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Reconstructing the Tantric Body (Part III)

The Body as a Temple

The iconic representation of the divine underlies the principle that the body is an altar. This act of portraying the body in an elevated state contrasts with negative depictions of it. The language that is used to describe the body and the rituals directed towards shifting cultural presuppositions and creating an altered vision both warrant closer scrutiny.


Let us examine a few of the terms that are used to denote the body. The term tanū is derived from √tanū vistāre, meaning “to expand.” The Vedic hymns refer to Rudra as having auspicious (śivā) and terrifying (aghora) bodies, and the term used here is tanū. The term kāya is derived from √ciñ cayane, meaning the locale where the entities are accreted. Etymologically, “body” thus refers to an entity that expands and accumulates. This expression of the expansive and collective nature of the body comes from the Vedas and culminates in Tantric literature, which shifts the perspective given by the term śarīra, derived from √śṝ as something that breaks up or disintegrates.


Analysis of the term puruṣa allows us to understand the ways in which the embodied self is envisioned in classical India. Etymologically, the term refers to “that which fills” (pūrayate). Following another understanding, puruṣa is “due to being in the beginning” (Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 1.23.4). Rather than describing the embodied self, these two terms indicate that Puruṣa encompasses both time and space. This pervasiveness of “person” highlights both transcendence and immanence, where the cosmic Puruṣa pervades the earth and extends beyond it (R̥gveda 10.90.1). In these depictions, the term Puruṣa refers to both the embodied self and the cosmic being that encompasses the totality. While Puruṣa is an embodied self, it is also the divine, addressed as Puruṣottama or Tatpuruṣa. The Vedic depiction of the body as “the unassailable city of gods has eight cakras and nine gates” (Atharvaveda 10.2.31) and the expanded notion of Puruṣa as encompassing the totality are vibrant in Tantric ritual visualizations.


The body as the “field” (kṣetra) reflects the same meaning. The Br̥haddevetā (4.40) describes the parallel between the body and kṣetra in the most direct terms: the body associated with the senses is called kṣetra. The Bhagavadgītā also explicitly identifies that “this body is called as kṣetra” (13.2). In the same text, kṣetra appears as a collective name that refers to consciousness and emotions (13.6). Thus the body and what is felt within the body are both identified by the term kṣetra. This is crucial to understanding the esoteric meaning of kṣetra as the ritual field visualized in Tantric literature as both geographic planes and bodily centers.


The body conceived of as a temple affirms the same concept. If we read the terms used to describe a Hindu temple, it becomes clear that the temple is perceived as a body, most often a human body. As the visualized body has its foundation in a lotus (mūlādhāra-cakra), so also is the temple built on the support of a lotus. The cosmic pillar, most likely made of bamboo in ancient times to depict different sheaths as the name veṇukośa suggests, is the spinal cord in the human body, with different cakras as the centers where the deities reside. The walls of a temple, identified as “cage” (pañjara), are identical to the girth of the body as the cage that confines the embodied self (jīva) within. In this metaphoric depiction, the five elements act as tapestries that adorn the temple’s wall-frieze, and the term used to denote this is “thigh” (jaṅghā). The inner sanctum of the temple, the womb-house (garbha-gr̥ha), explicitly suggests the embryonic stage (Meister 1995: 123–25).


The Mahārthamañjarī describes the relation between the body and the altar in the following terms: “The instrumental deities pulsate in the altar, in one’s own body that is identical to the cosmos. The supreme Śiva, the ocean of awareness, also pulsates in the midst of them” (34). It explains why the body is equated with an altar: “Sperm is the supreme [essence] originated of the mingling of the expansion of both Śiva and Śakti. The great seat, the very body, is originated of it” (cited in Maheśvarānanda’s commentary, Parimala, on Mahārthamañjarī 37).


In an attempt to identify the body with a maṇḍala, Mahārthamañjarī first relates the sense organs to the “instrumental deities” (karaṇa devī), the energies that are necessary to manifest the world. Within this system, the supreme deity Śiva is identical to the self and pure consciousness. Due to this relation, the functioning of the senses in grasping the externals is paralleled with the expression of Śiva’s energies in giving rise to the world. The term devī applies to both the self-effulgent deities in the maṇḍala and the auto-reflexive nature of consciousness. The ocean metaphor evokes the concept that the senses are like waves touching the shores of their corresponding objects. The text is explicit that “the very body is the primary altar” (Parimala on Mahārthamañjarī 34), and this is congruent with the view that the body is a maṇḍala, where the center stands for the self and the surrounding circles describe inner and external senses.


When the body is conceived of as an altar, the somatic functions are identified as ritual worship of the deity:


He is to be worshipped there with the nectar of the sense objects, the drink of the virile ones, [enriched] with the fragrance underlying the flowers of self-awareness [offered] in the cup of the mind (Mahārthamañjarī 35).

The embodied emotions are what is felt in this cognitive process. The text is explicit that the nectar, while a singular element, is manifest in the forms of fear, grief, and delight (Parimala on Mahārthamañjarī 35). The supreme deity, or consciousness, is revealed in its engagement with objects through sensory contact, and when in emotional experiences, the self is immediately grasped. Ritual worship in this paradigm is the self-awareness present in the active engagement of consciousness in the world.


When explaining why the body is identified as an altar, Maheśvarānanda elaborates that “the supreme Lord is carried in the very body in five-fold ways” (Parimala on Mahārthamañjarī 37). The five-fold effulgence of the self is described in Mahārthamañjarī in terms of the five cakras of Vāmeśvarī, Khecarī, Dikcarī, Gocarī, and Bhūcarī. Pure consciousness, with the entire manifestation dormant within it, is identified here with Vāmeśvarī. Among the remaining energies, Khecarī describes the subjective state of awareness that gives rise to ego; Dikcarī, along the same lines, refers to the awareness conditioned in the form of the inner senses; Gocarī relates to the consciousness arising in the external senses; and Bhūcarī corresponds to the consciousness manifesting in the form of the external entities. The five states of consciousness—awareness, bliss, volition, cognition and action—are successively envisioned here as the goddess maṇḍala with Kālasaṅkarṣiṇī at the center.


In Kaula practices, contemplation centers upon the body. Since a maṇḍala is an emanation of the central deity and the body of the practitioner is equated with that of the divinity, somatic activities are equated with the cosmic play of Śiva in manifesting and retrieving the world. The image of a body encodes these meanings, and visualization activates these understandings.


The identification of the body with a maṇḍala exemplifies the etymological meaning of tanu (body) as that which expands. In this visualization practice, the central deity in the maṇḍala is identified with the self and the peripheral deities, which in turn are considered to be the limbs of the central deity, are equated with the limbs of the practitioner. This identification process is common to all visualization, and select examples suffice to describe the process.


Śrīvidyā texts, such as the Yoginīhr̥daya and the Kāmakalāvilāsa, provide a sequential description of the body of Tripurā, the central deity, which parallels the emanation of the maṇḍala. In this visualization, the central drop is the abode of Kāmeśvarī. The expansion of the drop into the geometric maṇḍala parallels the emanation of the central deity surrounded by her family. The Kāmakalāvilāsa (36) utilizes the term pariṇatā (transformed), suggesting the reality of what has been transformed. The model of emanation described in Kāmakalāvilāsa 36 is significant, as the surrounding deities in the maṇḍala are considered to be the limbs of the central deity. The first triadic emanation of the deity in the forms of Kāmeśvarī, Vajreśvarī, and Bhagamālinī describes the innermost triangle of Śrīcakra that also signifies the balanced state of three guṇas (39). The eight triangles surrounding the central triangle are considered to be the eight subtle limbs (puryaṣṭaka)—five sense faculties, mind (manas), buddhi, and I-sense (ahaṁkāra)—of the goddess (40). The next circle, comprised of ten triangles, is described as the field of the sense-faculties and their orientation towards objects. The deities residing in the next circle which is also comprised of ten triangles are considered to be emanations of the sense faculties and motor organs of the goddess (42). The deities abiding in the next circle which is comprised of fourteen triangles are considered to be emanations of fourteen faculties—five motor organs, five sense organs, mind (manas), cognition (buddhi), consciousness (citta), and I-sense (ahaṁkāra)—of the deity. The circle comprised of eight petals is identified as the emanation of the five tanmātrās (form, taste, smell, touch and sound), the unmanifest (avyakta) synonymous with prakr̥ti, cognition (mahat) and the I-sense (ahaṁkāra) (44). The lotus with sixteen petals outside of this circle is considered the emanation of the central goddess in the form of Kāmākarṣiṇī, and so on. Five elements such as earth, along with the ten senses and motor faculties, and the mind, are collectively identified as the sixteen constituents of the goddess, transformed into this circle (45). Various gestures and the deities associated with these gestures are related to the external gates of the maṇḍala (46). This visualization not only confirms that the deities surrounding the maṇḍala are the limbs of the central deity, but also affirms that the visualized body is the collective mass of the deities.


Following the maṇḍala metaphor where the peripheral deities are the emanation of the deity at the center, the body is the material expansion of the self. In a deity maṇḍala, the peripheral deities mirror the qualities of the central deity. For instance, the deities in Śrīcakra resemble the central deity, Tripurā. Their red color symbolizes passion. They imitate Tripurā in their garments and gestures, and most hold the same weapons. The same is the case with Vajravārāhī maṇḍala. Here, the central deity has the face of a boar, and many deities in the periphery have the faces of animals or birds. Just as the central deity is depicted as young and passionate, so also are the deities in the surrounding circles. In these emanations, the central motif of the deity is constant in all manifestations of the deities in the maṇḍala. Particular emotions are materialized in the visualized body, as the deities in iconic forms express various psychological states.


(To be continued...)


(Excerpts 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.")



Mīnākṣī Amman Temple


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