Shaktam or Shaktism is an Indian theological tradition where the cosmic energy that pervades the universe is perceived as feminine.
Adishankara’s compostion Soundaryalahari begins with a verse that says, only when Shiva is united with his Shakti, he is able to create; if he is not in union with her, he is not able to move or even stir. Indeed, it is said that Shiva without his powerhouse Shakti, becomes Shava or a corpse.
And when we talk of Shaktam, we cannot but talk about its esoteric sub-tradition, Tantra. But that is not to say Tantra Shastra or the Tantra knowledge system is confined only to goddess worship. Tantra, as a route to the divine, is also part of other Hindu traditions such as Shaurya or Sun worship, Ganapatya or the worship of Ganapati as also the Shaiva and Vaishnava traditions and even the Jaina and Buddhist faiths.
Now, tantra is a vast, deep and complex subject that calls for various levels of understanding at both the physical and metaphysical level. But if one were to hazard a highly simplified definition, it can be understood as a technique wherein the sadhaka or the practitioner uses the human body or the microcosm as the means to perceive the reality of the macrocosmic universe.
The Tantra practitioner identifies himself or parts of himself with the different dimensions of the cosmos through meditation techniques and the use of various rituals including hand gestures called mudras, images, mantras and sacred geometrical diagrams called yantras and mandalas.
Beyond just self-realisation, the practice of tantra can also be directed towards the realization of tangible gains. So, the aim of the practitioner can also be to identify himself with the goddess he or she is propitiating, and obtain what she possesses, be it her knowledge, or the powers to annihilate her enemies.
While tantra is esoteric knowledge that is often acquired and practised in secrecy, there is a text that brings Tantric ideas into the popular domain and makes it accessible to all. That text is Saundarya Lahari, a composition in Sanskrit, attributed to the great Adi Shankaracharya.
Saundarya Lahari is a compilation of 100 hymns that describe the physical and cosmic beauty of the goddess Lalitha or Tripura Sundari, who is counted among the 10 important Tantric goddesses called the Mahavidyas.
But Saundaryalahari is not merely a devotional text. It is also believed to be rich in tantric symbolism. Each of the hymns is associated with a yantra and a mantra. And the mantra when chanted a specific number of times, with the focus on the yantra, is believed to confer the practitioner with a specific benefit.
So, what is a yantra?
Yantra is a sacred diagram that can be understood as a visual representation of the mantra, which when chanted, conjures up the image of the deity being meditated upon. In other words, the yantra acts as a visual prop that helps the practitioner imagine the deity.
For example, if you want to mediate upon Lord Ganesha, you think of his elephant face, his trunk or his tusks or even the modaka in his hand. In the absence of such detailed iconography, a yantra is a useful tool that helps the practitioner concentrate on the object of devotion, the deity being invoked. The deity herself or himself resides in the mantra.
The practitioner can also energise the yantra by instating the deity into the yantra, just as the idols in our temples are energized through prana prathishta.
Each deity has a specific yantra ascribed to him or her. It’s only when the yantra is drawn on the specified material and the mantra is chanted the prescribed number of times over a specified number of days, the practitioner reaps the stipulated benefits.
While we are on yantra and mantra, here’s a fun fact. This relationship between form and sound has a scientific basis and qualifies as a field of study called Cymatics. Vibrations at varying frequencies interact with different materials on the vibrating mediums to create different patterns or forms. If this interests you, google for more!
Coming back to the yantras of the Soundarya Lahari, the diagrams range from very simple designs such as squares and rectangles to fairly complex figures. The material to be used for drawing these diagrams range from sandal paste to sacred ash to water and metals such as silver and copper although gold is most preferred.
The benefits promised for pursuing this sadhana or practice range from the ordinary such as improved fertility, multiplication of riches, control over armies, etc. to the exotic such as the power to enter other bodies, location of a hidden treasure, the power to hypnotise, etc.
However, there is one very important qualification for the sadhaka. And it is that he should be initiated into this practice only through his guru. Without proper initiation under the guidance of a qualified guru, the mantra or yantra cannot work.
A yantra that is closely identified with Saundarya Lahari is the Sri Chakra. This yantra is described in detail in verse 11 of the composition, and is the yantra attached to verse 22. The Sri Chakra is considered as the goddess Lalitha or Tripura Sundari herself, and is believed to fully contain and express her.
The Sri Chakra comprises 9 interlocking triangles, four with the pointed apex facing upwards and five pointing downwards. The four upward pointing triangles represent the masculine force or Shiva, and the five downward facing triangles are considered to represent the feminine or Shakti. These nine triangles intersect to form 43 triangles organised in five concentric circles.
These intersecting triangles represent the union of the male and female forces that leads to creation. The sacred union is obtained in the centre of the innermost region of the interlocking triangles and this point is called the bindu, which marks the cosmic centre or the source of all creation.
The lotuses around the yantra represent the reproductive vital forces, with each petal seating a female attendant or guardian deity of Shiva and Shakti. Surrounding the lotuses are four openings that are likened to the gateways to the universe.
This yantra is in fact considered by some to be the precursor to the design layout of our temples today!
Tantra is a vast subject and this was just an intro. Will delve deeper into the subject in my future blogs and videos.
Soundaryalahari – V.K. Subramanian
Reflections on the Tantras – Sudhakar Chatotopadhyaya
History of the Tantric religion – N.N. Bhattacharya
The Ten Mahavidyas – Tantric Versions of the Divine Feminine – David Kinsley