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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
  • consistent
  • 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.


  1. Steve Davies
    Posted March 4th 2010 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Phil- Interesting how tantra’s emphasis on interdependence and permiability seems to have mirrored similar ideas in the west re: the macrocosom- e.g. the wyrd, chaos theory, Bateson’s thinking on system’s theory. For me the attraction to tantra and related ideas such taoist alchemy, has been that such philosopher-practitioners were able to speak so meaningfully about emboddied practice- getting beyond Descatian dualism and using the bodymind as a magickal laboratory.

    Interesting that the theosophists in encountering these vivid descriptors failed to see the art of such experience and got a bit hung up on the science- Leadbeaters contention that there were x amount of petals on chakra such and such!

  2. Gyrus
    Posted March 4th 2010 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Some great points of departure here. If I might add a couple more…

    An interesting event in the history of the “mechanized” body is pointed out by Robert Romanyshyn (who wrangles the overlap between phenomenology and depth psychology). In Mirror and Metaphor, and even better in Technology as Symptom and Dream, he highlights the significance of William Harvey proving conclusively that the heart acts as a pump in the 17th century. Romanyshyn sees this as splitting “the heart” as a potent psychological reality into the literal organ on the one hand, and the sentimentalization of emotion on the other. He also makes much of the publishing coincidence in 1543 of Vesalius’ On the Workings of the Human Body and Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres—preparing the way for the mechanized understanding of the body and the undermining of our immediate experience of being on the planet (a long but fascinating story).

    Another thing triggered by this post is thinking about how I used to agree so whole-heartedly with Blake’s anti-dualism (“Man has no Body distinct from his Soul”). But then another line of his—about the necessity of seeing through and not with the eye—struck and confused me. Seeing through the eye suggests some form of dualism. Though obviously he’s thinking of the resonant duality of metaphor rather than the violent split of Cartesian philosophy. I’m not sure; but there’s an interesting dissonance between these two parts of Blake’s thought that’s slowly taken me past simplistic anti-dualism. (Seems tantra and Deleuze are waiting for me ahead of this particular curve…)

  3. Phil Hine
    Posted March 5th 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink


    Leadbeater’s book The Chakras is, for me, a useful example for examining how occult discourse reifies and mirrors wider cultural transitions – because, I’d argue, Leadbeater’s presentation of the chakras as an interpretation and yes, a corrective of the Indian material he was drawing on has more to do with the emerging view of the body as a system for regulating/managing energy in the “scientific” sense I’ve outlined above. Also, it can be seen as an attempt to produce an occult-medical body – Leadbeater’s book is a kind of occulted version of Grey’s Anatomy. This book, written from the lofty panoptical perspective of the “higher planes” is undoubtedly responsible for kicking off the notion that the chakras have an independent ontological status.

  4. Wupidoo
    Posted March 17th 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    This is the stuff of cutting edge of behavioural sciences these days. I suggest Relational Being by Kenneth Gregen as a good starting point. Also, a bit more technical, but Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, Supersizing the Mind by Andy Clarke and Distributed Cognition and the Will by Ross et al are good on the situated, embodied and distributed nature of cognition. But you kind of need a good grounding in psychology to understand them. I’d also recommend anything by Antonio Damasio, who is usually easy to understand and covers the central role of emotion in thinking; so breaking down the traditional understanding of rationality. Who else? Bodies of Thought by Ian Burkitt and The Social Body by Nick Crossley bring in more sociological elements. All feature the french philosopher Maurice Merleau-ponty in some way, or related ideas for Pierre Bourdeau.

  5. Wupidoo
    Posted March 17th 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Oh yeah, I forgot that you have a grounding in psychology Phil. I went to Hudds some years after you, and R van K remembered you to me when I did my assignment for him on chaos magick.

  6. Phil Hine
    Posted March 18th 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Thanks for those book recommendations, Wupidoo. I’m reading Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and Skill at the moment, having spent the last few months chewing my way through Bourdieu and Talal Asad. I still have fond memories of Rudy Van Kemenade’s philosophy seminars at Huddersfield Poly.

    • Wupidoo
      Posted April 4th 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      Thanks to you also; mentioning that Ingold book is timely since I’m writing a conference paper for which it will be very relevant. My starting point is Guy Debord and the Situationists using a wandering technique to map the ‘psychogeography’ of urban environments. I’m also drawing upon a book called Nature and Psyche that Gyrus reviews on his site.

      Yes, it was Rudy who introduced me to Bourdieu via Norbert Elias. He certainly gave me plenty to think about whilst climbing Wessenden Head.

      Great to find yourself and Joel in discussion. His words have magically found me ever since I sent off for that confounded Kaos 13. 🙂