Kula Bodies – I
“Yes, we perceive our own world in connected, synthesized and unfolded series, always from some specific zone of perception, such as the human eye or body. This is the productive synthesis which is at heart of all experience, not only human experience. We can see the way in which the eye connects its visual field, the way human bodies connect to produce groups, the way organisms connect to produce ecological synergies. But it is illegitimate to go from connection and production to an unseen but presupposed subject or ‘who’ that is the ground or hidden order of production. From organized bodies–assembled through connections–we can extrapolate a ‘body without organs’ that must have been their condition, but this will always be read back from its effects.”
Claire Colebrook Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed
Contemporary western notions of selfhood & identity are strongly bound to the body whether it be slimmed, worked out, tanned, trimmed, modified, pierced or tattoed. The body – particularly the way the body ‘looks’ has, in contemporary western culture, become a site for identity work. From medicine & biology has emerged the body-as-organism – about which there can be objective knowledge of a universal kind concerning its constituent parts and internal systems.
In the 19th century, the body becomes a thermodynamic machine – a motor or turbine – an engine for consuming and producing. According to Anson Rabinach (The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity) Helmholtz’s 1847 articulation of the law of Energy Conservation led to the idea of of nature as a vast storehouse of energy available for “productive work” and the body as a “machine for transforming energy into work” (and no different from say, a steam engine or a waterfall). Helmholtz coined the term “labour power” and the convinction emerged that science – applied to work – could maximise the productive potential of the human body. The body became an energetic state resource subject to calculation, regulation and management. The 19th century sees the emergance of the body in need of regulation (via the establishment of norms); reform (body “problems” such as disease, fatigue or immoral behaviour); maintenance; bodies as objects for visual consumption and pleasure, and disciplined (trained) in order to become part of the “well-oiled machine.”
“It is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated within it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.” Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1977
Since Descartes (17th century) the overarching vision of selfhood is the immaterial “ghost in the machine” that own and controls body in the same way that you own and control a car. Descartes’ dualism did much to create the modern concepts of mind, matter and science insofar as it is “science” which is the discipline that studies matter – that is “public” objects which are held to be unthinking and deterministic. “Mind” – that which (in Descartes’ scheme) is defined in terms of privacy, thinking, purposiveness and freedom – was the realm of philosophers and the Church.
One of the problems of the western commonsense view of mind-body is the assumption that it is universal – that everyone thinks like we do – and that variations or anomalies are treated as unimportant. Concepts are embedded in webs of usage and it is hard to disentangle concept from context – and when we attempt to read other cultures, we tend to do so from our own interpretations and understandings.
“The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgement, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against the social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures” Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture.
The western concept of selfhood is commonly held to be characterised as:
- developing over time
- the source of freedom, will, agency, responsibility and morality
- a self-sufficient, non-divisible unit (atomism) the bearer of individual human rights
- defined by independence & relationships are Secondary – they do not define who we are.
An argument that I will be returning to again and again throughout this “bodies” series is that tantra is rooted in a quite different understanding of personhood than the “western” model above – rather, it is permeable and relational – the tantric “body” as an open system. A central feature of tantric nondual ideology is the orientation towards relational triplicities – for example, the Three Shaktis (Jnana, Iccha, Kriya), the Three Worlds, Three Lights (Sun, Moon, Fire), Three Cities, etc. A relational understanding of experience is expressed as the Knower, the Known, and the Process of Knowing. However, this Knowing is not merely an individual process, it takes place within the Kula – the community, family, or clan. In a wider sense, Kula is the transactional field or network of relationships in which we participate with others, both bodied and unbodied; with animals, plants, objects and transferable power-substances (see David Gordon White’s The Kiss of the Yogini for a discussion of the Kulamarta “clan-fluids” for example). Samasta-kula is a term used by Abhinavagupta to denote the “entire group” of powers – mind, breath, body, senses, which further reflects the tantric ideology of homologising the constituent elements of the cosmos with those of the body. Similarly, Kauliki Kulanayiki Sakti he describes as She who provides (i.e. is the source of) all vibrations of the body, the pranas (winds) and the experience of joy. It is She who is the source of the circle of deities; who is the innermost form of the senses and nadis, and is the impeller of the creation of life.
I will discuss this perspective another time in terms of McKim Marriot’s theory of South Asian personhood – the “dividual” and examine some of the ways in which this approach to identity – which stresses the permeable and the fluid, can be used to rethink the both dominant western perspective of personhood and understandings of tantric magical praxis.