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Heart Practice: approaching the tantric body-in-practice – II

“Enveloping, embracing, and caressing me both inside and out, moving in ripples along my skin, flowing between my fingers, swirling around my arms and thighs, rolling in endless eddies along the roof of my mouth, slipping ceaselessly through throat and trachea to fill the lungs, to feed my blood, my heart, my self. I cannot act, cannot speak, cannot think a single thought without the participation of this fluid element. I am immersed in its depths as surely as fish are immersed in the sea.”
David Abrams, on air, The Spell of the Sensuous

“The tantric practitioner lives within the maṇḍala, lives within the yantra, lives within the vision of divinity such that the symbolic world of the text becomes the lived world of the body. Representation in text, icon and rite coalesce in the experience of the lived body.”
Gavin Flood The Tantric Body

To continue from the previous post in this series I now want to focus on approaching particular tantric body-practices.

In the last post, I tried to highlight how the body is shaped or produced through particular practices and how practices are themselves embedded within wider historical, cultural and social contexts – and that neither the body, nor body-producing practices are neutral. In order to produce a “thick description” (pace Clifford Geertz) of tantric body-practices, I want to consider how the “tantric body” (or more properly, bodies) is conceptualised, and how the practices which combine to produce those bodies are inter-related with representations of the body in ritual, art, literature, etc. So as this series progresses, I will not only be discussing particular body-practices, but also attempting to bring in some of the wider domains in which those practices are situated. This I think, will be more useful than just reproducing the tendency to abstract “techniques” from their wider cultural contexts. Instead, I want to stress the intersubjective fusion between between body-practice-culture in the way that Abrams, in the quote above, stresses how we are immersed in air.

It’s become something of a cliché to say that the tantric traditions conceptualised the body as “sacred”. In Western culture there is a long tradition of seperating “the sacred” from “the profane”. Eliade, for example, writes of the “abyss that divides [these] two modalities of experience”. But such a dichotomy cannot easily be applied to India. As Stella Kramrisch points out: “The art of India is neither religious nor secular, for the consistent fabric of Indian life was never rent by the dichotomy of religious belief and worldly practice.” 1

I’m now going to outline some broad themes for exploring the “tantric” body-in-practice. These will, to some extent, overlap, and I will be using them (hopefully) less as ‘closed categories’ and more as starting-off points for exploration; overlapping fields – or anchors for returning to if I begin to wander too far.

The body-in-extension
I’m using this phrasing to try and think through the various ways in which the tantric body can be thought of as an open system – a collective of powers, capacities, and affects. Perhaps the most obvious body-practice here is the ritual use of maṇḍalas or yantras – which are frequently homologised with various groupings of Śhaktis or “capacities” (see for example, the Sri Yantra) or the imposition of powers into the body with nyasa. In a similar way, the groups of goddesses within a yantra are often homologised as the “limbs” of the central deity. Verse 36 of the Kāmakalāvilāsa says: “When She, this all-excelling Great Queen changes into the form of the chakra, then the limbs of Her body change into Āvaraṇa-devatas”. 2

The body-as-temple
body as templeIt is quite common to encounter the body homologised with the different parts of a temple – in both ritual texts and texts which deal with temple architecture and design. In texts such as the Śilpa-Prakāśa various elements of a temple structure are homologised with the body-parts of the “cosmic man” – the Mahāpuruṣa of the Rg Veda. For example, the foundational plinth of the temple is thus called the Pāda – “foot”; whilst vertical wall-sections are termed Jāngha – “leg”. The 13th-century Śaivite Mahārthamañjarī (“The Flower-Cluster of the Great Purpose”) identifies the body with an altar, and that the deity who presides there – Śaiva – is “to be worshipped there with the nectar of the sense objects, the drink of the virile ones, [enriched] with the fragrance underlyling the flowers of self-awareness [offered] in the cup of the mind”. 3

But what also needs to be considered here, I feel, is how temples were conceptualised and – more importantly – how they functioned – socially, politically, spatially. Indian temples have always served a wide variety of functions and roles – such as local administration, banking, schools, craft workshops, etc. Phyllis Granoff (1997) proposes that medieval Indian temples can be considered as “heavenly cities” Moreover, the raising of a temple by a ruler was an expression of royal power.

The body adorned
I’m unashamedly borrowing the title of Vidya Dehejia’s book as a phrase for clustering various explorations of how the body is represented. Adornment is a key element of sculptural and poetic traditions, and I think we can extend this idea towards such diverse elements such as the visualisation (and hence formation) of both the ideal practitioner-body and the visualisation of deites in puja. Such visualisation practices are of course, intimately bound up with the Indian visual arts and literature traditions. Such imagery also embodies particular philosophical traditions. It’s important to examine these traditions, because to ignore them, as Sthaneshwar Timalsina (2012, p64) points out “compromises even the aesthetic experience of these images.”

I want to look further into the relationship between visualisation and imagination; explore how visualisation is not merely a mental, cognitive act but also somatic and affective. We might also explore how the representation of deities is modified – i.e. adorned – through particular attributes – such as the number of arms, the kind of weapons or other ritual items a god or goddess is depicted with – and the relationship between mudras and moods.

The body can also be “adorned” by less tangible capacities – by moods, the cultivation of moral capacities – and the results of practice are frequently held to be visible on the body (see Dialogue II: Teacher-pupil exchanges in the Upanisads for an example).

The body-as-sound
Under this heading I will discuss some of the different facets of mantra-vidya – such as the view found in tantric texts that deities are mantras (and vice-versa), and the bodily practices which centre on mantra, such as japas, nyasa (again) and the visualisation of the forms of deities as the expressions of mantras. Also relevant here is speech – particulary the tantric concept of speech as a living entity; theories of language and imagination. Also, I think it will be appropriate to take a wider view of India as an aural culture and explore the affective capacities of both speaking and listening – the voice, after all, is a medium through which body and meaning meet.

The body-becoming-divine

“…having formed one’s own body with mantras of Śiva in due order, the well-purificed self who has become Śiva should undertake the worship of Śiva.”
Sarvajñāottara 5.2.

A central theme in tantra ritual practice is the concept that in order to worship a god, one must become a god. Gavin Flood (2006, p11) notes that “The empowering of the body, which means its divinisation, is arguably the most important quality in tantric traditions, but a quality that is only specified within particular traditions and texts. … The practitioner in ritual contexts becomes divine such that his or her limited subjectivity is transcended or expanded and that subjectivity becomes coterminous with the subjectivity of his or her deity…” Under this heading – the body-becoming-divine – I will take a look at the various strategies/practices (and rituals) which relate to this theme. Possible points of interest here are the some of the ritual practices of self-divinisation, such as Bhuta Suddhi; the development of possession-immersion (āveśa; and the elements of the cosmo-theologies – such as the tattvas out of which these experiences arise.

I the previous post I attempted to highlight the importance of conceiving practices as “embodied modes of doing”. Something I want to keep highlighting – in regard to “tantric” body-practices is how the body is shaped and lived through by these practices. These five formations (and there may be others along the way) potentially encompass a vast area for exploration, so I am going to hold it there for now.

David Abrams The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Random House, 1996)
Arthur Avalon Kāma-Kalā-Vilāsa by Puṇyānanda-Nātha with the Commentary of Natanānanda-Nātha (Ganesh & Co., 1961)
Bettina Baumer, The Living Temple: Aesthetics in Silpa Sastra (pdf)
Vidya Dehejia The Body Adorned: Dissolving Boundaries Between Sacred and Profane in India’s Art (Columbia University Press, 2009)
Gavin Flood, The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion (I.B. Tauris, 2006)
Phyllis Granoff Heaven on Earth: Temple and Temple Cities of Medieval India in Dick van der Meij (ed) India and Beyond: Aspects of Literature, Meaning, Ritual and Thought (Routledge, 1997)
Sthaneshwar Timalsina Reconstructing the Tantric Body: Elements of the Symbolism of Body in the Monistic Kaula and Trika Tantric Traditions (International Journal of Hindu Studies, 16, 1: 57-91, 2012).


  1. quoted from Dehejia, 2009, p16.
  2. Avalon, 1961, p68.
  3. quoted from Timalsina, 2012, p74.