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Realising the Body of Light

Lord Shiva, the lord of yoga, is a great master of the dance. Tradition says he dances every evening on Mt. Kailasa, to relieve the suffering of embodied creatures and to delight the other deities who gather at his feet. He also dances at the heart of every subatomic particle--just as he dances with the quasars and the stars. Minute flashes of energy pulsing into manifestation comprise his petit allegro. The unfurling of spirit into the multi-dimensional vibratory patterns which embody human consciousness, measured by the turning of time-- the cycle of samsara which arcs from birth to death and then again to rebirth--comprises his majestic grand adagio.

As a sacred icon, Shiva dances as Nataraja, King of the Dance. His dance spans across the entire universe and beyond, governing the three realms (the physical, astral and causal) and determining the pulse of manifestation, the endless cycles of creation, preservation and destruction of the world. All forms dissolve and reshape according to his rhythm. His dance conceals the highest truth, distracting the uninitiated with its endless play, as he waves the chiaroscuro veil of maya or crushes the legendary lotus flower for its potent juice of forgetfulness. At the same time, Lord Shiva’s dance flows with the grace necessary to pierce through all illusion and realise the Ultimate Reality in its deepest form, the Ultimate Reality which is omnipresent--immanent and transcendent—the pure luminosity of Being. This “Light of lights” is Lord Shiva as the unmanifest source of everything, Parama-Shiva, who like crystal refracting into a rainbow of colour contains within himself the potential for all manifest forms.

A wheel of blazing fire surrounds the image of Shiva Nataraja, symbol of destruction, transformation and the eternity of time. With his four arms, Shiva controls everything. His upper right hand holds a drum, his damaru. The drum represents the principle of sound, which in its subtle form produces the element of ether (akasha) and in its gross form contains all fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the totality of which equals the divine sound or logos out of which all creation emanates. The drum symbolises the process of manifestation, whereby Shiva creates all worlds and forms out of his own body. Creation thus proceeds from the right hand of Shiva. In his upper left hand, Shiva holds a flame, feeding the turning blaze of destruction. The fire symbolises the process of dissolution, whereby all worlds and forms dissolve to rest in the unmanifest body of Shiva at the end of a cycle of time. Destruction thus proceeds from the left hand of Shiva.

The lower right hand is raised and open, in a mudra that represents protection and dispels fear, one of the principal obstacles of the spiritual path. The lower left hand points to the uplifted left foot, the foot raised into an attitude which epitomises all dance. The left foot thus represents the totality of Shiva’s dance and the liberating truth it contains. Shiva’s right foot tramples upon the demonic dwarf called Muyalaka, who represents ignorance or the karmic energies that must be overcome for the secret wisdom of Shiva’s dance to be realised. Finally, wild strands of hair stream from either side of Shiva’s head. According to tradition, the sacred water of the river Ganga, which washes away all impurities, flows from Shiva’s hair. At the same time, these strands of hair resemble serpents, who are also associated with Shiva and whose energy represents the potential for enlightenment inherent in everyone.

Statues of Shiva Nataraja--emblem of this shimmering, luminous, ecstatic dance of consciousness which pervades everything--stand enshrined in many contemporary yoga studios in the West. How many students realise, as they twist and fold and stretch their bodies into the various postures of Hatha Yoga, that this Shiva principle is the ground of all reality (themselves included!) that it is sat-chid-ananda, and that what they are practising in their yoga class is meant to lead (eventually) to a realisation of that pure luminosity? For in fact, most of the practices of Hatha Yoga belong to the vast, complex and multifaceted tradition of Tantra Yoga, the yoga of subtle energy work which is about direct experience of this body of light.

Today, the term “Tantra” elicits a peculiar charge, as it is mostly (and wrongly) understood as a sexual practice. Though certain left-hand schools of Tantra do include sexual rituals, they are not what they appear to be on the surface. Tantra may begin with the “body”. It may finish with the “body”. But what it knows throughout (and what the practitioner strives to realise) is that the mass of flesh and bones known as the “body” is actually One vast field of energy or light. In the ultimate experience, “experience” (which implies a subject – object relationship) breaks down. Subject and object dissolve into the Unity that they have always been, the Oneness of Transcendental Luminosity – seamless and whole.

Tantra Yoga involves many practices aimed towards the direct realisation of this vast sea of luminosity. It is an eminently practical approach to the spiritual path appropriate for the Kali Yugi, the dark age of spiritual ignorance we presently inhabit, said to begin with the death of Lord Krishna and predicted to continue for a long time into the future, an age very much in need of enlightenment.

Though the practices and schools of Tantra are many and diverse, all converge upon a basic seminal principle: namely that the ultimate ground of Being, the Transcendental Reality, is coexistent and coessential with the world of matter and form. But unlike earlier forms of this nondualistic metaphysic, Tantra sees the manifest world as real or actual, not illusory. This Tantric understanding elevates the body (and thus the entire material world) into the realm of the sublime. For if the world is an illusion, then the body is mere delusion to be overcome or transcended. If the world and the Ultimate Reality are fundamentally separate (as in the dualistic metaphysical systems) then the body is an obstacle to be discarded. But in Tantra, not only is the world real, it is divine. The sacred and profane are not separate, but continuous. They are One. All manifestation is One; it is the body of the Divine. Samsara--the phenomenal world governed by the cycles of time--is NOT separate from Nirvana--the infinite and eternal bliss of Pure Being. Shiva’s dance is all-pervasive. Enlightenment is here and now.

In Tantra, the spiritual path is not so much about “getting somewhere” as realising the truth of what already is, in the eternal “now”. Thus for Tantra, the body takes on profound significance: it is an actual “temple of the Divine”, it is a vehicle for spiritual transformation, it is a configuration of light that needs awakening to its true nature. The practices of Tantra and Hatha Yoga all have in common the goal of realising this truth, not intellectually—a pale kind of understanding which can finally be only a feature of the limited mind--but experientially, actually. These practices all aim towards realisation of the Body of Light –the all-pervasive understanding, knowing or experiencing that we are One and continuous with the vast, all-pervasive sea of energy which is everything.

But something tenacious keeps us bound to the wheel of Samsara, to conditioned existence and the belief that we are the body-mind organism—“an ego-identity encased in skin”. Something opaque keeps us from realising the ultimate insight of yoga, the liberating truth of our actual identity as the One Body of Light.

Shivo’ham. “I am Shiva”. Everything belongs to Shiva’s Dance. In other words, Shiva Is, and “I” (the small self, body-mind organism) am not. Consciousness--which manifests as shimmering light--is all there is. This is the wisdom which the practice of Tantra can impart.

But not to everyone. Tantra yoga requires commitment, perseverance, devotion, patience and discipline. It is hard work on many levels: physical, emotional and mental. One has to be ready to allow the “ego to be burned to ashes”-- just too scary for most. It is this fear that holds most people back. For Tantra demands of its practitioners a profound and total relinquishing of the familiar--not just possessions, social position, roles and relationships--but that fixed “I-identity” which is the fundamental security of worldly existence. Most people will remain content with ordinary life and the many sensory pleasures it has to offer. However, there is nothing intrinsically elitist about Tantra.

On the contrary, in India, Tantra developed outside the traditional brahmanic hierarchy and welcomed practitioners from all castes. In a prospective disciple, it was spiritual fervour and a willingness to embark upon the rigours of the path that mattered most. From its earliest days in the years around 500 CE, Tantra attracted both ascetics and householders, but no matter what the former identity had been, a practitioner needed to be ready to leave the old life behind, a difficult prerequisite then as now. This yoga may be for everyone, but everyone is not for this yoga. Authentic Tantra is an arduous practice, with features that often jar with modern western sensibilities. Many of its teachings and practices are secret, passed on exclusively by oral tradition from guru to disciple. For its efficacy, it depends upon this guru-disciple relationship and all that traditionally implies. Naturally, it is wise to choose one’s teacher carefully. Twelve years of observation were recommended before presenting oneself for initiation. But after that careful and mutual scrutiny, the guru’s power is absolute, and the disciple’s trust and faith unwavering.

According to Tantric cosmology, human life is uniquely precious. Not even the deities nor the spiritual beings who inhabit the subtle realms are as suited to the crucible of sadhana as we humans. For the heavenly pleasures they know can induce complacency, whereas human life has a sharpness that inspires action. The human condition—replete as it is with suffering and the poignancy of impermanence—serves as a catalyst to seek the beyond. Since human life can lead better than any other to the grace of enlightenment, incarnation into the human form is viewed as particularly auspicious – an opportunity not to be wasted!

Tantra Yoga is about seizing that opportunity in very tangible ways. It begins with the body, which it knows as the dwelling place of the sacred. Every blood vessel, muscle tissue and nerve fibre pulses to the rhythm of Shiva’s Dance. The physical body we think we inhabit is merely the densest level of manifestation. From this standing-ground we can proceed progressively inwards through the more subtle layers of manifestation until we reach the unmanifest source in Lord Shiva. Yet Tantra does not finish here. The practice may lead from manifestation to the unmanifest, but transcending the physical is not the goal. Enlightenment happens through the body and in the body, and the final journey of practice returns to the world--but a world transfigured. Mundane existence is no longer mundane. Rather, the material plane radiates pure luminosity. It appears as it really is: also Lord Shiva—in the glory of his full manifestation. In the practice of this yoga, the human nervous system, which functions as a bridge between the physical and subtle realms of our existence, initiates the process of awakening and self-transformation. In a very real sense, we are “wired” for enlightenment.

The theory of correspondences is central to the Tantric vision. As above, so below. In other words, the microcosm mirrors the macrocosm. Just as the greater universe consists of the three realms, physical, astral and causal—superimposed and interpenetrating--so does the human body vibrate at different frequencies. All forms proceed from the One – an evolution from the most subtle to the most dense, from singularity to multiplicity. The Tantric categories of existence (which vary somewhat from school to school) correspond roughly to the Samkhya model, the rudiments of which trace back to the Rig-Veda. Each sheath of manifestation which comprises the human form corresponds to a plane of reality existing throughout the cosmos; and within the body and outside the body they are continuous. In fact, “inside” and “outside” are arbitrary terms appropriate only to ordinary perception. For in the Truth of pure luminosity, these boundaries dissolve. The body is not separate from its environment. Actually, the true “body” we inhabit is the entire world.

Whether mantra, yantra, mudra, asana, pranayama or sacred rite, the practices of Tantra and Hatha Yoga begin with the physical. Each in a different way then progresses beyond the five elements to the subtle energies of the non-material realms, and then through and beyond even those veils--- until the final realisation of the transcendental ground of Being in pure luminosity. This is an involution from the most dense to the most subtle, from multiplicity to singularity. The journey within the body, which is the spiritual path of Tantra, reverses the process of evolution out of which the original manifestation unfurled. It traces creation back to its source.

Manifestation begins with the impetus towards duality. It proceeds from the union of Shiva and Shakti – the matrix for all polarities and the energy behind all movement and change. First there is Parama Shiva, the One without a second, who is the Ultimate Reality in its unmanifest form. But for manifestation to occur, there must be division and difference. There must be duality. Tantra Yoga grows out of a powerful metaphor, which not only explains creation but contains the secret of enlightenment as well. All creation develops as fruit from the union of Shiva and Shakti. And enlightenment occurs through their union as well—as the yogi merges into the Oneness which is the essence of their joining. The Divine Couple are like a gateway. The creative urge passes through them to manifest into the multiplicity of form. And the intuitive urge passes through them to dissolve into the singularity of formlessness. Though the Ultimate Reality is the Parama Shiva, it is also the Shiva—Shakti principle. It is both nondual and dual, and the paradox implied here is central to Tantra. It is fundamental to the insight that Nirvana equals Samsara.

Shiva and Shakti emerge from the Parama-Shiva, but that distinction is a matter of perspective only. Each depends on the other so they can never be separated in a linear manner. They coexist like two sides of a coin, each face distinct and containing in its alternation with the other the potential for all difference. What really exists, finally, is merely the coin itself, though the coin holds the mould for all duality. The matrix of Shiva-Shakti makes possible all of conditioned reality, which depends upon opposition in all things. For nothing in the manifest realm exists without its polar opposite. There is no night without day, no male without female, no heat without cold, no birth without death.

Shiva is pure consciousness, the transcendental “I” of unmoving and infinite awareness. Shakti is the primal power of Shiva, the ultimate vibratory energy, the mirror that reflects the Shiva principle. Shiva is stillness, Shakti is motion. Creation begins with the stirring of Parama Shiva into Shiva and Shakti. It proceeds as out of these two the concepts of “subject” and “object” emerge. Tantric cosmology has mapped an elaborate unfolding of this dance. First the subjective sense takes the lead, as in “I am this” (“I” being the transcendental will). Then the objective sense steps forth, as in “This I am”(“This” being the manifestation of other). Finally the two reach a state of balance, making possible the state of Maya, the delusion which sees only the subject and object of conditioned existence and not the Ultimate Reality which contains them both. At this point, duality is complete. The principles of purusha (pure spirit) and prakriti (pure matter or energy) can then take centre stage, weaving an intricate dance out of which all manifestation emerges. In human beings, the higher mind (buddhi), the ego sense (ahamkara), the lower mind (manas), the sensory capacities (indriyas), and the subtle elements (tanmantas) form the different categories of conditioned consciousness. The five elements of ether, air, fire, water and earth then culminate the dance, flowing and spinning into endless patterns so that all forms of the material plane can take shape.

Tantric practice penetrates to the esoteric core of this dance. Since everything is connected and interdependent, it is possible to begin anywhere. So it begins (most logically) where we are. It starts with the body. For Tantra Yoga understands that the body contains the entire cosmology. From the perspective of the universe, the Tantric worldview is a metaphysic, but from the perspective of the body, it is an anatomy and a psychology. This cosmological structure provides a blueprint for human transformation. The five elements of the physical body belong to the subtle sheaths of the astral and causal bodies, which belong to the exuberant dance of Shiva and Shakti, which belongs to a core stillness that lies at the heart of their dance, the transcendental luminosity of Parama Shiva—or the pure essence of Being.

In the human body, Shiva resides at the crown of the head in the sahasrara chakra, the thousand-petalled lotus--where luminous filaments stretch into infinity. But Shiva is not awake. The sahasrara chakra holds the key to transcendence, but in the ordinary person, illumination remains potential only. Shakti resides at the base of the spine, in the muladhara chakra, the earth root that contains the secret of immanence. But she is also not awake. In the body, Shakti is known as the Kundalini. She appears as a serpent, coiled and sleeping round the base of the spine. This sleeping serpent represents the primal energy out of which the cosmos was formed. It is the goddess power (Shakti) of pure consciousness (Shiva). The kundalini remains dormant or untapped for most people, though it is the unconscious force behind the more apparent energies of the body. It fires the flow of prana (or life force energy) as well as the movement of the three gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas). But all this happens unconsciously. Ordinary awareness perceives only the shifting qualities of mood but remains dull to their ultimate energetic source. It cannot tap into let alone channel the deep force inherent in the kundalini shakti. But when awakened through careful sadhana, kundalini has the power to bring enlightenment.

The practices of Hatha and Tantra Yoga all aim to awaken the Kundalini energy and raise her through the central channel so that she can reunite with Shiva in the sahasrara chakra. That is the theory behind embodied enlightenment or realisation of the Body of Light. Early practitioners of Hatha and Tantra mapped their experiences, developing a system of subtle anatomy for others to follow. These yogis realised that pranic energy flows through the subtle body along a multitude of pathways, called nadis. Tradition lists 72,000 nadis in the body, though that number and many other details can vary considerably. Yet the many variations of this subtle anatomy actually speak for the authenticity of the original insight, for mystical experience codified into system must by definition remain highly fluid and metaphorical.

The Sushumna Nadi runs along the central axis of the body, from the kanda, a bulb in the subtle body where all the nadis originate at the base of the spine, to the sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head. Until activated by yoga practices, the sushumna remains closed, a “hollow reed”. Spiralling round the sushumna in a figure-eight manner are the ida and pingala, the other two most significant nadis. The ida represents the cool moon energy; the pingala the hot sun energy. These nadis, which also originate in the kanda, intersect at various points, creating pools or vortexes of pranic energy, called chakras. They terminate at the point between and behind the eyebrows, at the ajna chakra or third eye. In ordinary life, prana flows unevenly through the ida and pingala. Hatha Yoga in particular aims to balance the flow of prana in the ida and pingala. Pranayama and asana practice as well as the many cleansing practices have this as their goal. For when the prana flows evenly, it can begin to enter the sushumna nadi. Before the kundalini can awaken and rise, prana needs to open the sushumna nadi.

Tantra and Hatha Yoga consist of many, many different practices, the details of which are beyond the scope of this essay. But whether breathing exercises are regulating the flow of prana or visualisation practice is dissolving the five elements into their essential ground or mantra recitation is installing its reigning deity in the heart—all recognise the sacredness of the tools they employ. All recognize the divinity of every manifest form, subtle or gross, beginning with the rainbow of energy which is the human body.

It is most apt that the central metaphor of Tantra and Hatha Yoga—the ascension of the Kundalini Shakti to unite with Shiva at the crown of the head—involves the joining together of two deities. As a “divine being”, each deity of the yoga tradition has a particular symbolic representation, a shape (like that of the Shiva Nataraja) where every detail is rich in significance. But each deity also corresponds to a particular energy in the subtle realms, a particular form of intelligence. This, in fact, is what it “is”. As such, each deity serves as a unique portal to the Divine in its deepest form, a method of realising the transcendental ground of pure luminosity. The human body contains along its central energetic channel the divine polarity of Lord Shiva and the Goddess Shakti or Parvati (the Shakti power in its form as Shiva’s consort)—two opposing yet complementary energies, which are the primary focus of Tantric sadhana.

Together in this form as divine couple, the pure awareness of Shiva is the masculine power of the lingam. He is the Lord of Yoga, seated on a tiger skin at the summit of Mt. Meru, trident in one hand, a crescent moon on his forehead and a serpent wrapped round his neck. With eyes closed, he can remain rapt in deep meditation for a thousand years. But when stirred by the embrace of Parvati, his Shakti, he can make ecstatic passionate love--also for a thousand years. The pure primal energy of Shakti is the feminine power of the yoni. Whether defeating a buffalo-demon or dangling a blood-dripping skull or emerging radiant from a churning ocean or infusing all growing things with fertility and beneficence, it is the womb energy of the Divine Mother, the giver and taker of life.

These evocative metaphors speak of the powerful (though mostly unrealised) forces which the human body contains. Shiva and Shakti--the most supreme intelligences of the subtle realms-- reside in every human body. And their union through the esoteric practices of Tantra Yoga opens the royal portal to bodily realisation of the pulsing radiant Divinity which is Everything. Shiva’s dance is indeed all-pervasive.

Gopi Krishna, whose spontaneous kundalini awakening is famous, described his experience of this radiant Divinity in these words:

The enchanting light I perceive, both internally and outside, is alive. It pulsates with life and intelligence. It is like an infinite Ocean of Awareness pervading my own small pool of consciousness within and the whole universe I perceive with my senses, outside. It is as if a radiant living Presence encompasses everything that exists both within and outside of me. Much as I wish to do so, It is extremely difficult for me to draw a clear picture of this aspect of my experience. For me the universe is alive. A stupendous Intelligence, which I can sense but never fathom, looms behind every object and every event in the universe, silent, still, serene and, in the words of Bullah Shah, the Sufi of Punjab, immovable like a mountain.

It is obvious and highly significant that this central metaphor of the union of Shiva and Shakti has sexual overtones. For sexuality is of the body, and Tantra and Hatha Yoga understand the body as a “temple of the Divine”. As Shiva and Shakti join together, they are the primal matrix for duality in the cosmos, where everything evolves and where everything involutes from the sacred commingling of complementary energies. Even in the subtle realms, this divine duality has many different expressions. Vishnu and Lakshmi, Krishna and Radha, Rama and Sita (and there are many others) are all unique manifestations of the Shiva—Shakti polarity. Ordinary sexuality mirrors in the material world this sacred commingling of complementary energies. It exemplifies and re-enacts the divine coupling on the plane of the five elements. Thus it too is a kind of gateway. It is from this recognition that the sexual practices of Tantric sadhana have developed.

Sexual desire is a very powerful energy. In its usual capacity, it provides the generative, procreative force on the physical plane and gives a momentary hint of ecstasy through the heightening of sensory pleasure. Yet Tantric sexual practices and rituals go far beyond sensory pleasure and orgasmic release. They strive to transform and channel this energy into Ecstasy—the ultimate state of Enlightenment or Pure Bliss. Devoid of ego, devoid of attachment, desire becomes something entirely different from the usual “desire . . . for something”. Tantric sexual practices require a profound “burning of the ego to ashes”(again, too scary for most of us). They focus this energy of desire, redirecting it from its usual physical outlets and transmuting it into a sublime power in the subtle body.

Unleashed from all boundaries of self and other, it becomes desire transfigured. It becomes the energy which draws Shakti to Shiva and Shiva to Shakti, the core desire behind both creation and enlightenment. It becomes the energy which pierces through the delusion of separateness and realises union in the One Body of Light. Desire purified of all sense of separateness becomes Ecstasy-- the energy which pulses at the very heart of Shiva’s Dance. For in the vision of Tantra and Hatha Yoga, the body (and everything that belongs to it) belongs in its very essence to this infinite dance of light.

© Marianne Jacuzzi 2006


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Jaya Ganesha Pahimam!

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