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Metaphor, Metonymy & tantric interpretations – II

It seems likely, for example, that advanced practitioners of yoga and other psychophysical practices would develop rather distinctive image schemata appropriate to their experiences and sadhana, transmitted by specific gurus and teaching lineages.
Quoted from Glen A. Hayes in Whicher, Carpenter, p164 (2003)

For this post I’m going to focus on the work of tantric scholar Glen A. Hayes, who has produced a number of fascinating essays on aspects of the Vaisnava tradition. I’ve been interested in the Vaisnava forms of tantra for some years now, ever since I read Edward Dimock’s classic The Place of the Hidden Moon. Generally, when attempting to get to grips with forms of tantra, I’ve found it very useful not only to look at what I think of as primary traditions (those that form the major inspiration for practice) – which for me, is (more-or-less) Srividya and the Kaula streams, but also to examine other forms of tantra and related traditions (see For the Love of God: Variations of the Vaisnava School of Krishna Devotion which I wrote back in 2003, as an early attempt to find queer themes in Vaisnava tantra). Hayes’ translation of the practice of Bhuta Suddhi from The Necklace of Immortality for example, helped me get to grips with this particular practice enormously.

As this series progresses, I will at some point get around to exploring some of the key themes which have emerged out of Lakoff & Johnson’s work on metaphor. However, for now, I think it would be more useful to examine how some aspects of those theories are being applied to tantric studies.

Over the last few years, there has been a move in scholarly research away from treating tantra as a singular, pan-Indian tradition, and an increased focus towards regional tantric vernacular traditions – for example, both Hugh Urban and Loriliai Biernacki have focused on tantra in Assam (and Hugh Urban’s The Economics of Ectasy examines the Bengali Kartabhaja movement with its mingling of tantric, Christian and mercantile imagery). Hayes’ work in the essays I’m examining here focuses on localised forms of Bengali Vaisnava Sahajiya. As Hayes remarks (2006, p45): “One way to “liberate” local tantras from the constraints of the dominant Sanskrit-based model of “tantra” is to explore the vernacular language itself, to coax out the often-profound metaphors and entailments that “live” in the texts.” For Hayes, examining vernacular traditions is important not only because they developed in particular cultural and historical contexts, but also in that they use distinctive metaphors “in their attempt to construe and express sacred realities and beings”.

Hayes draws on the work of Lakoff & Johnson and Gary Palmer (Towards a Theory of Cultural Linguistics) – in particular, Palmer’s argument for “folk cognitive models”. He suggests that in vernacular tantric traditions, practitioners are not just using different language to express a global tantric world-view – but that they are “expressing distinct cognitive and cosmological models.” He gives as an example the Sahajiya “cosmophysiology” of ponds and rivers which is so different from the familiar Saivite schema of cakras and nadis. It’s this aspect of Sahajiya practice that initially caught my attention, as it struck me as a much more naturalistic (and poetic) schema for homologising various layers of experience than the rather static presentation of chakras, nadis etc., that has become dominant in western occult representations of the “internal body”.

Hayes points out that, in the case of Vaisnava Sahajiyas bodily experiences, image schematas and metaphorical projections would have been influenced not only by tradition-specific understandings of the relationship between body, senses, imagination and reality, but also the wider Bengali culture and language, other religious forms, and geography – and that in order to understand the “metaphoric worlds” of the Vaisnava Sahajiyas, one should always be attentive to the surrounding context. This in itself is an important point, as outside of contemporary scholarly work, tantric practices are all too often represented as being a ‘break’ with the wider South Asian cultural and religious traditions – as though tantra is wholly radically different to “mainstream” culture.

Hayes goes on to examine some Vaisnava Sahajiyas metaphorical projections which express the relationship between embodiment and the process of liberation. For example, in The Necklace of Immortality there is the stanza;

This path of sadhana is difficult to traverse, it is near-yet-far; from a distance it seems close, from close up it seems distant.

This expresses the familiar tantric/yogic metaphor of sadhana as a journey, but adds a paradoxical twist – “near-yet-far” which, Hayes says, is an image often used by Vaisnava Sahajiyas. He also shows how Vaisnava Sahajiya image schemata relates to geography by discussing the system of the winding, crooked river and the four enchanted lotus ponds which Vaisnava Sahajiya teachings replace the schemata of cakras familiar to Saiva/Sakta systems.

He quotes (2006, p43-44) from the Amrtaratnavali of Mukunda:

Through the ninth door is the Pond of Lust (kāma-sarovara).
Thus has been proclaimed the story which all the sastras discuss.
There are the Pond of Lust (kama-sarovara) [and] the Pond of Self-
Consciousness (mana-sarovara);
The Pond of Divine Love (prema-sarovara) [and] the Pond of Indestructibility
The four ponds lie within the heart.
If you have a body (deha), you can reach the other shore.

In his contribution to Tantra in practice Hayes notes that the four lotus ponds (sarovaras “clearly reflects the watery deltaic geography and topography of Bengal, and it also expresses the Sahajiya emphasis on physicality, substances, and fluids.” (p313).

In the wider Vaisnava tradition, rivers and ponds are frequently mentioned as sites particuarly associated with Krishna and Radha – and as sites of transformation. The Narada Purana for example, contains the story of how the sage Narada is transformed into a gopi after bathing in a pond called “Kusum Sarovar” on the instructions of the goddess Vrinda – after which Narada was able to participate in the secret love play of Krishna. The transformative power of Krishna’s sacred ponds is also attested to by Vaisnava sadhus:

“A bath in the Radharani pond [kunda] will give you the body of a gopi so you can love Krishna like Radha. Even Lord Shiva came here so he could take part in rasa-lila [Krishna’s circle dance with the gopis.”
Charles R. Brooks, in Lynch (1990)

The Yamuna river is said by some devotees to have been formed from the drops of persipration that fell from Krishna’s body as he made love (large sections of the Yamuna are now heavily polluted). For further discussion of the role of ponds in Krishna devotional practice, see Haberman, 1994. Of course in India, water and bathing have complex associations between life, washing away sin, and the threshold between earth and heaven. The foursquare stepped ponds built adjacent to temples are considered to be tirthas (“ford, crossing”).

So the Sahajiya schema of Lotus ponds homologises body/sadhana with local geography, social & cultural forms and the rich mythopoesis of Krishna. Both Mark Dyczkowski (A Journey in the World of the Tantras) and David Gordon White (Kiss of the Yogini have argued that the various “internal geographies” (i.e. body-mappings, of which cakra schemas are but one example) of tantric traditions relate to sacred geographies of place and their interiorisation – and entextualisation.

Loriliai Biernacki, Renowned Goddess of Desire: Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra Oxford University Press, 2007
Charles R. Brooks, Hare Krishna, Radhe Shyam: The Cross-Cultural Dynamics of Mystical Emotions in Brindaban in Divine passions: the social construction of emotion in India Owen M Lynch (ed), Univ. California Press, 1990
Gavin Flood, The Tantric Body IB Tauris, 2006
David L Haberman, Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna Oxford University Press, 1994
Glen A. Hayes Metaphoric Worlds and Yoga in the Vaisnava Sahajiya Tantric Traditions of Medieval Bengal in Yoga: The Indian Tradition, Ian Whicher, David Carpenter (eds) RoutledgeCurzon, 2003
Glen A. Hayes, The Guru’s Tongue: Metaphor, Imagery, and Vernacular Language in Vaisnava Sahajiya Traditions in Pacific World Journal Third Series, No.8, Fall 2006
Glen A. Hayes, The Necklace of Immortality: A Seventeenth-Century Vaisnava Sahajiya Text in Tantra in practice David Gordon White (ed), Motilal Banarsidass, 2001
Hugh B. Urban, The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies IB Tauris, 2010


  1. Steve Ash
    Posted May 14th 2011 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    I like this approach, but how can it distinguish ‘authentic’ or empirically dominant local traditions (like Kaula arguably) from a ‘distortionate’ cultural tradition?

    With regard to the later doesnt the presence of cultural material act as transcendental signifier or whatever making it instantly suspect? Even naturalistic descriptions are loaded with cultural baggage aren’t they?

    I know we can’t really escape the cultural relatives, but shouldnt we be minimalising them?

    • Phil Hine
      Posted June 6th 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink


      how can it distinguish ‘authentic’ or empirically dominant local traditions (like Kaula arguably) from a ‘distortionate’ cultural tradition?

      Well I don’t think it aims at that.I’m reminded of a remark that Mike Magee made some time back that trying to seperate tantric traditions is much like herding cats, it’s probably doable, but very difficult. You could for example, look at an early, proto-tantric text such as the Pasupati Sutra and find traces of Buddhist influence, but that wouldn’t necessarily entail that the Pasupati school was a distortion of Indian Buddhism. Or perhaps I’m missing your point?

      Even naturalistic descriptions are loaded with cultural baggage aren’t they?

      You are correct of course – I’ll try and return to “naturalistic descriptions” at a later point.

      I know we can’t really escape the cultural relatives, but shouldnt we be minimalising them?

      Perhaps you could expand on that?