Manas. Studies into Asia and Africa.

Електронно списание на Центъра за източни езици и култури
Софийски университет „Св. Климент Охридски”

2015 / Том 2 / Брой 2 : Сетива и сетивност

Сетива, сетивност и онтологичният проблем


Религиозните и философските въпроси по темата „Сетива и сетивност“, независимо дали на Изток и Запад, се разглеждат в онтически ракурс, а онтологичният подход остава силно пренебрегнат или неизказан. Все пак екзистенциалната феноменология на Запад и тантристката традиция на Изток са изключение в това отношение. И двете безусловно са възприели онтологичен подход по темата „Сетива и сетивност“ и интересен факт е, че в този аспект те са сходни като теория и практика. Конкретно по темата, с акцент върху изразеното сходство като подход, авторът на статията използва екзистенциалната феноменология като херменевтичен инструмент в разясняването на тантристките практики.


Основен текст


What are religious teachings all about?

Any honest response is bound to converge on the same insight – that is, all the canons have the common goal of taming the senses and curtailing sensuality! Now, turning to the ethical teachings forming part of the larger realm of philosophy, if the same question be put, that, what are they all about? Any honest attempt to answer would ultimately fall in line with the same insight. Stripped of all metaphysical pretence as to human existence, which forms the basis of both streams of enquiry and the relevant literature, the bare fact remains that almost all religious and ethical teachings have rendered man guilty and divided and made him turn against himself against his very ontological situation. And the state of affairs becomes grave when we take into account the fact that the very origin of human existence is embedded in sensuality and the sustenance of it is rooted in sense perception.

Irrespective of whether the teachings belong to the East or the West the situation remains by and large the same. The ontological stream of enquiry has been suppressed and only the ontical stream has been promoted, delegating the former exclusively to the authority of religion. And whenever any subsequent ontical revelation is found to be in conflict with the religious doctrines, it will painstakingly be reconciled with the aid of rationalistic fervor characteristic of the modern times!

Now these are disturbing observations to the so called civilized societies, because the very existence of them is dependent on the suppression of the said facts and repression of the authentic being of mankind, and on the perpetual inauthentic existence of the masses in their ‘dogmatic slumber’ facilitated by religious faith, or the blinding-rationalistic outlook! Nevertheless, that does not mean that nobody has in the history of mankind gone against this hypocrisy, creatively tackling the challenges hidden in such an attempt. There have been such attempts in the East in the ancient times, and in the West quite recently in addition to the ancient Greek legacy.

Out of these attempts, prominent are the Tantric tradition of the East and psychoanalytical theory and existential phenomenology of the West. They have produced a considerable amount of literature and have been quite influential in redrawing the self-image of the present day man. But the above mentioned religious dogmatism, and rationalistic prejudice are so dominant even in the contemporary man, that he has to be constantly alerted as to the ontological question and the immanence of the origin and sustenance of his very existence in sensuality and the senses respectively! It is with this goal, that in the present paper, an attempt will be made at revisiting two lines of thought, one from the East and the other from the West by elucidating certain insights of a seer from the East and a thinker from the West, focusing on relevant excerpts from the key texts.

It has to be clarified at the outset however, that though the treatment of the texts and thought have the common theme of senses and sensuality, the approach of the western thinker and the eastern seer have different means and ends. In other words, each is unique in their approach.



The text chosen from the East for analysis is ‘Vijnana Bhairava Tantra’ and the seer in focus is Shiva. This is a key text of the Trika school of Kashmir Shaivism, a heretic school deriving its authority from the sacred texts, Shaiva Aagamas. The text is a chapter from the Rudrayamala Tantra, a Bhairava Agama, and is in the form of a dialogue between Lord Shiva and his consort Devi Parvathi. Purged of the divine status, the dialogue could be envisaged as one between a seer and a seeker or a master and disciple, of course existing between them the unparalleled intimacy and devotion characteristic of two passionate lovers who are the primordial couple in the present situation. And this is exactly how I intend to view the text. The text begins with Devi asking:

“O Shiva, what is your reality?
What is this wonder-filled universe?
What constitutes seed?
Who centers the universal wheel?
What is this life beyond form pervading forms?
How may we enter it fully,
Above space and time, Names and descriptions?
Let my doubts be cleared!” [1]

As is hinted above, the essence of all the queries assume an ontological tone – “what is it to be?”, rather than metaphysical or ontical for that matter. And in response to Devi’s queries, true to the Tantric tradition, instead of elaborate answers, Shiva suggests 112 techniques of realization which are so simple and enigmatic at the same time! All the techniques are mutually independent, and are designed with the whole spectrum of human temperament in mind. This has been an historical claim that these techniques are enough for the seekers of all ages – all those who have so far been and all those who are yet to be born! And as a matter of fact, anybody who is well versed in the Eastern thought and practice would readily agree with this claim. From among these 112 techniques, I have chosen a few pertaining to human embodiment, senses and sensuality for analysis in the light of existential phenomenology.

Existential phenomenology originated in the thought of the German thinker Martin Heidegger and culminated in its aspect of human embodiment in the thought of the French thinker Morice Merleau Ponty. For the task in hand, I will be focusing on this fruition of the aspect of ‘being in the world as a body’ in Pontian thought. This line of thought fits in two ways for the present purpose: one in a positive/active sense and the other in a negative/passive sense.

The active sense is that the Existential-Phenomenological understanding of the world and human existence conceptually stands very close to the Tantric wisdom. The passive sense is that, though existential phenomenology emerged as a line of thought with praxis and emancipation as the implied ideals, due to various reasons such as the divergence of the streams of thought forming the tradition, and difference in concerns and priorities of various contributing thinkers, it hasn’t fulfilled its promises as to a concrete praxis suggestible to a concretely embodied human, and the techniques of Tantra could fill that gap!

Now the former claim – the active one, has a factual status, provided one is willing to suspend the difference in the ultimate concerns of the two systems, (viz. one being spiritual emancipation, and the other being emancipation from the prevalent view as to man’s ‘being in the world’ ) and focus on the ontological approach which is common to both. But the latter one is disputable a position, and hence tenable only as a personal view point. And this view point is what is going to be defended in what follows.



The ontological poise is plainly verbalized in the techniques to be discussed, but for a proper grasp of it, the Existential Phenomenological view on man’s ontological status needs to be clarified. The Existentialist position for our purpose is exemplified in the Heideggerian concept of Dasein and Merleau Ponty’s development of that concept culminating in ‘flesh and blood’ terms of human embodiment in the world.

Dasein literally means ‘there-being’ which verbalizes the human existence as a thrown-ness in the world. But this thrown-ness should not be confused as forming a subject -object dichotomy with man on the one end and the world on the other. Rather as Heidegger puts it: “the essence of Dasein lies in its existence”[2]

Or in other words man’s being is essentially his being in the world. Merleau Ponty develops this idea in terms of concrete experience of human embodiment, that is in terms of perception, senses and sensuality as viewed from the first person point of view.

True to the phenomenological tradition, he agrees that conscious human existence is primarily intentional. But this intentionality or ‘about-ness’ is revealed only simultaneously through the human engagement in the world and not in the form of a pure thought. Thus “consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think that’ but of ‘I can’ ”[3] And the body is the locus of this intentionality.

According to him:

“our body as a point of view upon things,

and things as abstract elements of one single world, form a system in

which each moment is immediately expressive of every other.”


“…any sensation belongs to a certain field. To say that I have a visual field is to say that by reason of my position I have access to and an opening upon a system of beings, visible beings, that these are at the disposal of my gaze in virtue of a kind of primordial contract and through a gift of nature, with no effort made on my part; from which it follows that vision is prepersonal. And it follows at the same time that it is always limited, that around what I am looking at at a given moment is spread a horizon of things which are not seen, or which are even invisible. Vision is a thought subordinated to a certain field, and this is what is called a sense. When I say that I have senses and that they give me access to the world, I am not the victim of some muddle, I do not confuse causal thinking and reflection, I merely express this truth which forces itself upon reflection taken as a whole: that I am able, being connatural with the world, to discover a sense in certain aspects of being without having myself endowed them with it through any constituting operation.”[4]


Now what is cited above sets the whole paradigm for the Pontian approach towards senses and sensations as is laid down in his magnum opus Phenomenology of Perception.

For him any sensation belongs to a certain field. And by a ‘field’ he means an opening upon a system of beings through which one can have a particular sensation by virtue of a kind of primordial contract and through a gift of nature, with no effort made on one’s part. Thus every sensation is pre-personal.


With this theoretical stance if we analyze the 13th technique of Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, that is,

“Imagine the five colored circles of the peacock tail

to be your five senses in illimitable space.

Now let their beauty melt within”,

we can amazedly realize that how perfectly they are in tandem with each other as theory and practice.

In the technique, it is suggested to imagine the five colored circles of the peacock tail to be one’s five senses in illimitable space. On what conception of senses is this possible?

Not on any conceptualization giving a constitutive role to the senses and the act of sensation for sure. Because in any such stance a rational active role is attributed to senses and sensation. Here the senses are to be rendered passive like the five colored circles of the peacock tail. What option is left then?

The option left is that sensation be pre-personal. But this pre-personal sensation has nothing mystical about it, rather that’s the only way of being in the spatio-temporal as well as the socio-cultural milieu-what we call the world. As Ponty puts it:

“the life of desire or perceptual life—is subtended by an ‘intentional arc’ which projects round about us our past, our future, our human setting, our physical, ideological and moral situation, or rather which results in our being situated in all these respects. It is this intentional arc which brings about the unity of the senses, of intelligence, of sensibility and motility.” [5]

The ‘intentional arc’ referred to in the above quote, serves the conceptual framework for the suggested experience of the senses as the five colored circles of the peacock tail.

Again this doesn’t imply that the senses are merely ornamental to human embodiment, just as is the third person view as to the peacock tail. In fact they are to human embodiment what is the tail to the peacock from the first person point of view.

“The senses and one’s own body generally present the mystery of a collective entity which, without abandoning its thisness and its individuality, puts forth beyond itself meanings capable of providing a framework for a whole series of thoughts and experiences.”[6]

Now this rendering is to be done in the illimitable space. Why should the rendering be in illimitable space? And here we have Ponty’s own words continuing:

“Since every conceivable being is related either directly or indirectly to the perceived world, and since the perceived world is grasped only in terms of direction, we cannot dissociate being from orientated being, and there is no occasion to ‘find a basis for space or to ask what is the level of all levels. The primordial level is on the horizon of all our perceptions, but it is a horizon which cannot in principle ever be reached and thematized in our express perception. Each of the levels in which we successively live makes its appearance when we cast anchor in some ‘setting’ which is offered to us. This setting itself is spatially particularized only for a previously given level. Thus each of the whole succession of our experiences, including the first, passes on an already acquired spatiality. The condition of our first perception’s being spatial is that it should have referred to some orientation which preceded it. It must, then, have found us already at work in a world. Yet this cannot be a certain world, a certain spectacle, since we have put ourselves at the origin of all of them. The first spatial level cannot find its anchorage anywhere, since this anchorage would need a level anterior to the first level in order to be particularized in space. And since it cannot be orientated ‘in itself’, my first perception and my first hold upon the world must appear to me as action in accordance with an earlier agreement reached between x and the world in general, my history must be the continuation of a prehistory and must utilize the latter’s acquired results. My personal existence must be the resumption of a prepersonal tradition. There is, therefore, another subject beneath me, for whom a world exists before I am here, and who marks out my place in it. This captive or natural spirit is my body, not that momentary body which is the instrument of my personal choices and which fastens upon this or that world, but the system of anonymous ‘functions’ which draw every particular focus into a general project. Nor does this blind adherence to the world, this prejudice in favour of being, occur only at the beginning of my life. It endows every subsequent perception, of space with its meaning, and it is resumed at every instant. Space and perception generally represent, at the core of the subject, the fact of his birth, the perpetual contribution of his bodily being, a communication with the world more ancient than thought. That is why they saturate consciousness and are impenetrable to reflection. The instability of levels produces not only the intellectual experience of disorder, but the vital experience of giddiness and nausea,18 which is the awareness of our contingency, and the horror with which it fills us. The positing of a level means losing sight of this contingency; space has its basis in our facticity. It is neither an object, nor an act of unification on the subject’s part; it can neither be observed, since it is presupposed in every observation, nor seen to emerge from a constituting operation, since it is of its essence that it be already constituted, for thus it can, by its magic, confer its own spatial particularizations upon the landscape without ever appearing itself.”[7]

Now two techniques (48th and 49th ) pertaining to sensuality put together:

“At the start of sexual union
Keep attentive on the fire in the beginning,
And so continuing,
Avoid the embers in the end.”

“When in such embrace your senses are shaken as leaves, Enter this shaking.”

The instruction is to focus on the ‘fire’ in the beginning of a sexual union, and the ‘shaking’ which shakes off the senses as leaves in such union. But what is this ‘fire’ kindling a sexual union, and what is this ‘shaking’ which transcends the realm of senses? Are they something purely cerebral or purely carnal?

We know from our experience, that they are neither. And Ponty has a unique explication of it:

“Erotic perception is not a cogitatio which aims at a cogitatum; through one body it aims at another body, and takes place in the world, not in a consciousness. A sight has a sexual significance for me, not when I consider, even confusedly, its possible relationship to the sexual organs or to pleasurable states, but when it exists for my body, for that power always available for bringing together into an erotic situation the stimuli applied, and adapting sexual conduct to it. There is an erotic ‘comprehension’ not of the order of understanding, since understanding subsumes an experience, once perceived, under some idea, while desire comprehends blindly by linking body to body. Even in the case of sexuality, which has nevertheless long been regarded as preeminently the type of bodily function, we are concerned, not with a peripheral involuntary action, but with an intentionality which follows the general flow of existence and yields to its movements.”[8]

Thus human embodiment is that ‘power’, which is always available for bringing together into an erotic situation the stimuli, applied, and adapting sexual conduct to it. And the ‘fire’ is a unique erotic comprehension which is not of the order of understanding, but of the order of ‘desire’. And the ‘shaking’ is not a bodily function manifested as peripheral involuntary action, but the manifestation of a peculiar intentionality which follows the general flow of existence and yields to its movements.



All occidental enquiries can be seen to be sharing the common goal of knowing the nature of ultimate reality or the ultimate nature of reality. This play on words is important as far as the Eastern thought is concerned, since there are Aastika, or Orthodox schools of thought, which rely on the Vedic texts as the ultimate authority , as well as Nastika, or Heterodox schools of thought, which don’t uphold such authority. Again within the orthodox schools there are theistic as well as atheistic schools. Hence, for any theistic school or other Asthika schools which postulate the ultimate reality as God or otherwise, the nature of that reality will be the central theme, whereas for others, the reality as such will be at issue.

Either way, they have the common goal of realizing the Real. And in that pursuit practice is equally important as theory. That is exactly why there are umpteen ways and means of realization in the East. Put shortly, the Eastern approach is broadly metaphysical and ethical, and the epistemological enquiries have largely been ancillary to that process.

In contrast, the approach of the West has rather been epistemological, and only from any clarity reached in that pursuit, have they ventured into metaphysical or ethical doodling.

Now having said that, I have to justify my attempt of combining the insights answering these apparently divergent concerns. There I am compelled to go ingenious a little bit. As stated above, theory and practice assume equal importance in the Eastern systems of thought. And there are some of them wherein practice overshadows the theory. And in such cases, when it comes to the practice prescribed, the approach becomes rather ontological than metaphysical and hence comes into closer ties with the phenomenological tradition of the west. Tantra is a typical instance of this fact.

Tracing the history of development of the system, it could be discerned that, it was primarily out of a frustration and disillusionment as to the intellectualism prevalent in the idealistic schools of thought that the system was developed, with a view to catering to the needs of seekers, placing its feet firmly on the ‘empirical reality’ and without overburdening them with heavy duty metaphysical postulations.

The whole philosophy of the system is based on the embodied experience of the seeker. Put in Western terms, it’s concerned more with ‘praxis’ and ‘emancipation’ rather than theorization, or the enquiry is rather ontological than metaphysical as is conceived in existential phenomenology. It’s out of this key insight as to their foundational convergence, that an ancient text from the East has been combined with a rather recent Western philosophical approach viz. existential phenomenology.


[1] All the verses are quoted from: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Tuttle Publisher, 1998; The Vigyan Bhairav Tantra is titled "Centering" in a section toward the back of the book.

[2] Martine Heidegger, Being and Time, p.42H (The ‘H’ refers to the pagination of the German original, Sein und Zeit, which is given in the margins of the English translation.).  

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 1962, pp. 429, 137.

[4] Ibid., pp. 251, 252.

[5] Ibid., p.157.

[6] Ibid., p.146.

[7] Ibid., p.296.

[8] Ibid., p.181.

About the Author

Shiva Rahman, Doctoral Research Scholar, Department of Philosophy, University of Calicut, Kerala-673635, India. Mob: 9995115836,  

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