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Introduction to Tantra: Part 2, The History of Tantra

The History of Tantra

Tantra as a designated practice arose within India in the first few centuries of the common era. It prospered into the medieval period when Yoga started to become dominated more by the practices of Haṭha Yoga, which will be explained next.

The precise arrival of Tantra is difficult to fully know since much of the practice remained secret to non-initiates throughout its entire history. It may have existed much earlier and threads of it or its prototypes can be seen earlier. It is clear that Tantra represented the emergence of a kind of respect for the folk and indigenous practices of the rural and village people in India. Its roots are in practices which are incredibly ancient, but which would have been considered primitive or savage by the dominant priestly hierarchies. The golden age of Tantra in India thus reflects a time where the authority and power of these priestly classes were being challenged.

This can even be seen in some of the names and stories of the most famous Siddhas, or accomplished Tantric adepts.

Matsyendranātha is said to be the founder of the Kaula lineage, one of the lineages that remained the most distant from the Vedic authorities. He was said to be a fisherman who was swallowed by a fish one day. The fish brought him to the bottom of the ocean where he heard Śiva and Devī (The Goddess, a name for Śakti) explaining the details of Tantric Yoga. He used this knowledge to survive inside the belly of the fish until he returned to land and perfected his Yoga and taught disciples. His name means “Fisherman Lord.” He had many disciples, which included householders and renunciates.

His most famous and renowned disciple was Gorakṣanātha. Matsyendra was traveling through a village and a woman approached him, telling him she had been unable to conceive a child. She asked if he would provide her with a blessing that would allow her to do so. He handed her a seed and told her to plant it and went on his way. She thought he must have been fooling her and so threw the seed away into a heap of cow dung. When Matsyendra returned some time later and inquired after her son, she told him what she had done. He went to the dung heap and pulled out a perfectedly healthy baby boy and told her that if she didn’t want him, he would take him to be his disciple. He became Gorakṣanātha, whose name means “Cowherder Lord.” Gorakṣa is generally said to have been a renunciate and to have primarily taught to other renunciates.

Fishermen and cowherders were among the lower castes within Indian society and so these names can be seen as a way of mocking the rigid caste system of the Vedic priests. The tantric masters were regarded with suspicion at first, but when their attainments had been clearly demonstrated, they became highly respected within mainstream society and even acknowledged by the existing authorities.

During the golden age of Tantra within Indian society, many even enjoyed royal patronage. This allowed for the writing of many Sanskrit texts which recorded their beliefs, practices, and history. Most of the written record of Tantra comes from these kind of texts, though much more was probably known and practiced without being written down or disseminated publicly.

Tantra thus emerges as a distinct phenomenon and disappears back into the background, but its foggy beginnings and far-reaching influences allow it to merge to some degree with the more universal stream of practitioners across the world who have sought and cultivated the energy and awareness of Supreme Reality. There is only one Reality, even if it has been expressed and worked with in varying ways in different times and places. Tantra can thus claim some heirship with any who have rejected conventional modes in favor of a more direct and refined experience of that Reality.

Introduction to Tantra: Part 1

Overview

Tantra is a classical Indian philosophy and practice which is often misunderstood, both in India and in the West. It is a complete system for liberation which builds upon the idea that everything we experience is infused with the sacred.

One of the difficulties in understanding Tantra is that it is a system which emphasizes direct experience, rather than mere learning or accumulation of knowledge. Historically, it has often been kept secret, not out of a desire to keep it from others, but because of the possibility of misunderstanding it.

Specifically, Tantra involves working with something that is alternatively called Śiva or Śakti. These are often shown symbolically as deities, but they are actually principles. They are ways of describing the underlying Supreme Reality. Sometimes they are spoken of as if they are opposing poles or two principles behaving in relationship with one another. This is true on one level, but it is perhaps a bit more accurate to say that they are two ways of looking at the same thing. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to fully describe Supreme Reality and so we end up emphasizing one aspect of it. Depending on which aspect is emphasized, Supreme Reality may be referred to as Śiva or may be referred to as Śakti.

Supreme Reality is innately aware and conscious and this is what we call Śiva. The word Śiva literally means an “auspicious sign” or a “good omen.” It is the mark in our awareness when this underlying Reality is being experienced directly.

Supreme Reality is also innately energetic and creative and this is what we call Śakti. The word Śakti means “power” or “energy.” It is the sensation and expression of the dynamic pulsation of Reality.

Śiva and Śakti are often expressed as the masculine and feminine forms of the Divine. This has some merit, but it is important to recognize that this has very little to do with the gender roles of our social conventions. Biology is full of gendered expressions of life, for example, but even here very few of these expressions have much to do with our ideas about “men” and “women.”

Tantra argues that this Cosmic Reality can be experienced directly. The experience is not something which can be described very accurately, but it has great utility to one who is interested in knowledge of Self or any kind of inner unfolding. Aside from being a direct experience (we could say gnosis) of Reality itself, Śiva/Śakti makes the practice of meditation much easier since, when this force is coursing through us, meditative states come more naturally and sometimes even spontaneously. Tantra would argue that this Supreme Reality is our natural state, even that it is our true Self.

               


Śarīrakañcukitaḥ śivo jīvo niṣkañkucaḥ paraśivaḥ I:5

Śiva cloaked in the body is the individual soul, uncloaked he is the supreme Śiva.” – Paraśurāma Kalpa Sūtra

Tantra is a living tradition that requires direct transmission from a person who has competency with its process to another person who has prepared themselves to receive the experience. This is the initial transmission, which is called Śaktipāta, or “descent of Śakti.”  This experience awakens one to the Cosmic Reality and sets them on the path of developing this Śakti within themselves. One can only cultivate what one can recognize and this is why the transmission must happen through an act of Grace. This is why Tantra emphasizes the importance of a true Guru, or teacher, who has cultivated this Śakti themselves and can awaken it in others. We do sometimes receive some kind of Śaktipāta from circumstances in our lives, but this still would require a living teacher to properly align this in us.

Once, the initial transmission and awakening has happened, then the practitioner can find that power again and practice with raising it, projecting it, and absorbing it. This cultivation is what carries the individual’s inner development and where the various “techniques” of Tantra come in. The energy itself is still the primary focus and anything else is a mere accessory to this process. Rituals or specific formulae may or may not be employed, but at least meditation is a must to develop the focus and expansion of awareness necessary to work with this power.

The practitioner may also seek out initiation, called Dīkṣa. Initiation may be into a mantra, a practice, or a lineage. This is a specific kind of Śaktipāta that creates a powerful energetic link within the practitioner. This facilitates connection with the powerful liberated beings that came before, so that one can seek their guidance, blessings, and protection.

Within the body, the Śakti is often referred to as Kuṇḍalinī, meaning “She who is Coiled.” This indicates a kind of potential energy that must be awakened. The “coil” can be likened to an electrical coil. When electricity is run through a coil, it creates a field. The electricity is the awakening of the Suṣumṇa Nāḍī, or Central Channel. The “field” in this case is the Śakti, Śiva, or just the experience of Cosmic Reality.

Next we’ll look into the history of Tantra!

The Doṣas & Āyurveda

One of the components of Āyurvedic medicine is the concept of Doṣa. A Doṣa is a physiological principle that operates in our organism. Traditionally within Āyurveda, there are three Doṣas: Vāta, the airy principle of movement, Pitta, the fiery principle of transformation, and Kapha, the earthy principle of substance.

Every person has all three acting within themselves, but different people’s physiologies tend to emphasize some of these processes over others. If these principles are acting in a balanced and harmonious way then we are healthy, but if one or more of them begins to overstep its bounds then we will be on the path towards disease.

How do we recognize these Doṣas? Āyurveda explains that each Doṣa has specific qualities, called guṇas in Sanskrit, that it expresses. They are described in great detail at times, but the Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam, one of the primary texts of Āyurveda, gives a nice succinct summation in Chapter 1:

तत्र रूक्षो लघु शीतः खरः सूक्ष्मश्चलोऽनिलः |

पित्तं सस्नेहतीक्ष्णोष्णं लघु विस्रं सरं द्रवम् ||

स्निग्धः सीतो गुरु्मन्दः श्लक्ष्णो मृत्स्नः स्थिरः कफः |

Tatra rūkṣo laghuḥ śītaḥ kharaḥ sūkṣmaś calo’nilaḥ |

Pittaṃ sasneha tīkṣṇoṣṇaṃ laghu visraṃ saraṃ dravam ||

Snigdhaḥ śīto gurur mandaḥ ślakṣṇo mṛtsnaḥ sthiraḥ kaphaḥ |

-          Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam, Sūtrasthāna, Chapter 1, Verse 11

It explains that the qualities of Vāta are: Dry, Light, Cold, Rough, Subtle, and Mobile.

The qualities of Pitta are: Oily, Sharp, Hot, Light, ‘fleshy-smelling’, spreading, and liquid.

The qualities of Kapha are: Oily, Cold, Heavy, ‘clay-like’, and stable.

How we see or interpret these qualities is part of the subtlety and assessment practices of Āyurveda.

Which qualities seem to predominate in ourselves? How do they affect our health and our lives in positive or negative ways? Which qualities are predominating in the foods that we eat? These are the kinds of questions that we would look to in Āyurveda.

Rubbing Elbows with the Powerful: Invitations from the Gods

Much of human life is spent in social relations and a good portion of our thoughts are spent navigating our social field. This can definitely be a very lovely thing and it is probably also true that a good portion of our day to day satisfaction and nourishment comes from or through our social fields.

However, Power does tend to sour this a bit and we do sometimes find ourselves in situations where we socially interact for our advancement and perceived benefit rather than out of the pleasure of doing it, whether it’s to network, schmooze, or just that we have to play nice with someone because they have power. As a general element of life, this could be an ordinary enough thing and I’m not suggesting we distress ourselves too much over it, but it is still important to remember and recognize that deep or abiding satisfaction does not usually come through worrying too much about our social standing.

I might even argue that some part of our spiritual practice should involve a deliberate (if only momentary) stepping away from modes of thinking that are concerned with social standing.

The Yoga Sūtras provides a nice contextualization for this by drawing a rather firm and hard line on the subject. What Patanjali argues is that, not only should we not care unduly about what other people think of us, but even if the gods themselves were to be impressed by us, we must not let this cloud our view with any excessive pride.

Depending on your metaphysical orientation, you can feel free to take this as a hyperbole to make a point or as a quite literal precaution on your path.

The Sūtra itself is verse 51 from Chapter III:

Sthānyupanimantraṇe saṅgasmayākaraṇaṃ punaraniṣṭaprasaṅgāt III:51

“Even the invitation of Celestial Beings should be disregarded and not cause any pride or arrogance because it can bring about undesirable consequences.”

This is one of the places where the Bhāṣya commentary goes into a rather lengthy narrative description. I find it rather fun, so I will quote it here:

“The celestial beings in high places noticing the purity of the intellect of those who . . . have attained unalloyed truth try to invite them by tempting them with enjoyments available in their regions in the following manner:--‘Oh Great Soul, come and sit here and enjoy yourself. It is lovely here. Here is a lovely lady. This elixir prevents death and decay. Here is a vehicle which can take you to the skies. The tree which fulfils all wishes is here. This is the holy river Mandākinī and here are the perfected Siddhas and the great seers. Beautiful and obedient nymphs, supernormal eyes and ears, body of adamantine strength, are all here. You have earned all these by your virtues. Come, take all these. This is everlasting, indestructible, undying, and beloved of the deities.’

“Thus accosted he should, however, ponder over the danger of their companionship in this way—‘Baked in the fierce flames of birth and rebirth, and tossed between life and death, I have somehow obtained the light of Yoga which destroys the darkness of afflictions, but this thirstful atmosphere of attachment is antagonistic to that light. Having got that light why should I again be deluded by this mirage of pleasure and make myself a fuel of that burning fire of the cycle of birth and death? Oh, ye pitiable, dreamy seekers for pleasures, may you be happy.’ Being so convinced in mind, concentration should be practised. Not having formed any attachment, let him not also feel a sense of gratification that he is coveted by the celestial beings. Through self-gratification a false sense of security arises and man forgets that death has got him by the hair. In that way delusion would creep into the mind, as it is ever watchful for a chance, and strengthen the afflictions and make recurrence of mischief possible.

“By avoiding attachment and the feeling of pride in the above manner, the Yogin becomes firm in his contemplation which would lead him eventually to the object contemplated upon.”

To the Yogi, even the allure of Heaven is to be regarded with a bit of suspicion. It is always worth noting that this passage doesn’t say that ‘nice things’ are a problem in and of themselves, but just that they become problems to us when we fall into a “thirstful atmosphere of attachment.”

Even aside from some of the more extreme examples that more or may not have become the subject of recent Netflix documentaries, we find that in our spiritual communities, it is common enough for people to become “celebrities” and develop a following that is based around their personality more than their teachings.

It is not even about deprecating these people, it is only to recognize that there may be other ways to engage. If we want our practice to truly help us develop, we can’t mindlessly reproduce “middle school” style social environments in our communities. The mythical Yogis were not even impressed by what the gods could offer them, why are we so easily swayed by what every huckster with a “large brain” and the “best words” has to say?

Ayurvedic Nutrition

Ayurvedic Nutrition as Subject Oriented Nutrition

 

Ayurvedic Nutrition is a radically different approach than that of Western Nutrition. I like to call it Subject Oriented Nutrition because in Ayurveda our main focus is how we experience the food we consume and what information we're able to derive from that experience. What our experience can tell us, what the five senses can tell us.

 

This is why one of our first units for understanding food will be TASTE. It sometimes seems strange to those used to Western Nutrition because they think that just because a food tastes a certain way that doesn't mean it has certain nutrients, etc.

 

Nowadays in general, we tend to view our bodies at best as stumbling blocks and perhaps even as enemies. We assume that if something tastes good it must be unhealthy and that healthy food will taste bad by necessity.

 

However, I believe we should have a bit more respect for our bodies. We actually have quite developed instruments for determine how a food will affect us. The Intelligence in the process of Evolution has provided us with a sensory apparatus that gives us a lot of information about our world and even our food.

 

First Look at the Tastes

 

Let's look at what information we can get from food on just the level of tastes. The classic Ayurvedic tastes are Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent (Spicy), Bitter, and Astringent. Though we will go over how Ayurveda talks about each of these tastes, I like to start by pointing out what information on a scientific level they are providing us with.

 

We can detect the presence of carbohydrates, important for our caloric intake, from the Sweet taste.

 

We can tell the pH of a food within a certain range through the Sour and Bitter tastes. If you don't remember or you've never learned Chemistry, pH is the ratio of Hydrogen ions (positive) to Hydroxide ions (negative). Our body needs to maintain  certain pH's in different organs and tissues in order for them to function properly.

 

We can detect the presence of a specific ionic compound: NaCl, salt. This compound is necessary for the proper transportation of water across the cell membrane and is so vital to our systems that we have developed taste receptors just for it! Despite being present at most tables nowadays, it is also reasonably rare in nature and so it was doubly important to detect.

 

What are we detecting when we taste something as spicy or pungent? I think this one is particularly interesting because it relieves how we all are at least a little masochistic. Pungency is detecting through our tongues pain receptors. That means that these receptors respond to spiciness the same way they'd respond to something actually being too hot in temperature. So, it makes perfect sense that we call spicy food "hot."

 

Astringency is a little different because it is not a "taste" per say, but a feeling in the mouth. Here we are detecting whether something is absorbing water. If it does, it makes our mouth feel dry and we call it "astringent."

 

Refinement of Awareness

 

So, getting back to this idea of oriented our eating from our own experience, even when we talk about unhealthy foods that "taste good", that is not the entirety of our experience of that food. For example, excess of sweet treats might "taste good" at first, but we also experience sleepiness, sluggishness, and maybe even congestion.

 

Coming at Nutrition from a Subject Oriented point of view thus isn't just a simple "Do what feels good!" We have to refine our awareness and use mindfulness to keenly observe what *actually* feels good beyond just the immediate effect.

 

The Purpose of Subject Oriented Nutrition

 

One side effect of some of the aspects of Modern Life is that we often find ourselves disconnected or alienated from our environment, our community, and even our own selves.

 

We see this disconnect in the way we approach food. Many people can much more easily recognize a food by its packaging rather than its origins on a farm. Children in school are unable to identify different vegetables, but they can distinguish between the boxes of dozens of different breakfast cereals (all of which probably contain the same ingredients!).

 

We even see this when we start to think of a food as a mathematical entity: a certain number of calories, a certain number of grams of protein, a certain amount of Vitamin A, etc. This is the strategy of Western Nutrition.

 

Obviously, it *is* useful to be able to talk about the "Nutritional Value" of food in this way, but I believe our scales have shifted so far to that side and that we are at a point where that approach needs to be balanced or it only increases our alienation from our lived experience.

 

We could do with a readjustment towards seeing food as it is in front of us. Towards understanding food by how we experience it on a sensory level.

 

Here I refer everyone to the great Michael Pollan. I think it was Dr. Svoboda who pointed out that, without studying Ayurveda or ever using the word, Michael Pollan has popularized what is essentially an Ayurvedic perspective and has done much to bring our popular consciousness back in line with embodiment.

 

Michael Pollan's famous advice on what to eat, which I will endorse as the simplest Ayurvedic Nutritional advice we can give, is:

 

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

 

This advice, like a Sanskrit sutra, contains within only a few words a wealth of wisdom. So, like one would do with a Sanskrit sutra, let's break it down:

 

Eat Food.

 

Eat food means two things. It means eat food instead of eating calories, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc. It means think of your food as *food* and not as a mathematical entity.

 

Eat food also means eat food instead of "edible food-like substances." Our grocery stores are full of so much processed and crafted food and almost none of it is health promoting. Some more good advice that can serve as a corollary to this is to shop from the sides of the supermarket not the center. In the sides you will find a diversity of foods: vegetables, fruits, eggs, dairy, even meats. In the central aisles you will find a diversity of boxes with mostly the same 4 ingredients: wheat, corn, soy, sugar. Even just from the perspective of having a diverse diet, this is a disaster!

 

Michael Pollan often explains this one by saying, "Eat something your grandmother would recognize as food." I don't know how old any of you are, but unfortunately we're getting to the point where for many we'll have to say "your great grandmother." It was the WWII generation that saw the drastic increase in processed foods and so many of the people of that generation fell hook-line-and-sinker for those flashy new products.

 

I could also add that our grandparents (or great grandparents) were probably culturally more isolated. One more positive byproduct of our globalized world is that we have access to lovely recipes around the world. So, even though my great grandparents might never agree to eat a curry, I can still enjoy them. So, perhaps we can amend "eat something your grandmother would recognize as food" to "eat something *someone's* grandmother would recognize as food."

 

Not too much.

 

Put simply, don't over-consume. Eating too much exhausts our digestive energy (a topic we will return to). It also shows a lack of respect for our environment. The production of food requires labor and resources. If you over-consume you are not showing respect for that sacrifice (a topic we will also return to).

 

Mostly Plants.

 

Ayurveda often gets billed as vegetarian in orientation. This does not have to be the case. Ayurveda accepts vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike and even sometimes prescribes the medicinal use of meat (for those who are not ethical opposed). However, whether a person is vegetarian or omnivorous, in order to be healthy their diet should still consist *mostly* of plants. With some constitutional exceptions, most of us should eat a diet that consists in a large part of vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and other goodies of the plant kingdom. If we decide to have some meat on the side of that or we decide to abstain, that's still well and good.

 

Food & Emotions

 

When we start to attend to our experience of the food we're eating, we will quickly notice that our responses and cravings are not just merely physical. In Ayurveda, we acknowledge that food also has an emotional component.

 

Sometimes, what we desire is not the food per say, but instead the food as a surrogate for a certain kind of emotional nourishment. This explains why we might overeat or undereat or have cravings or aversions that aren't due to physical needs.

 

A mindful approach to food can then start to parse out when we actually have hunger for a food itself and when we have a hunger for something less tangible. The easiest example is that, in Ayurveda, we associate the Sweet Taste with Love. So, often a person will over-consume Sweets because what they really want is to feel loved. Cultivating good relationships and even developing a healthy sense of Self-Love is thus critical for overcoming this craving.

 

Digestion as a General Metaphor in Ayurveda

 

People often say, "You are what you eat." In Ayurveda, we say, "You are not so much what you eat as what you actually *digest*."

 

When you have started to develop a good understanding of your experience of food, you will also naturally start to develop an understanding of your own appetite. You will notice wen you feel full, when you can longer put something to proper use. When you can't "digest" any more.

 

This becomes a larger metaphor in Ayurveda, where we discuss not just digestion of food, but also digestion of experience or information.

 

Everything we experience is only so much "raw data" (note the term here) until we can digest it into information. Hopefully, we can digest that information into Knowledge, and, if we're *really* lucky, we can even digest that knowledge into Wisdom.

 

And so, we must not only feed ourselves right (physically and mentally), but also work to foster and caretake our ability to digest.

 

In Ayurveda, we use the metaphor of AGNI or FIRE to talk about this. Ayurvedic students and practitioners are thus always going on about our "agni." "Oh, my agni is feeling a little taxed today." "Wow, my agni was so strong today that I almost bite my co-worker's head off when he tried to talk to me when I was on my way to lunch." etc.

 

Just like making a campfire, you can put fuel on a fire that will help it grow, or you can put things on it which will put it out. If the fire is strong, it may be able to take a heavy log, but if it is not, it might require some kindling.

 

Building a healthy fire takes care and patience and time.

 

 

The Ritual of Eating

 

For our final topic here I'll try to be brief. Basically, Ayurveda will also emphasize not just "what we eat," but also "how we eat."

 

There is some good advice that I have given in your manual to help with this, but one thing I'd like to discuss a bit further is the idea of Gratitude.

 

Gratitude is essential for maintaining strong agni.

 

Gratitude not only orients us towards our food like the spiritual equivalent of our mouths watering, it also causes us to prioritize other people and our environment as well as ourselves.

 

If we have true gratitude for the food that is placed in front of us, then we won't over eat or eat things which are very unhealthy. We will realize that sacrifice and labor has gone into everything we eat and that, to a certain extent, everything we eat is coming at the expense of someone else. Even if we are vegetarian, we must still kill or harm plants to eat.

 

Gratitude is what transforms that process from one of taking to a cycle and a circle. We give as we take. Food that we eat is sacrificing itself to become our bodies and even our consciousness. In our own individual ways, we should all live lives that are worthy of that sacrifice!

Mantra in Tantra

One of the most common tools used in Tantra to cultivate a relationship with Śakti is Mantra. So much so, that Tantra was sometimes referred to as the Mantra Marga, or the Path of Mantras.

A mantra is a verbal formula that is recited, recited internally, or subtly “vibrated” to connect with Śakti, and perhaps even Śakti in a specific form. Even when they are made up of words or statements that can be translated, a Mantra isn’t meant to “signify” anything. It is not about saying something in particular or speaking to a deity. In fact, Tantra states that the Mantra itself is the deity. A deity may have a gross form as an anthropomorphic image, and a geometric form as the Yantra, or sacred diagram of the deity.

Similarly, the Mantra, when properly activated by someone properly initiated into it, creates an energetic signature that is the subtle form of the deity. The is the Śakti of that Mantra and it can be felt as a powerful energy or sometimes just felt as a subtle shift in awareness. The first chapter of the Paraśurāma Kalpa Sūtra, a 14th century tantric text on ritual gives us some sense of how Mantras are conceived of within Tantric practice:

Mantrāṇām acintyaśaktitā I:8

“The power of the Mantra is unthinkable.”

The “meaning” of a Mantra is not its most important aspect. In Tantra, it is said that a Mantra expresses a deeper and higher level of Reality than the mind itself can fully grasp.

In Vedic Mantras, the exact pronunciation, intonation, and even rhythm of the Mantra is what gives it its power. In Tantra, proper pronunciation is important, but Mantras instead get their power through initiation and lineage. They are charged with the Śakti of the adepts who have received them and worked with them. So, it is not usually advisable to learn a Mantra from a book or any written source.

Saṃpradāyaviśvāsābhyāṃ sarvasiddhiḥ - I:9

“Through tradition and faith there is every fulfilment.”

The term sampradāya means a lineage or line of authentic practitioners. So, tradition here indicates that there is an unbroken oral transmission of the Mantra from teacher to student. The student must also have trust and confidence in this lineage. These are the two components that bring attainment in Mantra.

Viśvāsabhūyiṣṭhaṃ prāmāṇyam – I:10

“Abundance of faith proves its authenticity.”

Mantras exist in their fully realized form, but can also be condensed into single syllables. These are called Bīja Mantras, or “seed” Mantras. Many deities, elements, and other constitutive powers have their own Bīja Mantras. Many of the more extended Mantras contain one or more of these Bīja Mantras as well, often in particular orders.

Mantras are not “created” per say, they are considered to be eternal.

Varṇātmakāḥ nityāḥ śabdāḥ - I:7

“Eternal are the words constituted of letters.”

Considering the sacredness of Mantra and sound itself within Tantra, the entirety of Sanskrit alphabet is seen to have mantric potential. The Sanskrit alphabet is called the Varṇa Mālā, or the garland of colors. The letters are also called Mātṛkās, which can mean “mothers” or “measurers.” Each letter has its own energetic potential. So, the Varṇa Mālā itself can be used as a Mantra.

Mantras are sometimes merely recited, but there is an additional practice called Nyāsa where the sounds are energetically placed onto the body. There are countless ways that this is practiced, but there are also specific traditional forms of Nyāsas that can be done with the Varṇa Mālā itself.

Nyāsa also encompasses other practices of consecration with Tantra, such as anointing oneself with ash from fire ceremonies or other sacred substances that might serve as a way to reinforce the patterns of Śakti cultivation.

Ultimately, a Mantra is a powerful tool for achieving Yoga and it is all the more powerful for the ways in which its power seems difficult to define or delineate. With grace, may we receive the Mantra (or Mantras) which awaken our highest potential!

OM.

Types of Suffering

परिणामतापसंस्कारदुःखैर्गुणवृत्तिविरोध‌ाच्च दुःखमेवसर्वंविवेकिनः ||१५||

Pariṇāma tāpa saṃskāra duḥkhair guṇa vṛtti virodhāc ca duḥkham eva sarvaṃ vivekinaḥ II:15

“For the wise, everything is suffering because of the suffering that comes from change, pain, tendencies (saṃskāras), as well as the suffering of a mind that is constantly fluctuating due to the conflicting qualities of nature.”

There are two things that are being explained in this Sutra. On the one hand, Patanjali is outlining for us the different kinds of suffering that we can experience, which are increasingly subtle. They are:

1.         Pariṇāma – Change – The suffering caused by the fact that everything changes and nothing ever lasts.

2.         Tāpa – Pain – The direct suffering of physical pain.

3.         Saṃskāra – Tendencies – The suffering of being at the whim of our habits and tendencies

4.         Citta Vṛtti Virodha – Conflicting mental fluctuations – The suffering that comes from the inherent way in which a changing mind is always quarreling with itself.

Many of these types of suffering can be mitigated in life. We can cultivate an attitude of non-attachment and thus experience less disturbance when things change. We can regularly practice yoga āsanas in order to help reduce pain and discomfort in our body. We can do self-work in order to make sure that our habits and tendencies are less destructive or unconscious.

The controversial second part of the point that Patanjali is making here though is that, even if we do all of this, we are still at the best of the changing, quarreling, and conflicting nature of reality itself. This means that no matter what, even the most refined pleasure is still intermixed with some suffering.

I think whether we ultimately accept or reject the world (it could be arguing that Patanjali is taking a more “world-rejecting” point of view here, but it could also be argued that we don’t have to), this is something that is good to contemplate deeply on. All of the philosophies of India try to answer the question of how we can bring about an end to suffering. It may be desirable now to strive for worldly goals, such as righteousness, prosperity, and pleasure, but even these will prove to be limiting to us eventually. This is why we also have the concept of moksa, or liberation, our final freedom from even the subtlest forms of suffering.

Samarasa

There are many words that are used to describe Liberation in Indian Philosophy. One word that is favored within Tantra is Samarasa. The word Sama means equal or balanced and the word Rasa has a host of meanings, many of which are richly used within Tantra and also Āyurveda. It can be summed up as meaning “taste” or “essence.” Samarasa then refers to the state of experiencing everything as being of one essence. It is a state where one tastes the world in a balanced and ultimately undifferentiated way. It is when the awareness rests in a state of pure Śiva and Śakti.

It is the culmination of Tantric Yoga, the ability to see oneself in the world and the world within oneself, both in perfect harmony. In the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, it is said to be a synonym for samādhi, a state of perfect equilibrium where the individual soul exists in union with the Cosmic Reality.

The person who permanently resides in this state while still embodied is called an Avadhūta, or someone who has shaken off all worldly concerns. Since an Avadhūta has no need of any kind of convention or ordinary worldly involvement, they are sometimes known to behave in strange and inscrutable ways. To encounter such a being is considered to be an enormous blessing, no matter how they may appear.

The Avadhūta Gītā is a Sanskrit text which sings the praise of the Avadhūta and describes the state of resting in Samarasa:

Nirmūla-mūla-rahito hi sadodito’haṃ nirdhūma-dhūma-rahito hi sadodito’ham |

Nirdīpa-dīpa-rahito hi sadodito’haṃ jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham || III:3 ||

"With fuel and without fuel, I am always burning; with smoke and without smoke, I am always glowing; with flame and without flame, I am always shining; I am immortality in knowledge (the knowledge of immortality), I am equality in essence (samarasa), I am like the sky."

Durbodha bodha-gahano na bhavāmi tāta durlakṣya lakṣya-gahano na bhavāmi tāta |

Āsanna-rūpa-gahano na bhavāmi tāta jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham || III:8 ||

"I am neither too mysterious nor too difficult to understand; neither too mysterious nor too difficult to contemplate; I am not mysterious, for I live so near; I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky."

Niṣpāpa-pāpa-dahano hi hutāśano’haṃ Nirdharma-dharma-dahano hi hutāśano’ham |

Nirbandha-bandha-dahano hi hutāśano’haṃ jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham || III:10 ||

"I am fire that burns religion and irreligion, I am fire that burns merit and sin, I am fire that burns bondage and privilege; I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky."

Niṣkarma-karma paramaṃ satataṃ karomi nissaṅga-saṅga-rahitaṃ paramaṃ vinodam |

Nirdeha-deha-rahitaṃ satataṃ vinodaṃ jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham || III:26 ||

"I always work as though the greatest work is no work, I always honour my body as though it exists and does not exist; my greatest sport is to renounce my renouncement; I am knowledge of immortality, I am essence of equanimity, I am like the sky."

Nirjīva-jīva-rahitaṃ satataṃ vibhāti nirbīja-bīja-rahitaṃ satataṃ vibhāti |

Nirvāṇa-bandha-rahitaṃ satataṃ vibhāti jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham|| III:31 ||

"Constantly shining free from life and death, constantly shining free from seed and seedlessness, constantly shining free from bondage or liberation, I am the knowledge of immortality, I am the essence of equanimity (samarasa), I am the highest sky."

Dhyātā n ate hi hṛdaye na ca te samādhir dhyānaṃ na te hi hṛdaye na bahiḥ pradeśaḥ |

Dhyeyaṃ na ceti hṛdaye na hi vastu-kālo jñānāmṛtaṃ samarasaṃ gaganopamo’ham|| III:41 ||

"Within you there is no one to meditate, no Samādhi yet to be attained. There is no inner meditation, no outer meditation; no object of meditation, no joy of meditation. I am knowledge of immortality, I am essence of equanimity. I am like the sky."

Muñca muñca hi saṃsāraṃ tyāgaṃ muñca hi sarvathā |

Tyāgātyāga-viṣaṃ śuddham amṛtaṃ sahajaṃ dhruvam || III:46 ||

"Give up, give up worldly illusion. Give up renunciation altogether. Cleanse the poison of both renunciation and indulgence and the nectar/immortality of spontaneity remains."

In his Twilight Yoga treatise, Mahendranath says that Samarasa is one of the four key words of the Nāth way of life. The others are Sama or balance, which we have already discussed, Sahaja or spontaneity, and Svecchācāra or doing one’s own true will.

Lessons from Saturn

Both Indian and Western Astrologers often emphasize the special importance of Saturn. Our Saturn Return, our Saturn period (Daśa in Sanskrit), and the period when Saturn passes over the sign of our moon and its surrounding signs (called Sade Sati) are seen as significant times in our life. The influence of Saturn in our life is often accompanied by hardship and so these periods are usually seen as bitter medicine and even sometimes feared.

One of the names for Saturn in Sanskrit is “Śanaiścara,” which means he is slow moving. The word Śanaiḥ means “with slowness” or “slowly.” There is a curious crossover where the word “Śanaiḥ” is also used quite often in Yoga texts to refer to the method of practice. We are told to practice “Śanaiḥ Śanaiḥ.” The word is repeated not just to emphasize “slowly, slowly,” but also to mean both “gently” (in an individual practice session) and “persistently” (over time).

Anyone who is even a little familiar with Saturn or his influence might think “gentle” sounds like the last word they’d use, but hardship can be seen as a reminder for us to continue to practice diligently, but to have a bit more practice and care as well. We have to be patient and persistent with set-backs and sometimes resistances are signs that we have been trying to bulldoze our way through something that requires more finesse.

So Saturn reminds us to practice slowly, gently, and persistently. As Charles Baudelaire says, “Nothing can be done except little by little.”

Oṃ Śaṃ Śrī Śanaiścarāya Namaḥ!

Cultivating Positive Attitudes towards Others

Cultivating Positive Attitudes towards Others

Near the end of the first chapter of the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, there are descriptions of different techniques for starting to calm the mind and overcome difficult mental states.

One of the things that Patañjali says is helpful is to cultivate positive attitudes towards others. He explains four different kinds of positive feelings that we can learn to cultivate in ourselves and which types of people that it would be most beneficial to have those feelings towards.