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YANTRA . Geometrical diagrams known as yantra s form a very special class of religious symbols in Hinduism. Their forms and functions within the tradition vary according to their uses. The most important ones are those that serve as supports for daily ritual worship and as meditational aids to stimulate inner visualizations; others are employed in astrology and temple rites; some are meant for proficiency in occult arts, and many of these are used as talismans.

Meditational yantra s are an indispensable constituent of Tantric worship and are a substitute for the deity's iconographic image. Basically, a yantra used in this context is an abstract icon of some personification or aspect of the deity. Most Indian divinities have been assigned aniconic symbols in their specific yantra s. Whereas an anthropomorphic image is a static presentation, the yantra is a dynamic symbol of the totality of the cosmos. Hence it is represented as an expanding form emanating from the central nucleus, a dimensionless point, the bindu. A linear configuration, the yantra usually has around its center several concentric primal shapes, such as triangles, hexagons, circles, octagons, and rings of lotus petals. The figure's periphery is a square enclosure with four sacred doors opening toward the four cardinal directions. The centrifugal yantra s are conceived of as a sacred dwelling in which the presiding deity and its retinue take up residence. The seat of the principal deity is in the center, while those of its emanations, or parivāra devatās, are arranged concentrically in successive circuits known as āvaraa s ("veils"), so called because they conceal the luminous splendor of the deity in the center.

At the subtlest level, yantra s translate into visual terms the theory of cosmogenesis. They are to be read as dynamic graphs of the creative process of cosmic evolution and involution that takes place from the center and moves outward. The creative process is represented by the unity of the male and female principles, which, descending into the world of multiplicity, are symbolized by the concentric geometric circuits. The best example of this type of yantra is the Śrīcakra of the cult of the goddess Tripurasundarī. It is composed by the interlacing of two sets of triangles: Four apexes point upward, representing Śiva, the male principle, and five apexes point downward, representing sakti, the female principle. The Śrīcakra is devised to give a vision of the totality of existence, so that the adept may internalize its symbols for the ultimate awareness of his own unity with the cosmos. Every meditational yantra is in essence a psychic improvisation in which the closed concentric circuits of various geometric shapes, from the periphery to the center, correspond to the planes of the adept's consciousness.

Architectural yantra s contribute substantially to the conceptual basis of the Hindu temple. An early example is the Vāstupurusa Maala, of which Hindu manuals of architecture provide thirty-two variations. The maala represents the diagram of the ordered cosmos. In Tantric temple rites, yantra s were laid into the foundation of the womb chamber and were also embedded in cult figures installed in the shrine. Yantra s were also used as compositional diagrams in the execution of sculptural images adorning the walls of the temple. The architectural yantra functions as an ideogram, while the temple is a materialization of the concepts it embodies.

Occult yantra s are distinguished from all other yantra s by their practical applications. They serve as powerful diagrams of magical potency, used mainly in preventive medicine, as good luck charms, for exorcism, to ward off calamities, and so forth. The occult figures are not stereotyped; their designs vary according to the object of worship. One of the most popular is the Dhāraa Yantra; worn as an amulet for protection, this yantra is given to a person after the priest has consecrated it in a life-giving ceremony. Another kind that serves the same purpose is the magical square. The proven efficacy of such yantra s is explained in psychological terms. To the individual who wears a yantra as a talisman or an amulet, the diagram manifests itself as a repository of power through which the presence of the divinity can be invoked at will. Ultimately, the efficacy of the yantra is brought about by the adept's own willpower, working through faith.

Yantra s are most commonly drawn on paper or engraved on metals or rock crystals, although any flat surface, such as a floor or wall, can be used. The yantra s are always used in conjunction with mantras, or mystical sound-units, that correspond to the deity's subtle form. Mantras are employed to energize the latent force inherent in the deity's yantra. Indeed, it is said that a yantra without its seed mantra is as lifeless as a corpse.

See Also

Maalas, article on Hindu Maalas; Mantra; Temple, article on Hindu Temples.


Sanskrit and Hindi Sources

Especially recommended for an overview of the theory and cultic significance of yantra s are Rāmacandra Kaulācāra's Śilpa Prakāśa, translated by Alice Boner and S. R. Śarmā (Leiden, 1966); the Yantra Saskārapaddhiti (Moradabad, 1899); the Yantracintāmai, with Hindi translation by B. P. Misra (Bombay, 1967); and the "Yantrasāra Tantram," in Tantrasāra, edited by R. Chattopadhyaya (Calcutta, 1922). See also Arthur Avalon's translation of Puyānanda's Kāmakalāvilāsa, 2d ed. (Madras, 1953), which includes a translation of Naanānanda's commentary, the Cidvallī.

Secondary Sources in English

Boner, Alice, and S. R. Sarma with R. P. Das, trans. and eds. New Light on the Sun Temple of Koārka. Varanasi, 1972.

Cammann, Schuyler. "Islamic and Indian Magic Squares." History of Religion 8 (February 1969): 275286, (May 1969): 271299.

Khanna, Madhu. Yantra, the Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity. London, 1979.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple (1946). 2 vols. Columbia, Mo., 1980.

New Sources

Bühnemann, Gudrun. Mandalas and Yantras in the Hindu Traditions. Leiden; Boston, 2003.

Bunce, Fredrick W. The Yantras of Deities and Their Numerological Foundations: An Iconographic Consideration. New Delhi, 2001.

Ramachandra Rao, Saligrama Krishna. The Yantras: Text with 32 Plates. Delhi, India, 1988.

Madhu Khanna (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Yantra (Skt., ‘instrument for supporting’). A geometrical design representing the cosmos used in Hindu liturgy (pūjā) and meditation (dhyāna), especially in Tantrism. Though akin to maṇḍala, yantra differs in that it can be a three-dimensional object of worship made of stone or metal plates. Like maṇḍala, the yantra is a symbol of cosmogonic development from the absolute in the centre to the material world at the outer edges, and like maṇḍala is the visual equivalent of mantra. Yantras often have a seed (bīja) mantra inscribed upon them. In Tantric pūjā, the yantra, if made of stone or metal, is invested with power and meditated upon as the deity. The most famous yantra is the Śrīyantra.

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Hindu mystical diagram, often inscribed on copper. Divine energy is invoked into the yantra by special prayers. The yantra is clearly a precursor of the magic diagrams of Western occult-ists, although in India it was used in a religious rather than an occult context.