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Bringing the gods to mind: on visualisation – I

Seeing is one thing,
looking is another.
If both come together,
that is god.

If you look for an elephant,
he comes as an elephant.
If you look for a tree,
he’s a tree.
If you look for a mountain,
he’ll be a mountain.
God is what you have in your mind.

Reflecting on the theme of beauty back in May reminded me that I wanted to start a series of posts on the subject of visualisation – particularly with respect to tantra sadhana which – together with gesture and utterance – is one of its central practices.

The term Visualisation – often defined as “the formation of mental visual images” or “the act or process of interpreting in visual terms or of putting into visible form” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) is, I think, rather inadequate for this practice, which – as I will explore in these posts – involves both memory and imagination; the cultivation of modes of awareness and emotions; the associative linking of complex chains of association.

Visualisation also requires that the practitioner is familiar to some degree with (a) the image (b) the mythic narratives which relate to the deity, and (c) the theology – both general and particular – in which the deity is embedded. It is relatively easy for outsiders to the traditions to collect information on the particular signifiers relating to a deity; to read the major (and minor) narratives in which a deity appears, and to find a wealth of material relating to the theologies & philosophies with which one can begin to understand a deity within a particular context. However, it is in practice that all these ‘pieces’ are brought together and made meaningful – which can be a long process. Visualisation is more than simply a matter of matter of memorising images or reciting words – it requires actively incorporating insights and realisations which arise out of practice – those sudden flashes of “oh, I get that now” which make all the difference.

So, in reflecting how this process operates on a basic level, I’d say that it involves (a) memory – recalling what one has learned and previous experiences of practice; (b) repetition; and (c) imagination – bringing the various facets together mentally.

For a few years, my basic practice consisted of little more than visualising the form of Ganesha and reciting the Ganesha Upanisad, and supplemented by reading the various narratives in which Ganesha made an appearance. I was introduced to this practice by my guru, and he advised me not to worry about the parts that I did not understand (almost all of it) since that would come gradually, out of the practice itself.

Ganesha linocut by Maria StrutzTaking a look at a very basic visualisation of Ganesha (taken from a simple Ganesha Puja and originally written for 1 person to guide others through the visualisation sequence):

“Feel your belly to be a void within you. As you breathe, see this void beginning to fill with a scarlet mist. Gradually, the mist begins to form a shape – the shape of the Elephant-headed one, Ganesha.”

“Ganesha, vermillion-coloured, with the head of an elephant and the body of a man, whose vehicle is a mouse.

Big of belly, with ears like winnowing baskets, he holds a pomegranate in his trunk, and the crescent moon is upon his forehead. In his four hands he holds a tusk, an elephant goad, a noose, and gives the gesture of granting boons.”

“The tusk he holds represents service
The goad prods us along our path
The noose reminds us of that which binds us
To his favoured he grants all boons
His ears, like winnowing baskets, sift truth from non-truth
His twisting trunk shows us the power of strength and discrimination
His vehicle, the Mouse, is for cunning, and subtlety.”

“Meditate upon the qualities of Ganesha within you – he has the strength and wisdom of an elephant; the intelligence of man; the cunning and subtlety of a mouse. He is the Lord of the Gannas, the goblin-horde of Shiva. He is the bringer of luck, the remover of obstacles. Son of Shiva and Parvati, beloved of gods and men alike.”

There are quite a few things to unpack here. Firstly, there is the formation of the visual image according to the flow of the breath. Secondly, there is already a complex mirroring of the theme of Ganesha holding the world within his vast belly with that of the devotee imagining his or her belly to be a void in which Ganesha takes form. 1 Thirdly, there is the description of the form of Ganesha. Even this basic description brings in metaphors – it is not just a physical description for forming a mental image, but an invitation to reflect – if but momentarily, on his attributes, such as discrimination or his power to grant boons. The sequence of images quickly shifts from the transcendent to the concrete – and considering the many Puranic tales concerning the adventures of Ganesha – even the comic. The imagery points beyond itself, gesturing towards the nondual.

With even such a basic practice, there are several interrelated processes at work. Memory – recalling the multiple associations coalescing around the form (narrative, symbolic, philosophical and one’s own historical practice); Imaginative – the process of the creation of the image and entering into a dialogical relationship with that form (i.e. preparing to offer mental or external worship); an attentive, directed, comprehension. There is also an affective component – the visualisation stirs an emotional response in the devotee in response to Ganesha’s living presence, and the multiple memories and associations brought together. At the same time, the sensation of one’s own bodily state is present too.

Also, this process is embedded within a particular context – that is to say, although one may introduce personal, idiosyncratic elements into the practice, it is rooted within a common framework.

To be continued…

Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupati (Oxford University Press, 2005)
David Shulman More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Sthaneshwar Timalsina, Imagining Reality: Image and Visualisation in Classical Hinduism (Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Vol.35, 2013, pp50-69).


  1. So recalling the familiar Tantric theme that the body is a mirror-image of the Absolute.

One comment

  1. Dan
    Posted September 20th 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    The first thing that came to mind to me reading this is the emotive content – how when I visualise the guru(s), I’m bringing into mind a whole relationship, a chain of connections rooted in my personal history. Writing this, it occurs to me how much you do this in love relationships – in the first flushes of a relationship, there’s a continual bringing to mind of the beloved.

    There’s also that which might arise spontaneously – (similar to practices like skrying) if one hits the right angle of relaxation and lack of lust of result, one is “rewarded” with images that spring into the mind unbidden, that give new insight into the practice and your relationship with the deity. I’ve had several images of Lalita arise in this manner. They’ve tended to make connections with her and my day to day working life though I’m sure this isn’t the only form in which they can and will appear.