I took my IAS exam in 1981-82 while living in Pune for a couple of years after having given up my Masters studies in Maths from Central College, Bangalore (yes, the great C.V. Raman’s college).
In my view, a masters in Maths was irrelevant to the IAS exam. I therefore returned my National Science Talent Scholarship and spent most of 1980 and 1981 preparing for the IAS at home (no, I did not have any “coaching school”, just me and my books). This turned out to be the correct decision, since I qualified in my first attempt and secured one of the highest marks in Maths in India -Â although it turned out that taking Maths was not the best idea; I might have done even better by taking up sociology or some other dumb subject.
Nevertheless, this was a very fertile period for my intellectual development. My home was flooded with second hand books purchased from roadside stalls, cheap books on a range of subjects from Pune’s wonderful book shops and borrowed books from the British Council library and Deccan College. I read everything under the sun from history, philosophy (including Indian philosophy), sociology, economics and psychology to physics and maths. I carefully explored the archaeological exhibits at Deccan College and heard lectures from the world’s top-most archaeologists who visited this internationally eminentÂ centre of learning (and yes, I personally met the great Sankalia in his home in Deccan College – he was retired but alive then – and he personally reviewed my article on Deccan College: that remains one of the highlights of my life). I almost became a de facto student of Deccan College, spending vast amounts of time in its library. My cousin, Arun Sabhlok, who recently retired as head of department of archaeology from Raipur University, was my mentor and guide in the field of archaeology.
During this period I wrote a number of articles for local newspapers and for the Caravan magazine.Â One was on Tantra, something that was a mystery to me, so I borrowed around 5 good books on the topic and read them from end to end, summarising my findings in this longish article.Â The original scanned image of the article is available here.Â [Â 1Â |Â 2Â |Â 3Â ]
The reason I’ve read this work again is because I’m currently going through some detailed findings of Sanjay Sonawani on caste and wanted to refresh my memory in terms of his references to tantra.
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Tantra â€“ the cult of intuitive union
THE entire thrust of philosophical and mystical literature in India has been towards providing the seeker with a direct intuitive and definite contact with the Reality that pervades all existence. In this quest. Tantra has a unique and pre-eminent place of its own.
Till today, this whole subject remains largely an enigma to the public. And the few attempts that come into public awareness can hardly claim to have unravelled the mystery behind the enigma.
Could this be due to the intrinsic abstruseness of the subject? Of is it merely because the truth is usually submerged in obscure terminology? I think the latter case holds true. There is no reason why the layman should not know exactly what Tantra is. And once equipped with this awareness. each person can then decide whether or not to pursue this hoary quest.
What is Tantra?
Tantrism is not a religion in the ordinary sense of the term. Again, it is not a speculative or devotional stream of thought like the Vedic religion or the’ six metaphysical schools or orthodox Hindu philosophy. So, if Tantra is not this. and not that, then what is it? Tantra is best described as. a cult. It is a concrete and specific, if esoteric. system designed to achieve a profound union with the Reality. It is a way to see in a flash of awareness how the jive (individual) and the Param Siva (absolute Reality) are one: are contained in each other.
It is thus a sort of pantheism, but unlike Spinoza’s simple view of the attainment of the Reality through conscious awareness, Tantra believes that this is possible only through spiritual intuition, which is assumed to exist in ‘a dormant state in every person. To arouse this intuition. Tantra prescribes, a system of physical discipline.
The use of the body in a certain manner can expand the human consciousness: this is what Tantra means etymologically â€“ it is derived from the Sanskrit root tan meaning to expand. When the body is mastered and used in the manner described in the Tantric texts, the individualâ€™s awareness expands and he experiences liberation: Sa’ham â€“ Â I am She, or Soâ€™ham â€“ I am He. There then remains no difference between the individual and any manifestation of of Reality. This Reality is called Tantric texts as the Param Siva. The individual (the Sadhaka) is said to have attained and realised the Absolute: such experience leads finally to salvation.
Before moving on to the actual discipline of Tantra: one will profit from a survey of its history.
All over the world, in pre- historic times, there developed complex systems and rituals designed to propitiate the imagined deities, and to gain occult powers from them. Sexual functions have played an important part in these rituals because of the prime importance of in the race or tribe. When calamities fell from unknown quarters and life was savage-like and brutally short-lived, there arose all over the world primordial models of the present-day Tantric rituals. But the indigenous Indiansâ€”the Dravidians of South and East India, as many as five thousand years ago, advanced and developed these primitive modes of worship and moulded them with intense speculation to produce Tantra â€“ a system unique to India.
Among their most remarkable feats was the discovery of the Kundalini â€” the spiritual force present in the body of man. The legend says that it was a great ascetic â€” Siva by name â€” who give the basic outline of the Tantric system. This ascetic was then deified during his lifetime and his apotheosis to the level of Param Siva was only a matter of time.
Of this we are sure that by the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, the worship of Siva (whether ascetic or God) had progressed beyond the amoebal stage of evolution. We find images of the linga (phallus) and the yoni (womb): we find a god seated in a yogic posture with a snake’s hood on either side of him (possibly signifying the Kundalini-Sakti).
Naturally, these prevailing Dravidian deities had a great influence upon the Vedic Aryans: the Atharva Veda is ample testimony to this. The reverse effect also took place â€”the later Tantric schools moulded themselves to incorporate Vedic precepts and ideas into their cult.
But there has always remained a basic clash of interests between the Brahmanical system and that of the Tantras. The hostility between the two is partly an outcome of the repulsion the Aryans have felt for the cultured non-Aryans. Secondly. there has never been any scope in Tantrism for the practice of professional priests, for in it, each individual has to practice his “religion” himself.
Perhaps it was this lack of castes and priests in Tantrism that attracted the Buddha to Tantra. Though he did not give this cult much importance after his enlightenment, yet a few centuries after his death, this indigenous product of pristine longing caught up with the main-stream of Buddhism, and in the times of Asvaghosa and Nagarjuna, Buddhism was split up into the Mahayana and the Hinayana sects, with the former incorporating Tantra into its scriptures.
The Gupta period (300 – 650 A.D.) saw a remarkable growth in the Tantric practices. A mass of literature on Tantra was produced and many Tantric texts gained their final form in this period. Later periods till today have seen the steady development of Tantrism in India, along with the reduction of the prominence of its primitive occult practices: and with greater importance being given to its spiritual and benign aspects.
Principles of Tantra
We have seen that the Absolute in Tantra philosophy is Param Siva. The Param Siva has both the transcendental and immanent principles. The former is constituted by Siva, who is said to be the supreme consciousness, the knower, the unmanifested, and thus an inactive principle. He is equated in analogy’ to a corpse. In other words, he may have the desire to create the world, but he needs an active entity to put his desires into practice. This active force is supplied by Sakti who is the immanent principle of Param Siva. Sakti is the primordial force. It is due to her that Siva is metamorphosed into the finite forms and colours in this world.
But this does not mean, of course, that there is any difference between Siva and Sakti in any fundamental sense. They always coexist, and are indivisible, like salt and sea-water. Those who know the Einsteinian conception of matter and eneegy will at once recognise the resemblance between the two. Siva can be represented by matter, and Sakti by energy, but the basic unity of’ both these forms remains (E = mc2).
Param Siva cannot be conceived by the mind. He is beyond our ordinary questions of existence or non-existence: he is limitless and infinite: he is in permanent Bliss. Tantra thus says that intuition is the only path to the realisation of the Param Siva.
This intuition is to be awakened through constant meditation and esoteric practice. When the intuition is awakened the Sadhaka attains the state of eq:ial-mindedness. And that. finally, leads to salvation.
The Metaphysical Schools of Tantra
There are three metaphysical schools of Tantra. Where. these schools differ, they complement each other. But otherwise they are basically similar.
We mostly commonly mean the Sakta Tantra when we think of Tantra. The name of this school is derived from the Kundalini-Sakti which has to be awakened in man to achieve the union of Siva-Sakti. Vidya Devi, (a manifestation of Sakti), is said to have told Mahadeva, the god of gods. “My true form is that which the yogis realise in their pure awareness as absolute peace, tranquillity and fathomlessness of the ocean.” Identification with Sakti is the goal of this school.
The second school is Vaisnava Tantra, which is the devotional school of Tantra. This school derives its name because here Sakti is considered the immanent principle of Vishnu. When the Kundalini is awakened by the prescribed system, the Sadhaka starts enjoying great inner pleasure, and sheds tears, limps while walking, and laughs and dances with pleasure.
The last of these schools is Saiva Tantra. It maintains the omniscience and omnipotence of Siva. This school has been maligned through ‘the ages because it is associated with Kapalikas, who possess great occult powers. But otherwise, the goal of this school is similar to any other school of Tantra: the mystic union with Siva. However, to qualify for this school. the Sadhaka has to perform rigorous discipline which is aimed at creating an aversion to wordly fame. and honour. He may have to behave like a lunatic or a miscreant in order to attract the abuse of people. Only after he can face such abuse. is he eligible to perform the Tantric practices.
The Kundalini (serpent power) represents Sakti. She is present, asleep and coiled up. in the body of the ordinary man. She is thus the dormant divinity in every Sadhaka. and is to be awakened through an esoteric discipline.
Kundalini yoga is this discipline. This is effected through a process called Sat-chakra-bheda or “the piercing of the six chakras”. The chakras are the spiritual centres of energy in man. Each of these chakras has its own colour, presiding deity, bija-mantras, and a number of lotus-petals, and each has a spiritual significance of its own. The names of these centres, in ascending order, are: Muladhara, Svadhishthana, Manipura, Anahata, Visuddha and Ajna. These are connected vertically through a channel called the Susumna which remains closed at the lower end so long as the Kundalini is not awakened.
The Kundalini-Sakti resides in the lowest of these â€” the Muladhara-chakra. This chakra is placed somewhere below the genitals, near the lowest nerve plexus. The Kundalini lies coiled up around the Svayambhu Linga in her abode, blocking the entrance to the Susumna.
But before the Kundalini can be awakened, the Sadhaka must fulfil three conditions. One of these is Mantra-dipini, or the inner and outer purification of the mind. The other two conditions are called Mantra-chaitanya and Mantraghata. The latter includes the incantation of certain mantras, such as the Ishta-Mantra. The Mantras produce acoustic vibrations which lead to a whipping effect on the Kundalini. With the awakening’ of the Kundalini, the Sadhaka starts losing the feeling of l-ness: the Kundalini rises in her madness of desire and rises to the higher chakras. Depending upon the discipline of the Sadhaka, she is able to pierce the higher chakras. The piercing of each higher chakras leads to the experience of a higher and higher state of bliss.
If the Sadhaka has mastered his practice well, the Kundalini manages to rise to the highest of the chakras â€” the Ajna, whence the end of the Susumna channel is reached and in a flash of lightning, dazzling the Sadhaka, she rushes to the abode of Siva â€” the Sahasrara. The Saltasrara, situated near the cerebral cortex, is described as a thousand-petalled lotus, and in this Siva lies dormant, waiting for Sakti. When both Siva and Sakti embrace each other the Sadhaka achieves his summom bonum â€”the union with Param Siva: and his consciousness expands to the realm of the infinite.
After this union has been reached, the Kundalini-Sakti is led back to her abode in a prescribed manner. Then, whenever desired, the whole procedure can be repeated again. It is to be noted that the technique described till here does not require the presence of any partner.
But there is another way to arouse the Kundalini â€” through ritual sexual intercourse in Tantric esotericism man represents Siva and woman Sakti. It must be mentioned, however, that the -man mentioned here is not the ordinary man of passions, but the archetypal man, the essential man. Similarly, the woman meant here is the extraordinary woman, the essence of Radha. It is only through discipline that an ordinary man rind woman can become fit to perform this kind of yoga. Certain yogic asanas, or postures, are then prescribed, which are to be maintained in a fixed, constant position for long periods of time, before the Kundalini is aroused.
A vital principle in Tantra is the belief in the mystic and metaphysical power of sound waves. Each and every letter is a living energy, and is considered the root of the sonoric manifestations of the cosmos. The Muladhara chakra is the birth place of all sound. Fifty letters are recognised by the Tantra: when these letters are arranged after the Tantric formulae, they become very powerful, and are used to cut asunder the trammels of Maya.
When a Mantra is pronounced properly, a corresponding form with its concomitant colour is manifested by its vibrations in the cosmos. These forms are usually geometrical compositions. When they are projected in the consciousness of the Sadhaka (an artist in this case) he is able to sketch the yantras: this leads to a very simple and effective art form. However, to the Sadhaka, these yantras are of special interest for they help to focus the concentration; they are also dynamic in character, and through them the creation and control of ideas and physical forces is said to be possible.
How is the cult of Tantra performed? What is the practical way to Bliss? For this various types of Sadhana have been prescribed depending upon the . propensities and capacities of the individual.
The first of these is Pasvacharya Sadhana, deriving its name from the word: Pasu (animal), except that in Tantra, this word is not used in the derogatory sense, but in recognition of the limitations of the common man. There is suggested a process of physical purification of the body and mind (the Hathayoga.) and a process of meditation by which the different tendencies of man are controlled, and then sublimated (the Rajayoga), It is through the latter that the Sadhaka is finally able to attain union with the Cosmic Mind. He then sees and feels the presence of Siva in every animate and inanimate object.
The second of these is the Viracharya Sadhan, which is the most aggressive of the lot, and is what we usually associate with Tantric practice. It is this Sadhana which yields occult powers, but the true Sadhaka is not lured by these powers and he remains steadfast in his spiritual quest. But to be eligible for initiation the individual must be completely free from material desires.
This freedom from material desires is not obtained by their repression (as in ordinary religions) but by their satiation, and in later stages through their sublimation. The prescribed rites for this purpose are called Panchamakara Sadhana (the Five M’s): when translated, these five M’s stand for wine, meat, fish, grain and copulation. The initiated Sadhaka is required to fulfil these desires through a ritual which includes the incantation of the proper mantras. But later, the usual meaning of these desires is transformed into a spiritual connotation. For example, wine no longer means liquor but the secretion of nectar when the spiritual union with Param Siva takes place in the Sahasrara. Similarly copulation now means the spiritual union of Siva and Sakti in the Sahasrara. But physical union is sublimated in stages. Initially, the Sadhaka has to learn to wait upon his wife (regarded as Kundalini-Sakti) and to awaken her, serve and enjoy her through the proper asanas, thinking of himself as Siva (Sivo’ham). This is how Viracharya Sadhana is per formed.
The last of the three (and the purest of them all) is Divyacharya Sadhana. It is the highest form of mysticism: only a very few exceptional persons are eligible to perform it. It relies greatly upon the incantation of certain Mantras.
In retrospect and summation, we see how admirably Tantra gears itself to suit various types of personalities: perhaps this is the secret of its perennial vitality.
With this brief survey of Tantra I do not in any way pretend to have covered the recondite depths of this fascinating subject. I have presented merely an introduction to it. But those interested in going further into this cult should look up books by scholars like Arthur Avalon, Lalan Prasad Singh and Ajit Mookerjee. After that only the Guru can guide and initiate the Sadhaka upon his quest. And then? â€¦?