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Tantra keywords: Wonder

I’m working on an article at the moment, attempting to explain what for me, are some of the basic orientations of my approach to Tantra practice. Rather than seek safety in definitions, I thought it’d be more interesting to examine my own perspective on Tantra practice by highlighting a few keywords – and so I’m beginning with Wonder.

“The planes of yogic realization constitute wonder, astonishment.” Siva Sutras, 1.12

I confess, I came out of the 1990s acutely bored with the cool, detached, self-distancing irony which became so popular in that decade. I decided, instead, to make wonder my basic orientation towards the world – to find wonder in the everyday, in small things, the things I often took for granted. Wonder is often related to the perception of the novel, the unexpected, the inexplicable; it’s been linked to what is being increasingly termed a “spiritual” quest for increased connection – the feeling of belonging, of engaged participation. Wonder can be found in a small moment – the sudden unfamiliarity of any artifact and how it came to be; wonder can be an exhaustive epiphany, something I feel throughout my whole body, something that stays with me. Years ago, out climbing with some friends, I became stuck on a cliff, unable to move forwards or backwards, higly conscious of the sheer drop below me. I looked down, and beneath my feet was a frozen stream of ice. I looked into the ice, and was enfolded into a seemingly endless moment of sheer beauty by the scintillating colours and infinitismal reflections, until a friend inched his way over and led me to safety. That night, I dreamt of the colours of the ice, and the echoes of that memory remain with me still, over a decade later.

“The attitude of wonder is notably and essentially other-acknowledging. It is not shut up in self-concern or quasi-solipsistic withdrawal.” Ronald Hepburn, ‘Wonder’ and other Essays, 1984

Wonder has, I sometimes feel, been sidelined in contemporary discussions of magic – as magic is increasingly thought of as a eudaemonistic enterprise. Wonder is, in many ways, antithetical to ulititarian purposiveness, to the urge to categorise, to order. Wonder propels us towards the unfamiliar, to seek new relations, to revel in dizzying complexity and richness. Wonder pulls us into the world beyond a limited horizon, beyond the certain, the familiar, the possible. Wonder is excessive – and its excessive quality is something that western philosophy, trailing in the wake of Aristotle, has fought to foreclose, to rein in. Descartes suggested that whilst wonder might prompt us to learn the nature of things, one should try afterwards to emancipate ourselves from it as much as possible.

Turning to Rasa theory we find quite a different take on wonder.

Rasa is often translated as “savour”, “Juice”, “essence”. In terms of Indian aesthetics it refers not only to artistic-production but also aesthetic-enjoyment; both aspects are fundamentally inter-related and interconnected. Rasa resists definition. The Kashmiri Saivite philospher Abhinavagupta calls it a “magic flower” out of which blooms a sense of wonder. For Ahbinavagupta however, rasa is a “universal” emotion, and in order to taste it, one must forget one’s personal perspective and attachments and be receptive to the universal experience of that sensibility – an experience which is transformative, at least for one who has cultivated sahradaya – “a shared heart”. This aesthetic mode of perception requires the ability to let go of judgement, analysis; the intervention of the grasping mind; the colourings of personal history.

In the tantric and aesthetic works of Abhinavagupta, one finds the term camatkara – an experience of wonder which is itself aesthetic relish:

“The word camatkara, indeed, properly means the action being done by a tasting subject … by the enjoying subject, he who is immersed in the vibrations (spanda) of a marvelous enjoyment (adbhutabhoga)” (see Raniero Gnoli, The Aesthetic Experience according to Abhinavagupta).

Camatkara is also the “flashing forth” experienced when one delights in any sensation. It has the qualities of being uninterrupted (acchina), immersive (avesa) and a sensation of inner fullness (trpti).

The delight we may experience in eating a good meal, listening to music, seeing a close friend after many years of absence, is the result of the cultivation of our aesthetic sensibility:

“The wonder (we feel) is limited to the degree in which this vitality does not feed (consciousness). For the complete absence of wonder is, in effect, an absence of life. Conversely, aesthetic receptivity – being endowed with a heart – is to be immersed in an intense state of wonder consisting of the arousal of vitality. Only he whose heart is fed by this infinite and nourishing vitality, only he who is dedicated to the constant practice (of taking delight in this form of) pleasure, only he and none other is pre-eminently endowed with the ability to feel wonder.” Abhinavagupta, quoted in The Aphorisms of Siva by Vasgupta, Mark S.G. Dyczowski

Abhinavagupta’s yoga is a yoga of wonder, astonishment, delight. It is a discipline of attention, of sensitivity to the world – each opening to wonder bringing us closer to the all-pulsation (spanda) of consciousness which is all-pervading.

Wonder is often associated with the other-worldly, in something that lifts us beyond the ordinary, or everyday – it’s become associated with the idea of transcendence away from the world – towards the “sacred” as distinct from the “mundane.” I find Ursula Goodenough’s insistence on finding that which is sacred in the apprehension of the immediate an appropriate sentiment:

“My ethical aspirations are animated by my apprehension of the immediate, by my sense of belonging and relatedness.”


  1. Danny Lowe
    Posted May 6th 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Interesting read, Phil.

    Very inspiring. Been going over some of my old Tantric academic stuff lately – what strikes me is the focus (in these books, in the way that define Tantra) on ritual rather than this kind of asethetic/meditational approaches. I actually think the latter makes a lot more sense of us as busy Westerners. While there will always be a place for puja for me, pujas, unless they’re undergirded with something like this approach, they be a bit empty. Obviously at their best, they do manage to articulate this sense of wonder (and more besdies),

  2. Phil Hine
    Posted May 6th 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink


    Puja (ritual) can certainly provoke the feeling of wonder – I’ve experienced this many times (ranging from momentary openings-out-into to searing epiphanies which go on for hours (I will get around to discussing some of these experiences in due course). I don’t think though, there is a simple, causal relationship between puja / ritual and these intense experiences (I won’t use “heightened” in respect to these experiences, because spreading out seems more appropriate; I do want to look at how so-called altered states of consciousness have been hierarchicalised at some point too).

    Perhaps we could think of wonder as an instantiation of samavesa – the liberative grace which cannot be forced through or worked for?

  3. Lex
    Posted May 22nd 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I was trembling reading this post.
    Could you please recomend books that speak about “Wonder” and Aesthetics?

  4. Phil Hine
    Posted May 24th 2010 at 1:57 pm | Permalink


    Ronald Hepburn’s book “Wonder” and other essays: eight studies in aesthetics and neighbouring fields springs to mind, although it is out of print. A better bet might be The Yoga of Delight, Wonder and Astonishment: A Translation of the Vijnana-bhairava by Jaideva Singh (1991 Motilal) – in fact any translation of the Vijnana-bhairava – which is basically a set of exercises, will do.

    But really, you don’t need books to find wonder in the world – you’d be better spending a few hours just wandering around enjoying the sunshine – go and sit by a river, in a park, or maybe take a trip out to the countryside whilst the weather’s nice. One of the exercises in the v-b is just about sitting, and opening yourself to the immensity of the sky.

  5. Avi Solomon
    Posted February 21st 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for reminding me of the Vijnana-bhairava. I agree that a gram of practical Wonder is worth tons of theoretical musings.

    That said one of the most eloquent articulations of the experience of wonder is by Jacob Klein:
    “I have said before that within the confines of our horizon there is the expected as well as the unexpected, the old and the new, the known and the unknown, the familiar and the unfamiliar. We do, however, experience a kind of question which, as it were, tends to smash the bounds that limit us. We do occasionally stop altogether and face the familiar as if for the first time — anything: a person, a street, the sky, a fly. The overwhelming impression on such occasions is the strangeness of the thing we contemplate. This state of mind requires detachment, and I am not at all certain to what extent we can contrive its presence. We suddenly do not feel at home in this world of ours. We take a deep look at things, at people, at words, with eyes blind to the familiar. We re-flect. Plato has a word ,for it: metastrophe or periagoge, a turnabout, a conversion. We detach ourselves from all that is familiar to us; we change the direction of our inquiry; we do not explore the unknown any more; on the contrary, we convert the known into an unknown. We wonder. And we burst out with that inexorable question: Why is that so? To be sure, we have raised the question “why” before. I can certainly ask: Why did it snow yesterday and does not snow today? Why did Mr. X say this or that to Mr. Y? But this “why” I am talking about now is of a different kind. It does not lead to any discovery or recovery. It calls myself in question with all my questioning. It compels me to detach myself from myself, to transcend the limits of my horizon; that is, it educates me. It gives me the freedom to go to the roots of all my questioning. I can begin to understand that even our gossiping may ultimately rest on the transcendent power of this “why”; that even the children’s “why,” repeated endlessly to the disgust of their mothers and fathers, may ultimately derive from the human possibility of a total conversion.”

    And this sentence from “Joe vs. the Volcano” is unforgettable: