Edited By: Zenya Siyad
The word Tantra usually brings to mind sexually deviant quacks and visuals of hippies on LSD. But Tantra, which is an ancient school of Indian philosophy, is not about black magic or euphoric orgies: there is more to it than meets the eye. At least as far as aesthetics is concerned, the Tantric tradition is a fresh contrast to the non-vibrant image of Indian philosophical ethos that common interpretations present. Introduced by Abhinavagupta (ca. 975–1025 C.E.), Tantra is very mysterious and almost always misunderstood; afterall its approach towards spiritual practices is rather unorthodox. In fact, Tantra practitioners or Tantrics have more often than not been depicted as evil sorcerers who indulge in unrestricted debauchery in the name of enlightenment. Owing to the secrecy enveloping Tantric practices, a deeper understanding of the tradition and its authentic practitioners is missing. Nevertheless, Abhinavagupta’s works are widely read and held to be an accurate representation of the Tantric tradition. His works convey a very refined idea of aesthetics and their purpose. It is for this reason that they are important from the point of view of aesthetics studies.
Tantra aims to develop its practitioners into enlightened individuals. What is unique to Tantra from, say, Buddhism or Jainism, is the manner in which this enlightenment is to be brought about. Tantric thought suggests that to overcome material attachment one needs to thoroughly explore one’s desires, understand their effects and finally develop dispassion towards them. For instance, this is similar to how a child leaves his old toys in favour of new ones. The child develops detachment by virtue of finding something greater in the new toy. A Tantric experiences the indescribable bliss of transcendental experiences and leaves mundane pleasures like lust, wealth and power. While most other traditions would prescribe forceful suppression of material desires, the Tantric approach allows its practitioners to explore their weaknesses and rise above them by turning the attachment which is binding them into an opportunity for liberation. Tantrics believe that the obsession you have for say, a cup of coffee in the morning is the same obsession which will allow you to meditate for 2-3 hours in the morning. It is just a matter of directing one’s obsessions in the right direction. A knowledge of the nuances of aesthetics helps in providing this very direction to our strong urges. Therefore, the Tantric understanding of aesthetics and its purpose is to aid in this transition from the material to the spiritual.
The Tantric does not consider anything perceived by the five senses to be worthy of their attention. The non-dual and imperceptible supreme reality is the only objective worth pursuing. Abhinavagupta maintains that a self realised soul is the only one capable of enjoying the beauty of this world. This is unique as it validates the experiences of great masters like the Taoist Lao Tzu and the Sufi Jalaludeen Rumi. These men experienced the unity of all creation, and then defined the true essence of aesthetics. Thus, it would be wrong and pretentious to comment upon aesthetics before achieving self realization. A person devoid of self realization talking about aesthetics is akin to someone singing while half asleep. A non enlightened person is unable to properly comprehend the reality which is pervaded by that ultimate sublime consciousness. Many great poets like Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Dinkar and Neeraj accepted the supremacy of divine bliss over any material enjoyment. The conclusion at which these luminaries have arrived at, is the merge between individual self and the object of art or song. Losing oneself in a work of art is the highest and most fundamental goal of aesthetics. The absence of material contamination in the mind results in the loss of self. This loss of self identity in the object of concentration brings about the feeling of transcendental bliss. Tantra can help a mere mortal break the shackles of limiting material existence and bask in the unadulterated glory of transcendental bliss.
Finally, it would do us non-enlightened plebs a lot of good to learn some Tantric practices. The basic premise of all Tantric practices is to turn everything one does into meditative actions. As a result, even something so simple such as taking a bath or eating food can turn into a spiritual act. Watching one’s breath and retaining awareness is the way a Tantric exercises full control over his senses. Upon culmination of these experiments, a Tantric can really begin to perceive nature, art and music the way they are meant to be perceived. It is important to remember that perceptible objects are a means to graduate to the imperceptible realm in Tantra. It is dangerous to get stuck in the material sensory pleasures and forego the ultimate prize of self realisation. I conclude this piece with the hope that with the passage of time and by the sheer force of our self effort, all of us can make progress towards the goal of self realization.