From the 9th to 12th centuries CE, India saw the bourgeoning of a new religion known as Saivism, the Shiva-Shakti orientation that would soon take South Asia by storm as the new spiritual movement we call Tantra. Its tenets, so fundamental and so far reaching, soon took root not only throughout medieval India, but also Tibet and S.E. Asia where it would find a home in Buddhism and come to be practiced as the Vajrayana, informing teachings such as Dzogchen.
In no way, however, should the luminous tradition that flowered at this time be confused with the 20th century American invention called neo-Tantra. Beyond the purview of this blog piece, suffice it to say, Pierre Bernard, though perhaps somewhat acquainted with the teachings of Hatha Yoga which was also prevalent during the middle ages of India, did not concern himself with the classical instruction of Tantra while he established his personal power base in the firmament that would become one of the supports of America’s new age.
Around the same time in 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda would visit the States and establish his Fellowship for Self-realization. This, several decades on the heels of Vivekananda’s own visit to the Congress of Religions at the end of the 19th century, was a well-received introduction to the eastern religion of Yoga, but when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi brought Transcendental Meditation to the budding New Age in the later 1950s, we now had a rainbow infusion of eastern teachings, supported by popular icons like Alan Watts and his diverse teachings of Buddhism and spirituality.
The hip intelligentsia of the 60s were ripe to receive a comeuppance, and indeed they did in the form of Kundalini fakir Yogi Bhajan. Fortunately for them, gen-X spiritual leaders like Ram Das could offer a nourishing balance of peace, love and harmony until the next order generations were ready to tweak the conversation themselves. Ah, bless the living language that is Yoga; it grows and changes with us. One need only look as far as Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements to appreciate the impeccability with which essence nature will charge the word to engage with life.
Kundalini Yoga is as valid as Tantra itself; only Yogi Bhajan is at issue here. In a similar vein as Pierre Bernard, the modern presentation of Kundalini Yoga as a form of practice simply has no relationship to the traditional practices associated with the word Kundalini in the classical context, classical in this case referring to the period in which Tantra arose in India, and during which the term Kundalini entered the cultural lexicon.
Yogi Bhajan, the 3HO cult leader born Harbhajan Singh Puri, invented Kundalini Yoga with his own agenda in mind, and that’s okay if the practice happens to be bearing the fruit that the practitioner seeks. It should be understood, however, that what is being practiced is not what the yoginin of Uddiyana would have called Kundalini Yoga if you asked them, but this point is also well beyond the purview of this piece, and I invite you to read a thorough dissection of this topic in Philip Deslippe’s scholarly essay on the subject.
To understand what Kundalini really implies, one needs to look at the sources found in the classical Tantric tradition. Never mind that the term has been used, over-used, appropriated, absconded with, maligned, and poeticized to the point of being all but impossible to rectify misunderstandings of the pure nature of the concept. Who am I to dictate what’s pure, after all? I leave that to the historians, the scholars and reports of the sages who were actually there in the Tantric learning centers of the days, those beautifully illuminated minds, gracious and forward-thinking enough to understand that their experiences and understanding could, and should, be noted down for the coming generations. And thus, do mighty philosophies survive the years.
The fact that there aren’t, however, many exceedingly reputable translations of the literature of that period is a problem that is only recently becoming surmountable. Lillian Silburn, French Indologist, made the first excellent attempt to elucidate the world of Kundalini after Arthur Avalon (John Woodroffe). Unfortunately, neither was very familiar with the Sanskrit language and could not reference traditional sources as impeccably as they might be able to today, but were left to supplement what they could glean of the available material with their own personal interpretations of the subject matter. This is problematic, because a sage and a scholar are very different beasts, and the intellectual, even supported by the poetic, will not easily be able to align with the surrendered intuitive. A command of the origin language is essential if one would examine the heart of Kundalini according to the Tantra.
Yet not many can claim such proficiency with this, what some might refer to as arcane language. Others refer to it as a perfect language, but that’s neither here nor there for the moment. Despite the common lack of familiarity, Kundalini is, for better or for worse, a modern buzzword, describing everything from a spontaneous, life-altering, psychophysical awakening experience, to demonic possession, to latent sexual energy awaiting the proper administration of inner alchemical engagement, and this is not to say that any of that is right, wrong, good or bad, it simply may not be that which was being referenced when the word Kundalini was originally inspired. Language is alive; it evolves. And Kundalini, as the Mother of all language (matrika) evolves right along with it to be sure.
So, what is the truth? What is Kundalini? More precisely, how does Kundalini operate? Modern authoritative translations of the traditional literature will tell us, first, that the awakening process was termed śaktipāta, a descension of power, rather than the popularly invoked Kundalini rising experience. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of first-hand experiential accountings, though inference, philosophy, poetry, and practice methodologies abound.
We find ample references, both past and present, from sages in the know. Nath Yogi Jnaneshwara insisted centuries ago that: “Kundalini is one of the greatest energies. The whole body of the seeker starts glowing because of the rising of the Kundalini. Because of that, unwanted impurities in the body disappear. The body of the seeker suddenly looks very proportionate and the eyes look bright and attractive and the eyeballs glow.”
Siddha Yogini Anandamayi Ma much more recently explained why: “The Kundalini is your own mother – your individual Mother. And She has tape-recorded all your past and your aspirations — everything! And She rises because She wants to give you your second birth. … She rises without any difficulty. Hardly any time it takes.”
Anandamayi may be referencing any number of classical texts, such as the Siddha-yogeśvarī-mata, an early Trika lineage text wherein we find a verse which reads:
Here Kundalini is being named as jagad-yoni, the womb of the universe, or, source of the world1.
But it’s in the Sārdhatriśati recension of the Kālottara that we’ll find Kundalini localized to the human body for the first time, supporting Jnaneshwara’s assertion and giving us a further clue why, in fact, he might be right. Neither is Kundalini found to be sleeping at the base of the spine in this text either, but very much enlivened – in the heart!
Transl. “The Primordial Coiled One is fused with the ‘sun’ (piṅgalā channel), ‘moon’ (iḍā channel), and ‘fire’ (the suṣumnā or central channel). She is to be visualized & experienced in the region of the heart [where these three channels converge], remaining there with the appearance of a curled sprout. (note that another text specifies that this is a ‘sprout of flame’.) (WALLIS)
The following Kaula verse takes Jnaneshwara’s assertion several steps deeper into the terrain of inner awareness. Kshemarāja quotes the obscure reference:
Transl. “One who experiences the immersion into Divine Power that occurs due to the descent of the upper energy and the contraction of the lower power is a truly wise one.” (WALLIS)
Wait! What? Two Kundalinis!? It would appear so, one sourced in the crown, the other in the base. Tantric teachings of pranayama and visualization would see the practitioner coax the upper energy downward, drawing the breath in and down along one of the side channels, ida and pingala (moon and sun) respectively, while the exhale would see the inner pranic energies similarly rise, the two converging and meeting in the central channel at the nexus of the heart. Here Kundalini rests on Her lotus throne, and the practitioner who has integrated the two primal urges, the one to imminence and transcendence, is enabled to abide in awakened awareness.
In his Recognition Sutras, Kshemarāja gives us ten specific practices of engagement, including how to stimulate the innate bliss of awareness (cidānanda) by intoning Sanskrit phonemes with a mantric art form known as uccāra. Kshemeraja appears to be taking some of his practicum cues from the 9th century Shiva-Shakti dialogue known as Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, mirroring several of his practices against the verses, even encouraging the practitioner to straighten the coil as mentioned in verse 154. Compare his suggestion with the final verse of the VBT.
Vijnana Bhairava Tantra
Transl. “The prāṇa goes out [on the exhale]; the life-force enters [on the inhale], and it forms into a coiled spring [of mantric energy] by [the power of] the will. That Great Goddess [Kuṇḍalinī] extends and lengthens [by the same power]. She is the highest place of ‘pilgrimage’, both transcendent and immanent.” (WALLIS)
Cross reference the above with a Hymn to Kundalini, originally found in the Rudra Yamala Tantra and reworked by Swamy Muktananda. Verse 3 reads:
Transl. “A stable path is achieved through wisdom; the city of the liberated ones of the Kulamārga (path of embodiment) is attained through the Kuṇḍalinī; the false path of māyā (i.e., perceiving duality as ultimately real) is vanquished through the radiantly powerful Goddess (Śrī). If one who knows his shortcomings wishes to attain completion [through any of these means] and regularly worships—at the time of early morning or at midday—the lotus words of the recitation of the Kula Kuṇḍalī, s/he becomes a Siddha / successful in sādhanā.” WALLIS
Though employing just a little poetic license to translation, the eminent Sanskritist Dr. Christopher Wallis follows up with an astonishing insight. In the commentary which follows the translation, Wallis speculates that the key to understanding the implicit practice in this verse, and the explicit practices enumerated in Kshemeraja’s Recognition Sutras, is found in the mantra (kula kundali). The mantra is not spelled out in the verse, or indeed anywhere throughout in the entire hymn, but is presumed to be the same hamsa mantra introduced in the first visarga (top-bottom bindus) practice of the VBT in verse 24 which reads:
Vijnana Bhairava Tantra
Transl. “The Supreme Goddess constantly articulates (uccaret) as the life-giving flow of breath: prāṇa (exhale) rising up, and jīva (inhale)—the movement into embodiment—descending. By pausing at the two places where they arise, and filling those points [with silent awareness], one abides in the state of inner fullness (bharitā). (WALLIS)
Verse 24 is not only articulating the imminence and transcendence of the flow of the life force, introducing us to an experience of Shiva through inner stillness, and Shakti through dynamic expression outward into life, but the symbolism of the language itself is our mystical instruction manual in the way of attainment. Whereas previously the practitioner was actively engaged in cycling the prana, while ultimately leading it to the heart through the central channel, here at the beginning of this foundational dialogue (VBT), we are being instructed to additionally take a pause at the upward and downward arcs. The very first practice is the most crucial of them all.
Hamsa, the two-syllable mantra that is the very embodiment of nivrtti and pravrtti, imminence and transcendence, Shiva and Shakti, also literally means swan and evokes not only images of grace, but also flight. Wallis contends that the Kundalini Stavah verse 3 phrase ‘lotus words ‘ in fact, refers to the hamsa mantra, whereas (lotus words = San. pada = feet, i.e., 2 feet, 2 syllables = hamsa) You’d have to be a Sanskritist to fully appreciate it, I suppose, but he gets the benefits of any doubt because it makes such excellent sense in context..
There are 2 wings formed of the sacred syllables ham and sah on either side of the guru resting in the crown chakra; it says so in the Guru Gita.
The radically enlightened Abhinavagupta uses naught but a simple punctuation mark to create a similar effect! Visarga, in Sanskrit, not only connotes a colon, but also an entire practice of channeling prana! How much care need be taken when reading a verse from one of these cosmic comedians? These luminous mystics. These funny guys.
The breath pause! Central to Hatha Yoga. Central to Ashtangha Yoga. Central to Tantra. Beginning and ending the circle of the great dialogue of Bhairava and Bhairavi – this is the world of Kundalini.
Personally though, I’d like to know why Kshemeraja, who was Abhinavagupta’s student before becoming a master in his own right, concluded that the Kaula verse referenced above should be phrased just so, with emphasis on two Kundalinis, when Abhinavagupta himself references three in his own magnum opus, the Tantraloka. That’s right – three! Parā-kuṇḍalinī (at the crown), kula-kuṇḍalinī (at the heart), and prāṇa-kuṇḍalinī (at the base). The verse can also be found in Goraksha’s Amaraugha-śāsana. It reads:
Transl. “Due to the descent of the upper power, the contraction of the lower power, and the awakening of the central power, the supreme joy arises.” WALLIS
Perhaps it’s a context thing. Kshemeraja was focused on the experience of immersion after all, an experience which would seem to center on the heart. I’ve no idea the context in which Abhinavagupta originally wrote this as yet untranslated verse of the Tantraloka, nor have I read the Amaraugha-śāsana.
I could fall back on my own initiation into the lineage of the wisdom kings, perhaps offering some much needed experiential context to the great compendium of wisdom that is the Tantric cornucopia, but I hesitate, both for an aversion to joining the legions of ‘my truth-ers’, as well as a lack of preparedness (read will and knowledge) to formulate my experiences in these precise terms. Two of the three Trika Goddesses elude me in this context, yet is it not but for directed action that this is so?
Yet, is it not incumbent upon me to make it all as clear as possible, too? Did not my own Guru instruct me so? How is anyone outside the Trika lineage to realize my play on words just then? They do not know Kundalini. How is it I expect a familiarity with Para, Apara and Para-para, the three Shaktis of primordial energy who manifest as the frequencies of Will, Knowledge and Volition itself.
Abhinava tells us in chapter 11 of the Tantrasāra (“The Essence of the Tantras” or, a synthesis of Tantraloka teachings), that the śaktipāta, the descent of power, is the awakening that brings one to the spiritual path, and that a firm grasping of the utility of initiation is at least one of the paths to liberation (from the duality of suffering and joy, or attachment and aversion).
Indeed, I grasp the utility; my Guru, Swamy Vinayagananda, was as fine a sage as they come. Shakta-Saivite Yogi, Nath Yogi, like Jnaneshwara before him. He initiated me and taught me well and just maybe passed me up the middle channel a bit too impeccably, because hardly do I sway often towards flamboyant demonstration of experience, and still, I am clearly just a guy, living in the world, engaged wholeheartedly, drunk with the joy of the experience like that Vatulanatha so loved by the Yoginin.
This is the world of Kundalini. Where the cycle of worldly suffering takes a breath-pause and ignorance evaporates in the light of refined insight. How is that accomplished, you ask? Practice, my friend. Practice.
“A stable path is achieved through wisdom; the city of the liberated ones of the Kulamārga (path of embodiment) is attained through the Kuṇḍalinī; the false path of māyā (i.e., perceiving duality as ultimately real) is vanquished through the radiantly powerful Goddess (Śrī). If one who knows his shortcomings wishes to attain completion [through any of these means] and regularly worships—at the time of early morning or at midday—the lotus words of the recitation of the Kula Kuṇḍalī, s/he becomes a Siddha / successful in sādhanā.” (WALLIS)
One who wants perfection and knows his own shortcomings becomes victorious while living on earth through the knowledge of Shri Kundalini. (Being freed from) the wrong path of maya, (such a one reaches) the city of liberation through the path of Kula Kundalini. If, during the time of early morning, or at noontime, one regularly worships the lotus feet of the Hymn of the Kula Kundalini, one becomes a siddha. (Translator Unknown, but this version comes from SYDA Foundation (Siddha Yoga) Muktananda’s ‘Nectar of Chanting’)
One who wants perfection and knows his own shortcomings becomes victorious while living on earth through the knowledge of Shri Kundalini. Being freed from the false path of maya, such a one reaches the city of liberation through the path of Kula Kundalini. If, during the time of early morning, or at midday, one regularly partakes of the meter of the hymn of the Kula Kundalini, one becomes a Siddha. (Translator Unknown, SYDA Foundation (Siddha Yoga) of Anandamayi, Muktananda, Nityananda)
**Artwork courtesy of Eric Jakobson and Christopher Tompkins
1Historical references and Sanskrit translation courtesy of Dr. Christopher Wallis
…is a Saiva Tantrika, Gyana Yogi and founder of Uma Maheshwara Yoga & Ayurveda. David has an MA in Semiotics, lives in Japan with his family and works as a coach in L & D, devoting his time to developing science-based tools and programs that help people reach the fullest potential of the human condition.