Non-Indian visitors, contemplating for the first time the profusion of figures covering the walls of an Indian temple, if they compare what they see with the figured decoration on European medieval churches, will assume at once that they are looking at representations of Indian myth in stone. But some of the imagery is not parallelled in the Western traditions: many of the representations do not represent or allude in any way to mythical or historical narratives. Without attempting to explain or date the emergence of these figures with multiple heads and limbs, we may observe that much Indian sculpture, in particular this non-narrative sculpture, must be understood in the context of a widespread Indian tradition of prayer. Prayer involves a visualisation of the divinity upon a throne. The throne is often a lotus-blossom and the deity may be surrounded by a court of minor deities arranged in concentric circles and seated or standing on their own thrones or vehicles. Seeing God enthroned with one’s mental eye is an integral part of tantric ‘prayer’: visualisation is built into the daily ritual programme, to be performed internally, placing the principal deity in the worshipper’s own heart, and also projected into the substrate into which the deity is invited for external worship. This substrate may be various things—an icon, fire, a water-pot, a diagram traced on the ground with coloured powders—but, in the case of Siva, it is typically the linga. (This object is often referred to as ‘non-iconic’, but it seems certain that it was in origin a representation of a phallus.3) And this conception of visualisation as prayer has also coloured other religious acts: elaborate visualisations of the three junctions of the day as goddesses have been incorporated into tantric versions of the ancient practice of venerating the sun at dawn, midday and dusk.
Of course visions and visualisations occur in other religious traditions too, including the Christian ones, and a visual tradition of prayer could easily develop rooted in, for instance, the visions of the Apocalypse or the theophany from the beginning of the book of Ezekiel, where God appears on a fabulous throne that moves at will on numinous wheels with eyes in their fellies. But visualisation appears not generally to have been encouraged as a means of daily prayer in Western Christianity. An exception is the contemplation of episodes in the life of Christ, in particular the Mysteries of the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross on the ascent to Calvary; but in such cases the narrative context is crucial, for the visualisation should give rise to empathy with the protagonists in the Christian story. In the Indian visual prayer we are speaking of, no such narrative frame provides a context, and therefore a "meaning", for what is visualised.
Two general rules govern the tantric form of this visualisation and worship, both concerning the essential nature of the deity worshipped. The first is that the essence of the deity is held to be a mantra, but this statement will make no sense to us unless we know what mantra is. The primary sense of the term is a unit of text from the Vedic corpus. Now the Mimamsakas, the exegetes of the Vedic corpus, claimed the Veda to be sempiternal and with- out author. A corollary of this position was that they held that there—were no real references to persons and events in the Veda. All apparent references were merely apparent and that meant of course that what appeared to be the names of deities in mantras, that is to say in what appeared to be prayer formulae, were not in fact references to deities. Beyond the mantras them- selves there were no deities. The deities were nothing more than mantras. In tantric theory, this influential notion was turned inside out: the nature of deities was mantra. Sadasiva, for example, the central deity of the cult of the Saiva Siddhanta, is a group of five units of Vedic text known collectively as the five brahmamantras and individually after words that occur in them, namely ISANA, TATPURUSA, AGHORA, SADYOJATA, VAMADEVA. This we see reflected in his iconography. Each of the five mantras corresponds to one of Sadasiva’s five faces: the one that faces us is the East—facing mild TATPURUSA; the one on our left is the South-facing, terrible AGHORA; that on our right is the soft and feminine North-facing VAMADEVA. The West- facing SADYOJATA is of course not visible in most sculptural representations, because he faces away from us. The fifth face, ISANA, is held to be upward facing and is, according to a number of tantric sources, not to be represented.
So ‘inviting’ the God into a linga takes the form of installing, in some sense, the deity’s mantra into that object and visualising that mantra as having a certain form (five faces, ten arms, etc). Worshipping him takes the form of offering substances for Him to enjoy: bathing, feeding, wafting in- cense, waving lamps, playing music. In the daily worship of a Saiddhantika initiate, as we have mentioned, the whole process of inviting, visualising and worshipping the mantra—God is performed with the imagination inside the worshipper’s heart and then repeated ‘externally’, that is to say projecting the same mantra and its visualisation into an external object and worshipping that.
The second general rule of tantric prayer is that the worshipper must identify himself with the divinity worshipped. According to a much cited tag, nasivah sivam arcayet: "One who is not Siva may not worship Siva". This rule appears to be invariable in tantric worship, regardless of what doctrinal position is adopted concerning the relationship of the deity and the soul. This may be one of non-dualism, or as in the case of the Saiva Siddhanta, an un-reconcilable dualism: individual souls are for ever distinct from each other and from God, and although, like Siva, they possess omniscience and omnipotence, they are prevented from realising their powers by an innate, enveloping impurity (mala). Thus for the Saiddhantika, the ‘identification’ that is necessary for worship consists partly in an awareness that he is essentially identical to Siva (though distinct from him). But it consists in more than this. The worshipper sees himself as God, but he also enacts his identification ritually by mentally burning away his physical body and replacing it with one made up with mantras that are held to be the ‘body-parts’ of Siva.
The text edited in this volume prescribes the visualisations of the daily prayer of an initiate into the Saiva religious school known as the Saiva Siddhanta as formulated by a well—known twelfth—century South Indian theologian whose initiatory name was Aghorasiva.
Back of the Book
The present volume contains an annotated critical edition of a once celebrated, though now little known liturgical hymn in one hundred verses by the most famous of the bearers of the initiatory name Aghorasiva. This twelfth-century theologian of Chidambaram is known both for his exegetical works (commentaries of his survive on the Mrgendravrtti, the Dvisatikalottaratantra, the Sarvajnanottaratantra and on several small theological treatises) and for his ritual manuals: the Mrgendrapaddhati, in anustubh verse, and the prose Kriyakramadyotika. This last work, completed in 1157 AD, remains one of the principal authorities for the performance of ritual in South Indian Saiva temples today.
In his Pancavaranastava, “Praise of the Five Circuits” or “Praise of the One Surrounded by Five Circuits”, Aghorasiva recounts how the central deity of the Saiva Siddhanta should be visualised in worship, surrounded by a court of divinities placed around him in five concentric rings. All detail about the performance of external ritual is omitted, and each prescription for visual prayer is elegantly formulated as an expression of veneration. At the centre of the space of worship, which is typically either the worshipper’s own heart or the crown of the linga, the initiate is to see the benign, white, consortless, five-faced and ten-armed Sadasiva enthroned on a white, eight-petalled lotus blossom. Ranged immediately around him are anthropomorphic forms of the mantras that are his heads and body-parts, then the souls that administer the universe, then the members of his family, then the divinities that protect the directions and finally the anthropomorphized weapons of those protectors.
Plentiful annotation and a selection of photographs help the reader to follow the editors’ exploration of the relations between Saiddhantika iconographic prescriptions and sculptural realization, particularly that of the Tamil-speaking South, where Saiddhantika forms of religion are believed long to have predominated.
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