The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [04] Tantrism and Shaktism

Published: 19.06.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

Before discussing the role of women we have to give a general introduction. Refer also to § 12.2 for Mahanirvana Tantra and history of Tantrism, to the end of the present section for Tantric iconography, and to the Glossary for chakra.

Tantrism. T.GOUDRIAAN writes: "The extremely varied and complicated nature of Tantrism, one of the main currents in the Indian religious tradition of the last fifteen hundred years, renders the manipulation of a single definition almost impossible.... In a wider sense, Tantrism or Tantric stands for a collection of practices and symbols of a ritualistic, sometimes magical character (mantra,... chakra, mudra...). They differ from what is taught in the Veda and its exegetical literature but they are all the same applied as means of reaching spiritual emancipation (mukti) or the realization of mundane aims, chiefly domination (bhukti) in various sects of Hinduism and Buddhism." T.G. In (Goudriaan 1979: 5-6).

Bhukti (general meaning: enjoyment) can be used in a political sense, domination, and in a sexual sense, sexual intercourse as the way to salvation (bhukti leading to mukti). Under bhukti T.GOUDRIAAN understands elsewhere enjoyment of the "good of life:" T.G. In (Goudriaan 1979: 63). Sexuality is an element of Tantrism, but its meaning and relevance must be analysed from case to case.

Further observations on Tantrism will be found below (GÜNTHER et al.). What is said of Hinduism in general (no common denominator) is true of Tantrism in particular.

Mantras as just mentioned are sacred syllables and verses. om, hum, khat, phat are early examples (post-Vedic literature). GLASENAPP 18 krim, srim, vam are sobriquet-syllables for the goddesses Krishna and Shri (Lakshmi) and for the god Varuna. HOENS Tr (Goudriaan 1979: 105.)

Recitation of the following four pieces (mantras) is prescribed for the four varnas: GOUDRIAAN In (Goudriaan 1979: 33). om plus Gayatri-verse (for the 1st varna), srim plus Gayatri-verse (for the 2nd varna), aim plus Gayatri-verse (for the 3rd varna). And "... the Sudras, traditionally not entitled to the Veda, should use an adaptation of the Gayatri directed to Kali [fem.] instead of the real Gayatri (with Savitar, masc.). But, at least in recent practice, there are groups of Brahmans who give the true om (om plus Gayatri) to Sudras and women." The tradition is interesting (“reform”) although we do not know what is meant by Shudra.

The Gayatri (hymn to the sun) is a verse in the Rigveda (GRASSMANN 105):

Gayatri: tat Savitur varenyam bhargo devasya dhimahi, dhiyo yo nah pracodayat. May we attain that excellent glory [radiance] of Savitar the God, who may stimulate our prayers.

Tantrism is largely the domain of ritual. GOUDRIAAN In (Goudriaan 1979: 7-9) isolates eighteen constituents of Tantrism. Selected examples: (3:) teaching "the practice of a special variety of yoga destined to transform the animal instincts and functions by creating an upward movement in the human body along nerve centres (cakra). The process is most commonly expressed as 'rousing, or 'raising', the Kundalini.'" See chakra in the Glossary. (6:) "... use of partly unintelligible formulas (mantras ...) invested with supernatural power by means of definite ritual procedures...". (7:) "... use of devices like intricate formulas, geometric designs (mandala, chakra ...), gestures (mudra) for the expression of metaphysical or other abstract principles." (8:) "creation of mental images... of gods and goddesses who may be worshipped internally." (11:) "contact -- often performed only mentally -- with socially disapproved persons or entities such as meat, wine, low-caste women or bodily excretions". Such contact should open the way to a better understanding of the double-sided nature of (human) existence.

There are attempts in Indology to find a new description of Tantrism. GÜNTHER has called Tantrism "probably one of the haziest notions and misconceptions the Western mind has evolved" (quotation by PADOUX 273), and FILLIOZAT considered Tantrism "only the ritualistic technical aspect of religion, be it Saiva, Vaisnava, Buddhist or Jain..." (quotation by PADOUX 273). PADOUX objects: to some extent Tantrism "does also exist in itself" (273). "... one can admit Tantrism as a category of its own and define it generally as a practical path to supernatural powers and to liberation, consisting in the use of specific practices and techniques -- ritual, bodily, mental -- that are always associated with a particular doctrine." (PADOUX 273).

Well-known, but not to be described here, is the Tantric antithesis of "left" and "right." This is taken in the sense of "indecent" and "decent:" GOUDRIAAN In (Goudriaan 1979: 44-45). But the definite place of the function of left-and-right in Tantrism and Shaktism does not seem to be certain.

'Tantra' means within Tantrism 'manual'. Elements of Tantrism are earlier than the middle of the first millennium A.D. (§ 12.2). Shaktism is later (§ 12.2). While Tantrism in general is certainly old, we do not know when exactly the unorthodox (liberal) attitude towards women in Tantrism (Shakta-Tantrism) started.

The question of the distinction between Tantrism and Shaktism is an old problem. T.GOUDRIAAN quotes the expression "two intersecting but not coinciding circles:" T.G. In (Goudriaan 1979: 6). He characterizes Shaktism "as the worship of Sakti..., i.e. the universal and all-embracing dynamis which manifests itself in human experience as a female divinity. To this should be added that inseparably connected with her is an inactive male partner [Shiva...] as whose power of action and movement the Sakti functions...." (In 7). Shakti is originally "strength", and outside Shaktism proper shakti is also used for the consort of a particular god or for goddesses in general. -- T.GOUDRIAAN finally defines Shaktism as "a world view oriented towards the Sakti" (dynamis), but Tantrism as "a conglomerate of ritual and yogic practices and presuppositions:" T.G. In (Goudriaan 1979: 7).

The word 'Shaktism' is thus similar to terms like 'Shaivism' or 'Vaishnavism', in other words it is 'religion' or a religious movement. On the other hand, 'Tantrism' cannot be categorized in the expected manner.

We pass to a quasi-philosophical definition of Shaktism by KHANNA: "From the minute atom to the galaxy, everything has an androgynous kernel and is an amalgam of the two. Shiva, the male principle, is the static or inert principle, and Shakti is the dynamic aspect of creation."... "Shiva devoid of energy is unable to accomplish anything but he is empowered... when he is united with his Shakti."... "Several sources reiterate that the power and strength of the holy trinity [trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva] come from the goddess alone. Before her presence, the might of the male deities is humbled." (KHANNA 113) "All women, irrespective of their caste, creed, age, status, or personal accomplishment, are regarded as the physical incarnation of Shakti, the divine cosmic energy, the Great Goddess." (KHANNA 114) We add a praise of woman: "Woman is the creator of the universe, The universe is her form. Woman is the foundation of the world... In woman is the form of all things, of all that lives and moves in the world. There is no jewel rarer than woman, -- There is not, nor has been, nor will be." (115)

KHANNA describes Tantric ritual (Shakta-Tantra ritual) in detail. "On innumerable occasions, the physical woman is adored as a goddess (119)." Worship in Tantrism has, according to KHANNA, three important forms (119):

The first form is the puja of a premenstrual girl, temporarily viewed as a goddess ("as a powerful mother goddess"). This takes place "on certain auspicious days dedicated to the goddess." Seated, the girl is "offered five or sixteen ritual offerings. After the worship, she gets up and blesses the devotee who has performed the ceremony." -- The second form concerns married and unmarried women. "... married and unmarried women are worshipped by their husbands or Sakta devotees as living incarnations of Tripurasundari or Lalita [a goddess if not the goddess]." After the image of the goddess has been honoured, the power of the goddess is visualized as symbolically transferred to the women...." The women incarnated then receive ceremonial worship, are empowered by the goddess, and then, in that mental state, bless the worshipper." -- The third form in KHANNA's triplet consists in the offerings, made to the goddess (woman), offerings of the five Ma-karas: wine (Mada), meat (Mamsa), fish (Matsya), parched grain (designated as Mudra) and sex (Maithuna). Mudra, in other contexts 'gesture', stands in the present context for grain. Maithuna is ritualized or real. Ma-kara designates in grammar the letter 'ma' (m). "In this [third] ritual, the physical woman is looked on as the human incarnation [embodiment in '3' more powerful than embodiment in '1' and '2'?] of the goddess on the earthly plane." -- More direct is GUPTA (Goudriaan 1979: 155): "He [the Tantric] drains the cup [of alcohol] and does not drink any more and then, when she has finished her meal [probably meat or fish] and is rested, he has sexual intercourse with her."

KHANNA describes the three ritual procedures as "an attempt to break the impervious boundaries set by caste-ridden hierarchies." (119).

More general is the following observation: "What is noteworthy in these texts is that here, for the first time in Hindu religious history, an attempt is made to actualize the divinity of women on the social plane and thus introduce an ethos of equality and reverence for them." (KHANNA 116) But T.GOUDRIAAN feels that "Returned into ordinary life, no high-caste Tantric would think of breaking the social taboos:" T.G. In (Goudriaan 1979: 32). And G.FLOOD says "Because women are filled with sakti in tantric ideology, they are considered to be more powerful than men, yet this power is generally not reflected in social realities where women have remained subordinate." (FLOOD 191) Also: "It is one thing [for a Brahman] to perform erotic worship with a low-caste woman in a ritual setting, but quite another to interact with her outside that context." (FLOOD 192) One is tempted to say that Tantrism/Shaktism was socially ineffective. The position of women was possibly stronger in Tantric Buddhism than in Tantric Hinduism (FLOOD 296, footnote 29).

An important point is the Tantric "reversal" of the attitude towards the female body which is sacred: "Thus, hair and menstrual flow, traditionally conceived to be impure, unclean, and polluting, are said to be pure, clean, and energy bestowing" (KHANNA 116). Another Tantric text declares: "'The menstruation of women emanates from her body, How can it be impure?'" (KHANNA 118). To demonstrate the force of the reversal, KHANNA quotes from a pre-epic Brahmanical law-book the orthodox, anti-woman description of the menstruating woman: "(During that period) [menstruation] she shall not apply collyrium to her eyes, nor anoint [her body], nor bathe in water; she shall sleep on the ground; she shall not sleep in the day-time, not touch the fire [?], not make a rope [?], nor clean her teeth... " (118).

Another form of reversal concerns the teacher-disciple relation (120-121). "The Tantras state several times that women have the authority to impart initiation... Initiation given by a woman is considered to be more efficacious than initiation given by a man...." Tantric women may become gurus, sometimes gurus of a high spiritual calibre. There are female gurus/teachers in non-Tantric Hinduism as well, but in Tantrism the rank of female teachers is higher.

In Tantrism, the misogynistic idiom, so well-known from Brahmanical texts, is replaced by exuberant praise of women and almost by deification: "'One [a man...] should not beat a woman even with a flower, even if she is guilty of a hundred misdeeds, one should not mind the faults of women, and should make known only their good points.'" (115)

Bibliography. LAUF; Goudriaan 1979 and 1981; KHANNA. -- Further literature: GLASENAPP 75: Tantric identification with a deity (Buddhist Tantrism). -- GONDA II 26-52: Tantrism und Shaktism (26-28: Definition of Tantrism; 39-40: Definition of Shaktism). -- PADOUX: Tantrism in general (272-274), Hindu Tantrism (274-280). -- § 12.2 (Tantrism).

Opinions: KAPADIA 143-144: "... Tantricism, which was slowly evolving into a powerful force contributing to the looseness of the sex morals." WALKER 484, 482-486: "Tantrism contains the loftiest philosophical speculation, side by side with the grossest obscenities; the most rarified [sic] metaphysics with the wildest superstition.... its ritual is debased by the most reprehensible practices,...". LAUF (Motto): "The Indian Tantras as practical guides to the spiritual totality of man."

Pantheon: Hindu Tantrism alone (not to speak of Buddhist Tantrism) offers an endless number of gods and goddesses, mostly arranged in groups (e.g. the ten Mahavidyas, the nine Durgas, the deities of the six chakras, the deities of the alphabet). T.GOUDRIAAN mentions no less than 14 lists: T.G. In (Goudriaan 1979: 64-66). However, in Hindu Tantrism the importance of lists is limited. -- The ten Mahavidyas are: Kali, Tara, Shodashi, Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagala, Matangi, Kamala. See MUKHERJEE and MELZER 44-45 (Chamunda et aliae). The specific Tantra pantheon is not really reflected in art.

Sexualism: Erotic art of Hindu temples includes "divine women," "amorous couples," "coital scenes," and figures displaying linga and yoni (male and female sex-organs). But the sculptures do not reflect Tantrism, and there is also no connection with Vedic ritual (occasionally sexual) and with the Kama Shastra. Eroticism is not prominent in the contemporary or earlier Puranas (where it might be expected). Finally, the “sexual element” of sculpture is not equally pronounced in all parts of India. TH. DONALDSON mentions beauty and protection (of the temple) as the motifs behind the sexual trend in art (p.97), but that is no explanation. The artists have produced their own world, in eroticism as elsewhere. See also § 10.2.

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