TANTRA & ITS ARTIFACTS
Three Essays on South-Asian Suggestion & Design
It’s a solid policy of mine to explore (as much as I can) all of the subjects that end up in my work and of course the sacred imagery and ideas of the South-Asian subcontinent are right at the top of this list. However, when it comes to the vastness of this treasure trove of devout human achievement it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin. To simplify, when I think of Bharata-dharma I like to just think of it all as Tantra; Tantra as its own vehicle and Tantra as an accent to a long list of other notable vehicles, both Asian and non-Asian alike (i.e. Brahmanism, Shaivism, Shakta, Buddhism, Jainism, Daoism, Bon, Sufism, Zoharists, Gnosticism and even Amerindian if you follow some contemporary trends).
So what is Tantra? Difficult to say. For some, it’s an indigenous South-Asian system of positive human fulfilment reaching as far back as prehistoric times. And for others, it represents an inferior smṛti culture, an extraneous blemish reduced only to its murky vāmācāra (i.e. left-handed) ways; a mere excuse to entertain one’s kinks and indulgences, if you will, while vainly trying to strap some sort of spiritual advantage to it all. Either way, I’ve been in enough discussions on the polarities of these two points of view to say with certainty that (no matter what new empirical discoveries are to be found) any one-sided validations of these two points of view will always remain only semitransparent, clarity obscured by over clarification as it were.
Luckily though there is more to these teachings than words and what I can say for sure is this: Tantra maintains an informative continuing catalogue of visuals that for me is second to none. Really, for as long as I can remember, Tantric art has harnessed my attention in a smorgasbord of uncanny ways, never once failing to deliver deep Stendhal like instances via line, tone, color and symbolic-form. And, confessedly, it is from this biased perspective that I will now attempt to unbiasedly transcribe the nub of what Tantra and its art has to offer.
* * *
One of the peculiar things about Tantra is that the more one becomes familiar with its framework the more one realizes that such familiarities will now always be present in a multitude of unfamiliar objects and scenes, yad ihāsti tad anyatra yan nehāsti na tat kvacit (what is here is there; what is not here is nowhere). Another peculiarity is that most of the persons whom I’ve come across who are qualified enough to be considered experts on its ways are always the least assured when it comes to any single method of expressing its meaning; no matter how much their hearts, minds and egos may want to encourage otherwise. With these sorts of curiosities, it’s no wonder that Tantra would have a rich and continuing heritage of visual imagery to help complement its varying attempts at verbal explanation.
To clearly understand the complexities of Tantric art one of the best places to start is to consider its esotericism. For as long as it’s been around Tantra has always been associated with marginality and secrecy and of course the art that we connect with it harbors no exceptions. With explicit depictions of sex, death and ferocity it’s safe to say that what is represented herein isn’t always for everyone. Risky is often a term that is initially used when it comes to edifying the stealth which surrounds Tantric practices, a valid sentiment to be sure. One need look no further than YouTube to find the latest testimony of a plethora of shaken “yogic casualties” who haphazardly took on an aggressive regiment of kundalini yoga without the proper preparations or guidance, more’s the pity. So yes, keeping the mechanics of these consequential systems at bay from daredevil yogins is surely a noble pursuit.
Yet, as writers like Twain, Brontë and Carlyle were deft at recalling, all tragedy contains the seeds of greater good. And, even if the whole world was suddenly disconcerted by the overwhelming prowess of their own Śakti (i.e. divine energy) there are other reasons for keeping Tantric practices on the down-low, reasons which simply have to do with comprehensive pragmatism; as the well-worn adage goes: nādevo devaṃ arcayet (one cannot fully venerate God until one sees oneself as God). What I mean is this: if we sincerely expect to get something worthwhile out of Tantra a certain preliminary attitude is in order, otherwise it would most likely be a rash waste of everyone’s time. Metaphorically it’s a lot like the ripening of a fruit which is only fit to be picked at the suitable time.
So, if you’ve genuinely found yourself in a position of openness to the inspective experience that we are all conscious beings beyond our mortal frames, that permeating everything is an all-loving all-aware divine force (which is both form-like and formless) then Tantra (as a positive amorous system of existential amplitude and armament) might be worth looking into. But, if you’re just not that interested in these sorts of things or are currently on some sort of heavy Machiavellian identity trip then Tantra probably isn’t going to provide that much for you, at least not in any lasting sense, and may even prove more harmful than good. With modalities of eligibility like this in mind it’s really no wonder that Tantra’s exponents have long seen fit to obscure its teachings from the general public eye and pinpoint its focus more towards contentious enthusiasts who could fittingly benefit from such things.
Still, that’s not to suggest that one should approach this tradition with spiritual arrogance. The aspirant must never become too proudly adherent or complacent when it comes to such acute metaphysical leanings. Tantra is a system of progressive notes way more than it is a religion; notes which clearly state that if one finds oneself tangled in ideas which suggest that they’ve discovered the one and only way to the one and only perception of universal truth they are most assuredly not walking the one and only way. Where Tantra is concerned candid humility is paramount to the practice, which means pretty much anything goes so long as consensual spiritual maturity abounds (i.e. what you are doing should never intentionally stand in the way of another’s opportunity for deliverance). Genuine love, wisdom and liberty are the aims, and in this regard the sincere Tantrika has no taste, nor fosters any support, for those who endeavor to force their beliefs or non-beliefs on others. Everyone has the right to uncover their own realizations on their own terms and in their own time.
It is only in keeping with egalitarian attitudes such as these that the practitioner could ever hope to maintain equilibrium in a system where duality wanes and where most of what we’ve been conditioned to accept as grotesque or taboo is really just par for the course. For the Tantrika everything sukha (i.e. pleasant) or dukkha (i.e. unpleasant) has deep significance and purpose. However, this doesn’t mean one should go looking for trouble or succumb to morbid fascination. On the contrary, in Tantra one finds oneself, centers one’s aim and works for the good of all, avoiding obstacles and maintaining realistic goals just like anyone else. Yet, unlike the apparent status-quo, everything that happens (no matter how gratifying or challenging) is gratefully accepted as being saturated with useful divinity. With even the slightest denial of these holistic affirmations one could scarcely hope to fully illumine the inherent precision in what we generally refer to as Tantric art.
Yantras & Cosmograms
As mentioned in the introduction, no one can rightly say how old Tantra’s teachings really are. Some scholars believe they predate the Vedas themselves (around 2,000bc) while others argue that they mostly likely came about during the revolutionary Śramaṇic and Puranic movements circa 500bc. What we can say for sure though is that their presence may be felt in an extensive body of research and writings as old and diversely influential as those authored by: Valmiki, Kapila, Sariputta, Lalleshwari, and Horace H. Wilson up to those as recent and contemporary as: Lilian Silburn, J. Mallinson, Georg Feuerstein and David G. White.
The Scottish philosopher Hume defined culture as that which outlives its maker. And with this sort of continuing presence throughout human history, regardless of exactly when or how it came to be, one thing about Tantra is fairly certain: it’s useful. One place where this tradition of usefulness is overwhelmingly apparent is within the geometrically-ontological “windows” and “maps” commonly referred to in Tantric circles as Yantras and Cosmograms.
Ordered in design yet abstract in function, these works of art are one of a kind in their objective purpose to bring about collectively subjective results. Incorporeal Rubik’s cubes that when pondered over and solved catapult the puzzleman ever closer toward the supreme goal. However, before we delve into their depiction and symbolism the question does naturally arise: what is this goal? What is the promise that these visual tools of thoughtful motif will deliver if one engages in their rightful use?
Mokṣa and Mukti (i.e. nonpareil liberation) are words one often hears when the aim of Tantra is attempted to be legitimized. However, one would be hard-pressed to sum it all up in just a word. So, the best way I can break it down goes something like this: As long as one’s soul is ripe for the calling, anyone, regardless of gender, social-class or creed, has a unique yet universal ability to reconnect with an inner divinity all of us share. ekyaṃ jivātmano sahuryogam yogavishāradaha (the union of the jiva with the Self is the root of all yoga).
You are and always will be one with a universally wise and loving presence: existence, knowledge and bliss incarnate. Tantra’s purpose is to not only set us free by reconnecting us with this situational fact, but to also continually help us get the most out of this freedom once it’s essence has been awakened and obtained. With this intention in mind, Yantras are visual stimulators which (when used alongside the proper mantra recitation) reconnect and realign the viewer with a wider reality, one which none of us are never wholly disconnected from in the first place.
At first glance these carefully planned out yet visually diverse works of art tend to look like nothing more than shapes (usually circles, triangles and squares) translated, rotated and reflected on the substrate which showcases them. However, as you spend more time patiently examining their contents (many of them contain Devanagari script, bija syllables, etc.) a common theme starts to emerge: sanctity and integral unity. Constant union with the divine is a concept that all Tantric art embodies and the Yantra delivers this message loud and clear. By spending time in the presence of these compositions the sādhaka diagrammatically unites her or himself with this dynamic process of consecration and the divine presence behind it.
Yantras come in a variety of compositions and sizes (some are quite small while others are wall and even floor-sized) generally varying in accordance with the many particular Gods or Goddess they invoke and/or indicate. In Tantra there are three types of aspirants: divya (i.e. heavenly) vīra (i.e. heroic) and paśu (i.e. animal like). With these very different temperaments in mind it’s no wonder that we see such a diverse scaling of visual art in the South-Asian catalogue.
Given one’s presets and dispositions it’s up the sadhaka to find witch yantras (and corresponding mantras) are best befitting of one’s temperament. Still, one thing Tantra is good at avoiding (and rightly so) are absolute discrepancies; if “all” are always expanded back to the “One” how can something or someone be entirely different than something or someone else? This concern certainly rings true when it comes to boxing people into these different categories of spiritual aspiration and for me I tend to treat them like W.H. Sheldon’s “somatotypes” (i.e. though we are most likely to be centric to one, we are all still a proportional combination of the three).
Cosmograms are somewhat similar to Yantras but do differ, whereas Yantras are generally indicative of a specific personified or vibrational aspect of the Deva (i.e. highest God) or Devi (i.e. highest Goddess) Cosmograms are more map-like treaties on the great totality as a geographic and impersonal whole. Similar to the songline art of indigenous Australians, here the sādhaka is implied as the consummate journeyman crossing and witnessing the great folded expanse of space-time and all that lies beyond, a situation where maps are often important. But because their overall focus is more on a storied landscape (both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial and both natural and cultural) than a specific deity, Cosmograms are often more associated with Jain and Buddhist amorphous overviews than Tantra as a whole.
Nevertheless, one needn’t look at these Cosmograms for more than a minute to realize that there is nothing static or aggressively atheistic about them. What I’m getting at here is that there have been some fashionable notions to equate Jain and Buddhist ideas with Existential-Nihilism. For me, comparisons like this really don’t hold too much water and these profound works of art are the proverbial pudding of proof (i.e. Cosmograms are anything but silent when it comes to describing the vitality of Buddha’s or Rishabhanatha’s universal silence within).
Filled with super intelligent serpents, anthropic planets and an ethereal universe of linguistic capacity, these cosmographic images are rife with sentiments of animism and celestial self-awareness where Maha-karma is anything but inert. So how does one equate the vacuities of anattā doctrine with personified supernatural symbolism like this?
Having spent some time perusing the Dhammapada, the Lotus Sutras and various Jain Agamas the atoning I’ve found there runs somewhere along these lines: to question or pursue the existence of a soul or creator God is not always beneficial to one’s path, especially when we tend to patricianly politicize such things (i.e. the atman is somehow holier than the flower it perceives or the mendicant is somehow less holy than the god being served). With compartmental platitudes like this in mind one would do just as well (if not better) to empty one’s self of all biased gratuity and simply let the inextinguishable greatness of our universal nature shine through. And this process of draining the hogwash to reveal the topographic diamond within (and without) is something these cosmograms are extremely apt at demonstrating.
Before moving on to the next topic there is one final point of clarification about these Yantras and Cosmograms I would like to make. In 1924 André Breton and Yvan Goll published their seminal works: “Surréalisme, Manifeste du surréalisme” (the surrealist manifestos). These works were clearly influenced by Freud and Jung’s revolutionary achievements in the areas of psychoanalysis and the collective unconscious. Subsequently Jung and his associates would go on to publish works on these subjects, many of which dealt with the symbolism of dreams and many of which included Yantra and Cosmographic imageries (i.e. Man and His Symbols, The Red Book, etc.). Since then I’ve heard more than a few art historians and curators use the term “proto-surreal” when describing these South-Asian pictograms. I enjoy Jung and Breton’s writings very much, but to label these images as strictly Surrealist in anyway rather understates their dynamic capacity and original purpose; for me, psychedelic is a much better way to define them and here’s why:
The differences between Surrealism and Psychedelia are both faint and striking. Where surrealism seeks to create an illogical interdimensional hybrid of “this” reality with “that” reality, a dualistic sentiment which fundamentally goes against Tantra’s underpinnings of a unified whole, psychedelia seeks a gradual split from our current fuzzy-perception of a single reality to a new more hyper-realistic one; which is almost always followed by the logical conclusion that there was never any substantial change or disunion in the subject or object perceived, just a more complete and transparent experience of the same One entirety.
Trika, Trailokya & The Eternal Lila of Śiva & Śakti
When studying Tantra (or South-Asian culture in general) one often comes across the term: “Trialokya” (i.e. three worlds). Comparable to what Vedantins describe as the five kośas, this threefold model represents the corresponding environmental states of causation, the fluctuation from the formless precursor to the material manifestation itself.
As Tej Raina so elegantly puts it: Trika (i.e. triad) holds that Anuttara (i.e. totality) is expressed completely through its three aspects of Śiva, Śakti and Nara (i.e. that which is, that which gives rise to and that which is raised: one God, three aspects). To offer a practical analogy: cream and churn are that which is, the force that drives the churn is that which gives rise to and the butter is what has risen. Tantra is not polytheistic. It is mono-pantheistic, which means there is no subject, object or place where God does not exist. And, while all the deities of the six sect system of Shanmata are thoroughly revered in Tantra, nowhere is the afore mentioned trilateral play of existence and causation more apparent than in the stories and renderings which describe the familial relations of Śiva, his wife Pārvatī and their sons Gaṇapatī and/or Kārttikēya. As a matter of fact, the list of subtle intricacies implied within the sport of these deific matrimonial tales is nothing less than daunting. I shall try my best to highlight some of the main points of interest.
As stated, what is generally being referenced when we consider the paternal interactions of Śiva and Śakti is the manifestation of a primordial infinite subtle-causality (i.e. Turīyatītā, beyond Anahata Nada) to the finite universe we tend to experience day to day -- a system where pure-consciousness precedes the material. Mind (i.e. Śiva) being concentrated enough to be considered causal-energy (i.e. Śakti) and casual-energy being concentrated enough to be considered matter (i.e. their offspring). Presented as a tightknit family one of the first points we can ascertain from this trifecta is that these states are never independent of one another, they have an out-and-out “Brady Bunch” like closeness going on and they always will; even when internal conflict ensues their heritable loyalty forever wins the day.
Another point to consider when viewing the images of Śiva and family runs along these lines: Any sophomore science student is most likely familiar with the relative flux of energy and matter. However, it’s where the third state (i.e. consciousness) comes in that things get iffy. And understandably so, it’s been my experience that if you can’t directly weigh or commoditize something then science has little to no use for it. Yet, when we look as far back as Plato’s idealism all the way up to G. Strawson’s realistic monism one question never seems fully edified: can the subject directly experience the subject as an object (i.e. can one smell, taste, see, feel, hear or otherwise experience and even call upon consciousness for enjoyment or aid)? Where Tantra is concerned the answer is yes; a yes which these stories and images are reiterating and inviting you to experiment with every time they describe Śiva running to Devi, Devi running to Śiva or Gaṇeśa running to either or both.
Consequently, each of these three deities clearly has their own abode where the experiencer is freely invited to visit. These states of existence are distinct places yet, in keeping with the theme of a continual panpsychism there is always a trace of their counterparts present. For those who are unfamiliar with the Trailokya model the three worlds are usually listed as such: 1) Bhuloka or Kamaloka, 2) Antarloka or Rupaloka 3) Śivaloka or Arupaloka. The first is the earthly realm of Gaṇeśa, this is the most temporal and quantifiable of the three. The second is the idea/energy realm of Maha-Śakti where dynamic impulses and the content of consciousness become refined thoughts that may or may not be energized into material forms. The third is Śiva’s realm of pure consciousness; a cosmic ocean of whatever it ultimately is that makes us whatever we ultimately are. And, by assigning symbolic personal deities to each of these states, ones that share familial ties no less, we are reminded that all three of these aspects are perpetually entwined and electrified with the same divinity.
The stories and artworks of Śiva and his family (especially when it comes to their connection with the various loka planes) also address humanity’s habit of trying to avoid tribunals and engineer our own eventuality. What I mean is, whenever the subject of the lokas comes up one question often arises: which is the best? In order to even try to answer this complex question the following must first be made aware: For the Tantrika lasting fulfillment is always epistemological, never locational. Moreover, one cannot reach one’s highest spiritual continuum without going through the experiences of being human, na mānuṣyaṃ vinānyattra tattvaśānantu lamyate (the knowledge of reality cannot be obtained without human birth).
Sure, it may seem that packing up our stuff and running off to Śiva’s penultimate loka may solve all our problems, but consider this: casting a truly accomplished soul into even the lowest of hells really wouldn’t be all that consequential; whereas propelling a soul who’s realizations are even the slightest bit disingenuous into the highest of heavens may very well prove to be somewhat traumatic. So how do these images and stories of Śiva and Śakti’s camaraderie address this paradox? By showing these highest of divine beings confronting everyday earthly trials in a not so earthly arena, an arena that is always just an extension of themselves.
Where Tantra is concerned, the world (no matter how challenging it may seem) is never broken… it’s here to show us where we are broken and even more importantly how to fix where we are broken. Still, one should never go looking for trouble any more than one should go about trying to generate if for others. Why? Well first of all, if we went about our lives this way we would most likely find ourselves in an asylum or institution; however, if you’re following this discourse closely, for the Tantrika custodial predicaments such as this wouldn’t atomically be a bad thing. So the more solid answer really lies in our incompetence (i.e. we barely have a grasp on our own samskaras (i.e. habits) and doshas of mind (i.e. perceptual defects) let alone those of others). Tantra is about becoming one with God, not becoming God itself. And, it’s by fostering honest self-evaluation along with the utmost Śraddhā (i.e. knowledgeable-faith) in Maha-karma’s ability to always place us exactly where we need to be that we will be able to get the most out of any of our conditional locations.
The finale to these deliberations on the intermingling play of Śiva and Śakti is unquestionably one of those last but not least scenarios. A few paragraphs back I likened this divine family to an old American television show known as “The Brady Bunch.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with this program it aired in the 1970’s during primetime ad-space and was definitely “G” rated in every way. However, as many of you probably already know, the stories of Śiva and Śakti are anything but. Blood, violence, sex, carnivorous jackals, these things and more abound in the Shaivite Agamas and their Tantric interpretations. So what’s the deal? How does one reconcile these apparently deviant things with positive concepts like ahimsa (i.e. non-violence) and the road to an all loving personal bliss?
A good place to start when we attempt to investigate these seemingly counter-intuitive leanings is remembering that Tantra has long been (and still is in some regards) the domain of those who are marginally challenged; in many ways this is an outlaw creed practiced by outlaw devotees. Many of the pioneers of these realizations were gypsies, forest dwellers and people who took out the trash; which in many instances included feces and even the remains of the dead. But, instead of using these aesthetically challenging circumstances as an excuse to not be progressively spiritual in their own lifetimes (vanilla tradition dictated that they would have to wait to be born again before such aims could be achieved) these outcast people would come up with some rather unconventional ways to deal with some rather conventional problems. So much so, that some of the most influential “one percenters” (including personalities like Ashoka and even Siddhartha Gautama himself) would be forced to lend an ear to what these outsider-gurus had to say.
One of the best ways I can convey some of the wisdom of these diamonds in the gruesome rough is to comparatively turn to Pentateuchal scripture. The sixth commandment (i.e. thou shalt not kill) isn’t about spilling or retaining blood, it isn’t about physical suffering or disease, it does not read: thou shalt not die or thou shalt not get wounded or sick. These are just circumstantial happenings that we all have to deal with. Yet many of us (especially in the west) now seem to have found ourselves living in a culture that has mistaken morbid reality for morbid depravity. As the medieval European tradition of memento mori reminds us, death is not our enemy; it walks hand in hand with creation and will always be a helpingly necessary part of life.
So where is the sin in the sixth commandment? I can’t speak for the Hebrews, but from a Tantric point of view I would wager to guess that it lies somewhere along the lines of heavy negative states of mind like hate and condemnatory arrogance. (i.e who are we to know when someone should or shouldn’t exit this world any more than when they should or shouldn’t gain entrance, who are we to think that we could improve ourselves and our life situation by forcibly taking someone’s body away from them, etc.)?
For the Tantrica piety and non-violence are well-rounded aspirations that are never merely limited to the physical. And the inclusiveness of this sentiment holds just as true when comes to the sexual imagery as it does to the cadaverous. The whole world is infused with libidinous energy, both male and female alike. Learning to sanctify, control and utilize this energy is very much a part of the Tantric path. And, you may approach this endeavor through abstinence just as much as you may through participation (where Tantra is concerned the road to our highest state of virtue may inevitably include behavior that some might not perceive as being all too virtuous) the choice is up to you and your current temperaments. But, if you perceive sex as subhuman or unnatural or (on the other hand) if you obsessively feel that sexual behavior is the only way to communicate with your object of desire… you are most assuredly heading in the wrong direction.
I believe this is why it was so imperative to unabashedly canonize these sexual images in sculpture and pictography. Not to primarily be arousing (their main purpose is not climactic excitement) but to be launching and uplifting. These artworks are not merely śṛṅgāra (i.e. erotic) because in order for an image or sculpture to be truly Tantric it must evade and therefore transcend such singular classifications. Tantric art (when it hits the mark) is always both Swaha and Swadha (i.e. highest propulsion and oblation). With this in mind, the topmost purpose of these carnal images is actually morally communal. They strategically reveal our insecurities where warped notions of purity and impurity are concerned, while simultaneously symbolizing the unified grace which will help us rise above such nominally partitioned trappings; a process which (if we’re even the slightest bit uncomfortable with) says way more about the immodesty and lack of inner piousness of us viewers than it does about the objective “indecency” of the sexually sanctified image.
A Cosmos Within a Body Within a Body Cosmos
Many a 20th century scholar has attempted to generally degrade and dismiss all theological art as nothing more than a discriminatory propagating tool meant solely to pacify the illiterate masses. This would be a hard case to make when it comes to Tantra however, because much of its genius was originally generated and maintained by and for the illiterate masses. Again, many of the harbingers and refiners of these ideas were real outcasts, hardcore vagabond ecclesiastics, shudra-brahmacharyas (i.e. lowest caste, fetchers of the highest truth). And as such, most of them weren’t afforded the basic needs so many of us nowadays take for granted, a fact which especially held true when it came to healthcare.
So what did they do: whine, rollover and die? Maybe some did, but through the struggle some of them also proceeded to practice and codify one the most ingenious systems of holistic healing and wellbeing the world has ever known. As a matter of fact, pretty much all of the hatha-yoga practiced in the West today can be traced back to the Śramanic revolutions of under-caste India. And, it’s the art associated with these subtle-body prāṇāyāma and asana techniques that most of us here in America are probably most familiar with when it comes to Tantra. (i.e the nāḍī schematics and/or the chakra charts).
I’m not going to fully elaborate on the abundance of graphic imagery which accompanies these yogic systems (i.e. mūlādhāra through sahasrāra, iḍā, piṅgala, suṣumṇā etc.). All of this visual information is now pretty well known and widely available via online sources. However, for those of you who are completely unfamiliar with these diagrams and teachings here are the basics: within our physical body exists a subtle energy body which contains a system of nerve-like channels (i.e. nāḍīs) and lotus-like plexuses (i.e. chakras). There is positive life-giving kuṇḍalinī (i.e. energy and information) both active and dormant within these channels and plexuses (centered on activities ranging from mere survival to complex problem solving) and through the proper breathing, stretching and visualization procedures, we can access and operate this energy to help us live more vibrant and informative lives.
I have personally experimented with some of these techniques and I can honestly attest to their potency and benefit. But, it is strongly advised that if you are going to attempt this type of yoga that you work closely with a well-qualified instructor as complications can arise if you engage in these practices carelessly. However, the imagery which accompanies this elaborate system of kuṇḍalinī yoga isn’t even my favorite part of the art brought forward from these Tantric metaphysicians. What I’m now referring to are the paintings which depict the universal cosmos as a body itself (i.e. the universe we occupy is one inestimable body and within our bodies there exists one inestimable universe). Why this sentiment means so much to me hangs on the following mechanics of circumstance.
When one practices yoga one naturally comes across terms and phrases like: self-realization, renunciation, detachment, etc. What these ideas convey is that through it all you’re most likely going to steadily identify yourself more and more with consciousness and less and less with “the things of the world.” However, as beautiful as this process can be it can also contain some pretty treacherous pitfalls. What I’m driving at here is the peculiar phenomenon of confusing renunciation with denunciation, that destructive habit of automatically belittling the things of “this world” because you are now participating in a plethora of experiences which unveil the majesty of the armature that carries them. This is a negative habit I caught myself participating in, a habit which these cosmo-anthropomorphic renderings would eventually play a vital role in helping me to break free of.
Art which reveals the cosmos as a wide awake and perpetually alive body (one that always exists and that I am always a part of even when the manifold food-body I now utilize transforms into some other completely different component of this larger figure) spoke volumes to me. Seriously, spending time pondering these images released me from a crippling stupor of worldly disdain and contempt, eventually revealing to me one of the greatest treasures the Tantras have to offer: you are never running away from or giving anything up, you are only gaining a wider understanding and awareness of that which is always there, iti iti (i.e. affirming, this and this), not neti neti (i.e. negating, not this and not this). And, when it came to these paintings, the other side of the pictorial coin was just as good.
Glowing with white hot vigor that assured there was an internal-universe just as open and rich with the eternal possibilities of exploration vibrating at the very center of ones being? Well, all I can say is that hopefully some of you reading this might now understand why these paintings are so cherishable to me. Their presence made me feel as though I could understand what the Swedish mystic Swedenborg was hinting at when he implied that there is no outright traveling being done. (i.e. there is always a part of us there right now, in all the spirit realms and highest spheres; even while we go about the seemingly mundane struggles of our current human incarnations -- heaven within as well as without). As the late Swami Virajananda was fond of saying, “The universe and the body are both simultaneously revealed to me. I have no right to say that the body is mine and the universe is not mine; both are mine because both are revealed to me.”
* * *
Those who know me are pretty aware that my fondness for subjects like early Vedic studies and Advaita Vedanta is no small thing, but they also know that in the end Tantra always seems to win the day. Why the overshadowing favoritism? I think it has everything to do with the accompanying imagery. Sure, both camps share a cultural allegiance with classical India’s epic history, and the Mahabharata (with its owed to Kṛṣṇa) and the Ramayana (with its owed to Vāsiṣṭha) are certainly not lacking when it comes to beautiful renderings of their stories and lessons.
But, like the prosaic charts that are often used to illuminate the Advaita, these depictions of the epics are usually overly concrete and codified whereas the art of the Tantras is almost always liquid and interactive -- a friendly guide more than a pedantic commander. What’s more, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a few highly accomplished Tantric adepts and I can say with complete conviction, each and every one of them uniquely radiated the exquisiteness that is Tantric virtuosity in everything they did. Brimming with style and aesthetic affluence, these individuals have become continually evolving works of art themselves; perpetual tableaux vivants (without any of the disingenuous posing or theatrics) or what I like to refer to as “walking-talking mudras.” It’s for these reasons most that Tantra and its artifacts currently hold a first-rate position for me, and probably always will.
I would like to sincerely thank anyone who has taken the time to read these essays. Subjects as intricate and historically obscure as Tantra are never easy to write about and my appreciation for your patience goes beyond bounds. I’m also pretty sure that this is nothing but a bunch of hypostatic-gobbledygook to quite a few of you who I greatly admire and respect, which is why I didn’t include citations because they often just lead to more feelings of polarizing condescension when it comes to topics like this. Anyhow, I write these sorts of papers because being able to read some of my thoughts helps me paint better pictures. But, I also like to think that by sharing them with others I may get a better understanding of what I’m seeing and (always more importantly) what I’m missing. So again, thanks for taking the time to look along with me.
gavāṃ sarvāmgajaṃ kṣīram sravet stanamukhād yathā tathā, sarvagato devaha pratimādiṣu rājate
(the entire body of the cow manifests milk but its utter is where the milk flows; similarly, the divinity which pervades everywhere shines via the sacred image).
* * *