PHILIP ST. ROMAIN
Kundalini: The Hindu Perspective
Not so with a full-blown awakening of kundalini: people who experience this will never again know normal, everyday consciousness presided over by the intellectual ego…. The intellectual ego must learn to cooperate with this process, and this can be most painful indeed!
In Chapter one I attempted to convey the raw data pertaining to the experience I eventually came to call kundalini. Because I perceived that this process was related somehow to the deepening of my experience of Christian prayer, it was only natural that I would search my own Catholic mystical tradition for some kind of understanding and validation. This search was fruitless. Although I felt close to the writings on "dark nights of the soul" and other references to psycho-spiritual transformation, there was very little to be found in the Christian literature concerning energy, energy centers, and the physiological implications of spiritual transformation. Experienced spiritual directors did not know what to make of my experience. This was disappointing, for the process had been awakened in the context of Christian faith, and I had hoped to find some account of it in my tradition.
On several occasions, I was told by priests and nuns with experience in contemplative prayer that my searching for an explanation of some kind was an attempt on my part to force the experience into some kind of conceptual framework, and so try to control it. That was not the purpose of my inquiry, nor is it my purpose in writing.
An analogy to this criticism would be the case of a young teenaged girl who wakes up one morning and becomes disturbed when she finds that she is bleeding from her vagina. When she mentions this to her mother, she is given tampons and told how to use them, but no explanation for the phenomenon is given. Later that day, she talks to her minister about it, and is told not to worry — just use the tampons. Finally, she shares this information with a friend, who explains to her what menstruation is about — that it's the beginning of womanhood, fertility, etc. At a practical level, the young woman must still use the tampons as her mother explained, but now, at an intellectual level, she understands the significance of what is happening to her. This helps her to accept the experience — even to be grateful for it — instead of disturbing herself about it.
It is the same with kundalini and other unusual experiences. At a practical level, I was learning how to cope. But at an intellectual level, I was confused, and it was entirely inappropriate to be told that such understanding was unimportant, or even harmful. Maybe understanding would not change my response on a practical level, but it was nonetheless important for me to know what was going on in my life. Toward this end, I found something of what I was looking for in the Hindu literature on kundalini. It was there that I found my experience described, and so came to an intellectual understanding of the process that facilitated deeper acceptance and serenity.
From the Hindu literature, I learned that what I was calling the true self, they called enlightenment, advaita, or Self-realization (sat-chit-ananda). This awakening is the goal of Hinduism, and the various kinds of yogas are disciplines to lead one to realize this goal. I came into contact with a very deep, holistic understanding of human nature and its various systems of energy and intelligence which helped me to understand myself better. Hinduism teaches one how to work with these various levels to come to the experience of enlightenment. This is the over-arching context for grasping the Hindu understanding of kundalini. What follows will be a brief presentation of the Hindu teaching.
We begin with the yogic understanding of the soul. My primary source will be Swami Vishnu-devananda, whose book, The Complete, Illustrated Book of Yoga, has served to introduce thousands of Westerners to Hindu ideas and disciplines. About the soul, he writes: Spirit or soul as such is the whole without any division. Mind and bodies, being the active power of the spirit which springs from it and brings individual consciousness, are parts of that whole. Thus consciousness or spirit, while remaining unchanged in one aspect, changes in another aspect into active power, manifesting as mind and body. In the final stage, the spirit becomes aware again of its real nature through the negation of the veiling principle, the mind-body.
From this teaching we learn that the soul is one spirit with various dimensions of manifestation, which the Hindu calls bodies. These bodies or sheaths contain different intensities of soul energy, enabling the soul to be manifest on different levels. Swami Vishnu-devananda describes these levels as follows:
Gross Level (Stula)
This is the material body, contained by the food sheath (annamaya kosha). Its energy and intelligence is governed primarily by genetic factors. The experiences of earthly, sensate existence, birth, death, change, sickness, and decay belong to this level. The gross body decomposes after death.
Astral Level (Sukshma)
Vital Sheath or Etheric Body (pranamaya kosha). This sheath includes etheric particles and energy called prana, or life force. This body animates the food sheath and is responsible for governing the physiological processes. It is sensitive to hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and other physiological experiences. It can partially separate from the material body, but it is not immortal. After death, it may linger near the corpse for awhile, visible to those with clairvoyance; eventually it disintegrates.
Astral or Lower Mental Sheath (suckshma shaira, manomaya kosha). In this body is the energy and intelligence of emotional life and desire. It also includes lower mental processes related to emotional desire and sensory life. After death, it decomposes.
Intellectual Sheath (vijnanamaya kosha). Rational consciousness and the experience of thinking belong to this level. Here we find the Mental Ego and its powers of discrimination and decision- making. This level is considered immortal.
Causal Level (Karana). This is the bliss body, the source of our experiences of joy and happiness. Its intelligence is purely spiritual and intuitive. This body transcends the knowledge of the intellectual ego, being more cosmic.
Some writers refer to even higher, spiritual bodies which infuse the causal. Most agree, however, that the lower sheaths issue from the higher, rather than vice versa.
In speaking of these different levels as bodies, the yogis intend to express the integrity of these different levels of energy and intelligence. Each has its own domain of governance, but not in isolation from the other levels. According to the yogis, these bodies interpenetrate and influence one another. The interpenetration is possible because each body is of a different energy frequency, increasing in intensity from the gross level to the causal. Therefore, the energy of the vital level is capable of existing within the frequency of the physical body even while it transcends this frequency. The same relationship exists between the astral and vital, intellectual and astral, and causal and intellectual levels. The higher frequencies exist within the lower, but also transcend them, emanating beyond the physical body in such a manner as to create an aura of energy around the body. Many people are capable of seeing this energy field and its levels of emanation.
Because the various bodies interpenetrate, they are capable of occupying the same space and directly influencing each other. Generally, the influence is most noticeable between two "adjacent" levels. For example, alterations in the functioning of the etheric body have the greatest effect on the physical body, and, to a lesser extent, on the astral. Emotional desire in the astral body influences the functioning of the etheric body, and, to a lesser extent, the intellectual. A higher level is capable of influencing the operations of a lower level, but the converse it also true. If the etheric body is filled with disharmony, it will affect the higher levels. This is why practitioners of hatha and kundalini yoga pay great attention to the health of the physical and emotional levels. If the spiritual consciousness of the causal level is to be realized in this life, then the intellectual, emotional, physiological, and physical levels must be prepared to receive this energy and live in harmony with it.
Given such a view of multiple, interpenetrating bodies, one is led to inquire about how these bodies communicate with one another. After all, the chemical energies of the physical body are one thing, the etheric life force another, emotional energy different yet, and so forth. How does emotional energy affect intellectual life and etheric energy, for example? The answer to this question is that the different bodies communicate through energy transformation centers called chakras. A chakra is a "wheel" of energy roughly corresponding in location and function to the nerve plexus regions on the spinal cord and brain. There is general agreement among the yogis that the etheric, astral and intellectual bodies each have their own systems of energy vessels, which converge on seven major chakras in each subtle body (I have never seen references to chakras in the causal and higher spiritual levels). These seven chakras interpenetrate each other, making it possible for the energies in one level to influence the energies in another. Chakras are also said to act as centers in which energy is stepped up or down.
Psychologists do not know what a thought is, nor do they understand how thought influences emotional states and the physical body. Yogic anthropology explains this common experience in terms of the operations of the various bodies through the chakras. Thoughts arising from the intellect move through the mental chakras into astral, etheric, and physical energy centers, influencing each level depending on the kind and strength of the thought. Hence, a thought is capable of impacting the emotional, physiological, and even cellular systems. Energy is also capable of being transmuted from the lower to the higher levels through the chakras. Food energy can affect thoughts and emotions, for example.
The chakras are also considered centers of consciousness. What this means is that a particular motive of attention seems to infuse more energy into one particular chakra than it does others. A thought about sexuality, for example, will more significantly affect the second chakra than any other. The chakra system explains how it is that we have different bodily experiences of different states of attention. Some of our most common sayings reflect this insight: "I had butterflies in my stomach." "I didn't know what to say; I had a lump in my throat." "My heart went out to her." "He gives me a pain in the neck." "She turns me on." Each of these saying attests to the reality of body centers associated with different motives of attention.
Characteristics and attentional motives associated with the seven chakras are described below following Swami Vishnu-devananda and Dr.Richard Gerber:
Body center is the base of the spine, coccygeal plexus.
Associated with motives of survival and security.
Sensory association is smell.
Color association is red.
Is considered the site where kundalini energy lies dormant in most people.
Body center in the genital region and sacral plexus.
Associated with motives of pleasure and emotional life.
Sensory association is taste.
Color association is orange.
Body center in the solar plexus.
Associated with motives of power, control, and assertiveness.
Sensory association is sight.
Color association is yellow.
Body center is the heart, and cardiac plexus.
Associated with motives of compassion and self-responsibility.
Sensory association is touch.
Color association is green and pink.
Body center is the throat, and cervical plexus.
Associated with motives of self-expression and conceptual discrimination.
Sensory association is hearing.
Color association is blue.
Body center in the center of the forehead, and brain core.
Associated with motives of intuitive awareness.
Sensory association is the "third eye," or pineal.
Color association is indigo.
Body center on top of the head, or above the head.
Associated with cosmic consciousness, unity.
Sensory association is the whole brain.
Color association is purple, or white.
It should be noted that many other characteristics are associated with the chakras, such as endocrine functions, numbers of lotus petals, sounds, and bodily organs innervated. Variations exist from author to author. Hindu writers also associate the powers of various spiritual guides with each chakra. A detailed presentation of all this information is not considered relevant to this discussion on Hinduism and kundalini, however.
What we find described in the literature on multiple bodies and chakras is primarily a kind of metaphysical physiology which attempts to lead to and account for various states of consciousness. The practice of yoga—Hatha Yoga in particular, is designed to help the individual become more aware of his or her own various energies and chakras, and to facilitate a safe, conscious assent up the chakras. It may well be that the various characteristics associated with each chakra have more to do with spiritual formation than with subtle anatomy per se. Indeed, this seems to be the intent of such writers as Swami Radha Sivananda. Her discussions of the chakras are designed to encourage students to develop their many human powers and so to grow, step by step, unto the higher states. Without denying the reality of metaphysical anatomy, Swami Radha discusses the chakras as developmental stages, each of which has its own issues which must be mastered before the next stage can be safely experienced. This treatment is also popular among New Age writers.
Given the very brief treatment of the yogic views on multiple interpenetrating bodies and the chakras described above, we are ready now to reflect on the nature of kundalini awakening.
The Awakening of Kundalini
The standard teaching that one will find is that the energy called kundalini lies dormant in the first, or Mooladhara chakra, coiled three and one half times therein around a lingam. When awakened, the kundalini energy uncoils and begins to rise through the chakras, transforming the subtle bodies as it does so, bringing more energy, awareness, and understanding to the recipient.
The various kinds of yoga attempt to awaken this energy, each in its own way. Some, like Hatha yoga, work directly with the chakras and subtle bodies, and attempt to awaken the energy through yogic postures, breathing exercises, and mantra meditation. Others, like Raja and Jani yoga, work primarily with the intellectual and causal levels; as these higher levels are developed, the lower are transformed accordingly so that the kundalini is drawn up spontaneously when the obstacles to its awakening are removed.
Another method popular in the United States is Siddha Yoga, where the yogi awakens the energy in a disciple through a special touch called shaktipat. In speaking of the awakening of kundalini, then, one will find a great variety of methods and descriptions even in the yogic literature.
To bring some order to the discussion, it will be helpful to distinguish between a full-blown kundalini awakening and a kundalini arousal. The latter, as John Selby writes, is experienced by everyone at some time. "Jogging, for example, recently became an extremely popular way to regularly shift into higher levels of kundalini consciousness. Pleasureful walking with the mind at rest accomplishes the same end." Selby also recognizes singing, chanting, alcohol, and drugs as gateways to kundalini experiences, however distorted they may be. Similarly, Swami Vishnu-devananda acknowledges that yogic meditation can result in kundalini arousals where the energy rises to the top, then eventually falls back into the lower centers. Most likely, kundalini is the energy at work in what Maslow called peak experiences. In all of these cases, the experience is short-lived. For a few moments or even hours, a door is opened unto higher states of consciousness, only to close again. An imprint of some kind remains in the memory, but for the most part, life returns to "normal."
Not so with a full-blown awakening of kundalini: people who experience this will never again know normal, everyday consciousness presided over by the intellectual ego. In cases of full-awakening, the energy is constantly at work, pushing its way toward the top of the head. This was what I described in Chapter One. Another description of kundalini awakening may be found in Gopi Krishna's autobiography, Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man. In such cases, the subtle bodies become transformed to manifest the consciousness of the causal and higher spiritual levels, and this is what "normal" comes to mean. The intellectual ego must learn to cooperate with this process, and this can be most painful indeed! In those who experience the awakening of kundalini, the intellectual ego can no longer claim to be the privileged center of consciousness.
Kundalini awakenings can happen spontaneously, as the fruit of living the spiritual life. They can also occur as the result of deliberate ascetical practices, drug experiences, or shaktipat transmissions, as mentioned above. It is generally acknowledged that spontaneous awakenings are easier to integrate, for the very fact of the awakening attests to a level of preparedness and receptivity in the subtle bodies. If the subtle bodies have not been properly prepared, however, the strength and power of this energy can bring such severe disturbances as to result in mental, emotional and physical illnesses. This is the great danger in using ascetical practices and drugs to force the energy out of its dormancy into the higher chakras. Kundalini is an energy that is to be respected. Indeed, it is even reverenced and worshipped by many Hindus.
Kundalini and Hindu Theology
But what is kundalini? Is it the energy of the higher spiritual bodies breaking through into the lower levels?
According to the yogic literature, it is at least that, and much more. Kundalini is none other than Shakti, the female consort of Shiva, who is one with Brahmin and Vishnu in the Hindu trinity. Hence, kundalini is considered a divine energy, and its awakening is interpreted as awakening to the divine. Small wonder Hindu writers see this energy as the counterpart to the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit! About this matter we shall have much more to say later in this work, but for now, let us examine more closely the ideas on Hindu divinity described above.
In the Hindu trinity, Brahmin is usually considered the creator and source of all that is. Vishnu is given the attributes of preserver, as exemplified in his incarnations as Krishna, Rama, and Buddha. Shiva, on the other hand, is accorded many attributes, the most common of which are destroyer, yogic ascetic, and pure consciousness. What Shiva destroys, however, is not the really real, but all that is false, illusory, and subject to corruption and rebirth. The active energy by means of which Shiva accomplishes this work is to be found in his wife, Shakti. Like Shiva, she has two faces, one as destroyer, exemplified in her work as Kali, and the other in her role as divine mother and nurturer of the really real in all that is.
Kundalini, then, cannot be discussed apart from Shiva, for the two are inseparable. The problem in most individuals, however, is that they are separated. It is believed that in the individual, Shiva resides in the seventh chakra as pure consciousness itself. Shakti, on the other hand, lies dormant in the first chakra. The divine consciousness of Shiva is not known in the individual because it is alienated from its active power or energy, which is Shakti/kundalini. When the energy awakens and rises through the chakras, Shakti unites with Shiva, and the individual lives in the unitive embrace between the two. The nature and power of their divine consciousness is known by the individual, who realizes his or her Atman, or spiritual soul. Atman is not separate from Brahmin; indeed, it is none other than Brahmin itself, manifesting as the individual soul. All illusions of duality and separateness begin to fall away with this realization, and the Atmanic condition called advaita (non-duality) begins to grow.
The awakening of kundalini, then, is considered a very special grace in Hinduism. It represents the beginning of the realization of the life of the divine as the essence of the soul itself. Nevertheless, the aspects of Shakti and Shiva as destroyer also attest to the painful purifications which accompany this awakening. Everything in consciousness which is ignorant of the Atman will be burned away — especially the false notions of individuality. In the end, however, the realization of the Atman as being, knowledge, and bliss (sat chit ananda) will more than compensate for the pain. Such is the hope which sustains the Hindu.
I found all of the above most helpful in understanding the meaning of the transformation process which had been awakened in me. The account of the soul and its multiple, interpenetrating bodies, chakras, and energies gave me a new understanding of the manner in which spirit and matter come together. The advaitic consciousness of the atmanic state also validated my experience.
As reassuring as this validation was, it nonetheless left me with many questions which I have found impossible to set aside and irrelevant. What, for example, would be the Christian equivalent to the Hindu explanation? Here are a few related issues:
Does the Hindu experience of Shakti correspond to the Christian idea and experience of the Holy Spirit?
Does the Hindu trinity correspond to the Christian trinity?
How does Christian metaphysics or theology account for the advaitic or enlightenment experience? Is this the same kind of consciousness described by the Christian mystics? If not, then how is it different?
Finally, and on a practical level: should Christians be encouraged to pursue the kind of experience I had come upon?
It took centuries to integrate Christian theology and Greek philosophy, and so I have little hope that this present work will conclusively respond to the questions raised above. I believe these issues to be among the most important facing Christian spirituality today, for East and West are coming together, and there is no reversing the process of encounter.
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Philip St. Romain is the author of Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality
Photo of Kandariya Mahadeva Temple by Jeff Hart, Creative Commons