Tantra Art: In search of Life Divine

Sri Ajit Mookherjee, author of Tantra Art, Tantra Asana, Yoga Art and The Tantric Way

'Who am I?' 'Whence have I come?' 'Where am I going ?' Tantra says: I am all this. Soham 'I am He' or so ham 'I am She' for 'there is no difference between me and thee'.

Tantra has developed a system of thought and practice which can make us see the universe as if it is within ourselves, and ourselves as if we were within the universe. The form that our imagination creates expresses our formless essence. Consciously or unconsciously every mode of expression, whether artistic, religious or scientific, is struggling to reach that ultimate reality, the one without a second.

According to tantra, all creation is preceded by bindu, the focal tension which becomes the centre of everything. Bindu is the ultimate point of power beyond which no manifestation or energy can be contracted or condensed. Bindu carries within itself the seeds of its future, its multiple potentialities symbolically represented by a dot. Bindu is the fundamental point of repose from which transformation and evolution emerge. It signifies the starting point in the unfolding of inner space as well as the last point of its ultimate integration. It is the point from which inner and outer space take their origin and in which they again become one.

The tantras mention that the cosmos evolves from the primordial sound substratum as a form of the monosyllabic mantra Aum, the sound symbol of ultimate reality. Even the conception of the sound Aum which is a combination of the three mantras a, u, m presupposes geometrical patterns corresponding to a straight line, a semi-circle and a point.

In tantric thought, sound without vibration does exist. Embedded within this sound are possibilities of new forms; these potential forms materialise in the process of evolution when the basic sound matrix undergoes permutations. Through its immeasurably powerful range and intensity this ultrasonic sound can create, destroy and reshape the entire structure of the universe.

By creating patterns and curves, luminous sound makes the enclosure and definition of space possible. In addition, the process of evolving curves projects the original sound in forms accessible to human experience. The basis for this concept of sound is described in the tantras as sphotavada. The sphota is the sabda - brahman or nada - brahman. Essentially this means that every single thought or idea originates in sound. The moment we think, an unheard sound is formed. As an idea appears in one's mind, the sound that concurrently occurs is the ground for all forms.

Every form has a sound according to its energy. All the objects that we see and feel in this universe from thought or idea to matter, are sounds of particular concentration. Every object consists of a certain density of sound more or less complex. Sound is the reflex of form and form is the product of sound.

Every colour has life-sound and in turn, every sound has its form-colour. All mantras, primarily mental sound, have their corresponding colours and forms. When a mantra is pronounced correctly, its corresponding form begins to manifest itself. The quality of manifestation depends upon the nature and intensity of pronunciation. When the agni (fire) mantra is uttered correctly, the colour red and the quality of heat are evoked. At the vibratory level, sound creates light, for light is sound at a particular frequency. The colours perceived by the human eye result from a very narrow range of light waves. The entire scale of light's radiant energy is not visible as colour. In tantric thought, a wider concept of colour also exists in which every vibrating sound has a certain colour. All forms merge in light and hence all names of forms. Tangible matter and energy alike are dependent upon the existence of light, and light is dependent on sound.

The force of the manifested universe, whether primordial waters or atoms, originates with the one pervading basis and source of all being. In the universal energy of the cosmos an undifferentiated web of potential matter called tanmatra is found. A further stage in the manifestation of this energy results in the emergence of atoms, in Sanskrit called anu. The universe is believed to be formed of an aggregation of atoms which are in a constant state of integration, disintegration and reintegration.

In Vaiseshika philosophy four rudimentary atoms are named which form the essential components of all material things. These are the atoms of earth, water, fire and air - the pure elements or mahabhutas. A further aggregation produces the molecule and these produce all the visible forms known to us in the objective world.

The implication of the waters in relation to the cosmic egg, brahmanda, is symbolical. It is the enveloping source which existed in the beginning as the primordial mother - principle, the sap of creation. In the mother's womb the amnion or innermost membrane enclosing the foetus is filled with fluid which provides its sustenance. This phenomenon occurring in the womb of every mother is the universal principle of motherhood. The tantrics conceived that the same holds good on the level of cosmic creation where the world is placed in the womb of rita, an infinite ocean of energy. This universal rita is constantly supplying energy to all life developing or functioning within it. Time or kala is the dynamic impeller which gives the urge for the creative process to begin. In a brahmanda, the spheroid is considered to be in the process of breaking itself into separate units, each with its own centre. It represents the division of wholeness for the sake of multiplicity. Therefore the egg-shaped brahmanda, the globe-shaped salagrama or shivalinga stand for the incipient duality of purusha (reality) and prakriti (nature). Purusha does not move unless united with prakriti, the female energy or shakti. From the ensuing action between these two, a series of mathematical proportions emerge. Then their material forms, so mathematically harmonised, become clear.

Creation and destruction are the very essence of existence. Disintegration is as much a normal and necessary aspect of nature as aggregation. The collocation of mass and energy is always breaking up. However slowly and imperceptibly, they are continually being merged in the unceasing process of change - the infinite, incomprehensible prakriti. But the actual creative process, prakriti - bindu, must evolve to trikona, the triangle, the first figure to define dimension. A dynamic graph of forces by which anything can be represented is called the yantra of that thing.

It is not an arbitrary invention but a revealed image of an aspect of cosmic structure. A yantra represents the particular force whose power or energy increases in proportion to the abstraction and precision of the diagram. The principle behind this is that just as each form is the visible product of an energy pattern rooted in sound, so reciprocally, each visible form carries its own implicit power pattern. The equilateral, triangular shape standing on its base represents purusha or Shiva whereas standing on its apex it represents prakriti or Shakti. The duality that persists in yantra manifests itself in the magnificent doctrine of the tantras as Shiva and Shakti, male and female, the balance of form and energy. All manifestation is based on this fundamental duality.

What is thus said about the whole cosmic system applies also to the individual self. The complete drama of the universe is repeated here, in this very body. The whole body with all its biological and psychological processes becomes an instrument through and in which the power reveals itself. According to tantric principles, the individual being and the universal being are one: all that exists in the universe must also exist in the individual body. If we can analyse one human being, we shall have analysed the whole universe, because all are built on the same principles.

Life is one, and all its forms are interrelated in a vastly complicated but inseparable whole. Every act by any form of life, from the highest to the lowest, must react on every other form. We are but links in a long series. We are made of the same elements as the stars, the same substances as the gods.

The ten incarnations of Vishnu explain the various stages of evolution, their order being fish, tortoise, boar, half-man and half-lion, dwarf man, cultivator, Buddha, and finally, Kalki arriving on horseback. In India it has always been held that no gulf exists between the various forms of existence. For instance, the difference between man and animal is not one of kind but of degree.

There is no limit to this manifestation. As Krishna says in the Gita: 'I am the beginning, the lifespan and the end.' From the indivisible unity of all forms to the whole universe in its manifold forms, no part of nature can exist independently of the rest. An unbroken chain stretches from the lowest to the highest. At the end of the existing cycle they will all become one again.

This belief in a cosmic order, the principle of which art tried to grasp and pass on, led the tantric artist to make himself a part of the mystery, to live in it as well as with it. He knew that there must be complete identification of his being, otherwise there could be no revelation of the great secret. The individual soul is a spark of the universal soul. By transmigration it passes from state to state until attaining release through the loss of individual identity in the universal one.

In this spiritual process, a new sign language symbolising the man-universe relationship was discovered and used. Thus the method of yoga assumed a great importance in art; tantric art itself can be considered one of the essential forms of yoga. Tantric artists dedicated themselves to the task of integrating their visions. Like every other spiritual activity, this involved discipline and ritual by which the artists could identify with their creative source. The aim of tantric ritual is to heighten forms of human power to their full expression so as to merge kundalini, the unconscious form-principle in the human body, with Shiva, the formless consciousness.

To achieve this aim, one utilises tantric yogasanas, configurations of certain forces and moods. When one practices a particular asana, one may gain that particular intensified mood or feeling. Tantra asserts that: 'One must rise by that which one may fall.' Tantra prescribes the discipline of sublimation whereby the physical union of man and woman becomes the creative union of Shiva and Shakti. In tantric asana, a mode of transcending human conditioning, the first concrete step towards abolishing the diversities of human intimacy is taken.

Through tantric asana, sex liberates us from sex and we rise to the plane of cosmic awareness. The asana itself is a means for the expression of pure joy. This power can be activated and transmuted into a conscious reality by practicing various tantric asanas. Tantra teaches us to realise and harness the potential of the senses. Sexual instinct, an all - pervading urge, is the physical basis of creation and of mankind's evolution. Sex is the cosmic union of opposites from which everything and every being arises. Its importance demands its fulfilment.

By yoking together the opposites within oneself, the individual harmonises all experience, thereby abolishing duality and transcending the phenomenal world. As symbols for this transcendent union, the interlocking figures represent the male and female principles, the static and kinetic aspects of the two-in-one. They embrace each other, touching at all points of contact. This shows a total resolution of opposite forces as the two become essentially one.

Male and female attributes shown as part of the same body express the idea that masculinity and femininity as two different factors are as illusory as the duality of body and soul. If a male's feminine aspect is repressed or not sufficiently developed, he will be unable to integrate it into his personality. The same is true of the woman and her masculine aspect. According to tantra, the ultimate truth is the union of male and female principles, Shiva and Shakti. Shiva represents pure consciousness which is inactive, the static aspect of the ultimate reality. While Shakti represents the cosmic source, the kinetic energy of the concrete universe. The female aspect contributes the power to respond, to evolve. Every conjunction of opposites produces joy (ananda), an identification of self with the universe and ends in the rediscovery of primordial spontaneity.

We owe to tantra the discovery and location of the chakras, psychic energy centres in the subtle or astral body which manifest as trigger points in the physical body. Chakras are part of kundalini yoga, which merges kundalini energy with cosmic consciousness. When kundalini is struck, it awakens, uncoils, and begins to rise like a fiery serpent, the symbol of energy. Breaking open each lotus (chakra), it ascends until Shakti merges with Shiva in deep samadhi.

The chakras or energy centres are mainly situated along the brahma-danda which is sometimes identified with the central spinal cord. Within the brahma-danda is enclosed sushumna, the channel of the subtle body, flanked by ida and pingala, the lunar and solar subtle nerves. It extends upwards from mooladhara chakra, the root chakra at the base of the spine, to the cerebrum, sahasrara chakra, just above the head. When the awakened kundalini reaches a particular chakra, symbolically represented as a lotus, that lotus opens up and lifts its flower. The shaktis, or different energies of the chakras, and all the other forces then become assimilated into kundalini, the supreme force. As kundalini leaves each chakra, the lotus again closes and hangs downwards.

By awakening kundalini's dormant forces which are otherwise absorbed in unconscious and bodily functions, and directing them to the higher centres, the energies thus released are transformed and sublimated until their perfect unfolding and conscious realisation are achieved at the highest centre, the sahasrara chakra. There a thousand petalled lotus of all colours hangs downward from the cerebrum, the region of the first cause.

The transcendental influence of Shakti or prakriti again initiates the process of creation, thus awakening the cosmic force. The world is recreated anew and so the cycles continue ceaselessly. According to this notion the world passes through endless cycles of creation, preservation and destruction to be reborn again and again.

Nothing dies in the world; what is apparently dead returns to its elements, and is again reconstituted into form. Life is one unbroken, infinite process of change. An element may start in the sun, and ultimately enter a human being, an animal or a plant on earth, only the names and forms differ. One of the tantric goddesses, Devi Chhinnamasta, manifests herself by her maya, renewing the cycles of inception and annihilation through never ending aeons of time. Her form embodies the frozen darkness of the void, mahasunya. She is naked, space clad, full-breasted. Her motherhood is ceaseless creation, but in her womb are both creation and doom. With the sword of physical extermination, she cuts the thread of life, of bondage, but she is relentless only out of benevolence, karunamayi. Her third eye looks beyond space and time. She is changeless, unlimited, primordial power acting in the great drama of creation, preservation and destruction.

Under the feet of this goddess, the conjunction of opposites as Rati and Kama, the male and female principles, represents a transcending of the phenomenal world and an abolition of all experience of duality. The one which became two is constantly aspiring to become one again. The eternal man and the eternal woman represent the life - principle which exists from the beginning of time to the end of it.

The whole universe is pregnant and constantly churning up new constellations of form. The child bursts from the womb - a tremendous potential is trying to manifest itself as man or woman. When man realises that he extends far beyond the limits of his individual space-time, he may awaken to his true nature, which is pure in itself and without duality.

It is only when we integrate all form and gain intuition of the endless play of Shakti as tantra indicates, that we find reality and become free. The tantric artist's concern rests not only with forms but with the forces that give rise to form. Art of this kind is firmly rooted in spiritual values. The artist is involved in a continuous process of discovers, not of himself but of the roots of the universe which he has been able to discover within himself.

The unknown is within, in every atom of our being. We learn by living in it. This crucial experience is one of the great moments of our spiritual existence. Both internal and external practices are imperative, because long ago, these revealed to the tantric artist a truth which might open up a new understanding of the world forces in which we live. To the question: 'What is that which, when known, all is known?' the Upanishads affirm: 'Thou art that.' 'From me all things originate and into me all are withdrawn.' 'I am experience, consciousness, being, bliss.' One who fully understands and accepts this is compelled to empty his mind of images and preconceptions. With a mind thus emptied, one can perceive the total impact of tantric art. Once the work of art is finished, the artist's power is released and exists with the form - its force being accessible to one who can see and assimilate its impact.

Art is not a profession but a path towards truth and self-realization. It is not astonishing that many great Indian artists, who passed through this discipline, finally became saints.