Thursday, 26 January 2017

The More I Learn, the Less I Know:

It was back in the year 2006, when I worked in a media house in Delhi. One day, a colleague randomly came up to me and said: “You are a Bengali; you must know tantra and black magic.”
Caught off guard and without any knowledge of the connection between Shamanism and Bengal, I had shot back: “If I knew that, don’t you think I would be somewhere else and not slogging my a** here?”

In one of the serendipitous instances when I randomly pick up the right books at the right time, I chanced upon a book at the Oxford Book Shop in Darjeeling a couple of years back. The subtitle of the book - ‘Life Lessons from the Himalayas’ – had caught my attention. Surprisingly (or not so), the story turned out to be about the author’s Shamanistic (Shaiva Tantra) journey in the mountains. Consciously or unconsciously, I was getting drawn to the mysticism around Shamanism and Tantra at that time. A slow read, the book opened up a whole new philosophy to me along with the realization that, way back in 2006, both the colleague and I were not only highly ignorant but also had fallen prey to the popular notion that Tantra was bad as it dealt only with black magic and sex.  

(Shaiva and Shakti) Tantra, as was followed in the East of India and Nepal, predates Vedas. Tantra is not a religion but a heterodox tradition which has been passed on orally by teachers to students chosen by them. Loosely translated, Tantra would mean expansion of your mind for liberation. None of the written materials found till now on Tantra really do justice to what it really is. Distortions to the Tradition started with the brahminical hegemony which saw Shiva (Tantra’s prime ‘deity’) as a low-caste uncouth being as opposed to Vishnu, a typical representation of a brahminical god, fair skinned, erudite and upper caste. But despite their efforts, Shiva remained extremely popular among the people. As a result, they had to incorporate him into the ‘Hindu’ pantheon of gods. Similarly, to show women their rightful place in an evolving patriarchal system and to tame their potency, all representations of Shakti were given secondary positions as wives of the gods. Vilification of the Tradition started perhaps due to its unorthodox philosophy and practices as against some of the ‘Hindu’ teachings, and also perhaps to bring people under the brahminical fold. Unlike other religions which put restrictions on people’s conduct and behavior by terming them good or bad, Shaiva Tantra allows people to experience everything (practical knowledge) but mindfully. The ultimate aim is to understand the self, the interconnectedness of things and balance of nature, and through that free ourselves from our self-created and self-focused rigid confines.

Paintings by Mira

Shaiva Tantra’s Aims of Life:

Dharma: Fulfillment of moral duty (to oneself first); to choose to think, say and do nothing to one’s or others’ detriment; to actively engage in living and loving fully and wisely; and not just for personal gains but to restore balance in oneself, family, society etc.

Artha: The greatest of Earth’s hidden treasure is self-knowledge. It aims to achieve prosperity in our material endeavors but within the confines of Dharma, that is, not for personal gains or through means which harm others. Worldly achievements are not separate from so-called ‘spiritual’ achievements as other religions emphasize; but to be achieved to sustain a society where all can flourish according to their own nature.

Kama: Embrace, heighten, and explore all pleasures accessible to our senses in everyday life. Touch, smell, sound, nature, music, art, dance, friends, alcohol.  And yes, sex! To be fully active in the world and not be enslaved by it. Because only a happy, healthy, and gratified body and mind can attend to other aims of life.

Moksha: To learn to find resolution to apparent contradictions – kindness and cruelty, light and darkness, beauty and suffering, compassion and indifference etc. To understand that all these play a part in the balance of our universe, to develop empathy and dynamic compassion, to realize that we already have all we need to be complete, to be all that we can be.   

Some of the Yamas (vows or restraints on personal conduct):

Ahimsa: The wisdom gained in learning to avoid causing harm to oneself or others by either thoughts or words or actions. Even personal gain at the detriment of another by whatever means – including at the price of your own self-respect and integrity – is considered a form of violence.

Alobha: The wisdom gained by learning to live without selfish ambition. Aspiration in every aspect of life is essential but not at the cost of inner violence of greed, pride, and jealousy. To discover that it is not in taking from others, but by giving to ourselves without thought of personal profit that we truly gain the most.

Asteya: The wisdom gained by learning not to steal – neither by body, nor intellect, nor word. To extinguish the desire to possess something that belongs to others – material wealth, social rank, talents, reputation, appearances etc.

Tyaga: Wisdom gained by learning to release attachment to material possessions. It does not propose a state of poverty which would be unrealistic and miserable, but it encourages us to recognize that the desire to possess is a tireless cycle that can never be fulfilled, and to value only that which is necessary to live healthily and freely.

Brahmacharya: Not sexual chastity as commonly believed. But to resolve the deep conflict that we suffer due to the disparity between our true nature and the familial, social, religious expectations, and beliefs we keep conforming to. The wisdom learnt in seeking to live according to our true nature.

But what I liked the most about the Tradition, is its philosophy of the Shakti (female energy that is the Universe) and the place it accords to women in the society as a result. In the Yogini Tantra, women are encouraged to speak and act with the same social, familial and sexual liberties as the menfolk. Consider some of these excerpts from texts related to Tantric as well as ‘Hindu’ philosophies as it developed over the years.

“Respect and consideration for women mark the very foundations [of the Tradition]. All women are to be looked upon as manifestations of the Great Mother [Shakti]. An offending woman should not be beaten even with flowers. A woman of any age, even a girl, or even an uncouth woman, should be bidden a respectful farewell after salutations.” (Chapter 10 – Kaulavalinirnaya Tantra)

“Women are light-minded. They are the root of all troubles. Attachment towards them should not pursued by wakeful persons who desire liberation. [For] there is none more sinning and more sinful than women.” (Uma Samhita XXIV:3,16)

“One should approach [a] woman and invite her to have sex. Should she refuse to consent, [a man] should bribe her. If she still refuses, he should beat her with a stick or with fists and overpower her, saying: ‘I take away the splendor from you with my virility and splendor.” (Brhadarankyaka Upanishad VI.IV:9,21)

It’s therefore easy to understand why Eastern India, the mountain states and Nepal are societally so different from the rest of the aggressively patriarchal states, why women have a far more equal status and mobility still (even with a high patriarchal influence), and why men there don’t need to be macho to be ‘men’ or women docile and feminine to be ‘women’.  

In 2004, while backpacking in South India, my travel partner and I had come across a Shiva-Parvati statue in Dakhshina Chitra, Tamil Nadu. It had an explanation at the bottom: ‘Shiva denotes all things positive and virile. Parvati is the Shakti or force behind Shiva. Without Shakti, Shiva is impotent’. I had found this concept profound then, but little did I know it was sourced from Tantra philosophy and not from ‘Hindu’ philosophies as we know it.

The more I learn, the less I think I seem to know.

Disclaimer: A lot of the content of this blog post (the teachings and practices) has been taken directly from the book Limitless Sky by David Charles Manners. This is the only book I have read on Tantra, and I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of something far more deep and mystical than just what is in the book.

For those who might want to know more, check:


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