Editor’s Note: This post is part 4 in The Enchanted World of Tantra, a blog series by Sandra Anderson exploring the many dimensions of the tantric path.
Meet Virat, the cosmic man, the original superhero. “The moon is born from his mind; the sun is born from his eyes . . . the atmosphere from his breath . . . the earth from his feet. From his ears, the directions are born . . . from his mouth, fire . . . from his navel, inner space, and from his head, outer space. He exists in all; he functions through all. He is not only the cosmic man, but the cosmos itself.” This is how the “Purusha Sukta,” a Vedic hymn, explains creation.
While the Vedic cosmology tends to the poetic, and Sankhya philosophers describe creation as a sequence of evolutes (tattvas) manifesting from pure consciousness, the tantric scriptures depict similar knowledge graphically as chakras. Sankhya philosophy, the foundation for yoga and tantra, describes how the world evolves from pure consciousness, from the subtle to the gross—from the imperceptible down to the five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space) that constitute the physical world of our experience. For example, the physical reality we know as space evolves from shabdha tanmatra, the subtle inner essence of sound. Likewise, all five gross elements (bhutas) comprising physical reality arise from the five subtle essences (tanmatras) which enable our five sense perceptions (smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing) to function. The tantric chakra systems illuminate how the subtle levels of consciousness may be experienced in the gross, and provide a map for accessing extraordinary powers of the body and mind.
Chakras, Prana, and the Gross Elements
The chakras are fields of concentrated consciousness where three or more nadis (currents of prana) intersect and in which the pranic forces are shaped for a particular purpose. The interaction of prana and the five gross elements of Sankhya—earth, water, fire, air, and space—gives shape to our human form as well as the physical world. We have flesh and bones. We experience the flow of blood and lymph, the fire in the belly, and the breath of life, all of which exist in a space we identify as our body.
The gross elements appear in the popular depiction of five major chakras associated with corresponding areas of the body: muladhara and the earth element with the pelvic floor, svadhishthana and the water element with the pelvis, manipura and the fire element with the navel, anahata and the air element with the heart, and vishuddhi and the space element with the throat. To round out the popular seven-chakra system, the ajna chakra is depicted in the head, and the sahasrara at or above the crown of the head. Practically speaking, the chakras are vortices, charged fields of pranic energy operating the organs, glands, and vital functions of body and mind.
Muladhara, literally “root support,” is the vortex of pranic energy, both active and potential, forming the foundation of our life on the physical plane. Svadhishthana and the water element endow us with the capacities for nourishment, taste, and sensual desire and pleasure. The fire element, associated with manipura chakra in the currently popular chakra system, is the source of vitality and the power of transformation that can convert bread and milk into flesh, bone, and blood, and propel desires into action and fulfillment.
One way of understanding these three pranic centers is from the perspective of survival, pleasure, and power—the aspects of our instinctive life which we share with all living creatures, and which are the reservoir and wellsprings of our life energy. Spiritual practice starts with these powerful forces, since access to higher realms of consciousness is difficult if we are weak, or our energy is completely controlled by survival instincts and the self-centered pursuit of pleasure or power.
Many spiritual traditions, including Christianity, recognize the heart center as the essence of our embodiment. Metaphorically, the heart lies between the heavens and the earth, between the instinctive animal nature and the noble qualities of the divine. The metaphors of our language—“the heart of the matter” and “cold-hearted” or “warm-hearted”—reveal the capacity to forge connections with others, understand the essence of things, and, ultimately, to recognize ourselves as being more than merely the activities of the body and mind.
“The human body, more precisely the chakras—the vortices of consciousness in the body—are the gateway to discovering the mystery of the universe and our life in it.”
The space element, often associated with the throat center, provides the blueprint for evolution of the other four elements, just as a blueprint provides the plan for building a house. Space is the most fundamental of the elements and the most subtle and pure, as the name vishuddhi, meaning “especially pure,” indicates. One of the definitions of prana is “that which moves,” and on the cosmic level, pranic vibration creates space, a new reality in which gaseous, fiery, liquid, and solid matter can be born.
The ajna chakra, the sixth center, is the seat of the mind. The name translates as “command center,” highlighting how the mind, conscious and unconscious, directs and coordinates the activities of the body through the nervous system and chemical messengers. In conjunction with the navel center, the ajna chakra is key in spiritual awakening, as well as in living a healthy and happy life. The seventh center, the sahasrara chakra, is the transpersonal, transcendental center of consciousness beyond our personal mind; it is the ultimate matrix—the knower—from which manifestation arises and to which it returns.
It’s important to realize that the currently popular seven-chakra system is only one of many in the tantric texts. The number and names of chakras, their positions relative to the body, and the specifics for visualization (deities, colors, etc.) vary in different texts and traditions, reflecting the emphasis of the school or tradition in which they are described, and the practices of that tradition.
One popular example of a tantric practice in which the five gross elements are assigned to five associated chakras is bhuta shuddhi—purification of the bhutas (elements). The intention is to restore balance to the interplay of the elements and prana in the subtle body. The practice includes visualization of yantras (geometric shapes and colors associated with the elements) in the assigned chakras, mantra recitation, and pranayama. This harmonizing and concentrating of the powers of the body and mind facilitates meditation and awakening of the deeper and more subtle levels of awareness, thus reintegrating consciousness.
A Powerful Link Between Two Worlds
As we have seen, in keeping with the tantric adage “Tatha brahmande, yatha pindande” (as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm), each of us, as well as the cosmos, is made up of evolutes of consciousness described by Sankhya philosophy. However, the individual permutations of our minds (due to karma, samskaras, vasanas, and limiting identity) ensure that each of us lives in a self-created world that, while made of the same evolutes, is a distorted version of the divinely created world. Our experience of ourselves reflects not only the dynamics of the macrocosm, but also the acquired tendencies of our mind, resulting in specific expressions of form, function, and behavior. No one else has exactly your facial features or all the unique quirks of your personality, or the exact same collection of interests and preferences.
Tantra uses the chakra model to describe our connection to the macrocosm, and how to reclaim our pure, undistorted nature. With a comprehensive and holistic understanding of our inner and outer worlds, the chakra systems provide an invaluable context to build a life of our choosing. As Pandit Rajmani Tigunait writes in The Practice of the Yoga Sutra (sutra 2:18), “The human body, more precisely the chakras—the vortices of consciousness in the body—are the gateway to discovering the mystery of the universe and our life in it.”