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Researcher at the University of La Sapienza and Yoga Teacher
THE ART OF YOGA: TO INCARNATE BEAUTY
This essay explores the relationship between aesthetic experience (rasāsvāda) and religious experience (brahmāsvāda) in the framework of non-dual tantric Yoga of Medieval Kaśmīr, especially the peculiar ‘aesthetic perspective’ of this kind of Yoga. The Śaivite initiate is simultaneously a yogin and a jñānin, but his approach to knowledge is specifically concrete: it is based on the senses. The quality of his perception can unleash not only a profound power of attention, but also a fine sensitivity that is generative, ever-new, a vehicle of fresh insight (pratibhā) and beauty.
The author is profoundly grateful to Raffaele Torella, her mentor and inspiration for many years, who originally rediscovered in recent studies the importance of aesthetic experience in non-dual Tantrism and its correlation with religious experience.
Le beau est la preuve expérimentale que l’incarnation est possible. Dès lors tout art de premier ordre est par essence religieux.
Simone Weil, La Pesanteur et la Grâce
Knowing is feeling; knowing is generating
The concept of non-dual Tantrism that developed in Kaśmīr in the Middle Ages features an affinity and intertwining of philosophical and religious implications between rasāsvāda, the enjoyment of beauty through art, and brahmāsvāda, the spiritual dimension that Yoga incarnates1. The present article aims to identify the original ‘aesthetic prospect’ of Kaśmīri Tantric Yoga, a ritual form sui generis that integrates the different tendencies of Rāja Yoga and of the Tantric transmissions that preceded it, incarnating the apex of the Tantric phenomenon tout court.
The relationship between aesthetic (rasāsvada) and religious (brahmāsvada) experience2 emerges particularly in an original interpretation of Abhinavagupta3 in his comment on the Nāṭya śāstra, the Abhinavabhāratī 4, and in the Locana ad Dhvanyāloka by Ānandavardhana4. In these texts, the great Kaśmīri master tackles the aesthetic dimension in a structured manner, while allowing a glimpse of a new concept of religious experience, independent of artistic enjoyment, but with roots in the same soil.
First and foremost, the Kaśmīri masters conceived of rasāsvāda and brahmāsvāda not only as two actual doors giving access to knowledge, but as knowledge itself (pramāṇa). Both in ancient India and in ancient Greece, knowing means investigating the truth with all one’s being, body and soul, viewing the body broadly as physical awareness. Furthermore, knowledge oriented towards liberation is the ultimate goal of the Yoga rite, whatever the line of transmission to which it belongs.
Tantric schools of non-dual persuasion – and generally speaking the more extreme types like the Krama school – decidedly support the primacy of knowledge over ritual activity, of which Yoga may be considered an extension, but Abhinavagupta never underestimated the need for what we may call ‘incarnate’ knowledge6; the central role of the practice, moreover, is the core of religious India. According to the view of the Gama tantra quoted by Abhinavagupta, mati – knowledge – alone is unable to affect reality in any operational and transformative fashion. In order to fulfil its task as ‘living leaven’, it requires the support of Yoga. As the living nucleus of the rite, Yoga thus manages to activate abstract knowledge in a functional manner, transforming it into experiential understanding.
Knowledge is thus an empirical way, distinguished by full deployment of the senses. The religious experience (brahmāsvāda), like the perception of beauty (rasāsvāda), involves intellectual use of the senses. A real cognitive act is thus the outcome of both experiences, while sensory deployment is the concrete and tangible high road of such cognizance7.
“Both in ancient India and in ancient Greece, knowing means investigating the truth with all one’s being, body and soul, viewing the body broadly as physical awareness.”
The maternal and generative power of Śakti, Kamakhya Temple, Assam photo: Gioia Lussana
Saṃvid (knowledge) accepts reality congruously and in its entirety starting from what is visible and can be experienced, before reaching what no longer needs experience and is recognised, as it were, as being ‘beyond experience’. Fully experienced sensorial fact ignites in saṃvid ‘the experience that cannot be experienced’, by means of direct, vivid intuition (pratibhā). Furthermore, the quality of knowledge that relates the enjoyment of beauty and the art of Yoga is not only ‘sensory’, but generative8. Indeed, the experience of the artist and of the yogin possesses a self-creative quality, like living matter: it has a continuously transforming energetic and vibrant nature, ever producing something new. These ‘new products’ are both physical and psychical.
The self-generative fecundity of Tantric knowledge closely recalls the non-dual view of the Western philosopher who discovered the lógos, Heraclitus of Ephesus9. Lógos, primordial and universal intelligence, common to the individual soul and to the Absolute, is capable of ‘increasing itself’, like an ever-burning fire. This same generative lógos is found in the Gospel of John, and in this regard several scholars make a connexion, due to phonetic affinity and probable etymological relationship, between the two Greek verbs gígnomai (I generate) and gignósko (I know)10.
In Kaśmīri Śaivism, the result of this ontological knowledge (alaukika) as compared to reductively conceptual ordinary knowledge (laukika) is found in pratibhā11, the fruitful intuitive aptitude that gives birth both to rasāsvāda and brahmāsvāda. And it is the senses, the goddesses of the senses (karaneśvarī or svasaṃviddevī), who reawaken and trigger this conscious intuitiveness, a presentiment of being, an experience that surpasses the use of the senses, making the noetic value of the experience even more direct and unfiltered, if that were possible.
Intuiting truth: an expansion of being
Dhī or pratibhā denotes an increased capacity of vision and perception, a quality expanding both mind and body, which, through artistic creation or Yogic gesture, free from mechanical and compulsory repetition, spreads wide the wings of the mind. Then everything appears perfect by itself, in a coherent amalgam between the observer and the object observed. Pratibhā arouses perception of beauty (saundarya), revealed like a spark between the observer and the object observed. Saundarya, the elusive momentum, is consequently not a quality belonging to the subject or object, but a mysterious and independent quid surpassing both. In this ‘superabundance’ (bāhulya) can be recognised the quality generating that special type of awareness that is achieved by tasting (bhogopadeśena).
The term pratibhā, intuition, incarnates a diversified semantic capacity: awareness connoted by immediacy, vividness, freshness12; it is revelation, understanding, adequacy, a flash of light. By experiencing pratibhā, which is the prerogative of the artist or beneficiary of art, as of the yogin, the meaning of things is learned, their inner coherence, manifest as intrinsic beauty. Beauty is the meaning we grasp; beauty is truth; beauty is what is: Satya (truth), the unfathomable ‘that which is’, revealed by pratibhā is the realm of beauty.
In the Tantric view, the mineral, vegetal, animal and human world, whatever exists, is the expression of the intrinsic divinity of all. In all things can be perceived the freedom and beauty of artistic creation with its own inner intelligence, an existing harmony that also expresses the authentic sacrality of life in all its aspects. Awaking to this evidence is rasāsvāda and brahmāsvāda.
Pratibhā, the seminal source of all creativity, means grasping the expansive dimension of existence. R. Torella13 rightly renders the term vikāsa (expansion), so central to the work of Utpaladeva and later of Abhinavagupta, as ‘joy’. This joy has a simultaneous aesthetic and ontological value. The three states of mind that together represent this joy are expressed by Abhinavagupta14 in his theory of rasa as druti (fluidity), vistāra (widening) and vikāsa (expansion). It is living, energetic happiness, ontologically connected with ānanda sakti, the first ferment at the basis of being. When the effervescence of emotion moves awareness, the original nature of awareness itself can be tasted. Rasāsvāda and brahmāsvāda are its expression.
Beauty is a happy rhythm
Happiness (ānanda) is consequently – according to the Kaśmīri masters – none other than the primordial nature of knowledge (cit, saṃvid), which has an expansive and flowing quality. Utpaladeva15 uses the term ghūrṇana (ghūrṇ- means to whirl around) to denote a rhythmic and swaying movement of the body, referring to the state of ecstatic absorption of the bhākta (yogin). This is an interesting term in that it attempts to bring us even closer to saundarya, the expression of beauty. Utpala explains ghūrṇana as a spontaneous swaying of the body due to its own intrinsic happiness. For the Kaśmīri master, this kind of movement is actually a natural flow that gushes from the astonished tasting of reality (camatkāra), or from a fragrance (āmoda), from the subtle scent of life that rejoices the heart16. This expansive condition of mind and body issues spontaneously, like the scent of a wild flower, and dissolves in rhythmic movement of the whole being. This is the quality of Yogic action: the discovery of a rhythm connected with the energetic vibration of consciousness itself (spanda) translated as ritual gesture. The rhythm expressing the Yoga gesture is revealed to the yogin immersed without reserve in bodily action17, recognising within a wholly natural movement an internal coherence, an appropriate repetition that generates harmony, an order simultaneously structured and spontaneous18.
Sahṛdayatva, the art of forefeeling beauty
Ānandavardhana19 extended the semantic capacity of the term artha (meaning) to the point of including in it the human emotional sphere, the psyche in its entirety. Feelings, emotions, sentiments trigger awareness. The yogin of a higher level20 appears to all effects as an arthin and a rasika, the activator of the sensitive and creative capacity with which the poet (kavi), the dancer (nartaka) is endowed, or the artist more widely speaking. For the yogin, the āsana becomes a pātra, a container or form, the living space of contemplation in which he – in the double role of nartaka (dancer) and prekṣaka (spectator) – is able to incarnate religious experience. The opening of the senses and the inrush of passion, not mortified but liberated, express full participation in the spectacle of life. Śiva, who rides the unrestrained nature of his emotions without being dominated by them, is at once the prototype of the rasika and the mahāyogin.
Non-dual Yoga is consequently not indifference or apathy (tāṭasthya), a condition that Abhinavagupta attributes to the inferior sort of Yoga. The yogin is a sahṛdaya, animated by that active involvement (anupraveśa) that makes possible the perception of beauty and the vivid knowledge of reality through emotive experience21. Knowing how to grasp beauty22, and participating in it emotionally, is a significant feature of Superior Yoga.
Emphasis on inner experience rather than physical posture is the characteristic of this Yoga. The gnosiological and contemplative hallmark that qualifies non-dual Tantric Yoga as compared to the dominant physical and therapeutic trends of Hatha Yoga practices constitutes an evolutionary step in the meaning of Yoga and of Hindu thought as a whole. In mediaeval Tantrism, the physical nature of techniques assumes a contemplative value. The opening of the senses belonging to the bodily dimension is disengaged from any achievement of an intentional or performative result. In non-dual Yoga, the body becomes in a meaningful way the support, vehicle and expression of sahṛdayatva, attentive and participant observation. The latter is more than mere awareness. It is extensive attention, always present on the horizon (sadā-udita), a ‘special commitment’ (prayatna-viśeṣa), as Utpaladeva defines it23, which is of itself a form of awareness (anuvyavasāya), as stated by Abhinavagupta, referring to rasāsvāda and brahmāsvāda.
Beauty as nourishing quality, Hirapur Temple, Orissa photo by Gioia Lussana
“Everything is accepted and worthy of being experienced, if embraced as it were ‘aesthetically’, without desiring to possess it or be possessed by it. Everything reveals its intrinsic beauty and, consequently, everything is sacred.”
Rasa, in Abhinavagupta’s conception, is not just tasting; its function is also to remove the dense clouds obscuring awareness, since it leads us to Yoga experience, in which such a function is central.
As noted by Somadeva Vasudeva24, Mālinīvijayottaratantra Yoga is characterised by a marked epistemological quality together with an experiential quality of a contemplative nature. The yogin does not acquire an abstract ontological cognition of reality, but a vivid incarnate awareness, a spiritual achievement that passes through the intensity of ecstasy25, and includes pleasure, as well as pain. The senses, deployed in all their force, concretely ‘devour’ external reality (grāsa is this devouring) and bring it inside. From this intense sensorial passion that burns the outer world by devouring it, the perception of beauty is produced (saundarya), distinguished by a special vividness (sphuṭatva) or presence for the experiencer. The climax of this experience coincides with passion alone: the senses burn up, as it were, even themselves. A naked burning presence remains, an experience, as we said above, no longer of the senses in any literal way, because divested of any reference to an object.
In the rite of Yoga, this presence is identified with jīvana or prāṇana, the sensation of being alive and feeling emotions which, in the Trika is the primary expression of which everything is made. The artist and the yogin know through sahṛdayatva26, which is true aisthesis, an aesthetic sensibility activated by sensations and emotions, without identifying itself with any hedonistic search for pleasure. Everything is accepted and worthy of being experienced, if embraced as it were ‘aesthetically’, without desiring to possess it or be possessed by it27. Everything reveals its intrinsic beauty and, consequently, everything is sacred.
- As Utpala notes in Śivastotrāvalī (15.6), worshippers (bhakta) can taste (āsvādayanti) the inexpressible; they can achieve a perceivable experience of the divine. This particular quality of super-enjoyment (āsvāda) equates the artist and the yogin.
- In the Sāhitya Darpaṇa III, 2-3 appears an authoritative definition of aesthetic experience (rasa): “Rasa is tasted (āsvādyate) by those special persons who have an innate awareness (kaiścitpramātṛbhiḥ), provided with its own light (svaprakāśaḥ), composed of mental beatitude (ānanda-cin-mayaḥ), free from the cognizable (vedyāntara-sparśa-śūnyaḥ), the twin of brahmāsvāda (brahmāsvāda-sahōdaraḥ). Aesthetic experience and religious experience are thus like twins, together (saha) in the same womb (udara). Abhinavagupta validates the connexion between these two experiences.
- Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka was probably the first to compare aesthetic and religious experience. Abhinavagupta explicitly recalls his comments (v. Dhvanyālokalocana I.6) and – while criticising some of his theories – takes his inspiration from this work in creating an original and more complex theory of rasa.
- Cf. Nagar, R.S., Nāṭyāśastra of Bharatamuni with the Commentary Abhinavabhāratī by Abhinavaguptācārya, Parimal Publication, Delhi 1998. A fundamental reference for any penetration of these texts is R. Gnoli, The Aesthetic Experience according to Abhinavagupta, Chowkamba Sanskrit Studies 72, 2nd ed. Varanasi, 1968.
- Cf. Abhinavagupta, Dhvanyālokalocana, Kashi Sanskrit Series 135. Ed. Pattābhirāma Śāstrī, Benares 1940. Ingalls. D.H.H. The Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana wiith the Locana of Adbhinavagupta. D.H.H.lngalls, J.M. Masson and M.V. Patwardan, eds. and trans. Harvard Oriental Series 49, London 1990.
- On this specific theme, cf. H. Brunner, “Jñāna and Kriyā: Relation between Theory and Practice in the Śaivāgamas”, in T. Goudriaan (ed.), Ritual and Speculation in Early Tantrism. Studies in Honor of André Padoux, SUNY Press, Albany 1992, pp. 1 – 59. Personally, I consider of great value the oral contribution of R. Torella during a series of lectures on Tantric Yoga held in Rome in 2013, which I edited in collaboration with the Università Popolare dello Sport and the sponsorship of the Istituto Italiano di Studi Orientali of Rome’s La Sapienza University.
- Abhinavagupta in Abhinavabhāratī I (rasasūtra) states: rasanā ca bodharūpaiva (‘even aesthetic tasting actually consists of cognition’).
- On the generative quality of beauty, Plato is our guide: cf. for example Symposium, 206c et seq. In the famous scala amoris presented by Diotima inPlato’s text, beauty tirelessly generates new forms up to the highest degree: Beauty itself.
- Cf. for example DK,B 115: “A lógos that increases itself is from the very soul”
- Cf. for example, M. Vannini, Storia della mistica occidentale, Le Lettere, Firenze 2015, p.100. The Gospel of John was drafted, according to tradition, at Ephesus itself, the home of Heraclitus.
- In Dhvanyālokalocana I.6, Abhinavagupta defines pratibhā “[that form of]intellect capable of producing new and extraordinary objects”.
- Cf. N.Rastogi, “Utpala’s Insights into Aesthetics and his Impact” in R.Torella, B.Bäumer (Eds) Utpaladeva, Philosopher of Recongnition. Rastogi refers to a well-known article by Gopinath Kaviraj, “The Doctrine of Pratibhā in Indian Philosophy” (1923-24 ABORI, Poona),
- ĪPVV II, 411. Cf. N. Rastogi, ibidem, p.171.
- Abh I, 177.
- ŚDVṛ, 10. Cf. N. Rastogi, ibidem, cit. p.136.
- Śiva, the supreme Reality, is, according to the words of Somānanda, pramodātmā, incarnate joy. Cf. Rastogi, ibidem.
- The term rhythm is connected to the Indo- European root ru- (or sru-), which evokes the noise of running, flowing water (cf. Greek reo)
- The term harmony is connected to the root ṛ-/ ār- meaning to move, to go towards; to unite, to fix. Appropriately enough, it means ‘orderly’ (ṛta in Vedic India is the cosmic order).
- Cf. Mazzarino V. Ānandavardhana, Dhvanyāloka. I principi dello Dhvani, Einaudi, Torino 1983.
- For the Kaśmīri masters, the lower level of Yoga corresponds to a ‘Yoga of techniques’ in which aesthetic perception is not required. Superior Yoga, dealt with in this study, on the other hand requires the experience of beauty (saundarya). In this way, the yogin even has access to ‘super-beauty’ (atisaundarya).
- On the quality of tasting (asvāda) common to both experiences, Abhinavagupta inDhvayālokalocana III.43 states that rasāsvāda is but the reflection (avabhāsa), only a drop of that bliss that distinguishes brahmāsvāda.
- In the Trika various terms are used to denominate ‘beauty’. Besides saundarya, cārutā (often used by Ānandavardhana), lāvāṇya (‘grace’),aucitya (‘harmony’), just to mention a few.
- Cf. Rastogi, ibidem, p.177.
- Mālinīvijayottaratantra (MVUT), chapters I – 4, 7, II – 17, The Yoga of the Mālinīvijayottaratantra (ed. , trans. and notes by Somadeva Vasudeva), All India Press, Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2004
- We could say aísthesis, which is both ékstasis and énstasis.
- Sahṛdaya, ‘endowed with heart’ is literally someone who can get in tune with the heart of others, who can make another’s qualities resound like a bell within himself (hṛdayasaṃvāda or ‘heart resonance’ is a synonym of sahṛdayatva). The definition is found in Dhvanyālokalocana 1.1. Sahṛdaya is also one who knows how ‘to share his heart’, according to a nuance found by Abhinavagupta. Utpaladeva anticipates Abhinavagupta using the analogous term hṛdayamgamatva.
- Utpaladeva calls āṇavamala the original stain of living as though separated from everything and at the centre of everything, abhilāṣamala, the greed to possess everything. ĪPVV III, 252.
Bibliography of works quoted
Brunner H., “Jñāna and Kriyā: Relation between Theory and Practice in the Śaivāgamas”, in T. Goudriaan (ed.), Ritual and Speculation in Early Tantrism. Studies in Honor of André Padoux, SUNY Press, Albany 1992, pp.1-59. Gnoli R. (1968), The Aesthetic Experience according to Abhinavagupta, Varanasi: Chowkamba Sanskrit Studies 72, 2nd ed. Ingalls, D.H.H. (ed.) The Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana with Locana of Abhinavagupta, translated by D.H.H. Ingalls, J. Moussaieff Masson and M.V. Patwardhan with an introduction by D.H.H. Ingalls, Harvard Oriental Series 49, Harvard UniversityPress, Cambridge (Mass.) and London 1990. Kotru N.K. (1985) Śivastotrāvalī of Utpaladeva, Sanskrit Text with Introduction, English Translation and Glossary, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Mazzarino V. (1983) Ānandavardhana, Dhvanyāloka. I principi dello Dhvani, Torino: Einaudi. Nagar, R.S. (1998), Nāṭyaśāstra of Bharatamuni with the Commentary Abhinavabhāratī by Abhinavaguptācārya, Delhi: Parimal Publication. Plato (2009) Symposium, Italian trans. and comment by M.Nucci, Torino: Einaudi. Rastogi, N. (2016) “Utpala’s insights into aesthetics and his impact on Abhinavagupta’s aesthetic speculation”, in R. Torella, B. Bäumer (eds.) Utpaladeva, Philosopher of Recognition, Delhi: DK Printworld. Vannini M.(2015) Storia della mistica occidentale, Firenze: Le Lettere. Vasudeva S. (2004) The Yoga of the Mālinīvijayottaratantra, chapters I – 4, 7, II – 17, (ed. and trans.) Institut Français de Pondichéry, All India Press. Viśvanātha Kavirāja (1851) The Sāhitya-darpaṇa or Mirror of Composition: A Treatise on Literary Criticism, vol. 10 Bibliotheca Indica, trans. J. R. Ballantyne. Asiatic Society of Bengal.