The East has always been a land shrouded in attractive mysticism. Religions, cultures, traditions, cuisines and most importantly, Knowledge of the Self have pulled millions from across the world over centuries, or millennia even, towards discovering the shortest path to the East and, in effect, discovering the Self. The tremendous diversity and depths of approaching the Divine that exist in the East cannot be understood by merely labeling all that is endemic to modern day nations with socio-political boundaries under the one single umbrella term of “religion”. Even the term religion is a subject of controversy, which the author wishes not to cover in this article.
bhārata[i], the land of sanātanadharma, with temples of all (and no) sizes and shapes dedicated to countless deities, has a matching number of perspectives of understanding the Divine and the Self. All these perspectives, called darshana-s, showcase the freedom of choice that is an inherent quality of the Indic culture. These darshana-s cover the entire range of possible personal spiritual philosophies – theistic, atheistic, agnostic, and non-theistic. Of these, the popularly known six which accept the importance of the veda(s) are nyāya, vaiśeṣika, sāṃkhya, yoga, mīmāṃsā, and vedānta. The popular three which reject the importance of the veda(s) are bauddha, jaina, and cārvāka. However, curiously enough, tantra, one often used means of approaching the Divine has not been included within the above popular classification, perhaps owing to its controversial nature of being associated with all things which evoke disgust and or are apparently non-sensical.
Students of Sanskrit are usually exposed to fundamental concepts in the darshana-s and other allied/associated literature. Being taught by traditional teachers who insist on the relevance of only the popularly accepted darshanas, this author was often motivated by the teachers to pursue independent studies in the field of darshana-s with a repeated fair warning that there were some subjects of study that were “out of bounds” and are “misleading” to the uninitiated amateur. With “uninitated” “amateur”-ish zeal, whatever subject this author decided to explore, be it vedānta, āyurveda, nāṭya, yoga, or vāstu, he ended up at that one topic that was “off bounds” – TANTRA! Thus, had begun the author’s serendipitous journey up the convoluting spiral staircase that is tantra.
It was precisely during this quest to capture and understand that elusive subject called tantra when an historically important international conference on śāktatantra was organized by and in Sanchi University of Buddhist-Indic Studies in Madhya Pradesh in December 2018. Dozens of research scholars and/or practitioners of the śrīvidyā tradition communed together near Sanchi, the divine place where emperor Ashoka had helped construct one of the most ancient relics of ancient bhārata and a symbol of motivation for modern day India. Amongst the dozens of lectures delivered with much fervor during the three days of the conference, a few captured the author’s attention. Here is a simple report/note on the same in the conference, which was attended by this author thanks to the generous grant awarded by IndicToday.
The conference was begun on a strong note by Dr. Yajneshwar Shastry, the then VC of Sanchi University of Buddhist-Indic Studies. His introductory address gave an overall bird’s eyeview of śāktatantra. śākta tantra has always been ignored by mainstream research academia. śāktatantra may be classified into kaula (“as is” i.e. verbatim interpretation), samaya (the allegorical interpretation or acceptable-by-mainstream interpretation) and miśra (the mixed interpretation). The samaya tradition was the one supported and well promoted by Ādi śaṃkarācārya. While śrīvidyā refers to the philosophy, the sādhanā involved deals with the propitiation of the Goddess śrīlalitā, also known as śrīvidyā . pañcadaśī – the one (made) of the fifteen (parts) – is the mantra which refers to the subtle body of the Goddess in the form of the mantra where each of the three sets of five parts refer to the vāgbhavakūṭa (part of the body above the shoulder), madhyakūṭa/kāmarājakūṭa (the torso), and śaktikūṭa (lower part of the body) respectively. The mantra used for the upāsanā is known as the mantrarājā, the royal mantra, which has no equivalent mantra elsewhere. pañcāśatvarūpiṇī, a name of the Goddess, refers to the fact that the aforementioned mantra is the mother of all other mantras. It is believed that a sincere individual, one with a pure heart like that of shiva, initiated into the śrīvidyā -upāsanā mantra can be sure that this very life during which he was initiated would be his last janma. The Divine Mother, as confirmed by viṣṇu in His hayagrīva form to ṛṣi agastya, gives all to those who surrender themselves completely to Her. There is a step-by-step cascade that is initiated in the process of upāsanā. First, the mantra invokes the devatā, who is worshipped as the śrīcakra. The śrīcakra becomes the upāsaka in due course and the upāsaka comes to recognize that (s)he is the brahmāṇḍa, the entire Cosmos.
Dr. Siddheshwar Bhatt, Chairman of the ICPR, added some finishing details to the previous talk in a seamless transition. There is a well known statement[ii] – “Not even a fool engages (in any activity) without (the promise/hope/possibility of attaining) any benefit.” [iii] That is why we see the Goddess as a benevolent Mother. She is Power incarnate. We need empowerment from the Goddess. mātṛśakti is the highest power on Earth. That is why we celebrate the navarātri festival. bhārata is the land that respects the Mother Goddess. We see the important statement made by manu himself – “the gods roam where the Feminine are venerated.”[iv] The Goddess is the brahman of vedānta. It is the Goddess Herself who as the Ultimate brahman assumes the forms of the Trinity – brahmā, viṣṇu , and śiva – and reigns over the workings of the Universe.[v] The Goddess in Divine union with her śiva is the sole reason for the Universe to exist and function. [vi] The Power of this Goddess is infinite and can be heard from several sources. [vii] Her śakti (tirodhāna) on movement (spandana) leads to the systematic process of creation (utpatti), sustenance (sthiti), destruction (saṃhāra), and finally the state of her benevolence called anugraha. The Power of the Mother Goddess is symbolized with kāmadhenu, the Divine wish-fulfilling cow, who is known for her benevolence and beatitude.
The worshipping of śakti in both her forms, benevolent and fierce, are equally important. In Her benevolent forms, such as lalitā, tripurasundarī, and gaurī, She protects the honourable, while in Her fierce forms, such as caṇḍī and durgā, She destroys the malevolent. [viii] Both modes of worshipping are again classified into kaula and samaya. The kaula form was popularly practiced in Kashmir, took the interpretation of the pañcamakāra-s (madya – wine, matsya – fish, māmsa – meat, mudra – parched grain, and maithuna – sexual intercourse) quite literally, and was known as the vāmācāra – the left-handed path. The samaya form was practiced in other regions of bhārata, took an allegorical interpretation of the pañcamakāra-s (madya – amṛta, matsya – iḍā and piṅgala nāḍi -s, māmsa – control of speech, mudra – satsaṅga i.e. spiritual companionship, and maithuna – tracing the kuṇḍalini), and was known as the dakṣiṇācāra – the right-handed path. Interestingly, Abhinava Gupta, the savant well known for his work on Kashmira Shaivism and poetics among others, was a practitioner of a symbiotic form of kaula and śrīvidyā. It is important to understand that śrīvidyā , one of the daśamahāvidyā -s (ten great vidyā-s), is both the upāya (means) and upeya (end) of the upāsanā. Hence, the upāsaka can be confident on the path of śrīvidyā .
The Individual and Cosmic Reality, both, have nine cakra-s. [ix] The unity of the microcosm and the Macrocosm occurs in 3 graded stages/levels which are known as the tripura (three cities) which may be represented as the pramātā (seeker of Knowledge), praṃāṇa (means to Knowledge), and prameya (Knowledge) as elaborated beautifully by Abhinava Gupta; or jāgṛt (state of wakefulness), svapna (state of dreams), and suṣupti (state of deep sleep) as spoken of by the advaitin-s. The gradation of these three stages are caused by spatiotemporal limitations. The sādhaka finally attains the Ultimate Reality, that is the bindu at the centre of the śrīcakra, where Mother śakti lies.
As soon as Dr. Bhat finished with a final passing comment on the bindu at the centre of the śrīcakra, this author was intrigued at the pattern formed by the śrīcakra itself. As though in response, Dr. Ramamurthy, from Chennai, shared an interesting presentation on how to draw the śrīcakra mathematically. The śrīcakra is an architectural marvel and hence, is difficult to draw precisely. There are two well known documented and published methods of mathematically constructing the śrīcakra. While the aruṇopaniṣad and the bhāvanopaniṣad are good references for understanding the fundamentals of the śrīcakra, lakṣmīdhara’s commentary on the saundaryalaharī speaks of two methods of construction of the śrīcakra. While one method is an inside-out method, the other is the outside-in method. In the first method, one starts from the bindu and constructs the outer geometrical shapes progressively from inside to outside, the second method does it vice versa. Usually physically constructed on a sheet of paper/metal, on the floor or on a raised platform, there is a need to test the accuracy of the construction using advanced tools and techniques. The speaker precisely constructed a śrīcakra in both methods on the CAD software and found that the first method had an error of 1.02 mm and the second 11.079 mm. The need to understand the error in this context is because a cakra is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional meru and that each cakra, dedicated to its own unique deity, has very specific vibrations around it. This is why beneath every mūrti in the garbhagṛha of any Alaya, there is a specific cakra established during construction.
While the concept of a temple being constructed with tantra as a core philosophy seemed exciting to this author, noted dancer Dr. Padmaja Suresh added more to explain the esoteric significance of nāṭya, dance, with relevance to tantra.
bhārata, in his nāṭyashāstra, calls nāṭya the fifth veda and that it is open to all without barriers. bhārata belonged to the trikashaivamata. Abhinava Gupta, considered the best commentator on the nāṭyashāstra, was a tāntrikayogī himself. From karaṇas to mudras, nāṭya is a performer’s communion with the Cosmos. Though mudra-s are common in both nāṭya and tantra, mudras are a secret in tantra while they are public in nāṭya.
The śrīcakra and naṭarāja are both crucial to nāṭya. The śrīcakra, a mystical geometrical figure, contains triangles which represent the Union of śiva and śakti and a central dot (bindu) representing singularity. śiva, the nāda, and śakti, the Energy come together to create life. Their dance represents sat-cit- ānanda (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss).
tantra is based on the principle from vedānta that all that we experience is a manifestation of Divine Energy. śiva’s and śakti’s word is spread throughout the world through the many tantra texts that are in the form of dialogues between the Divine couple. tantra, which focuses on awakening the kuṇḍalinī, seeks to apply actions that can imbibe the Macrocosmic Energy within the human microcosm.
The human body is a wonderful instrument meant for spiritual enhancement. It is a yantra, an instrument, which needs to be paid attention to for wellbeing in order to attain the Ultimate goal. nāṭya and tantra have a lot in common. nāṭya uses the body along with various costumes, ornaments and accessories unlike yantra-s in tantra. Devotional songs and chants are rendered in nāṭya unlike japa-s, homa-s, and mantra-s in tantra. But both achieve the objective only with proper sādhanā . Both require the strong bonds between the guru and śiṣya. Both are meant for attaining the Divine Silence and Joy. This is evident from the solkaṭṭu (the bol-s used for hindusthāni music) used in nāṭya and percussion music. The statement “tad-hi tvaṃ nam”, meaning “That verily thou (art) (and hence,) bow (to thine Self)”, became ta-dhi-tom-nam.
In a dance recital, later demonstrated by the speaker along with her students, Dr. Padmaja showed how some dance steps were meant for the propitiation of a temple (with a central meru) during circumambulation (pradakṣiṇa).
Any audience of the above few presentations would be fascinated and curious to understand how then was the Goddess represented with all these philosophies and cultural practices constructed around the Deity. Dr. Chudamani Nandagopal aptly clarified by presenting on the portrayal of lalitā in śaktinidhi, the first volume of the śrītattvanidhi, a voluminous encyclopedic work commissioned by Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, a Maharaja of Mysore in the nineteenth century. Though encyclopedias existed in the form of śivatattvaratnākara and mānasollāsa, the śrītattvanidhi is different. The original text, still preserved well, has large sheets of special paper with large meticulously handmade paintings depicting various aspects of art and culture of the times along with short descriptions in beautiful Kannada calligraphy.
In the first step towards understanding that “taboo” word – tantra, this author was led to an event centered on śāktatantra and suddenly the horizon of his knowledge was widened exponentially in a matter of three days. The enormously helpful conference was a thorough immersive experience where the topics covered included introduction to the theoretical foundations of worshipping the Mother Goddess; the associated texts authored by countless ancestors of bhārata throughout the last millennium; the contemporary cultural and anthropological significance of śāktatantra; and the linguistic, grammatical, and hermeneutic details involved in interpretation of śāktatantra literature. As most of the lectures attended by this author were not completely understood owing to his limited exposure to the central theme of the conference, much is left unsaid and uncovered in this report. While the author went with one question – what is śāktatantra? – to the conference, he is left with far more puzzling questions that only time and deeper research may concretely answer to completion.
This author understands that this is not merely the end of his journey in tantra, but only a humble beginning. Amongst the overwhelming statements made by the speakers at the conference, one statement by Dr. Siddheshwar Bhatt resonated with him deeply –
He who acts (i.e. an executor) is a scholar (and not a mere holder of knowledge).
यः क्रियावान् स पण्डितः |
[i] All transliterations in IAST are deliberately not set to common English punctuation conventions
[ii] Translation of statements in Sanskrit presented in the article are by the author
[iii] प्रयोजनमनुद्दिश्य मन्दोSपि न प्रवर्तते |
[iv] यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवता: |
[v] एको देव: त्रयो मूर्त्तयः |
[vi] Interpretation by speaker based on शिवश्शक्त्यायुक्तः यदि भवति शक्तः प्रभवितुम् |
[vii] परा अस्य (sic) (अस्याः ?) शक्तिः विविधा श्रूयते |
[viii] परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् |
[ix] नवचक्रयोगे देहः
Editor’s Note: This experiential essay is a result of the travel grant offered to the author for the Conference on Shakta Tantras held at Sanchi University by Indic Academy.