“The word Tantra has repelling responses from many because of the misconceptions attached to it through films, media reports and fraudulent practitioners of blood-smeared cults. In truth, many great saints of India – including Adi Shankaracharya, Dnyaneshwar, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu – were believers of the Tantra school of philosophy. Most of the Tantric philosophical texts were written by Abhinav Gupta in Kashmir around the 10th century CE. The fundamental premise of these works was the essential interconnectedness of the universe and the individual. It promoted the arousing of the dormant psychic energy in every human being to conjoin with the cosmic energy. Sri Yantra is one of the sacred shapes designed to symbolize this union and is a powerful energy centre,” says Dr. Rashmi Poddar, Director, (Aesthestics) Department of Philosophy, University of Mumbai.
How do you respond to the word Tantra? Do you immediately recall horror shows on late night television showing wild looking men in forests doing weird rituals? Do you recall black magic tricks and strange worship rituals that engender fear and tension? Do you invariably associate Tantra with strange occult powers? Dr. Rashmi Poddar, Honorary Director, Aesthetics, Department of Philosophy, Mumbai University, clears all these notions and brings you the correct knowledge of Tantra and the sacred shapes engendered by this school of philosophy originating in Kashmir. Dr. Rashmi Poddar has been a passionate researcher in Indian philosophy and its aesthetic concepts. She obtained her Ph.D. from Mumbai University under the guidance of Dr. Shubhada Joshi and Dr. S.S. Antarkar in 1996. The subject of thesis was “Rasa & Anand – A Visual Discovery”.
Dr. Poddar propounds that Tantra philosophy has been maligned over the centuries by films, television shows, press reports and blind superstitions, which project ‘secret’ bloody sacrifices of animals and human beings, nocturnal rituals, black magic and Tantrik sadhakas who perform shady deeds in the dark of the night. “Constant references to words like Kapalika, Kala, Mahakal, Tantriks etc. have created such a feeling of fear and repellence among people that they consider Tantra to be equivalent to black magic and meaningless superstition born of ignorance of the scientific way of thinking. In fact, Tantra philosophy is based on accurate scientific data. Science believes that there are energy centres in the universe and after much thought and research, great seers have designed configurations of shapes – comprising circles, squares and triangles – to denote these centres. Sri Yantra is one such configuration of triangles, which denotes the four-fold abstract energy, which is called Purusha, and the five-fold matter energy, which projects itself as creation.
“The Tantrik configuration of shapes is not only common to Indiacentric religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism but also to Christianity and Judaism. The recent best-seller book – Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – chronicles that the Blade and the Holy Grail (Purush and Prakriti) were two triangles, one facing upward and one facing downwards. These were considered sacred symbols of Christianity and symbolized the energy of creation – combining the male and female aspects of Nature or divinity. The Star of David – a holy symbol for the Jews – too included two such triangles. Though I will not support the wearing of shapes like the Sri Yantra for good fortune, I will emphasise that this configuration has been created entirely by a scientific thinking process as an energy field and carries immense power.”
Dr. Poddar’s research in Tantra – An Aesthetic Dynamic Stasis has been widely appreciated for its rational approach and insight into the daily rituals of venerating Yantras. Her academic journey began when she completed a B.A. in economics early in life. “Born in a conventional family, I was engaged at 16 ½ and married at 17. I completed my graduation after marriage and had two children after soon after. To begin with, we lived in Bangalore. When we moved to Mumbai, I needed to find out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I went to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s department of philosophy and met Dr. Bhaishankar Purohit, a renowned scholar in Sanskrit, aesthetics and philosophy. I became his pupil and for fifteen years, learnt many Sanskrit texts under his guidance on a one-to-one basis. I knew very little Sanskrit when I began, but as I studied some of the finest texts in aesthetics and philosophy, I learnt the intricacies of the language and understood the fine nuances of the language. But soon, this was not enough – I was isolated and needed to be with people who had similar interests. I met Dr. S. S. Antarkar of the Department of Philosophy and Aesthetics and requested him to register me for a master’s degree. He asked me to write an essay on the theme of “Rasa and Anand” in Indian philosophy. When I did this, he invited to do my Ph.D. straightway. I was overjoyed to learn that I could do a Ph.D. without doing my master’s degree.
“However, he already had ten students working on their doctorates under him – and that was the limit allowed by the university – so I became a student of Dr. Shubhada Joshi, under whom I did my research for my Ph.D. I obtained my doctorate after seven years of hard work. I was later appointed lecturer of Indian and Asian Art at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London until 2001 and also worked at Christies. I was nominated the Mellon Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for the year 1997 and participated in many seminars and symposia to deliver illustrated lectures in Indian and international art seminars.”
Rashmi has contributed innumerable articles to Macmillan’s Dictionary of Art and Scribner’s Encyclopedia of India. At the moment, she is working on a book called 100 Marvels of Indian Art, including sculpture, architecture, painting, literature etc. Rashmi has worked as a trustee or member of several distinguished foundations and trusts and has contributed greatly to the cause of art and art history.
Recently, Rashmi delivered a lecture in on the evolution of the Sri Yantra at the Museum Society of Bombay. “This Yantra is part of the expression of the epiphanic experience of Tantrik art. The Sri Yantra is a figure which has four upward facing triangles and five downward facing triangles,” she says, “The four upward triangles represent consciousness – and symbolize Chitta, Mana, Buddhi and Ahankar (Antahkaran) which describe the Purush or the doer-witness concept of nature. The downward pointing triangles symbolize the five Tanmatras i.e. Sparsh or vayu, Roop or fire, Rasa or water, Gandha or prithvi and Akash or shabda. These are the five elements through which the universal consciousness or Purush creates matter. The concept describes cosmic energy, which through its vibrations creates matter and movement. It is also seen as a combination of the male and female aspects of power or the confluence of Karmendriyas and Gyanendriyas.”
Dr. Poddar and her colleagues run a course in aesthetics at the CSVS Museum in Mumbai and invite world-renowned scholars to lecture at the Museum from time to time. Her website www.aesthetics-rashmipoddar.com offers a journey into aesthetics of India to those interested to learn more about the subject.