Mandala of Vajrabhairava

Avery Brundage Collection/Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Mandala of Vajrabhairava, Ngor Monastery, Tibet, 1650–1750

Once there was a woman who lived inside a rock. She had a husband, a desiccated, barren yogi, who also inhabited the rock and spent his days and nights in meditation, striving for liberation from earthly existence; he never touched his wife, whom he had created out of his own imagination. The woman, “like a lotus burnt by frost,” was weary of this loveless life; she, too, sought release. One day a great sage, Vasishtha, wandering through the wilderness, heard the woman singing a sad and gentle song; he followed her voice and found her sitting outside the rock. She introduced herself and told the sage her story.

She also taught him how to follow her into the rock. This took some practice—at first Vasishtha could see only the rough stony surface. Eventually, he was able to enter into the deep, open spaces inside. There he saw endless worlds folded within worlds; every atom contained millions of interlocking universes. Vasishtha watched as these universes all came to an end in a catastrophic fire, in which the woman and her husband also perished. Profoundly unnerved, Vasishtha resumed his travels, still searching for truth. Life, he concluded, is a strange affair, always full of surprises.

Was this rock meant to be thought of as a real object, occupying some defined space in a familiar cosmos? Yes—at least as real as the pictures of the cosmos that Eric Huntington discusses in Creating the Universe, his masterful book on Buddhist cosmology. The story of the rock comes to us in a Kashmiri Sanskrit text, perhaps from the tenth century, known as “The Way to Freedom” (Mokshopaya), which stands at the center of an astonishing collection of metaphysical narratives called the Yoga-vasishtha that seeks to prove to its readers that reality is internal to our minds. This mind-born texture of existence includes capacious, elastic, expansive rocks that can open up to reveal an infinite set of overlapping and mutually embedded worlds.

Such a cosmos can be mapped in minute detail. Huntington’s book is a lucid study of the cosmograms that South Asian cosmographers, architects, ritualists, and artists produced over many centuries, with particular emphasis on the colorful visions of Mahayana Buddhists in the eastern Himalayas, including Tibet. South Asian cosmology has been explored by earlier scholars such as Willibald Kirfel, Paul Mus, and, more recently, the anthropologist Robert Levy in his book on the Nepalese Newars,1 but Huntington’s work excels in the range, precision, and depth of his understanding. His book is lavishly illustrated with artistic versions of the Buddhist universe and with stunning photographs of ritual models of it created from colored sand and stone. Once, in Ladakh, in the western Himalayas, I saw an intricate and beautiful model taken apart by Buddhist monks in a flurry of golden dust as the ritual they were performing reached its end. Such is the fate of all our universes.

Some South Asian cosmologies are fairly straightforward; usually they are motivated, at least in part, by the powerful wish to establish connections and modes of access to realms that are normally felt to be cut off from one another. For example, in the ritual enactments called Teyyam, practiced in the northern parts of Kerala, in southwestern India, the elaborately costumed performer brings a dormant god or goddess to life by naming him or her, thus embodying this deity. Human beings inhabit a middle space, bhulokam, in a threefold universe; above us there is the Upper World, melulakam, and beneath us the dark Lower World, kizhulakam, where snakes and demons exist. To materialize a god in our middle space, the ritualist has to speak the formula: “By thinking about [or attending to] your presence [tottam], I invoke you into manifestation.”2 Tottam implies emergence, a move from subtle, hidden, and potential space into external, visible space; it is not by chance that such a move depends upon uttering sounds or words that create the desired connectivity. Language is always a central part of South Asian cosmic models, which work mainly on the level of sound released into space, usually the vast space within the mind or within the imagination that shapes and defines the mind.

“Modeling” is probably a more accurate term than “representing” for the way South Asian cosmograms behave, including those that are visual depictions (Huntington’s term) of the cosmos. Of course, such depictions, like maps in general, incorporate representational elements, and many of them, as Huntington’s book shows at length, reflect an intellectual effort, shaped by mathematical calculations, to make sense of the way the universe is put together. But cosmograms that model the world, throughout South Asian history, frequently aim at transforming such a world, whether a fully externalized one (if such a thing exists in any South Asian cosmology) or a largely internal and imaginative one. Models, unlike pure representations, tend to be built around homologies, sympathetic resonances, and recursive loops that generate, modify, and magnify the reality they are felt to contain in miniature.


Here is one well-known example of a psycho-cosmogram situated simultaneously inside and outside the human body. Modern practitioners of yoga, whether in India or the West, may know about the invisible “subtle body” that, in the medieval Tantric traditions, exists in every human body along with the less subtle, entirely palpable organs and tissues. The subtle body has centers of power, cakras, vertically stacked from the base of the spine to the top of the skull and linked to 72,000 invisible channels, nadis, through which breath flows in varying intensities; at the lowest point, a snake-like goddess, the Kundalini, lies sleeping. The Tantric yogi seeks to awaken her, thereby achieving profound delight and even, with luck, liberation from the shackles of our normally painful and occluded existence.

The Kundalini is not a metaphor and certainly not a symbol. She is a living, if soporific, being. But how does the corporeal model work on this sleeping beauty? Two large channels, the ida on the left and the pingala on the right, are identified with the moon—a storehouse of frozen ambrosia—and the fiery sun. The human organism thus mimics or contains a whole astronomy. Powered by our breath, the heat of the internal sun continually melts the ambrosia in the moon channel, and this delicious liquid drips intravenously down to a pit at the base of the spine, anesthetizing the Kundalini. The inner sun also soaks up the ambrosia in an ongoing, homeostatic, metabolic process.

But all this can change on new-moon day, when the sun and the moon—both in the heavens and in our bodies—come closest to each other. On that day, the expert yogi can block normal metabolism by holding his or her breath; this dries up the pit down below and cuts off the anesthetic, so that the Kundalini, ravenous for ambrosia, wakes up and, hissing like a snake, moves upward through the energy channels to bite the orb of the moon at the acme of the subtle body, thereby flooding the not-so-subtle body with ecstasy. This can happen only once in every month, when the stars above and the inner planets are perfectly aligned.

However, as the medieval Orissan commentator Lakshmidhara tells us, following the logic of this cosmic system, an advanced yogi can unilaterally create a new-moon day at will, in his own body and in the sky. He can thus produce total metabolic failure—no more ambrosial drip and reabsorption—and this physiological crisis, along with the near coincidence of sun and moon in the lowest cakra as in the heavens, creates a precious, fleeting moment for potential existential change. This moment is also, by the way, when the urge to speak, which is our deepest wish, is fanned into flame and can burst forth, like the Kundalini. Thus astral movements overlap and resonate with physiological and psycholinguistic events.

Clearly, cosmology is a useful science. It’s not clear if, in this particular case, the celestial realm models the subtle body, or if the body models the sky, or whether both are only echoes of some latent, primordial sound independently solidifying into words. Be that as it may, the commentator deftly arranges these echoes in a single, practical, and rational system. In general, complex South Asian cosmologies operate along lines such as these, with strong correspondences among geographic and geometric mapping, sonic and linguistic registers, and mental processes aimed at self-transformation. In the Buddhist world studied by Huntington, modular images of the cosmos are structured in a manner conducive to enlightenment.

A mural showing the Cakravala cosmos

Eric Huntington

A mural showing the Cakravala cosmos, Zurmang Shedrup Monastery, Sikkim, India, late twentieth century

Mental and material domains tend to be conflated—or, rather, material phenomena, such as continents, oceans, and mountains, may be extensions of mental ones. Geography is a visionary business, rife with consequence. For the militant devotees of the god Shiva in medieval South India, tortuous hells definitely exist in the subterranean sphere of the cosmos—but only for those who believe in them. If you don’t, you won’t end up there. The Himalayan Buddhists have no compunction about saying that the upper reaches of their cosmos are, quite simply, “not a place.” What, then, are they? An empty space, perhaps, in a cosmos whose true nature is emptiness. In meditation the ritualist begins by dissolving external reality into the emptiness that is its nature—and then recreates the seductive but empty world, or the Buddha himself, no less empty, in his mind.


Those who want practical guidance in navigating such worlds would do well to follow the essays in Awaken, the superb catalog of an exhibition of Himalayan art at the Asian Museum of San Francisco. The curators, John Henry Rice and Jeffrey S. Durham, have conceived an inspired program meant to initiate the reader-spectator into the practices of Tantric Buddhist visualization. They have adopted a fifteenth-century Tibetan master of the famed Ngor monastery, Gorampa Sonam Senge, as their guide in a series of short, beautifully written chapters that take us through preparatory rituals and exercises to the sophisticated meditative discipline of the monks. At each stage, objects of breathtaking artistry illustrate the path. In addition to these chapters and to the splendid images, there are excellent essays by well-known specialists in Tibetan art and religion, including Huntington, who offers another lucid statement about “Seeing the Unseen.”

Emptiness exercises aided by the ravishing geometric diagrams called mandalas, which one is meant to enter into or, better, to take into oneself, are a highly disciplined corpus, not arenas for individual creativity. At every step, one meets fragments of cosmos, sometimes correlated to the graphic geographies that Himalayan Buddhism developed over centuries; indeed, the entire cosmos, with its mountains and continents and oceans, may be offered up to a Buddhist deity in a colored and crafted simulacrum in exchange for the longed-for goal of true awakening. A Himalayan mandala is usually a crowded space: there are godly and demonic spheres, labyrinths, palaces, gateways guarded by terrifying gatekeepers, mantric buzzes and hums, disorienting temporal rhythms, and hosts of deities, some ominous, others benign. With persistence, a meditator learns to create in open (mental) space the entire three- or four-dimensional universe with all its objects and living beings.

Similarly, in the South Indian tradition of Kudiyattam drama, which has survived in Kerala since medieval times, the actor begins a performance that may last many days and nights by dancing into existence the world in which the drama will take place, “from the Creator God, Brahma, down to the ants,” as the texts like to say. All this happens in empty space that the performer fills, piece by piece, through the movements of hands, feet, and eyes, while accompanied by sung Sanskrit verses. At the end of the performance, the primary actor takes apart this dense, invisible universe, actually burning it, in the form of three oil-soaked wicks, on the stage—always, for me, a moment of unutterable sadness.3

So is South Asian cosmology all a matter of conjuring up ephemeral visualizations in the absence of any empirical knowledge of the universe? By no means. The ancient Sanskrit encyclopedists knew there was such a place as India, which they situated in the southern section of Black Plum Island, Jambudvipa, encompassing the cosmic axis Mount Meru. They also knew that to the north lay mountains and lands peopled by tribes that were very different from the inhabitants of the plains—for example, the Uttarakurus, who sometimes married goddesses (but never for more than a week) and who lived for thousands of years. Hundreds of territories, rivers, mountains, peoples, remote tribes, and ecological zones are named in these Hindu texts, known as Puranas; they combine an intense ethnographic curiosity with inherited, richly configured geographical data.

The same texts inform us that Black Plum Island is the innermost continent of seven concentric ones, each separated from the next by an ocean (of saltwater, jaggery syrup, wine, butter, curd, and milk, respectively). A somewhat simpler, and probably older, model has Meru surrounded by four continents that are like petals of a lotus; the southern petal, Bharata, is home to India. Buddhist cosmologists such as the fourth-to- fifth-century Vasubandhu and the fifth- century Buddhaghosa retained the cosmic mountain Meru, extending upward through many stacked heavens, while placing the continents, such as Jambudvipa, along a vast horizontal axis that is ultimately bounded by a range of mountains known as Cakravala.

In these complex systems, time proceeds at different paces at different points in the cosmos, and sunrise over one continent coincides with midnight over another. Even more complex, and close to the overlapping homologies and transformative models mentioned earlier, is the “grand unified theory” known as the Wheel of Time, kala-cakra, a subject favored by the Himalayan painters. Here we have a radically ethicized and relativized cosmos that, in Huntington’s words, “is nothing more than illusory perceptions determined by the propensities of the individuals who experience it.”

Nineteenth-century colonial authors loved to poke fun at the Hindu oceans of syrup and honey and their counterparts in the Buddhist systems, but they characteristically failed to see that ancient South Asians were truly curious about parts of the world beyond India (though not as curious as the ancient Greeks, who explored whatever lands they could physically reach by land or sea). Even to a modern scholar, the standard Indian cosmologies might seem to mix bits of realistic geographic knowledge with near-infinite vistas of imaginary or mythic realms. But this formulation, which privileges a rather impoverished notion of what counts as knowledge, distorts the cosmological impulse and makes no attempt to fathom its operative logic. Much of Huntington’s book is concerned with decoding that logic as seen in the exquisitely painted mandalas of Tibet; in the architectural design of Buddhist monuments in the Himalayas and in Southeast Asia; in ritual constructions of potential worlds that can be offered to Buddhist deities, inside or outside the mind; and in the geo-cosmic maps that greet pilgrims at the entrance to the great Tibetan monasteries and shrines.

Although traditional cosmographies are still very much alive in South Asia in a wide range of settings and milieux—from geomantic and cosmo-spatial principles of design (Vastu-sastra), without which no house can be built, to practical astrological calculations, ritual calendars, and the biographies of every living god and goddess—a parallel corpus of precise, observation-based geographic literature, including detailed maps, began to appear in various parts of the subcontinent from roughly the sixteenth century on. This literature was soon integrated into the novel genre of encyclopedias composed in the vernaculars of South India; it also forms part of the universal histories written in those languages a century or two later. On the southwestern coast, we find already in the mid-fifteenth century the first practical navigation manual for the use of sailors to and from the Lakshadweep islands, written in Malayalam in the Arabi-Malayalam script.4 Matthew Kapstein has studied the emergent discipline of geography, still squeezed, with some difficulty, into the earlier orthodox cosmology, in sources from eighteenth-century Tibet.5 Something very new was happening in South Asian intellectual domains. The universe had simultaneously shrunk and expanded as an entirely earthly geography hesitantly detached itself from traditional cosmology.

So when the early-sixteenth-century Telugu poet Allasani Peddana introduces a wandering yogi to his restless hero Pravara, stuck at home in the Gangetic plain, the latter asks his new friend:

What are the countries you have visited? The mountains you have climbed? The rivers you’ve bathed in? The islands you’ve explored? The godly forests you’ve entered? The oceans you have come to? Tell me about all of them, in all their new and wonderful details.

And the yogi casually replies, “Why mention this place or that? I’ve seen everything under the sky.”6 He then proceeds to give a list of specific sites, stretching from the shrine of the goddess Hingula in the far northwest of the subcontinent to the distant limits of north, east, and south. Both the queries and the reply ring true, as if anchored in personal experience or a yearning for such experience; both parties to the conversation inhabit a tangible, more or less accessible, above all knowable new world.