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Entering the Cosmic Body
Setting foot into the sacred precincts of the Hindu temple, the seeker embarks onto a sacred journey whose destination lies beyond the limits of human perception. The inner world of the aspirant is made manifest in Hindu architecture. The journey from the temple gate to the inner sanctum maps out the topography of the inner landscape. This inner terrain is fraught with both wonders and pitfalls. The guidelines elucidated through the temple's mystical structuring safeguards the seeker against these pitfalls as he explores his consciousness externalized through this unique form of psycho-spiritual architectural composition.
In this work we will explore this correspondence of Hindu sacred architecture to the inner architecture of the individual. This will be accomplished by taking the reader on a part of the sacred journey through a temple, describing the surroundings and inner meanings of the journey as we go. Further, it will be demonstrated that this correspondence is intended at the outset of the creation of a temple by examining the myths and methods used in preparing the sacred site upon which the temple itself is built. Finally, it will be postulated that this correspondence between Hindu temple architecture and the human psyche has perhaps existed for far longer than is assumed in the current popular Indology.
Therefore we will see that the temple itself is the best guide through the tangled forest of Hindu metaphysics by exploring the systematic mystical expression utilized by the Hindu masonic guilds. In the course of the journey, we will also touch upon the evolution from the Vedic fire worship to the use of icons for worship in the temple environs, and try to point out the seeds of this reformation in the Vedic texts themselves.
As the devotee enters the sacred precinct through the temple gate, he takes that leap of faith from the superfluities of the phenomenal world into the supernatural world of the Gods. He enters into his own cosmic body and leaves identification with his physical form behind, outside of the gate. Incidentally, he leaves his shoes also, "implying that contact with the profane impurities of the earth element is broken" (Meese, vol. 1, p. 216). He symbolically takes the yogi's path as he withdraws from the world and enters upon a mythical journey of his own. Like in the Grail Quest, he passes through the Gate of Mystery, entering the forest in that place where it is the darkest. This "dark forest" that he enters is his subconsciousness. Here he seeks out the Monad, that primordial spark of being from which all existing phenomena issue forth. This vivifying elixir of divine essence is the goal of the quest, but to find it one must speak the mythical language of understanding known only to the heart. It is beyond the limitations of the rational mind, with its burdensome practice of judging. It is heard in the quietude of being and summoned forth through a kind of mindfulness that is ever receptive and unwavering.
Before the devotee will approach the actual temple structure, he will first visit the temple tank for ritual bathing. Here he washes away the last vestiges of the world he has left behind. These waters represent the Causal Ocean from which the Primal Soul emerges, and sets about creating the multiple universes. Stepping into these waters, the devotee dissolves back into the absolute and re-emerges, created anew. The temple structure is then circumambulated in a clockwise direction. Thereby, the aspirant treads the solar path, building up a momentum of inner radiance as he walks.
He meets a vast array of divine beings, enshrined along his path. These divinities are external personifications of inner archetypes that preside over various states of consciousness. Encountering externalized aspects of his psychological states, the devotee is given an opportunity to interact with mind in a conscious fashion. Thus certain aspects of consciousness, often out of reach to the linear intellect, become accessible on a conscious level. Through this conscious interaction, subconscious mechanisms can be rerouted to function more suitably for the individual. This kind of esoteric psychotherapy can have profound transformational effects upon the individual, but a knowledge and proper understanding of the myths and their deeper meanings is prerequisite for this transformation to take place.
The first of these divinities encountered is the joyous elephant-faced god, Ganesha. As the Lord of Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles, Ganesha is always propagated first. Amidst the vast plethora of god forms, Ganesha's role is both unique and critical to this mythical journey that I now relate. The importance of this archetype is that he marks the transition from the transient external manifestation to the timeless inner reality. Hidden within the ever-changing flux of this material world is an ever present, yet ever hidden, gateway to the transcendent. Ganesha's role is to guide the aspirant to this doorway that is hidden in the very midst of this world. Ganesha knows all the Earth's secrets. This is why his aniconic symbol is the square, which represents Earth.
As Lord of the immanent world, he is often found to be the patron of householders and merchants, but to the yogis and mystics his influence is equally as critical. The yogis deem his seat of power to be within the body at the base of the spine. It is from this place that man is rooted to the world. So we see that Ganesha presides over man's relationship to the Earth.
Seven centers of consciousness run along the spine to the crown of the head. These centers are called chakras, and are part of a complex network of mystical energies that flow through the body. When this energy, known as kundalini, flows upward into a chakra center, consciousness in transformed to that corresponding level of perception. In their baser aspects, these consciousness centers are functioning within us all of the time, but the higher states of consciousness contained within the chakras are accessed only through the unification of the two primary energy channels (the idylla and the pingala) into the shashumna or central channel. Duality is thus reconciled and the shushumna becomes a pillar of force that flows towards the Absolute (sahasrara, the crown chakra).
After bathing, the devotee will seek out Lord Ganesha. To supplicate the Elephant-faced Lord, the devotee will cross his arms in front of his face and knock three times on his temples. The yogis say that this causes a stream of nectar to flow down the spine from the pituitary region of the brain. This nectar washes over Ganesha, bringing him great delight. He unites the dual streams and sets the kundalini flowing through the shashumna on its journey ever upward. With Ganesha's blessing, consciousness leaves the mundane world to tread the path of wisdom.
As the devotee treks onward, strange and wondrous icons greet him. The mythical inflections that are awakened in the aspirant by viewing these forms propel consciousness farther and farther away from the static perceptivity of the mundane.
Approaching the sanctum, an animal form is encountered, facing the shrine with a reverential candor. This is the vehicle or vahana of the divine residing in the temple. This animal form represents how the divine moves towards mankind. For instance, in a Shiva temple the vahana depicted will be Nandi the bull. The bull represents earthly simplicity; this reminds the aspirant that inherent in worldly existence is the divine presence. Nandi functions to proclaim that Tamil Shaivite adage, "God is both immanent and transcendent" ("Anbe Sivamayam Satyame Parasivam").
Beyond the body of the sacred vehicle looms a golden pillar extending up through the temple roof, reaching heavenward. It is called the dhvajastambha (lit., flagpost). It is situated just in front of the sanctum sanctorum to proclaim the presence of the deity. It represents the Axis Mundy, the hub of the universe around which all creation revolves. It represents the spine, the human axis, around which the senses and cosmic energy (kundalini) sublimated into the absolute (sahasrara).
Two ferocious guardians flank the sanctum, one on each side of the doorway. They wear the cosmic form of the deity enshrined within. Their function is to destroy any residual vestiges of dualistic thought. Once localized identification has been dispersed that being that the devotee encounters within the sanctum is perceived as the self.
This encounter has been carefully crafted by the informed intent of the builders. Perhaps the best way of appreciating this intent, along with the cultural richness and profound symbology of the Hindu temple traditions is to relate the elaborate process of ritual and mythical inflection that goes into the construction of such an edifice.
Beginnings often seem tedious, and for the temple architects this was no exception. The complex array of geomantic prerequisites for the selection of the temple site can, depending on the texts consulted, be extremely demanding. Previous to the construction itself, the site must be cleared of foliage and residual negative vibrations. This ensures that the work to follow will remain unaffected by external forces and also it maintains a safe and successful construction. It is the inner powers that guide the craftsman's hands to erect the divine in manifest form, so all outer "noise" is silenced. The most important of all the rites, relating directly to the construction, is the "Drawing of the Cosmic Man." This ritual functions to lay out the dimensions of the temple precinct by drawing out the mystical/architectural diagram on the ground of the site. This is the first of the invocations of deity. It begins the ritual reenactment of their creation myth, which is a fundamental element in temple composition because it ensures the sanctification and empowerment of the structure. The drawing of the Cosmic Man or Vastupurusha, literally "a dwelling (vastu) for the Universal Spirit (Purusha)," symbolically gives birth to that boundless primal being, thus giving a finite residence to that infinite reality. The eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita best describes this Lord of Boundless Form.
As Arjuna so eloquently reminds us, "the original god" is also "the primordial spirit of man." The temple functions to map out the Divine's immanent presence in all beings. It strives through architecture, geometry, art, and ritual to convey clear vision of that ultimate mystery within man.
The clearing of the site represents an expanse of emptiness; a void. This expanse of space, ripe with potential, becomes the trestle-board of existence. Here, the Vastapurusha Mandala is drawn upon the Earth.
A mandala is a mystical diagram geometrically composed. This mandala is square in shape and is divided into sixty-four equal parts. The ceremonial division into sixty-four parts defines those mystical energies that compose the cosmic body. These consituent parts correspond not only with the pantheon of Vedic gods but also with the sixty-four Yoginis (or the Dakinis of the Tibetan Tantric tradition) which are the cosmic energies (shakti) personified in goddess forms.
The sixty-four archetypes come into being through the interaction of eight primary aggregates, which are reflected in the simple formula 8 x 8 = 64. Four of the aggregates are of a higher nature and four are of a lower nature. The subtle/higher correspondences are: Vivasvan, who represents heaven (air), Prthvidhara, who represents earth, Mitra, who represents fire, and Aryaman, who represents water. The gross/lower correspondences are Surya, representing breath (Surya is a solar deity, here representing that solar power which is the source of prana, the vital breath), Kusumadanta, representing fertility in the form of a mountain (material obstacles or entanglements), Indra, representing thunder, and Varuna, representing the sea. These eight primary aggregates conjoin and produce the sixty-four elementary ingredients that constitute the myriad creation.
Incidentally, these same eight aggregates and sixty-four archetypal ingredients correspond exactly to the eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching, China's oldest and most revered text, not to mention the correspondences of these tantric mysteries made flesh in the sixty-four postures of the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana. These are vividly depicted, in all their mystical potency, on the exterior of Kujaraho so as to reveal the human expression of creation's mysteries.
The composition and division of the Vastupurusha Mandala has its origin in Vedic times, when altars built of bricks were structured in this same format. Out of the thirty-two variations of Vedic altar space division, "Chandita," which is the division into sixty-four plots, is considered the best for temple composition. In my opinion, the fundamental basis of this system of division originates in the Brahmanical importance of the four cardinal directions and the four intermediary points of the compasses used in ritual and worship. The square represents the Earth; it is four sided, its sides outlining the four directions while its points indicate the four secondary directions (intermediary points). Therefore Earth is numerically and metaphysically associated with the numerals four and eight. It is from Earth, with its fourfold and eightfold numerology, that the ancient Brahmanical artisans and priests built a mathematically constructed gateway to Heaven. A simple numerical evolution, mimicking the fractal-like expansion of creation, led to this primary division of space into sixty-four parts.
At this crucial point, before the construction begins, a fertility rite is repeated throughout the construction preceding any important facet of the work. Ankurarpana, or "Rite of the Seed's Sprouting," functions to put man in harmony with the natural environment that feeds and sustains him. It also ensures that the undertaking in question will be as fruitful as Mother Earth who ever provides for her children. In this ceremony the seeds of sixteen staple foodstuffs are placed each in their own copper vessel. These seeds are offered to Soma, Lord of Germination, and after sprouting are then presented to the patron deity who is to be installed in the temple after its construction.
Construction begins with the placement of the cornerstone in the northeast corner of the mandala, thus crowning the head of Purusha. The ceremony accompanying the placement of the cornerstone is called Silanyasa. Following this the foundation is built with earth, filling in the inner portion up to the plinth level, except for the central area that would correspond with the navel of the Purusha. Here a stone slab is placed called Adharasila or "the Stone of Substance." One need simply refer to the puranic text Srimad Bhagavatam (Chapter Two) to apprehend the significance of the navel of the Purusha. Herein we learn that from the navel of Vishnu springs a lotus stalk symbolizing the Axis Mundi, which is the central hub around which the entire universe revolves. At the top of the stalk a lotus blossoms, in the heart of which sits Brahma, the creator of the universe, whose four faces keep watch over the four directions. It is over this area of mythical renown that the icon will be installed and the Deity invoked to live in the world of man. The icon, as in the puranic myth, is ritually born from the navel area, but before the icon can be born, this central portion of the mandala must be impregnated.
This ritual is called Garbha-nyasa or "Womb Installation." The womb is impregnated by the sequential placement of mystically potent and highly symbolic objects into the earthen hole designated as the Purusha's navel. The first object to be placed is the Kalasa or Nidhikumba, which is a special copper pot associated with fertility that represents the womb. In legend it is also seen as the sacred vessel containing Amrita, the Nectar of the Gods. Inside of the Kalasa is placed the Nava-ratna, the nine stones that represent the heavenly bodies, and also magical herbs along with other relevant materials. On top of this are added carvings of a tortoise and a lotus, one of each in stone, in silver, and in gold. The tortoise represents Kurma, the second incarnation of Vishnu.
Mythically, Kurma's function is to recover certain treasures (i.e., wisdom of the inner mysteries) lost during the deluge. This relates specifically to the legend of the "Churning of the Ocean of Milk," where the tortoise's back supported the sacred Mandara Mountain on the muddy floor of the Causal Ocean. The King of Serpents, Vasuki, wrapped his coils about the great mountain. The mountain pivoted back and forth as the demons pulled the serpent's head and the gods pulled on the serpent's tail. The Milk Sea (representing the firmament) was churned, and it yielded up fourteen treasures. The Mandara Mountain, like the lotus stalk that grows from the navel of Vishnu, represents the Cosmic Pillar or Axis Mundi. Dr. G. H. Mees has noted, "It is interesting that the word 'tortoise' is derived from the Latin 'torquere,' meaning 'to twist, to turn, to cause to rotate'" (Vol. 2:24). It is Kurma who supports this Cosmic Pillar and is at the center of all things. Krishna relates another important association of the tortoise symbol during the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita.
The carved lotuses that accompany these carvings of Kurma have a threefold function of representation. Most importantly, it is the seat of the creator. Secondly, its stalk relates to the Axis Mundi, which is eternally supported by the transcendent mystery (Kurma) while ever upholding the creator and immanent lord, Brahma. Lastly, it stands as a reminder of that popular allegorical maxim of the lotus as a symbol of purity. Although the lotus grows in the mud of the material world, it remains ever unsullied by the base matter, which nourishes it.
Upon the carved figurings is placed a funnel shaped copper tube, called a Yoganala. This serves a metaphysical function similar to the umbilical cord. It leads up to the plinth level where the Brahmasila covers it. The Brahmasila is the base upon which the deity will eventually be placed. The Kalasa (copper pot) is the womb. The Yoganala is the umbilical cord, which carries vivifying energies to the soul, represented by the deity, housed within the heart of the temple's body.
The sanctum is to be the first structure built and, as you might assume, is at the center of the temple compound. The structural composition of all other architecture and sculpture on the site functions to empower the sanctum and the mystery that is hidden within it. In Professor Rao's Mandalas in Temple Worship, he elaborates on this point. "The icon, on assumption, is the center of the forces that operate in a temple, and the sanctum is the immediate field for the organization and crystallization of these forces. Structures around the sanctum serve to channelize these forces and protect them from diffusion and dilution."
At this point, we begin to appreciate the unity of symbolism involved in the Hindu temple tradition. We have seen that the architecture and decoration of the temple invokes the divine both on the external plane (within the composition of the edifice) and in the devotee himself. The Culture of India has reflected this unity throughout recorded history. The question remains, however, of when these traditions first emerged and began to be utilized.
Post-Buddhist India began to see a particular shift in certain central aspects of Hindu worship. The Agamic texts with their emphasis on iconic symbols and temple ritual began to supplant the Veda's focus on fire sacrifice and invocational hymnals. Buddha himself expressed his disapproval with the Vedic priests' monopoly of the experiential aspects of ritual worship. The non-brahmanical castes were ostracized from their religious rites and thus cut off from the transformational effects of participation in devotional expression. The modern-day saint Sivaya Subramuniyaswami elaborates on this distinction between the Vedic and the Agamic priest, "The Agamic priest draws himself into the universe of the deities. The Vedic priest draws the deities close to our universe." The very nature of the Vedic approach is centered upon the use of elaborate rites and mantric invocations, well beyond the means of the lay devotee, to draw down the Gods into the presence of the officiating priests. The duty of the Agamic priests is to create a kind of gateway that allows mankind access to the spiritual world. The Agamic texts reveal those tantric mysteries that for centuries have guided the yogi to the very summit of mystical ecstasy. The Agamic science has presented a means for the common man to achieve that divine communion with deity that was previously accessible only to the very few. Utilizing a profound system of mathematically oriented metaphysics, the esoteric mystery is given tangible form through architecture.
What is the origin of this Agamic system of objectifying esoteric mystery through architecture and icons? When did Hindus begin to construct temples and develop the rich array of art forms that we see tangible evidence of only during the past two millennia? There is a tendency among art historians to credit the early Buddhists with the first significant art forms of India. The academic world is often a jumbled mess of both unsullied insight and biased assumption. Equally viable theories are often rejected simply out of attachment to old ideas. It is my hope to inform the reader of a few pertinent observations so that the cultural advancement of the Pre-Mauryan Hindus will not be disregarded.
Reflected in early Buddhist stupas like Bharhut (second century B.C.) and at chaityas (temples) like Bhaja (mid-second century B.C.) or Karli (late first/early second century A.D.), we see that there is a definite element in architectural composition that shines some light onto the early history of temple worship. I refer to the simple fact that the architects of these early Buddhist monuments treated the stone as if it were wood. It is commonly accepted among Indologists that these artisans were carpenters or wood carvers by trade and well advanced in their crafts. "Megasthenes mentions that the palace of Chandragupta Maurya, though very large and luxurious, was built of carved and gilded wood, and the earliest stone buildings to have survived were evidently modeled on wooden originals. We must not assume, from complete lack of material remains, that Indian building in the Mauryan period, or even before, was mean or primitive." Basham 348). Perhaps the lack of archaeological data that could prove the existence of temple worship in the Pre-Gupta (320-647 A.D.) era is because these early structures were made of wood or other perishable materials. Today, we can look to the highly developed skills of the wood working guilds in places like Kerala to try to surmise how Indians during these ancient times approached their craft.
Contrary to the lack of existing evidence, Dr. N. Venkata Ramanayya states a simple, yet often overlooked observation regarding India's ancient masons in his essay Origin of the South Indian Temple (p. 39), "It would have required, at least several hundreds of years before the Indian sculpture and architecture could have reached that stage of development which it did during the time of the Mauryas." The Mauryan Era (322-185 B.C.) yields the beginnings of Buddhist art. But what of those "several hundreds of years" that Dr. Ramanayya spoke of? In his essay, Dr. Ramanayya cites both Buddhist and Greek writings of the Mauryan period, giving us abundant evidence that the Hindu temple traditions flourished in this era. Those "several hundred years" preceding the Mauryas can only be traced through an analysis of ancient sanskrit works.
The earliest Agamic texts date from the first millennium B.C. This serves to give us a vague approximation of when the shift from Vedic ritual to Agamic temple worship might have begun. Although the Agamas served to reform the priest craft and to give the lay public the mystical experiences that temple worship offers, it was not in conflict with certain Vedic practices long ago abandoned. The Indus Valley relics make it all too clear that iconic representations of the divine were commonplace in pre-Vedic India.
It is obvious that many aspects of the pre-Aryan religion were assimilated into the religion of the Aryan invaders (provided you subscribe to the theory of Aryan migration). Although no significant finds previous to the fourth century A.D. have been made to substantiate the claim that Hindu temples and icon worship were commonplace in ancient times, the textual references are more than adequate to suggest that these practices extend back into pre-history. Professor S. K. Ramachandra Rao, in his Pratima Kosha, has observed that, "The customs of making icons in metal appears to be very ancient in India. Even the Rig Vedic hymns contain references to images of Rudra (2:33:9), Indra (4:24:10), Varuna (1:25:13), Agni (1:21:2; 4:58:3), and to temples (7:56:14) in which icons were housed." He goes on to refer to later works that perhaps imply a continuous use of these practices. "We find references to this practice even in Panini (5:3:96 and 5:3:99 'jivikarthe chapanya'), dating 5th century B.C. Patanjali who commented on Panini, uses the expression 'archa' in the sense of icon or object of worship, and informs us that such objects were fashioned by the 'Mauryas'..."
Yogic mysteries from the most ancient of times have not only survived, but evolved into a form readily accessible to the complex needs of the human psyche in the modern era. The ancients discovered certain therapies that address fundamental psycho-spiritual needs. These therapeutic sciences are a part of an unbroken tradition preserved through Hindu temple worship that survives into this modern era.
So let us now return to where we have begun: as a seeker at a Hindu temple, embarking on a sacred journey. We have seen our inner world reflected in the journey from the temple gate to the inner sanctum. In the building of the temple, the individual is realized, deified, completed. The correspondence between Hindu temple architecture and the human psyche has been confirmed, and stands, as it has form perhaps far longer than is assumed or known. Finally, we are left with the ultimate evidence: the temple itself, standing as always in testimony to its own being; the first, last, and best guide from earth to heaven.
Basham, A. L., The Wonder That Was India. New York: Grove Press, 1959
Harshananda, Swami, All About Hindu Temples. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, [sic]
Mees, G. H., The Revelations in the Wilderness Tiruvannamalai: Kanvashrama Trust, 1985.
Ramanayya, N. Venkata, Origin of the South Indian Temple. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1985.
Rao, S. K. Ramachandra, Mandalas in Temple Worship. Bangalore: Kalpatharu Research Academy, 1988.
Rao, S. K. Ramachandra, Pratima Kosha Vols. 1-4. Bangalore: Kalpatharu Research Academy, 1988-91.
Subramuniyaswami, Sivaya, Dancing with Siva. Concord: Himalayan Academy, 1990.
Zimmer, Heinrich, The Art of Indian Asia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
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