A Cognitive Approach to Tantric Language 03 F
A Cognitive Approach to Tantric Language – 3

It is counterintuitive to assume that mantras have no meaning. In contrast, even these visual forms of expression have distinctive significance and their inherent meaning is assigned by the system of reference.

In the previous two parts, the author argued that reading Tantric literature by applying cognitive theories has a meaningful role to play. He then discussed the application of such a framework in terms of seed syllables, long mantras and metaphoric language. In this part he continues with that discussion and analyzes the visual language of deity images and the visual language of the mandalas.

2.4. Tantric Language IV: The Visual Language of Deity Images

The mystical experience mapped through metaphors and shared in Tantric texts is only part of a wider Tantric discourse. Deity images and maṇḍalas play an equally central role as does speech in organizing Tantric concepts. Essential to this conversation is the recognition that the categories mapped in one language are remapped in another, and the visualization practice integrates all the domains, making visual language uniquely complex. Different cognitive domains and conceptual schemas are borrowed in developing the language of images and on most occasions, the metonymic and metaphoric process of conceptualization plays a crucial role in both the compression and decompression of meaning.

First of all, the metonymic relations. Tantric images are complex with their graphic display of weapons and gestures, the number of heads, hands and seats, and the multiplicity of backgrounds in which they Religions 2016, are 7, 139placed (see Figure 2).

A Cognitive Approach to Tantric Language 03

Figure 2 Guhyakali

In one of the simplest images of Kālī, for example, she is portrayed as standing atop Śiva or a corpse, carrying a chopped head and a sword, and displaying the gestures of giving and protection. She is visualized as standing in the cremation grounds. There is a direct correspondence between the symbols used in Kālī imagery and the concepts to which they refer. Tantric texts decipher images as if texts, and use an image for visualization practices to bring to memory the central Tantric doctrines. All the aspects of visualization, the dark hue of Kālī, her nude body and widely spread hair, strident position sitting atop Śiva, for example, mean something if exploited as metonymic relations. When an image is visualized, the process compresses multiple layers of thought into a single image. These images are consciously preserved in memory, brought alive through mental projection, and are manipulated in the mental space in accordance with the system of visualization.

Any symbol can be used to signify multiple relations and complex, related concepts. The concept of “mirror networks” helps to decipher this process. A deity seated in a particular vehicle or a seat identifies her association with another deity or concept. Kalı sitting atop a corpse in the cremation ground depicts both her relation to death and time, and in essence, her transcendence to time. The chopped head or the sword that she carries indicates a specific role that she plays or a particular act that she accomplishes. Even the most basic image with two hands describes two different roles, and thus two concepts. Thus, the concept of mirror network has relevance to a fruitful exploration of Tantric images.

Fauconnier identifies the “single scope network” as the prototype for source-target metaphors. In the case of this network, rather than having a new blended structure, properties of one are imposed upon the other. Tantric visualization is rich in this aspect. One deity (A) assumes the role generally assigned to the other (B), and this is portrayed by A displaying the gestures that are specific to B. Lalita is red in color; however, in her midnight meditation she assumes the role of Kalı and is depicted as dark and nude, thus embodying both deities. This is not an isolated example. In Tantric visualization, deities such as Kubjika or Siddhilaksmi borrow nuances from other deities and philosophical systems, and in so doing, they integrate the properties unique to the other that is suggested.

There are three distinctive ways Tantric images are formed. The first occurs when borrowing aspects from an existing image and incorporating them into a single deity image. Durga, for example, incorporates aspects from other deities, mostly the Dikpāla deities. Following the narrative found in the Devīmāhātmya (Chapter 2), all the major Hindu gods, Brahmā, Visnu, Rudra, and the guardian deities such as Indra, Agni, Yama, and Varuna provide their weapons to the goddess Durgā. A set of ten guardian deities, borrowed from the Vedic literature, constitutes the group of Dikpālas. The narrative of Durgā also highlights the gradual subordination and displacement of the preexisting divinities by the newly popularized forms. The Śākta resurgence vividly highlights this phenomenon and the narrative of Durgā is prototypical of this religious transformation.

A second strategy merges two or more domains, and Tantric deities are uniquely envisioned in a new forṃ Most of the Siddhilakṣmī variations display an integration of Lakṣmī and Kālī forms. We can find similar integration in the Kubjikā family as well, with the foundational Kubjikā being integrated with another deity image, such as Kālī. Third, multiple images are integrated into a single one, giving rise to the deities with multiple heads and hands. The prototype for this imagery comes from Śiva with five faces that integrates different deities of the Śaiva pantheon.

When the aspects from two different sources are merged in a single image, this follows a more complex process than the single-scope network. Double-scope blending borrows nuances from two different inputs and creates a unique emergent structure. Tantric images in particular and the deities in Hindu culture in general characteristically borrow aspects from pre-existing templates and create new images. Blended images of deities are commonplace even in Purānic Hinduism, with deities such as Harihara integrating two existing schemas of Hari = Visnu and Hara = Śiva to create a single deity image of Harihara(8) . The androgynous image of Ardhanārīśvara displays the same pattern of borrowing inputs from the existing images of Śiva and Pārvatī. In this image, the right half is depicted as Śiva and the left as Śakti.

Most Tantric images represent what Fauconnier would call a “mega-blend” structure. From the basic Purānic divinities or Mātṛkā and Bhairava images, aspects are borrowed and new images are made. This new emergent structure in turn is blended with other foundational images or newly emerged structures, leading to infinite variations. Every major Tantric deity comes with varied visualizations, thereby consolidating multiple systems by integrating nuances from the deities of other pantheons. Images, in this light, are flexible constructs that integrate different domains, with a consequent diversity in Tantric art and visualization. Deities in the pantheon of Kubjikā or Guhyakālī provide ample examples for such integrations. With deities having five, nine, or many more heads, each is identified with a specific deity from within the same pantheon or from different streams of Tantric practice. In these visualizations, multiple deities are blended, giving rise to new, and presumably more vigorous forms. This integration process is universal, and examples abound from all cultures around the globe.

2.5. Tantric Language V: The Visual Language of Maṇḍalas

The Tantras systematically replace common language with symbols, and these semiotic methods allow us to unravel the system of significance embedded in Tantric language. Although the process is not an historical one, the semiotic replacement in Tantric symbolism can be better understood through the following sequence:

Replace common language with metaphors. This process provides the framework to decompress the meanings of allegories and myths.

Replace both common language and metaphoric language with phonetic inscriptions, seed syllables, such as oṃ , aiṃ , hrīṃ , etc.

Replace all of the above with weapons, gestures, faces, vehicles, the background scenes, etc. (transform into visual language).

Replace all of the above with the geometric forms.

Following this, geometric forms, identified as maṇḍalas, are to replace common language. This thesis can easily mislead the individual and convince him that there is an inherent or intrinsic meaning in the geometric forms that are to be “expressed” or “deciphered” by use of common language. However, the point Religions 7, 139 is that the system of signs follows the basic universal traits 2016,here 14 of 19of semiotics, and deciphering meaning makes sense only when the correspondence between formal language and language. However, the point here is that the system of signs follows the basic universal traits of symbols is recognized.

The replacement common symbols language with the geometric forms relies on ancient Vedic geometry  expressed in the ritual domain (See Figure 3).

A Cognitive Approach to Tantric Language 03_2

Figure 3 Six Chakras

A square, down-facing triangle, upward triangle, hexagon, and a circle, for example, are used to correspond to earth, water, fire, air, and the sky. They are also supposed to stand for the phonemes of /la/, /va/, /ra/, /ya/, and /ha/. Rather than saying a “triangle” means “fire,” what makes sense here is to say that the triangle is used in Tantric meditation to “stand for” or evoke in memory the element of fire. Since geometry is the most universal form of expression, the objective here is to create a semiotic system that translates Tantric cosmology and philosophy to the most basic symbolism. This congruence is utilized during the course of visualization.

For instance, one of the most commonly recited Tantric mantras is the Tripura mantra of fifteen phonemes: ka-e-ı-la-hrım-ha-sa-ka-ha-la-hrım-sa-ka-la-hrım.(9). During the course of visualization, these phonemes are viewed as identical to the body of the goddess and her mandala Srı Cakra (see Figure 4).

A Cognitive Approach to Tantric Language 03_3 Sri Chakra

Figure 4 Sri Chakra

This is the maṇḍala comprised of nine intersecting triangles with eight and sixteen petals and the external gates. A general course of visualization of this maṇḍala in the practice of Tripurā follows:

  • Place the deity image in the heart of the aspirant. Visualize the body (both of the aspirant and the deity) as identical to the Śrī Cakra, and establish the correlation of the phonemes of the mantra within specific parts of the Cakra.
  • Visualize the deities associated with the specific groups of phonemes and find the correlation of these deities with the Cakra.
  • Attain awareness of the most subtle aspects of time successively fragmented into more and more subtle units and recollect the deity image, her maṇḍala, and the mantra in a single flash of consciousness(10 )

Cultivate an awareness of the sixfold categories identified as the “paths” (adhvans), that are viewed within the body of the practitioneṛ This process is called “installation” (nyāsa).

Establish an awareness of the oneness between the deity, preceptor, and aspirant. In every cognitive mode, what is given is an object and its awareness, and both are witnessed by the transcendent mode of consciousness. Focus on this aspect of consciousness. Expand the duration of this experience by the recognition that consciousness is the essential thread that weaves together all the cognitive modes.

The objective of this visualization is to enhance the capacity of the attentive mind, to the extent that the mind can compress objects in a single flash of awareness, and then to compress and decompress layers of significance. Tantric practices are intentionally made complex, with additional new categories layered into practice, so that the mind concentrates on new deity images, their own maṇḍalas and mantras, with even more deities placed in the corners and center of the maṇḍala to further intensify the visualization process. What is also happening at the same time is a heightened meta-cognition that organizes the objects of cognition. Similar to lucid dreaming or arbitrarily created hypnogogic states, Tantric visualizations rely on the subjects spontaneously adding new values to the basic structures. A few added steps of visualization during the course of Śrī Cakra meditation is sufficient to demonstrate how added meaning is given to the basic structures. Following the text Yoginīhṛdaya [43], the recitation of the mantra of Tripurā parallels the mental articulation of a list of concepts:

  • Affirmation of the oneness of Śiva and Śakti. Both these principles are identified with the self-awareness that is both transcendent and immanent.
  • Recognizing the correlation between the mantra and the Śaivite categories (36 in total),
  • Establishing the oneness of the self and the supreme divinity (Tripurā in this context),
  • Realizing the oneness of the mantra and Śrī Cakra,
  • Identification of the subject consciousness with transcendental consciousness, and
  • Identification of the mantra and kuṇḍalinī, the serpentine force representing the prān.ic energy. Each individual, following Tantras, embodies the totality of the cosmic forces in its dormant forṃ Kuṇḍalinī represents this energy. This step of practice identifies speech or mantra with the cosmic energy.

Maṇḍalas, in this light, stand in Tantric visualization as the final product of the cognitive process of compression that starts with polysemy. Compression allows the viewer to bring the added value or meaning within the focal point. This need reflects the relationship between “real space” and “mental space,” as even in mental space, there is a basic limit to what can be compressed or “enclosed”.

This “mental map” provides the space similar to the “computer space” which does not reflect the physical space.

3. Analysis and Conclusions

The cognitive mechanisms addressed above in the formation of Tantric symbolism and specifically Tantric language illustrate how the system of reference is established in mantras in particular and in other forms of symbolic expression. This sophisticated system of significance also reveals that deciphering meaning in Tantras differs from that utilized in common language where a linear reference system of signs, with an identification of the signifier and the signified, can suffice. However, it is counterintuitive to assume that mantras have no meaning. In contrast, even these visual forms of expression have distinctive significance and their inherent meaning is assigned by the system of reference.

Taking a cue from Tantric visual language in particular and mantra language in general, the symbolic expression that rests on pre-existing elemental language should be considered a form of meta-language. In all contexts of metonymy, metaphor, or cognitive blending, Tantric symbolic expression has relied on some basic form of language. In several contexts, pre-existing texts or narratives that are codified through Tantric symbols, both in speech and visual forms are decompressed or analyzed when in the process of visualization or “practice”. In each of the early instances where meaning is derived, there is reliance on a pre-existing “text” or language to which the Tantric symbols refeṛ For instance,

• Based on the internal system of signs, the phonemes /la/ or /va/ or /ha/ refer to earth, water, or the sky.

• Based on a chain reference system, fire stands for heat and that stands for the phoneme /ra/.

• Based on metonymic reference, eyes stand for seeing, hands for action, snakes for poison, and the tongue for tasting.

• Based on metaphoric reference, moonlight stand for liberating wisdom as both possess soothing properties.

• Based on conceptual integration, deity images with multiple heads refer to the base images which in turn have their own frame of reference.

In essence, there is a distinction between common language and Tantric language. This distinction lies in the Tantras’ use of base language to encode its symbols and a process of deciphering which is traditionally used in both the process of extracting the mantras (mantroddhāra) from the texts and in the practice of visualization that brings to mind the complex imagery incorporated during the process of compression or in the process of creating the symbols.

Any Tantric text uses two different types of languages. There are narratives, cosmologies and philosophies that are intelligible in plain language. However, the same language is then used to encode and decipher mantric language, the deity image, or a maṇḍala. What mantra, maṇḍala, or the deity image stand for is what has been described in plain language at length. The function of this second-order language is to compress a wide array of symbols and meanings within a single image or concept so that the subject visualizing or meditating upon the image can articulate in the mind the underlying philosophies and cosmologies. In all occasions, basic units with meaning are integrated in the process of creating the sophisticated practice of visualization. The device of conceptual blending allows us to analyze the intricate cognitive mechanisms behind this process.

Conflicts of Interest: The author declares no conflict of interest.


(8) The integrated form of Śiva and Visnu identified as Harihara appears in Badami cave temples, built around the 6th Century.

(9) Śrīvidyā mantras are identified in two prominent schools of Kādi and Hādi, with the initial letter of the mantra being K or H. There Place the deity also appears image to have in athe existed heart lineage of the of this aspirant. mantra with an initial phoneme S, but the manuals for this tradition have been almost completely lost.

(10) I am referring to the meditative practice outlined in the Yoginīhṛdaya, particularly the section on mantra, with regard to attention on aspects of time.


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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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