Shapes for the Soul: A Study of Body Symbolism in the Vaisnava-Sahajiya Tradition of Medieval Bengal

Hayes, Glen Alexander

     In this dissertation, we . . . consider how the application of the concepts of 'container' and 'contained' can help us to understand the religious significance of the human body, its images, and symbols. . . . The thesis which this dissertations seeks to demonstrate is that by examining the interplay between the images and concepts of 'container' and 'contained,' we can better understand the continuity and variety of systems of religious body symbolism that play such a central role in the Vaisnava-sahajiya tradition of medieval Bengal. In its most simplified form, the Vaisnava-sahajiya tradition views the human body as a container in which the entire universe, from the lowest hells to the highest heavens, may be found. The body, furthermore, is the place within which and through which salvation may be attained. . . . We . . . consider the many fascinating images and concepts involving containment, and we . . . see how the sexualization of cosmic spaces, in terms of Radha and Krsna, influences the various forms that the containers will take. . . . To prove the thesis we . . . focus on one of the most important and authoritative schools of the medieval Vaisnava-sahajiya, that of Mukunda-deva. We . . . closely analyze his most important treatise on dehatattva, the Amrtaratnavali, translatable as The Collection of Immortal Jewels."
     The particular symbolic system developed by Mukunda-deva . . . was greatly influenced by earlier views concerning body symbolism, cosmology, and soteriology. Thus, before we examine the Amrtaratnavali and the dehatattva ('principles and truths of the body') of Mukunda-deva, we must consider the previous traditions in which the human body was given a religious significance, namely the Vedic, Brahmanic, Upanisadic, Yogic and Tantric traditions." After using "the thesis paradigm of container and contained" to discuss "body symbolism" in these five traditions, the study looks at "dehatattva in the Amrtaratnavali of Mukunda-deva, discussing the lineage of Mukunda-deva as well as the major components of the sadhana prescribed by this important medieval Vaisnava-sahajiya guru." It then studies "the variety and continuity of cosmophysiological soteriology in the Amrtaratnavali, using the thesis paradigm in order to show ways in which it continues patterns established in earlier traditions, yet also diverges in making unique statements concerning the soteriology of the body and the morphology of sacred space." The following chapter "examines the importance of riverine imagery and symbolism in the dehatattva of the Amrtaratnavali and related medieval traditions, while [the next] . . . takes a detailed look at the four primary 'shapes for the soul,' the Lotus Ponds (sarovaras) and the ways in which they are arranged in the 'cosmic body.' In the conclusion to the dissertation . . . we . . . reconsider the main points of the dissertation, and suggest ways in which the study raises issues relevant to broader areas of discourse.