The Khajuraho Experience

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati & B. L. Sahu, a guide of Khajuraho

The temples of Khajuraho are a testament to the might and glory of the ancient tantric culture which flourished and was preserved in India. As part of his All India Tour from the 21st of February to the 2nd of April, Swami Satyananda Saraswati visited these ancient monuments of the past on the 22.2.79. The entourage of his sannyasin disciples gazed back into the past through the medium of the brilliant and exotic sculptures which grace the walls of some of the 22 temples still in existence. The symbology of these temples tells us much of the ancient tantric arts and sciences. When viewed in their correct perspective these symbols can lift us to higher planes of consciousness. In fact, they represent the union of consciousness and energy, Shiva and Shakti, and the path towards this cosmic experience.

It is said that the robust Chandelas of the warrior Rajput clan, who built the temples, are descended from Chandra the moon god. Hemavan was the daughter of Hemraj, a priest of Benares, during the reign of Indrajit. One night while she was bathing, Chandra came to her and from their union Chandraverma, the founder of the Chandelas, was born. Most of the 85 temples constructed during their rule were built by his descendents at the height of Chandela power during the 10th and 11th centuries. There were 24 rulers up to the 14th century when the people vanished and left their monuments.

The temples are divided into two main groups, those that are dedicated to Vishnu and those dedicated to Shiva. Because the race propagated a benevolent philosophy, freedom of thought and acceptance of all beliefs, traces of Buddhism, Jainism, sun worship and animism as well as Greek, Egyptian and Mongolian influence are to be found. The predominant theme, however, is that of esoteric tantra, the use of the lower elements in man to attain the highest consciousness.

Though many people find themselves transported to the past by the sublimity and sensuousness of the intricate sculpture, it is the sheer impact of the temple architecture itself which is awe-inspiring. No cement, mortar or paint was used in the construction but a system of interlocking joints allowed each unit to find its centre of gravity in its own allotted place. For those with eyes to see, it is the temple structure which reveals many of the esoteric secrets of tantra.

The 5 main temples are in the form of a Latin cross, the transepts of the cross being at the back of the temple. The temple proper rests on 2 terraces which may represent the 2 lower chakras in man, mooladhara and swadhisthana. Rising one after the other in a row of successively taller structures are 5 spires which may represent the other chakras in man. The main central temple structure is surrounded by 4 other temples situated at each corner of the 2nd terrace. These seem to represent the 5 elements of man. The central temple consists of a small cube-shaped room housing the deity with a small space between it and the main outer wall. This represents the liberation of consciousness from the confines of matter, like the dried coconut with its lose inner core. The whole temple complex is, therefore, a symbolic representation of and a monument to the greatest of all temples, the body of man which houses the spirit or atman. These temples represent the fully evolved and enlightened man, perfect in design and symmetry.

The temples are said to be constructed so that the light from the main gate always reflects on the central deity. This is symbolic of the supreme importance of the spirit in the life of man as well as of the spiritual illumination that arises when consciousness and energy fuse; the fusion of prana with apana, ida with pingala, and the awakening of sushumna nadi.

Around the central deity, who is either resting in meditative bliss or in some symbolic form such as the shiva lingam, various aspects of manifestation are seen. Around the inner wall housing the deity are to be found small sculptures in 4 levels. These levels are said to represent the 4 aims of human existence - 'purushartha': pleasure (kama), wealth (artha), religion (dharma) and liberation from the cycle of births and deaths (moksha). On the outer wall is a series of sculptures in 3 levels which have made these temples famous as monuments to the art of love. The lower level shows the sexual act in many forms. This implies the tamasic state of consciousness and that state of human evolution in which animal instincts predominate (pashu). The next level seems to represent love rather than sex, or sex as a means to divine experience. This is rajas, or the real man with all his human desires and qualities (veera). The top level shows the yogi who, having balanced and unified the two forces within his own being, no longer needs anyone of the opposite sex to expand his consciousness. This is the sattvic or divine state of evolution (deva).

The purpose of the statues is not to portray sex in all its forms merely for art's sake. Their purpose is to bring out deep psychological states of mind, especially in those people who are prepared and initiated. The skill of artistry that went into the construction of the temples gives them a life and energy of their own. When one walks up the stairways into the central temple one is given a deep psychological insight into his own nature. This leaves an imprint of the dynamic peace and power that goes hand in hand with meditation and the increasing realization of the self. As one circumambulates the structures viewing the different statues, one is given a sense of the infinite variety, beauty as well as ugliness, in life. The griffins, nymphs, beasts, demons in battles, gods in divine consciousness and beauty, mortals portraying such emotions as fear, doubt, jealousy, love and passion, are fine expressions of most facets of life, from below the animal to beyond the divine.

Some confusion has arisen as to the role of such art in the world today, especially since they have been viewed as merely portraying sex. One look at the temples shakes this view considerably, for the magnitude of the temples, and the small but significant part the statues play, gives us a better perspective and understanding. These temples of "life as it is" give us a completely new outlook on life as a whole, a refreshing change from the traditional Judeo-Christian concept which views sex as the original sin and which develops suppression and neurosis. The tantric and vedic systems, on the other hand, insist on psycho-sexual understanding and the proper implementation of this understanding in life. This develops neurosis-free living.

Khajuraho, standing as it does in the centre of the Indian subcontinent, also stands at the centre of Indian philosophy as a statement of what is possible in a disciplined but free life, one that expresses all the facets of our natural personality. As such, a visit to Khajuraho is a therapeutic as well as a spiritual experience.