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Tantra keywords: Embodied

“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.”dehasthadevatacakrastotra

For this post, I want to discuss some “Tantric” themes which relate to embodiment – in particular, whilst stressing that Tantra constitutes an embodied practice, I also want to point towards a key difference between South Asian and “western” esoteric epistemologies – that underwriting Tantra’s embodied practice is what might be called an embodied theology.

Embodiment and “bodies” have been increasingly the subject of scholarly focus from the 1970s onwards. In contrast to the majoritarian “natural” body – typically assumed to be a fixed material entity, subject to empirical science and existing apart from culture, the body has been historicised, and analysed as as much a cultural phenomenon as a biological entity – and the very boundaries of corporeality have also been brought into question. For a useful overview, see Csordas, 1994; also Adrian Harris’ Embodiment Resources

Perspectives on Embodiment are shaping the way that scholars are approaching Tantric Bodies – in terms of understanding how traditions & practices produce Tantric Bodies. A number of scholars have drawn on Foucault’s studies of “technologies of the self” in order to interpret how disciplinary practices produce bodies in accordance with ideal subjectivities and symbolic representations.

The familiar dualism of mind v. body, or body v. soul, with the attendant antagonism towards the body (“The body is tomb”, says Plato, in his Gorgias) is (more or less) completely absent in South Asian theologies. As Herbert Guenther points out: “…the body is not something that man has, but man is his body.” (Guenther, 1972, p9) Furthermore, as Ian Whicher has argued, systems such as classical Samkhya and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – which have tended to be interpreted as “dualistic” (and thereby associated with a world-denying “spiritual liberation”) can be approached in different ways (See for example, Whicher, 2003).

“The human body, which is a consequence of the contraction of consciousness, is thought to contain the higher universe beyond it and also the absolute consciousness of Siva which which it is ultimately identical and of which it is a projected form. The human body is, therefore, homologous with the cosmical hierarchy, which we might call the ‘manifest cosmic body,’ and contains within its transcendent source, what we might call the ‘essential cosmic body.'” Gavin Flood, Body and Cosmology in Kashmir Shaivism (Mellen Research University Press, 1993)

The Tantric Body, as Flood points out (2006) is actively constructed through practice and the forms of tradition – the body is shaped/experienced according to the root metaphors of tradition & culture. Lakoff & Johnson’s (1999) presentation of the embodied basis of metaphorical thinking is a useful starting point, although they overlook the historical and cultural specificity of metaphors – that is, the way that metaphorical concepts are shaped, constrained (and contested) within the surrounding social, cultural, historical & geopolitical contexts. It’s easy, for example, to fall into the trap of assuming that when tantric texts “talk” about bodies – that the idea of body corresponds to how the body is conceptualised in contemporary western thought. It’s usually the case that Sanskrit terms often interpreted as “body” have a much broader semantic range. The term atmabhava for example, which occurs in Buddhist texts, can be understood not only in terms of the corporeal/material body, but also the entire person – including feelings, thoughts, sense-perceptions and moral qualities. Similarly, the term hridya – often translated as “heart” refers not merely to the anatomical organ, but in a much broader sense, to the ‘core’ of one’s being which is simultaneously the whole of reality. In the nondual Trika the Heart embodies the paradoxical nature of Siva – both transcendent and immanent; simultaneously still and vibrating (see Muller-Ortega, 1989 for an examination of the Heart in nondual Kashmir Shaivism).

How then, to think of Tantric bodies? The Tantric body is all – it is the lived cosmos. Bodies are in constant flux; expanding – contracting; folding-unfolding; enmeshed in complex webs of relationality – mandala bodies; yantra bodies – relating/merging with other beings, both bodied and unbodied. Tantra bodies are multiplicities, open systems in continual process. The Tantric Body is both the site for, and the means of transformation – an expansion of awareness that the lived cosmos and transcendent source are identical to the body.

In the Trika tradition, visualisation -combined with other practices such as mantra, nyasa, etc., is said to draw the deities near to the practitioner by coalescing their shape or form out of consciousness, whereupon they come to reside in the ritually-prepared body – particularly in the heart. Aspects of tantra practice are often denoted as being either Internally (antaryaga) or externally (bahiryaga) directed. Internal worship might involve for example, visualising one’s chosen deity taking up residence in one’s body. External worship might involve worshipping a deity as present within an image. However, these should not be read as opposed practices, but as practices which synergistically support each other – internal practice (what might be construed as “meditation” in the West) supports and enhances external practice (ritual).

Susan Greenwood, in her recent work on magical consciousness (see review) has proposed that analogical thinking is core feature of magical consciousness. For nondual tantra as the entirety of the lived cosmos unfolds from a single point (see my notes on tattvas for some related discussion), I’d argue that Tantra is oriented towards homological thinking (iI’ll come back to this another time). Tantric texts abound with highly complex, rhizomatic homologies – and these homologies are not merely textual/abstract – but extend into social and material culture – to geographical locations, architectural elements, buildings, etc. Similarity between elements is never absolute, nor does it reduce differences – what we find instead is homologies between multiplicities. The Sankrit kula for example, can refer an (extended) family grouping – and by extension, what which is obtained from a family (in the sense of lineage); it can refer to a group of deities; to the embodied cosmos in the widest sense – and the process of that emergence (Sakti). Muller-Ortega points out that:

“In the inconceivable enormity of Siva’s game, any self-contained unit – for example, our universe – may be termed a kula. The unit is self-sufficient precisely because it is a part that is structured out of wholeness. Since the kula’s essential reality is finally that wholeness which it has bodied forth, every unit or kula, resonates in identity with every other structure, composed of that wholeness. It is in this way that the human body, as a kula, resonates in identity with the entire universe.

This resonance might be explained as a kind of parallelism between a microcosm, the body, and a macrocosm, the universe itself. The notion of kula, however, tends to collapse the micro/macrocosm distinction. In a final sense, due to the indivisible nature of Siva, microcosm and macrocosm are simply indistinguishable. Wherever Siva is present, the whole is present. If the body is a structure composed essentially of Siva, then all that is manifested from Siva, including the entire array of universes, may be found present in the body. Their presence in the body is not, it must be emphasised, as a microcosmic replica. The infinite reality out of which the array of universes are structured is present in the body, and thus they too are present in the body.” (Muller-Ortega, 1989, p101-102).

That seems like a good note to end (for now).

Further Reading
Thomas Csordas Embodiment and experience: the existential ground of culture and self (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Gavin Flood, Body and Cosmology in Kashmir Shaivism Mellen Research University Press, 1993
Gavin Flood, The Tantric Body: The secret tradition of Hindu religion I.B. Tauris, 2006
Herbert Guenther The Tantric view of Life Shamballa Publications, 1972,
Geroge Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (Basic Books, 1999)
David Peter Lawrence, The Teachings of the Odd-Eyed One: A study and translation of the Virupaksapancasika with the Commentary of Vidycakrvartin SUNY, 2008
Paul Muller-Ortega, The Triadic Heart of Siva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non-Dual Shaivism of Kashmir SUNY, 1989
Anne Weinstone, Avatar Bodies: A Tantra for Posthumanism University of Minnesota Press, 2004
Ian Whicher, David Carpenter (eds) Yoga: the Indian Tradition RoutledgeCurzon, 2003
David Gordon White, Sinister Yogis University of Chicago Press, 2009