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Yantra (यन्त्र) is the Sanskrit word for a mystical diagram, especially diagrams from the Tantric traditions of the Indian religions. They are used for worship of deities in temples or at home; as an aid in meditation; used for the benefits given by their supposed occult powers based on Hindu astrology and tantric texts.
In Classical Sanskrit, the generic meaning of yantra is "instrument, contrivance, apparatus". In Rigvedic Sanskrit, it meant an instrument for restaining or fastening, a prop, support or barrier, etymologically from the root yam "to sustain, support" and the -tra suffix expressing instruments. The literal meaning is still evident in the medical terminology of Sushruta, where the term refers to blunt surgical instruments such as tweezers or a vice. The meaning of "mystical or occult diagram" arises in the medieval period (Kathasaritsagara, Pancharatra).
Mantras, the Sanskrit syllables inscribed on yantras, are essentially "thought forms" representing divinities or cosmic powers, which exert their influence by means of sound-vibrations.
Usage and meaning
Yantras are usually associated with a particular deity and are used for specific benefits, such as: for meditation; protection from harmful influences; development of particular powers; attraction of wealth or success, etc. They are often used in daily ritual worship at home or in temples, and sometimes worn as a talisman.
As an aid to meditation, yantras represent the deity that is the object of meditation. These yantras emanate from the central point, the bindu. The yantra typically has several geometric shapes radiating concentrically from the center, including triangles, circles, hexagons, octagons, and symbolic lotus petals. The outside often includes a square representing the four cardinal directions, with doors to each of them. A popular form is the Sri Chakra, or Sri Yantra, which represents the goddess in her form as Tripura Sundari. Sri Chakra also includes a representation of Shiva, and is designed to show the totality of creation and existence, along with the user's own unity with the cosmos.
Yantras can be on a flat surface or three dimensional. Yantras can be drawn or painted on paper, engraved on metal, or any flat surface. They tend to be smaller in size than the similar mandala, and traditionally use less color than mandalas.
Occult yantras are used as good luck charms, to ward off evil, as preventative medicine, in exorcism, etc., by using their magical power. When used as a talisman, the yantra is seen to represent a deity who can be called on at will by the user. They are traditionally consecrated and energized by a priest, including the use of mantras which are closely associated to the specific deity and yantra. Practitioners believe that a yantra that is not energized with mantra is lifeless.
Gudrun Bühneman classifies three general types of yantras based on their usage:
- Yantras that are used as foundation for ritual implements such as lamps, vessels, etc. These are typically simple geometric shapes upon which the implements are placed.
- Yantras used in regular worship, such as the Sri Yantra. These include geometric diagrams and are energized with mantras to the deity, and sometimes include written mantras in the design.
- Yantras used in specific desire-oriented rites. These yantras are often made on birch bark or paper, and can include special materials such as flowers, rice paste, ashes, etc.
Structural elements and symbolism
Various geometric shapes and images, along with written mantras, form the yantra. Triangles and hexagrams are common, along with circles and lotuses of 4 to 1,000 petals. Saiva and Shakta yantras often include prongs of a trident. Yantra designs in modern times have deviated from the traditional patterns given in ancient texts and traditions. Shops in India and Nepal will often copy designs from Western imitations of yantras or artistic representations that may have originated from the traditional designs.
- Mantras Yantras frequently include mantras written in Sanskrit. Madhu Khanna writes that, "Yantra and mantra are always found in conjunction. Sound is considered as important as form in yantra, if not more important, since form in its essence is sound condensed as matter."
- Color Use of colors in traditional yantra is entirely symbolic, and not merely decorative or artistic. Each color is used to denote ideas and inner states of consciousness. White/Red/Black is one of the most significant color combinations, representing the three qualities or gunas of nature (prakriti). White represents sattwa or purity; red represents rajas or the activating quality; black represents tamas or the quality of inertia. Specific colors also represent certain aspects of the goddess. Not all texts give the same colors for yantras. Aesthetics and artistry are meaningless in a yantra if they are not based on the symbolism of the colors and geometric shapes.
- Bindu The central point of traditional yantras have a bindu or point, which represents the main deity associated with the yantra. The retinue of the deity is often represented in the geometric parts around the center. The bindu in a yantra may be represented by a dot or small circle, or may remain invisible. It represents the point from which all of creation emanates.
- Triangle Most Hindu yantras include triangles. Downward pointing triangles represent feminine aspect of God or Shakti, upward pointing triangles represent masculine aspect such as Shiva.
- Hexagram Hexagrams as shown in yantras are two equilateral triangles intertwined, representing the union of male and female aspects of divinity, or Shiva and Shakti.
- Lotus Mandalas and yantras both frequently include lotus petals, which represent purity and transcendence. Eight-petaled lotuses are common, but lotuses in yantras can include 2, 4, 8, 10, 12, 16, 24, 32, 100, 1000 or more petals.
- Circle Many mandalas have three concentric circles in the center, representing manifestation.
- Outer square Many mandalas have an outer square or nested squares, representing the earth and the four cardinal directions. Often they include sacred doorways on each side of the square.
- Pentagram Yantras infrequently use a pentagram. Some yantras of Guhyakali have a pentagram, due to the number five being associated with Kali.
- Octagon Octagons are also infrequent in yantras, where they represent the eight directions.
- Monier-Williams, Monier (1899), A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Delhi see also Apte, Vaman Shivram (1965), The Practical Sanskrit Dictionary (Fourth revised and enlarged ed.), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, ISBN 81-208-0567-4: "1) that which restrains or fastens, any prop or support; 2) "a fetter", 4) any instrument or machine", [...] 7) "an amulet, a mystical or astronomical diagram used as an amulet"; White 1996, p. 481;
- Khanna, Madhu (2003). Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity, page 21. Inner Traditions. ISBN 0-89281-132-3 & ISBN 978-0-89281-132-8
- Denise Cush; Catherine Robinson; Michael York (21 August 2012). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Routledge. pp. 1028–1029. ISBN 978-1-135-18978-5.
- Khanna, Madhu (2005). "Yantra". In Jones, Lindsay. Gale's Encyclopedia of Religion (Second ed.). Thomson Gale. pp. 9871–9872. ISBN 0-02-865997-X.
- Gudrun Bühnemann (2003). Maònòdalas and Yantras in the Hindu Traditions. BRILL. pp. 30–35. ISBN 90-04-12902-2.
- Gudrun Bühnemann (2003). Maònòdalas and Yantras in the Hindu Traditions. BRILL. pp. 39–50. ISBN 90-04-12902-2.
- Gudrun Bühnemann (2003). Maònòdalas and Yantras in the Hindu Traditions. BRILL. p. 4. ISBN 90-04-12902-2.
- Khanna, Madhu (2003). Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity. pp. 132-133. Inner Traditions. ISBN 0-89281-132-3 & ISBN 978-0-89281-132-8
- Rana, Deepak (2012), Yantra, Mantra and Tantrism, USA: Neepradaka Press, ISBN 0-9564928-3-5
- Bucknell, Roderick; Stuart-Fox, Martin (1986), The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism, London: Curzon Press, ISBN 0-312-82540-4
- Khanna, Madhu (2003). Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity. Inner Traditions. ISBN 0-89281-132-3 & ISBN 978-0-89281-132-8
- White, David Gordon (1996), The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-89499-1