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Lord Amr̥teśa and the Tantric paradigms of healing and disease

A consideration of Tantric paradigms of healing and disease in the worship of Lord Amr̥teśa, according to Netra Tantra

The highest goal of the Tantras is liberation through self-realisation. In the non-dual Tantric paradigm, this process is described in terms of self-recognition (pratyabhijñā). In the state of realisation, the practitioner experiences himself as Śiva, the supreme divinity. This transformed self-experience reverses the early Sāṅkhya paradigm that relies on the binary of Puruṣa and Prakr̥ti, where the first stands for the self-identical to consciousness and the latter to the three guṇas that transform into the material world. Instead of three guṇas, the Āyurveda system follows three doṣas or bodily humours that cause disease when imbalanced. These two concepts are essential in discourse with the Tantric paradigm. Although the initial outlook here is Sāṅkhyan, with the spirits and deities embodying guṇas, the Tantric paradigm of balancing the forces of the natural world parallels the Āyurvedic system of balancing doṣas. This textual ethnography allows us to read indigenous belief systemsin dialogue with the philosophies developed within the same culture.

(...) The cosmos of Netra Tantra is populated by spirits, and in this sense, is identical to other Shamanic worldviews. Some of these spirits inflict disease whereas others heal them. The body, in this paradigm, is an open system in which deities and spirits cavort and reside. The ritual healing technique relies on the construction of a ‘conceptual body’ that is superimposed upon and considered as identical to the phenomenal body. The pivotal concept underlying this healing is the integral relationship between the mind and body. The ritually constructed body, identified as the ‘mantra-body’, remains central throughout the entire healing process, and mantric speech functions as bodily armour (kavaca). One can make a distinction between shamanic and Tantric healing in the sense that the Tantric healing that relies on inviting select deities into the body and blocking unwanted spirits also aims to transform self-awareness, hitherto confined within the body, to the cosmic awareness that emmbraces the totality. This leads to the argument that the healing process, initiated with bodily healing, culminates with self-recognition (pratyabhijñā). In this reversed paradigm, the ailing body is healed through the transformation of self-awareness.

(...) Tantric healing, in this light, reconfigures the orientation of matrices (mātr̥kā) that limit and cause suffering into alignment with the vision of the identification between the self, the cosmos, and Śiva. This also relates disease imprinted in the flesh to the mind. When the body is viewed as mirroring the cosmos in this inverted paradigm, the energies that unite or yoke (Yoginīs) and abide in different realms are invited to reside in the body. Deities thus have both the microcosmic and cosmic functions of residing in the individual body or in the body of Śiva (that being the cosmos).

(...) Creation, in the Tantric depiction, is under the domain of disease and death. This creation is both ontological, with S´iva manifesting as the world, and epistemic, with individuals perceiving distinction and separation between the self and the other. Tantras fuse these epistemic and ontological realities with the assignment of deities that carry out the functions of limiting and confining the individual’s perceived reality within the body. Bondage and the diseases that empower bondage are, in this view, maintained by these deities that reside within the body of Śiva. Yoginas, Mātr̥kās, and other subordinate deities found at both the cosmic and individual levels, themselves being in the intermediate realm of speech and comprised of mantras, interact with the individual’s mind and body, affecting only those who have false notions regarding oneself.

The self, as described in Tantras, refers to both reflexive awareness and the cosmic presence that embodies all that exists. In light of this understanding, the constraints imposed on self-awareness, or the misidentification of the self as confined and suffering, result in limiting one’s will, one’s cognitive faculties, and eventually one’s actions. The central argument found in Netra Tantra is that, due to these impositions upon the self, the deities abiding in different realms within the body react, as their unbound flow with the central deity or the self is somewhat blocked in this process of misidentification. Diseases, in this depiction, are the consequence of the objective thirst that is governed by Yoginīs and other spirits. While the role given to these spirits is not flattering, Tantras explain that these deities simply carry out their role of ‘recycling’ and thus are being gracious by releasing individuals from their vicious acts. While the final riddance to disease and deathin this paradigm is one’s recognition of oneself as Śiva, Tantras provide rituals and mantras to communicate with these deities. These mantras also function as tools to expel the deities in certain cases and please them in others. Mantras and rituals oriented towards these deities, following this cosmology, release the supplicant from the debilitating effects of their own actions. This understanding, while relating healing to the apparently magical effects of rituals, also describes the elevated level of self-awareness that is integral to complete healing, and relates self-knowledge to healing.

Cultures are written upon the canvas of the body. It is through the medium of the body that cultures speak, whether visually in the form of tattoos or conceptually through the mental constructs regarding disease and healing. Whether the visceral experiences are masked or revealed, the subject body is in dialogue with culture through the text written upon the body. Tantric healing, rather than being immediately directed to the flesh, is navigated through a constructed body. The speech act of uttering mantras and their ritual application is an instrument that binds the mental and the physical. Whether through ritual installation (nyāsa) of the syllables, or invoking various deities to protect the limbs through ritual shielding (kavaca), the immediate bodily awareness is transformed to meet the envisioned body. Healing rituals in many regards resemble both initiation rites and everyday Tantric practices, as they are directed towards transforming bodily awareness. The flesh, while remaining in the background, is the recipient of the transforming awareness, for the healing experience is visceral and not merely conceptual. In this depiction, body is the distillation of motor energies, cognitive energies found in the act of awareness, and the energies inherent to the self or the reflexive aspect of consciousness. The deities in a triad—representing volition (icchā), knowledge (jñāna), and action (kriyā) — describe the engagement of the self in the world, as these energies are dormant to the self qua Śiva. Just as the motor energy is the materialisation of will, the body, along the same lines, is crystallised desire. Tantric practice thus aims to transform the mental orientation in order to shift one’s corporeality.

A term frequently used in Tantras to refer to the body is piṇḍa, or ‘mass’, and this identification projects the cosmos (brahmāṇḍa) onto the body. Whether as the flesh or as the constructed body, this ‘mass’ is always changing. Tantras bring to the fore the immediately felt awareness of the body that becomes all the more acute at the juncture of illness. Tantras utilise this sense of limit as a starting point, aspiring to transform limited bodily awareness to collective consciousness. The concept that disease and death are linked only to the confined bodily awareness and not to the cosmic consciousness is what the Tantrics credit for a paradigm shift that grants a healing experience.

In the alternative Tantric perspective of the body, the subject and object domains are merged, and the body is not dissociated from the discourse of the self. This opens up a new paradigm for the interconnectedness between mind and body. This Tantric position deviates from earlier dualistic tendencies. Although the non-dual Tantras adopt a reductionist approach to reach to the core of consciousness as the ultimate reality, this reduction differs from that of the Advaitins, since in this monistic paradigm, the world or the body is the very expression of divinity or consciousness. While both reject dualism, Tantras assign the root of suffering, disease, and death common to all the sentient beings to the lack of non-dual awareness. As maintained by the Tantrics, the ‘recognised’-self, while remaining the ‘absolute observer’, is also the absolute observed and the ground of observation. Furthermore, what is sensed, the body, is not distinct from what is ‘sensing’, the domain that involves the perceptual field. The visualised body felt by a practitioner, thus, is the conduit to the somatic and the precognitive.

As mentioned above, Tantras utilise a distinct mode of language, mantras, as an intersection of the subjective and objective horizons. Mantra is thus recognised as the bridge between the self and the flesh. In Tantric terminology, just as our sense organs become active to grasp the objects, mantras evolve as a separate organ that relates to the body through the breath. This position echoes the phenomenological description of language as an element of incarnation, or the comparison of learning a new word with acquiring a new sense organ. The interaction through mantra, in the Tantric paradigm, links the two bodies where one, the given, is ailing and aging, and the other, the envisioned, is perfect. Cognition, intrinsically linguistic in nature, embodies the force that cuts through duality and saturates the object body with the properties envisioned in the subject body. Mantras are thus considered living and breathing; this is language incarnate, and to engage with mantras is to open an inter-subjective dialogue. Just like human subjects, mantras do not exist simply to refer to something. This visceral depiction of mantras makes the interaction with speech tangible, with mantras having the ability for somatic imprint.

(...) The lived aspect of language, its carnal role, becomes graphic in Tantras, with specific mantras emanating their corporeal forms. The deities, in this depiction, are speech. This specific form of speech not only engages the self and transforms one’s cognitive domain but also interacts with corporeality. At least, Tantric healing relies on this premise. The plasticity of the body is vivid not only in the Tantras that depict it as the constellation of various energies, but also in the Upaniṣadic portrayal of the three bodies or five sheaths that comprise corporeality. Tantric mannalas as the emanation of Śiva’s body or the myths suggesting various Yoginīs, Bhairavas, and Kālīs emanating out of Śiva’s limbs, all reconfirm the same theme that the body is a constellation of living energies in speech form. The collection of deities that break the boundary between outside and inside and that roam freely in the cosmic planes as well as within the body, gives a higher role to speech, as these deities are summoned, praised, pleased, or expelled with the use of mantras.

Yoginīs interact in various systems within the body. Bhūcarī refers to the group of Yoginīs that relate to motor organs and influence corporeality. Dikcarī refers to another group of deities that interacts with inner organs. Gocarīs interact with the mind and with senses. Khecarīs dwell in the void of consciousness. Vāmeśvarī initiates the outward flow of consciousness that gives rise to limited subjective identities and is also at the source of highest realisation. Tantras depict these Yoginīs as the bridge from one lived experience to another. When all these deities exert their unbound powers within the body and in their cosmic realms, one remains identical to Śiva, and the practitioner’s bodily awareness lacks the sense of suffering. When the self-experience is confined, the Yoginīs find themselves limited, and disease is a corporeal imprint of their discontent.

Tantras prescribe two sets of acts to be carried out by these deities. The Yoginīs, literally those who unite, relate different strata of corporeality and selfexperience, while Mātr̥kās, literally the ‘matrices’, define the boundaries. Interestingly, these energies that give the sense of limit also refer to the phonemes. The vitality of these deities lies in the fluidity of one’s somatic experience and their notions regarding person. Just as Yoginīs roam from one to another realm of experience, Mātr̥kās accomplish both the engendering of bondage and liberation. Yoginīs are identified as governing physical substances (dhātunātha), with seven different deities successively presiding over flesh, blood, and other corporeal substances. Bodily change, not just disease and death but also aging, is assigned to the roles of Yoginīs and Mātr̥kās, and these deities affect living beings merely by their gaze. Tantric healing, in this sense, is a process of generating the cooling gaze that counteracts an evil gaze. The premise of this healing process is that the cosmos is populated with spirits that interact through speech, consume bodily fluids, and can be channelled through a select recitation of mantras. The body, accordingly, is not only a constellation of energies but also food for the energies that activate and inhabit them in their divine form. Since the focus of Tantric practice is not the flesh but bodily awareness, the healing effort is focused on altering the bodily sense in order to transform corporeality.

The root cause of suffering in this depiction is not knowing oneself as identical with Śiva. With this lack of awareness arises the misconception of the self as the agent and the enjoyer of limited actions. Rather than presenting the Yoginīs and Mātr̥kās as evil for their role in causing suffering, Tantras depict them as merely the facilitators that allow one to reap the result of their actions. The first level of healing, one that is temporary through pleasing or banishing the Yoginīs, allows the subject to pursue the higher and permanent healing that coincides with the negative Yoginīs serving as one’s apprentices. The healing process thus parallels the recognition of role of these deities.

(...) In the monistic Tantric paradigm, the physical reasons of suffering, such as the imbalance of bile, etc. are not isolated from purely psychological states such as having fear, doubt, or other sensations arising due to lust, the sense of impurity, aversion, or dullness. While all suffering in this paradigm is attributed to the spirits, some spirits are born simply due to physical imbalance. Bhūtas, the term for both the phenomenal elements such as the earth and for specific spirits, particularly the spirits of dead people, explicitly relate to corporeal imbalance. Physical conditions, such as being exposed to heat or cold, are not sufficient to cause disease in this light. Just like drinking polluted water makes one vulnerable to disease, touching a corpse, in this understanding, gives an opening (chidra) to the spirits wanting to enter into the body and live on the life substance of the host. One becomes ill, along these lines, not by simply being affected by these spirits but bylacking the rejuvenating bodily fluids.

(...) There are other spirits born of the imbalance of bodily substances. Āyurveda texts attribute different diseases to the imbalance of three doṣas. Tantras assign Bhūtas, the spirits, to correspond to these imbalances. Besides these spirits born of the imbalance of each of these, there are also Bhūtas born of the collective imbalance, and Tantras describe the symptoms of those suffering from these afflictions. (...) The animate cosmos of Tantras relies on the assumption that mere physical entities cannot ‘cause’ an event such as illness, because causation requires a conscious subject. Although there are physical conditions behind disease, these are actually brought or inflicted by the Bhūtas that correspond to these imbalances. Tantric cosmology thus presumes a dialogue with the cause of disease, as there are conscious subjects behind the symptoms that are identified as disease. Mantra language becomes the tool of communication to mediate between these realms.

(...) The paradigm of Netra Tantra is monistic in that the evil spirits tormenting living beings are emanations of Lord Śiva himself, and are not even evil in reality. This being the case, the problem is to reconcile the apparent contradiction between liberating and healing nature of Śiva and death and disease that are the phenomenal reality. (...) Accordingly, the world is a sacrificial altar. All creatures are under the domain of Lord Mahākāla and are subject to death, and thus may be the sacrificial beast offered to please the Lord. Mahākāla, however, accepts only the offering of the ‘beasts’ (paśu). The term paśu plays with its two meanings, the common usage as beast, and the etymological meaning, one who is bound. Since all sentient beings are constricted by passion, aversion, and delusion, all are paśus worthy to be sacrificed to the lord of time. The spirits who conduct the sacrifice are always searching for vulnerabilities so that they can enter the body, cause illness, and lead to death. In this depiction, these spirits are merely performing the command given by Lord Svacchanda. The final remedy prescribed in Tantras is to recognise oneself as the Lord, because the spirits then abide by the order of this liberated being. Alternatively, the mantras of the higher order, such as that of Svacchanda, can expel the spirits (NT 19: 27–8), for when the mantras enter the body, the subject transforms into the divine form even when he has not actualised his true nature. In this sense, mantras are the inner pulsation of the self that protects the individual from being swept into the realm of bondage and suffering.

The role given to the spirits here is educational. By introducing the doctrine of Karma, Netra Tantra maintains that yoginīs and spirits are not autonomous and hence unable to enter into another’s body on their own. They cannot inflect pain and disease upon the masses through their own free will. Nonetheless, they hover nearby and look for loopholes so that, when the moment arises, they can penetrate the host body and consume the life-giving substances. The body, in its natural state, keeps rejuvenating itself. When the spirits enter and block the flow of these substances, one becomes afflicted with disease. In essence, disease is the external imprint of mental conditioning, and healing begins with a reversal of the limitation and pollution veiling the mind. Disease and death, in this depiction, are primarily mental, and only symptoms are seen in the body. The entire concept of pollution and purity rests on this vision of the effects of the negative spirits. All forms of weakness, impurity, and sin are considered to be the root of this infliction, so much so that even the shadow from an impure person can affect others. Touching, sharing clothing, or any substance of the impure person can result in infection (NT 19: 34–44). Even to be depressed, or feel melancholy, and stay in lonely places can invite an attack from the spirits. Impurity, therefore, is to be feared.

(...) NT depicts these spirits and deities as the ‘family’ (gaṇas) of Śiva who is also addressed as the ‘Master of Spirits’ (Bhūtanātha). The healing rituals in this text centre around the specific emanation of Śiva known as ‘the Victor of Death’ (Mr̥tyuñjaya) or the ‘Lord of Ambrosia’ (Amr̥teśa). In this ritual paradigm, the healing process not only involves the removal of the corporeal symptoms of suffering, it also includes realisation of the self. The central mantra of the deity, in this depiction, corresponds to the three eyes of Śiva, and the healing received through the mantra ritual is equated to the glance of Śiva. The empowered mantra grants protection from the suffering that reflects one’s own karma.

(...) NT addresses the paradox wherein Śiva himself is the Lord of Death, Mahākāla, and also is the Victor over Death, Mr̥tyuñjaya. Expressed in terms of the eyes of Śiva, the lord in this depiction embodies both death and immortality. The text inscribes the paradox within Śiva’s body, assigning one of his eyes to the fire that burns the 3-fold world into ashes, with another containing the nectar that grants immortality. The monistic background of the text is explicit, for these two opposing aspects reside in Śiva in harmony. The healing nature of Śiva is expressed in the visualisation of the central deity: Mr̥tyuñjaya is of the complexion of snowy mountain. He is adorned with white flowers, seated upon a white lotus, showing the gestures of granting boons and fearlessness, and holding a vase filled with ambrosia. In this manifestation, Śiva is healing the cosmos.

Tantric yoga focuses literally on the union of the self with the energies (śaktis).

This union results in the individual self recognising himself as Śiva. This understanding of yoga parallels the tradition of alchemy, where corporeal transformation is the focus. In the context of NT, the primary focus is the inner body, and

the flow of vital energies through the subtle body results in higher perfections

(siddhis) and self-realisation. Following this text, the meditation upon cakras and

channels (nāḍīs), various foundations (ādhāras), and different voids (vyoman) leads

the practitioner to both corporeal rejuvenation and liberation. This subtle body

interacts with mantras: they both are essentially comprised of vital energies

(prāṇas), rely on breath, and manifest through sound. This alternate body that

has the physical nature of breath, while remaining invisible, bridges the two

realms of the visible and invisible.

(...) Central to these practices is the fixation of mind upon different centres of the body. This visualisation, called dhāraṇa, also relies on fixing the prāṇic flow. What makes the Tantric approach distinct from Patañjalian dhāraṇa is its substantial focus on the recitation of seed syllables or mantras that accompany mental focus upon different limbs of the body. Found in different forms of nyāsa, which is the installation of the seed syllables in the body, this reconfiguration of the body to parallel the body of the deity aligns with the understanding of intermingling (sāmarasya) as discussed in NT.

(...) In the Tantric paradigm of NT, these yogic states cannot arise without the proper channelling of the vital energies. The term prāṇa describes various aspects of these energies, which are breath in its external flow, pulsation in its inner form, and speech in its most exalted form. The relationship of speech and breath that bridges the corporeal and mental domains provides the platform for Tantric yoga. This process relies on creating a specific mental state that communicates with the flesh through breath. Yogic transformation is therefore a two-way practice, where the body becomes the means for the mind to realise its essential nature, and mental states leave behind their imprints in the body. In both cases, speech and breath mediate.

(...) When the self-nature has not been revealed, Yoginīs and Mātr̥s find their unbound energies hindered, and their discontent leaves an imprint in the body in the form of disease. These very deities become instruments for accomplishing tasks for the self-realised beings. In the non-dual Tantric paradigm, there is no exorcism or expelling the spirits, as the self encompasses all that exists. The spirits, in this depiction, are merely the mirror images of non-recognised mental conditioning. When the essential nature is realised, these spirits find their harmonious abode in the self, Śiva nature (NT 19: 25–30). NT describes this process as entering into the self-nature. This process involves visualising the subtle body comprised of cakras and various channels (NT 19: 31–4). The application of mantras and yantras, potions and incense, chanting, and displaying various gestures, all of these are categorised under the physical (sthūla) yoga and are essential to healing practices that are eefficient only in light of the realisation of the subtle forms of yoga that describe the metaphysics of bondage and liberation.

Based on these presuppositions, Tantric healing techniques are identical to the method of self-realisation. In order for an individual to achieve the state of liberation, he has to focus his mind in the state of no mind, transcending the limits of subject and object. With this practice, the mind is ‘mingled’ (samarasa) with the highest bliss, with both aham and anya, the self and the other, being dissolved (NT 8.40). In this state, there is no object upon which the mind can focus, and thus it is freed from objects. Eventually, the mind is freed even from the concept of this freedom from the support (ālambana). The mind, in this state, is not fixed upon either inner concepts or external entities, and this state of mind that is free from subjective and objective constructs is identified as absorption (NT 8.41–4). The Lord Amr̥teśa is identical to this specific mental state. In samādhi, the nature of Amr̥teśa permeates the body and the senses of a yogin, and by breathing in this state, hee liberates himself from all diseases (NT 8.46–8).


"Body, Self and Healing in Tantric Ritual Paradigm"

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Anand Venkatraman
Anand Venkatraman
18 août 2022

Absolutely magnificent!

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