Illustration: Lakshman Temple, The Magazine of Yoga
The body in tantric ritual: the case of the mudrās
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
André Padoux is a Directeur de Recherche at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, Paris.
In all rituals the performer must make some prescribed gestures. The body therefore plays a role in ritual.
If, as happens frequently in Tantric hinduism, a rite is “interiorized”, it is deemed to take place, or to produce effects, in the body, so that in such cases also the body plays a part in the ritual process, either through prescribed bodily postures (āsana), or because of the “inner” experiences supposed to take place in the mind or in the “subtle body” of the performer.
One knows also that in the saiddhāntikāgamas as well as in the bhairavāgamas and in many tantras, yoga (which is bodily cum mental technique) is considered an integral part of pūjā and of many other rites.
In this respect, mudrās appear in ritual as actions which combine bodily postures or gestures and mental or spiritual elements: as bodily actions which are at the same time are moments of religious and/or mystical actions.
- André Padoux, The body in tantric ritual:the case of the mudrās; ibid., all following quotes.
Over centuries and millennia, people who have practiced yogas have recorded a sense of doing, being or making something with their body that changed their chances or condition in this world.
David Gordon White predicates his readings of Tantra traditions as “sexualized ritual practice,” and not as ritualized sexual acts.
Following suit, rather than discussing yoga as in a tension between the modern axis of the physical and the mental, we can usefully extend White’s thesis to think of yoga as a somaticized ritual practice, and not as physical activity that is ritualized.
To observe such a distinction in action, I suggest reading André Padoux’s The body in tantric ritual: the case of the mudras, in The Sanskrit Tradition and Tantrism edited by Teun Goudriaan. E.J. Brill 1990.
In The body in tantric ritual, Padoux describes and compares two related texts of the Kaula dakṣiṇāmnāya tradition of Tripurā: the Vamakesvarimatatantra (VMT), also known as Nityāṣoḍaśikārṇava (NṢA), and the Yoginīhṛdaya (YH).
These two texts describe nine or ten mudrās that are both deities and hand-gestures.
Of the body
The whole process thus takes place, at least in theory, on several planes: divine-cosmic, corporal-mental and ritual: the rite brings into play, through thought and bodily action, a cosmic, mental and corporeal totality.
Presence as a body is more than the availability of a body as a tool, because so much of what we do as a body is dependent on being a self; a tool is not a self. There are many as yet unanswered phenomenological questions regarding the human condition, in particular, whether a body has a self, or a self has a body: in yoga we find the suggestion, the possibility and practice of simultaneity.
Investigating yoga as embodiment of ritual, we understand yoga is not only something a body is used for, in which the body is instrumental like a pen.
Though we may sometimes become captives of our metaphors and fall to speaking of “practicing” yoga to “get better at it” as though it were graded penmanship, at the same time we recognize the role of this penmanship: from the shared clarity in the formation of letters we are also embodying a value.
Even before we examine content, the form itself embodies our culture.
(If you think that’s an overstatement, read the essays in Robert E Harrist’s The Embodied Image to encounter people who paid with their lives for the insurrection made explicit by slanting letters in the wrong direction.)
Symbol and deity
This micro/macro cosmological embodiment is exactly the distinction and simultaneity Padoux addresses in his discussion of mudrās.
These two texts describe nine or ten mudrās, which are, first, deities either pervading the whole śricakra or residing in each of its nine constituent parts (cakras or āvaraṇas).
The mudrās are also hand-gestures symbolizing these deities, gestures the sādhaka is to make when placing, by nyasa, these deities in their proper places in the śricakra.
The mudrās appear thus as ten different aspects of the main deity, Tripurasundari, present in the diagram which symbolizes her, or, more exactly, which is her cosmic form.
Padoux is at pains to describe the at-the-same-time-ness of the performer, the symbol and the “pervading” deity which are the mudrās. It’s an education in itself to observe the care with which he pauses repeatedly in his own progression to maintain the clarity of the concept.
The succession of the ten mudrās thus represents a process which is both cosmic (that of the deity flowing back into herself) and mystical, since these mudrās also symbolize –
or, more exactly, are moments, stages, aspects of the dynamic process of the sadhaka’s fusion with the deity he worships in the diagram: mystical union and ritual process are inseparable.
But the ritual action which takes place is thus also a bodily one: the performer of the ritual, whilst he invokes each of the mudrās, which are both divine forms and spiritual attitudes, must “display the mudrā”, i.e. execute the hand gesture which represents, nay, which is the divine form.
Thus, the body is instrumental to practice for all its (the body’s) characteristics and functions, and not merely as the bearer of a participating head. In other words, there are yogas in which practice does not concern itself with uniting a physical body with a wraithlike mind – this division is in many ways a modern pretext.
In a world view where mind and body are not imagined to be separate, the union and the technique of yoga is rather to symbolize something and to be the thing symbolized at the same time.
We do in fact practice yoga, just as artists practice making art. In each case, there is an equal sense that one prepares for performance, and one gives performances of the practice. In all senses, we embody the practice, we pursue the somaticization of ritual.
There’s much to be gained from practice, both in its sense of refinement of what is done (even if what is done is the rehearsal of getting present; even if what is done is training to perform a ritual) and in the sense of the word practice as the enactment of somatic ritual.
In all senses we work at the practice, and that work embodies both what we do and what is meant by what we do, as the same thing.
This simultaneity effected by the body is a yoga.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.