Tantra and Yoga

Yoga comes from an unbroken Indian tradition that finds earliest mention in the Vedic or Agamic philosophies of Upanishads, Bhagvat Geeta and Mahabharat though the most unambiguous source of Yogic principles is the well-known seminal work by Patanjali, the Yoga Sutras.

However, what these scriptures describe is today known as ‘Classical Yoga’ which considerably differs from how we today perceive Yoga. Traditional Vedic philosophies fall under the purview of what is known as ‘Nigama’. In conjunction with these older texts, ancient India had also developed the non-Vedic scriptures collectively termed ‘Agama’.

Modern Yoga contains a lot of contributions from the Agama texts. While the Vedas continue to provide the basic philosophy of all rituals and beliefs of Hinduism, it is the Sanskrit and Tamil Agamas that provide more practical advice. The word ‘Agama’ refers to precepts and doctrines that have been handed down, perhaps referring to the Guru-shishya tradition, and cover topics ranging from the construction of temples to worship involving Mantras, Yantras and Tantra. They include the 28 Shaiva Agamas, 77 Shakta Agamas/Tantras, and 108 Vaishnava Agamas.

How does the concept of Yoga differ in these scriptures from what is mentioned in the classical literature? Well, for starters, while the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali mention bodily practices and breathing exercises, their chief concern remains the realization of man’s true Self. The Agamic texts, on the other hand, give emphasis to the transformation of the body from a gross physical structure to a divine entity. Instead of discarding matter, Tantra focuses on how it can be transformed from something mundane into something divine.

For example, one of the Pancharatra of the Vaishnav Agamas, known as the Jayakhya Samhita, talks about bhuta-shuddhi, or the purification of material elements within the body prior to the installation of the deity within it. This is a very different approach from the earlier texts pertaining to Yoga, where getting rid of the material body and union of soul (atma) with the super-soul (Parmatma) was the primary focus.

Similarly, Shaivite and Shakta Agamas talk about the concept of latent kundalini energy that lies at the base of the spine like a coiled serpent. From the viewpoint of Yoga, this is a very important concept since the asanas and meditation followed by a practitioner are supposed to ultimately awaken this latent energy and cause its arousal within what are known as the chakras.

Anyone who knows even a little about Yoga has generally heard of the concept of the ‘seven chakras’ that this energy is supposed to traverse before leading to complete enlightenment. Scientifically, these chakras may actually relate to the neuro-endocrine system of the body and this is a probable co-relation between the two:

  1. Sahasraar ChakraPituitary gland that regulates the entire Endocrine system
  2. Agnya ChakraPineal gland that regulates sleep-wakefulness cycle
  3. Vishuddha ChakraThyroid gland responsible for growth and maturation
  4. Anahat ChakraThymus gland helpful in fending off disease
  5. Manipur ChakraPancreas, that help in digestion
  6. Svadhishthaan ChakraSexual glands
  7. Mool-aadhar ChakraAccessory sexual glands like the prostate and Skene’s glands

The sexual connotations of Tantra may also come from this very concept where a stimulation of the sexual glands located at the Mool-aadhar chakra releases the fluids required at the time of sexual union. The idea of male and female sexual fluids as substances imbued with power is dominant within Tantra. In some cases this view led to the practice of strict celibacy so that the male practitioner could avoid discharging semen and raise his potency up through the body. The practitioner could engage in sexual intercourse but would attempt to avoid discharge of semen which is the bindu or nucleus, the point from which all creation becomes manifest.

The life force or prana is believed to traverse within the body along three main nadis – the ida, connected to the left nostril, pingala, connected to the right and the central channel sushumna. When the awakened kundalini traversing through these channels finally reaches the sahasrara, the practitioner is supposed to achieve great psychical and spiritual powers. The raising of the kundalini to the top-most chakra also reflects the metaphysical union of Shiva and Shakti inside a sadhak’s body.

These are very important concepts of modern Tantrik yogic practices and it may not be too presumptuous to say that even the Hath-yoga texts are derived from Tantrik teachings. The opening verses of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika hint towards this association and the mention of the Maha-Mudra in later verses especially in relation to invigorating the kundalini energy is another case in point. Also, the Shiva Samhita, an authoritative work on Yoga is as much a work on Tantra and highlights the syncretistic development of the two concepts. The Gheranda Samhita also clearly mentions that the practices advocated in it are derived from Tantras.

Weighing up the evidence, it would appear that Tantrik texts have given a firm foundation to the principles of modern Yoga. The concepts of divinization of the body, kundalini energy, seven chakras and three nadis are the basic principles of Yoga as it is understood today. The concepts of establishment of deity within the body of a practitioner and utilization of sexual union as a symbolic representation of the union of Shiva and Shakti are also no less important though they may be followed today by the practitioners of Tantra proper rather than Hath-yoga.

Tantrik texts also redefine what is required to attain liberation, breaking the age-old concepts of purity and impurity. Actions or objects are not seen impure in themselves; rather it is the attitude of the practitioner which is the determinant factor. This is hard for the ordinary person to comprehend because for most people, things like sexual interaction are a result of physical or emotional attraction, either for progeny or pleasure.

Wrapping up the discussion, I would say that modern Yoga owes as much to the Tantrik or Agamic texts as it does to the Yoga Sutras and a modern practitioner of Yoga would do well to know the true significance of these concepts besides exploring the physical possibilities of the body. Perhaps, only then, would the true potential of Yoga be achieved.

Read also on LWP: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Introduction

Winding through the streets of Sanskardhani, Jabalpur

Jabalpur, the town on the Tropic of Cancer. The town that invented the game of Snooker (yes, you heard me right), the town that is gateway to the largest tiger reserve in the world (Kanha – with Bandhavgarh and Pench next door), Kipling’s very own Jungle Book country. The town that is home to the one and only, Marble Rocks –a  Grand Canyon of sheer marble on both sides with the river Narmada flowing down its gorge….Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Acharya Rajneesh (Osho) and new age guru Deepak Chopra have all, at some point in their lives called Jabalpur, home. A town that loves to celebrate, lives to celebrate and celebrates life – joie de vivre in its very essence.

Settlements along river beds annually immerse themselves in time-honoured rituals called floods. At some symbolic level, the act of submergence subsumes the identity of these riverine towns in the larger persona of the rivers they bank. There are innumerable examples around the world of cities that bask in the reflected glory of the rivers that flow past them. Closer to home, cities like Varanasi, Allahabad, Hardwar etc come to mind. These are the Ganga kinare wala towns. Their socio-economic and cultural growth takes sustenance from the river. Their identity is derived from the reverence bestowed by the people and their place in history is entwined with the passage of ‘old man river’. But, as with all things else, there are exceptions. Every once in a rare while, a city deviates from its course and sets out to stamp its own identity. Jabalpur, along the banks of the holy Narmada, is one such place.

Dhuandaar waterfalls on the Narmada
Kachnar city Shiva temple, Jabalpur
Source: jabalpurdirectory.com

Affectionately referred to as Ma Narmadey by the locals, Narmada is one of the holiest rivers of India and in mythological folklore is said to have originated from the sweat of Shiva as he sat in intense meditation. In more temporal terms, its source is Amarkantak in the east of Madhya Pradesh. Jostling between the gentle slopes of the Vindhya and Satpura hills and propelled by their gradient, it gurgles on an energetic course through much of Madhya Pradesh on its journey westward. It traverses Gujarat at a more languid pace before flowing placidly past Vadodra and Bharuch into the Gulf of Cambay on the Arabian Sea. Dotted along its course are centres of spiritual significance for Hindus, like Jabalpur, Ujjain, Omkareshwar and Mandleshwar. Jabalpur’s name too has hoary origins and is derived from the legendary saint Jabali, who finds mention in the Ramayana. Jabali rishi had his ashram at Bhedaghat on the Narmada. Some even associate Bhrigu rishi’s tapasya at the same location.

But you wouldn’t know it, if you arrived at Jabalpur railway station, that you were in the presence of such divinity. Depending on which side of the rail platform you alight, you could be excused for completely missing the halo. If you exit from platform 1, you run into men of war! None of your ubiquitous ash smeared sadhus in saffron that populate pilgrim towns. This is the cantonment part of Jabalpur and pretty much defines its predominant characteristic. Jabalpur is the largest cantonment in the country and the ‘olive green’ is all-pervasive. The platforms at the opposite end lead you into the civilian part of town. Quite indistinguishable from the multitude of hot, bustling and overcrowded cities of north India, you might say. Perhaps. But you would be grossly perfunctory of approach if you failed to notice the difference. There is something about Jabalpur which in uniquely, well….. Jabalpur. That’s what its people have made it. As melting pots go, there are few that can rival its diversity.

Much of Jabalpur’s history has been determined by its geography. If you ever entertain the temerity of using the map of India for target practice, you would invariably hit bull’s eye if you hit Jabalpur. It’s dead centre. And that can be fairly significant in geopolitical terms. In common perception, the Vindhyas delineate the north-south divide in the Indian psyche – and Jabalpur sits on top of this heap. Early recorded history speaks of the rights of passage as ruling dispensations in the North embarked upon their southern conquests and powerful southern kingdoms returned the compliment. The Gondwana became a favourite watering hole enroute. From the Mauryas to the Satavahanas, back to the Guptas – the pendulum never stopped swinging. The Mughals, the Marathas continued this proud tradition of chasing their tails. Battered and bemused, the local Gond dynasties, the original sons of the soil, watched these comings and goings with some amusement and a degree of trepidation as well – much like the natives view visiting hoard of tourists. But not all were birds of passage and every advancing wave deposited a few settlers. Most likely, attracted by its salubrious clime and the bountifulness of Ma Narmadey. But what this did for the local DNA was an exercise in periodic rejuvenation of stock, a reaffirmation of its multi ethnic character, resulting in a gradual but definite metamorphosis of the Gondwana region.

And more was to come. With the arrival of the British on the scene, Jabalpur’s unique location assumed strategic significance. A foreign power intent on pan India domination, needed to keep its outposts logistically connected. Redeployment of forces and munitions from one end of the country to the other could result in fatal delays. For the first time in its history, the region changed from being a pass through for battling armies to a strategic hub feeding its spokes. This laid the seeds of the burgeoning cantonment that exists today. Being the nerve centre of its military effort, it needed to be populated by people who were more aligned to British interests. This resulted in the settling of the British and kindred communities like the Anglo Indians and a steadily increasing supply of Christian converts – courtesy the missionaries let loose on unsuspecting Adivasis (tribals). As the needs of the Empire grew, Christians from even distant Bihar, Goa and the far south made Jabalpur their home. In 1904, the Gun Carriage Factory and ordinance depots were set up to feed the war machine.

Archive photo carousel of Jabalpur during the British raj

Post 1857, Jabalpur had firmly established itself as a secure garrison town with its own courts and Central Prison to dispense summary justice, quell local ambitions and rebellions against the Queen. This was to leave an interesting and colourful impact on the town’s character in the years to come. As the British administrators went after the Thugee system in the Oudh and eastern provinces, the captured convicts were incarcerated in the large and well provided Central Prison in Jabalpur. Deprived of their main earning members, the families of these convicts followed their bread winners and settled down in small pockets around the prison. Over the years, a thriving community of Gorandias, Thugs and Pindaris made their presence felt and the town soon earned a reputation of being home to red necks of all shades. Being to the profession born, the descendants continued to exercise a healthy disrespect for the law and imparted an exciting, if dangerous, edge to city life.

The pot continued to melt. Post independence, a large number of displaced Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan found their way to Jabalpur. Quite likely, the Punjabis’ close association with the Army lent a certain degree of comfort and a number of new migrants became contractors and suppliers to the armed forces. The Sindhis, Multanis and Khatris happily took to mercantile activities and gave the local banias a good run for their money. Some made their mark in the timber trade which the richly forested region offered and further branched out into ancillary transportation business. This injected a strong Punjabi élan and verve to an otherwise staid population who, with much grace and piety, made space for these new migrants. Within the span of a few short years however, the penniless refugees soon became the more affluent sections of society rivalling the Gujarati Patels who had hit a gold mine in the Bidi trade (rolling tendu leaves and tobacco). So much for grace and piety.

Interestingly, the pot hasn’t stopped churning. With the reorganization of the States post independence, the large and sprawling Central Provinces and Berar was split up to form much of today’s Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chattisgarh with some peripheral territories merging with Maharashtra, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. Jabalpur had always been the centre piece of the erstwhile CP & Berar but lost out in the sweepstakes for being the capital of Madhya Pradesh. The Muslim dominated pocket of Bhopal, which had infamously resisted merger with the Republic of India, was a cause for concern for the fledgling country. The sectarian bias needed urgent fixing and Bhopal was designated as the capital. As compensation perhaps, Jabalpur retained the MP High Court, the State Electricity Board, the West Central Railway Headquarters and of course its prima donna status as the queen of cantonments and its ordinance factories. This has ensured a constant flow of people from all over the country moving in for business and employment. The very easy-going and accommodating attitude of the local people has made assimilation easy for new settlers.

So, a lot of water has flown down the Narmada since our story began. What we see today is an amazing kaleidoscope of people of varying ethnicity, origin, beliefs and religion living in complete harmony. Barring one incident of communal strife in 1961, the city has been entirely free of any sectarian dissonance. While Hinduism remains the dominant influence, other religions also weigh in with their considerable presence manifested in the numerous temples, churches, mosques and Gurudwaras adorning the landscape. But nothing defines Jabalpur more than its celebration of religion. It is to the eternal humility of the inhabitants of Jabalpur that they willingly concede that their Durga Puja celebrations are second only to those of Kolkata; Ganapati celebrations are second only to Mumbai;  Janamashtmi second only to Mathura;  Guruparb second only to Amritsar, Christmas second only to the Vatican and its Id celebrations rival those in the House of Saud. But their Holika dahan – that is special. The only one of its kind in the world – something  quite uniquely… Jabalpur.

Come the festive seasons and it all hangs out there – in its most noisy, flamboyant, frenzied, rambunctious, colourful and completely over-the-top expressions. A clear winner in scale and size are the Durga puja celebrations with its pandals reportedly second only to Kolkata in number and grandeur.  The whole town decides to get involved and for ten days it is celestial party time. The Ganesh utsav runs a very close second and the innumerable pandals are veritable tourist attractions in themselves. Completing the troika are the Holika pandals which are installed for seven days in the run up to Holi. I know of no other city which has statues of Holika and Prahlad installed in pandals like Durga and Ganapati! Holika is finally set alight with much gusto and fanfare at midnight, signalling the commencement of Holi.  Not to be outdone, the Sikh processions celebrating Guru Gobind Singh rival in pomp and pageantry and are enthusiastically awaited every year. At a more sedate but equally impressive scale are the processions enacting the crucifixion of Christ and the remembrances on All Saints Day. Not to forget Christmas, but especially New Years’ eve which has a universal spirit enhancing appeal. As if taking a leaf from the Hindus’ book, the Muslims also install Tazias in pandal like structures which the faithful revere before taking them out in a grand procession during Muharram to the accompanying chants of ‘Ya Ali, Hai Hussain’. The uninhibited display of religious fervour and devotion on all these and innumerable other occasions is indeed quite in-character.

Marble Rocks on the Narmada, Jabalpur

So that is Jabalpur, the town on the Tropic of Cancer. The town that invented the game of Snooker (yes, you heard me right), the town that is gateway to the largest tiger reserve in the world (Kanha – with Bandhavgarh and Pench next door), Kipling’s very own Jungle Book country. The town that is home to the one and only, Marble Rocks –a  Grand Canyon of sheer marble on both sides with the river Narmada flowing down its gorge. In case you are still thumbing through your copy of the Ramayana to figure out who Jabali rishi was, let me give you reference points of more recent vintage. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Acharya Rajneesh (Osho) and new age guru Deepak Chopra have all, at some point in their lives called Jabalpur, home. A town that loves to celebrate, lives to celebrate and celebrates life – joie de vivre in its very essence. Though why it is called Sanskardhani, I do not know.

River Narmada flowing peacefully through Jabalpur

It probably has much to do with the omniscient, the omnipresent, Ma Narmadey. It is not an in-your-face kind of presence. It is not obtrusive. A stranger to the town would probably miss it altogether. But there is a quiet confidence among its people, born from a sense of inheritance. A humbling realisation that they are the custodians of a great and revered source of life. They learn respect. As you approach its numerous ghats, the draw is magnetic, almost hypnotic. The sight is riveting and profoundly calming. Words seem superfluous, sentences hang in mid-air, as speech gives way to thought. Thoughts become silence. You sit very quiet and listen. The river talks to you as it gently laps the banks, the wind calmly rustles through the tall grass and the temple bells in the distance chime tales of eternity. It is as if you have always been here and nothing ever changes. An enormous feeling of timelessness overwhelms and is deeply rejuvenating.  It cannot but have an immense impact on the denizen of this quaintly vibrant town. And then they go dancing on the streets. The streets of their Sanskardhani.

Read also: The Living Ganga

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The Bhagavad Gita – the essence of India and its profound message for the world

by David Frawley

Dharma is not a matter of dogma, but of adapting our principles to what is required according to the changing needs of time, place and person in order to further the higher forces in the world.

The Bhagavad Gita remains the book that can be best described as India’s national book. For thousands of years, up to the present, the Gita has been the most popular, commonly read, widely translated and commented upon teaching from India, far beyond any competing text, of which there are many wonderful depictions in the vast literature of the region.

One cannot know India, its essence and identity, without having first examined the Gita in depth and looked into its profound instruction about life, human interactions, the secrets of human psychology, and the keys to higher consciousness. The Gita reflects all the complexity, paradox, mystery and beauty of India/Bharat, its perennial search for the eternal and infinite, yet its ability to reflect the abundance of life on all levels as well.

Sri Krishna remains the figure who best represents India’s profound yogic culture and civilisation to the world. He is known as a Divine incarnation, a yogavatara, and a sage of the highest order, who was able to teach a variety of paths to all temperaments of people, motivating humanity to achieve its highest potential. Sri Krishna has a Divine personality with an incomparable charisma that serves to inspire the Divine within all of us, yet teaches us with great clarity and precision as well.

The way forward

The genesis of the Gita on the battlefield is one of its most compelling factors. All life is a battle or a struggle between the many dualities within and around us, both in nature and in humanity, particularly the forces of dharma and adharma. Yet life is not a simple faceoff between good and evil, delineated in black and white, a moralistic clash in which the right choice of action cannot be questioned.

Life is a struggle to go forward in a maze of competing forces moving in multiple directions, carrying contrary influences. Like Arjuna at the start of the Gita, it is easier for us to not want to fight in order to avoid the pain and complications, but this is to let life pass us by and condemns us to the limitations of what we have already become.

The Bhagavad Gita shows us how to achieve the best possible in less than ideal circumstances, in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, which is among the worst and most complicated of all imaginable clashes, involving taking up arms against ones own kinsmen and gurus. Yet not to act would only allow the forces of negativity and inertia to prevail, and irreparably damage the society for long periods to come.

It is often easier to stand on the sidelines when there are no clear options without notable side effects. But life does not work that way. Pain, sorrow, disease, enmity are also challenges to the soul to grow beyond its outer limitation and discover its inner reality. If we do not face and overcome the difficulties of life, we remain weak and fail to discover the Divine within us.

Svadharma and the universal Dharma

Dharma is not a matter of dogma, but of adapting our principles to what is required according to the changing needs of time, place and person in order to further the higher forces in the world. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us our Svadharma or individual dharma. Yet this is not in modern terms a path of mere individual freedom and self-assertion. It is how we are connected to the whole, how the entire universe exists within and around us. We cannot find fulfilment at a personal level without serving our highest duty to the whole of life. The Gita shows us our individual essence but as part of the universal being that is Sri Krishna.

The Gita’s ultimate message is that there is no death. No one is truly born or dies. We are immortal in our inner Divine nature as pure consciousness. Birth and death only belong to the body and are no more than a mere change of clothes for the soul. It is not salvation we need but Self-knowledge, getting back to the core of our being that cannot be disturbed by any external forces.

The dilemma of Arjuna represents our essential challenge in life. We are all imperfect, but have the sense of a higher perfection that we can manifest with great effort. Getting Arjuna to arise within us is the key to our success in life, but it also requires that we seek the grace and guidance of Sri Krishna in his innumerable forms.

This article was first published on vedanet.com and has been republished here with permission.

Read also: Stress Out? Here’s 3 Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita


Art, Cosmology and the Divine | Part II

Main photo (above) is a Basohli illustration of the Gita Govinda, The South Wind Cools Itself in the Snow of the Himalayas, c.1730

Continuing this six-part series (Read Part I) in which distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak shows how traditional Indian art is not only aesthetically sublime, but reflects the cosmos and the Divine itself. Here we look more closely at the astronomical codes reflected in Vedic art and rituals.


Part II: General equivalences

The view that the arts belong to the domain of the sacred and that there is a connection between them is given most clearly in a famous passage in the Vishnudharmottara Purana in which the sage Markandeya instructs the King Vajra in the art of sculpture, teaching that to learn it one must first learn painting, dance, and music:

Vajra: How should I make the forms of gods so that the image may always manifest the deity?

Markandeya: He who does not know the canon of painting (citrasutram) can never know the canon of image-making (pratima lakshanam).

Vajra: Explain to me the canon of painting as one who knows the canon of painting knows the canon of image-making.

Markandeya: It is very difficult to know the canon of painting without the canon of dance (nritta shastra), for in both the world is to be represented.

Vajra: Explain to me the canon of dance and then you will speak about the canon of painting, for one who knows the practice of the canon of dance knows painting.

Markandeya: Dance is difficult to understand by one who is not acquainted with instrumental music (atodya).

Vajra: Speak about instrumental music and then you will speak about the canon of dance, because when the instrumental music is properly understood, one understands dance.

Markandeya: Without vocal music (gita) it is not possible to know instrumental music.

Vajra: Explain to me the canon of vocal music, because he, who knows the canon of vocal music, is the best of men who knows everything.

Markandeya: Vocal music is to be understood as subject to recitation that may be done in two ways, prose (gadya) and verse (padya). Verse is in many meters.

Some of the early meters range from the gayatri with 3 sections of 8 syllables (3 × 8 = 24) to anushtubh (4 × 8 = 32), viraj (4 × 10 = 40), trishtubh (4 × 11 = 44), and jagati (4 × 12 = 48). These appear to be connected to the astronomical number 360, the number of civil days in the year. There are also many other more complex meters, with a less obvious astronomical basis.

To understand the principle behind the broader equivalences of Indian art and its cosmology, it is good to begin with the fire altars of the Vedic period that were themselves designed to represent astronomical (outer) as well as inner knowledge. An assumed equivalence between the outer and the inner cosmos is central to the conception of the temple, which is why numbers such as 108 and 360 are important in its design.

The number 108 in the distance from the earth to the sun and the moon

The number 108 represents the approximate distance from the earth to the sun and the moon in sun and moon diameters, respectively. (The diameter of the sun is also 108 times the diameter of the earth, but that fact is not likely to have been known to the Vedic rishis.) The number of dance poses (karanas) given in the Natya Shastra is also 108, as is the number of beads in a rosary (japamala). The ‘distance’ between the body and the inner sun is also taken to be 108, so that the number of joinings is 107. Not surprisingly, the number of marmas in Ayurveda is 107. The total number of syllables in the Rigveda is taken to be 432,000, a number related to 108.

The number 360 is taken in the Ayurvedic texts to be the number of bones in the developing fetus, a number that fuses later into the 206 bones of the adult. The centrality of this number in Vedic ritual is stressed in the Shatapatha Brahmana.

The primary Vedic number is three, representing the tripartite division of the physical world into the earth, the atmosphere, and the sky and that of the person into the physical body, the pranas, and the inner sky.

The Vedic altars had an astronomical basis related to the reconciliation of the lunar and solar years, which mirrors the reconciliation of the female and male currents within the body and mind of the individual. The fire altars symbolized the universe and there were three types of altars representing the earth, the space and the sky. The altar for the earth was drawn as circular, whereas the sky (or heaven) altar was drawn as square.

The fire altars were surrounded by 360 enclosing stones, of these 21 were around the earth altar, 78 around the space altar and 261 around the sky altar. In other words, the earth, the space, and the sky are symbolically assigned the numbers 21, 78, and 261. Considering the earth/cosmos dichotomy, the two numbers are 21 and 339 since cosmos includes the space and the sky.

The main altar was built in five layers. The basic square shape was modified to several forms, such as falcon and turtle. These altars were built in five layers, of a thousand bricks of specified shapes. The construction of these altars required the solution to several geometric and algebraic problems.

The falcon altar

Two different kinds of bricks were used: the special and the ordinary. The total number of the special bricks used was 396, explained as 360 days of the year and the additional 36 days of the intercalary month. Two kinds of day counts: the solar day, and tithi, whose mean value is the lunar year divided into 360 parts.

Three different years were considered: (i) nakshatra, or a year of 324 days (sometimes 324 tithis) obtained by considering 12 months of 27 days each, where this 27 is the ideal number of days in a lunar month; (ii) lunar, which is a fraction more than 354 days (360 tithis); and (iii) solar, which is in excess of 365 days (between 371 and 372 tithis).

A well-known altar ritual says that altars should be constructed in a sequence of 95, with progressively increasing areas. The increase in the area, by one unit yearly, in building progressively larger fire altars is 48 tithis which is about equal to the intercalation required to make the nakshatra year in tithis equal to the solar year in tithis. But there is a residual excess which in 95 years adds up to 89 tithis; it appears that after this period such a correction was made. The 95 year cycle corresponds to the tropical year being equal to 365.24675 days. The cycles needed to harmonize various motions led to the concept of increasing periods and world ages.

The number of syllables in the Rigveda confirms the textual references that the book was to represent a symbolic altar. According to various early texts, the number of syllables in the Rigveda is 432,000, which is the number of muhurtas in forty years. In reality the syllable count is somewhat less because certain syllables are supposed to be left unspoken. The organization of the Rigveda is also according to a plan, but that is a different story told in my book, The Astronomical Code of the Rigveda.

The verse count of the Rigveda can be viewed as the number of sky days in forty years or 261 × 40 = 10,440, and the verse count of all the Vedas is 261 × 78 = 20,358.

The Brahmanas and the Shulbasutras tell us about the altar of chhandas and meters, so we would expect that the total Rigvedic hymn count of 1017 and the group count of 216 have particular significance. Owing to the pervasive tripartite ideology of the Vedic books we choose to view the hymn number as 339 × 3. The tripartite ideology refers to the consideration of time in three divisions of past, present, and future and the consideration of space in the three divisions of the northern celestial hemisphere, the plane that is at right angle to the earth’s axis, and the southern celestial hemisphere. The number 339 is simply the number of disks of the sun or the moon to measure the path across the sky: π times 108 is approximately 339. The Rigvedic code then expresses a fundamental connection between the numbers 339 and 108. The numbers 108 and 360 appear as the axis and the perimeter dimensions of the temple.

Read Part I in the series: Introduction
Read Part III: Temples and Gods
Read part IV: Churning of the ocean
Read Part V: Krishna’s Dance
Read part VI: Indian Aesthetic in an Age of War

Art, Cosmology and the Divine – a study of Indian culture | Part I

by Subhash Kak

Main photo (above) is a Basohli illustration to the Bhagavad Purana, The Birth of Krishna, early 18th c.

In this six-part series, distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak provides  a fascinating insight into traditional Indian art. Subhash shows how the art  forms of ancient India are not only aesthetically sublime, but a reflection of the cosmos and indeed of the Divine itself.


Part I: Introduction

The best way to understand India is through its art and the cosmology. Textbook narratives often overlook the synthesizing principles that represent the grammar of Indian culture, and they are much like the accounts of the six blind people who encountering an elephant describe it as wall, spear, snake, tree, rope, and fan, respectively.

The three notions that underlie Indian culture are that of bandhu, paradox, and yajña.

Bandhu is the binding between the outer and the inner that makes it possible to know, and this is the basis of the pervasive spirituality in India; paradox is the recognition that the bandhu must lie outside of rational system, leading to the distinction between the ‘higher’ science of consciousness and the ‘lower’, rational objective science; yajña is transformation that the individual undergoes by participating in Vedic ‘ritual’ or any other creative process. The cosmology related to this framework is that of infinity and recursion across scale and time.

Sri Yantra, which represents the universe recursively

The iconic representation of the universe as the Sri Yantra (above) shows recursion most clearly. First, the tripartite division into earth, atmosphere, and the sun, which is mirrored in the individual by the body, the breath, and the inner lamp of consciousness, is represented by three triangles. Second, within each triangle are lower hierarchical levels of two other triangles, of alternating opposing polarity that represents male and female principles. All together, this adds up to 9 triangles, which through their overlaps constitute a total of 43 small triangles. Right through the middle of this is the dot, the bindu that is Shiva, the Witness, or Consciousness. Nature evolves according to law (rta in Sanskrit), but it has a paradoxical relationship with the consciousness principle.

A north Indian temple showing recursion in its outer structural form

Art associated with this conception must communicate recursion, paradox and oppositions concerning ordinary experience of the universe. Aesthetics, as a philosophy of art, is best understood from the point of view of dhvani, which communicates, by suggestion, the universals of the outer and inner worlds.

Indian thought highlights the connections between these two worlds, and its art presents visions of the cosmos. Alongside is a picture of a north Indian temple where recursion is expressed in terms of the tower drawn to different scales on the superstructure.


Within the temple, the manifestations of the Supreme Being are as the One and its many forms. There exists in them, for example, a hierarchical order of cardinal and peripheral images in relation to the centre, a balancing or pairing of polarities, and representation of the temple as Mount Meru, the centre of the universe. The polarities represented iconographically related to female and male, asura (demon) and deva (god), left and right, body and mind, and so on. Aesthetics is alamkara shastra, that is ornamentation of the central synthesizing principle by means of the particular medium. The poet, kavi, is the inspired seer who sees the underlying vision most clearly. Dance, painting, and sculpture, just like poetry, have their canonical ideals, which are the visual equivalents of meter, rhyme, alliteration and the tropes of poetry.

The ritual is organized as sacred theatre that engages the senses to facilitate an epiphany that represents an experiential ‘rebirth’. Great art has the same capacity, and often it is a part of ritual. Not only is the temple a work of art, so is the sculpture that goes into it, and the dance and music performed in its hallways, and the paintings that hang on its walls. One can contrast this with Western conceptions. The cosmology is finite, with God separate from the individual; art is best seen in the sterile atmosphere of the museum or the gallery.

Read Part II in the series: General Equivalences
Read Part III: Temples and Gods
Read Part IV: Churning of the ocean
Read Part V: Krishna’s Dance
Read Part VI: Indian aesthetic in an age of war