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Shri Devi said: One may meditate on a visible image, O Mahadeva. What is the nature of meditation on the invisible? Shri Shankara said: O Devi, sound, uttered by me, is the absolute. By pronouncing a mantra with a devoted mind, there is invisible meditation and so forth. Maheshvari, this is true, true, self evident, undoubtedly – Matrikabhedatantra XII, 5-7
The Kularnava Tantra defines dhyana in the following way: “Controlling the affliction of senses by the mind, contemplation by the inner being of the chosen deity is called dhyana”. (KT XVII, 36, Rai’s translation).
In the tantrik traditions, there are numerous dhyanas which require intense visualisation skills, themselves part of the “work on oneself” or sadhana required by an initiate. Simply put, in the Bhagavad Gita, that what the mind thinks on, it becomes.
Underlying these practices is the basic tantrik idea that the worshipper and the worshipped are one. Kalika, Shiva or any of the other 33 million devatas do not live in some separate place as disembodied beings who can bestow boons or curses. Instead, the macrocosm is, as the Todala Tantra and many other texts state, one with the microcosm. (See also the abstract of the Siddhasiddhantapaddhi on this site).
Not only is the ability to visualise in a concentrated manner one of the elements of sadhana, it is both a preliminary and an essential basis for many other tantrik practices, including the daily puja or worship, optional practices, nyasa, many yogic practices such as intense visualisations on the inner body à la Kaulajnananirnaya, the recitation of mantra, meditation of yantras, the performance of mudras and even sexual sadhana for some of the heterodox tantrik schools.
Not only must an adept be able to visualise sometimes very complex images, but also be able to hold such images, concentratedly, often for a long period of time. External images, the different elements of puja, and repeated practice lead eventually, so the masters of these traditions tell us, to perfection in which the meditator, the means of meditation and the meditated on are realised in their essential unity. Devotion and grace may also assist towards this end.
As with many other elements in the tantrik traditions, these visualisations/meditations can have either a gross, a subtle or supreme form.
“…attachment of mind to anything (raga) is Redness. The Consummation of worship (Upasti) is meditation one’s Self. Siddhi is attained when thought does not wander from the contemplation of the identity of one’s Self with the Object of Worship.” (Arthur Avalon’s introduction to the Sanskrit text of the Tantrarajatantra.)
This same tantra also gives examples of gross, subtle and supreme meditations on Tripurasundari. Avalon says in his introduction that the relation of Lalita with the other fifteen Nityas is the gross form, subtle meditation is when one meditates on the goddess in the six bodily centres or chakras, while the supreme form is meditation on the supreme Shakti as “one, impartite and impartible whole and visualising the Atma as a steady, motionless flame in a windless place”.
From another point of view, the absolute, whether seen as Shiva, Shakti, or the union of the two, takes the form of an image or pratima in its gross form, of a yantra in its subtle form, and of a mantra in its supreme form. All three represent devata but are progressively more subtle. An advanced adept will develop the ability to visualise not just images of “gods” and “goddesses” but complex yantras such as the Shri Yantra.
It is clear from the foregoing, and from the many complex examples of meditation given on this Web site, that achieving a degree of success in these practices is not, necessarily, an easy thing.
This brings us to the iconography of the tantrik devis and devatas. The images sold in every Indian bazaar of Lakshmi, Shiva, Ganesh and others, where true to their original descriptions, are based on meditation images found in the tantras, the puranas and in other texts. The number of arms and heads, the weapons held in such hands, and other elements of the dhyanas, are intended to remind a practitioner of the essential nature of the devata meditated on. They often have a symbolic meaning, as well as providing rich imagery as objects of meditation.
Artwork is © Jan Bailey, 1975-2022. Translations are © Mike Magee 1975-2022.Questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org