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  • Rob Will

Bhagavan Shiva Yantra: An Art Happening in a Cage in Hell

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

People regularly tell me that I should write more about my art. This usually occurs at visitation after someone asks me questions about a particular piece and after discussion they declare that I must explain this to others. I certainly do not think anything that I do is noteworthy to the point of demanding explanation and art is just what I do, what I live and what I breathe. I have always found it difficult to try to explain the multi-leveled meanings, ideas and concepts that exist in relation to the work that I do. Even saying “my art” seems a bit ridiculous to me. I am always working with concepts that exist far outside of the individual self—concepts that seem to dance through me, sparking an intense eurhythmic creative energy that demands release. I just rock with it and ride the rhythm. Explanation can seem a bit strange to me.

Also, I absolutely love the art of writing, but greatly dislike the personal act of writing. Recently, however, a friend and colleague asked me if I knew what the symbols on a particular piece of mine meant. I jokingly thought, “man, how are you going to ask me an ole crazy ass borderline blasphemous question like that? You should know better!” Well, here is a quick attempted explanation of some aspects of the piece in question.

Bhagavan Shiva Yantra.

Entire books have been written on yantra but generally a yantra—in Hindu Yogic Philosophy—is a visual representation of a spiritual concept. To meditate on a yantra is to focus on a diagrammatic symbol of some aspect of Divinity. A literal translation of yantra (from Sanskrit) is “device for holding or fastening”, which seems quite appropriate: meditation on the symbol, the diagram, the work of art, allows one to more fully fasten and hold on to an illuminating concept within one’s self.

Often I will create my own completely original mystic diagrams, visual ritual symbolism, sacred scrolls and such things. Although being quite the Jungian and also a student of Joseph Campbell, I'd say that there is some substance to the idea that nothing is “original'' and all art arises from the collective evolution of the symbolism of humanity. Individuals can certainly add to this though, in small and even expansive and powerful ways.

This diagram, this Bhagavan Shiva Yantra (“Yantra of Lord Shiva”) is something I came across in a book entitled Mantra, Kirtana, Yantra and Tantra by the Hindu scholar of yoga and Vedanta philosophy, Swami Jyotir Maya Nanda. I have read many books that deal with similar subject matter, and I'd never before seen this Yantra and it struck me as quite engaging. Copying a yantra in one's own hand can be a process of learning and an act of devotion. Interestingly, Swami Jyotir points out that every religion since the dawn of time has adopted both a specific Yantra such as the Christian cross, or the Star of David (Seal of Solomon), as well as a mantra (name of the Divine) which invokes Divine Grace. (Think about that for a minute!).

The classic Tantric system of Hindu philosophy and Yoga, combines both mantra and yantra. A mantra, a divine name, saying or spiritual formula, is repeated as an act of praise and devotion. Apparently, this has become quite popular in yoga studios in Western society (at least as an act of meditation to compliment physical poses). The mantra associated with this yantra is Om Namah Shivaya, which basically means “I give honor to Lord Shiva”.

Various Hindu traditions see Shiva in different ways—and this even applies to subsets of Tantra—but the general tantric worldview sees the deity Shiva as one half of The Ultimate Reality (in addition to the Goddess Shakti). These things can get extremely intricate and quite complex, but Shiva is also known as the god of yoga—yoga in the true sense: meaning to “yoke” one’s self to Oneness, to The All That Is, to The Divine.

The yantra image in the book is only five inches by five inches, and my painting is two feet by two feet. It took me a long time, many hours and days to “blow up” the image (as any artist reading this will understand). During this time—and while painting the piece—I engaged in much study of various books that discuss concepts and ideas related to the yantra. I practiced different asanas (yoga poses) named in the honor of Shiva such as Shiva Natarajanasana, really letting my physical being become more in tune with all that I was exploring, feeling and creating.

I practiced the Om Namah Shivaya mantra for hours and hours... letting it speak to me of holy and sacred things. At one point this evolved into the Kirtana style (of singing and chanting a mantra), and I flowed into The Dance of Shiva series of asanas. It would be impossible to fully describe all that I cultivated and experienced while creating this piece. As with all of my art, it was a multi-layered process of creation and a deep ritual experience.

Oh, and the symbols! Geez... If I utilize a symbol I definitely know what it means—and it is likely that I went on one of my rather fanatical weirdo art obsession study excursions in exploring its meaning. Studying the Eastern writing and systems can be quite complicated. I read that it takes 10 years of diligent study to understand Sanskrit and another five years to understand its usage in a philosophical and religious context. I love Philology, linguistics, and the history of languages and their written scripts and I’ve delved a bit into these realms (to the best of my ability).

The script on this piece is a calligraphic form of Devanagari Sanskrit (which exists in different variations). Most of the scripts used in India, Southeast Asia and Tibet evolved from the holy script Brahmi-lipi (including Devanagari), but attempting to differentiate, decipher and even just recognize these writing systems can be difficult. Devanagari, Gupta, Siddham, Tibetan Kotanese... such a torture to the inferior western mind! (or at least my inferior western mind!). To a large extent Devanagari Sanskrit is what is utilized in the Hindu tantric philosophy of India.

My own amateur attempts at deciphering the top row of letters on the yantra—utilizing the books I have in my cage—gave me this:

NA SA(?) YA MA VA(?)

Which can be arranged to NA MA SA VA YA…Nama Savaya…Namah Shivaya. Yeah, okay, the mantra Om Namah Shivaya that goes with the Bhagavan Shiva Yantra. There are only five characters repeated and arranged differently on the yantra. This is something similar to the diagrammatic Magick Square in the Western Esoteric Occult Sciences tradition.

As far as I can tell the symbol of the sacred Om isn't depicted on the yantra. This may be because in certain traditions, it is a given that the sacred Om is ever-present in all things so there was no reason to depict it. It is also said that the sacred Om should always be invoked at the beginning (and end) of all holy and sacred ritual endeavors, so writing or depicting it is superfluous.

I think that the most important aspect of the experience that was and is this Bhagavan Shiva Yantra painting is a call to remember, re-remember and more fully internalize one of the most powerful truths contained within Tantric philosophy: The Secret of Embodiment. As Above, So Below. Microcosm, macrocosm. We are nothing and at the same time, everything. Every individual human being is intimately connected with the whole of humanity and all aspects of existence. Non-duality, Oneness. All experiences, whether positive or negative are not occurring to us, but within our larger being. Oh, the delight and humor in this truly liberating insight!

Knowing and internalizing the secret of embodiment really pushes one’s self toward walking a more righteous, honorable, positive and productive path in life—a path that brings much personal growth, but also leads towards branching out in ways that benefit others and society as a whole...

Conceptualism. Art as lived experience. Language. Image, Comprehension. Perception. Art as a ritual and a call to action. A painting that reaches out and transcends the traditional boundaries of visual art and incorporates the artistry of sacred dance, music of Kirtana and integrated Mind-Body health practice. Art as a tool of study, learning and teaching. Again, it is difficult to fully explain the meaning behind this painting (and all others)... but if nothing else, how about this: Bhagavan Shiva Yantra: An Art Happening in a Cage in Hell.

Color Theory, Red and Black. The colors of Tantra.

*I tagged up Bhagavan Shiva Yantra at the bottom in a style of tagging that I've used since I was a kid: elevating the mundane to the level of sacred. An exercise in Zensho (Zen calligraphy).

*In studying the meaning and process of “stamping” in sacred art, I decided to make my own “signature stamp”. That's the little elephant design within the “R” at the bottom of the piece. And the symbolism of the elephant...

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