Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Subject of Art #17: Yantra - The Abstract and Sacred Art of India

Many of us are familiar with the figurative art that comes from the Hindu tradition of India, the brightly colored and imaginative scenes of blue-skinned Krishna, the elephant-headed Ganesha and the dancing Shiva Nataraj are certainly familiar to anyone who has set foot in a local yoga studio and have managed to find their way into the popular consciousness of Western cultures. Less well known is the far more esoteric but equally rich paradigm of non-objective art known as the yantra.

In Sanskrit, the sacred language of India, “yantra” means “instrument” or “machine”, implying that this is a form of art that is used for a particular purpose, in this case as an aid to meditation and as a focus in religious ceremonies. The origins of the yantras are shrouded in mystery and it is uncertain when they were first developed and used. Legend has it that the famous philosopher and Hindu saint Adi Shankara traveled around Southern India installing yantras in the temples there in the 8th century CE, many of which can still be seen today, so if the legends are to be believed then yantras have been part of the Hindu consciousness for at least one and a half millennia.

The yantra is an abstract design whose components have very specific, symbolic meanings. They are carefully balanced images combining squares, triangles circles, flower-like forms with varying numbers of petals and other linear forms. Some of these are interestingly familiar to us from other cultural references, such as the interlocking triangles, one pointing up and the other down, that is called the Star of David in Judaism, in a yantra represents the intersection of masculine and feminine energies as well as the point at which divine grace coming down from heaven meets the spiritual seekers aspiration for enlightenment. An arrangement of eight flower petals represent the five elements that make up the material universe, plus the three states of mind (intellect, wisdom and ego).

The yantra is primarily used as a tool for meditation in yoga practice. The meditator stares directly into the center point of the yantra (called the “bindu”) and attempts to clear the mind of all other thoughts – a task that is far more difficult than it sounds! Over time, the physical yantra is less necessary, as the meditator is able to visualize the yantra on a purely mental level and various techniques are taught for mentally constructing the yantra, either beginning from the center and working outwards or the reverse, depending on the school of meditation being practice. The object is to become fully identified with the energy represented by the yantra.

Each yantra is associated with a certain deity in the Hindu pantheon, and each deity is associated with certain energies. The goddess Saraswati, for example, is associated with learning, creativity and purity of thought, so meditating on a Saraswati yantra is thought to amplify those qualities in the practitioner. The goddess Lakshmi is associated with abundance, fertility and wealth, while the goddess Durga is associated with protection and the ability to defeat one’s enemies (who are defined by yogic philosophy as the demons of the ego). During religious ceremonies that honor these deities, yantras are often used in addition to, or occasionally in place of, anthropomorphic icons, demonstrating that they have many dimensions and manifestations. These yantras are typically inscribed on metal plates or carved from precious stones.

If you have the opportunity to see a yantra, take some time to stare deeply into its center, clear your mind of all other thoughts and see what comes up for you!
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