“O mistress of Kula! in Kuladharma enjoyment becomes complete yoga; bad deeds are made good deeds, and the world becomes the seat of Liberation.”
– Kularnava Tantra
Opponents of Tantra – and they are many – almost always base their denunciation solely upon the fact that the system includes ritual drinking and sexual rites. Censure of this kind is not new, if we are to believe accounts given in ancient literature itself. For example, according to the Chinacharasara Tantra, the great Indian sage, Vashistha, son of Brahma, was told to seek out Vishnu in the body of Buddha, and to be initiated by him.
Vashishtha accordingly entered Mahachina (probably Tibet), a land which the text says was inhabited by thousands of beautiful young girls “whose hearts were glad dened with wine.” It adds that “the movement of their hips made their girdles of little bells tinkle.”
Vashishtha is surprised and outraged to find Buddha, “his eyes drooping from wine,” in the midst of this erotic revelry.
“These are practices contrary to the Vedas!” he cries. “I do not approve of it!”
But a voice out of space tells him:
“If you wish to gain my grace speedily, this is the way it must be done.”
A similar story is told concerning the celebrated guru, Padma Sambhava, who introduced Buddhism into Tibet.
One of Padma’s friends visited him at his cemetery retreat, where he found him living with a female disciple named Mandarava.
“What a fine example you are!” he told Padma. “You left your lawful wife Bhasadhara in your palace in the Urgyan country; and this is quite disgraceful!”
The account goes on to say that Padma thought to himself: “Inasmuch as this fellow is ignorant of the inner significance of the Mahayana and of the yogic practices pertaining to the three chief psychic channels, I should pardon him.”
In modern times, even as enlightened a preceptor as Madame Blavatsky failed to grasp the true meaning and methods of Tantrism. As a consequence, she defined Durga or Kali (the dynamic form of Shakti energy) as “the special energy connected with sexual rites and magical powers – the worst form of black magic or sorcery.”
Her latter-day disciple, Guy de Purucker, followed her example. In his “Occult Glossary,” he characterizes the Tantras as “heirlooms handed down from originally debased or degenerate Atlantean racial offshoots.”
“There is,” he admits, “a certain amount of profoundly philosophical and mystical thought running through the more important Tantrik works, but the Tantrik worship in many cases is highly licentious and immoral.”
It is true that some of the more extreme Kaula rites -especially as practiced in Assam and parts of Tibet-would be shocking to the Western student.
Also, the liturgy of many of the Tibetan Tantrik schools has a weird and somewhat frightening sound to occidental ears. This is more particularly true of ceremonies involving deities in their destructive or terrifying aspects.
Invocation to Zhing-Skyong
The following invocation to Zhing-Skyong, Tibetan guardian of cemeteries, is typical. It is contained in a Tibetan blockprint written by the monk Tikshanti and published at the Krashi Lungpo Lamasary:
“To the south of Bodhgaya (in India) is situated the great cemetery, Silba’i Tshal. At this supreme place, one can hear the mighty voices of the gshin Rje (demons), the magically powerful howling of the mamo, the splashing of the sea of blood, the sputtering of the lamps fed with human fat. There is visible also the coiling smoke, rising from the evil burnt offering. There sounds the thudding of the male bdud (ferocious figures) who are dancing a drum dance; and the whirling of the femal bdud, who turn in a ring dance; the blaring of the thigh-bone trumpets, the roar of wild animals. There is visible the quick flaring up of the great scorching lightning’s; there is audible the fierce rolling thunder and the crashing of great yellow meteors. The horrible laughter of the multitude of bdud and yakshas causes the earth foundations to quake.” 2
To the reader uninitiated in sandha-bhasa or the secret language of Tantrism, such a description must seem like a brief but terrying glimpse into hell.
In any case, to evaluate all Tantrik thought and practice in terms of its extreme sects, is like judging all Christianity by the dukhobors or the flagellants.
Physical, Social, Mental And Moral Fitness To Practice The Secret Ritual
Critics who condemn Tantrism because of its use of the sex force as an underlying constant are ignorant of, or choose to ignore a basic tenet of Shaktism – one which precedes and governs the so-called fifth tattva or mystical coition.
That prerequisite is called adhikara, meaning competency or fitness to practice the secret ritual. The Shastra is explicit in stating that each aspirant should undertake only that stage of initiation for which he is prepared. It expressly forbids the pashu or person of predominantly carnal appetities to indulge in lata-sadhana, the discipline requiring sexual intercourse.
Almost without exception, Tantrik scriptures, both Indian and Tibetan, specify in detail the postulant’s qualifications: physical, social, mental and moral.
Thus the Gautamiya Tantra declares that the disciple should be “of good parentage, pure-minded and possessing a strong physique and sound mind. He should be one who has conquered passions, indolence, illusory knowledge and anger.”
The Gandharva Tantra likewise states that the person seeking this kind of initiation “must be intelligent, senses controlled, abstaining from injury to all beings, ever doing good to all, pure, a believer. . . .”
Specifically rejected (for example, in the Kularnava Tantra, Ch. 13) are “the glutton, lecher, shameless, greedy, ignorant, hypocrite, voluptuary and drunkard.”
Both the Matsya-Shukta Tantra and the Maharu-draya-mala make similar proscriptions, adding the sloth-ful and the irreligious.
It is noteworthy, in fact, that all Tantrik schools make belief in God a sine qua non of their doctrine. This is not true of other systems of yoga, some of which are avowedly atheistic.
On the purely physical side, the texts say that the aspirant must not be deformed, crippled, weak, blind, deaf, dirty, diseased or paralyzed.
Maithuna or conjugal union then, comes only after a proper period of preparation and proof of competency. The Eastern guru instructs and tests the neophyte for a specific time (usually a year) before actual initiation.
If he proves unsuitable for the Kaula techniques, he will be trained in other disciplines.
Sometimes, students (especially the younger ones) pass all their tests except the final one – that of maithuna. In this connection, the writer recalls a somewhat amusing incident that occurred during his residence in India.
It had come to my attention that a certain Tantrik guru in the city of Brindaban was conducting a kind of night school for several boys who aspired to initiation by the Vira ritual – that is, by the Panchatattva, including sexual union.
Armed with a lengthy introduction from my own guru, I traveled to Brindaban with the idea of interviewing the guru there, and perhaps of attending some of his classes. I wished to see how well Tantrik disciplines would lend themselves to group instruction.
Alas, when I arrived, the “school” had been closed. Somewhat sadly, the guru told me why.
“From the last year or more,” he said, “I am working strongly to bring the light of the Shastra to each shishya (disciple). So, less than a fortnight past, I have arranged a chakra (ritual circle with women) for final diksha (initiation).
“All went well, I can tell you, until maithuna. As you may know, the necessary thing in this practice is jiten-driya – control of the senses, especially control of the seed or semen. Emission is not allowed for any reason.
“But one of the boys – a Pashu infected with the taint of the Kali Age, did not restrain his bindu as I have taught him. Instead, he is spending his seed, like one devoid of all dharma. Shiva! Shiva! Even a worse thing. To the others of the circle, he is saying, ‘This is very jolly. Let us indulge.’
“Is there need for saying more? They all were discharging with shouts like players at a polo match or a gymkhana. So the fruit of their long sadhana was lost. It is still lost. Now they must find some other path to liberation.”
There is little doubt that the concrete rituals, including those that require wine and women, set forth in the original Tantrik scriptures, were meant to be taken literally. Indeed, the stated purpose of the Shastra was to provide the spiritual dwarfs of the Kali age with a ready means of sublimating his animal tendencies.
But Tantrism’s rejection of asceticism and of the priestly hierarchy as well as of the caste system, brought it under heavy attack from conservative religious leaders, especially in India.
Exploiting the widespread popular disapproval of meat-eating, wine-drinking, and sexual freedom, enemies of Tantrik rites concentrated their assault upon these three tattvas.
Like the sage Vashishtha before them, they cried, “These are practices contrary to the Vedas!”
As a matter of fact, in early Vedic times, the virile Indo-Aryans who were responsible for Indian civiliza-tion at its highest level, were meat-eaters and wine-drinkers.
The famous Indian epic, Ramayana, devotes considerable space to the bibulous and erotic revels of its hero, the pious Brahmin, Rama. Both he and his companions were fond of intoxicants, particularly the alcoholic beverage sura (Ram. II, 91.1), which is so roundly damned in the writings of later renunciants.
At one of the forest picnics (Ram. I, 222.14), the scene described is hardly one to gladden the heart of an anchorite:
“And all did make merry after their desire. And the broad-hipped women, with enticing, swelling breasts and lovely eyes, did besport themselves about with drunken, stumbling gait. Some of the lovelier ones, be-longing to Krishna and Arjuna, sported in the forest, and others in the water, and some in the houses, as their pleasure dictated.
“Draupadi and Subhadra, both merry with drink, bestowed clothing and ornaments upon the women. Some danced in wanton abandon, others shrieked and screamed with joy; some amongst the glorious women were laughing, and others drinking the best of asava.”
Abstinence was enjoined for the Brahmins or priests, as it is today amongst most Protestant Christian denominations.
But as time went on, the prohibition originally laid only upon the Brahmins, was extended to all Hindu society. Drinking and meat-eating, referred to in the literature, came to be interpreted symbolically rather than literally.
(Similarly, in the West, despite the indisputable fact that from his first miracle to his Last Supper, Jesus approved of and drank wine, most Protestant bodies celebrate Holy Communion with unfermented grape juice. They translate the word “wine” in the Gospels as “fruit of the vine.”)
Under the relentless pressure of conservative attacks, many Shakta schools began to offer new and more acceptable interpretations of their scriptures.
In this way, Tantrism came eventually to embody three distinct theories of practice. Reactionary opinion described the three theories as corresponding to the three Vedic states of existence – sattva, rajah, and tamas.
Thus, the school claiming to be of the sattvic level, or highest quality, employed symbols rather than actual elements in their practice of Shakta ritual. The so-called Five M’s or Five True Things, they asserted, were not to be taken literally.
Instead, wine (madya) became merely a term symbolising “the intoxicating knowledge of God.” Meat (mamsha) really means the tongue (ma) used in proper speech (amsha). Fish (matsya) represents the two vital currents moving in the ida and pingala channels on each side of the spine. When the scriptures refer to sexual union (maithuna) they thus indicate meditation upon the primal act of creation. Some texts, in fact, have changed the word from maithuna (coition) to samhita (union), to indicate union with Brahman.
Those who embraced the second or so-called rajasic sadhana, used material substitutes for the five true things. Instead of wine, they drink coconut juice. Ginger replaces meat. Radish or a plant called paniphala is used in lieu of fish. Two flowers, one resembling the male phallus and the other the female yoni, are substituted for maithuna or actual sex union.
The Kaula schools, of course, insist upon a literal interpretation of the texts. They assert that sadhana in its symbolical and substitutional forms is fruitless. They point out that the whole principle of Tantrik disciplines is not to shrink from the senses but to conquer them through experience.
Sattvic and rajasic techniques, they maintain, were suitable for preceding and higher ages, but are not practicable for present-day aspirants. They re-emphasize that there is a basic difference between Tantrism and the yoga of asceticism. The path of Tantra is one which develops feeling to the utmost, rather than one aimed at gradually snuffing out the senses. “Perfection can be attained easily by satisfying all desires.”
But always for the Tantrik sadhaka there is the warning that, though easy, his way is fraught with many dangers. His method is “risky as handling a snake.” One must not venture upon the way of Shaktism without adequate preparation and counsel.
Such counsel, or private instruction, is not easily available, even in India and Tibet. It is commonplace knowledge in both countries today that for every thousand men and women who proclaim themselves gurus, perhaps one genuine initiator may be found.
For the Tantrik aspirant, there are special qualifications to be looked for in a guru. Unlike the chela who plans to follow a path of austerities, and therefore seeks initiation from a renunciate, the Tantrik is urged to choose a married person – man or woman – as his preceptor. The reasons for this are obvious. The grihi or householder is still in and of the world – that “seat of liberation” for the Tantrik disciple.
Intensification of the Senses
The traditional yogi who, nominally at least, has renounced the world and who practices techniques aimed at extinguishing desire, is hardly a likely candidate to teach a methodology whose objective is intensification of sense. Thus, the Ganesha Vimarshini clearly states:
“Initiation by an ascetic, by the father, by one living in a forest, or when taken from a renunciant, does no good to a disciple.”
The Yogini Tantra also says that initiation should not be taken from one’s father. It further states that a student should not be initiated by his or her maternal grandfather, brother, or by one who is younger.
But what of the West, where there are no Tantrik gurus, good or bad?
A Bengali guru, to whom I am indebted for the Westernized form of sadhana included in the present work, had this to say:
“In the Gautamiya Tantra, it is said: ‘All two-footed beings in this world, from Brahmin to the lowest, are competent for Kulachara’ – that is, for Tantrik initiation.
“This clearly includes the people of your country as well as those of mine. Many here will say, ‘But how can there be initiation when there is no guru to give it?’
“To these, my answer is: the supreme Guru is, after all, God. It is only God, acting in and through the con-sciousness and body of the human guru, who communicates the divine shakti to the disciple. That is the meaning of the passage in Kamakhya Tantra, which says: ‘The guru is Shiva Himself.’ Likewise in Rudrayamala: ‘Shiva alone is guru.’
“Shastra has also made it perfectly clear that the fruits of attainment in previous births are not lost. No matter at what place on earth the Jiva (soul) takes another body, all that he needs to know for his sadhana will, in one way or another, be disclosed to him. This knowledge may come from a dream, a book, a sudden intui-tion. In the Kularnava Tantra we are even told that Supreme Shiva himself takes human form and secretly wanders about the world in order to assist shishyas (aspirants).
“It is true that much of the Tantrik Shastra must remain veiled or hidden from the Western disciple be-cause of sandha-bhasa. Sandha-bhasa means ‘secret word’ or so-called ‘intentional language.’ That is to say, the words of the scriptures have hidden meanings different from those expressed literally.
“Only a guru who knows how to destroy language on one plane of consciousness and to recreate it on another, can impart the deeper essence, and thereby open the gate of good fortune to the sadhaka.
“Even so, who is going to say that Paramashiva is not present in the West? Guptasadhana Tantra declares, ‘The entire universe is gurumaya.’ In the West you have your own sandha-bhasa – a secret language of symbols and formulae. With it, your men of science have unlocked a potent form of shakti. But to us, unfortunately, it seems the destructive or bhairava aspect of nature. These science gurus have penetrated the cosmic muladhara which lies at the root of creation and have released the coiled and dangerous serpent which now rushes upon us, uncontrolled.
“Who will now save us from this ravage of Durga? Perhaps the present kalpa is nearing an end. Perhaps the hour of final dissolution strikes, when all will return to the fathomless womb of Shakti.”