Indian cosmologyTantrismTibetologyVastu Purusha MandalaVedic Cosmology

Cosmographies | Microscopic Analogues of the cosmos

Mathomathis would like to present an article on Cosmo Graphical Mapping by JOSEPH E. SCHWARTZBERG. The following article would start a conversation on a topic called as: MICROSCOPIC ANALOGUES OF THE COSMOS

Just as the Brahman, or universal spirit, infuses all things, so too, for many ritual purposes, an infinitesimal portion of the human domain is taken to represent the whole of the cosmos. Such symbology, of course, is not exclusively associated with religions of Indian origin, but what makes it noteworthy is that, when religious practitioners carry out rituals embodying cosmic symbols, those symbols are often drawn on a prepared field according to well-defined formulas with clear conventions as to how the cosmos is to be spatially differentiated and at what scale various portions of the cosmos are to be laid out. In these respects and possibly in others, the performance of certain rituals and the building of particular types of edifices incorporates an essentially cartographic process. The earliest Aryan sacrifices involved building altars or vedis, some of which were remarkably large and elaborate structures. Vedis, however, are by their nature ephemeral artifacts. One may still stumble on vedis or their archaeological remains in traveling about India, but sacrifices today are much less important than they were in Vedic times, and their physical appurtenances are therefore commensurately rarer. I am aware of no vedis preserved in, or specially built for, a museum or preserved in situ in their completed state for post sacrificial viewing. Rather, dismantling the vedi is often a part of the ritual process.

At a much more modest scale, certain folk sacrifices also entail cosmic or terrestrial symbolism, or both. One such example involves a festival known as the Govardhan Puja, in which adherents to the cult of Krishna make offerings to Mount Govardhan in the region of Braj, not far south of Delhi, where Krishna spent his youth. A legend in the Bhagavata Purana relates how Lord Krishna persuaded the cowherds of Braj to give up their worship of the Vedic god Indra and worship Mount Govardhan instead. In his wrath, the angry Indra caused seven days and seven nights of rain to visit the region of Braj. But Krishna protected the cowherds by raising Govardhan on his little finger, letting them and their cattle find shelter beneath it. Today Krishna’s devotees, in several parts of India, fashion mounds of cow dung into the form of Mount Govardhan, which they then worship. Into the dung they insert trees fashioned from stems of grass with tufts of cotton or rag on top, and around the mountain they place little men and cattle fashioned from balls of dung. Thus, in effect, a three-dimensional terrain model finds a place in a religious ritual. Like the preparation of vedis, the construction of Hindu temples has since ancient times been regulated by an elaborate set of instructions covering every aspect of the work. The various scriptures containing these instructions- commented on briefly above-date from at least the first century B.C. These texts, as author has noted, relate also to building in general and include chapters on building houses and on planning, laying out, and building villages and towns. In her classic work The Hindu Temple, Stella Kramrisch sets forth and explains in great detail the rules for temple building. These rules include drawing on ground leveled for the temple a plan called the vastupurusamandala, which is regarded as a “forecast” of the temple, “the fundament from which the building arises,” and “the place for the meeting and marriage of heaven and earth, where the whole world is present in terms of measure, and is accessible to man.”

Thus temple construction, like that of vedis, required the preparation of an ephemeral one-to-one scale map. It seems not unlikely, however, that many smaller-scale plans would also have been prepared, at least for large and complex temples, with which India abounds.  What is true of Hindu temples is, with appropriate modifications, also true of Buddhist stupas, whose cosmographic symbolism is in fact more explicit and easier to discern than is that of most temples. Although Buddhism became virtually extinct in India proper by about the thirteenth century and most Buddhist monuments have as a consequence fallen into ruin, dozens of massive masonry stupas have, in varying degrees, withstood the ravages of time;  and a few, such as the Great Stupa at Sanchi, initially constructed in the third century B.C. and greatly enlarged in the following century, are very well preserved or restored. Additionally, there are many other large stupas on or near the periphery of India, in the Himalayas and Sri Lanka, as well as in trans-Himalayan Tibet and Southeast Asia. Because of the particular association of stupas with Lamaistic (Tibetan) and Theravada (Southeast Asian) Buddhism.

Jain temples and shrines tend to be quite ornate, but in general their styles over the centuries and from one region to another have not varied significantly from those of the Hindus. In city planning and secular architecture, Indian builders were, at least in theory, to be guided by theoretical texts that incorporated cosmographic and astrological principles. A number of these, collectively known as vastuvidya, were allegedly authored by ~~is (mythical sages) and gods. In fact, the texts “appear to be collective works, built up of successive stratifications, of accretions, elaborations and modifications [over] the course of many centuries.” As with temples, builders were enjoined by these texts to draw mystic diagrams (yantras) on the ground as a forecast, in effect, of what was to emerge there. Even in domestic architecture, there were associated cosmographic rituals. When constructing a house, one had to take into account at the outset the position within the ground of the vastupurushamandala, the cosmic man, embodying the supreme principle or Brahman. This mandala, inherent in the earth itself, was marked on the ground before building could commence , as depicted in Figure 1 below

Figure 1 - Vastupurushamandala
Figure 1 – Vastupurushamandala | The mandala of the cosmic man

[About Figure 1: This drawing, from an old Indian manual of architecture (title, date, and provenance unspecified), shows one of thirty-two ways this mandala may be drawn. By drawing the requisite horizontal and vertical lines on the ground before commencing construction, the architect summons forth from the earth the spirit of the cosmos (i.e., Brahma) personified by the cosmic man in the diagram. Size of the original: not known. From Andreas Volwahsen, Living Architecture: Indian (London: Macdonald, 1969),]

Numerous household rituals entail similar considerations. The decorations that Indian women draw with rice paste in the courtyards of their homes, for example, typically contain cosmic elements, especially those designs known as vrata alpana, which are made in connection with sacred vows in exchange for some gift from the gods. Similarly, patched shawls, coverlets, and wrapping cloths, made from cast-off pieces of fabric, are embroidered with motifs that portray portions of the cosmos. A widely held belief is that “in specialized Hindu rituals the individual joins with and even becomes identical to the cosmos itself…. Under certain conditions the individual body and the universe are thought to actually merge.” Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the practice of certain forms of yoga and in Tantrism, a long-lived, highly eroticized religious cult within Hinduism and also, in somewhat different form, within Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhism. Tantric art is particularly rich in illustrations fraught with cosmological symbolism. In both yoga and Tantrism, the practitioner engages in meditation, often aided by concentrating on an exterior mandala in Buddhism or yantra in Hinduism, mandalas generally being relatively complex and yantras relatively simple.

Both yantras and mandalas serve, to use a term coined by the renowned Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci, as “psychocosmograms.” As such, they further the process by which one’s self becomes a microcosm that fuses and becomes one with the enveloping macrocosm. One’s spine then becomes the Meru or axis mundi of both. Arrayed along the spine are various centers of psychic energy that one summons up, in the practice of yoga, in moving toward the supremely illuminated samadhi state. These energy centers may be viewed as the psycho physiological analogues of the heavens that the soul traverses on its path to ultimate liberation-moksa in Hinduism or nirvana in Buddhism-whereby one is freed from the painful cycle of rebirth and made one with the infinite. In regard to Tantric religious observances, Lannoy puts forward a similar concept:

The idea that the human body is a microcosm … is essential to Tantric art, and it is expressed ritualistically in a number of ways. Both Tantric sexual rites and images related to this ritual are metaphors for the fire sacrifice, while the body of the woman is a homology of the Vedic altar. The ritual partner becomes a mystical terrain to be explored like the streets and sanctuaries of a holy city by a pilgrim. The Tantric poet Sahara even discovers a sacred geography in his own body: I have walked with pilgrims, wandered round holy places. Nothing seems more sacred than my own body. Here flow the sacred Jamuna and the mother Ganges, Here are Prayaga and Benares, here the Sun and Moon.

The mutability of space, time, and matter is related to the Hindu concept of maya, of which Lannoy has this to say:

Obviously the term maya, which covers the whole of phenomenal existence, has been interpreted in many different ways. Since it is temporality it must be sacramentalized, or melt into Great Time, the cyclical cosmic rhythm. Since maya is a collective hallucination veiling transcendental Reality, Absolute Truth can be grasped by various spiritual exercises (sadhana) through which one wakes to full consciousness…. The influence of this concept of maya is of incalculable importance to patterns of thinking today. It is positive in the sense that it expresses India’s sense of the transience of life, of mutability, and that this provides solace to those who can look forward to nothing but suffering. It is negative in the sense that the brute  facts of life are, in the final analysis, either illusory or of secondary importance and that nothing one does can alter them for the better. While maya is therefore a consolation in the face of sorrow because it implies that life need never be taken too seriously, it also serves as a rationale for apathy.

Conceivably, Lannoy overstates his case, though he is hardly alone in holding the views just expressed. But to the extent that he is correct and that people’s worldview is informed by the belief in maya, making maps would seem a pursuit of trivial importance. The all-important Indian concern with the process of reincarnation finds graphic expression even in play. Over much of South Asia and the adjoining realms of Lamaistic and Mahayana Buddhism, one encounters board games incorporating tracks that players follow in pursuit of moksa or nirvana. Such tracks constitute, in effect, fantasy route maps for the soul and are in relation to conventional route maps what many cosmographies are to maps of the world. Although the physical format of the games varies from one region to another, most entail a series of levels leading to successively more exalted states, the highest level being moksa, nirvana, union with Shiva, or something comparable. The rules also specify circumstances that lead to dramatic rises and falls in the level of the player’s (soul’s) existence. The English parlor game snakes and ladders is derived from an Indian prototype of this kind.

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