How the profound Tantric traditions of India were willingly misrepresented as vulgar and barbaric
Indic traditions and spirituality have largely been a mystery to Western scholarship. Western academia, from the colonial days to the Freudian, Marxist and post-modern decades, has approached other cultures with a certainty derived from the assumed superiority of Western tools and frameworks. When a system of the ‘other’ defies the ways of these tools and frameworks, it is condemned, deemed uncivilised and dangerous, and used to stereotype the culture that hosts it.
Tantra has been one such system.
The negative depiction of tantra started with colonial Indology. Of course, even before the colonial times, there had been friction between tantric practitioners and others. Mattavilasa Prakasana, a Sanskrit play attributed to Mahendravarma Pallava (seventh century CE) is a satirical attack on tantric practices – both Saivite and Buddhist. In the play, the character of Sakyabhiksu Nagasena speaks of mainstream Buddhist monks as having hidden the real teachings of Buddha, wherein drinking wine and indulging in sex were considered as spiritually beneficial. Satyasoma, an intoxicated Kapalika, declares a liquor shop as a sacred space and sings that one should get intoxicated and look into their lover’s eyes. In the seventeenth century, we see Guru Tegh Bahadur campaigning against tantric women in Assam.
However, this friction never assumed the form of a holy war against tantra. Instead, in both its ‘right-handed’ and ‘left-handed’ aspect, tantra got harmonised with the society and continued to be an integral part of the larger Indian spiritual culture. In Tamil Nadu, for example, tantra was not only harmonised into canonical Saivism but also contributed to and influenced Saivite spiritual disciplines. One can clearly see this process of integration of tantra and yoga in Thirumoolar’s Thirumanthiram (sixth or seventh century CE). What could be categorised as tantric elements can be seen throughout the devotional-mystic hymns of Nayanmars. Thus, Appar, a great saint of the Saivite tradition (seventh century CE) sang of the ultimate vision of Shiva’s dance as the copulation of various animals and birds, starting with the elephant.
With a loving crescent adoring His head is He
With His consort the Daughter of the mountains
They adore Him with songs and bring water to bathe and worship Him
After them I too shall enter into His worship
Leaving no footprints I reach the sacred town of Ayyar (Thiruvayyar)
I see the young elephant come with his loving female consort
I see His auspicious foot and I see the unseen and the unknowable
Here, it is easy to see how the nadabindu symbolism permeates tantric disciplines and worldview, and is integrated into the very basis of mainstream Saivism. As the story goes, Appar, in his old age, desired to see the dance of Shiva and Shakti. But, being old as he was, he fell down and started crawling. At this moment, he got miraculously transported to Thiruvaiyaru, a sacred town in Tamil Nadu, with a divine assurance that he would witness the cosmic dance there. Perhaps, here we see the place of tantra as an integral part of Indic culture and spirituality. Appar gives the framework to study tantra, whether as an academic discipline or as a practical, spiritual one. One can see the same seamless integration of what has come to be categorised as the tantric worldview in latter-day mainstream devotional literature, like the verses of Arunagirinathar (sixteenth century).
Indologist David Shulman has brought out in his recent work, Tamil: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2016), an abiding presence of the tantric influence in Tamil. He considers “the ongoing transmission of Tantric themes and content, in both the Samaya and Kaula streams” as “possibly the single most influential factor in the reconfiguration of Tamil intellectual life in the second half of the nineteenth century”. Tantra has for centuries permeated the Tamil Saivite realm. The process had its roots in the ancient past, Shulman says. “From early on – middle Chola times at the latest – we find traces of the Srividya in the great Tamil temples of Siva and His local consort, most conspicuously at Chidambaram and Tiruvarur. Eventually, all the major Siva temples in the Tamil country were radically 'Tantricized', in both their ritual-liturgical order and their conceptual organization; this process took centuries to come to fruition.”
Similar processes can be seen in north India also. Even Islamic theologians came to respectfully understand the system. Thus, the Sufi author of Dabistan, a seventeenth-century Islamic theological work, speaks about tantra in eulogising terms:
The Agama (Tantra) favours both sexes equally, and makes no distinction between men and women for men and women compose equally humankind. The sect holds women in great esteem and calls them Sakthis (powers) and to ill-treat a Sakthi that is woman is held to be a great crime.
It should be noted that social evils like Sati, which were products of social stagnation, were actually forbidden by Mahanirvana Tantra.
The tantric system was not only part of the mainstream spiritual culture but played a major role in imparting its knowledge to seekers. We find it working as a well-organised system with no apparent gender biases, remarkably so for the age. Thus, we see a Bhairavi Brahmani not only coming to Sri Ramakrishna and initiating the Master into tantric exercises, we also find her admitted as an important personality in the Dakshineshwar meet of scholars, where we find her speaking with authority on a very delicate topic of whether or not Ramakrishna could be considered as an avatar.
The Dakshineshwar meeting included the “who is who” of traditional scholarship – Vaishnavcharan, a great Vaishnavaite scholar of Kolkata, and Gauri Pandit, a master of tantra from Bankura, among others. Brahmani was the first to declare Ramakrishna as an avatar based on the authority of tantric texts, delineating the states of expansive consciousness that Ramakrishna was experiencing. All these show that even well into the colonial times, the Indian social psyche was mature enough to understand the place of tantra in the spiritual growth of the seeker and accord it a respectful place as a psychological and spiritual discipline without considering it as either esoteric or barbaric.
However, all this started changing when the colonial education started to show results. Except for a very few scholars, like Sir John Woordroffe (1865-1936), by and large the Western academia viewed tantra negatively and disparagingly. During the colonial era, particularly during the independence movement, negative images of tantra were invoked by British propagandists as rationalisation for denying self-rule to Indians. Woordroffe himself had drawn attention to this aspect of theological abuse of tantra for colonial political profits.
During the freedom struggle, an Anglo-Indian daily from Calcutta, on the authority of a British statesman with a “Christian outlook on politics”, pointed out to Indians demanding self-rule that “the Tantric view of life and its problems still insidiously survive”. One of the colonial arguments against Indian self-government was that it would “subject the Englishman to the control of the races who are not his peers in the sense of their having attained to the same plane of civilization and culture”. It asked rhetorically:
Is it sound and far seeing statesmanship to subordinate to the rule of Tantric worshippers races who profess a religion (Christianity) which exterminated the cults of Isis, Mitha, Astarte , the Eleusinian and other mysteries of classical times?
What we see in Western academia today is in a way a continuation of this colonial abuse. The Western academia and its Indian clones employ ethnic Aryan-non-Aryan/Brahmin-non-Brahmin framework or the Freudian framework or sometimes both. While the former is empirically wrong, the latter is explicitly inadequate to understand tantra.
The latest attack on tantra is like a nuanced academic version of the Ancient Aliens series. David Gordon White, an American Indologist with a questionable agenda and an even more questionable understanding of tantra, tries to draw a parallel between the UFO-abduction phenomena in the United States and the tantric experiences. This has been further elaborated into a full-blown quasi-academic, quasi-sensationalist venture by Jeffrey Kripal, whose intentional misinterpretation of Ramakrishna’s biography is now notorious in the field of comparative religion. Here is a detailed passage from Kripal on the subject in a book which he co-authored with a writer who had claimed encounters with aliens (Whitley Strieber). The passage quoted here is entirely authored by Kripal:
David turns to one New Age phenomenon that comes very close to the ‘Tantric sex’ reported, described, and sought out in the medieval Indian Tantric traditions: the UFO phenomenon. In sections with titles like ‘Early South Asian Aviators’ and ‘Men Flying Spacecraft’, David writes of flying temples (vimana), royal airships, and the ‘landing fields’ and ‘launch pads’ of open-air, circular temples, where contact with the fierce female beings from the sky (the yoginis) were believed to take place. More or less exactly like the female visitor of Whitley’s account, these yoginis were described as descending from the sky to abduct, terrify, sexualize, and spiritually awaken the aspirant.Jeffrey Kripal in (Whitley Strieber, Jeffrey J. Kripal) The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained Is Real, Penguin 2016
The thesis that alien encounters are actually intense psychological traumas happening in inner space and may point to some kind of spiritual crisis is in itself not new. Carl Jung had extensively written about it. Maverick technologist and UFO enthusiast Jacques Vallee had made comparisons between visitations in medieval European folk literature and the UFO phenomenon. While these conjectures oscillate in a twilight realm that is quasi-psychological and quasi-physical, astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who spearheaded a scientific search for extraterrestrial beings, hinted at a purely psychological or rather psychopathological explanation when he talked about the abduction phenomenon as “a shared delusion based on common brain wiring and chemistry”.
So, what Kripal is doing is creating a tool out of the UFO-abduction phenomenon to categorise and study tantric spirituality. He elaborates:
Let me play just such a comparison out for you here. The correspondences between Indian Tantric traditions and American abduction literature are quite striking—striking enough to raise the eyebrows of the comparativist who happens to know something about both traditions. Central to both, for example, are a broad range of paranormal powers or siddhis initiated by the Tantric practice or yoga and the spontaneous abduction experience.(ibid.)
Kripal even tends to view Hindu spiritual iconography through the alien lens. Striber had an alien with conspicuously large slanted eyes on the cover of his first book, Communion. Kripal says:
Those large almond-shaped eyes are iconic in the esoteric religious tradition to which I gave my first academic love and attentions: Bengali Shakta Tantra. Remarkably similar eyes can be seen on thousands of Hindu goddesses throughout India, but they are especially prominent, and particularly obvious, on the goddess Kali within the Tantric subcultures of West Bengal in northeastern India, where I lived and worked during the school year of 1989–90 as I researched my dissertation and first book on the “empowered” (shakta) Hindu saint Ramakrishna (1836–1886)(ibid.)
It is indeed interesting that Kripal chose Striber of all ‘abductee’ authors to collaborate with. Striber too was brought up as a Catholic like Kripal. And interestingly, both betray a clear awareness of the deficiency in Catholic Christian theology to accommodate a variety of experiences stemming from varied states of consciousness or psychological states.
Striber draws a parallel between modern science debunking extraterrestrial attribution to abduction experiences and Church rejecting the fairies.
The visitor experience drives us to extremes. Those who have seen the devices or their occupants are often convinced that they are extraterrestrial in origin. And science debunks that just as the clergy debunked the fairies in centuries past, and for the same reason: These outrageous enigmatics so threaten the established order of belief that they must at all costs be rejected. There was no room in seventeenth century Christian theology for fairies, and there is scarcely more in twentieth century scientific theory for visitors as peculiar as these.Whitley Strieber, Communion: Encounters with the Unknown, Century, 1987
In fact, Striber tries to weave an elaborate worldview, essentially grounded in the Triune world of Catholicism and which tries to bring in Hindu and other Pagan spiritual traditions into it as maybe significant milestones in the path:
Life is expressed in Christian cosmology as having emerged from the unity of the Trinity. And this is nothing mystical, it is very simply true. ... There has ever been in the life of man this idea of the triad as the primary force of growth. The Sphinx is a very old construction and the sacred graphic known as Kali yantra or Primordial Image in the Indian Tantras may be older still. This ancient symbol, a triangle with the bindu, or spark of life, at the center in associated with the Triple Goddess who rules the past, present and future and the trimesters of pregnancy and the three seasons of life: childhood, maturity and age.(ibid.)
That was Striber in his first book in 1987. However, by 2016, when he was co-authoring his book with Kripal, he had mapped this alien encounter into a “love affair with a Goddess” – “One way to put it would be to say that I had a love affair with a goddess. Another would be that it was an affair with an alien.”
Kripal himself here leads Striber by explicitly invoking his alleged “Tantric experience” – probably anxiety- and guilt-ridden sleep paralysis which he mistook for a spiritual experience – one he had in a room in Calcutta during the Kali puja festival in 1989.
Toward a demonstration of these energetic resonances, allow me to set, side by side, the details of that Night with a single scene in Whitley’s book Transformation. … Now here is what happened to me twenty-six years ago. It was early November. I had been participating in Kali Puja, a multiday cycle of festivities and rituals celebrating the goddess in her fiercest and in some more esoteric traditions, most erotic forms.... As I puzzled over my odd condition, I felt some eerie presence enter the room, or emerge from some other occult dimension, or come out of my own body (I have no idea which it was). It began to arouse me sexually. This is a fantastic understatement. ... Whatever they were, these energies were alive. They knew what they were doing, and I was the object of their power and intention. Or their prey. As this presence did whatever it did to me (the unprintable f-word would be entirely appropriate), the aroused state I was in became more and more intense.Jeffrey Kripal in (Whitley Strieber, Jeffrey J Kripal) The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained Is Real, Penguin, 2016
What is this presence that is devouring Kripal and doing the unprintable F-word with him?
Actually, I may have actually been with an invisible saint, the one I was studying at the time with such devotion and intensity. Ramakrishna was famous for ‘zapping’ his disciples with a hand or a foot while he was alive exactly like this. My own experience even has a well-established name in Tantric culture: Shakti-pat, literally a ‘descent of Power’.(ibid.)
One needs to go no further to show the completely distorted and flawed understanding of tantra and the wrong interpretation of an unrelated experience as an authentic tantric experience. Kripal misleads his readers, either intentionally or out of ignorance, and essentially does a suave Castaneda.
At another level, Kripal is also acutely aware of the deficiency of Christian theology with regard to spirituality. He laments that in the mainstream Catholic theology “male heterosexuality—bodily and spiritually oriented, of course, around the desire for and love of real women—has long been either compromised as a second-choice thing of “this world” or entirely secularized as something purely physical”. Then, he longingly thinks of a few heretic exceptions in medieval Christianity which were more cults than spiritual disciplines. He yearns:
I am also thinking of more modern figures, like William Blake, the Romantic poet-painter who drew angels caressing immense phalli and a holy chapel in and as a woman’s vagina. Or the French paleontologist and priest Teilhard de Chardin, who saw the evolution of the cosmos as a divine incarnation spread out over billions of years and dreamed of a day that Christian couples could encounter a God of love within their heterosexual intercourse.(ibid.)
Kripal should have clearly recognised the “God of love within heterosexual intercourse” in Hindu tradition. But he does not want to. Rather, he wants to reduce Hindu spirituality – especially tantra – to an experience which is a sub-group in the esoteric new-age cults of the West. Is Kripal exhibiting a kind of theological envy at Hindu traditions? By reducing tantric experience as a parallel category with the UFO-abduction experience, he thinks that he brought tantra within the purview of Western psychology and maybe even ultimately available for comprehension by Christianity.
The problem with Kripal’s approach arises from a flaw which has been well documented in the detailed study of his thesis Kali’s Child by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrjaprana. The flaw is “a personalized envisioning of Tantra, an ambivalent and misleading use of the term ‘erotic’, coupled with an idiosyncratic notion of ‘transcendence’ and ‘nondualism … ’.” (Kali’s Child Revisited, 2011)
Tyagananda and Vrjaprana clear the confusion when they bring out the relation between sex, tantra and yoga.
Neither Tantra nor Yoga nor any other Hindu tradition would agree that sexuality is essentially mystical, or vice versa. Sexuality is ‘a potent expression of Sakthi’ – as much as mystical experience is – but that does not make sexuality essentially mystical. It makes both sexuality and mystical experience two potent expressions of Sakthi. In fact all Hindu traditions, including Tantra, are in agreement that if Sakthi is expressed in one direction, it cannot simultaneously express in another direction. ... Releasing the force in service of one urge makes it unavailable to power the other urge. This is why a key element in the left-handed Tantric practice of ritualized sex is coitus reservatus , which is replaced in the right-handed form of Tantra by the mystic union of Sakti with Siva within one’s own body through the arousing of the psychic power (kundalini) or by the ‘sublimation of sex into a child-like love for the mother goddess’.Swami Tyagananda & Pravrajika Vrajaprana, Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited, Motilal Banarsidas, 2011
With a remarkably similar view, Sri Aurobindo points out:
An immense and complex body of psycho-spiritual experience is embodied in the Tantras supported by visual images and systematized in forms of Yogic practice. … The emotional, the sensuous, even the sensual motions of the being, before they could draw the soul farther outward, were taken and transmted into psychical form and so changed, they became the elements of a mystical capture of the Divine through the heart and the senses and a religion of the joy of God’s love, delight and beauty. In the Tantra the new elements are taken up and assigned their place in a complete psycho-spiritual and psycho-physical science of Yoga.Sri Aurobindo, The Foundations of Indian Culture
In other words, the UFO phenomenon, the abductee experience, visitation by fairies or the non-physical phenomena of the inner realm or the encounters of the inner kind as either, or both the manifestations of social unrest (as seen in South America) and internal crisis of individuation can be addressed by a tantric or yogic psychology if they are developed.
That would also open up new gateways to study the human psyche in deeper and fresher ways – and humanity can be made saner, healthier and happier. If we still try to disparage tantra, pouring old wines in new bottles, even if they have extraterrestrial labels, it may serve our colonial egos temporarily, but it shall serve none in the long run. Humanity would be the loser.
(Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons)