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THE TOUCH OF GODNESS
[O GODDESS, WHO IS] BEYOND THE FIVE VOIDS AND WHOSE CHARACTERISTIC IS THE TOUCH OF PURE
Gioia Lussana INDOLOGIST AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LA SAPIENZA (ITALY) AND YOGA TEACHER
The ‘touch of the goddess’, or the use of gesture by the most ancient Tantric communities of the female or sākta tradition, is a special way of knowing reality by means of a sensory, ‘tactile’ procedure. Through feelings and emotions, without using ‘the thinking mind’, mati (knowledge) is transformed from abstract consciousness into live experience, becoming ‘the intuitive mind’, a carefree mind, the spaciousness of freedom. Gioia Lussana delves into this little-known tradition of the Indian Subcontinent and shows us its different aspects.
In the original Tantrism of India1, relations with a deity are not expressed only by a spiritual yearning, but are incarnate in a sensory experience, particularly in tactile form2. In Tantrism, it is the senses that guide knowledge, whether ordinary or religious, and especially sparśa, the most physical of all the senses: touch. The divine is touched, felt, smelt, tasted, inhabited, rather than evoked or thought about. During the ritual act, the god/goddess comes to ‘sit’, to ‘dwell’ in the body of the adept and, in so doing, touches his/her body, and settles tangibly there. Although the substance of the ‘seat’, i.e. the body, remains what it is – matter –, it partakes viscerally and sensorially of the divine essence.
In this highly ancient context of what is prevalently a female cult, the physicality of matter acquires a live and noetic value, immanent but also transcendent. Indeed, unlike the Western conception in which the divine has a purely ‘other’ function, Tantric India recognises a view of the sacred that is simultaneously immanent and transcendent. The gods dwell in everything that exists, even while they maintain their own inscrutable, indefinable and in some ways unreachable nature. Through the rite, the adept becomes aware of the deity dwelling intrinsically within him/her (the matter is live) and, in fact, awakens within him/herself the presence of the sacred. The breath of life, prāṇa or spanda as it was later called in mediaeval Tantrism, meaning the energising, life-conscious vibration that is the divine breath, is both physical and psychic at the same time. In Śivaite texts, the breathing process (prāṇana) is strictly related to living movement (jīvana). These two forces become a single vibration (spanda) or wave (ūrmi), that is concrete, tangible and, at the same time, conscious.
The Tantric world has no place for tripartite anthropology, so typical of the Greek world and reclaimed by Western mysticism, according to which ‘the pneumatic – or spiritual – man’ is clearly differentiated from the ‘psychic man’, still embroiled in sensorial life and emotional mind. Tantra conceives a single live current, physical and spiritual together, of which the world and we ourselves are made.
In Tantric cosmogony, the reality of the origins, pure immobile consciousness, desire ignites. At a certain moment it wishes ‘to move’ and, out of delight, to become the world, something multiform and variegated that appears other than itself. The energising quality of consciousness (śakti) then becomes the things that exist. Śakti, or the Great Goddess of the most ancient Tantric communities, comes to represent “incarnate consciousness”, manifold living matter that maintains however the noetic quality of when it was solely motionless splendour.
Particularly in the female aspect of the sacred, the Hindu Tantric phenomenon reveals a manner of consciousness that does not pass through the ordinary rational mind, but arouses, as it were, a ‘thinking quality’ already intrinsic in things, and expresses itself through Yogic gesture and action. According to the typical epistemological approach of Tantric Yoga, matter is not ‘material’, but condensed consciousness, versatile, ‘auto-poietic’ and generative, like the Great Goddess, Mother of all.
Prāk saṃvit prāṇe pariṇatā3 states the fragment of a lost Tantra, often quoted in mediaeval Śivaite literature. Consciousness evolves, or ‘comes out’, makes itself visible in things created, maintaining its cognitive capacity and revealing itself in everything that palpitates with life. The Great Goddess as Śakti, worshipped in the primordial Tantrism of the initiatic community of Kāmākhyā in Assam, is simultaneously consciousness, the means of knowing, vital energy in all visible forms. As such – worshipped in the form of a cleft rock as the primordial yoni – she is cared for, nourished and left to rest; in a word, ‘handled’ like a creature of flesh and blood, by the priestly corpus of the temple. Being made by her, whatever exists is conscious, alive, sacred. Not only living matter, therefore, but even what is deemed ‘inanimate’ is animated by consciousness. Consequently, what authentically expresses the sacredness of the Great Goddess is not just the mūrti, her theriomorphic or anthropomorphic representation, but rocks, mountains, so-called inert substances and all of Nature, meaning everything that is in constant metamorphosis, like life itself. Indeed, everything changes, and it is that very ‘change’ that primarily incarnates the divine in all existing forms. Change in an organised manner, retaining the memory of relationships sorted out: this is the life represented by the goddess as Nature. ‘Nature’, as the future participle of nasci actualises the generative aptitude that vegetation and the goddess’s femininity make manifest, as does that of every mortal woman.
Photo: gioia lussana
The tāntrika achieves consciousness of him/herself and the world through his/her body and the living matter of the things he/she touches. He/she also knows through direct perception (pratyakṣa) of reality, facilitated by ‘boundless’ use of the senses, just as boundless and uninhibited is the energising capacity of the Great goddess.
This concrete ‘tactile’ epistemological process, without the filter of thought and language, has an unforeseeable outcome: it promotes the opening up of the adept’s intuitive mind: creative, fervid and vibrant like the blood that runs physically through his/her veins; blood, moreover, which the goddess avidly drinks. Through the wide-open doors of the senses, no longer mortified or demonised – since they are not viewed as enemies, but as powerful allies4 – the mind is freed from the rational one-way mode of operation that regulates and articulates ordinary life and enters the extraordinariness of a liberated condition. In this condition, whatever is known is not rigidly determined, but is living potentiality, shielded, preserved and thus set in motion by the fecund womb of the goddess as generatrix. The mind’s creativity come to blossom through physical gesture and sensitive matter: a poiesis or ‘active mind’ or ‘thinking matter’5: practical wisdom, to use Grassmann’s expression6, referring to the possibility of ‘incarnate wisdom’ in which things speak and think, as nuclei of living energy.
Photo: gioia lussana
The physical sensation of the direct touch triggers an emotive colouring (bhāva) of the mind of the adept involved in the rite. At the start, the inner or emotive state is intrinsically linked to the yogin’s sensoriality7. The physical sensation (and the emotion that unravels from it) is the fuel that increases the inner vitality and consciousness of the tāntrika (which are effectively the same thing). Consciousness is like a fire that intensifies through (physical and psychic) feeling, which is why Tantric Yoga is a path of intensity. That which is burned away by increasingly intense feelings and emotions is whatever separates, encumbers, obstructs, hides, freeing that vast, living, undivided and luminous space that we all are8. This intensification tears the veil of everyday reality and provides access to the experience of non-duality, in which life and consciousness shine undivided. In Tantric India, the feelings (and emotions triggered by them) are karaṇeśvarī or svasaṃvid-devī, self-aware female deities, powerful qualities of Śakti in person.
Emotion derives from e-movère, carry away, shake, rouse with the impetus characteristic of life desiring to express itself, like the sun that rises or plants starting to shoot. The very word ‘liberation’ in Sanskrit, mukti or mokṣa (from muc-), literally means to carry outside, let emerge what is already there.
The attentive tāntrika, who seizes the instant when the senses and emotive life start to express themselves, participates in the nature of spanda, the energy-consciousness of the origins, in which the rational mind still does not function, but the pure leap of nirvilkalpa is in force. The mind still does not think, but feels, intuits, by doing. The physical gesture triggers the creative mind (pratibhā), typical of the artist or the saint.9
In Hindu Tantrism, as a rule, the gestures (ceṣṭā) made by the adept during the rite acquire the function of absolute psychic catalysts. What we mean by the gestural dynamism of the śākta rite of the origins is not however just what is codified in the mudrā, in the nyāsa or in the high-performance and energising mantra10, gestures that require an alert and participatory performance by the yogin.
The ‘touch of the goddess’, or the use of gesture by the most ancient Tantric communities of female or sākta tradition, have a unique value. This means that it differs from later Tantrism (particularly the Śivaite schools of mediaeval Kaśmīr) in which participatory attention in performing the gesture is crucial. In the initiatic community of the goddess Kāmākhyā the gesture is already active in its spontaneous and unwitting form as the matrix of consciousness.
The outstanding semantic value of the gesture and its ‘participatory’ performance on which Tantric Yoga focuses is typical both of aesthetic and religious experience. It is encountered in various art forms, from poetry, dance, to the theatre; the same quality is also found in the static gestures of sculpture, or in the motionless āsana of Yoga. In śākta rituality, even the rapid gesture, performed ‘unconsciously’ has the same high-performance and sacral value. Any type of gesture, even a ‘distracted’ one, is an expression of the vital dynamism (and, as such, is conscious) of the Śakti. Within the rite, but even outside it, every action performed by the body evolves, in any final analysis, ‘naturally’, in the direction of harmony, of the coherent rhythm that governs all things. In this way, the rite differs from everyday life as a celebration of existence itself. The element actually revealed as distinctive is the degree of awakening of the adept, or his/her vital, sensory and emotive capacity to take part wholly in this experience, in a nirvikalpa condition.
Photo: gioia lussana
In line with what we have said so far, it is interesting that the Kaulajñānanirṇaya, – one of the basic texts of the tradition of the goddess Kāmākhyā in Assam – explicitly emphasises that liberation, which in such a context coincides with attainment of the siddhi, can occur only ‘without effort’ or ‘in a carefree manner’ (līlayā)11. This may be interpreted as some sort of gratuitousness of intention, a ‘doing-for-the-sake-of-doing’ that sometimes even appears as a lack of attention to what is done, and yet equally obtains, almost as an intrinsic outcome, the specific abilities mentioned in the texts as final liberation. In such a highly archaic context, it is as though the conscious presence of the gesture loses its personal or identified quality in the performer of the rite and were only the echo of a vaster, transcendent consciousness, that ‘touches’, ‘observes’ and ‘contemplates’ the adept performing the rite from an impersonal perspective.
The Yogic gesture, in any case, must be performed in a condition of relaxed ease, a passive tranquillity in which the focused quality of attention, in its most extreme results, even ceases. The mind gets lost a bit, dissolved in doing, as it were ‘forgets about itself’. This ‘carefree’ attitude implies entry into a rhythmic movement. The prāṇa is this movement.
The unfolding of the gestural rhythm follows its own natural criterion, its inner coherence: the origin and manifestation of that peaceful joy experienced by the yogin. This kind of motionless spontaneity is what, according to Tantrism of the non-dual tradition, opens the passage to authentically spiritual experience, in which the adept lies down as it were in the infinite lap of the Great goddess as Śakti, meaning the freedom of a vast heaven that includes everything.12
Ritual action (and, in any final analysis, action tout court) thus finds within it, ‘in its performance’, an aptness, an almost self-sufficient raison d’être13. Through the physical dynamism triggered by a state of relaxed ease, the adept feels, intuits, discovers, a conscious order that the gesture merely discloses. We could call it ‘unwitting attention’, contained within the material action, revealing a greater attention that comprises him/herself, the rite and all things. Subject (grāhaka) and gestural experience (grāhya) are cancelled out in an open consciousness, a kind of non-mindedness (acitta), that possesses however a quality of all-inclusive presence.
In later Tantrism, Abhinavagupta, using the sources of two lost Tantra-s, the Gama-tantra and the Vīrāvalī-tantra, debates in his Tantrāloka14 the living relationship between jñāna or mati, consciousness, and kriyā, ritual gesture or action. In order to impact reality like living yeast, Mati must transform itself from abstract consciousness into live experience. To that end it becomes ritual gesture, gliding or easing into (adhiśāyinī) living matter. The ‘touch’ becomes the fruit of the mutual fermentation of consciousness and physical gesture.
This is all confirmed in the practices of the Nāth siddha in mediaeval India, whose ritual practice was oriented towards the concrete handling of matter: body fluids or substances from the natural outside environment. Awareness of internal rhythms – cardiac and respiratory – render the yogin and the alchemists of mediaeval India capable of widening the bounds of consciousness to include the dynamics of the involuntary or parasympathetic nervous system. They knew how to develop a corporeal, pre-verbal consciousness, with a liminal value that related unconscious internal functions to the inorganic, vegetal and animal world and, in a wider sense, to consciousness itself.
The cult of the Great goddess of Tantric and pre-Tantric India – always linked to chthonian darkness and to what is invisible or unconscious – had already discovered a way of using the mind that included physical matter, a ‘physiological consciousness’ which, needing neither thoughts nor words, by creative intuition knows and operates through feeling (physical and psychic). In short, a vaster consciousness supplements the ordinary mental level with the more subtle, hidden, physical processes that are usually inaccessible.
From a non-dualistic standpoint, this is the very mind of the tāntrika who, from the unfurled sensory ‘touch’, achieves a ‘sensitive objectless intelligence’, extending in space, made of infinite sky: pure creativity, like the cosmic womb of the Great goddess.
- This study has been prompted by several themes of the author’s PhD thesis on original Tantrism. It is based in particular on the cult of the Goddess Kāmākhyā in Assam. The related research has been published in La Dea che scorre. La matrice femminile dello yoga tantrico. Bologna 2017.
- Sparśa, touch, derives from spṛś-, which means ‘to touch’, ‘feel with the hand’, ‘come into contact with’ or ‘experience’. In Hindu Tantrism, in particular the śākta, ‘touch’ is not a merely physical experience, but assumes epistemological value.
- “In the beginning consciousness evolved into vital energy”. Cf. Tattvārthacintāmaṇi, attributed to Bhaṭṭa Kallaṭa, lost commentary on the Śivasūtra, circa 9th century.
- Cf. Mālinīvijayottaratantra, 15.45-46.
- Cf. Plato, Symposium, 205b; here poiesis is not only ‘poetry’, but art and ‘creation’ in a wider sense: the condition in which from what is there springs creatively into being something further (and not foreseen).
- H.Grassmann’s expression is quoted by J.Gonda in Four Studies in the language of the Veda with regard to the term māyā and the constructive thought that ma- implies. See pp.119-193.
- Cf. R.Torella, ‘Passions and Emotions in Indian Philosophical-Religious Traditions’ in P.Bilimoria, A.Wenta, Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems, Routledge, New Delhi 2015, pp.57-101.
- A.Sanderson purposely coined the expression ‘the prescription of intensity’. Cf. Meaning in Tantric Ritual, pp.79-81.
- Pratibhā is consciousness itself, greeted by Abhinavagupta as pratibhācamatkṛtim; creative intuition or intuitive tasting. Cf. Parātriṃśikātattvavivaraṇam 2.
- On nyāsa and mantra, see A.Padoux in Tantric Mantras: Studies on Mantraśāstra, pp.54-80.
- ‘Līayā siddhibhāgyo’sau bhavatyevaṃ varānane’. V, 8. “O beautiful faced one, by this way, without effort all siddhis become available.
- We find a similar attitude to this Tantric ‘presence – non-presence’ also among the followers of traditional Chinese Taoism (see, for example, Zhuangzi, chap.19) where rhythm and spontaneity (tzu-jan) belong to the nature of all that lives and has to be simply ‘discovered’ in relaxed ease. Later, in the Ch’an the same attitude is designated as wu-hsin (= ‘absence of self-consciousness’). This spontaneously free condition implies a sensation of slight inebriation and action unmotivated by concerns for a concrete result.
- The ritual gesture or Yogic practice implies two inter-connected qualities: coherent order (yukti) and spontaneous and harmonious fluidity (āgama) to make the structure orderly and trigger the generation of another gesture.
- I, 150-151. Trans. R.Gnoli.
1) Abhinavagupta, Parātriṃśikātattvavivaraṇam, Il Commento di Abhinavagupta alla Parātriṃśikā (ed. e trad. a cura di R. Gnoli), Serie orientale Roma, 58, IsMEO, Roma 1985
2) Id., Tantrāloka, Luce dei Tantra, (ed. e trad. a cura di R.Gnoli), Adelphi, Milano 1999
3) Fürlinger E., The Touch of Sakti, A Study in Non-dualistic Trika Śaivism of Kashmir, D. K. Printworld Ltd., New Delhi 1962
4) Gonda J., Four Studies in the language of the Veda, Mouton & Co, The Hague 1959
5) The Kaulajñānanirṇaya, The Esoteric Teachings of Matsyendrapāda (Matsyendranātha) Sadguru of the Yoginī Kaula School in the Tantra Tradition (ed. and trans. by Satkari Mukhopadhyaya in coll. with Stella Dupuis), Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi 2012
6) Lussana G., La Dea che scorre. La matrice femminile dello yoga tantrico, Om Edizioni, Bologna 2017
7) Mālinīvijayottaratantra, chapters I – 4, 7, II – 17, The Yoga of the Mālinīvijayottaratantra (ed. and trans. and notes by Somadeva Vasudeva), All India Press, Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2004
8) Padoux A., “Contributions à l’étude du Mantraśāstra, II: Le Nyāsa, l’imposition rituelle des Mantra”, Bulletin de l’école française d’extrême Orient, 67, 1980, pp. 59-102; “Nyāsa: The Ritual Placing of Mantras” in Tantric Mantras: Studies on Mantraśāstra, Routledge, Oxford and New York 2011, pp. 54-80 (trad. it. Mantra tantrici, Studi sul Mantraśāstra, Astrolabio-Ubaldini, Roma 2012, pp. 97-139)
9) Platone, Simposio, trad. e commento M.Nucci, Einaudi, Torino 2009
10) Sanderson A., Meaning in Tantric Ritual, in A.M. Blondeau and K. Shipper (eds), Essais sur le Rituel III, pp.15-95. Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes, Paris 1996
11) Torella R., ‘Passions and Emotions in the Indian Philosophical-Religious Traditions’ in P.Bilimoria, A.Wenta (eds), Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems, Routledge, New Delhi 2015, pp.57-101