Language of Images

Visualization and Meaning in Tantras

by Sthaneshwar Timalsina (Author)
©2015 Monographs XVIII, 178 Pages
Series: Asian Thought and Culture, Volume 71


While Indian visual culture and Tantric images have drawn wide attention, the culture of images, particularly that of the divine images, is broadly misunderstood. This book is the first to systematically address the hermeneutic and philosophical aspects of visualizing images in Tantric practices. While examining the issues of embodiment and emotion, this volume initiates a discourse on image-consciousness, imagination, memory, and recall. The main objective of this book is to explore the meaning of the opaque Tantric forms, and with this, the text aims to introduce visual language to discourse. Language of Images is the result of a long and sustained engagement with Tantric practitioners and philosophical and exegetical texts. Due to its synthetic approach of utilizing multiple ways to read cultural artifacts, this work stands alone in its attempt to unravel the esoteric domains of Tantric practice by means of addressing the culture of visualization.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • Advance Praise for Language of Images
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface and Acknowledgements
  • Copyright Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1. Image, Imagination, and Meaning
  • Hermeneutics of Tantric Visualization
  • Imagination and Meaning
  • The Visual Domain of Language
  • Chapter 2. Image and Visualization in Classical Hinduism
  • Historical Overview
  • Enlivening Images: The First Step towards Visualization
  • Significance of Visualization in Classical Hinduism
  • Visualization: Where Imagining Becomes a Ritual
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. Better than Real: Imagining the Body in Tantric Rituals
  • Transforming the Image of the Body
  • Elements of the Tantric Body
  • The Mantra Body
  • Maṇḍala as an Integral System
  • Body as a Temple
  • The Body is Identical to the Cosmos
  • Body as an Extension of Bliss and Awareness
  • Chapter 4. Materializing Space and Time in Tantric Images
  • Background
  • Image and Space
  • The Union of Physical Space and Mythical Planes
  • Āmnāyas and the Directionality of Emanations of the Goddess
  • Mental Space, Gocarīs, and Khecarīs
  • The Space Divine: Images of Bhuvaneśvarī and Tripurā
  • The Image of Time
  • The Mistress of Time: Kālī and Her Manifestations
  • Twelvefold Sequence
  • Samaya and Samayā
  • Kāmakalākālī
  • Analysis and Conclusion
  • Chapter 5. Transformative Role of Imagination in Visualizing the Image of Bhairava
  • Introduction
  • Encountering Bhairava
  • Chapter 6. Surplus of Imagination: Images with Multiple Arms
  • Imagination and Meaning
  • Engaging History: A Case of Visualizing Viṣṇu
  • Deciphering Complex Tantric Images
  • Analysis and Conclusion
  • Appendix I. Bhairavānukaraṇastava
  • Hymns in Imitation of Bhairava
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index I Deity Names and Technical Terms
  • Index II Scholars Cited



Śiva Naarāja


Śrī Cakra





Guhyakālī Maala









Guhyakālī ← vii | viii → ← viii | ix →


With images in religious discourse, the topic of imagination in philosophy, and cognitive images in psychology, the visual aspect of consciousness has surfaced with full force from its long-banished oblivion. The central assumption of this monograph is that imagination is a creative process that constitutes reality, and its ritualized application in the practice of visualization is crucial for understanding this relationship. What is central to the practice is discovering the meaning of an obscure image. With meaning, these images become their own language, and are the field of hermeneutics. The time-consuming and rigorous practice of viewing images thus finds its relevance in understanding human cognitive mechanisms for maintaining a balance between fiction and fact, imagination and reality. This work is an effort to give the primarily Tantric practice the attention that it deserves. It is also timely as our obsession with words and the denial of images is slowly fading in the mainstream culture. This work is a product of a lengthy engagement, as most of the chapters in it have been presented in different conferences, modified in the form of different essays, and finally assembled together to offer a coherent meaning. The images explored here are cultural, grounded in the Tantric culture of Indian subcontinent. The reason for doing so is because these images have been historically accompanied with words and the marriage of language and images is vividly found in classical Tantric depictions, whether in the form of maalas, sculptures, or the manuals prescribing the process of visualization of various deity forms. If a neurologist were to give a perspective from his discipline, he might say that we use the same volume of neurons to process images as we do for processing language. However, when we address images, our approach has been ethnocentric, and we have confined visual forms to archaic history. What these images mean is a question linked not only to exegetical practice, but also with finding the meaning of a particular civilization. And for a broader discourse, these images provide an exceptional example of how the cognitive faculty of imagination was trained through the meticulous practice of visualization.

This work is a result of my long engagement with Tantra: both as scholar having studied this subject for over a decade and a subject ← ix | x → emerging from that culture. In this process of writing, I have tried to find a balance between what it means for a Tantric culture to have images as its expression and what one can glean from it when viewing the visual culture from outside. My decades of engagement with Pandits in Kathmandu and Varanasi has given an imprint in these chapters, and I am forever grateful to them for their deep insight, meticulous effort to explain texts and images, and for giving me the arduous desire to engage the visual aspect of culture in a global discourse on cultures. I offer special thanks to the late Shree Premchetan Brahmachari, Dr. Ramananda Brahmachari, Shree Samkara Chaitanya Bharati, Dr. Vidyanath Upadhyaya, Dr. Ramji Malaviya, and Pandit Vrajavallabh Dviveda. Without their insight, this work would not have been possible.

This work, however, is not simply located in Indian culture. The sections here are in dialogue with today’s global context and the discourse envelops various contemporary conversations on culture and language. I am thankful to Professors Gerald James Larson, David Gordon White, Walter Slaje, Glen Hayes, Frederick Smith, Phyllis Granoff, Rebecca Moore, Jeffrey Ruff, Jeffrey Lidke, Loriliai Biernacki, Kerry Martin Skora, John Nemec, Sushil Mittal, Thomas Oberlies, Jürgen Hanneder, and Mr. Jason Schwartz for their kind support and valuable insights. I am equally thankful to Mrs. Mary Hicks for reading multiple drafts of this work and giving corrections, and to Ms. Beth Fountain for her technical expertise given for the images herein. Along the same lines, I express my gratitude to Professor Sandra Wawrytko for her valuable suggestions.

The idea of working on hermeneutic and philosophical aspects of Tantric images was inseminated when I was invited to participate in a presentation at the Art Institute of Chicago, and many thanks go to Dr. Pratapaditya Pal for his encouragement and accepting my essay for his edited volume. Although the essay included in Nepal: Old Images, New Insights, has not been included in this monograph, this work is a consequence of that engagement. When Professor Gudrun Bühnemann invited me to give a talk on Tantric Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I became more convinced of the need for a new approach to Tantric images, as most of the existing scholarship relates to the historicity of images and does not engage philosophy as much as it engages socio-political perspectives. I gave additional presentations at ← x | xi → the Tantra Conference held in Flagstaff in 2005, 2008, and 2010, and at the American Academy of Religion conferences on multiple occasions, many of which revolved around engaging the philosophy of images. This work is thus a decade-long involvement with Western scholarship and I am sincerely thankful to many colleagues and friends for their constant support and valuable suggestions.

Rather than engaging the meaning when discussing the signs of specific cultures, non-hermeneutic approaches often result in imposing their own meanings and thus an external worldview onto the matter at hand. Rather than viewing material culture as simple objects of appropriation, my effort in this volume has been to explore meaning in light of internal exegetical and hermeneutical traditions. This study has allowed me to link the system of meaning underlying the material culture to the meaning system inherent in its language. Many colleagues have encouraged me to pursue these arguments, as the lack of a visual hermeneutic capable of addressing material culture is pronounced. This lacuna has compromised alternative modes of reading culture, particularly the ability to shift focus from words to images. I am thankful to all who have influenced and inspired me to pursue this direction.

This work has been possible also by the support of the family and friends. I am particularly thankful to Dr. Manohar Shinde and Professor Ved Nanda of the Uberoi Foundation, and Professor Sunil Kumar for their constant support and encouragement. Dr. Manohar Shinde and the Dharma Civilization Foundation have supported the inclusion of images in this book. I am also thankful to my wife Gayatri Devi Timalsina, and my children Nitya Timalsina and Ishan Timalsina for their companionship and understanding. Despite all the support I have received from teachers and colleagues, unnoticed mistakes undoubtedly remain, and I am solely responsible for any errors.← xi | xii → ← xii | xiii →


The following publishers have graciously consented to allow reproduction of essays that have been previously published and have been further developed for inclusion in this book.

An earlier version of Chapter 2 was published in 2013 as “Image and Visualization in Classical Hinduism,” in SERAS, the Southeast Review of Asian Studies, volume 35, pages 50-69.

An earlier version of Chapter 3 was published in 2012 as “Reconstructing the Tantric Body: Elements of the Symbolism of Body in the Monistic Kaula and Trika Tantric Traditions,” in the International Journal of Hindu Studies 16:1, (Springer Journals), pages 57-91.

An earlier version of Chapter 4 was published in 2011 as “Materializing Space and Time in Tantric Images,” in the Zeitschrift für Indologie und Südasienstudien 28, pages 145-82.


XVIII, 178
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
India cultural artifacts hinduism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XVIII, 178 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Sthaneshwar Timalsina (Author)

Sthaneshwar Timalsina (PhD, Martin Luther University) is Professor of Indian Religions and Philosophies in the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. His primary areas of interest include Tantric studies and Indian philosophies. While his early books Seeing and Appearance and Consciousness in Indian Philosophy address various Advaita theories of consciousness, Tantric Visual Culture: A Cognitive Approach explores the cognitive and philosophical domains of the Indian culture of visualization with a focus on Tantric images. Timalsina has also published over three dozen articles and book chapters. He is currently working on the philosophical and psychological aspects of memory, disposition, recognition, imagination, and emotion.


Title: Language of Images
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