You are here

Awareness of the masses in Indian Meditation Texts (2005)

"At the time when nectar flows, winds enter the mind"
– Tantric Treasures

Indian meditation texts assert that it is possible to break the barriers of physical laws and logical thought once the nature of reality is understood. This transcendental truth gradually manifests through arduous contemplative practice guided by the teachings of a guru, and complemented by the reading of meditative texts. Because a background of the teaching is thus expected, the traditional texts are written mostly for serious religious practitioners who can appreciate the wisdom contained therein. However, this was not the case with the Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance and Tantric Treasures, two texts that were propagated among ordinary laypersons belonging to the Sufi and Tantric traditions, respectively. The teachings that had remained secret for so long in the hands of the few who could understand them became available to the carpenter, the seamstress and the poet.

At first glance, the most noticeable difference is the characteristic approach to language. Unlike many meditative traditional texts, they are written in a vernacular language that leaves behind any references to Sanskrit. Furthermore, the practices are described in very simple terms that any literate person can understand, without requiring special knowledge of other languages. In addition, only few of the practices are described, leaving behind any sort of visualizations, or difficult asanas.

In traditional texts, sound is described as being an essential meditative tool in the process of gaining insight. Experiencing sound is a universal phenomenon that is not limited to those that follow a spiritual path. Because of this, it is carefully used in both the Tantric and the Sufi texts to particularly appeal to the ordinary people. In terms of form, they emphasize rhyme and rhythm creating a very musical poetic form. This makes the teachings more available and vivid since the verses can easily be recited, sung along or danced to. Coming from oral tradition, they contain characteristics such as repetition and brevity that make them easy to memorize. Since the times of the Vedas, Indian traditions have emphasized that texts should be learned by heart. No special skills are required to be able to memorize, which means that any layperson can memorize a teaching without necessarily understanding it until one day its meaning becomes apparent through intuition and experience. This is a similar approach to the one used in the Upanishads and the Aphorisms of Siva, whereby "repeatedly hearing and recalling to mind the teachings," the practitioner purifies thought (Aphorisms, 65).

Traditionally, texts had encouraged the use of sound because of its vibratory aspect, such as in the Upanishads, in which the text itself is thought to be a manifestation of a transcendental truth that is communicated through sound, or in Serpent Power, where sound can help develop awareness of etheric energy centers in the body. Moreover, sound has been viewed as a powerful tool to quiet the mind in the form of a mantra, such as in the Buddhist’s Trainings in Compassion where it is considered the "ladder that leads to the higher realms" (Trainings, 73) or in the yogic Nadabindu Upanisad where sound is considered to help the practitioner enter a state of deep concentration that requires a quiet mind (Thirty Minor Upanishads, 194)

In Songs of Wisdom, all of these elements are adapted to effectively reach the ordinary people. Interestingly, in order to reach this audience, cultivating awareness is not stated as being the primary purpose of the collective practice. However, in multiple occasions there are references to the powers of sound to progress spiritually. It is declared that any person that sings "will attain the other shore" (Songs, 369), which implies that in the same way that a mantra quiets the mind, singing can have a profound effect. In terms of its vibratory quality, there is still a transcendental wisdom being communicated through singing that helps develop awareness. In Tantric Treasures, the use of mantra seems to be sporadically integrated between the verses. For instance, it is stated that "the syllable of truth" can make thought motionless (Tantric, 125). In Songs of Wisdom, practitioners are instructed to "repeat the word day and night/ and rejoice in the inner temple" (Songs, 334) just as if it where a mantra.

Coming from a Sufi background, Songs of Wisdom promotes dancing as the ideal complementary activity to singing, two actions that are widely enjoyed by the general population. It is such a venerated activity that the guru is often associated with it and instructs the people to "dance in the company of truth" (Songs, 341). Dancing could be thought of as an asana, while singing as a mantra, creating a powerful combination that becomes the means of loosing one’s self. There seems to be a close resemblance between the state that contemplatives can reach through singing and dancing and the "states of experience that transcend all conceptual systems" (Balancing, 10) attained through an intellectual path.

Following the idea that laypersons should do enjoyable activities, Tantric Treasures states that it is not necessary to withdraw from the senses in order to progress spiritually. Following Tantric legacy, there is a focus in the body as a tool to develop awareness. However, in this context, laypersons are invited to use the body to experience ultimate bliss and "utmost ecstasy" (Tantric, 138) through sensory perception. For instance, it argues that there is "no place of pilgrimage/ more blissful than the body" (Tantric, 81), and that "until the mistress descends" there is no reason to not "entertain the five senses" (Tantric, 127). It is also implied that through sexual practices, awareness of subtle body anatomy can evolve (Tantric, 34). This way, knowledge of "the sun and moon" (Tantric, 118) channels and the central channel, the Sushuma, can intuitively develop.

An interesting element that could make Tantric Treasures attractive to the layperson is the use of a persuasive style which can be considered yogic antirethoric. Instead of challenging the intellect by using intricate paradoxes and examining fundamental concepts through logical proofs like Nagarjuna in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, this text challenges the preconceived notions of the reader about spirituality by pointing out incongruence within specific traditions. It concretely breaks the conventions about what a spiritual Indian Meditation text should be like by contradicting the effectiveness of spiritual practices. For instance, while the Yogic Upanishads proclaim certain practices such as focusing on the tip of the nose and holding the breath (kumbaka) develops concentration, Tantric Treasures instructed the "wretched yogin" to not hold the breath and think of themselves and to abstain from focusing on the tip of their nose (Tantric, 79). In addition, the text seemingly contradicts the practice of meditation when it states that meditation actually deceives practitioners (Tantric, 65).

By questioning the purpose of spiritual practices that are perceived by the masses to be essential to the development of awareness and concentration, the text challenges the foundation of the belief systems that are based upon these practices. The ultimate purpose of this approach is not to deride any particular type of practice, but to promote the discovery of the practice by the ordinary people by calling forth their curiosity. They should abstain from simply following these practices because they belong to an organized form of spirituality that is thought to be effective. Thus, the text teaches that one should focus on inward practice rather than outward ritual in order to tune in to the innate knowledge that lies within, instead of simply performing the rituals with an expectation of what should be achieved. The focus on an inward practice is also behind Vedic rituals, but in order for an outside observer to understand this, it must first be experienced.

In terms of concepts, several elements of the texts confirm that they were written having in mind that readers are laypersons. For instance, compared to Indian Buddhist and Hindu texts, there is a very different approach to the use of fear. Instead of individuals being eternally trapped in a cycle of birth and death (samsara) and experiencing mental pain, in Songs of Wisdom there is a concern about physical pain that is thought to be manifested in a "day of judgment". This appeals more to ordinary people, since mental pain caused by samsara does not seem to be an immediate problem. Furthermore, the process of purification of the body, which seems to be essential in the spiritual path, is presented differently. Instead of being instructed to perform certain practices to clean their bodies like in the Yogic Upanishads, practitioners are told that "holy water will purify you" (Songs, 356). Finally, in Songs of Wisdom contains elements of quotidian of everyday life such as needing to earn an "honest living" (Songs, 236) to create an environment for laypersons

Songs of Wisdom and Tantric Treasures offer a different type of contemplative practice that aims towards any man or woman in any corner of the world that intuitively wishes to contemplate on the wisdom that lies within them. As one dances and sings, or even entertains the senses, transcendental insight can be attained and ultimate bliss experienced. What laypersons have to learn is that meditation does not happen exclusively in the Himalayas, or in a monastery in Tibet, but every day while simply watching the lotus flower bloom in the garden or listening to a Mozart’ symphony.

Sources:
Aphorisms of Siva, The: The Siva Sutra With Bhaskara''s Commentary, the Varttika. Trans.Mark S.G. Dyczkowski. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Garfield, Jay L., trans. and commentary. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna''s Mulamadhyamakakarika. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Kassam, Tazim R. Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance. New York: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Kongtrul, Jamgon, et al. Trainings in Compassion: Manuals on the Meditation of Avalokiteshvara. Trans. Tyler Dewar. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2004.
Tantric Treasures. Trans Roger Jackson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
Thera, Nyanaponika and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. and ed. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000.
Thirty Minor Upanishads. Trans. K. Narayanasvami Aiyar. Delhi: Parimal Publications, 1997. 154-208.
Upanisads. Trans. Patrick Olivelle. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Wallace, B. Alan. Balancing the Mind: A Tibetan Buddhist Approach to Refining Attention. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2005.
Woodroffe, Sir John. The Serpent Power. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1974.