What are the pillars for? we asked
"Oh... the pillars - they are mere decoration", our Japanese guide told us, as we were walking the long avenue up to the Shinto shrine in Tokyo.
At first of course we believed our guide. We soon learned however that there were millions of these pillars in Japan, nay all over Asia, so it could not possibly be true that they were only for decoration.
Slowly the meaning of the pillars dawned upon us, and we found out that they in fact held the key to the understanding of the Asian religions, including yoga. Because the pillars are not mere decoration as our guide believed, but on the contrary keys to reality - a metaphor for the cosmos, i.e. cosmograms. They are on display throughout Asia. To the majority, they are obscure, while to others they are the key to salvation.
This secret (esoteric) knowledge is the subject matter of this article.
The meaning of the pillars can be perceived at various levels and degrees. Each level gives the seeker a greater knowledge.
When you approach such a pillar, the first thing to notice is the various geometrical figures which form the pillar.
At the bottom there is a quadrangle, then a circle, then a triangle, in the next a semicircle, and finally at the top a drop or a pearl. These basic figures attract attention to the essential elements of this world: earth, water, fire, air, and ether.
If you place these geometrical figures on top of each other you have a pillar of elements like those found all over Asia.
These elements are numbered so that earth is the first element and ether the fifth. These elements together constitute cosmos because separately each represents a principal component of cosmos.
"Well" a modern person might object - "everybody knows that the world doesn’t consist of earth, water, fire, air, and ether! - the world consists of 103 basic elements, which in their turn consist of atoms!"
Of course this is scientifically true, but before the rise of science, as we all know, man was pondering what constitutes cosmos and what is the underlying purpose of it all.
It is obvious that man relates to his surroundings as he watches and observes, and that it is the nature of man to try to interpret his surroundings in relation to his own person. In all religions among ordinary religious practitioners an elementary theo-logization takes place.
Real life/reality is not just a registration. Man’s relationship to the surrounding world is essentially a question of invention. The ordinary down-to-earth cosmological perspectives of the religions are probably the most important expressions of such theological inventions.
In former times when people all over the world were pondering over reality they perceived the world through their own sensory apparatus. Such sensory acquisitions indicate that basically the world contains solid (earth), liquid (water), warm elements (fire), air (air), and space (ether).
That’s the way human beings have known reality, and today, too, we experience reality through our senses. E.g. we cheerfully join in singing "The sun rises in the east" eventhough science tells us it is nonsense. The earth revolves around the sun, but to us the sun rises in the east.
Analogies - i.e. things which resemble each other or belong to the same category - play an important part in many religions. This is especially the case with many Asian religions.
When things resemble each other we often take them to be related to each other. The toy car looks like a real car and the child perceives it as a real car - they are identical.
If we for a little while turn our senses away from the outer world and take a look at ourselves then we will see that man fundamentally resembles the outer world. Analogically we become identical with the world so that we are made of the same substance as the world.
This is expressed by man through analogies between macro-reality (the world) and micro-reality (man). In the language of yoga, then, the world and man belong to the same system of elements.
1. Man possesses something solid
= earth = flesh, bones.
2. Man possesses something fluid
= water = blood, bile, semen.
3. Man possesses something warm
= fire = body heat, digestion, love/hate.
4. Man possesses air
= air = breath.
5. Man possesses space
= ether = speech/communication
The external reality in a way corresponds to man’s own physical reality, so the pillar of elements is not only an image of cosmos but at the same time an image of everybody. When you look at a pillar of elements then you also look at yourself.
The function of the pillar of elements is to show us the proper position of the elements and to ensure harmony and purpose. This goes for the world as well as for man. Accidents happen in the fury of the elements or when objects, animals and individuals are out of their element, so that’s why man’s religious practice very often directs itself to this elemental reality.
Since the subject matter of this article is yoga and not the elements in Asian religion I shall for the rest of this article concentrate on yogic interpretation of the elements.
The Taittiriya Upanishad (600 B.C.) tells us how the world/cosmos was created.
out of space
out of air
out of fire
out of water
From the external, divine, transcendental world - (Brahman), the 5 elements arise after a cosmic fall. So the fall occurs from the the "most delicate spiritual sphere" - the transcendental - through space to air, fire, water to the most gross and material - the earth.
Since man is a compound of the same elements as the rest of the world, man arose through the same fall from the "most spiritual" - the divine transcendent via space; air; fire; water to the most material of all: earth.
Reincarnation/rebirth (samsara) is the decisive religious basis of yoga. No reincarnation, no yoga - that's the way it is. Man is tied to his elemental reality and therefore bound to be born over and over again. Alas! - To be forced again and again through another life on earth. As a seed is put into the ground, dies and germinates again, so man must be born again and again. But how do you avoid being born again? How do you find the "total" death so you don't have to live or die anymore? That is the crucial question and the question to which yoga seeks to give an answer.
There are many ways (yogas) to lead man away from the grip of rebirth, e.g. devotional yoga (Bhakti yoga), actional yoga (Karma yoga), and perceptual yoga (Gnana yoga). Here we shall concentrate on the most efficient and most ritualistic yoga, i.e. Hatha-yoga also known as Tantra-yoga. What is exceptional about the techniques of this yoga is the claim that during a single life they may lead the yogi (yoga-practitioner) out of the cycle of reincarnation into the state of salvation called moksha.
In Tantric yoga the esoteric (secret) understanding of the pillar of elements clearly emerges. In Tantric yoga we learn that man is a pillar of elements (macro) and that the pillar of elements is found in the body. Thus we have both an exterior pillar of elements (macro) visible to everybody and an interior (micro) pillar of elements only known to the esoteric student.
The component parts of this interior pillar of elements are called chakras (see diagram) and they are seen as centers along the spine, from the bottom of the spine to the top of the head. A channel (Sushumna) connects the chakras to each other.
The observant reader may already have noticed our addition of an extra element, i.e. the sixth element. In the seventh element we have returned to the divine beginning so we actually operate with 6 + 1 elements. This sixth element must be included because man as mentioned before possesses something which enables him to have influence upon his own future. This faculty is consciousness.
Consciousness is the most delicate thing in man, and by raising his consciousness - acquiring a higher, nay supernatural consciousness - man may overcome death and return to his divine beginning. Salvation from the illness, death and rebirth of this world can be obtained by controlling the interior world, and the aim of yoga is this salvation from the interior and exterior worlds.
Svetasvatara Upanishad (600 B.C.) describes it in this way:
"When the yogi has gained full control of his body, compounded of the 5 elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether, then he has acquired a new body of spiritual fire which is beyond illness, old age and death".
The power that created the world is still present. The strongest power lies in consciousness, the weakest in earth or the physical body. This power is called Kundalini and is usually represented by a snake, which in man is found sleeping in the Muladhara chakra. With the use of the proper techniques this power can be awakened and controlled. The goal is to force the serpent up through the chakra/pillar of elements back to its divine beginning.
Since man and the world consist of identical elements the yogi may, when controlling his own inner micro reality, also control the outer reality. This yogic process works in two ways. On one hand, the yogi wants to possess the powers and energies of the world in order to become divinely powerful himself, so he may be master of the powers of life and overcome all human limitations. On the other hand and this is the ultimate goal - the assumption of power takes place with the intention of stopping the life process in order to escape reincarnation. Life can only be overcome by the very power of life.
The techniques used by yoga in order to attain this assumption of power are therefore of crucial importance.
If you ask a man in the street what yoga is, the most frequent answer will be, "Yoga, that has to do with gymnastics!" To most people yoga implies physical exercises resulting in more vigor and limbering up the muscles. This is part of the truth because yogic physical exercises or asanas, which is their proper name, often result in more strength and elasticity.
It just so happens that elasticity and strength are not the goal of the asanas.
The aim of a military defence is to defend a country as effectively as possible and therefore you must learn to kill. However, one of the positive side effects of learning to kill is the fact that young men get fit. Such is also the case with asanas. The positive side effect of yogic asanas is an increased elasticity and strength but the aim is to be able to halt the process of life. A yoga - practitioner must be able to control his body so that he is in control of it and not vice versa. So at first you must be able to sit motionless for 20 minutes without getting a sore back or having pins and needles in your legs.
Asanas comprises a string of various physical exercises, which are referred to in many books. Through asanas, Kundalini is awakened in the muladhara chakra (controlling flesh and bones) and is forced through the Sushumna channel to the other chakra Swadistana (controlling blood, bile and semen). This chakra deals especially with sexuality. The technique for controlling this element is Brahmacharya which literally means "to walk with Brahman" and denotes the celibate state. Before entering the yoga society (sangha) monks and nuns take a vow of celibacy. This implies absolute abstention. The power of sexuality must be controlled and used for your own salvation. Sexuality is overcome through Brahmacharya and so the second element is controlled, by means of which Kundalini is forced up into the third chakra of Manipura.
The element of fire - emotions - is checked through mudras. Mudras are a series of exercises and ritual actions, all of which intend to govern and control the Kundalini power. Thus mudras are an essential part of yogic discipline.
We have reached the fourth chakra of Anahata - the element of air and lungs. This element is controlled through pranayama, i.e. breathing exercises. Breathing exercises are composed of inspiration, expiration and an interval where you hold your breath (kumbhaka).
Kumbhaka is gradually extended to more than two minutes between each inspiration and expiration. Controlling pranayama demands great discipline and practise and it is a very dangerous discipline. A tremendous change in the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place in the blood, which may lead to severe changes in personality further along. A yogi really practising pranayama often has a convulsive fit - the so- called kriyas. This kind of yoga is actually called kriya-yoga.
When the yogi has raised the Kundalini power to the fourth chakra, and thus controls the four physical elements, then Kundalini has regained so much of its divine power that the yogi is said to be able to fly.
When you control the element of air at the micro level, you can do the same thing at macro level. Therefore a yogi fitted out with this consciousness can fly, or perhaps sit meditating on a mountain peak in the Himalayas and actually melt the snow around him. These supernatural powers are called siddhis, and Transcendental Meditation give siddhi lectures for example, where the participants theoretically learn to float in the air.
The fifth chakra, Vishuddhi - ether/space/speech - is controlled when meditating on a mantra. A mantra is a name of god, e.g. AIM = goddess Saraswati, which is repeated over and over again silently or out loud.
The mantra repetition assaults the mind resulting in a complete blockage. With the aid of mantra repetitions, Kundalini is forced up into the sixth chakra, Ajna, the chakra of the supernatural consciousness, which is then controlled in this way. Now the yogi is capable of controlling his entire physical appearance (his body), and at the same time capable of controlling his psyche (his consciousness). When the sixth chakra is under control the yogi has a fully fledged intuition (second sight) and thus becomes clairvoyant and clairaudient, i.e. he is said to acquire supernatural powers.
This kind of yogi is still kept in samsara, in the grip of reincarnation, and the yogi still lacks something to attain moksha.
Thus far but no further with your own might.
The yogi has now exhausted his own capabilities of reaching higher consciousness. In order to have Kundalini raised into the seventh chakra, a quite extraordinary technique is needed. This technique is called shaktipat and is a energy transfer from a full-fledged master (guru) onto a pupil (disciple). A transfer like this takes place for example when the guru opens the pupil’s "third eye", so the energy may float into the pupil. The guru is therefore a "must" when it comes into being released from life and death and therefore the guru is the most important person in yoga. It simply does not work without the guru. Consequently a lot of songs of praise have been addressed to the gurus, e.g. the gurugita (songs to the guru) one of which says:
This guru devotion can be traced in nearly all guru movements.
Should he reach the seventh chakra (Sahasrara) the guru dies "the ultimate death" where he escapes the cycle of rebirth. In fact, the seventh element/chakra lies outside the world and the body. That is the very moksha - the great nothingness of salvation.
This presentation of elementary yoga is of course, generalized. Every single yogic society has its own special traditions. So Transcendental Meditation focuses strongly on the mantra meditation which makes other techniques recede somewhat into the background without entirely disappearing. Other yoga courses, especially the elementary courses, focus heavily on asanas - the physical exercises, but other techniques appear on the scene when we reach the more advanced stages. Real hatha-yoga applies all techniques simultaneously to get the maximum effect.
Morten Aagaard is a Master of Theology.