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This paper discusses the practical aspects of yoga and meditation.

It does so in order to elaborate

how the para-normal or spiritual experiences caused by these practices imbue sacred Indian art with
a magical potency. This potency arises from the revelation of the nature of the symbolic realm of
the unconscious mind as well as the a priori structures of the mind-body complex that make thought
and cognition possible. Since the earliest times, esotericism in India has allied itself with art. I say
allied rather than expressed itself because esotericism used art both as a medium of spiritual
reportage as well as an aid to spiritual practice. Classical Indian art theory did not distinguish
between the purely aesthetic and the doctrinally significant. My focus shall be on how tantrism
relates with art. I shall open the discussion by historically locating tantrism within Indian
esotericism. I will then critically look at Indologys engagement with it and what the implications of
this engagement were for tantric practices on the ground. This constitutes a top-down discourse of
the genesis of modern Indian aesthetics. I will then attempt to create a bottom-up discourse by
looking at the mechanics of yoga-tantra and how it underlies the production of classical Indian
religious art. I will end with a brief discussion of some interesting findings from neuroscientists
analysing meditational practices.
While earlier scholars uncritically considered the vedic corpus to be the foundation of all
indian esotericism, recent scholarship paints a rather different picture. The vedic culture was not
monolithic, rather as we move from the Rik veda to the Atharva veda we see clear aspects of nonvedic religion being included into the corpus. This is a process that happened over several waves of
migrations. Scholars such as Geoffrey Samuels and Patrick Olivelle describe the vedic religion as a
householder religion, founded primarily on the fire sacrifice and the soma ritual. The soma ritual
provided the early rishis with the revelatory insights that enabled them to compose the vedic hymns.
The non-vedic tradition was in contrast an ascetic tradition that moulded itself to shun the fire
rituals of the householders. The earliest speculations on yoga were possibly carried out within a
combined ascetic milieu wherein sectarian bounds were at least initially very loose. Over time the
soma rituals were lost and the brahmins thus lost their connection to revelatory experience.
However, they managed to hold on to social and political power because they became specialists in
ritual magic, particularly relating to birth, death, marriage and kingship.
In India, during the early centuries of the first millennium of the current era, there began to
come about secret societies consisting primarily of Buddhist and Saivite members that integrated
yoga and ritual. These groups aimed to rediscover and advance the yogic underpinnings of ritual.
Initially beginning as secret societies, between the 2nd and the 4th centuries CE, we see these
societies emerging publicly. Initiation into these societies (samaja) and families (kula) involved
practices that violated both the vows of the brahmanical householder and the ascetic. However, the
payoff for the transgression was that these paths offered liberation in a single lifetime. In the context
of the spiritual technologies available at that time, that was an unimaginably radical claim. These
practices constitute the Tantra proper, and while the period until the 12th century CE is recognised
as the epoch of Indian tantra, these practices continued to grow and develop new methods till
relatively recently.
The first clearly recognisable Tantric master is Nagarjuna who composes the Guhyasamaja
tantra (the structure of the secret society). This led to the Nava-Natha tradition of the 84
mahasiddhas. The 84 Mahasiddhas or extremely-perfected ones were powerful saints who freed
ritual and yoga from the closed enclaves of the brahmins and the ascetics. They gave initiations to
householders, women and to the lower castes, all of whom were barred from spiritual knowledge in
traditional society (unless they renounced society and joined ascetic orders). The tradition of the 84
mahasiddhas is also called the Nava-Natha or the new natha tradition. The word nava disambiguates
it from the older tradition of ascetic yoga of Adi-natha or the primordial natha. The world natha
loosely means lord. What is most intriguing about the 84 mahasiddhas is that their names are
found in the genealogical trees of Hindu as well as Buddhist tantric systems. Foremost among the

84 mahasiddhas was Shambhunath or Swayambhunatha, the tantric guru of the renowned Kashmiri
Saivaite tantric Abhinavagupta.
Swayambhunatha was also the one who first took the practices of tantra to Tibet, where he is
recognised as Guru Rimpoche or Padmasambhava. Tantra survived in its purest form in Tibet as the
land was geographically protected from the political vagaries of the mainland. In the Bengal region
it survived because tantric Buddhism hid itself in form of the Sahajiya Vaishnavism and allied itself
with the grassroots Bhakti movement. It now survives to this day in guise of the practice known as
A great break occurs within Indic religious traditions during the period of colonisation and
the subsequent industrialisation of India as traditional social networks undergo a major upheaval.
This period is marked particularly by a new kind of intellectual alliance that puts in place a new
interpretation of Indian history and traditions. This alliance was embodied in the academic
discipline of Indology. Indological scholars were Christian Europeans who mostly accessed the
Sanskrit texts using Brahmin pundits to interpret and comment. The pundits highlighted those parts
of the tradition that reinforced their own authority and also those logical, philosophical or poetic
speculations that would appeal to the Christian-scientific temperaments of the European
colonialists. The European scholars, on the other hand, were led by their Christian tendencies to
emphasise prayer, repentance, faith and scripture as the definitive features of a religious tradition.
The English-educated native intelligentsia too mimicked these tendencies and reformers such as
Rammohan Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen and Swami Vivekananda tried to re-mould Hinduism into a
more scientific-Christian mould. The result was that Vedanta (being monistic and thus compatible
with Christianity) was upheld as the epitome of Hindu religiosity and Theravada Buddhism was
upheld as the pure form of Buddhism ( s it had remained unchanged since the time of Buddha,
something which appealed enormously to the Protestants), while on the other hand hatha-yoga and
tantra were put down as vulgar abominations or conjurers tricks.
The Indian esoteric tradition, unlike Christianity, is not a text-based tradition. There are
texts, and they hold considerable import and validity; however the tradition is founded on oral
transmission of teachings (sadhana) and direct physical transfer of spiritual power from master to
disciple (shaktipat). However, the Indological scholars not only reduced it to a textual tradition, they
also sanitised the canon. Indian religion and esotericism, which were a vast, unmanageable and
potentially dangerous terrain for any sane European mind, were restricted to the fairly manageable
discipline of Indian philosophy. The European scholar quickly discovered that Indian esotericism
consisted of strange and forbidden practices, and that engaging in them meant breaking taboos
every step of the way. In contrast, Indian philosophy was safe because it circumscribed within it
only logical speculations. Everything outside of the circle of high-minded philosophy was branded
as superstition and rejected. This included those religious practices that actually had the ability for
effecting spiritual (or physical for that matter) transmutation.
Indology by and large divided Indic esotericism into three major disciplinary fields; that of
religious philosophy, sciences and magic. The texts on religion were held in the highest esteem by
the Indologists and consisted primarily of brahmanical texts such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the
Bhagwad Gita, Manusmriti and other logical, philosophical or legal texts. Next in the hierarchy of
Indological knowledge were the texts on sciences, relating to practical subjects such as medicine,
architecture, the fine arts, aesthetic theory, musicological theory, craftsmanship, metallurgy etc.
Finally came the loathed part of the canon: magic, consisting of texts on astrology, hatha yoga,
tantra, ritual, mantra-craft etc. So, while these disciplines were fundamentally un-divided in the precolonial context, colonial scholarship divides them into several segregated units.
The case of Ayurveda is telling. Traditionally an Ayurvedic practitioner had two major
diagnostic tools. The first was to take the patients pulse, and the second was to examine the
astrological birth chart. Under the Indological impulse, Ayurveda was revived and made compatible
with western scientific medicine. This modernised Ayurveda retained the method of diagnosis

through checking the pulse and even adopted newer tools such as the stethoscope, but diagnosis
through astrological analysis just faded out of usage. The point here is not to examine the scientific
status of astrology, but rather to say that these systems had once worked together as an integrated
whole but now were separated from each other. The newer interpretations that were being produced
in the colonial context were changing the way these disciplines were practiced on the ground, and
doing so with Victorian, Christian and secular biases.
The field of modern Indian art emerges around the same time. One of its foundational stones
was laid by Indological scholarship, namely classical Indian aesthetics. The formulation of modern
Indian art required one to bring Western ideas of secular modernity into conversation with certain
ideas and concepts that were considered to be the essence of the Indian tradition. To make an
authentic (as opposed to imitative) Indian modernity, it was not sufficient to be modern: rather,
Western ideas had to be integrated with a carefully selected body of work from India's own
intellectual and cultural history. The use of Western ideas provided the Indian theorists with
acceptance within the elite circuits of Western academia and the use of Indian ideas provided their
imaginations with a desirable authenticity.
The native intelligentsia now embarked upon a scrutiny of the Indian tradition using Western
tools of rationalism. Thus early pedagogues of modern Indian art were deeply interested in mining
classical Indian poetics and aesthetics for suitable ideas. This group includes figures like
E.B.Havell, Ananda.K.Koomaraswamy and also artists like Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal
Bose. The Indological secular modernist interpretation of rasa theory translated rasa loosely as
juice and understood it simply as the out-flow of pleasurable emotions at the successful
apprehension of an art object. What was missed out from this formulation was that the classical
discussion of rasa came from within an initiatory context and connected up with tantric practices of
alchemical transmutation of the body. Since tantric practices, particularly sex rituals, were abhorrent
in the eyes of the colonial masters as well as the educated upper-caste native intelligentsia, Indian
aesthetics was formed into a discipline sanitised of all tantric influences. This was ironic
considering the highly sexually charged iconic imagery that adorned so many religious and artistic
archaeological remains. Post the sexual liberation in the West, sites like Khajuraho eventually went
on to become global icons of sexual and erotic art. The sexual vocabulary of classical Indian art was
a source of great embarrassment to the English-educated native intelligentsia and they constantly
responded to it with an apologetic discourse that reduced it to philosophical abstraction.
At the same time, in close geographical proximity to where these re-interpretations were
taking place, there flourished a vernacular tradition that had a radically different understanding of
rasa. This was the Sahajiya Vaishnav or the Baul tradition of rural Bengal. The ranks of this
tradition were filled by women, widows, the low-caste, householders and other misfits. It is
interesting to note that this is the same demographic in which early 1st millennial tantra had arisen.
Since Baul was a vernacular low-caste tradition comprising a largely illiterate demographic, it
escaped the greater transformative brunt of the colonial encounter. Bauls were also less visible to
the Western-trained observers as they transmitted their practices through their songs. This largely
oral vernacular tradition was largely ignored by the bibliophile Anglophone Indologists.
For the Baul, rasa is more than just an emotional category. It is also, and perhaps more
importantly, an alchemical category. While they may appear to be different, the psyche and the body
are not understood to be separate things: meaning that rasa refers not just to emotional enjoyment
but also to the chemical and neurological basis of experience. So rasa is juice but not just as a
metaphor for emotional enjoyment , it is also the actual major bodily fluids: blood, cerebrospinal
fluid, menstrual fluid, semen, urine and stool among others. Bauls utilise and manipulate these
fluids to trigger states of samadhi or spiritual revelation. Tantra is a discipline wherein the chemical
and neurological foundations of experience themselves are treated as the objects of experience and
manipulated in order to achieve ultimate liberation. This ultimate liberation is a state of experience
which is unconditioned by the five sense organs, mind, perspective in space time etc. Since it is

unconditioned, thus it is free. Yoga-tantra is thus the science and art of moving from a limited or
conditioned state of experiencing reality to an unconditioned, unlimited state of experiencing
With this background in view, let us now return to our discussion of tantrism and sacred art.
The question we have to ask is: how is it possible for an aesthetic experience (repetition of a
mantra, focussing on an deity image, reading a sacred text, listening to music, dancing etc.) to
trigger a religious or spiritual experience? Indeed what is a spiritual experience? I shall endeavour
to answer these questions by explaining how, in spite of the Indologists uncomfortable
formulations, the formal values of classical Indian art were in fact fundamentally determined by the
mystical disciplines of yoga and tantra. What I am here referring to as a spiritual or religious
experience, the yogis and the tantrics would call true cognition. In contrast, the experience of
waking everyday consciousness would be called sensory cognition1. Sacred art, then, is a
specialised, coherently formed arrangement of sensory cognitions (brushed paint on surface,
chiselled stone, etc etc) that if apprehended with one-pointed concentration can create what for the
yogis is true or liberatory consciousness.
Simply put the tantric creed is this: yes, we are limited minds trapped inside fragile bodies with an
expiry date, but there is a way to unify body, mind and spirit; the physical, the symbolic or
archetypical and the Real (the Real being an absolute presence or an absolute absence). So there is
creation and multiplicity and limit, but matter and spirit can be harmonised and be brought into
unity or yoga with each other. And this unity results in the limited individual ego dissolving into
the absolute. This is the moment of liberation, nirvana etc. Achieving this is only possible through
training in meditation, which is a physical and a mental discipline dealing entirely with the flow of
energy and fluid through the nerves and channels in our bodies. The mind is made to rest at
particular points in the body, particular nerves or nerve plexuses. Through repetition, the minds
tendency to scatter is countered, and one-pointed focus is developed in feeling the particular nerve
which is being observed. It is important to highlight here the strengthening of will and intellect that
occurs upon achieving the one-pointedness of mind and how it differs, qualitatively and profoundly,
from everyday waking consciousness. The perfect analogy to illustrate how meditation changes
will, awareness and intellect is how a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight into a point. Scattered,
the light is warm; but, when it is focussed into a single point, it burns! The mind brought to onepointed focus similarly burns through sensory perception into true or spiritual cognition.
Before we can understand how mysticism imbues sacred art with magical ability and what
the nature of this magical ability is, we must first discuss the method of meditation and how it is
rooted in reality. First the body is stilled and the mind is moved away from discursive thought. Then
attention is focussed on the internal movements of prana, loosely translatable as the life-force. In
other words, instead of focussing on what is around us, we move our attention to what is on or
under our skin. Now we are beginning to be aware of our own nervous and veinous systems, instead
of merely using them to interact with the world. With practice, qualities such as lightness or
heaviness, contraction or expansion, warmth or coldness will be observed in various parts of the
body. Further, as we still the minds chatter through the strength of practice, we can observe a
rhythmic pulsation all across our body. Since the heart beats fluid to all parts of the body, it is
obvious that if we pay attention to it, we can feel this pulsation throughout the body and not
exclusively in the heart or chest. It is further possible to focus attention and observe neural pulsation
1 Yoga recognises four states of the mind: walking, dream, deep sleep and the final known as
turiya. Turiya is a state of direct apprehension of the object of knowledge without the intermediation
of the sense organs.

in focussed regions of the body like particular nerves or nerve plexuses. Once mind and pulsation is
allied we can then add the breath to it. Rather, once the mind is settled on one place (such as the
heart, navel, forehead, etc) the breath emerging and ending from the same bodily location can be
clearly observed. In the meditative state, ones sense of mental awareness, breath and pulsation are
brought into union: this is yoga. The inhalation and exhalation of breath will occur according to the
rhythm of the pulsation. Using the pulsation, the breath must be hooked onto a particular nerve or
nerve plexus. Once this is achieved, a sense of beatitude emerges in the nerve where the meditation
is being carried out, a sense of lightness is felt. A chakra, when meditated upon, feels like a swirling
vortex made up of the energy of our nerves. A yogin then is slowly able to discern between the
subtle differences in the frequencies of pulsation in the various parts of his/her body, and is also
able to unite the whole body in one particular frequency.
If breath, mind and pulsation are all brought together, there emerges through practice an
inward movement of the mind. Increasingly the amount of mental energy spent in perceiving outer
world decreases, while attention expended upon observing the inner function of vital or pranic
energy increases. If this happens then we must understand that the meditation is deepening. This
means that the scattering and lethargic everyday mind is drawing inward and moving towards onepointed concentration. The yogis and tantrics instruct us that with deepening of meditation,
auditory, visual, olfactory etc phenomena can be experienced. In other cases there can be
spontaneous uncontrollable song or dance. These are para-normal phenomena only in so far as they
are not grounded in the normal experience of phenomenal reality. Instead, these mystical or yogic
experiences are grounded in the self-referential experience of the very sense organs that we use to
apprehend reality. What emerges when the mind is focussed on a nerve and not distracted by the
desire for sense-object contact, is the natural frequency of the pulsation of a particular nerve. The
yogis and tantrics followed this process to create maps of the human nervous system. Following the
nervous circuits, they were able to internally master the way nerve-electricity flows within the
neural networks. This allowed them to experience the phenomena of consciousness in all its levels.
It allowed them to discover the point where the ego-mind dissolves into universal consciousness.
The discipline of tantra creates new neural connections with the express purpose of resolving the
mind-body duality. The ultimate experience of samadhi is to resolve back into the source of all
creation. It is the experience of the source from which matter, energy and consciousness emerge.
The tantrics call this place of creation and return as spanda, the sacred tremor. The word spanda
comes from the root spand- which means to vibrate. Ultimate reality was understood to be voidness
because it constantly alternates between existence and non-existence. The universal vibration breaks
down into various sounds and resonances. These are the matrikas: the alphabet. The breaking down
of the universal frequency into the alphabet signals the moment of creation of multiplicity in the
universe, which is why matrika could mean letter/ alphabet but equally could mean mother.
This is a complex system and its intricacies are not within our scope right now. What we do
need to know for current purposes is the process of transmission of spiritual knowledge and insight
used by yoga and tantra. By studying their own neural pulsation, tantrics are able to harmonise their
bodily pulsation with the cosmic pulsation and thereby are returned to the source of all creation: the
void. Once one is in the state of shunyata or voidness, one sees, emerging as sparks from the void,
the seed mantras. The seed mantras are nothing but the alphabet in the act of creating the
microcosmic universe of the human body. The vibrating frequencies of the nerves are what enable
body and mind to act together. When the seed mantras are meditated upon, this vibration takes on
the full anthropomorphic form of the deity. The tantric deity is essentially a limited aspect of the
voidness of the tantrics own enlightened mind.
Once the tantric has moulded this mind-stuff into the form of the deity, the tantric and the
deity become one. To worship Shiva, one must become Shiva, as the traditional injunction puts it.
The final step in the cycle is to take this conscious agent and project it into an idol or a mandala.
When this is done, the idol or mandala is said to be living. The masters then simply give their

students the visual form in the shape of the idol or mandala and empower a connection with the
deitys living consciousness through the mantra and associated meditation. Since the guru has
perfected the mantra (he has purified a particular nerve) when the disciple receives it, they are not
merely receiving a sequence of sounds or letters, but also the spiritual charge the guru has
accumulated on that mantra. The result is that the master is able to recreate within the student the
same meditative experiences through the mantra which they themselves had acquired through
meditative insight on spanda. The guru leads the student to the deity through meditations on
syllables and images and the the deity then leads the aspirant to the voidness.
The tantric masters studied spanda, they understood the natural frequencies of various
nerves and experientially were able to locate the alphabet across the body. They found each place
had its frequency, and these natural frequencies of the nerves were expressed as the thousands of
gods and goddesses that according to myth are said to inhabit the body. They realised that since
each frequency was composed of laya and taala, rhythm and meter, they could use them in art to
create not just specific moods and emotions but also, with sufficient focus and repetition, trigger
particular meditative experiences associated with particular deities or nerves. Tantric art, then is
structurally encoded to produce meditative experience. The initiate knows how to meditatively
inhabit the particular nerve which the artwork is stimulating. The layperson does not understand the
yogic method of meditating on the art, but still if he or she earnestly experiences it then still there
would be an effect, though of a lower order of magnitude.
Laya and taala, or rhythm and meter, form the basis of practically all classical arts, such as
painting, sculpture, music, dance, architecture, poetics as well as ritual. A meditative spanda can be
created by recreating its frequency and amplitude and hence can be theoretically embedded into any
object of sensory or aesthetic appreciation. We will here close the discussion around classical tantric
meditation and art. Next let us look at tantras revival in the 20th century and how far the empirical
sciences corroborate tantras claims.
Around the beginning of the 20th century there was another group of Westerners who
engaged with India. This group had become dissatisfied with their post-enlightenment Christian
thinking. Disillusioned with the values of industrial modernity, they sought insights from traditions
around the world including hatha-yoga and tantra. Beginning with the Romantics, this trend
continued with the theosophists and the occultists. These people were not primarily interested in the
intellectual speculations of Vedanta nor were they only looking for new and exotic ideas in which to
invest their belief and faith. Most importantly, they were looking for actual techniques of physical,
psychological and spiritual healing and evolution. By and large, if a religious doctrine did not cause
transmutation that was experientially verifiable, they saw little value in it. It was because of their
efforts that tantric texts were translated and a new understanding of tantra developed. Scholars like
William James, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung became interested in the phenomena of religious
experiences and states of mind. Another factor that led to the resurgence of tantra in the 20th
century was the escape of Tibetan lamas from Chinese occupation and their seeking asylum in the
West. Suddenly a whole plethora of ideas and practices that had been quarantined within closed
enclaves exploded into the attention of an international audience. Subsequently, two historical
events boosted the growing popularity of hatha-yogas physical postures. The first was the
international physical culture movement around the World Wars and the second was the alternative
culture movement including feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s. The growing respect for
mystical practices in the West meant that the empirical sciences too had to engage with and evaluate
esotericism. Having emerged from the context of the 18th century Enlightenment wherein
intellectual speculation had freed itself from centuries of church control, Western science was
naturally suspicious of all apparently religious phenomena. By and large the empirical sciences
followed a policy of dismissal, claiming mystical events to either be abnormal functioning of the
brain or humours, or to simply be parlour tricks and deception.

The first scientific discipline to seriously study mystical phenomena was parapsychology in
the early 20th century. However parapsychology was limited by technological constraints as well as
the fact that it tended to focus attention on manifest paranormal phenomena such as ghosts, E.S.P.
and associated psychic phenomena. Parapsychology amassed a substantial archive of paranormal
events and proved without doubt that paranormal phenomena could occur under laboratory
conditions. However, the hard mathematical sciences criticised the conclusions the
parapsychologists drew from their data as unsound. Furthermore, parapsychologys lack of
mathematical tools led to it being branded a pseudoscience. All this added to the belief that
spiritual or mystical phenomena were essentially false.
While these accusations were partially justified, the summary dismissal of paranormal
phenomena themselves was too hasty. These views begin to soften with advances in disciplines like
quantum physics and neurology. I would here like to examine how neurology has begun to
corroborate some of the fundamental assertions of tantra. The Christian schoolmen and the
Enlightenment philosophers such as Rene Descartes considered the mind and body to be separate,
fundamentally different things. This was proven not to be the case when the early neurologists
(particularly during World War II) observed that damage to specific parts of the brain resulted in the
loss of specific behavioural abilities (speech, movement, etc). This meant that the foundations of
our psychological structure were rooted in our brain anatomy. This corresponds to the tantric belief
that body and mind are one and can be used to affect and transform each other.
In the 1990s two neurologists, Andrew Newberg and Eugene DAquili, began to conduct
experiments with longtime practitioners of Buddhist meditation, particularly monks (again
facilitated by the Tibetan exodus). In their research they linked meditational practices to increased
or decreased activity in specific regions of the brain such as the pre-frontal cortex and the parietal
lobes. From their experiments they argue that the states of consciousness during meditation or
samadhi corresponds to the alteration of specific brain states. Further they argue that religious
experience is a rare but normal function of the brain and cannot be characterised as brain
dysfunction or mental illness. This validates the tantric belief that meditation and associated
practices work on the neural system to enable the achievement of certain rare states of
Newberg and DAquili plot the spectrum of the possible states of consciousness in their
work. They designated as baseline reality the state where distinct objects are perceived with regular
relationships between them. This is the state of waking consciousness when we have a strong sense
of what is real, such as chairs, table, love, hate and we have a sense of them enduring over
considerable periods of time. When these objects or relationships vanish from all sensory detection
then they are said to not exist anymore and this is verified through cross-subjective validation: when
other people agree as to whether an object or relationship exists or not. DAquili and Newberg
contrast the idea of baseline reality with what they call Absolute Unitary Being (AUB). The data for
theorising this was derived from studying cases of meditation, samadhi, religious ecstasy, near death
experiences, out of body experiences etc. AUB is the state when the subject-object duality vanishes
and the agent perceives no difference between itself and the rest of the universe. AUB is
characterised by a hyper-lucid sense of reality, one that is compelling under all circumstances, but
enduring for a far shorter time than the state of baseline reality. Even when the unitary state is over,
there remains a strong sense of its underlying presence or possibility. While in baseline reality there
is a strong cross-subjective verification as to the core values and details of objects, in AUB the
details of the experiences vary while there is a high rate of cross-subjective verification of core
values. The people experiencing baseline reality reported it to be real, however those people who
had experienced both AUB and baseline reality claimed AUB to be hyper-lucid: more real than the
waking world. DAquili and Newberg argue that it is impossible to scientifically determine which is
more real: baseline reality or the various unitary states. Some argue that since unitary states are

grounded in the anatomy of the brain, baseline reality must be the foundation of unitary states and
hence should be seen as more real. DAquili and Newberg categorically dismiss such a position as
foolish reductionism. They say that since the apprehension of both baseline reality and unitary
states can be reduced to neural blips, it is therefore possible to argue the reverse to be the case too:
that baseline reality is derived from unitary states. The subjective experience of unitary states as
being more real than baseline reality cannot be proven through objective empirical science.
DAquili and Newberg advocate the position that baseline reality and AUB are complementary
rather than competing states of reality. While the hyper-reality of AUB validates the yogic
understanding of samadhi as truth; it is the idea that baseline reality and AUB are complementary
states of reality that particularly resonates with the specifically tantric goal of liberation (AUB)
within samsara (the world or baseline reality).
DAquili and Newberg also suggest that there is an aesthetic-religious continuum which is
founded on the increasing activity of the holistic operator. The holistic operator is a group of
neurons which allows us to perceive not singular objects, but objects as a collection, a whole as a
gestalt. Therefore the holistic operator is also the neural system involved in having aesthetic
experiences. In other words, the same group of neurons that are activated while having an aesthetic
experience are activated at a higher pitch while having unitary experiences. As we saw in the
previous discussion of rasa theory, tantra believes that certain rhythms and meters are conducive to
specific kinds of religious or meditative experiences, and in turn uses these rhythms and metres to
encode meditative states within works of art. A possible mechanism for how the brain processes
these works of art is provided by DAquili and Newbergs study of the holistic operator. Their work
also provides scientific backing for the tantric practice of meditation on deity forms to achieve
samadhi states. Further work on these lines may uncover more details on how this comes about.
In this paper I have argued for a bottom-up interpretation of classical Indian arts and
aesthetics, rooting them in the practices of yoga and tantra and the experiences resulting from these
practices. Classical Indian art emerged from an initiatory context and contemporary Indian artists
cannot sufficiently engage with these ideas unless they have access to states of mind that follow
from initiation and practice. While at one time there was serious doubt and suspicion as to the
validity and authenticity of these practices, several new scientific discoveries and concepts are reimbuing the tantric traditions with validity. In such a situation one hopes that both the disciplines of
art history and neurology increase their engagement with tantric ideas and practices.