonemes of the mantra of the central deity emanates as a separate deity. Every deity is therefore the concentration of various deities within. Due to the complex arrangement of these phonemes in maṇḍalas, the deity images vary. Even the very order in which the phonemes are laid out makes for a difference in visualization. For instance, the popular order of the phonemes from a to h is identified as the Mātr̥kā order and the order of phonemes from n to ph is identified as the Mālinī sequence. Deities corresponding to each of the phonemes are visualized differently in these two groups. Since the phonemes are the blueprint of the mantras and the imagery of the central deity relies on the collection of specific letters in particular mantras, the visualization of the deity varies according to the structure in which the mantra is read.

In the ritual of nyāsa (an installation of phonemes and mantras), select letters are installed in different limbs of the aspirant’s body. This installation supposedly transforms the physical body into the mantric body, allowing the aspirant to tangibly feel the presence of the deity. In addition to installing distinct letters, the ritual culminates with the graphic installation of the words and complete mantras. Just as a single body in this depiction is the collection of various mantras, so also is the deity. This ritual correlation of the deity to specific syllables, colors and body parts gives rise to complex imagery, and the image of the deity represents various divinities, each comprised of different arrangements of the mantras.

Maṇḍala as an Integral System

Both the maṇḍalic representation of deities and the ritual sacrifices taking place on altars that can be considered as maṇḍalas are very ancient. The Vedic Śulvasūtras and Saṁhitās outline these constructions. Likewise, the early literature demonstrates a detailed focus on the construction of these designs and their greater significance, often correlating the altar with the cosmos, the ritual order, the ritual calendar and the hymns that are used to invoke the deities. With Tantras, these geometric structures for ritual reach their culmination. What both the geometric designs and images share is a meticulous effort to map space and transform it from the mundane to the sacred. Since the ritual act of yajña is pivotal to this transformation, the concept of yajña underlies the mirroring of the cosmos within the altar. The subsequent rise of deity images replaces the early fire ritual and thus shares the same significance.

The blueprint for constructing the sacrificial altar, a temple, or a house is the Vāstu maṇḍala. Examination of this maṇḍala can shed light on the complex processes that undergird the conception of visualized space. The vertical and horizontal lines intersecting and making various squares is envisioned in this maṇḍala as the abode of deities, and if we read the Vāstu literature, we can glean the meaning assigned to these lines. For instance, Vāstusūtropaniṣad (2.9) describes how straight lines depict rays of light.

The complexity of the Vāstu ritual and its ubiquity in Vedic, Smārta, and Tantric literature indicates that it must have remained in practice over a very long period of time. Brahmā, hardly worshipped in popular Hinduism, is placed at the center of this maṇḍala, although some manuals invoke Vāstu as a deity alongside Brahmā. This ritual culminates with envisioning Vāstu as a person. The concept of Vāstupuruṣa, space imagined as a person, constitutes the heart of sacred architecture and transforms architecture into a living entity. This maṇḍala is all-inclusive: gods, demons, snakes, demi-gods, Vasus, and Dikpālas are all invoked within it. In Tantric maṇḍalas, while the Dikpālas remain intact, eight Mātr̥kās are invoked instead of eight Vasus. Besides the deities commonly invoked in popular Hinduism, various deities in the Vāstu maṇḍala come from early Vedic literature, suggesting the antiquity of this ritual.

In addition to the Vāstu texts detailing the proportion and location of deities in relation to other deities, they also address meaning. Vāstusūtropaniṣad is exemplary for providing insight into the architectural vision of these constructions. Although aphoristic, some crucial elements found in this text are relevant to our current investigation. The sacrificial post (yūpa) is crucial to the Vāstu imagery, and the central drop in the geometric maṇḍalas and the navel in an image maintain the same significance. Multiple references from the Vāstusūtropaniṣad affirm this relationship: “the sacrificial post is the light” (1.3); “the creation of an image starts from the navel” (2.10); “the drop (bindu) is the very Brahman, Brahman is eternal (dhruva)” (6.11).

In general, Tantras maintain that the many forms visualized in maṇḍalas are merely the expression of the powers inherent to the central deity. As the Yoginīhr̥daya states: “The cakra comes into being when the supreme energy, who assumes universal forms with her own will, sees her own expansion” (1.9cd–10ab). Accordingly, the deities in the periphery of the maṇḍala are conceived of as limbs of the central deity. This is congruent with the concept discussed earlier that the deity image is comprised of mantras. Since mantras are composed of different syllables and letters, the peripheral deities are these very syllables materialized.

Even the philosophical categories appear to have been arranged according to maṇḍalic symmetry. The twenty-five (5x5) principles of Sāṁkhyas and thirty-six (6x6) of the Śaiva Tantrics, for instance, can be found arranged in the form of a maṇḍala. Along the same lines, Sāṁkhya categories are sometimes organized in terms of eight prakr̥tis and sixteen vikr̥tis that reflect a maṇḍala. Tantric deities eight or sixteen arms resonate this framework. A triangle depicts prakr̥ti, the origin, and the triangular form of the yoni refers to the same Sāṁkhya concept of prakr̥ti as the balanced state of three qualities. In these representations, the symbolic forms explicitly mirror the philosophical structures.

The maṇḍalic representation of philosophical principles, shown as the abstraction of Sāṁkhya categories, culminates in the Tantric representation of thirty-six categories in a ritual of “self-worship” (ātma-pūjā). The maṇḍala for this ritual consists of the central drop, a triangle, a pentad, a circle, a lotus with four petals, four successive pentads, and a square. Eight Bhairavas and Mātr̥kās are worshipped in the square, and thirty-six Śaiva categories are visualized in the inner circles (Śrīvidyārṇavatantra, chapter 36). The eight manifest forms of Śiva (aṣṭamūrti) represent the same theme that the visualized deity images are the very elements in the body (chapter 31). In this conceptualization, elements such as earth, water, and fire are identified with the emanations of Śiva. The binary and reciprocal process of developing maṇḍalas based on Sāṁkhya and Śaiva categories and constituting the structure of categories in maṇḍalic form is foundational to the rise of various deity and geometric maṇḍalas.

In a shift from the Sāṁkhya paradigm, Tantras represent a monistic Worldview that identifies pure consciousness with Śiva. Tantras also describe the emergence and dissolution of the world in terms of the contraction (saṅkoca) and expansion (vikāsa) of the self/Śiva. The energies inherent to Śiva maintain the world order: the luminous white deities carry out the expansion of the world, and the dark and ferocious deities retract the externalized world to the self. Red deities depict the balanced state and represent sustaining energies. Although this imagery relies on the basic Sāṁkhya paradigm, Trika Śaivas add new meaning to it by adopting the philosophy of absolute reality as both immanent and transcendent.

Relying on the Krama philosophy that pure consciousness successively materializes in the form of the externals and returns to its primordial form and the identification made between pure consciousness and the central diety (Kālī, in this case), various goddesses in different layers of a maṇḍala describe the strata of externalization. Various groupings of deities, for example twelve Kālīs or sixteen Nityās, depict this very process of the emanation and retrieval of consciousness. For instance, the wheel of twelve Kālīs is segmented into three sub-sections that identify the triad of the subject of cognition (pramātr̥), the process of knowing (pramāṇa), and the object of cognition (prameya). The consciousness portrayed in the Krama system is dynamic, self-revealing, and endowed with powers. Since these powers are its inherent nature, it cannot dissociate itself from them. Recognizing the transcendent that is formless is thus to recognize it in its manifoldness. Tantras describe the sense organs as the divinities (karaṇadevyaḥ) being engaged with their respective objects. This effulgence of consciousness or the dynamism of energies inherent to it is the essence of Krama visualization.

There are two kramas: the sequence of time and the sequence of space. The sequence of time is displayed with particular modes of action, while the diversity of images portrays the sequence of space (Īśvarapratyabhijñākārika 2.1.5). The emanation of deities in a maṇḍala follows the same Krama philosophy, where the transcendent, when endowed with form, manifests first at the center and its emanations encircle the maṇḍala; the inner layers refer to higher states of awareness and the peripheral circles to the lower states. Krama thus facilitates a systematic gaze upon an otherwise inconceivable variety of images.

Without changing the early triadic structure, the Krama system lays out its symbolism with a reliance on the pentadic system. This system utilizes the early Śaivite depiction of Śiva with five faces: Sadyojāta, Vāmadeva, Aghora, Tatpuruṣa, and Īśāna. The symbolism of colors is vivid in this imagery, as these deities are successively visualized in white, red, black and yellow colors, and the final deity, Īśāna, is visualized in colorless form. What the Krama system does is add a new meaning to this sequence by relating it to the five aspects of awareness (cid), bliss (ānanda), volition (icchā), cognition (jñāna), and action (kriyā).

(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.")

Śrīyantra, the maṇḍala of Tripurasundarī

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