Deity Yoga: a Tantrik Technology

‘Deity yoga’ is one of the least-understood aspects of Tantrik Yoga. The term refers to the quintessentially Tantrik practice of invoking aspects of the One divine Consciousness and identifying yourself with them. In other words, the One energy that alone exists expresses as countless different ‘vibrations’, some of them very ephemeral and others eternal (or lasting as long as this universe does, anyway). The ‘eternal’ vibrations are intrinsic parts of the overall Pattern, and so they last as long as the Pattern exists. Some of these eternal vibrations of conscious energy we call ‘deities’. The word deva in Sanskrit (or the feminine form, devī) comes from a Sanskrit root √div, meaning both ‘shine’ and ‘play’. So the devas are the shining playful ones – playful in the sense that they want to play with us! As it were. These patterned forms of consciousness exist both within us and as energetic patterns of flow in the wider universe (of which you are, of course, a microcosm). Therefore they are not reducible to either ‘gods’ (divine persons) or to ‘archetypes’ (aspects of our psyche), though in a sense they are both of those things (and more). They are archetypes insofar as they are paradigms or patterns within the collective unconscious (to borrow Jung’s phrase), and they are divine persons in the sense that you can have an ‘encounter’ with a deity in which you simultaneously feel the presence of a Divine ‘Other’, and yet realize that this ‘Other’ is not separate from you. (By the way, I’m using lots of ‘scare quotes’ just to indicate that words can only clumsily approximate these experiences, which necessarily transcend any mental or verbal representations we can create of them.) When you experience a ‘visitation’ from a deity, it feels ‘Other’ only because you have not yet realized your total Being, which encompasses all forms the One consciousness can wear.

            The Tantrik tradition teaches that each deity has an ‘essence-nature’ (svabhāva) which can inhabit the ‘bodies’ (mūrtis) that are representations of it. Most deities have three ‘bodies’: the sonic body (mantra), a geometric pattern (yantra or maṇḍala), and an anthropomorphic represention (whether sculpted, painted, or visualized). A given body, such as a statue of a deity, is considered ‘dead’ (jaḍa) unless the energy of the deity is installed into it (this is called prāṇa-pratiṣṭhā), usually by means of mantras articulated within a space of heightened & devoted awareness; when this has happened, the deity’s mūrti is said to ‘alive’ or ‘conscious’ (chaitanya). This is why the British in the colonial period (and the Baptists and Muslims today) were wrong to call Indians ‘idolators’ – when the prāṇa (life-force) is removed from a statue and placed in a temporary receptacle (like a water-pot with herbs and leaves in), then the statue is summarily discarded and the water-pot is treated as a deity! –Until the energy can be installed in a new statue or other substrate. To be an idolator is precisely to mistake a symbol for its referent, which is explicitly not happening here—the energy is venerated, not its vessel or touchstone.

Bhavatārinī Kālī (standing on Śiva) as enshrined at Dakshineshwar. One of many forms of Kālī, who is the prototypical Tantric goddess, but only this Bengali version is popular today. 

Bhavatārinī Kālī (standing on Śiva) as enshrined at Dakshineshwar. One of many forms of Kālī, who is the prototypical Tantric goddess, but only this Bengali version is popular today. 

             What distinguishes Tantrik practice proper from the temple culture that it influenced is that Tantrikas prefer to invoke the energy of a deity into a visualized substrate rather than a physical one. This practice necessarily entails honoring oneself as the expression of the deity, because according to the Tantrik maxim, ‘Only God can worship God’ (śivībhūtvaiva śivaṃ yajet). Having invoked the deity’s energy into the visualization (Tantrik Buddhists describe this as summoning the jñāna-sattva or ‘wisdom being’ into the samaya-sattva or ‘symbolic being’), the practitioner honors the deity’s power/energy, while striving to see the deity as an icon of her own essence, a reflection of an aspect of her true Being.

            Even the mantra of a deity, it must be noted, can be ‘dead’ or ‘conscious/alive’. The former cannot grant mantra-siddhi, the fruit of mantra-practice. The best way to ensure that a mantra you receive is ‘living’ is to receive it from someone for whom it is alive. A teacher possessed of awake awareness transmits a mantra saturated with that awareness—but no attempt to discern whether a given teacher is ‘enlightened’ is necessary, because even a fellow practioner, who is in love with that mantra and has worked with it deeply, can pass it on in an alive state (as sometimes happens in kīrtan sessions).

            In performing Deity Yoga, one must distinguish between ‘enlightened deities’ and all the rest. Enlightened deities are those invoked as part of a spiritual practice aiming at liberation and awakened awareness (mokṣa and bodha), whereas other deities are invoked for specific limited goals – like increasing financial abundance, attracting a partner, pacifying an enemy, etc. Doing the sādhana of a specific deity means invoking that deity daily with mantra, yantra, and visualization (three out of four of the key elements of Tantrik Yoga, the fourth being the breath). Such a sādhana can result in both inner and outer shifts – you may get ‘signs’ that you have connected with the energy of that deity, such as elements of that deity’s constellation of attributes repeatedly showing up in your life.

Parā Devī, Supreme Goddess of the Trika, an example of an 'enlightened deity', in a modern style.

Parā Devī, Supreme Goddess of the Trika, an example of an 'enlightened deity', in a modern style.

            This Sunday (13 Sep) I will begin teaching a new course on Deity Yoga with Ekabhūmi Ellik, author of The Shakti Coloring Book, which presents the three bodies of each of two dozen goddesses (though their esoteric mantras are not disclosed). We chose 16 deities – both masculine and feminine energies, including one androgyne – to focus on in the six-week course. Our goal is a lofty one – for students to have a palpable, felt-sense of each deity we present during the course (or at least one of them!). As Eka says, “It is crucial for students to understand the difference between models of reality (myths, lists of attributes, philosophies) and reality itself, which is beyond logic and description. . . . The challenge for most people, most of the time, is that we make a new story of ‘deity’ that reflects our own state of limited understanding. It becomes a ‘thing’, a symbol. In other words, we turn the deity into a constricted cartoon caricature of the actual living energy so that it fits into our current story. . . . Not surprisingly, after the ‘ah-ha’ moment of experiencing the presence of a deity, for recognizing that presence, and validating our recognition of that presence, the models, myths, lists, and philosophies actually make more sense. Which is the huge advantage of learning from live teachers in a consecrated environment, rather than puzzling over books alone.”

            We are still accepting students for this groundbreaking new course, and I’m excited to be sharing the stories, songs, mantras, myths, and ways to invoke (and recognize!) deity energies in your life. We’ll meet popular deities like Gaṇesh and Hanumān as well as more esoteric deities like Chāmuṇḍā and Shani, and through getting a feel of their ‘energy signature’ you’ll be able to dance with them in your life more effectively, which means both negotiating challenges more easefully and inviting in joy and abundance of all kinds more effectively.