A Cognitive Approach to Tantric Language 01
A Cognitive Approach to Tantric Language – 2

At least two domains are involved in creating phonetic symbolism. One, the phonemes have a designated order. Two, the deities represent cosmic principles, or foundational elements such as earth, water, fire, wind, and sky.

In part 1, the author argues that reading Tantric literature by applying cognitive theories has a meaningful role to play. If there is anything valuable in these texts and traditions and if Tantric practices can serve humanity, the whole world deserves the benefits of such practices. In this part application of this framework is discussed.

2. Applications

2.1. Tantric Language I: Seed Syllables (Bīja Mantras)

The above conversation has brought to light the concepts of the schema, metonymy, metaphor, and conceptual blending. In developing Tantric language, one or many of these processes are applied at the same time. The most basic phonetic symbols that are uniquely Tantric are identified as “seed syllables” (bīja mantras). These are single syllable mantras such as oṃ , hrīṃ , aiṃ , śrīṃ , klīṃ , hsauṃ, shauṃ , etc. Complex mantras with multiple phonemes are considered in Tantras as the corporeal expression of the seed syllables which are also often invoked as the heart of the deity. In Tantric visualization, the deity image is considered to be the manifest body of the seed syllable. In the case of seed syllables, every phoneme has a separate name and Tantric texts adopt methods of encoding and decoding to actualize the mantra embedded within a text. A text can suggest viyat = sky, long vowel ī, vītihotra = fire, ardhendu = crescent moon. In this encoding, the term sky stands for the phoneme “h”, another level of encoding that rests on Tantric metaphysics that considers the phoneme “h” to have the elemental property of the sky. In the same way, the term “fire” signifies the phoneme “r”. Collectively, the text identifies the single seed syllable “hrīṃ ”, suggesting the elements that the bīja embodies. Following Tantric metaphysics, the fifty Sanskrit phonemes are identified as the Mātṛkās which are segmented into eight groups with each corresponding to specific cosmic functions. This identification itself evokes various cognitive frameworks. First of all, eight mother goddesses represent the conglomerate of the mother divinities worshipped in proto-Tantric culture, and Tantra incorporates these deities and their nuances in a new, graphic iconography. A similar schematic transfer also occurs with the mantras. Sanskrit phonemes, mostly identified as fifty, although varying in number to sixty-four, are likewise identified as the mother goddesses and governing divinities. In this depiction, saṃ vitti or consciousness manifest in the form of concepts are conditioned by words which are determined by the phonemes. Since in this paradigm consciousness is the very divinity, the frame for the consciousness to manifest itself as concepts, aided by words, is in itself the expression of the divinity. As a consequence, phonemes are the “divine mothers” that provide the platform for consciousness to express itself. By borrowing two schemas, one, the order of syllables and the other, the mother goddesses, Tantras devise a new language of mantras. In the example of the seed syllable hrīṃ , the source, crescent moon, metonymically stands for the phoneme “ṃ ”, for it is spelled in some of the Indo-Aryan scripts as a crescent moon. Sky and fire stand for the phonemes “h” and “r” because these are the symbolic character for the elements, and this symbolism relies on some other metaphysical analysis of the phonemes and their function in Tantric rituals to evoke specific elements. Tantric rituals are both group-oriented and thus public, and individually enacted in private. Some can be internal, meaning that all the rituals are carried out by a mere visualization or imagination of what would otherwise be an external ritual, or the external ritual that involves offerings of real objects and libation. Most Tantric rituals involve antaryāga, or an inner libation. This is performed even in the case of external worship. These rituals involve invoking the elements, such as sky or fire, by a mere articulation of the phonemes such as /h/ or /r/. In this conceptual mapping, the phonemes transform the subject’s experience to encountering the elements. One commonly studied ritual is that of elemental purification (bhūtaśuddhi) ([27], pp. 108–13). A complex cognitive mechanism is at play even in this elementary form of Tantric ritual. Most contextual is the correlation between the phonemes and the cosmic elements. A broader schematic configuration evokes the identity between the aspirant’s body and the cosmos. In addition, the purification of the elements within the body stands both for the individual’s physical purity as well as the purity of the external or physical elements. Imagination is central to ritual visualization. The correspondence between the phonemes and the elements is arbitrary, as the same elements can refer to some other phonemes in other contexts, and what determines the significance is the ritual context. The seed syllable hrīṃ is assigned for kuṇḍalinī the serpentine power, the divine Śakti, the emotional expression of modesty, among many other things, representing a further assimilation of the domains borrowed from different Tantric paradigms (3) .

“Aham” is a phonetic acronym that stands for multiple references. Acronymically, this stands for the entire Sanskrit alphabet, starting from the first alphabet “a” to the final letter, “h”. As a word, aham stands for “I” or “I am”. Abhinava Gupta elaborates upon the deeper significance of this acronym “aham”, highlighting its phonetic, cosmic, and somatic correspondence [28]. Following Abhinava, there are sixteen different ways of deciphering this word, with it referring to the cosmic principles, embodied self, the divinity in the mother and father principles as Śiva and Śakti, and by the same token, the two intricate domains of consciousness as illumination (prakāśa) and reflection (vimarśa). Rather than creating a direct correspondence to the meaning domain, Tantras stress the phonemes themselves, considering them as the divine Mātṛkās, and the acronym ahaṃ stands for this binary symbolisṃ Aham, as an emergent structure, becomes a unique form that integrates properties borrowed from the two sources, expressed in terms of Śiva and Śakti. On one hand, ahaṃ is just an integration of the first and last phonemes in Sanskrit. However, this is not just an acronym but a word which means “I”. This interplay of common language with phonetic symbolism allows Abhinava to expand upon the concept by identifying the mother and father categories. Just as the body is an integral form of mother and father elements, so also is subjective experience and integration of the revealing or illuminating domain of consciousness identified as prakāśa and the reflexive domain of consciousness identified by vimarśa. A singular “I” awareness thus stands for both the cognitive and recognizing roles of consciousness.

“Sa” and “ha” are two natural sounds that occur with the inhalation and exhalation of the breath. The soothing experience of breath filling the lungs is mapped with the soothing experience of gazing on the full moon. In the corporeal sense, “sa” and “ha” are properly expressed in a sigh of relief. Regular breathing, if observed closely does have some articulation of “sa” and “ha.” Because the sound “sa” evokes the experience of gazing on the moon, the phoneme “sa” refers to the moon. It is a commonsense understanding that gazing on the full moon can be soothing. By evoking multiple domains, where in the first relation the moon stands for the phoneme “sa” and the soothing experience is linked with the moon, we have a new correspondence of the phoneme “sa” standing for the soothing experience. The expression of “ha” is linked with exhaling, and by the same token, heating up the body, and because it is the sun that heats up the body, the phoneme “ha” stands for the sun. When these two phonemes are placed in sequence with other seed mantras such as “Oṃ ” (which in itself is a compressed seed syllable with Tantric significance in multiple domains), we arrive at the construction of esoteric seed syllables like shauṃ , hsauṃ , and so on. The basic format for a single syllable corresponding to multiple categories resembles the way Oṃ is used in the Māṇḍūkyopanis.ad (MU) for describing different states of consciousness, different cosmic entities, and different states of subjectivity. The first two stanzas of MU are sufficient to describe this correlation:

“Oṃ —this whole world is that syllable! Here is a further explanation of it. The past, the present, and the future—all that is simply Oṃ ; and whatever else that is beyond the three times, that also is simply Oṃ —for this brahman is the Whole. Brahman is this self (ātman); that [brahman] is this self (ātman) is consisting of four quarters.” ([29], p. 475).

The text than continues assigning the cosmic planes and psychological states to the specific phonemes of the syllable Oṃ . Rather than saying “Oṃ ” means all of these, what matters to visualization is the correspondence of multiple domains with the basic phonemes wherein the subject reciting the mantra or seed syllable remembers or brings to his awareness all these different domains. Tantric visualization, accordingly, relates to the reactivation of this complex correspondence systeṃ

2.2. Tantric Language II: Long Mantras

Long Tantric mantras often combine the seed syllables, the deity name or multiple names, and her roles as described in different narratives or magical rituals. A common Tantric mantra, “oṃ aiṃ hrīṃ klīm cāmun d āyai vicce” (4) , for example, combines multiple seed syllables, including the deity name. . .. Every seed syllable has its own connotation that adopts multiple domains and creates a new structure by means of blending the syllables. On some occasions, the phonemes may simply be the acronyms of the deities’ names, for example, all the goddesses in the sequence of D . ākinī, Rākin.ī, Lākinī, Kākinī, Śākinī, and Hākinī can be invoked by the seed syllable “da-ra-la-ka-sa-ha” (5) .

At least two domains are involved in creating phonetic symbolism. One, the phonemes have a designated order.  Two, the deities represent cosmic principles, or foundational elements such as earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. In Tantric practice, phonemes are not just phonemes, as they have some properties, energies, or specific sequences which embody meaning. A unique relation is established by the simple approximation of sound to mean the entity: śiṃ for Śiva or pāṃ for Pārvatī. Additionally, these phonemes are supposed to embody the properties of Śiva and Pārvatī. Metonymically, invoking the act of subduing a demon is supposed to magically empower the aspirant to subdue his enemies, or invoking the hypnotic properties of a goddess is meant to provide the deity’s hypnotic powers for the aspirant. Furthermore, there are two different subjective domains involved: that of aspirant and the deity. The underlying belief is that by means of invocation and incantation, the subject comes into contact with the deity and through this intimacy, the aspirant gains some of the powers the deity embodies. Essentially, mantras function in this paradigm as the binding principles for a schematic transformation. Subjects undergo transformation of their self-image, and what they believe they are can dramatically alter based on their visualization. The body-image, which assists in constituting self-image, is also fluid, and subject’s bodily experience can shift, shrink or extend, based on the meditative course. Tantric literature is full of anecdotes and even Patañjali’s Yogasūtra outlines such transformation.

In general, common language and world events play as two domains. There is a specific reference assigned to words in common language. By exploiting this relationship, Tantric mantras create a separate system of connotation which is supposed to actualize the specific event by means of articulating common language. In this infused world of reality and fantasy, if the aspirant wishes his enemies be killed, his articulation of “hana hana” or “kill kill” is supposed to actualize the effect of killing his enemies. A dominant perspective on language as “referential” and not “transformative” along with a linguistic reality based on the power of signification and not of construction together maintain that our articulation of words does not transform reality and language is not constructive but rather representative. In the world of mantras however, language is constructive and not representative. Mantric efficacy therefore cannot be equated with the efficacy of words that convey meaning. The moment when one word becomes a mantra is at a time when it is supposed to “create” reality or transform the events, and not stand for something that is physically real. If we extrapolate the philosophy of language that grounds mantric speech, we come up with a wider scope for language wherein language plays a much bigger role in our everyday life, shaping and constituting what we take for granted. The interface between language and reality is paving its path in some contemporary works ([30], pp. 112–23).

2.3. Tantric Language III: Metaphoric Language

At the heart of Tantric language lies a belief in a metaphoric reality that rests on a subject’s transformed experiential horizon occurring in his mystical states. Understanding the cognitive mechanism beneath this process allows us to contextualize the embodied experience that the Tantric literature endeavors to capture by the use of metaphors. Lackoff and Johnson ([16], p. 3) argue that our ordinary conceptual system is fundamentally metaphoric in nature. This broader perspective in metaphoric thinking aligns with the position that Tantric exegetes were acknowledging the metaphoric nature of our experiential domain and not projecting something outside of experience. To be precise, the very modes experience are embedded with metaphors as this is the way reality is first encountered. Rather than making metaphors an after-effect of symbolic activity, this assumption brings metaphoric thinking to the very heart of what it means to have a conscious experience.

Let us consider a small Tantric treatise, Cidgaganacandrikā (CGC) or Moonlight in the Sky of Consciousness [31]()6 . The very title of the text integrates the metaphoric terms of the sky and the moon to describe mystical experience. In this depiction, consciousness is suggested as a void, an empty space that is not conditioned with the presence of images. This indicates the higher order consciousness that is co-present with sensory experiences but not conditioned by these images. Image consciousness, along these lines, is somewhat subordinate to the higher state of consciousness that monitors the active mode of consciousness. Here the moon stands for light and that in turn for illumination, a reflexive role that consciousness plays in revealing itself. Beneath these suggestions lie the framework of Kālī, as the text is centered on the esoteric practice and philosophy of Kālī, the goddess who resides in the dark. A few more examples from the text demonstrate the integration of different domains and meaning:

The text correlates the trunk of Gan.eśa with the syllable Om (CGC 1) and relates the Sanskrit phonemes to the body of Gan.eśa. The text compares transmigration in the world with wildfire, and identifies the text as the rejuvenating waters of the moon (CGC 3). This invokes the Hindu belief that the moon contains ambrosia, and to highlight its abundance, the author uses the term “abdhi” or ocean.

Some of the metaphors found in CGC that rest on cultural presuppositions include: consciousness is the eye that sees (CGC 4); the heart is a cave (CGC 5); eyes are the powers; consciousness is the ocean (CGC 7); rays are the net (CGC 10); the body of Kālī is the sattva gun.a (CGC 16); Kālī depicts tamas (CGC 19); the goddess is the full moon when manifesting her full form, and she is also the new moon that conceals the world within herself (CGC 21); Kālī consumes time (CGC 22); the goddess is pure consciousness (CGC 23); the goddess destroys limitations in the heart of the aspirant (CGC 25); having awareness of the goddess helps in destroying limited concepts (CGC 26).

Texts such as CGC, saturated with metaphoric expression, provide the field through which we can forge the relations among Tantric and literary language, ritual and scholastic domains, mudrng or select corporeal gestures and their wider connotation in ritual and philosophical domains, and above all, between visual and textual domains of Tantric language. For example, Tantric texts outline the gestures such as Karankin.ī or Khecarī. CGC 117–123 demonstrates the esoteric significance of such gestures that help us decompress the layers of meaning of otherwise opaque ritual constituents. The maṇḍala of Kālī, following the Krama system, is a blueprint for the cosmos, and Tantric metaphysics can be drawn based on establishing the correlates of the geometric parts and their counterpart philosophical categories. CGC verses 124–126, 140, 146–147 correspond to this concept. The correlation of the phonemes with the corporeal forms and geometric designs is vividly portrayed in CGC 148–151, 164. Moreover, the maṇḍalic expression correlates with the body of the aspirant and the text outlines a philosophical significance for such visualization (CGC 168–169).

As every single verse in the text is replete with metaphors, the objective here is not to list them all, but to suggest that the textual body cannot be dissociated from metaphors. Or, what is conveyed by the text is not exclusive of metaphors. Importantly, this text is not alone in the application of metaphors in constituting Tantric ritual and philosophical paradigms [32]. Studying these texts has been problematic, not just that they are metaphorically laden, but also because the mainstream contemporary scholarship sidelines these texts as sophistry and not essential to understanding the concepts and philosophy. This textual hermeneutics stems from the understanding that our Western epistemic framework is non-metaphoric, or that metaphors are subordinate to recognizing reality. As a consequence, texts like CGC that shape the practice of visualization are bracketed from a wider cultural discourse (7).


(3) At this juncture, I must clarify that my use of ‘schema’ is not always restricted to a pre-noetic ‘body schema’ as has been used by Gallaghaṛ When addressing Tantric visualization, I do indeed apply the term in this sense. I do, however, use it for a representation of a plan or theory in the form of a model. In this way, certain concepts or overarching philosophies are used as schema in deciphering Tantric symbolisṃ Mātṛkā, for example, functions as a schema. The framework of Mātṛkā helps us organize the deity concepts, phonetic representation, spatial extension in eight directions, and so on.

(4) This is one of the most common mantras in Hinduism in practice. The mantra invokes Cāmuṇḍā, a ferocious form of Mātṛkā goddess who is identified with Kālī. In practice, the mantra corresponds to the goddess Durgā. The recitation of the Devīmāhātmya, in general during the Navarātra celebration, combines with the repetition of this mantra.

(5) These six goddesses are the residing deities of the six cakras: mūlādhāra, svādhis.thāna, man.ipura, anāhata, viśuddha, and ājñā. These deities are then linked with the five elements and the mind. The details for the Yoginīs such as D . ākinī, and their correlation with the cakras can be found in most of the classical Tantric texts that outline Kuṇḍalinī practice, such as Rudrayāmala Tantra, Gandharva Tantra, S.at.cakra Nirūpan.a. The combination of the initial phonemes for generation of mantras can be traced in texts such as Śrīvidyārn.ava Tantra.

(6) 6 I am using Cidgaganacandrikā for a source text for two different reasons. One, this text has remained in obscurity and is hardly studied in modern times. Two, this text is exemplary for its metaphoric application, integration of Krama and Mahārtha philosophies, and for its poetic qualities. Although the text is attributed to a purported Kālidāsa, the original name of the author seems to have been Śrīvatsa, about whom we know very little.

(7) While the text explored here is in Sanskrit, even the vernacular Tantric and Siddha literature is equally metaphoric. Exemplary studies in this direction to shed more light on the vernacular literature include Jackson [33,34], Bagchi [35–37], Guenther [38,39], Bailly [40], Dimock [41], and Urban [42].

To be continued…

The paper was first published in the Special Issue Cognitive Science and the Study of Yoga and Tantra (Nov 2016) and has been republished with author’s permission.

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