Tantra and Sacred Art: Exploring Rasa Theory Through Yogic Principles

This paper discusses yoga and meditation in order to explore how the para-normal or spiritual experiences caused by these practices imbue sacred Indian art with a magical potency. This potency arises from the revelation of the nature of the symbolic realm of the unconscious mind as well as the a priori structures of the mind-body complex that make thought and cognition possible. Since the earliest times, esotericism in India has allied itself with art. I say ‘allied’ rather than ‘expressed’ itself because esotericism used art both as a medium of spiritual reportage as well as an aid to spiritual practice. Classical Indian art theory did not distinguish between the purely aesthetic and the doctrinally significant. My focus shall be on how tantrism relates with art. I aim to unravel the tantric underpinnings of classical Indian art and its theory of aesthetic experience: the rasa theory. I shall open the discussion by historically locating tantrism within Indian esotericism. I will then briefly look at Indology’s engagement with it and what the implications of this engagement were for tantric practices on the ground. This constitutes a top-down discourse of the genesis of modern Indian aesthetics. I will then attempt to create a bottom-up discourse by looking at the mechanics of yoga-tantra and how it underlies the production of classical Indian religious art. Next I will discuss how the moment of aesthetic enjoyment in rasa theory is a yogic accomplishment. I will end with a brief discussion of some interesting findings from neuroscientists analyzing meditational practices.


While earlier scholars uncritically considered the Vedic corpus to be the foundation of all Indian esotericism, recent scholarship paints a rather different picture. The Vedic culture was not monolithic, rather the influence of the Aryan culture decreased as we move from the central gangetic plains towards the east. The Rik Veda was composed in the Kuru Panchala region which was an Aryan stronghold. In the Atharva Veda we see clear aspects of non-vedic religion being included into the corpus. Presumably this was because the Atharva Veda was composed closer to the Magdha Kosala regions where Vedic religion was mixing with the indigenous Agama traditions. This is a process that happened over several waves of migrations. Scholars such as Geoffrey Samuels and Patrick Olivelle describe the Vedic religion as a ‘householder’ religion, founded primarily on the fire sacrifice and the soma ritual. The soma ritual provided the early rishis with the revelatory insights that enabled them to compose the Vedic hymns. The non-Vedic ascetic tradition molded itself to shun the larger social order and the fire rituals of the householders that upheld it. The ascetic tradition also grew within the larger religious context of the non-Vedic revelations of the Agamas. The Agama texts and rituals form the basis of ‘Hinduism’ as we have come to recognize it today: as worship centered around a temple of Saiva, Vaishnav or Shakta deities. The Jain and Buddhist traditions too had their Agamas, which founded the basis for their rituals and deity-craft. The earliest speculations on yoga were possibly carried out within a combined ascetic milieu wherein sectarian bounds were at least initially very loose. The one major leap, which the ascetic tradition makes over the Vedic tradition, was the internalization of ritual. This consisted of identifying the five Vedic ritual fires with five fires inside the body. This was essentially a yogic move. If ritual allowed one to appeal to and manipulate the cosmic forces, yoga allowed one to bring the body and being into oneness with the cosmos. Ritual was necessary for the correct performance of mantrashastra (mantra-craft) in the Vedic-brahmanical religion. Mantras are sacred letters or words, which once properly charged, enable the microcosmic being to describe or correspond with the macrocosmic universe. In Vedic ritual, charging of the hymns was based primarily upon the entheogenic effects of soma. The Agamic mantrashastra was based upon the yogic understanding of the alphabet as the divine creative power of the cosmos. To use this power effectively one must experientially realize their existence within the body. This is why Saiva, Shakta and Vaishnav deities, rituals, meditation and mantrashastra have much more in common with their Jain and Buddhist counterparts than they do with the Vedic religion. The only Vedic mantra used extensively in the Agamas is the universal seed Aum. Apart from this Vedic mantrashastra seems to have nothing in common with its Agama counterparts. Over time, possibly with the drying up of the Saraswati river the supply of soma was lost and the brahmins thus lost their connection to revelatory experience. It was then that Agama traditions with their rituals grounded in yogic realisations began to provide magical rituals and services in a major way and their popularity and influence spread. However, the brahmins managed to hold on to social and political power because they became specialists in ritual magic, particularly relating to birth, death, marriage and kingship. Also they received land grants in the countryside whereas the centers of the Shramanas (non Vedic ascetics) were near the cities along the trade routes. The Puranas thus was a body of texts and practices where agamic rituals, magic and deities were being incorporated into the mainstream brahmanical tradition, if only for no other reason than to harness the magical power of the Agamic-yogic tradition.

In India, during the early centuries of the first millennium of the current era, there began to come about secret societies consisting primarily of Buddhist and Saivite members that integrated yoga and ritual. These groups aimed to rediscover and advance the yogic underpinnings of ritual. Initially beginning as secret societies, between the 2nd and the 4th centuries CE, we see these societies emerging publicly. Initiation into these societies (samaja) and families (kula) involved practices that violated both the vows of the brahmanical householder and the ascetic. However, the payoff for the transgression was that these paths offered liberation in a single lifetime. In the context of the spiritual technologies available at that time, that was an unimaginably radical claim. Thus belonging to the larger Agamic context the tantras built up and refined the yogic and mantric knowledge of the earlier agamic system. These practices constitute the tantra proper, and while the period until the 12th century CE is recognised as the epoch of Indian tantra, these practices continued to grow and develop new methods till relatively recently.

The first clearly recognisable Tantric master is Nagarjuna who composes the Guhyasamaja tantra (the structure of the secret society). This led to the Nava-natha tradition of the 84 mahasiddhas. The 84 Mahasiddhas or extremely-perfected ones were powerful saints who freed ritual and yoga from the closed enclaves of the brahmins and the ascetics. They gave initiations to householders, women and to the lower castes, all of whom were barred from spiritual knowledge in traditional society (unless they renounced society and joined ascetic orders). The tradition of the 84 mahasiddhas is also called the Nava-natha or the new natha tradition. The word nava disambiguates it from the older tradition of ascetic yoga of Adi-natha or the primordial natha. The world natha loosely means ‘lord’. What is most intriguing about the 84 mahasiddhas is that their names are found in the genealogical trees of Hindu as well as Buddhist tantric systems. Foremost among the 84 mahasiddhas was Shambhunath or Swayambhunatha, the tantric guru of the renowned Kashmiri Saivaite tantric Abhinavagupta. Swayambhunatha was also the one who first took the practices of tantra to Tibet, where he is recognised as Guru Rimpoche or Padmasambhava. Tantra survived in its purest form in Tibet as the land was geographically protected from the political vagaries of the mainland. In the Bengal region it survived because tantric Buddhism hid itself in form of the Sahajiya Vaishnavism and allied itself with the grassroots Bhakti movement. It now survives to this day in guise of the practice known as Baul.


A great break occurs within Indic religious traditions during the period of colonization and the subsequent industrialization of India as traditional social networks undergo a major upheaval. This period is marked particularly by a new kind of intellectual alliance that puts in place a new interpretation of Indian history and traditions. This alliance was embodied in the academic discipline of Indology. Indological scholars were Christian Europeans who mostly accessed the Sanskrit texts using Brahmin pundits to interpret and comment. The pundits highlighted those parts of the tradition that reinforced their own authority and also those logical, philosophical or poetic speculations that would appeal to the Christian-scientific temperaments of the European colonialists. The European scholars, on the other hand, were led by their Christian tendencies to emphasize prayer, repentance, faith and scripture as the definitive features of a religious tradition. The English-educated native intelligentsia too mimicked these tendencies and reformers such as Rammohan Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen and Swami Vivekananda tried to re-mould ‘Hinduism’ into a more scientific-Christian form. The result was that Vedanta (being monistic and thus compatible with Christianity) was upheld as the epitome of Hindu religiosity and Theravada Buddhism was upheld as the pure form of Buddhism ( as it had remained unchanged since the time of Buddha, something which appealed enormously to the Protestants), while on the other hand hatha-yoga and tantra were put down as vulgar abominations or conjurer’s tricks.

The Indian esoteric tradition, unlike Christianity, is not a text-based tradition. There are texts, and they hold considerable import and validity; however the tradition is founded on oral transmission of teachings (sadhana) and direct physical transfer of spiritual power from master to disciple (shaktipat). However, the Indological scholars not only reduced it to a textual tradition, they also sanitized the canon. Indian religion and esotericism, which were a vast, unmanageable and potentially dangerous terrain for any sane European mind, were restricted to the fairly manageable discipline of Indian philosophy. The European scholar quickly discovered that Indian esotericism consisted of strange and forbidden practices, and that engaging in them meant breaking taboos every step of the way. In contrast, Indian philosophy was safe because it circumscribed within it only logical speculations. Everything outside of the circle of high-minded philosophy was branded as superstition and rejected. This included those religious practices that actually had the ability for effecting spiritual (or physical for that matter) transmutation.

Indology by and large divided Indic esotericism into three major disciplinary fields; that of religious philosophy, sciences and magic. The texts on religion were held in the highest esteem by the Indologists and consisted primarily of brahmanical texts such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagwad Gita, Manusmriti and other logical, philosophical or legal texts. Next in the hierarchy of Indological knowledge were the texts on sciences, relating to practical subjects such as medicine, architecture, the fine arts, aesthetic theory, musicological theory, craftsmanship, metallurgy etc. Finally came the loathed part of the canon: magic, consisting of texts on astrology, hatha yoga, tantra, ritual, mantra-craft etc. So, while these disciplines were fundamentally un-divided in the pre-colonial context, colonial scholarship divides them into several segregated units.

The case of Ayurveda is telling. Traditionally an Ayurvedic practitioner had two major diagnostic tools. The first was to take the patient’s pulse, and the second was to examine the astrological birth chart. Under the Indological impulse, Ayurveda was revived and made compatible with western scientific medicine. This modernized Ayurveda retained the method of diagnosis through checking the pulse and even adopted newer tools such as the stethoscope, but diagnosis through astrological analysis just faded out of usage. The point here is not to examine the scientific status of astrology, but rather to say that these systems had once worked together as an integrated whole but now were separated from each other. The newer interpretations that were being produced in the colonial context were changing the way these disciplines were practiced on the ground, and doing so with Victorian, Christian and secular biases.

The field of modern Indian art emerges around the same time. One of its foundational stones was laid by Indological scholarship, namely classical Indian aesthetics. The formulation of modern Indian art required one to bring Western ideas of secular modernity into conversation with certain ideas and concepts that were considered to be the essence of the ‘Indian’ tradition. To make an authentic (as opposed to imitative) Indian modernity, it was not sufficient to be modern: rather, Western ideas had to be integrated with a carefully selected body of work from India’s own intellectual and cultural history. The use of Western ideas provided the Indian theorists with acceptance within the elite circuits of Western academia and the use of Indian ideas provided their imaginations with a desirable ‘authenticity’.

The native intelligentsia now embarked upon a scrutiny of the Indian tradition using Western tools of rationalism. Thus early pedagogues of modern Indian art were deeply interested in mining classical Indian poetics and aesthetics for suitable ideas. This group includes figures like E.B.Havell, Ananda.K.Koomaraswamy and also artists like Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose. The Indological interpretation of rasa theory at this moment attempted to mobilise it for Nationalistic purposes to construct a discourse of Indian modernity that participated in the global moment of modernity. The rules of modernity meant imbibing attitudes and values of secular scientificity. Which meant that modern Indian art could only be modern if it was secular, it had to lose its sacred baggage. What was missed out from their formulation was that the classical discussion of rasa came from within an initiatory context and connected up with tantric practices of alchemical transmutation of the body. Since tantric practices, particularly sex rituals, were abhorrent in the eyes of the colonial masters as well as the educated upper-caste native intelligentsia, Indian aesthetics was formed into a discipline sanitized of all tantric influences. This was ironic considering the highly sexually charged iconic imagery that adorned so many religious and artistic archaeological remains. Post the sexual liberation in the West, sites like Khajuraho eventually went on to become global icons of sexual and erotic art. The sexual vocabulary of classical Indian art was a source of great embarrassment to the English-educated native intelligentsia and they constantly responded to it with an apologetic discourse that reduced it to philosophical abstraction.

At the same time, in close geographical proximity to where these re-interpretations were taking place, there flourished a vernacular tradition that had a radically different understanding of rasa. This was the Sahajiya Vaishnav or the Baul tradition of rural Bengal. Women, widows, the low-caste, householders and other misfits filled the ranks of this tradition. It is interesting to note that this is the same demographic in which early 1st millennial tantra had arisen. Since Baul was a vernacular low-caste tradition comprising a largely illiterate demographic, it escaped the greater transformative brunt of the colonial encounter. Bauls were also less visible to the Western-trained observers as they transmitted their practices through their songs. The bibliophile Anglophone Indologists largely ignored this largely oral vernacular tradition.

For the Baul, rasa is more than just an emotional category. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, an alchemical category. While they may appear to be different, the psyche and the body are not understood to be separate things: meaning that rasa refers not just to emotional enjoyment but also to the chemical and neurological basis of experience. So rasa is ‘juice’ but not just as a metaphor for emotional enjoyment, it is also the actual major bodily fluids: blood, cerebrospinal fluid, menstrual fluid, semen, urine and stool among others. Bauls utilize and manipulate these fluids to trigger states of samadhi or spiritual revelation. Tantra is a discipline wherein the chemical and neurological foundations of experience themselves are treated as the objects of experience and manipulated in order to achieve ultimate liberation. This ultimate liberation is a state of experience which is unconditioned by the five sense organs, mind, perspective in space-time etc. Since it is unconditioned, thus it is free. Yoga-tantra is thus the science and art of moving from a limited or conditioned state of experiencing reality to an unconditioned, unlimited state of experiencing reality.

We will take a closer look at classical Rasa theory in a later section.


With this background in view, let us now return to our discussion of tantrism and sacred art. The question we have to ask is: how is it possible for an aesthetic experience (repetition of a mantra, focusing on an deity image, reading a sacred text, listening to music, dancing etc.) to trigger a religious or spiritual experience? Indeed what is a spiritual experience? I shall endeavor to answer these questions by explaining how, in spite of the Indologists’ uncomfortable formulations, the formal values of classical Indian art were in fact fundamentally determined by the mystical disciplines of yoga and tantra. What I am here referring to as a ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ experience, the yogis and the tantrics would call ‘true cognition’. In contrast, the experience of waking everyday consciousness would be called ‘sensory cognition’[1]. Sacred art, then, is a specialized, coherently formed arrangement of sensory cognitions (brushed paint on surface, chiseled stone, etc. etc.) that if apprehended with one-pointed concentration can create what for the yogis is true or liberatory consciousness.

Simply put the tantric creed is this: yes, we are limited minds trapped inside fragile bodies with an expiry date, but there is a way to unify body, mind and spirit; the physical, the symbolic or archetypical and the Real (the Real being an absolute presence or an absolute absence). So there is creation and multiplicity and limit, but matter and spirit can be harmonized and be brought into unity or ‘yoga’ with each other. And this unity results in the limited individual ego dissolving into the absolute. This is the moment of liberation, nirvana etc. Achieving this is only possible through training in meditation, which is a physical and a mental discipline dealing entirely with the flow of energy and fluid through the nerves and channels in our bodies. The mind is made to rest at particular points in the body, particular nerves or nerve plexuses. Through repetition, the mind’s tendency to scatter is countered, and one-pointed focus is developed in feeling the particular nerve, which is being observed. It is important to highlight here the strengthening of will and intellect that occurs upon achieving the one-pointedness of mind and how it differs, qualitatively and profoundly, from everyday waking consciousness. The perfect analogy to illustrate how meditation changes will, awareness and intellect is how a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight into a point. Scattered, the light is warm; but, when it is focused into a single point, it burns! The mind brought to one-pointed focus similarly burns through sensory perception into true or ‘spiritual’ cognition.

Before we can understand how mysticism imbues sacred art with magical ability and what the nature of this magical ability is, we must first discuss the method of meditation and how it is rooted in reality. First the body is stilled and the mind is moved away from discursive thought. Then attention is focused on the internal movements of prana, loosely translatable as the ‘life-force’. In other words, instead of focusing on what is around us, we move our attention to what is on or under our skin. Now we are beginning to be aware of our own nervous and venous systems, instead of merely using them to interact with the world. With practice, qualities such as lightness or heaviness, contraction or expansion, warmth or coldness will be observed in various parts of the body. Further, as we still the mind’s chatter through the strength of practice, we can observe a rhythmic pulsation all across our body. Since the heart beats fluid to all parts of the body, it is obvious that if we pay attention to it, we can feel this pulsation throughout the body and not exclusively in the heart or chest. It is further possible to focus attention and observe neural pulsation in focused regions of the body like particular nerves or nerve plexuses. Once mind and pulsation is allied we can then add the breath to it. Rather, once the mind is settled on one place (such as the heart, navel, forehead, etc.) the breath emerging and ending from the same bodily location can be clearly observed. In the meditative state, one’s sense of mental awareness, breath and pulsation are brought into union: this is yoga. The inhalation and exhalation of breath will occur according to the rhythm of the pulsation. Using the pulsation, the breath must be hooked onto a particular nerve or nerve plexus. Once this is achieved, a sense of beatitude emerges in the nerve where the meditation is being carried out; a sense of lightness is felt. A chakra, when meditated upon, feels like a swirling vortex made up of the energy of our nerves. A yogin then is slowly able to discern between the subtle differences in the frequencies of pulsation in the various parts of his/her body, and is also able to unite the whole body in one particular frequency.

If breath, mind and pulsation are all brought together, there emerges through practice an inward movement of the mind. Increasingly the amount of mental energy spent in perceiving the outer world decreases, while attention expended upon observing the inner function of vital or pranic energy increases. If this happens then we must understand that the meditation is deepening. This means that the scattering and lethargic everyday mind is drawing inward and moving towards one-pointed concentration. The yogis and tantrics instruct us that with deepening of meditation, auditory, visual, olfactory etc phenomena can be experienced. In other cases there can be spontaneous uncontrollable song or dance. These are para-normal phenomena only in so far as they are not grounded in the ‘normal’ experience of phenomenal reality. Instead, these mystical or yogic experiences are grounded in the self-referential experience of the very sense organs that we use to apprehend reality. What emerges when the mind is focused on a nerve and not distracted by the desire for sense-object contact, is the natural frequency of the pulsation of a particular nerve. The yogis and tantrics followed this process to create maps of the human nervous system. Following the nervous circuits, they were able to internally master the way nerve-electricity flows within the neural networks. This allowed them to experience the phenomena of consciousness in all its levels. It allowed them to discover the point where the ego-mind dissolves into universal consciousness. The discipline of tantra creates new neural connections with the express purpose of resolving the mind-body duality. The ultimate experience of samadhi is to resolve back into the source of all creation. It is the experience of the source from which matter, energy and consciousness emerge. The tantrics call this place of creation and return as spanda, the sacred tremor. The word spanda comes from the root spand- which means to vibrate[2]. Ultimate reality was understood to be voidness because it constantly alternates between existence and non-existence. The universal vibration breaks down into various sounds and resonances. These are the matrikas: the alphabet. The breaking down of the universal frequency into the alphabet signals the moment of creation of multiplicity in the universe, which is why matrika could mean ‘letter/ alphabet’ but equally could mean ‘mother’. Vac is the speech as the absolute creative power that manifests the universe. The alphabet is its various manifestations as they set about creating the universe. Through the correct yogic understanding of the alphabet union is achieved with this creative principle.

This is a complex system and its intricacies are not within our scope right now. What we do need to know for current purposes is the process of transmission of spiritual knowledge and insight used by yoga and tantra. By studying their own neural pulsation, tantrics are able to harmonize their bodily pulsation with the cosmic pulsation and thereby are returned to the source of all creation: the void. Once one is in the state of shunyata or voidness, one sees, emerging as sparks from the void, the seed mantras. The seed mantras are nothing but the alphabet in the act of creating the microcosmic universe of the human body. The vibrating frequencies of the nerves are what enable body and mind to act together. When the seed mantras are meditated upon, this vibration takes on the full anthropomorphic form of the deity. The tantric deity is essentially a limited aspect of the voidness of the tantric’s own enlightened mind.

Once the tantric has molded this mind-stuff into the form of the deity, the tantric and the deity become one. To worship Shiva, one must become Shiva, as the traditional injunction puts it. The final step in the cycle is to take this conscious agent and project it into an idol or a mandala[3]. When this is done, the idol or mandala is said to be living. The masters then simply give their students the visual form in the shape of the idol or mandala and empower a connection with the deity’s living consciousness through the mantra and associated meditation. Since the guru has perfected the mantra (he has purified a particular nerve) when the disciple receives it, they are not merely receiving a sequence of sounds or letters, but also the spiritual charge the guru has accumulated on that mantra. The result is that the master is able to recreate within the student the same meditative experiences through the mantra, which they themselves had acquired through meditative insight on spanda. The guru leads the student to the deity through meditations on syllables and images and the deity then leads the aspirant to the voidness.

The tantric masters studied spanda, they understood the natural frequencies of various nerves and experientially were able to locate the alphabet across the body. They found each place had its frequency, and these natural frequencies of the nerves were expressed as the thousands of gods and goddesses that according to myth are said to inhabit the body. They realized that since each frequency was composed of laya and taala, rhythm and meter, they could use them in art to create not just specific moods and emotions but also, with sufficient focus and repetition, trigger particular meditative experiences associated with particular deities or nerves. Tantric art then is structurally encoded to produce meditative experience. The initiate knows how to meditatively inhabit the particular nerve, which the artwork is stimulating. The layperson does not understand the yogic method of meditating on the art, but still if he or she earnestly experiences it then still there would be an effect, though of a lower order of magnitude.

Laya and taala, or rhythm and meter, form the basis of practically all classical arts, such as painting, sculpture, music, dance, architecture, poetics as well as ritual. A meditative spanda can be created by recreating its frequency and amplitude and hence can be theoretically embedded into any object of sensory or aesthetic appreciation. We will here close the discussion around classical tantric meditation and art.


The sage Bharata somewhere between 200 and 500 CE composed the Natyashastra. It is a dramaturgical text that puts forth rasa theory and forms the backbone of classical Indian aesthetics. Though it claims the status of a fifth Veda, it belongs to the period that saw the rise of Agama and its transformation into Tantra. This period overlaps with that of the pioneering Tantric writer Nagarjuna, who was a noted alchemist, a Rasayanika. Also Shiva’s identification as Nataraja immediately alerts us to the non-Vedic influences within the text. The text itself is a treatise on dramaturgy and as such does not take it upon itself to expound on sacred or mystical matters, however if we consider Abhinavagupta’s gloss on it then it becomes amply clear that the ideal experiencer of rasa is a yogi.

“Rasa literally means taste or savour , and, as used to denote the essence of poetry, it signifies the peculiar experience that poetry affords us.”[4]

Bharata conceives the aesthetic moment as one that is actualized by both the dramatist and the audience. The dramatist composes together several transient emotions or bhavas to create a piece which has one dominant bhava: a sthayibhava. Different members of the audience will experience differing levels of aesthetic pleasure according to their individual ability to empathize. The artist’s skill is essential but its role in producing rasa is limited and at most can facilitate the achievement of sthayibhava. The artistic competence of the dramatist is not a sufficient condition for the experience of rasa. According to Bharata, the ultimate experience of rasa is only achieved by the viewer who is able to experience the sthayibhava of the work in a dispassionate, impersonal, contemplative attitude. Anyone who fails to do this will only experience the artwork up to its sthayibhava level.

One of the primary difference in the meditative approach of the pre-tantric and the post tantric modes of meditation was in how desire was approached. In the early ascetic paradigm there is much emphasis on control of diet, behavior and sexuality. This is also because the yogic and meditative tools available then could only produce results once desire had been factored out through the practice of celibacy, renunciation and diet control. The cause of the cycle of re-birth was the constant craving for the sense organ’s contact with the object of experience. If sense-object contact could be controlled and reduced then one could lighten one’s karmic baggage and approximate liberation. The tantric approach to desire is diametrically opposite. Here desire is the functional principle of divine will that manifests the universe. Practically what that meant was that the Brahmanical divisions of pure and impure cease to be meaningful. For the Tantric, desire is a problem only as long as it is limited. To inhabit the limitless universe with limitless desire, that is the tantric ideal. The Spandakarika says, “The revelation of the Self arises in the person who is now only absolute desire. May each of us have this experience”. Tantric sadhanas enable the transmutation of desire into spiritual enlightenment. This means that the world cannot be transcended to achieve enlightenment, rather enlightenment is immanent in the world. However, sacralising the being is contingent upon one’s ability to not react to reality in binary opposites such as impure and pure or pleasurable or painful. Thus a sensation must be understood for what it is, a sensation; and we must avoid attaching mental categories to it which make it a “good sensation” or a “bad sensation”. Thus the everyday subjective experience of the world is transformed when it is suffused with absolute desire instead of narrow limited desire. This enables consciousness to free itself from the appearance of a limited individual subjectivity and to experience reality in its universal infinitude. In many ways the Bhagwad Gita iterates the same innovation through its idea of nishkamakarmayoga or the yoga of action free of desire. Here kama must be interpreted as limited egoistic desire. The Gita asks us to engage in action through sensation, but to do so in a non-expectant, non-judgmental manner.

We note here that transcendence of the ego-mind seems to be a fundamental condition of the release of rasa in an aesthetic encounter and that of the achievement of transcendence (samadhi) in meditation. Meditation seeks to bring instinct and emotion under the control of the will, since it is only then that we can extricate ourselves from attachment and aversion. Art too can help us do that because it conditions and trains the emotions. In the rasa experience, art immerses us so deeply into emotion that instead of being grasped by that emotion, we see it for the universal abstraction it is. Abhinavagupta builds upon Bharata’s schema of eight rasas and says from the successful integration of the eight rasas in a harmonious manner, a ninth rasa emerges which he identifies as santa or tranquility. The sthayibhava or sustained emotion that brings about this rasa, Abhinavagupta identifies as moksha: liberation. “Through rasa in response to drama we begin to approximate Siva’s impersonal identification with every conscious being and all the actions of our world. Rasa thus gives us a taste of the impersonal identification that, sustained, would be liberation itself.”[5]


Around the beginning of the 20th century there was another group of Westerners who engaged with India. This group had become dissatisfied with their post-enlightenment Christian thinking. Disillusioned with the values of industrial modernity, they sought insights from traditions around the world including hatha-yoga and tantra. Beginning with the Romantics, this trend continued with the theosophists and the occultists. These people were not primarily interested in the intellectual speculations of Vedanta nor were they only looking for new and exotic ideas in which to invest their belief and faith. Most importantly, they were looking for actual techniques of physical, psychological and spiritual healing and evolution. By and large, if a religious doctrine did not cause transmutation that was experientially verifiable, they saw little value in it. It was because of their efforts that tantric texts were translated and a new understanding of tantra developed. Scholars like William James, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung became interested in the phenomena of religious experiences and states of mind. Another factor that led to the resurgence of tantra in the 20th century was the escape of Tibetan lamas from Chinese occupation and their seeking asylum in the West. Suddenly a whole plethora of ideas and practices that had been quarantined within closed enclaves exploded into the attention of an international audience. Subsequently, two historical events boosted the growing popularity of hatha-yoga’s physical postures. The first was the international physical culture movement around the World Wars and the second was the alternative culture movement including feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s. The growing respect for mystical practices in the West meant that the empirical sciences too had to engage with and evaluate esotericism. Having emerged from the context of the 18th century Enlightenment wherein intellectual speculation had freed itself from centuries of church control, Western science was naturally suspicious of all apparently religious phenomena. By and large the empirical sciences followed a policy of dismissal, claiming mystical events to either be abnormal functioning of the brain or humors, or to simply be parlor tricks and deception.

The first scientific discipline to seriously study mystical phenomena was parapsychology in the early 20th century. However parapsychology was limited by technological constraints as well as the fact that it tended to focus attention on manifest paranormal phenomena such as ghosts, E.S.P. and associated psychic phenomena. Parapsychology amassed a substantial archive of paranormal events and proved without doubt that paranormal phenomena could occur under laboratory conditions. However, the ‘hard’ mathematical sciences criticized the conclusions the parapsychologists drew from their data as unsound. Furthermore, parapsychology’s lack of mathematical tools led to it being branded a ‘pseudoscience’. All this added to the belief that spiritual or mystical phenomena were essentially ‘false’.

While these accusations were partially justified, the summary dismissal of paranormal phenomena themselves was too hasty. These views begin to soften with advances in disciplines like quantum physics and neurology. I would here like to examine how neurology has begun to corroborate some of the fundamental assertions of tantra. The Christian schoolmen and the Enlightenment philosophers such as Rene Descartes considered the mind and body to be separate, fundamentally different things. This was proven not to be the case when the early neurologists (particularly during World War II) observed that damage to specific parts of the brain resulted in the loss of specific behavioural abilities (speech, movement, etc.). This meant that the foundations of our psychological structure were rooted in our brain anatomy. This corresponds to the tantric belief that body and mind are one and can be used to affect and transform each other.

In the 1990s two neurologists, Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, began to conduct experiments with longtime practitioners of Buddhist meditation, particularly monks (again facilitated by the Tibetan exodus). In their research they linked meditational practices to increased or decreased activity in specific regions of the brain such as the pre-frontal cortex and the parietal lobes. From their experiments they argue that the states of consciousness during meditation or samadhi corresponds to the alteration of specific brain states. Further they argue that religious experience is a rare but normal function of the brain and cannot be characterized as brain dysfunction or mental illness[6]. This validates the tantric belief that meditation and associated practices work on the neural system to enable the achievement of certain rare states of consciousness.

Newberg and D’Aquili plot the spectrum of the possible states of consciousness in their work. They designated as baseline reality the state where distinct objects are perceived with regular relationships between them. This is the state of waking consciousness when we have a strong sense of what is real, such as chairs, table, love, hate and we have a sense of them enduring over considerable periods of time. When these objects or relationships vanish from all sensory detection then they are said to not exist anymore and this is verified through cross-subjective validation: when other people agree as to whether an object or relationship exists or not. D’Aquili and Newberg contrast the idea of baseline reality with what they call Absolute Unitary Being (AUB). The data for theorizing this was derived from studying cases of meditation, samadhi, religious ecstasy, near death experiences, out of body experiences etc. AUB is the state when the subject-object duality vanishes and the agent perceives no difference between itself and the rest of the universe. AUB is characterized by a hyper-lucid sense of reality, one that is compelling under all circumstances, but enduring for a far shorter time than the state of baseline reality. Even when the unitary state is over, there remains a strong sense of its underlying presence or possibility. While in baseline reality there is a strong cross-subjective verification as to the core values and details of objects, in AUB the details of the experiences vary while there is a high rate of cross-subjective verification of core values. The people experiencing baseline reality reported it to be real, however those people who had experienced both AUB and baseline reality claimed AUB to be hyper-lucid: more real than the waking world. D’Aquili and Newberg argue that it is impossible to scientifically determine which is more real: baseline reality or the various unitary states. Some argue that since unitary states are grounded in the anatomy of the brain, baseline reality must be the foundation of unitary states and hence should be seen as more real. D’Aquili and Newberg categorically dismiss such a position as ‘foolish reductionism’. They say that since the apprehension of both baseline reality and unitary states can be reduced to neural blips, it is therefore possible to argue the reverse to be the case too: that baseline reality is derived from unitary states. The subjective experience of unitary states as being more real than baseline reality cannot be proven through objective empirical science. D’Aquili and Newberg advocate the position that baseline reality and AUB are complementary rather than competing states of reality. While the hyper-reality of AUB validates the yogic understanding of samadhi as truth; it is the idea that baseline reality and AUB are complementary states of reality that particularly resonates with the specifically tantric goal of liberation (AUB) within samsara (the world or baseline reality).

D’Aquili and Newberg also suggest that there is an aesthetic-religious continuum which is founded on the increasing activity of the holistic operator. The holistic operator is a group of neurons which allows us to perceive not singular objects, but objects as a collection, a whole as a gestalt. Therefore the holistic operator is also the neural system involved in having aesthetic experiences. In other words, the same group of neurons that are activated while having an aesthetic experience are activated at a higher pitch while having unitary experiences. As we saw in the previous discussion of rasa theory, tantra believes that certain rhythms and meters are conducive to specific kinds of religious or meditative experiences, and in turn uses these rhythms and meters to encode meditative states within works of art. A possible mechanism for how the brain processes these works of art is provided by D’Aquili and Newberg’s study of the holistic operator. Their work also provides scientific backing for the tantric practice of meditation on deity forms to achieve samadhi states. Further work on these lines may uncover more details on how this comes about.


In this paper I have argued for a bottom-up interpretation of classical Indian arts and aesthetics, rooting them in the practices of yoga and tantra and the experiences resulting from these practices. The paper charts out the trajectory of sacred Indian art and the yogic mechanisms by which they enable particular states of enlightenment. Classical Indian art emerged from an initiatory context and contemporary artists cannot sufficiently engage with these ideas unless they have access to states of mind that follow from initiation and practice. While at one time there was serious doubt and suspicion as to the validity and authenticity of yogic and tantric practices, several new scientific discoveries and concepts are re-imbuing the tantric traditions with validity. In such a situation one hopes that both the disciplines of art history and neurology increase their engagement with tantric ideas and practices.

[1] Yoga recognises four states of the mind: walking, dream, deep sleep and the final known as turiya. Turiya is a state of direct apprehension of the object of knowledge without the intermediation of the sense organs.

[2] “The sacred tremor, the very place of creation and return is completely limitless because its nature is formless.” Shloka 2. Spandakarika. Quoted in Daniel Odier, Yoga Spandakarika: The Sacred Texts at the Origins of Tantra (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2004),5.

[3] Benoytosh Bhattacharya,“Introduction”, Indian Buddhist Iconography (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1958) 24–31.

[4] Pravas Jivan Chaudhury, “The Theory of Rasa”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 11(2):147–150;147.

[5] Kathleen Marie Higgins, “An Alchemy of Emotions: Rasa and Aesthetic Breakthroughs”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65(1):43–54; 50.

[6] Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, Wired for the Ultimate Reality: The Neuropsychology or Religious Experience, (www.pbs.org), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/voices/newberg.html , 25th June 2015.



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