Bhakti could be described as loving of one’s chosen god or goddess the way a lover loves their beloved, a parent loves their child, or a friend loves another friend. Bhakti is a deeply personal spiritual intimacy on the part of the devotee, and open to everyone regardless of gender or caste. Bhakti as a devotional practice was never exclusively Hindu but also important in Buddhist and Jain traditions, having spread to Sufism, Christianity and Sikhism as well (note 1).
As a Hindu devotional philosophy and a means to achieve moksha (note 2), Bhakti has been known for millennia but didn’t really become popular until the early medieval period around 600 AD. At that time, seemingly out of nowhere, itinerant poet-saints began wandering from temple to temple throughout south India chanting deeply personal, and at times frankly erotic, hymns praising their chosen gods and goddesses. When focussed upon Vishnu and/or his avatar, Krishna they were known as these poets were known as Alvars, when praising Shiva they were Nayanars, and when the focus was upon one of the Divine Goddesses they were Shaktics.
Prior to the rise of Bhakti, Hindu worship was primarily a function of an ancient Vedic sacrifice ritual carried out by Brahmin priests deep inside the temples. Devotions were a quid pro quo type of ceremony where the worshipper, through the priests, would offer something of value, such as food or flowers or cash, to the deity in exchange for a gift or their blessing. Bhakti offered a much more personal alternative for the worshipper, a direct connection to God, without the need for either priests or structured ritual. Temple worship remains an important element of Hindu practice, however it is the personal devotion of Bhakti through which most Hindus offer their prayers, whether through a simple puja ceremony at home or a quick invocation to a postcard of Ganesh on the dashboard of their autorickshaw.
Note 1 – personal devotion to the Buddha may have been common practice from Buddhism’s earliest days (500 BC) though Bhakti as a term is Hindu in origin.
Note 2 – the two other paths to achieve moksha are; a) Vedic ritual and knowledge, and b) Yogic meditation and contemplation on the nature of Brahman.
Bhakti – The Love of GodTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:24:22-08:00
The languid gaze. The elegant gesture. The whisper of silk. The goddess serenely voluptuous. The god lithe and supple. Chola Bronzes are among the world’s finest sacred sculpture, with an undeniable vitality as though they are about to take a breath.
A first impression is over in a heartbeat, but if you take the time to look deeper perhaps you may begin to see them as their Chola creators intended – metaphors in bronze of an absolute divine beauty.
Shailja and I wrote this Reference Library to help you gain a wider understanding of the spiritual context of this extraordinary sacred art. Whether you are casually browsing or searching for something specific, if you don’t find the information you need, just ask and we’ll help you find what you need.
We don’t make any claims to scholarship for this material. It was written from our personal perspective and just as it is for the other billion or so Hindu believers, we have chosen what it is true from the almost limitless array of truths Hinduism offers. You may not agree with everything you find here, but one of Hinduism’s wonderful qualities is inclusiveness and acceptance and we hope you’ll accept our Reference Library in the spirit with which it is offered.
The roots of Hinduism may go back as far as 9000 BC to the first indigenous civilizations in the Indus Valley, but as they say, the specifics are “lost in the mists of time.” Very little is known of pre-Vedic indigenous spiritual life in India, but scholars believe they were centred – just as they were for virtually every other indigenous culture – upon natural and cosmic forces such as storms, fire and the sun. These forces were eventually given names and superhuman character traits which would ultimately be absorbed into Vedic worship, as gods with physical form and specific characteristic and responsibilities such as Rudra, Agni and Surya. Much later, elements of Rudra’s characteristics would evolve to become those of Shiva, while Rudra’s importance would wane. Other Vedic gods represented more abstract qualities such as friendship (Mitra) and statecraft (Indra). A similar process applied to many other deities as well. The inclusive nature of Hinduism ensures ancient pre-Vedic beliefs live on as nature spirits, such as yakshas, which still guard springs and trees, while the homes of cobra-like deities, or nagas, such as anthills will often receive offerings of food and flowers (note 1).
While most scholars agree The Vedas would become the authoritative spiritual source of Hinduism (note 2), there is an ongoing debate over whether they originated with the religious beliefs of Aryans or Indus Valley civilizations. The Aryans were multi-ethnic, Sanskrit speaking, tribal nomads from what is now Iran, who moved into the Indus Valley around 4000 BP. The indigenous Indus Valley civilizations, on the other hand, were agriculturists with sophisticated civil engineering technology and extensive sea-going trade networks (note 3). While their writings have yet to be decoded, they likely spoke a Dravidian dialect, which may have formed the basis for the Tamil language (note 4). Aryan religious beliefs were based on ritual sacrifice to deities embodying natural forces such as storms, rain and rivers (Rudra), fire (Agni), and the sun (Surya). Vedic foundations of Hinduism are possibly a synthesis of Aryan and Harappan, beliefs and may have included yogic meditation and the concepts of Shiva and Shakti. The Vedas, in the form of hymns and poems, were passed down orally for thousands of years before being written in Sanskrit between 3700 and 2500 BP. Meanwhile, Aryan hierarchal social structure (varna) grew out of Vedic religious practice and later came to be known as the caste system (note 5).
The period from 1000 BC to 500 AD saw the peak of Vedic spiritual influence in India. As its ritual and practice grew more sophisticated, scholars and sages continued to expand Vedic thought in three further volumes of writings; Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. These texts introduced the concept of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, while later Upanishads developed the concept of Atman, the deep inner essence within the individual, and moksha, union with the Ultimate Soul; Brahman. The Vedas now offered an alternative to temple rituals, and it was now possible to worship a personal manifestation of Brahman.
Traditionally, access to The Vedas and performance of their rituals was the exclusive right of the literate upper caste. Brahmin control over access to God led to widespread spiritual dissatisfaction, and the masses began to believe the ritual performance was of less importance than the ritual’s meaning to the individual. A movement (Sramana) gained popularity, which encouraged an internalized spiritual path through personal ascetism, setting the stage around 2600 BP for the birth of Buddhism (note 6) and Jainism (note 7). Buddhism rejected Vedic ritual, seeking moksha through meditation, while Jains rejected the concept of both Brahman and Atman altogether, finding moksha through strict austerity, and by 400 BC, both religions had gained ground on Hinduism. It was reported by a Chinese diplomat that in Kanchipuram, (south India) alone, there were 100 monasteries and 10,000 monks. This was not to last, however, as Hinduism would eventually absorb many Buddhist and Jain principles and practices, and by 1200 AD, Buddhism was on the fringes of south Indian spiritual life.
Devotional practice in south India reflected the passionate nature of the Tamil people and proved to be fertile ground for a renewed burst of spiritual energy known as Bhakti. Beginning about 1400 600 AD ascetic Tamil poets wandered south India, reciting poems and singing devotional hymns of unparalleled beauty and passion, praising Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Devi, the Mother Goddess. These poet-saints espoused a goal of mystical union with God bypassing the Brahmin controlled Vedic temple rituals with its divisions of caste and gender.
Eight hundred years ago the poetess-saint Mahadeviyakka wrote of her devotion to Shiva in terms not unlike that of a lover to their beloved;
“He bartered my heart, looted my flesh,
claimed as tribute my pleasure, took over all of me.
I’m the woman of love,
for my lord, white as jasmine.”
In the time of the Cholas, most Hindus wouldn’t disagree The Vedas were Hinduism’s spiritual source, though outside of Brahmin priests, very few would live their lives strictly according to Vedic precepts. The majority of popular Hindu practice is ritual worship to one or more or all the gods. Bhakti may be confined to one or two personal Gods, but a worshipper would be quite comfortable, for example, calling upon Ganesha to remove an obstacle in their lives in one moment and in the next to to beseech Boga Shakti to grant them a grandchild. Then as now, when devotees visit a large temple, for instance, they traditionally follow a circuit around the outside the main temple structure offering puja to stone icons, or mulamurti, installed in niches along the walls before they enter the inner temple. Hinduism’s innumerable deities are not deities in their own right but are manifestations of Brahman, The Ultimate Truth and Reality. Each god or goddess is a lens through which the worshipper is offered a brief glimpse of Brahman; therefore, there is no contradiction for a Saivite, for example, to offer devotion to Vishnu or a Devi or a sacred rock at their village well.
Note 1 – When the primary source of domestic water for so many rural Indians is a well or spring, and when a recent survey of doctors in India showed 46,000 deaths a year by snake bite, perhaps it is understandable that people would like to stay on the right side of yakshas and nagas.
Note 2 – It’s essential to bear in mind The Vedas were created by human beings rather than the literal word of a Creator Deity. They are, therefore, open to interpretation and have been for thousands of years, resulting in a truly vast body of sacred literature, added to and amended up to the present day.
Note 3 – The Harappans were the first in the Indian sub-continent to cast bronze sculpture in about 2500 BC.
Note 4 – Around 1700 BC, the Harappans migrated into south India after the collapse of their Indus Valley Civilisation following a 200-year drought.
Note 5 – Despite the efforts of today’s Indian government to eliminate the caste system, it is so ingrained by 4,000 years of Indian culture that such efforts have been mostly ineffectual. By the way, the word caste comes from the Portuguese word for colour.
Note 6 – The decline of Buddhism in India had more to do with the attraction of participation in social and cultural life rather than the Buddhist doctrine of renouncing and retreating from the world. Today in India, Buddhism is enjoying a modest rise in popularity, primarily due to the conflict of modern human rights values with a patriarchal Vedic caste system.
Note 7 – Jainism, with its extreme austerity, has never enjoyed mainstream popularity, though its beliefs have had a disproportionate effect upon Buddhism and Hinduism.
The History of HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T15:44:34-08:00
Anyone who has spent time in India knows it can often be a full spectrum sensory experience, and that is something especially true of its spiritual life; the fragrance of incense, flowers and burning lamps, the sharp ring of bells, mantras chanted softly in the dark, the vivid colours of garlanded icons, all fully involve the senses of the worshipper, enhancing the experience of connecting with the Divine.
Ritual worship requires a material object to focus the mind; a tree, a lingam, or a bronze sculpture of a favourite deity, any material object deemed sacred by the worshipper (note 1). When the devotions are directed toward an icon, it is treated as an honoured guest. Water and flowers are gifts of honour and devotion even the poorest can afford, and these offerings, in addition to prayers and the chanting of Mantras, are intended to ensure the deity feels welcome and appreciated (note 2). Once the worshipper has endeared himself to the deity with devotion and sincerity, worship intensifies with prayers expressing praise and gratitude.
Puja; Just as it is today, Puja was the central act of worship in the Chola period. Puja offers the solace of a ritual that calms the mind. Lamps, flowers and bells awaken the inner senses and subtly direct a quiet heart towards an experience of God. Whether performed softly at home, or part of a lengthy, elaborate ritual involving scores of priests, the common elements of Puja are the same. When performed at home;
A lamp is lit, and a beautiful icon is revealed – sight,
Incense and flowers are offered (note 3) – smell,
A bell or bells are rung – sound,
An offering of water or yajna (vegetarian food or sweets) – taste (note 2),
Lamps circled three or more times clockwise before the icon, heat from the lamps – touch.
Temple worship is somewhat more elaborate than the simple daily pujas performed at home and follows the rituals set out in the Agamas, Tantras and ritual manuals (paddhati) such as the Kamikagama, codified in the time of the Cholas.
The icon is ritually bathed (abhiseka) and sandalwood paste, sesame oil and curd rubbed onto the deity’s ‘body’,
Then it is dressed in new clothes, and adorned with a fresh sacred thread (valayajnopavita), gold, jewels and fragrances, as well as having a dot of red turmeric applied between the eyebrows,
Offerings of sweets and cooked rice are made accompanied by a cacophony of ringing bells. Once blessed, these offerings are now deemed yajna, or consecrated, and taken away at the close of the ritual to be consumed by the devotee.
The curtains are drawn and devotees have the opportunity to experience Darshan, a powerful connection through reciprocal eye contact between devotee and deity,
The climax of temple puja is when the priests wave a camphor lamp in a circular motion in front of the deity accompanied by the blowing of conches and loud drumming. The priest will then offer the lamps to the devotees who may cup their hands over the flames and ritually bathe their eyes and faces accepting the god’s light and warmth unto themselves. They then accept a thumb of white ash or turmeric upon their foreheads or tie a red thread around their wrist, the left for females, right for males. With that, the temple puja is over.
It is believed by some that if an icon does not receive puja regularly, it may lose its appeal for the deity. The rates at which icons lose their ‘charge’ varies between individual gods (Shiva and Kali, for instance, require more than less dynamic gods, say Ganesha or Hanuman), or whether the icon is situated in a temple or a private home. Temple pieces require more ‘recharging’ than home sculptures due to the greater demands placed upon them by multiple supplicants.
Aarti; another important ritual synonymous with Puja is Aarti, an offering of light, usually from oil lamps, of songs or chants. The Ganga Aarti at Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills is a particularly spiritual and uplifting experience. It’s an informal affair, commencing with the singing of hymns (bhajans), prayers, and a purifying fire ritual (hawan) dedicated to Agni, the fire god. At the Aarti’s conclusion, children sing hymns as small lamps (diya) are lit and set into the Ganges to float away into the darkness.
Pranapratishtha; If you purchase a sacred sculpture destined to become part of your spiritual practise, once it arrives, you may want to perform a consecration ritual (pranapratishtha), which symbolically awakens Brahman’s essence within your sculpture.
Note 1 – friends were travelling through Rajasthan a few years ago and came upon a shrine to a fellow who had crashed his motorcycle. For some reason, the truckers deemed the motorcycle ‘auspicious’ and started leaving offerings of cigarettes and alcohol. Hindu theology says that everything animate or inanimate holds within it a spark of Brahman’s divine essence and is therefore worthy of veneration, even a Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Note 2 – traditionally, each god prefers specific flowers for puja. Lakshmi prefers pink lotus; Saraswati likes white; Bhu Devi, blue. Vishnu likes lotuses, of course, but is also fond of tulsi leaves (which should never be offered to Ganesha). Kali, Ganesha and Hanuman prefer any flower in red, while Shiva and Uma enjoy white. Marigold and red hibiscus is everybody’s favourite.
Note 3 – coconuts will often be offered, as well. They symbolize the ego whose hard shell must be broken to access the goodness within. As the centre of community life, temples are a magnet for commerce and worshippers can purchase a puja ‘kit’ of traditional offerings.
Mantras, (tr: mind instrument) are central to the ritual traditions of Hinduism. They are syllables, words, phrases or sentences having sacred power when repeatedly chanted, whispered or thought, usually in Sanskrit. The literal meaning of a mantra’s content is of less importance than its vibrational quality and is usually used in combination with an action of some sort, such as when making a ritual offering or when meditating to clear the mind of day to day clutter, allowing it to focus and concentrate. Should a specific mantra be gifted from a guru to a student it is empowered or brought to life in much the same way an icon is empowered when inhabited by a deity.
Mantra’s origins are Tantric and therefore strongly associated with the Shaktic energy permeating all planes of existence from the most sacred and subtle to our own base earthly level. Tantrics believe the Mantra itself is divine as if it were a deity in its own right.
The ultimate Mantra is, of course, the syllable OM (pronounced ahh–uhh–mm), which is identified with Brahman, the Ultimate Soul.
If the colour white contains every colour in the spectrum, then OM contains every sound in the cosmos’ vibrational spectrum. It is believed that once our vibration matches that of the cosmos (Brahmanda), slowly repeating OM clears the mind and connects us to the cosmos. OM is considered to be the essence of The Vedas distilled into one syllable and found in virtually all Vedic rituals from daily pujas to Vedic temple sacrifice. OM is also sacred to Buddhists and Sikhs.
Other mantras are prayers, such as the timeless Gayatri Mantra which is so important to Hindu belief it is embodied as the goddess, Gayatri. For many Hindus the Gayatri Mantra may be the only Sanskrit prayer they know;
Aum Bhuh Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat
“O thou existence Absolute, Creator of the three dimensions,
We contemplate upon thy divine light. May He stimulate our intellect and bestow upon us true knowledge.”
In the ninth century, the Chola imperial dynasty emerged from the fertile coastal plains of south India and became the dominant political, cultural, religious, and artistic force in the region for the next four hundred years. With his land borders secure and a fleet of trading ships filling his coffers, the dynasty’s enlightened founder, Rajaraja Chola, began construction of almost 300 majestic temples to project the power, wealth, and piety of the Chola dynasty. These temples were the spiritual and cultural centers of the Chola Empire and marked the beginning of a golden age where music, dance, poetry, architecture and sculpture flourished as never before and rarely since. The aesthetic and technical sophistication the Cholas achieved remains the standard for sacred art.
Imagine yourself a thousand years ago in south India. You and your family are citizens of the Chola Empire. The land is rich and fertile; the empire wealthy and secure. Chola merchants trade all over southeast Asia as far as China and as far west as the Persian Gulf. Your markets are filled with silks and spices and exotic goods, while travellers from all over the world pass by your door. You and your family are blessed by God, protected by your king, and tonight is special.
Chanting hymns of praise, priests in the temple have ritually fed and bathed bronze images of your gods and goddesses in milk, butter, honey, and sugar, rinsed them with holy water from the Kaveri River, anointed them with fragrant sandalwood paste and draped them in new silk, garlands of jasmine, hibiscus and marigold, and lustrous pearls, gold and jewels. You and your family have been preparing yourselves as well. Everyone is freshly bathed and dressed in their finest. The moon is full and high, the streets lit with torches and decorated with banners, flags and tree branches. The fragrance of incense is in the air.
In the distance, you hear the deep beating of drums and a cacophony of horns and bells. Your children are hopping up and down with excitement as a caparisoned and lavishly decorated elephant carrying a banner in its trunk plods into view. Chanting hymns and dancing, beautiful men and women from the temple pass you by. Coming into view now are palanquins bearing your God, nearly hidden beneath silk and flowers and gold, the bearers straining under the weight. Your heart pounds in your chest, your palms are pressed together in Anjali, the gesture of greeting and respect. As the palanquin draws near, you raise your eyes and look upon the face of your God. You make eye contact, and in doing so, the God blesses you. Your heart is full, illuminated by divine grace; a moment known as Darshan.
The visual language of symbols, either abstract such as a lingam or literal as a Chola Bronze, enables us to focus our devotions. Chola bronzesmiths were inspired to create figurative icons in bronze to whom worshippers could approach and offer prayer. And isn’t that the purpose of any religious art, from the Lascaux cave paintings to Michelangelo’s Pieta? Unique to the genre of sacred art, however, is the extraordinary ability of Chola bronzesmiths to capture both the sensual beauty and spiritual grace of the gods and goddesses they represent.
Chola Bronzes in museums, private collections and here on our website, were never meant to be seen unadorned. It was only after consecration, purification, and adornment with silks, jewels, and flowers, that the bronze figure was ritually transfigured into a living, breathing, seeing divinity; a transformation central to the spiritual importance of Chola bronzes. So when you are drawn to an unadorned Chola bronze, imagine that same figure in a torchlight procession on a hot summer night long ago, swathed in silk, jewels, and flowers as chanting fills the air.
Or perhaps you envision a quiet corner at home, where your Mantra Sacred Sculpture fills your home with its spiritual presence and sensual beauty. Listen to a mantra, light candles, and lay some flowers, then reflect on the ancient spiritual power your sculpture represents. Perhaps you may even hear some faint echo of a procession a thousand years ago.
Note 1; The temples and several of the bronzes commissioned by Rajaraja Chola continue to fulfill their role as objects of devotion today. The best known of these being the Thillai Temple Nataraja of Chidambaram, the former Chola capital.
Chola Bronzes in ContextTerry Curell2019-11-08T05:33:33-08:00
The term Tantra is a term applied today to a broad range of exotic and erotic secular activities ranging from fitness yoga to couple’s therapy to pole dancing. Therefore it’s no surprise Tantra has an enthusiastic, though not particularly well-informed following worldwide. It’s safe to say few neo-Tantrists are aware of Tantrism’s deep significance to Indian spiritual practice, particularly the concept of personal connection with one’s chosen deity, or Bhakti. Puja, mudra, Mantra, chakra, mandala, temple architecture and even Chola Bronzes themselves all owe their existence to Tantric belief and practice.
As a matter of semantics, Tantra (tr; loom, warp, weave) is a term referring not so much to beliefs and practice as it does sacred text. These manuscripts were first transcribed from an ancient oral tradition late in the fifth century as the Agamas and Samhitas (note 1). Considered by Tantrikas as superior to orthodox Vedic Hindu and Buddhist scripture, they transcended association with either religious belief. Tantra takes the form of a conversation between the first yogi (Adiyogi) and their disciple. Depending upon their affiliation, some Hindu Tantrikas believe the guru is Shakti (note 2), Shiva or Vishnu. For instance, in Shakti Tantrism, it is Shakti manifesting as Kali who is the guru and Shiva is the disciple, while within Saivite Tantrism, it is Shiva sharing the wisdom of Tantra with Shakti. Buddhist Tantrikas (Vajrayanists), on the other hand, do not believe God manifests as deities; therefore, their Tantra offers a path to enlightenment through the primordial union of the male principle of compassion and the female principal of compassion. The metaphor for this union in iconography is male and female deities in a face to face sexual position with the female sitting within the crossed legs of the male, depicted in an icon known as Yab-Yam.
Fifteen hundred years ago, Tantrism introduced the revolutionary concept of The Divine Within, the idea that God was not a separate entity, but existed within us all (note 3). Traditional orthodox Hindu worship comprises lengthy Vedic rituals directed towards an abstract manifestation of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. The formless Brahman manifested in physical form as gods and goddesses such as Shiva, Kali, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesha and others of the Hindu pantheon, however, the deity was always an ‘other,’ to be approached and worshipped as an unworthy supplicant as it was deemed presumptuous for a mortal to attempt a personal connection with a deity. On the other hand, Tantra believed divinity lay within us, lying dormant until energized through elaborate and lengthy ritual purification and preparation. To orthodox Hinduism, this concept was radical and tested the limits of inclusivity. Therefore, Tantric knowledge remained a closely guarded secret known only to the most evolved gurus, and passed down orally to initiates after years of disciplined study and yogic practice (guruparaṃparā).
The Tantric process of awakening the divinity within began with ritual purification of the body through its symbolic destruction. The deity was then awakened with sacred chants (Mantras), hand gestures (mudras) and the creation of sacred diagrams (yantras or mandalas). The newly awakened deity would then be ritually worshipped. It was believed an elaborate hierarchy of the cosmos was reflected like a mirror within the devotee’s body, particularly male (Purusha) and female (Prakriti) polarity, manifesting as the fearsome couple, Shiva Bhairava and Kali (note 4). Their union within the body was primarily visualized while in a deep meditative state; however, some sects believed only actual sex would lead to liberation (moksha). This sacred union was visualized through intense meditation upon Shakti as the flow of the female cosmic life force (prana) (note 4) from its source at the base of the spine (kundalini) upward through channels (nadi) through energy centres (chakras) (note 5) to the so-called “thousand-petaled lotus” (sahasrara) at the crown of the head, resulting in an intense feeling of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being. The devotional ritual concluded with external worship (puja) of Maha Devi, the Great Goddess, a ritual involving all the senses; sight (an image of the deity), sound (bells and chants), smell (flower and incense offerings), touch (the application of fragrant oils or paste to the image), and taste (offerings of food and sweets). Tantric puja, particularly, became standard practice in all forms of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism by the sixth century (note 6). This new personal style of devotion revolutionized Hindu worship and came to be known as Bhakti.
The adoption of Tantric-style personal devotion led to the creation of temples, and within them, icons in stone and later in bronze became puja’s focus. Before the emergence of Tantrism, worship took place out in the open, in caves or other primitive shelters. The creation of temples and icons led in turn to these sacred images to be venerated as living beings in rituals resembling those accorded Chola monarchs. Sacred dance within the temples (Bharatnatyam) used the Tantric visual language of hand gestures (mudra) and body positions (asanas). By the time of the Cholas, these temples had evolved to become centres of secular power as well as holy communities of priests, musicians, dancers (note 7), poets, umbrella holders, cleaners and other support staff. The line between the secular and the spiritual began to blur further as sacred icons began assuming the roles of royalty in rites and processions, while conversely, the icons began to appear with the adornment (alankara) and clothing styles of their royal patrons. Icons, temples and puja are now fundamental elements of Indian spiritual devotion, and all have their genesis in Tantric traditions.
By the tenth century, Tantrism was widely and openly practiced throughout the subcontinent, however, some of its more controversial beliefs and practices were viewed with fear, suspicion, and in some cases, abhorrence. The intent of Tantrism’s more esoteric and secretive rituals was to consciously break ancient Vedic taboos, for instance by the ritual consumption of meat, alcohol and body fluids of various types (note 10), adulterous sexual offerings to Kali (note 11), possession and exorcism rites, all flouted Hindu prohibitions and hidden from public scrutiny. Tantric knowledge had always been a sacred trust, kept in strict secrecy and passed down orally from guru to disciple after years of preparation and purification (guruparaṃparā). When transcribed, the more dangerous rituals were written in a type of loose code to ensure their content would be understood only by initiates. The nature of this aspect of Tantric practice and the lengths to which its adherents went to preserve its secrets ensured Tantrism achieved notoriety and mystique spanning centuries.
But Tantrism was much more than taboo-breaking attacks upon the old Vedic Hinduism. Modern values were expressed a thousand years ago as respect and equality for all and veneration of the Divine Feminine. While none of these beliefs endeared Tantrism to orthodox Hinduism or Buddhism, tolerance (note 12) and inclusiveness (note 13) were, and are, hallmarks of India’s cultural and religious values and, even though Tantric practice stretched these values to their limit, it did not break them. As long as its practitioners were discrete and its rituals were out of the public eye, Tantrism was tolerated, though never openly encouraged. This uneasy relationship remained unchanged until Muslim invaders arrived in the 13th century when Tantrism was ruthlessly suppressed, it’s followers slain and its manuscripts destroyed. South India was spared the worst of these depredations, however (note 14), and over time Tantra’s less controversial beliefs and practices were absorbed into Hindu practice. Muslim invaders never got over the Himalayas, and Buddhist Tantra survived for a time in Tibet, but a pogrom by occupying Chinese troops in the early 1950’s effectively put an end to Tantrism. Today very little formal Tantric knowledge is known, creating an environment where the term Tantra is freely exploited by self-styled gurus.
Tantric belief also laid the foundation of yogic practice. It believes that with proper meditation, mudras and asanas, divine creative energy (Shakti) flows as prana within the human body. Energy centres (chakras) in the body are aligned along the spine, and when prana flows between the chakras through channels (nadis), the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body is maintained and balanced.
Note 1 – The term Tantrism is Western in origin and born of misconception and assumptions from non-Hindu scholars. To practitioners, it was simply the warp and weave of the fabric of their spiritual belief and practice. Tantra and sutra are terms which are also used interchangeably, tantra being the cloth and sutra being the sewing of that cloth. When referring to Tantra here, I use the past tense because, for all intents and purposes, Tantra as a defined system of belief and practice is a spent force. The Tantric spirit lives on, however, through its profound influence upon religious life throughout Asia.
Note 2 – Tantra’s core belief is Shakti as the dynamic creative energy of God. The male principle is cognitive, the female is dynamic, and both are co-equal and interdependent.
Note 3 – Hinduism, particularly as practiced during the Chola period, embraced stimulation of the senses as gifts from the gods. The Cholas saw little difference between the ecstatic bliss of sexual union with one’s beloved and the spiritual union between the worshipper and beloved deity. Both resulted in a mystical, blissful, out of body experience.
Note 4 – Prana and Shakti’s force of life are considered by many to be one and the same, hence the powerful connection between Tantra and Shakti.
Note 5 – Chakras are aligned along the spine and associated with colours, elements, planets or occult powers. Chakras draw in prana by spinning around their axes and holding it in their respective sphere to maintain and balance the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body.
Note 6 – The adoption of Tantric ritual, and particularly puja, was given further impetus when the first poet-saints (nayanars and alvars) began writing and performing devotional hymns and poems dedicated to their chosen gods and goddesses. Possibly inspired by Tantrism, their devotion was emotionally charged, at times even overtly sexual.
Note 7 – These dancers were known as devadasi and dedicated to temple service for life. On the walls of the great temple complex of Brihadisvara Temple in Tanjore are inscribed the names of 400 devadasis, with their addresses.
Note 8 – Of these texts, it is the Shilpa Shastra that guides the craftsmen (sthapathi) who create the exquisite Chola Bronzes.
Note 9 – A key element of Shakta Tantra is the belief that women are filled with the creative energy of Shakti and, therefore, spiritually more powerful than men. With its strong belief in equality between genders, in today’s terms, Tantrikas could be said to be feminists.
Note 10 – Menstrual blood was considered to be especially power due to its association with feminine creativity.
Note 11 – Anyone participating in the sexual ritual who lapsed from the psychic state of oneness with the divine (preman) into the reality of the moment could expect hellish consequences.
Note 12 – Indian spiritual beliefs were always eager to embrace new ideas to remain relevant. For instance, as Hinduism spread across the sub-continent, it absorbed local beliefs and deities under the overarching principle of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul. All deities and their associated beliefs and practices were deemed facets of Brahman and, therefore, seamlessly absorbed into Hindu doctrine.
Note 13 – For example, the great Chola king and devout Saivite, Rajaraja Chola I, bore the cost of building and maintaining over 500 Buddhist monasteries within the Chola homeland.
Note 14 – In 1311, Muslim invaders reached the former Chola homeland. They only stayed a hundred years but had plenty of time to strip the temples of their bronzes, melting them down to cast cannon. Hundreds of Chola Bronzes were saved though by being buried in the earth and behind false temple walls; however, the locations of many were forgotten with time. Today lost hoards are discovered from time to time, but after such a long period of spiritual neglect are no longer deemed sacred and so find their way into museums or private collections. There was at least one instance though where an icon was discovered near its original home in a village temple. The local priest gave it a wash, put it back in the temple, reconsecrated it and carried on as though the intervening 700 years had never happened.
Hindu Gods and Goddesses exist on a higher plane in a formless state, however, if a puja ritual preparing the icon to receive the deity is carried out correctly, and if the worshipper has a pure heart, the god or goddess may descend into the lifeless sculpture animating it with a small fraction of its of divine essence. This is an act of grace on the part of deity and enables direct and reciprocal connection by touch or sight. Should this connection occur the worshipper experiences a moment of ecstasy – Darshan. The term is also applied to the sight of a particularly revered object or person, such as one’s guru.
Darshan is not a ritual to be undertaken lightly. There are apocryphal tales of unwitting bystanders incinerated by a god’s gaze the moment the deity entered the icon.
Darshan – To See and Be SeenTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:31:55-08:00
Just as Chola Bronzes and other sacred figurative sculptures are highly symbolic in nature, Chola temples were also subject to the iconographic dictates of the Shilpa Shastras. Just as a bronze sculpture is believed to represent the deity in physical form (in certain specific circumstances), temples are believed to house the presence of the Divine in the world. If the universe is the body of the Divine on a macrocosmic scale then the temple is the body of the Divine in a microcosmic scale and therefore the temple’s major features correspond to features of the human body.
Chola temples were, and are, where worshippers interact with gods in their material form, either in their most ancient form as an abstract (aniconic) symbol, such as Lingam and Yoni, or figurative, such as a stone or bronze sculptural icon. If a major temple was dedicated to Shiva – as most in south India were – the central form of God might be a Lingam/Yoni in the inner sanctum (karuvarai), while a modest village shrine makes do with a simple Lingam or crude stone icon (mulamurti). A Vaishnava temple, on the other hand, would have a figurative image of Vishnu. Temples in South India dedicated to Shakti, the Divine Goddess, were less common, although they would again feature an anthropomorphic image of a specific manifestation such as Uma or Kali (note 1). South India temples dedicated to Shiva outnumber those dedicated to Vishnu roughly two to one, while temples dedicated to Shakti, the Great Goddess, are relatively few. Though each temple may be dedicated to a particular god or goddess, in the larger temples icons of the major gods are found throughout the temple building and grounds, each with their own shrines and sacred sculpture, allowing the devotee to perform puja to more than one god in a single visit.
Brihadisvara Temple, with the Nandi Mandapam
Architecturally, the temples of south India differ from their northern counterparts in three distinct ways;
They are usually enclosed by within a compound wall, with the front wall having an entrance gateway (gopuram) in its centre
The central tower (vimana) over the karuvarai is pyramid-shaped with flat sides as opposed to the bulging sides of its northern cousins. A cupola-like structure (shikhara) is placed on top.
A covered assembly hall (mandapa) used for music and dancing in front of the inner sanctum. A large temple may have several.
A tank (kalyani) is usually found in the compound and used for ritual purposes.
Temples dedicated to Shiva will have a pavilion (Nandi Mandapam) for a murti, or sculpture, of Nandi, Shiva’s bull vahana (vehicle), which will be facing his master.
The external walls of the temple are segmented by pilasters and feature niches housing sacred sculpture.
Early shrines were created anywhere having a special spiritual meaning for the people, serving as a focus for worshipping nature spirits, such as trees or Lingam shaped rocks, or springs, even anthills, the home of snakes, or nagas. Temple tradition may have started with early cave sanctuaries, themselves symbolic ‘womb chambers’, indicative of the creative power of the gods, particularly Shakti. Perhaps a simple wall would be built to define the sacred ground surrounding the shrine, and as time went on a shelter of wood or brick in time evolved to what eventually became the grand temple complexes built by the Chola kings and queens (note 3) and serving royal residence, seat of government and setting for the sacred arts. Chola temples have been in continuous use since they were created a thousand years ago, having been spared the worst of the Mughal invasions which had destroyed so many north Indian temples. Many of the original bronze icons still in place and are still being worshipped with the same mantras and rituals, and entering these temples today one feels an almost palpable presence of the worship performed in these soot-blackened chambers for the past thousand years.
Note 1 – In south India, the Mother Goddess is no less powerful, however, Shakti is expressed through manifestations such as Uma (Shiva’s consort), Lakshmi and Bhu Devi (Vishnu’s wives), Kali or Mari Amma, as Durga is known in south India.
Note 2 – Such shrines are still scattered throughout India, reflecting the animist beliefs of pre-Vedic times.
Note 3 – The trend towards grand temple complexes began when Tantric values regarding puja became popular, starting around the 5th century. Tantrism also accelerated the belief in personal devotion to one’s chosen deity, a concept known as Bhakti.
Note 4 -Brihadisvara, the grandest of all Chola temple complexes was built in only seven years by Rajaraja Chola 1. Construction began in 1003 AD and at the time of its completion was one of the tallest buildings in the world at 63 metres (208 feet). It is a UNESCO Living Chola Temple.
Normally the conclusion of ritual worship, or puja, aarti is the offering of light, usually oil lamps, to one or more deities. Aarti may also be an offering of song or chant. See also; Puja and Mantra.
Ananda is the blissful state reached upon completion of moksha, oneness with Brahman. Ananda is deemed many hundreds of times stronger than any ecstasy experienced in our mortal existence. See also; Moksha.
formal temple ritual
Puja performed by a priest in a temple.
opening of the eyes
A Chola Bronze is only able to fulfill its role as a spiritual image when its eyes are ritually opened in the ritual known as Chaksunmilan. Initially it is the last task to be completed by the craftsman before it is considered finished. It is also the final ritual when the piece is consecrated in the temple or home. Once chaksunmilan is complete the sculpture is believed able to receive divine worship and bestow grace in return. See also; Pranapratishta.
When proper rituals are performed the deity, which normally exists in a Brahmanic formless state, descends into the icon, bringing the bronze to life. Cold sculpture becomes sacred icon. On the part of the deity, this is an act of grace and allows direct and dynamic connection between the worshipper and the deity. Eye contact may be only momentary but when connection is made, the believer receives the god’s blessing in a moment of ecstasy. See also; Pranapratishtha, Puja, Bhakti and Nyasa.
An autumn festival where craftsmen worship their tools with incense, flowers and unhusked rice. In ancient times carpenters offered prayers and sought forgiveness of a tree before cutting it for wood. The tree was considered to be a living being and the axe used to cut the tree would be rubbed with honey and butter to minimise the hurt to it.
servant to the gods
A woman attendant in the temple whose duties were to serve the gods, either in a housekeeping role or as part of ritual worship. From a young age girls were taught classical dance, hymns or poetry. The position brought high status and they often married well, their daughters would often following their mother in temple service. Devadasis were banned from temples by the Indian government in 1988.
festival of lights
Diwali is the Festival of Light, a celebration renewing the allegiance of us mortals to the gods rather than demons. It’s a time for family and friends, new relationships, fresh possibilities and opportunities. According to tradition people put small oil lamps outside their door on Diwali, guiding Lakshmi, the goddess of material and spiritual wealth, into their home to bless them. See also; Lakshmi.
feminine force of fertility
A belief in the blooming of trees and flowers through contact with a young woman through the touch of her hand or foot, or the sound of her voice in song. The young women are known as salabhanjika and over time images of them became ornamental carvings, often as a bracket figures. See also; Salabhanjika and Yakshis.
The Gayatri Mantra is the most widely known of the Hinduism’s sacred chants and for most Hindus, the only Sanskrit prayer they know. Translated to English; “Aum Bhuh Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi Dhiyo Yo nah Prachodayat”
"O thou existence Absolute, Creator of the three dimensions, we contemplate upon thy divine light. May He stimulate our intellect and bestow upon us true knowledge.” Click here to listen to our favourite interpretation; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw
Whether chanted, whispered or thought, Mantras are syllables, words, phrases or sentences charged with metaphysical energy. Tantric in origin, Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the deities. In Tantrism, Mantric energy is guided by yantras, deity-specific geometric shapes. A favourite for Shailja and I is the Gayatri Mantra sung by Deva Premal; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw See also; Yantra, Tantra.
establishing a deity’s presence
The ritual of establishing the presence of one’s chosen deity by touching the limb of sacred image then touching one’s own limb in turn, one by one. See also; Bhakti, darshan and pranapratishta.
The ritual of putting the deity, in the form of an icon (murti), to sleep for the evening.
Prana means ‘life giving element’ and pratishta means ‘installed’ or ‘consecrated’. Pranapratishta is a ritual where the soul-less metal icon becomes the literal embodiment of the divine. When the worshipper comes before the statue and begins to pray, faith activates the divine energy within every object, and at that moment, the god or goddess is present. The worshipper sees the divine and is seen in return, in the belief known as . See also; Upasana,
Food or other offerings, which after being presented to God, are considered sanctified, reflecting the recognition that when human beings make offerings to deities, the initiative is not really theirs. They are actually responding to the generosity that bore them into a world fecund with life and possibility. The divine personality installed as a home or temple image receives prasada, tasting it (Hindus differ as to whether this is a real or symbolic act, gross or subtle) and offering the remains to worshipers. Some Hindus also believe that prasada is infused with the grace of the deity to whom it is offered. Consuming these leftovers, worshipers accept their status as beings inferior to and dependent upon the divine. An element of tension arises because the logic of puja and prasada seems to accord all humans an equal status with respect to God, yet exclusionary rules have sometimes been sanctified rather than challenged by prasada-based ritual.
Puja is the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals.The purpose of the puja ritual is an offering to the divine and the granting of a blessing in return. Puja can be a simple daily devotion in the home where the icon is treated as an honoured guest and offered refreshments and sweets, flowers or coconut milk, or puja could be a complex many-layered temple ritual undertaken over many days. The focus of the ritual can be a sacred symbol, such as a lingam and yoni, or an icon representing the deity. See also; Bhakti and Darshan.
Every art form in India is meant to arouse rasa in the beholder or listener. According to the Natya Sastra, entertainment is a desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal. The primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder and bliss, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness, and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.
ritual hallucinogenic drink
A Vedic ritual drink conferring immortality. A great favourite of the deities for its hallucinogenic properties.
A festival where icons of gods and goddesses, usually housed in the temples, are borne in procession outside the temple walls to be worshipped directly by ordinary citizens.
The essential element of Vedic ritual is sacrifice to the divine fire (Agni) of offerings such as cooked food, grain, fruit, ghee, oil, water, milk, honey, wood of varous kinds, incense, leaves, kusa grass, prayers, chants, etc. Everything sacrificed to the sacred fire (Agni) is believed to be distributed by Agni the god equally to the other deities. While important Vedic rituals must strictly follow the scriptures, simple daily sacrifice (puja) is performed by individuals without diminishment. See also; Devas, Vedas.
Glossary of Terms – Hindu RitualTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:35:44-08:00