by Ekabhumi Ellik
Let me tell you a real story about why we need to learn to see divinity in sacred art, and engage it with precision and understanding.
So there’s this organization that organizes yoga festivals. You know, one of those week-long events with asana classes during the day and pop music concerts at night. They wrote to me explaining that they’re putting together a huge anthology with a lot of big names from the yoga scene. They asked me to write an article on yantras for their section on meditation. Woo-hoo!
I was so happy that these folks were interested in more than just more tips on stretching and breathing – because as you probably know, yoga is so much more than that. As a former yoga asana instructor who now makes sacred art, I think that Modern Postural Yoga (MYP) is incomplete, just a tiny slice of a rich tradition. We need to introduce a wider view that includes the wisdom practices.
Yantras are an intrinsic part of many yogic traditions. They are the deity in geometric form, which is considered more powerful than the anthropomorphic forms because their elemental shapes are universal. (We posted one here in a recent article on Saturn). These beautiful images are virtually unknown in the West except as exotic designs for tattoos. So I saw this as a tremendous opportunity to introduce this gorgeous tradition to thousands of people and to top yoga instructors – influential readers who in turn could pass this knowledge on to tens of thousands of others.
All my teachers – the yogis, the artists, the shamans – they all taught me that you need to be careful before sharing esoteric knowledge with the public. It’s really hard for people who aren’t trained to understand how powerful this subtle stuff is, and why it must be handled with great care. Precision is key to success with ritual practices. Most untrained modern people treat sacred art as an object, a thing, like something you can buy at a gift store.
We do this because we can. Buy the object, that is. The iconography of indigenous traditions across the planet has been plundered by designers in search of exotic accessories. Sacred art has been yanked out of context and used as props for models in fashion photo shoots. This is a problem because sacred art is not decorative, it’s functional. Icons are used as tools for self-realization practices.
Part of how this works is by association: if we associate the image of Lakshmi with the virtue of generosity, then we can use that attractive image to help invoke that virtue in our meditations. But if you associate the image of Lakshmi with some commercial product, there’s cognitive dissonance. Generosity is being conflated with greed. It’s like cultural pollution. You associate the icon with the product instead of the virtue.
My teachers taught many rules about where images of deities could be placed and how they could be used. They were strict, but they weren’t fundamentalists stuck in the past. They weren’t afraid of some sky god throwing lightning bolts if a sky god statue is mistreated. They were concerned because they understood how sacred art works. It taps into our existing biases, our conditioning, and transforms them into something more profound and expansive.
For example, images of smiling deities utilize our biological desire to look at attractive human figures in order to help us focus on a specific divine principle. That image of Lakshmi won’t have the same power to crack open your heart if in your mind, you already strongly associate it (and Her) with a commercial product. It really matters how you treat these images of the divine because it affects your ability to use them later on for self-realization.
I should add that I’m naively optimistic – I really believe that if people are attracted to yoga instead of Crossfit or Pilates or something, then they are drawn to the spiritual aspect. They have a really sincere desire to learn, even they are in denial of their own curiosity.
So back to the story about the publication. There was this little voice in my head asking, “Are you reaaaally sure you want to do this? This might not be the right place, or the right context…” But the timing seemed so auspicious – my book is about to come out – and they were so respectful and enthusiastic – assuring me that I would have full control over the piece – that I set my concerns aside.
I wrote up a very simple and clear one-page description of yantras. I added a couple digitally drawn yantras of two benevolent deities as examples. These two yantras were from the Johari tradition, which is the only lineage I’m trained in for this practice.
The editor was effusive in her gratitude, but she wanted more. She asked if I could give readers something to do with the yantras. Like a meditation. They wanted the readers to be able to engage the information. Besides, all the other contributors were giving little exercises.
I wrote back expressing my concerns about giving ritual practices in written form. They really need to be learned from a living teacher, and in context. Basically, when you work with a yantra, you’re starting deity sādhana. It’s a committed relationship with that sacred power. In other words, a life-long relationship, not a weekend fling.
Most people who are raised in a culture of Judeo-Christian dualism (i.e. that God/the divine is separate from your most expansive Self), aren’t going to understand what it means to have this kind of relationship with a sacred power. That you’re invoking a quality that is already inherent in all of us.
The problem with teaching esoteric practices out of context is that you’re basically appropriating and commodifying them. You’ve cut it off from its roots – it’s lifeless. Lastly, it’s reductivism – if I can’t explain something thoroughly enough for people to actually put it into use successfully, it’s a lie by omission. I’ve simplified it so much that it stops being true or valid. It’s reducing something rich and nuanced to a couple mechanical actions that no longer have any power or meaning.
So I said no. I wasn’t comfortable giving yantra practices in written form with no context.
They were really persuasive, citing the fact that all these other teachers (many of whom I respect and admire) had added simple practices that helped the wisdom come alive for readers today, so they could understand that the teachings aren’t long ago or far away.
Writing a Suitable Yantra Meditation
So I decided to give people a simple eyes-open meditation practice using the center of the design as a focal point. Normally, it’s just done with a simple dot on the wall. It’s a simple but profound practice for concentrating attention and withdrawing the senses inward.
Because these yantras are designed for eyes-open practice in the Johari tradition, this is a suitable exercise. What I was offering was essentially a baby-step toward the full practice. I didn’t get into the stories of the deities, or their mantras, so I figured there would be a very low risk of a negative result. Basically my instructions were to sit comfortably, focus on the center of the yantra, and count the breath, which is a simple way to stay present and self-aware.
Here’s the problem: when you play with yantras you are playing with self-aware patterns of energy. You can call them archetypes or deities or whatever, but it’s not like throwing a ball around. It’s more like playing with a ball that can move itself.
It takes a lot of good karma to even see a yantra. And there’s a difference between looking at something and seeing it, really understanding it, getting the transmission. This is part of why these deities are described as playful. One person just sees a colorful pattern, while the next feels it come alive in their awareness – anything can happen!
So I wrote out a list of eight steps for eyes-open meditation on the yantra. The editors were so grateful, so thankful, so effusive with their praise. They made a few minor grammatical edits and send me a copy for review, I sent it back. Standard stuff. All systems go.
A couple months later, one of the editors asked if I could send more images. She had taken a look at my website and seen the sculptural works made with many layers, gems, and gold leaf. These are meru (sacred mountain) yantras, which are said to be even more powerful than the flat designs. She explained that they would love to showcase the full range of my work. Awesome! So I sent in more pictures. I figured they’d use them elsewhere as illustrations in the book, or maybe to supplement my article. She wrote back that they loved one image of a red Śrī yantra. No problem.
A couple more months go by, and I get the book.
It’s really gorgeous – groovy muted earth colors throughout. Lots of action shots of attractive young people doing challenging postures on mountain tops and in grassy fields filled with wildflowers. It’s filled with self-help stuff, but it’s not a lightweight project. Plenty of legitimate info, too. Over two hundred pages and sixty contributors. It was clearly made by intelligent people who care about what they’re working on.
So I’m really excited, and flip to my article. And this is what I see:
So before I get into my response in Part II of this article (coming soon, so be sure to check back!), I’m curious to know what you think of it. Pay attention to how you feel when you gaze at each yantra, and specifically what you feel in your body. What do you notice? Any other significant changes? Let us know in the comments.
Part II of this article can be found here.
About the author: Ekabhumi Ellik is a sacred artist and a Core Teacher for Living Sanskrit.