It so happened in India, that spiritual practices are most often performed facing east. Accordingly, the west (conditionally) is our back, the south is the right and hot side and the north is left and cold. The Sun is associated with vital power, it rises in the east and sets (i.e. disappears) in the west. We fall asleep at sunset and our senses become silent, and they turn on at sunrise. We can see basically everything that is in front of us, on the sides, below and even sometimes from above, but we cannot see our back. We can only feel it, while there should be an inversion element, i.e. direction inward, listening to our sensations inside. The west is a symbol of the extinction of activities, the completeness of them, so it is suṣumṇā. It is also no coincidence that one of the well-known traditions, where kuṇḍalinī is worshiped in the form of the Goddess Kubjikā, is called paśchimāmnayā – the Western Doctrine. Paśchima – from paścāt (behind, the last, completed, western), therefore it is a symbol of suṣumṇā, self-absorption. Thus, paścimottānāsana is focused specifically on the direction of attention and the prāṇa in suṣumṇā along with it. This āsana is also focused on the conscious activation of suṣumṇā with pratyāhāra and the awakening of the kuṇḍalinī power.
What is अङ्ग / aṅga in yoga, is it a step or a section? On the one hand, we find following interpretations in the Viveka Mārtaṇḍa:
117. Thanks to the twelve prāṇāyāmas – pratyāhāra is achieved. Thanks to the twelve pratyāhāras – good dhāraṇā is attained.
118. Thanks to the twelve dhāraṇās – dhyāna is known, and due to the twelve dhyānas, samādhi is achieved.
On the other hand, we find quite a few texts where aṅgas often go in a sequence that is not popular for most.
Basically, the free order of aṅgas is found either in tantras or in texts that have been influenced by tantra. These are partly Purāṇas, as well as Nātha texts. If we look at the meaning of the term ‘aṅga’ in different dictionaries, it means: ‘a part’, ‘a division’, ‘relating to the base’, ‘anything inferior or secondary’, ‘supplement’, ‘contiguous’. In tantric texts, methods are sometimes named as ‘upāya’, which also means ‘a trick’, ‘a ruse’. This allows us to understand that it is impossible, in practice, to put a technique higher than its main goals, which often causes the “modern yoga“. The “parts” can be compared with the organs of the body; we cannot say that we need a heart, but we do not need a brain or liver. We need an organism in which absolutely everything works simultaneously and harmoniously. In this regard, āsanas cannot exist separately from pratyāhāra, prāṇāyāma, dhyāna or samādhi (even if it is fragmentary). The yoga state and the yoga path are primary, while aṅgas are secondary, but they all work on the main tasks.
We know that there are different types of mudrās in yoga, as well as in the practices of pūjā. What is common between them and what is the difference?
Let’s start with the grammatical meaning of the term. मुद्रा / mudrā originates from the root मुद् / mud, which could be of two classes. The first class चुरादिः / curādiḥ treats मुद् / mud as संसर्ग / saṃsarga – ‘mixing, unification’, which may in the sense coincide with the meaning of the terms ‘yoga’ or ‘bandha’ (binding, unification). Another class is भ्वादिः / bhvādiḥ, in which the root मुद् is interpreted as हर्ष / harṣa – ‘joy’. That could shed light on the understanding of mudrās in general, in spite of all their differences.
Then, what could be considered as mudrās? Firstly, there are yogic mudrās, such as mahāmudrā, mahābandha, etc. Secondly, there are hand mudrās, which are mostly used in pūjās in India. Thirdly, the mudrās as certain states of consciousness, for example, khecarī–mudrā as continuous awareness, not as curling of the tongue back into the mouth above the palate. Although some of these mudrās may have names similar to ones in haṭha-yoga, but mudrā could be a state of consciousness, let’s say, as mahāmudrā in Buddhism. Fourthly, various forms of the Goddesses are called mudrās. Fifthly, money with certain images, signatures on documents, certain signs that convey some important meaning are called mudrās. Sixthly, certain attributes are sometimes called mudrās. For instance, in the Vaiṣṇava Śrī Sampradāya such attributes, as a sacred thread (yajñopavīta), ashes (bhasma), skull (kapāla) and others, are also called mudrās. Or, in the Nātha Sampradāya – earrings, symbolising the archetype of Śiva, are also sometimes called mudrās. The attributes, which are hold by Deities are also sometimes called mudrās. Seventhly, in Kaśmīr Śaivism, Abhinavagupta divides mudrās into three categories: 1) performed by the body (dehodbhava) mentioned above, 2) states of consciousness (manobhava), which were also mentioned above, 3) he also names mantras, as vaghava–mudrā.
For further clarification, I would like to give one more example, this time from a Western tradition. Some Greek philosophers, Aristotle, Plato for instance, had such a view regarding the genesis that there is the supreme consciousness or spirit, and there is an inert and lifeless matter. So, when the supreme consciousness comes into contact with that matter, then forms reflecting the paramount plan of the Creator arise. I think, it considers the meaning of the term ‘mudrā’ in a right way. Each created form is a transmitter and a reflection of the supreme consciousness, therefore everything in the world is arranged, everything interacts with everything and everything is in its place. That very well reflects a concept such as ṛta from the Vedas or the later one – dharma. When you peer into the essence of phenomena, through that you can come to the awareness from an ultimate source.
So, what do all these mudrās have in common, despite all the differences? All of them contain a certain, highly significant archetype. Even if we practise, for instance, such mudrās as mahāmudrā from haṭha-yoga or viparītakaraṇī, these are not just body poses. Of course, nowadays, most haṭha-yoga practitioners utilise these practices without any attempt to go deeper into their essence. But, if you take a look at the descriptions of all yoga techniques, then the mudrās are described in a poetic, colorful language there, and very few people understand that we can meditate on the very description of these methods. Thus, jānu-śīrṣāsana ceases to be just a body pose, when you realise that one leg represents the solar channel and the other – the lunar one, etc.
Probably, you know that sometimes we can understand each other without words, on the level of gestures or glance. Why is that so? Because, all these levels transmit the meaning and precisely that element of ‘meaning’, especially when it comes to the ultimate meaning, makes them all mudrās. So, the speech that has become logos, which tries to convey a very high meaning, becomes both a mantra and a mudrā. A nāth, who wears kuṇḍalas (attributes of Śiva), wears them realising himself as Śiva and he never takes them off, since they are forever, eternal, just like Śiva himself. Kuṇḍalas are a symbol of your meditation, or of something that is beyond sleep, wakefulness, and generally any worldly change. Although of course, not everyone knows that meaning, even among those who receive and wear them. Unfortunately, that is not explained to everyone who receives them. And if there is something high and meaningful, you never remain indifferent, and if that is really so, then you cannot be insincere. A mudrā is something that affects you very deeply, you can attain samādhī and samādhī itself could also be a mudrā. If it is a level of essentiality, the differences are conditional there. A mudrā instantly makes you both attentive and responsible. For example, you signed an agreement that you will be going to work at a certain time, put a signature there. It connects you with something, because there is also bandhana. But, this bandha does not have a negative meaning, because the other meaning of the root and the term as a whole is something that gives joy. If there is a high meaning and the joy associated with it, then it becomes a practice of mudrā. Hand mudrās, with which you resonate with deities, thereby creating a subtle and deep channel of communication, work on the same principle. That is the use of the essential meaning displayed in a sign, in this case, performed by various positions of hands. If there is a mantra, and you engage with it and get into its higher meaning, then it becomes mudrā too. If mudrās activate a connection with the Divine in you, that connection gives you perfections, therefore it is believed that mudrās grant siddhis.
Recently, one of my students asked me a question, “Is it true that there is semen retention in Vajrayana (in the practice of karma–mudrā of the Completion stage), but is it not so in Indian tantras?”
First of all, I think that it is wrong to sacrifice a human nature to religious corporations, dividing it into Tibetan and Indian one. There is a tendency to think that if you are a Tibetan, you can retain semen, and if you are an Indian, the practice must necessarily be different. The retention of ejaculation in the practice of maithuna or karma–mudrā is an allegory. In Indian kaulācāra, this kind of practices implies ejaculation, as an analogue of pūrṇāhuti in agnihotra. After which, this substance is mixed with wine and then used in pūjā. There is a lot of evidences of that fact, for example, in the Guhyasamāja-tantra:
विण्मूत्रशुक्ररक्तादीन् देवतानां निवेदयेत्।
एवं तुष्यन्ति सम्बुद्धाः बोधिसत्त्वा महाशयाः॥२१॥
viṇmūtraśukraraktādīn devatānāṃ nivedayet।
evaṃ tuṣyanti sambuddhāḥ bodhisattvā mahāśayāḥ ॥21॥
It is necessary to offer the secretion: urine, semen, female bodily fluids and offer them to the Deities. Thus, it will satisfy the great awakened ones, buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Prior to that, there is a recommendation to practice intercourse with a beautiful young woman. In order, for example, to offer semen in pūjā, it is obvious that there must be present a finalised ritual of maithuna. And there is quite a bit of such recommendations in Vajrayana. These kinds of transgressions in Vajrayana, which seems to be full of savagery to the common man, in fact, are not much different from saptamakaras in aghora, which took a lot from traditions like kāpālikas.
If you read a description of vajrolī or amarolī in the Haṭha-yoga-pradīpikā, you will see that there is a recommendation to mix the released semen with ash and apply it as a tilaka. That is, it means that ash is a symbol of amṛta, as well as semen. It says of the same principles as in the description from the Guhyasamāja-tantra and other Buddhist texts. Here is a very similar fragment from the Yoni-tantra:
भक्त्या द्रव्यं जपेन्मन्त्रं जप्त्वा मैथुनमाचरेत् शु्क्तोत्सरणकाले च शृ्णु पार्वति सुन्दरि
योनितत्त्वं समादाय तिलकं क्रियते यदि शतजन्मावर्ज्जितं पापं तत्क्षणादेव नश्यति ॥20-21॥
bhaktyā dravyaṃ japenmantraṃ japtvā maithunamācaret
śuktotsaraṇakāle ca śṛṇu pārvati sundari
yonitattvaṃ samādāya tilakaṃ kriyate yadi
śatajanmāvarjjitaṃ pāpaṃ tatkṣaṇādeva naśyati ॥20-21॥
The sādhaka should chant the mantra and enjoy the ‘substances’ during the practice of maithuna. Listen, beautiful Parvatī, if a sādhaka makes himself a tilaka with ‘yoni fluids’ after an orgasm, then he will instantly forsake all the sins associated with a hundred births. (20-21)
The requirement given here is very similar to the one from the Haṭha-yoga-pradīpikā. Probably, the goal here is not to retain semen so that there is no ejaculation at all. If the process is contemplative, then such a suspension or extension of the act occurs naturally. And the practitioner accomplishes that not by themselves and not because their ego wants it, like they can feed it by being ‘good technicians’. Here, the Goddess also controls the process through you. And the prolongation of the act is needed more in order to satisfy the Goddess in a woman, so she will bestow siddhi through her satisfaction. And at the end of the ritual, pūrṇāhuti is being done in the form of an orgasm. A prolongation of the act may occur due to the desire to satisfy the Divine. But not at all in order to demonstrate some kind of ‘athletic abilities’ to stretch time, in which many people mistakenly believe. Each practice has a main task that must not be forgotten, otherwise it loses its true purpose and value, no matter how exclusive the technique may look. As we can see, ūrdhvaretā could be understood as retracting substances back, but that is not by drawing them back into the genitals. That could be, for instance, the communion in the form of tilaka (as ūrdhva is the head area), and so on. And the most important thing is what happens on a psychic level, psychic vibes are significant. For a yogin who understands the essence of this practice, the physical side may be less relevant. They can perceive the sexual energy of life and flowering in their essence. Therefore, for some, a yogic practice is simply the essence of such ceremonies, even without their external implementation.
I have already quoted from the Prapañcasāra-tantra (4.21). It says that the praṇava ‘Oṃ’ comes from the mantra ‘sohaṃ’. If there is no ‘sa’ and ‘ha’ in it, then ‘o’ remains, and with the bindu we get ‘Oṃ’.
सकारं च हकारं च लोपयित्वा प्रयोजयेत्।
संधिं वै पूर्वरूपाख्यं ततोऽसौ प्रणवो भवेत् ।।४.२१।।
sakāraṃ ca hakāraṃ ca lopayitvā prayojayet।
saṃdhiṃ vai pūrvarūpākhyaṃ tato’sau praṇavo bhavet ।।4.21।।
According to the pūrva-rūpa saṁdhi rule, removing ‘sa’ and also ‘ha’, definitely, one should definitely get that praṇava (Oṃ) from there.
The mantra ‘Oṃ’ is called ‘para-praṇava’. That means it is primordial, it is identified with the spontaneously arising vibration (anāhata). There are many interpretations of this mantra and one of them is that the spelling ॐ is a combination of three mātrā अ – उ – म् / a – u – m. Sometimes you can find other spellings, for example ओँ / om̐, which could be explained by grammar rules, according to which ओ / o is a combination of syllables अ – उ / a – u. So relatively speaking, we can say that all vowels fall into the range from अ / a to म् / m, which could also shift to anusvāra. According to the Parā-trīṃśikā-vivaraṇa, all vowels are associated with Śiva-tattva, and all consonants are associated with Śakti and all manifestations that emerge due to it (the remaining 35 tattvas). Sanskrit consonants are connected with all other tattvas, they end with ह / ha. Together, through the union of Śiva and Śakti, by means of kāma-kalā, they are apara–praṇava, known as अहं ‘aham’, which is the symbol of kāma-kalā.
Thus, aham is an abbreviation, in which all akṣaras of the Sanskrit alphabet and all 36 tattvas are contained. That is, ‘aham’ is Śiva himself with his Śakti and ‘viśva’ – all manifestations emerging from them, which are always contained in them at any stage of their unfolding. Saying ‘aham’ (Self), we kind of reveal the experience of ourselves as the whole universe, what both nāthas and tantrikas call piṇḍa–brahmāṇḍa-vada (the connection of microcosm and macrocosm). Different worlds of outer space are represented in our body, mainly in cakras.
So, we have two praṇavas, ‘para’ – is directly ‘Oṃ’, originating from sohaṃ, this is Śiva himself and the vowels of Śakti. And then, from the para–praṇava, the apara–praṇava manifests, in which the Sanskrit consonants and the remaining 35 tattvas unfold. When we repeat ‘sohaṃ’, or rather, we experience this phenomenon comprehensively, then we feel the identity of ourselves – अहं ‘aham’ with सः ‘sah’ (he). It can be associated with any deity or mantra associated with it. And ultimately, any mantra should lead to that experience, which is known as ‘ajapa-japa’.
There is also an inverted version of this mantra, known as हंसः ‘haṃsaḥ’. If translated literally, it means ‘swan’. Śaṅkara identifies a swan with the principle of the Sun, since it is a source of prāṇa, and the Sun, like a swan, moves through the sky. The Sun can touch a surface of the earth, its rays glide over it. The Sun rises and disappears with the sunset, and in the same way a swan can submerge under water and stay there, to be on and above water. If ‘sohaṃ’ is paramātmā, then ‘haṃsa’ is also a symbol of omnipresence, but rather, like ‘ātman’ (from the root ‘at’ – to move and spread, that is, ātman abides in everything). There is one famous mantra which is used in tantrism sometimes. It is quoted in the earliest Kaṭhopaniṣad, but initially it is found in the Rigveda, in the hymn to Dadhikar (the Sun).
The Rigveda (Maṇḍala 4.40.5)
हं॒सः शु॑चि॒षद्वसु॑रंतरिक्ष॒सद्धोता॑ वेदि॒षदति॑थिर्दुरोण॒सत् ।
नृ॒षद्व॑र॒सदृ॑त॒सद्व्यो॑म॒सद॒ब्जा गो॒जा ऋ॑त॒जा अ॑द्रि॒जा ऋ॒तं ॥
The swan [the Sun], which abides (षद् / ṣad) in the clear sky (शुचि / śuci), abides in air (वसु / vasu), in the middle atmosphere (अन्तरिक्ष / antarikṣa), in fire (होता / hotā), dwells in the center of the Vedic altar for agnihotra (वेदिषद् / vediṣad), in the guest* (अतिथि / atithi), staying at the house (दुरोणसत् / duroṇasat). Being in people (नृषद् / nṛṣad), in good beings (gods, siddhas) (वरसत् / varasat), in harmony with the world (a world order) (ऋतसत् / ṛtasat), who is in space (व्योमसत् / vyomasat), born under water अब्जा / abjā (वडवानल / vaḍavānala – fire within the ocean), born from the Sun (गो / go) (जा / jā – sunlight). The one who was born from the perfect world order (ऋतजा / ṛtajā), born on the mountains** (अद्रिजा / adrijā), the basis of the world order (ऋतं / ṛtaṃ), the great one from whom the whole universe emerges (बृ्हत् / bṛhat).
Explanation of terms:
* Guests in India are identified with the gods and vice versa, the gods are invoked during a pūjā into the space of the rite, therefore they are also ‘guests’.
** ‘Who is born on the mountains’ – could have many meanings; adri could mean ‘cloud’, the Sun, ‘mountain’, clouds covering a mountain, something related to the number seven. I believe that we are talking about seven sacred rivers, the worship of which is present in all pūjās, they all descend from heaven, these are heavenly rivers, symbols of nectar (amṛta).
Based on this hymn, we can better understand the significance of the ‘haṃsa’ symbol.
There was Gautamma Buddha’s jayanti (a holy birth anniversary) recently. And I remembered that in Śrīvidyā texts I came across some pūjās related to different views or revelations. For example, such as Saura-darśana (reverence for the worldview of the sūrya devotees), Śaiva, Śakta, also Baudha (i.e. Buddhism). In Śrīvidyā, these pūjās are not dominant, they are more likely secondary, however, those who like to worship a number of Buddhist Devatas, they can worship them. In the Śrīvidyārṇava-tantra (Ch.11) there is a description of mantras that are given as bauddhadarśanādhidevatāmantrāḥ (mantras of the main deities of the Buddhist worldview, the tradition). The main Deity there is Tārā (Ugra Tārā, Ekajaṭā Tārā and Nīlasarasvatī Tārā). So, in Śrīvidyā, as in a number of other traditions, there is own version about Buddha and Buddhism, they believe that it is a part of Śaktism, Viśnuism, Śaivism or some other teachings. It is more likely that some Buddhists may not like this, however, you can really find stories in the Rudrayāmala of how Vaśiṣṭha received initiation from Buddha to worship the Goddess using the kaulācāra methods. There are other stories and interpretations as alternatives to the widespread ones. All this speaks of the non-stereotyped vision of Indians and the ability to use a variety of practical tools, regardless of different dogmas.
Today is an interesting day, the birthday of Nṛsiṃha, the incarnation of Viṣṇu, and of the Goddess Chinnamastā. According to the Toḍala-tantra, the Ten Mahāvidiyās are associated with the Ten Viṣṇu avatārs.
What do the images of Chinnamastā and Nṛsiṃha have in common? According to one legend, Nṛsiṃha came to destroy the demon Hiraṇyakaśipu. Hiraṇyakaśipu, performing austerities, asked Brahmā not to be killed either outdoors or indoors, either on the ground or in the air, either by humans or animals. Then Viṣṇu appeared in the form of a half-man and a half-lion, he killed the demon on the porch of his palace, placing him over his knee. So the demon was killed in a way that he did not expect. There is also a continuation of this story, in which Nṛsiṃha gets drunk on the blood of the killed demon and becomes infected with it. After that, Śiva appears in the form of Śarabheśvara and neutralises the blood of the demon in Nṛsiṃha. Śarabheśvara is depicted not just as a lion, but with wings, i.e. he has a great ability of manifestation in various realms, since he is able to fly through the air. Two Goddesses appear from his wings, one is Pratyaṅgirā and the other is Śūlinī Durgā, both of which are related to the elimination of the negative influence or witchcraft on the practitioner. In fact, Śarabheśvara is nothing more than an enhanced form of Nṛsiṃha. I heard from Indian tantrikas that there are no contradictions here, because Viṣṇu and Śiva are fused in the form of Harihara.
If you look at the image of Chinnamastā, you will see that it stands on Kāma, the God of sex, who is in the intercourse with his companion Rati (Goddess of passion). Thus, Chinnamastā gets energy from passion, but in its essence, this passion is also self-transformation or sublimation. Chinnamastā chopped off her own head and holds it in her hand, while her head drinks a stream of blood from the body. Two other streams are drunk by her two companions. This is a symbol of the three channels, where Chinnamastā herself symbolises suṣumṇā and the other two Goddesses – the channels iḍā and piṅgala. In other words, Chinnamastā is a certain single reality that is present in all channels, in the power of passion and creation. In fact, it is a single indestructible force within every living form. Her mantra is the same as the Vajravārāhī mantra in Buddhism, who is also known there as the Goddess Khecharī (mudrā) of white color. The name Chinnamastā in the mantra is “Vajravairocanī” (‘the shining lightning’), and the term vajra could also mean “indestructibility”.
From my experience of worshiping Chinnamastā, I can say that this form is associated with a deep comprehension of one element or aspect of self, through which it is possible to penetrate into all others. You kind of unite them and go beyond them. In yoga, for example, you exhale smoothly (rechaka) and automatically comprehend the essence of the correct inhalation (pūraka). Through both of them you comprehend the essence of the retention (kumbhaka). Kumbhaka – from the root कुम्ब् / kumb ( something which encompasses, embodies in itself). Therefore, a vessel is often a symbol of female genitals (yonī), from the root यु / yu, – something which connects, forms and holds in itself. Yonī could also mean something that is associated with various forms of birth, all creation comes from it, all forms of life, they dissolve in it. Kumbha or a vessel is a symbol of the body, both individual and the body of the universe, all life (amṛta) and the whole universe is in it. A vessel is a symbol of the unity of external and internal space (vyoman), the void inside and outside a vessel is one in its essence. Therefore, there is one single reality in all our bodies. We could say that these are parts: inhalation, exhalation, retention, like other parts of yoga, besides prāṇāyāma, āsana, pratyāhāra, dhāraṇā, yama, niyama, etc. All of them are one single sādhanā, one yoga, like other yogas (rāja, karma, jñāna, laya). Unfortunately, people have separated all these methods now, although they have one goal and one reality. Once you comprehend one aspect well, you automatically come to the comprehension of its inextricable connection with all others. Chinnamastā is a very paradoxical symbol, it is a symbol of cutting off all worldly things and at the same time it is a symbol of presence in everything. It is the transcendental, indestructible, radiant emptiness that generates an abundance of life forms and is present in each such form. Surely, she is associated with the complete absence of oneself in something, but also with the complete presence of oneself there. Chinnamastā is a symbol of spiritual death in which there is no conditioning by births, she is also a symbol of the fullness of life and the infinite wealth of life. Fear of death and fear of life are usually related. A yogi is one who dies for the world and through this death he is resurrected to a new vision of life in all its beauty and fullness. In this regard, Chinnamastā is a part of the Kālī pantheon (Kālī–kūla), because Kālī is connected with time, which is divided into parts, into segments. The term Kālī is feminine from kāla (‘time’), which is masculine. It comes from the root कल् (kal), which is the first gaṇa (group of roots) of ten in Pāṇini, and means सङ्ख्यान (saṅkhyāna – “to count”) , and कला (kalā) is from the same root – “a part of something general, art, etc.” She teaches to control prāṇa, and through the management of prāṇa leads to going beyond time or death.