Tantra has developed a system
of thought which makes us see the universe as
if it were within ourselves, and ourselves as
if we were within the universe. Further the forces
governing the cosmos on the macro-level are believed
to govern the individual in the micro-level. According
to tantra, the individual being and universal
being are one. Thus all that exists in the universe
must also exist in the individual body.
One of our major limitations in
discovering this essential unity between the microcosm
and the macrocosm is that we are accustomed to
analyze the world into its separate parts, with
the result that we lose sight of those parts'
inter-relationship and their underlying unity.
The way to fulfillment is through recognition
of our wholeness linking man and the universe.
This hence is the broad aim of Tantra art, achieved
through visual symbols and metaphors.
Encompassing its whole pictorial
range, Tantric imagery can be broadly grouped
under three heads:
The Sanskrit word 'yantra' derives
from the root 'yam' meaning to sustain, or hold.
Hence in metaphysical terms a yantra is visualized
as receptacle of the highest spiritual essence.
Yantra is a pure geometric configuration, composed
of basic primal shapes. These shapes are psychological
symbols corresponding to inner states of human
consciousness. This innate simplicity of composition
is identified with spiritual presence. The use
of such elementary shapes is not simplistic but
represents the highest conception in visual terms,
because the projection of the symbol is then direct
and bold, so that even a small miniature can create
a sense of expansiveness.
The dynamism of tantric imagery
is generated by a quest for geometric order. A
yantra represents a particular configuration whose
power increases in proportion to the abstraction
and precision of the diagram. A yantra gradually
grows away from its center, in stages, until its
expansion is complete. Around the center are several
concentric figures which take part in this expansion.
This concentric architecture defines the volume
of the yantra and creates a rhythmic unity.
The predominant elementary forms
of which yantras are constituted are the point,
line, circle, triangle, square and the lotus symbol.
All of these forms are juxtaposed, combined, intersected
and repeated in various ways to produce the desired
In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad
there is the metaphor of a spider sitting at the
center of its web, issuing and reabsorbing its
threads in concentric circles, all held at one
point. The spider's threads symmetrically expand
into a visible circumference, but they can all
be traced back to the central point of the web.
Like the spider in its web, the
center of the yantra is the power-point from which
the entire diagram expands, the radiating source
of energy that generates all forms. It is the
divine essence out of which proceeds the polarized
world. It is called Bindu, the first drop, which
spreads unfolds, and expands into the tangible
realm of the universe. Indeed the optical focus
of the yantra is always its center, from which
the force lines radiate outwards in concentric
circles and dissolve in the outer circumference.
On a metaphysical level the Bindu represents the
unity of the static (male, Shiva) and the kinetic
(female, Shakti) cosmic principles, which expand
to create the infinite universe of matter and
spirit. A meeting-ground of subject and object,
this is exactly the kind of spiritual oneness
that the tantra artist strives for. A region where
art and artist, creator and viewer merge into
a single identity, becoming one with the cosmos
as a whole. In the final meditation on the yantra,
the Bindu is the region where the ultimate union
of the aspirant with the divine takes place.
For the successful creation of
a yantra, the artist must look beyond appearances
and penetrate to the essence. The center, by virtue
of being a dot of zero dimensions, is visualized
as the ultimate entity beyond which a thing or
energy cannot be contracted or condensed. This
infinite reservoir of collective energy is the
supremely creative nucleus, and therefore is the
repository of all manifestation. As a center,
it controls everything which is projected from
it; hence it is also called MahaBindu, or the
Great Point. It is indeed the starting point of
the mental quest for salvation and also the ultimate
point in this journey.
According to another school of
logic, when a non-manifest stage of existence
becomes manifest, its manifestation must begin
somewhere, in some point of space, at some point
of time. There must be an instant when it has
not yet any extension but has begun to have location.
According to this interpretation, the first instant
when a thing does not yet exist and yet has already
begun is adequately represented by the dimensionless
The Bindu thus contains within
itself the two poles' (zero and infinity) and
all that lies between. Its inherent energy contains
all potentialities and all polarities. In the
actual creative process, the Bindu evolves with
the help of straight lines into the trikona (triangle).
The straight line is composed
of an unbroken series of points. These points,
moving independently, give length (without breadth)
to it. The straight line thus signifies growth
and development, and like time, consists of an
infinite number of discreet points.
The triangle is the archetype
symbol of a sacred enclosure, since space cannot
be bounded by fewer than three lines. The triangle
is thus conceived as the first closed figure to
emerge when creation emerged from chaos. In this
aspect it is known as the root of all manifested
nature. The rhythm of creation is crystallized
in this primal form.
Tantra calls the triangle the
cone of fire, a reference to its shape. This is
the fire of aspiration which is ever burning in
the heart of the spiritual seeker.
The threefold structure of the
triangle is interpreted over multiple levels.
Some of these visualizations are:
Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, i.e.
Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
2). The three tendencies: the
neutral, the positive and the negative - Sattva,
Rajas, and Tamas.
3). The three Vedas: Rig, Yaju,
4). Past, Present, and Future.
5). The three seasons: Spring,
Summer, and Winter.
6). The three main pilgrimages:
Prayag, Gaya, and Kashi.
When used in a yantra, a triangle
is either inverted or upright. The inverted triangle
is a symbol of feminine power, the creative essence
of the universe, also known as Shakti. It is the
dynamism of this Shakti that gives rise to the
creative impulse in nature. This inverted triangle
is generally the first enclosure surrounding the
infinitesimal nucleus of most yantras.
pointing upwards is symbolic of the male principle
(Purusha). When the two triangles penetrate each
other forming a hexagon, it symbolizes the fusion
of polarities, the union of Shiva and Shakti,
male and female. This union is the cause of the
When the triangles part at the
apex, time and space cease to exist, and all creative
activity comes to a standstill. This is shown
in the hourglass shape, which is the shape of
the Damaru, the drum of Shiva, from which all
rhythms of manifestation are said to have emerged.
Here it is interesting to note that Panini's treatise
on the grammar of Sanskrit, the world's most ancient
grammar, states that the Sanskrit language too
has proceeded from the rhythms of Shiva's drum.
The circle occurs very frequently
in yantras and is derived principally from the
motion of the revolution of planets. It symbolizes
wholeness or totality and represents the principle
which has no beginning, and no end, for example
time. A perfectly symmetrical entity, equidistant
from the center at all points; it indicates the
realm of radiation that proceeds from the One
center. In other words, a circumscribed field
When used in a yantra, a circle
is normally placed within a square pattern, described
The square is the fundamental
format of most yantras. There is a significant,
well thought out logic behind it. The phenomenal
world extends into four directions. These four
directions represent the totality of space, and
they bind the earth in order. The square too is
the simplest and perfect manifestation of the
number four, by virtue of the four perfect, equal
lines bounding its form. Hence it is visualized
as the perfect symbol to denote the terrestrial
world. This mundane, physical world is the one
which must be transcended by spiritual practice.
The square pattern has four gates,
one in each of the cardinal directions. They are
known as cosmic doors because it is through them
that the aspirant symbolically enters the yantra.
They represent the passage from the earthly realm
to the 'inner', sacred space of the yantra. These
gates are an initiatory threshold which simultaneously
opposes the phenomenal and embraces the noumenal.
It is further believed that these gateways themselves
are guarded by divine forces which protect the
sacred precinct within, from negative and disintegrating
Potent as it is, in tantric art
the lotus is a symbol of the expanding consciousness,
which ultimately raises the aspirant from the
dark depths of ignorance to the radiant heights
of inner awakening. Because of its smooth and
oily surface the lotus is not affected by the
water in which it grows. Hence just as the lotus
plant grows in the 'darkness of mud' and gradually
blossoms out to the surface of water, unsullied
by the mud and water which nourishes it, so the
inner-self transcends beyond its own material
limits, uncorrupted and untarnished by illusion
lotus blossom is one of the principal archetypal
symbols used in yantras. Generally centered on
the axis with its petals unfolding towards the
circumference, it is the appropriate image to
illustrate the unfolding of power of the divine
essence. Because of its associations with progression,
development and the life-expanding quality, the
lotus represents the 'out-petalling' of the soul-flower
in the process of spiritual realization. Hence
in ancient cosmology, the lotus is also associated
with creation myths. It is, for example, often
depicted as springing from Vishnu's navel, supporting
and giving birth to Brahma, the creator.
Once Brahma creates the universe,
Vishnu comes to the world in one of his ten forms
or incarnations, to preserve order and ensure
This is one of the cycles of creation.
At its end, Shiva dances and the universe is destroyed.
Brahma falls asleep, and the lotus
closes and goes back into Vishnu's navel. Vishnu
then sleeps on the serpent's coils. The process
eventually begins all over again. The lotus hence
here represents the unfolding of a new age (Yuga
in Sanskrit); similarly in a yantra it signifies
the awakening of the inner self.
the earliest times, the lotus has always been
a symbol of the citadel of the heart, the seat
of the Self. Yogis believe that there are actual
spiritual centers within us whose essential nature
and luminosity can be experienced during meditation.
These spiritual centers are often represented
symbolically as lotuses, and their 'opening up'
implies the state of complete repose when the
purpose of yogic meditation is attained.
In the final analysis, though
a yantra is made up of different elements, the
fundamental aim of ritual and meditation is to
fuse all these dimensions, and to facilitate the
adept's spiritual journey, as follows:
The outermost square sanctuary
has a landing before each of its four gates. This
is a two dimensional representation of a low flight
of steps leading up from the ground to the raised
floor of the sanctuary. This sanctuary is the
seat of the divinity. This is exactly the model
on which the Hindu temple is built. Hence each
Hindu temple is a yantra in itself.
Once the spiritual seeker enters
the square enclosure, and starts moving towards
the center, the symbol of the flowering lotus
represents the awakening of his/her inner consciousness
to its maximum potential. As the journey progresses,
the adept encounters the various aspects of manifestation
inherent in nature, symbolized by the male and
female principles (the triangles). These are bounded
within a circle. This symbolizes that all reality
is confined within these concepts. The journey
towards the center encompasses both distance and
the course of time. This space time continuum
is represented by the straight line.
Finally the devotee reaches the
center, the reservoir of all knowledge and the
final goal of his journey. But the spiritual awareness
generated within him during his penetration to
the central essence makes him realize that this
point is nothing but the center of his own heart,
the innermost realm of his being. This realization
is the ultimate aim of the yantra.
In Tantric thought the human body
is visualized as a microcosm of the universe.
It is believed that the complete drama of the
universe is repeated in this very body. The whole
body with its biological and psychological processes
becomes an instrument through which the cosmic
power reveals itself. According to tantric principles,
all that exists in the universe must also exist
in the individual body. If we can analyze one
human being, we shall be able to analyze the entire
universe. The purpose is to search for the whole
truth within, so that one may realize one 's inner
self, unfolding the basic reality of the universe.
A Tantra text says: "He who realizes the
truth of the body can then come to know the truth
of the universe'. The two most important concepts
associated with the human body are the chakras
and Kundalini. In addition to helping realize
the abstract conceptions of Tantra in visual terms,
they reveal to the spiritual seeker the deepest
truths of Tantric philosophy through metaphors
Tantra recognizes seven energy
centers in the human body. These are known as
'chakras'. Chakra means "what revolves"
and hence signifies a wheel. In a physical sense
the chakras are visualized as lotuses, composed
of different number of petals. Each chakra governs
a certain sense organ, and has its own presiding
The seven chakras are:
The Sanskrit word kundalini means
'coiled-up'. The coiled Kundalini is the female
energy existing in latent form, not only in every
human being but in every atom of the universe.
It may frequently happen that an individual's
Kundalini energy lies dormant through his or her
entire lifetime and he or she is unaware of its
existence. The object of the tantric practice
of Kundalini-yoga is to awaken this cosmic energy
and cause it to unite with Shiva, the Pure Consciousness
pervading the whole universe.
In the concept of the Yoga Kundalini
"The divine power,
Like the stem of a young lotus;
Like a snake, coiled round upon herself,
She holds her tail in her mouth
And lies resting half asleep
At the base of the body."
The static, unmanifested Kundalini
is symbolized by a serpent coiled into three and
a half circles, with its tail in its mouth.
In the microcosm of the human
body, the Goddess Kundalini appears as a dormant
energy, but able, when she wakes up, to destroy
the illusion of life and lead to liberation. She
can be awakened through the practice of what is
known as Kundalini-Yoga, a unique branch of esoteric
When the Kundalini is ready to
unfold, she ascends from the Muladhara Chakra
to unite above the head with Shiva at the Sahasra
Chakra. But before this merger she must ascend
and pass through each of the five remaining chakras.
As Kundalini reaches each chakra, that lotus opens
and lifts its flower; and as soon as she leaves
for a higher chakra, the lotus closes its petals
and hangs down, symbolizing the activation of
the energies of the chakra and their assimilation
in Kundalini. The increasing number of lotus petals,
in ascending order, may be taken to indicate the
rising energy of the respective chakras, each
functioning as a 'transformer' of energies from
one potency to another.
In tantric art, an image created
must correspond to the original canonical text;
any omission, error or oversight is attributed
to imperfect absorption or considered a sign of
slackening of attention. In such an event, the
image is discarded and the process of composing
process of image-making is an yoga discipline
in itself. It is also believed to lead to spiritual
deliverance. This belief shifts the objective
of art from being an end in itself to being the
means of an end. The intention of the artist is
to express fundamental truths which are constant
for all, and not just his own 'personal' truth.
His path thus is one of selfless action, where
there is a total annihilation of the ego. In such
an art, it comes as no surprise therefore, that
the artist has always remained anonymous.
But it is not that the creative
impulse of the artist is stifled. The artist while
undertaking creative activity intuitively realizes
that his own self-expression is part of a universal
and collective expression as a whole. This underlying
unity acts as an awesome catalyst, convincing
him of the sacred nature of his activity, and
prompts him to adopt universal symbols in his
creations. The Shiva-linga for example, is a balancing
of the masculine and feminine ways of the world.
This archetypal symbol has been in existence even
before the idea of history itself. The enduring
popularity of its essential iconography is a pointer
to its acceptance in the universal psychology.
Because of the vital nature of
the task, ancient texts dwell at length on the
qualities an artist must possess before he can
embark on this spiritual journey. A tantric text
for example, enumerates the following six essentials
that a stone-carver must master:
The making of an iconographic
image in Tantra art is considered the equivalent
of the highest form of worship. This activity
is seen as capable of opening up spiritual avenues
for those who seek them. Accordingly the canonical
texts set the highest standards for those who
wish to traverse this path.
The art which has evolved out
of tantra reveals an abundant variety of forms,
varied inflections of tone and colors, graphic
patterns, powerful symbols with personal and universal
significance. It is especially intended to convey
a knowledge evoking a higher level of perception,
and tapping dormant sources of our awareness.
This form of expression is not pursued like detached
speculation to achieve mere aesthetic delight,
but has a deeper meaning. Apart from aesthetic
value, its real significance lies in its content,
the meaning it conveys, and the philosophy of
life it unravels. In this sense tantra art is
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