Lankeswera SD Pieris, courtesy of http://www.artsrilanka.org/essays/ritualdrawings/index.html
|The Mantra Sastra – the Magic of Words
Incantations used in order to activate yantras are in mantra language. In Sri Lanka, mantra language is of three kinds. Some mantras are incomprehensible to the noninitiated as the words have no known meaning. Others are in known languages and are invocations to deities or other spirits. Bija (seed) mantras which are incorporated in yantras are sacred syllables. Each deity has a syllable which is instrumental in resurrecting partial aspects of the deity. It is a component part of the total mantra. Every mantra is a form of Brahman, the Godhead.
Numerology – the Magic of Number
The culture of ancient India was essentially oral, and gave the ‘Word’ an elevated status with metaphysical power. However the occult arts assumed that there is a relationship between the word, number, colour and musical tone and used a system of numerology which converted sounds to numbers. Each syllable in the Sinhala language is given a number which enables any word to be expressed in numbers. Certain yantras use numerals instead of words. The numerals form an unity or a part of a series embodying harmony.
Yantra drawings incorporate myths containing important information about the past. Myths are sometimes shorthand accounts of revolutionary transformations consequent on invasions and religious, social and dynastic changes – the raw material of history. Myths however alter with time and attempt to justify existing social systems. They account for traditions, rites and customs. A study of myths will help us to understand the meaning of life as conceived by our ancestors and bequeathed to us. The yantra drawings, being based on myths, speak to us from the past and must be preserved for future generations, as the past is patrimomy and not cultural refuse, while the drawings constitute a record of our cultural and psychological matrix. They address the unconscious, the collective identity and ethos of the nation. Furthermore, the yantra still survives both in village and in town as a living tradition, for it continues to satisfy deep psychological needs for security and for revenge; by so doing, it perpetuates the living power of myth, ritual and rite.
Yantra Kavi books on palm leaves containing the techniques of fashioning yantras, also describe pictorial yantras used for the purpose of securing protection. These yantras illustrating myths differ when there are different versions of the same myth. Pictorial yantras are too elaborate to be inscribed on palm leaves and had to be inscribed on metal plates. Hugh Nevill, who researched ola manuscripts in the 19th century, makes the following observation; “If the villagers who keep such yantra kavi a strict secret, could be induced to part with them, much most ancient lore would be recovered, as the drawing or design preserves the myth unaltered. They are however quite averse to even to own to knowing such protecting verses and drawings.”
The Tantra Sastra
The Yantra Sastra came to Sri Lanka from India where it formed part of the Hindu and Buddhist tantric traditions. The yantra drawings cannot be dated with any accuracy and are copies of older drawings which have themselves been copied. These forms on palm leaves are varying recensions of archetypal formulae whose dates of fixation are in a remote antiquity.
The Buddhist form of tantrism known as Tantrayana established itself in India about the 8th century ACE and came to Sri Lanka from Nalanda about this time. Two tantric schools, the Nilapatadarsana and the Vajravada were introduced to Sri Lanka in the 9th century ACE. We are unaware as to when Hindu tantrism reached this country. In Sri Lanka, as in India, tantrism gave way to orthodox religious practices and what remains of tantrism are practices related to magic and witchcraft.
The five essentials used in orthodox tantric rituals were wine, meat, fish, parched grain, and women. The use of these aids were considered necessary to overcome the impediment called rebirth or sansara. Tantrism originated in India as aboriginal folk cults and its rites were considered by the orthodox as primitive, dangerous, and irrational. They were modified in Sri Lanka under the influence of the Theravada but left its mark on culture. Although its effects would have been felt from very early times, tantric rites were reintroduced during a series of immigrations from South India between the 13th and the end of the 18th century to the south west of the island. Tantric influence reasserted itself in the Kandyan kingdom, when the Vadiga kings of Kandy introduced magic ceremonies from the Telegu country. Today the centres of magic and witchcraft are coastal towns such as Matara, Tangalla, Gandara and Bentota, and novices are drawn to these centres of the black arts to graduate under professional sorcerers.
In Sri Lanka the influence of Buddhist and Hindu tantrism is in evidence in the mantra sastra, the yantra sastra, purification ceremonies, other ritual arts, at Hindu temple festivals, and in Hindu phallic worship. Sanskrit text books from India on architecture, arts, and crafts, which have influenced the arts in Sri Lanka, reflect this bias. The hold of tantrism is therefore evident in ceremonies connected with the building and consecration of temples, statues, houses and other buildings.
These artifacts, as it were, form a time capsule speaking to us across the ages. They are fragments of a past civilisation, in some ways very different from ours, but in other ways having affinities with our life and thought. These fragments have to be rescued before they disappear into the night of time for they are rare survivals and their study is likely to afford fresh insights into our pre-history and psychological make-up. If they are not rescued from anonymity and decay, we shall lose a living link with the past. They are a means of our coming face to face with our roots, the primordial sources which acted upon our way of life and thought and art.
The palm leaf manuscripts on the yantra sastra are an unclaimed legacy which await the attention of the art historian, the archeologist, and the social scientist.