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Heart practice: On the Adoration of the Senses – I

“Just as one who sees something out of the ordinary experiences a feeling of amazement, so the feeling of amazement in enjoying contact with the various manifestations of knowable reality is continually produced in this great yogin with the whole wheel of the senses increasingly revealed, motionless, disclosed, by virtue of penetrating into its most intimate nature, the compact union of ever-renewed consciousness and wonder, extreme, extraordinary.”
Ksemaraja, commentary on Śivasutra, 1.12, quoted from Torella, 2012

“All wisdoms have celebrated the instant, the wise man leaves aside memory; he has few projects, makes himself at home in the present, inhabits its differential.”
Michel Serres, The Five Senses

I’ve been taking this foray into “heart practice” slowly, beginning with a central theme in tantra practice – that of the goddess dwelling in the heart. I’m now going to progress things slightly, with a look at a practice I tend to refer to as the “adoration of the senses”. But first, some thoughts on the senses themselves.

Our capacities to touch, hear, see, smell, taste – the five senses are often assumed to function passively – as sources of “objective” and self-evident knowledge about the world. Indian philosophies, needless to say, have different perspectives on the senses, and much recent scholarly work on western perspectives on the senses shows that how we conceptualise the senses is historically and culturally contingent. Since the 1980s, there has been a marked shift in scholarly attention to the senses – towards what has been termed an ‘anthropology of the senses’. Anthroplogist David Howes, for example, states that: “sensation is not just a matter of physiological response and personal experience. It is the most fundamental domain of cultural expression, the medium through which all the values and practices of society are enacted” (2003, pxi). There has been increased focus on what counts as senses is different across cultures – for example the Nigerian Hausa people have one word for sight (gani) and another – (ji) which encompasses smelling, tasting, hearing, touching, understanding, emotional feeling – as though all these function as a single whole, whilst Javenese sensory categories include talking as a sense. The Cashinahua of Peru hold that knowledge resides in the skin, the ears, the hands, the genitals, the liver, and the eyes. “Skin Knowledge” (bichi una is a knowledge of the environment – including the behaviour of other people and animals, which one acquires through the feel of wind, sun, forest on one’s skin (see Howes, 2009, for further discussion). Sensory anthropology holds that the senses are not just passive, biological phenomena, but rather cultural constructs, dynamic, fluid, subject to change and historically performed and enacted.

In European culture for example, the senses have been hierarchicalised, gendered (i.e. women were thought to be primariy dominated by the influence of the proximal senses – touch, taste, and smell; whilst men were associated with the more “rational” – distal – senses of sight and hearing) and in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in particular – racialised.

The philosophies of India have produced many different theories and hierarchies of senses from a very early point. A term commonly associated with sensory activity or “sense-capacity” – indriya – can be found in the Rg Veda where the activity of the senses is likened to the activity of Indra’s messengers and are manifestations of his capacities for knowledge (buddhindriya) and action (karmendriya).

The famous āyurvedic compendium Caraka Saṃhitā proposes the view that perception occurrs from the conjunction of self, mind, sense-capacity and sense-object. It also argues that amongst the senses – the sense of touch pervades all other senses and that touch is coequal to the field of mind (I’ll return to this idea of touch as the primary sense another time). The senses and mind are declared to be dependent on the heart, which is the seat of consciousness.

Another – albeit brief – account of the senses can be found in the Kamasutra:

“Pleasure is the activity of the organs of hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. which are overseen by the mind conjoined with the self, conducibly each with respect to its appropriate object. Primarily, pleasure is someone’s fruitful sensory experience, pierced with affective pleasure, from an object of the particular touch.”
Kamasutra 1.2 11-12 (transl. Laura Desmond 2011)

Here, there is a two-way conduit between sense objects and sense organs – the sense organs, under the governance of the mind, meet up with their corresponding sense objects in the world. As Laura Desmond points out, in the Kamasutra, perception is not a passive activity – the senses are a two-way channel through which sense objects and the mind come into contact with each other – the world serving as the zone of engagement between senses and sense objects. The mind both directs the sense organs out towards objects in the world, but sense objects also command the attention of mind and senses.

The Kamasutra is particularly interesting in respect to the senses in that it’s central protagonist – the courtly nagaraka must cultivate his senses – along with the body’s other capacities for pleasure – in very particular and disciplined ways (see Lecture notes: On the Kamasutra – III for some discussion).

It’d be tempting to move onwards and examine different arguments about perception in, say, classical Sāṃkhya, early Buddhism or Advaita Vedānta; but I’m going to leave that now and fast-forwards to a brief discussion of what might be thought of as “tantric” perspectives on the senses, first in the works of Abhinavagupta – and then from there (in the next post) into Sri Vidya.

I’ve been inspired by a famous stotra by Abhinavagupta – the dehasthadev atācakrastotra – or ‘Hymn to the Circle of Deities Located in the Body’. This stotra is a ritualised enaction of the deities of the body/cosmos – Ānandabhairava and Ānandabhairavī, seated in sexual union, in the calyx of a lotus (the heart). They are, in Gavin Flood’s words, the “essence of experience (anubhavasāra) both in the sense of ordinary, unawakened experience … and in the sense of the liberating experience of recognising the self as consciousness. In this sense, experience or (anubhava) refers to the telos, the goal of practice, the awakening to the recognition of one’s identity with both transcendence and immanence.” (Flood, 2006, p154).

Surrounding Ānandabhairava and Ānandabhairavī, seated on the petals of the lotus are the sense-goddesses or capacities of the body: Brahmāṃī (east); Śāṃbhavi (south-east); Kumārī (south); Vaiṣṇavī (south-west); Vārāhī (west); Indrāṇī (north-west); Cāmundā (north); and Mahālakṣmi (north-east).

“Oṃ Homage to Gaṇeśa. Oṃ holy! I praise Gaṇapati whose body is the inhaled breath, who is worshipped at the beginning of a hundred philosophical systems, who delights in the bestowal of desired wishes.
I praise Vaṭuka, known as the inhaled breath who removes people’s pain; his feet are worshipped by the lineage of Perfected Ones, the hordes of yoginīs, and the best heroes.
I always praise the pure, true master whose nature is attentiveness. By the power of his thought he reveals the universe as a path of Śiva for his devotees.
I praise Ānandabhairava, who is made of consciousness, whom the goddesses of the senses constantly worship in the lotus of the heart with the pleasures of their own sense-objects.
I praise Ānandabhairavī, whose nature is awareness, who continually performs the play of creation, manifestation and tasting of the universe.
I constantly bow to Brahmāṃī, whose nature is higher mind, situated on the petal of the Lord of Gods, who worships Bhairava with flowers of certainty.
I always praise Mother Śāṃbhavi, whose nature is the ego.
Seated on the petal of fire; she performs worship to Bhairava with flowers of pride.
I always praise Kumārī, situated on the southern petal, whose essence is the mind, who gives offerings to Bhairava with flowers of discrimination.
I constantly bow to Vaiṣṇavī, seated on the south-west petal, the power of whose nature is that which is heard, who makes offerings to Bhairava with flowers of sound.
I honour Vārāhī, who possesses the sense of touch. Seated on the western petal, she satisfies Bhairava with flowers of touch which captivate the heart.
I praise Indrāṇī, whose body is sight, whose body is seated on the north-west petal, who worships Bhairava with the most beautiful and best of colours.
I bow to Cāmundā, called the sense of taste, dwelling on the petal of Kubera; she constantly worships Bhairava with offerings of the varied six flavours.
I always bow down to Mahālakṣmi, known as the sense of smell, who, seated on the petal of the Lord, praises Bhairava with varied fragrances.
I praise constantly the Lord of the body, who gives perfection known as the self, united with the thirty-six categories; he is worshipped as the Lord of the six systems of philiosophy.
In this manner I praise the circle of deities innate within the body, an elevated assembly continually present, the end of everything, vibrant, and the essence of experience. ”
dehasthadev atācakrastotra (from Flood, 2006, pp155-156)

The nondual monistic perspective sometimes called ‘Kashmir Saivism’ takes as its telos the realisation of nondifference between the “inner world” of the subject and the “outer world” of objects – that there is no difference between the material world, the cosmos, and the human bodymind. The activity of the senses is the most condensed – or tangible – expression of the interdependent powers of consciousness to know and to act. Physical organs – such as the eyes are “doors” (dvāras) through which these powers flow. The senses also arise via the agency of the ego (ahaṃkāra) which generates the sensations of taste, smell, etc., which correspond to each sense organ.

Kashmir Saivism recognises that the senses (as with all other capacities of the body) should be adored as expressions of the singular consciousness which emits them – just as a sun emits rays. Whilst some paths seek to curb or restrain the activity of the senses, Kashmir Saivism holds that the senses are a means to self-realisation -small drops from the ocean of Śiva’s bliss. The senses can be thought of as expressions of Śakti who “roams about” in various ways. For the “ordinary” person indriya vṛtti the senses can lead to worldly entanglements; for the yogin, abiding in the heart, they are indriya-śakti – the karaṇeśvari devīs.

In the ritual-meditation of the dehasthadev atācakrastotra – the senses are personified as goddesses that surround and make their own offerings to the supreme deities Ānandabhairava and Ānandabhairavī – who are identified with Kuleśvara and Kuleśvari (Lord and Lady of the Clan – where kula homologises both universe and body) – and all of whom “operate” simultaneously as cosmic powers and body-capacities. As Mark Dyczkowski (1987) explains: “The goddesses move restlessly hither and thither in search of the most pleasing sensations to offer to the Couple in the Centre. … Śiva manifests His freedom in the joy (ālāda) he feels as the subject who perceives the world through the pulsing activity of the senses. He sports in the garden of His universe delighting in the five flowers of smell, taste, sight, touch and sound” (pp145-146).

Further support for this practice can be found in Abhinavagupta’s commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita – Gītārtha Saṃgraha. In the 3rd chapter, Abhinavagupta states (III.6) that refraining from mental activity is impossible: “He who lives restraining his organs of action while in his mind dwelling on the objects of senses, he, possessing a deluded mind, is said to be a hypocrite” (III.6). III.9 says: “This world is bound by action, different from those performed as yajña. Free from attachment, engage in action for the sake of yajña. III.10 says: “In ancient times, having created creatures together with yajña, the Lord of creation said: ‘By this yajña you shall multiply and this will be your wish-fulfilling cow.” In these two verses, Abhinavagupta is stating that the generation of progeny is only possible via action (Karman). This action brings about either liberation or bondage to living beings – depending on whether or not they act with or without attachment to the fruits of action. Acts performed for sacrifice (i.e. yajña) are not binding. III.11 says: “Through yajña you should nourish the gods and those gods will nourish you. By nourishing one another you will attain the highest good.” Here, the word devāḥ (“gods” – from the root div – to play, to rejoice) indicates the sense-capacities and their playful nature. One should satisfy these gods through action by engaging in the enjoyments of the senses – and thus “nourish” them. “When satisfied, these gods (in the form of sense organs) will grant you liberations (apavarga), according to the level on which you are established in your own self” (Gītārtha Saṃgraha p86). III.12 states: “Nourished by yajña, the gods will give you the desired enjoyments. But he who enjoys these gifts without offering anything in return to them is merely a thief.” And in III.13: “The good men, who eat the remains of the yajña, are released from all sins. On the other hand, sinners who prepare food for their own sake eat their own sins.”

Abhinavagupta’s commentary on 111.13 is that: “Because of the fact that the sense organs give us the objects of enjoyment, we should give the same back to them. If however, one does not reciprocate and fails to give back the same to them for their own enjoyment, then such as person is a thief. He who desires perfection (siddhi) or mokṣa by easy means should enjoy the objects of enjoyment available to him only with the idea in mind to bring about detachment by fulfilling the curiosity of the senses.”

The message here is that those who enjoy the sense-offerings from a perspective of Dharma (i.e. following śāstric injunctions) and who do not act from selfish motives (such as the gratification of the senses for one’s own sake) becomes free from attachment/aversion.

That’s enough background for now. In the next post in this series I’ll discuss the actual practice, and save further doses of Abhinavagupta for another time.

Constance Classen (ed) Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures (Routledge, 1993)
Christian Coseru, Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2012)
Laura Desmond Disciplining Pleasure: The Erotic Science of the Kamasutra (Ph.D thesis, University of Chicago, 2011)
Mark S. G. Dyczkowski, The Doctrine of Vibration: An Analysis of the Doctrines and Practices of Kashmir Shaivism (State University of New York, 1987)
Gavin Flood The Tantric Body: The secret tradition of Hindu religion (I.B. Tauris, 2006)
David Howes Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (University of Michigan, 2009)
David Howes The Sixth Sense Reader (Berg, 2009)
Michael Magee The Grade Papers of the Magical Order of AMOOKOS (Prakasha Publishing, 2011)
Boris Marjanovic (translator) Abhinavagupta’s Commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita: Gītārtha Saṃgraha (Indica Books, 2004)
Srinivasa Rao, Perceptual Error: The Indian Theories (University of Hawaii Press, 1998)
Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (I) Translated by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley (Continuum, 2008)
Kerry M. Skora The Pulsating Heart and Its Divine Sense Energies: Body and Touch in Abhinavagupta’s Trika Śaivism (Numen, 54, 2007, pp420-458)

Perspectives on Abhinavagupta’s Dehastha Devata Chakra Stotram
David Howes The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies
David Howes The Craft of the Senses
Raffaele Torella Liberation From Passion vs Liberation Through Passions (Shimla Lecture II, 2012, accessed via