If you have spent any time around Eastern minded people, you may have heard of something called a mandala; these are typically geometric designs that are used for visualization/meditation, and in some religious traditions, for ritual/ceremonial magic.
Before proceeding, I should point out that the Tibetan Tantric traditions have more complicated Mandalas, abandoning the more geometric forms of Indian Tantra for exquisite, elaborate structures, often with a myriad of Bodhisattvas adorning the image, like the one above. However, let’s examine two of the older, Indian Tantric Mandalas, also known as Yantras.
The Kali Yantra
The Goddess Kali is both a Hindu Goddess and a Tantric one as well. Here is where I need to explain why I’m making the distinction: technically, Hindus are bound to the texts known as the Vedas; the Vedas contain many restrictions, all of which many sects of Tantra openly reject (there is one school of Tantra, Vaishnava Tantra, that does hold to Vedic traditions).
This anti-Vedic streak helped Tantra merge with Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet, Mongolia and parts of China. Kali herself was able to enter Tibetan Buddhism: there, she is known as Mahakali, and is often depicted in the embrace of her consort, Mahakala.
So, what can we say of Kali? Her interpretation in the Bengal region of India is always of a loving mother; in the West, she has come to be a symbol of sexual empowerment for women, a liberating, healing Goddess.
However, most Indian Tantrics take her at face value: her name means Time. She carries severed heads and limbs. She wears a garland of skulls. Blood drips from her mouth. Shiva lies inert under her feet.
In other words, she is a representation of human mortality.
Meditation on death, and the impermanence of all things, is a central feature of both Buddhism and Tantra in general.
This is the reason Indian Tantrics use the Kali Yantra: it is a way to focus their thoughts on the impermanence of life, the universe and everything.
On to our second Yantra:
The Shri Chakra (also known as the Shri Yantra and the Nava Yantra):
Kali is often seen as an emanation of the primal Goddess Shakti; Shakti, however, wears many masks.
One of these is Tripura Sundari, the Beauty of the Three Worlds. Another is that of Lalita, She Who Plays.
In many ways, they both represent the counterbalance to Kali; if she is the Devourer at End of Time, they are the Engines of Creation.
This then is their Yantra, and it can be found in both Tantric and Hindu worship.
In fact, it is safe to say that this Yantra is generally considered the most powerful one out there.
As a strange aside: in 1990, a 13-mile-wide Shri Chakra geoglyph mysteriously appeared in the Oregon dessert. It was spotted by a pilot with the Idaho Air National Guard, who had flown over the dried-up lakebed thirty minutes earlier and hadn’t seen it. Given the fact that Idaho Air National Guard frequently trains over this region, it’s just as strange that no other pilots had spotted it before or seen signs of unusual activity in the region.
Regardless of who made it, how they made it or why they made it (Art? Extraterrestrial contact?), it is still a testament to the enduring nature of the Shri Yantra.
So, what’s the take-away?
There are many mandalas; all of major Hindu deities have at least one, sometimes more.
They are used for everything from prayer to meditation to magic, depending on the practitioner, often in conjunction with offerings and sacred incantations called mantras.
Back to Tantra, it’s been stated Tantra = Yantra + Mantra.
So, if you’re interested in Tantra, Hinduism or even Yoga Visualization (the Chakras, which are the psycho-physical energy centers that Yoga deals with all have their own Yantras and Mantras), you might want to investigate further.
Madhu Khanna is a Tantric scholar and the Distinguished Fellow in Asian and Comparative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco.
She has many books on the subject, one of which is called – simply enough – Yantra.
Tantra Illuminated, by Christopher D. Wallis is another great place to start.
Finally, for a more Shiva/Shakti based exploration of Tantric cosmology, I would recommend The Radiance Sutras: 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder and Delight (English and Sanskrit Edition) by Lorin Roche and Shiva Rea.
There are, of course, a great many books on the subject, so if you decide to go down this rabbit hole, happy digging!