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Tantra is a distinctive religious system documented in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain scriptures
that began to appear near the middle of the 1st
millennium CE. For their adherents, the Hindu
Tantras are works of divine revelation, flowing
from the mouth(s) of one or another of the
supreme tantric deities. As such, they are distinct
from the far more ancient revelations of the
Vedas (ruti) as well as from the epic and puranic
canons that make up Hindu tradition (Smrti).
Many of these works have the word tantra in their
title, a term derived from the verbal root tan-, to
extend, that denotes the weaving together of various strands of practice, like threads on a loom,
into a coherent system. The Tantras are Sanskrit
verse compositions whose aphoristic and elliptic
style is often difficult to comprehend without an
additional explanatory apparatus. In traditional
contexts, this was one of the primary roles of the
tantric guru or preceptor: to clarify and explicate
the tantric revelations through oral instruction.
Over time, these teachings became codified into
vast written commentaries and subcommentaries,
ritual handbooks, and other synthetic works,
redacted in excellent Sanskrit by (mainly) Brahman authors. The contents of the Tantras vary
widely, and it is not unusual for a single tantric
work to contain data on ritual and visionary
practice, metaphysics, iconography, demonic possession, supernatural powers, and theories of salvation. The diverse strands of theory and practice
found in these texts are the legacy of the historical
developments that led to Tantras emergence
because even if these works present themselves as
so many divine revelations, they are in fact the
productions of human agents from a variety of
socioreligious backgrounds, cultural regions, and
historical periods.
Out of this welter of data, a number of patterns
emerge, which align with what may be termed a
tantric worldview. Central to this worldview is the
notion that human practitioners can empower,
and even deify, themselves to manipulate and
dominate the entire spectrum of beings and energies that make up the tantric universe. This universe is a continuum, arising out of and returning
to the body or self of the divine, the one that proliferates into the many on multiple simultaneous
registers. These include

the tattvas, the 36 hierarchized elements or

categories of the universe, ranging upward from
the earth element to the subtlest level of the
the great chain of being(s) in the universe,
from the impotent but noxious spirits of the dead
controlled by tantric sorcerers to the supreme
the 51 phonemes of the Sanskrit alphabet,
extending from the primordial a- to the final
ah , phonemes that may be combined into the
powerful sound formulas or spells ( mantras)
that are the acoustic manifestations of the gods
All of these components of the greater tantric universe, which are simultaneously present in the
microcosm of the individual human body, can
also be charted onto mediating structures. These
are the circular diagrams ( mandalas) and devices
(yantras) employed by tantric practitioners to
visualize, and eventually inhabit and identify with,
the tantric continuum in its entirety, down to its
smallest detail.
The tantric universe is a living whole, animated
by a power or energy, which, while nearly always
dominated by a male god, is itself female. This
feminine energy ( akti) is represented as a goddess who is at once the body of the world and the
spouse or consort of the male godhead. So it is that
the summit of nearly every tantric pantheon is
occupied by a dyad, composed of the male god
together with his divine consort, his akti. Their
union, which is often represented in a sexual
mode, gives rise to all life in the universe, of which
the most privileged form is human life inasmuch
as humans alone have the capacity to transcend
their biologically given condition and accede to
liberation (mukti) from suffering existence. Like
every other South Asian religious and philosophical
system, Tantra is a soteriology, a system of theory
and practice for the attainment of salvation. For
most tantric practitioners, salvation consists of
becoming godlike or god-minded: intimately
close to god (but without becoming god, which is
an impossibility in any dualist metaphysics) or
possessed of a god consciousness that views the
universe as self. Here, the two principal paths to
salvation are ritual practice (kriy), through which

all ontological impediments to identity with god
are physically removed, and gnosis ( jna), the
intellective cultivation (bhvan) of god consciousness and the recognition (pratyabhij), in
nondualist systems, of ones innate divine nature
through elaborate visualization practices and
spiritual exercises. An inner circle of tantric virtuosi supplemented these soteriological goals with
techniques for the magical domination of all
beings in the world. To this end, they observed a
special set of esoteric practices that afforded them
rapid access to supernatural powers (siddhis).

Emergence of Hindu Tantra

Near the middle of the 1st millennium CE, a number of elements of South Asian religious practice
coalesced into what would come to be defined as
Tantra. The same period saw parallel developments taking place in South Asian Hinduism,
Buddhism, and Jainism. The origins of Hindu
Tantra may be traced back to four principal
sources. The first of these was Brahmanic, consisting of the extended application of vedic and upanishadic principles and ritual technologies to the
cults of the gods of the new theism. The identification of one of these supreme beings with the upanishadic absolute ( brahman); practices involving
mantras, meditation, and initiation; the homologization of microcosm, macrocosm, and mesocosm; and mystical reflections on the power of
speech: all of these elements of brahmanic religion
were adapted to the ritual veneration of the newly
emergent cults of iva, Visnu
, the sun god
Srya (see navagrahas), and the Great Goddess
( Mahdev). For these practitioners, Tantra
became a complement to, rather than a substitute
for, vedic ritual ( yaja), an enhanced set of techniques for both embodied and disembodied
The most important early developments in these
directions are attested in the early aiva scriptures
of the Atimrga (the surpassing path), such as
the Pupatastra and the Nih vsatattvasam hit,
which date from the first half of the 1st millennium CE. In the same period, portions of the sixth
book of the Maitryupanisad as well as cosmogonic
passages from early Vaisna va Purnas attest to
similar developments in early Vainavism. Slightly
later, the Devmhtmya of the Mrkandeyapurna
introduces a number of tantric goddesses in
a Brahmanized mode. Generally observed by


high-caste householders, Brahmanized forms of

Tantra blended easily with medieval Hindu devotionalism ( bhakti), such that the two became
The Atharvaveda is a second important source
for later tantric theory and practice. Mainly
demonological in content, many components of
this work are readily recognizable in later tantric
traditions of sorcery, possession, exorcism,
witchcraft, and healing. These include the apotropaic and therapeutic use of mantras, herbs, and
amulets; various techniques of sorcery and countersorcery, including the creation and manipulation of witches (krtys); the use of amulets and
spells (mantras) for protection and aggression;
and the notion that the demonic hordes populating the South Asian landscape could be controlled
through offerings made to various leaders who
came to be called lords of beings (bhutevaras,
bhtanthas) in later traditions that straddled
the line between the divine and the demonic.
These traditions were carried forward into the
medieval period through ancillary atharvavedic
works such as the Kauikastra and ntikalpa, as
well as the demonological (bhtavidy) and pediatric (kaumarabhrtya) sections of the ayurvedic
classics (Carakasam hit, Surutasam hit, and
Ast ngasam graha; yurveda).
Several of the earliest Hindu and Buddhist
Tantras identify Uddiyna (Swat Valley), Prnagiri (Uttarakhand), Jlandhara ( Punjab), and
Kmarpa (Assam) as pthas (mounds), special
sites where the observance of tantric rites brought
itinerant male ascetics into contact with localized
female beings called yogins or dkins. Embodying themselves in the human women who took
part in the rites, these multiple superhuman
female beings retained many of the features of
the earlier yakss ( yaksas and yaksins), tutelary
goddesses of specific landscapes and locales
(forests, pools, mountains, etc.). All four of these
original pthas were located along the geographic
boundary between the Indian subcontinent and
inner Asia, and so it has long been surmised that
certain elements of Tantra were imported into the
subcontinent via these points of contact. The cremation ground at Uddiyana, situated in the Swat
Valley of modern-day Pakistan, is singled out in a
number of early texts as the specific site from
which the yogin cults originated. In the centuries
that followed, the yogin rites that were the hallmark of the esoteric tantric culture of the cremation ground spread across northern and central



South Asia. The original content of these rites, as

recorded in 8th- to 11th-century tantric texts and
commentaries, was quite gruesome. Simultaneously predators and carrion feeders of the cremation ground and lithe human consorts, the yogins
were known to liberate their victims from suffering existence by eating them. Delirious with
wine and self-inflicted pain, solitary skull-bearing
( Kplika) ascetics would offer themselves in
sacrifice, yielding up their semen, bone, marrow,
fat, flesh, blood, and skin to the yogins. Gratified
by the Kplikas offerings, the yogins would offer
their grace in return, reviving the self-sacrificing
ascetic and admitting him into their clans by offering him their own sexual emissions and with
this, direct access to liberating possession (vea)
by the lord of those clans, the horrific god
Because they flowed from the clan (kula) of the
yogins, the supernatural fruit of the rites observed
at Uddiyana was called kaula. Between the 8th
and 11th centuries, tantric compilers and commentators would adapt these marginal traditions
into a highly structured esoteric ritual program,
which, linked to a conventional metaphysics and
soteriology, rendered them acceptable to the far
broader aiva householder mainstream of Kashmir. This reformed version of the old ascetic traditions nonetheless retained many of the earlier
yogin practices in its secret ritual as observed
by members of an inner circle of tantric virtuosi
variously called yogins, sdhakas, (practitioners),
kulaputras (sons of the clan), vras (virile heroes),
or siddhas (perfected beings). These initiations
and practices formed the ritual core of esoteric
Hindu Tantra also known as the Kaula which
afforded its elite practitioners this-worldly supernatural powers (siddhis) and access to the magical
domination of the world, while also providing
high-caste householders with an attractive and
mildly subversive path to liberation.
Although the Kaula rites were theoretically
secret, these were widely advertised secrets,
appearing in several tantric texts and figuring in
the iconographic programs of many medieval
South Asian temples. These included the open-air
structures known as yogin temples man-made
pthas of sorts to which the winged yogins were
assumed to fly in order to transmit esoteric teachings and offer initiation to male practitioners
through their sexual emissions. However, the
greatest extant concentration of yogin temples are

to be found far from the range of the four original pthas in a belt running across central India
from the Vindhya Mountains to the Orissan coast.
It is in the same region, at Gangdhar in Madhya
Pradesh, that the earliest written evidence for
dkin cults has been uncovered, in an inscription
dating from 424 CE. The earliest reference to
Bhairava (The Horrific) originally a cremation-ground deity, but also the quintessential
South Asian Lord of Beings who eventually
became the supreme being and revealer of numerous major tantric scriptures dates from the same
region and the same century.

The Royal Pivot

These three historical components of tantric theory and practice persist down to the present day.
So, for example, Smrta Brahman practitioners
in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu carry
forward the traditions of the medieval rvidy
Kaula, while Nth yogs ( Nth Sampradya)
and priests of village Bhairava shrines across
North India continue to observe the healing traditions of early Tantra, and devotees venerate tantric
goddesses at their pthas. Only in Nepal, which
unlike India has remained a tantric kingdom
down to the present day, are these three bodies of
practice viewed as complementary aspects of a
greater whole. And in fact, it was royal patronage
of and participation in the tantric universe that
constituted the fourth and crucial element, which
cemented Tantra into a new and recognizable
tradition in medieval South and Southeast Asia.
Without it, ancient extravedic Brahmanic ritual,
atharvavedic demonology, and the yogin cults
would likely never have been synthesized into the
structured tradition known as Tantra just as, in
its absence, recognition of that structured tradition has disappeared from modern-day India. As
a new paradigm of religious power in the world,
medieval Hindu Tantra coalesced around the
person of the feudal king, who patronized tantric
specialists in order that their extravedic rites
would transform him into a living god on earth.
These specialists were of two principal types, the
one shamanic and the other clerical. The first
group comprised religious specialists from the
kings rural power base. These were village priests,
itinerant ascetics, and wonder workers whose
combined practices of induced possession, exor-

cism, sorcery, and sacrifice afforded them healing
powers and mastery over powerful hordes of
supernatural beings: lineage goddesses ( kuladevs);
bhtanthas; deities of rivers, forests, and mountains; and so forth. With the advent of Tantra,
these hordes became transformed into the divine
entourage of the kings own lineage god and goddess, which were themselves identified with one
or another supreme tantric dyad (Sadiva and
Um, etc.) and the royal couple themselves. The
second group generally comprised mainly Brahman royal chaplains and preceptors from among
the emergent religious orders and temple priesthoods of the medieval period. These specialists
adapted and innovated nonvedic rituals for the
consecration, the enthronement, and ultimately
the deification of kings. This was a strategy of the
tantric Vaisna va sect known as the Pcartras,
whose man-lion initiation (nrasim hdks) made
low-caste South Asian kings eligible for royal
consecration. These, in turn, offered them patronage and protection, making the Pcartras their
royal chaplains and custodians of their royal temples. In the medieval Southeast Asian kingdoms of
Angkor and Majahapit, it was aiva specialists,
who, in exchange for land grants, royal wives, and
other privileges, transformed rulers like Jayavarman II of Angkor into god-kings (see Cambodia). In more recent centuries, Nth yogs have
played the role of power brokers, combining their
strong links to the rural populace with supernatural powers and political acumen to place their
chosen princes on the thrones of several kingdoms
in Rajasthan, Nepal, and the Himalayan foothills
of North India. Many tantric texts attest to this
symbiotic relationship, enjoining tantric specialists to vigilantly defend the royal family from
every sort of danger while also reminding kings of
their duty to protect and support their tantric
The rise and fall of Hindu Tantra as the religious
mainstream is directly linked to the rise and fall
of its royal patrons. In North and central India,
Hindu Tantra thrived as the royal cultus under the
Kalacuri, Somavamshi, Chandella, Calukya, and
other dynastic lines, until their lands fell into the
hands of Muslim rulers in the 12th century. In
other parts of the north, Hindu royal houses that
survived as vassals of the Mughals and other Muslim rulers have remained tantric in much of their
public ceremonial down to the present day, especially during the great festival of daahar/


navartr/durgpj, in which the marriage

between the titular king and his royal kuladev is
ritually reenacted. Due in no small part to the pervasive influence of the Nth yogs, both the royal
cultus and popular traditions of several Rajasthani
kingdoms have retained a strong tantric coloration down to the present. In Kashmir, an
entrenched Brahman aristocracy managed to preserve the tantric tradition in its householder practice well into the 20th century, in spite of the
disappearance of Hindu royal patronage in
1320 CE. While the Kmarpa ptha, located
in the modern Gauhati district of Assam, was
a very early site of yogin practice as attested in
the circa 8th-century Kaulajnanirnaya, there
was no royal patronage of Hindu Tantra in that
northeastern extremity of the Indian subcontinent the until the early 16th century, with the rise
of the Hinduized rulers of the kingdoms of Ahom
and Koch.
Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Hindu
kings of the Southeast Asian kingdom of Angkor
had (mainly Kashmiri) tantric advisors in their
courts, with the public cults of the god iva and
royal initiations all conducted in a tantric idiom.
On the island of Bali in Indonesia, which was
ruled by Hindu kings from the 10th well into
the 19th century, a certain form of Tantra has
remained the mainstream form of religious practice. The same is the case in the Kathmandu Valley,
whose state religion has been tantric from the
early Malla period (early 13th cent.) down to the
present day, and where Tantra permeates every
aspect of religious life at every level of society
(see Nepal).
For so long as this relationship between kings
and tantric specialists remained in force, Tantra
persisted as a sanctioned religious force in India,
with the ceremonial life of the kingdom being
conducted in a tantric mode. When that relationship was dissolved, as Hindu kings were overthrown or reduced to vassal status by Muslim
rulers (or, from the 16th cent. forward, increasingly opted for a devotional religious style), Tantra
disappeared. In India, the great majority of modern-day Hindus overwhelmingly reject or dissemble with regard to the tantric legacy of their
own traditions, generally identifying tntrikas
(a modern usage) with evil charlatans practicing
the dark arts. Yet it is remarkable to note how
recently this paradigm shift actually occurred. Well
into the 19th century, great numbers of high-caste



Hindu practitioners across the subcontinent continued to observe tantric rites, as evidenced in
census data and the vast quantities of 18th- and
19th-century tantric manuscripts held in Indian
If it was royal patronage that put Tantra on the
medieval religious map of South and Southeast
Asia, then it is important to understand the place
of royal ideology and medieval Realpolitik in constructions of Tantra. Here, it must be noted that
the specifically tantric use of mantras, initiations,
and mandalas idealized circular diagrams of
both royal territory and divine universe first
emerged in India as a religious response to or
reflection of a situation of political anomie. With
the fall of the imperial Guptas in about 550 CE,
much of the Indian subcontinent was plunged
into a millennium-long period of feudalism, in
which multiple, shifting political centers were in
constant flux, passing under the control of a series
of often low-caste warlords whose claim to dominion over a territory was, from the standpoint of
orthodox religious polity, illegitimate. In order to
legitimate their power, these pretenders to royal
thrones called upon a new cadre of religious specialists to ritually consecrate them with tantric
mantras, transforming them into divine kings and
their conquered territories into equally consecrated mandalas of royal power.
While many of the kings who embraced Tantra
in the medieval period did not belong to the warrior (Ksatriya) class, they generally sought to publicly demonstrate their adherence to warrior and
royal ideologies. With respect to the former, they
would have embraced the soteriological doctrine
that a warriors battlefield death issued in his
immediate apotheosis that is, his elevation to a
divine station when a chariot, called a yoga,
was sent down from above to carry him to heaven.
The yoga of the dying warrior, which predates
all other forms of yoga by several centuries, was
but one of a number of elements of an old martial
ideology that became incorporated into tantric
theory, practice, and terminology. These included
the use of mantras as hand-held weapons
(astras), missiles (astras), and armor (kavaca);
ritual practices of binding the directions (digbandhana) as a means to creating a defensive
perimeter around a consecrated space; the construction of mandalas according to the floor plans
of fortified citadels; pervasive associations of
tantric goddesses with warfare; the wielding of
royal weapons or scepters (vajras) by tantric initi-

ates; the six tantric acts (satkarmans) of killing,

subjugation, immobilization, enmity, eradication,
and liquidation; and the use of the language of
military conquest in tantric discourse in general.
Diagrammatic representations of the universe
as a clan (kula) of interrelated beings, as an
embodied cosmos, tantric mandalas have their
origins in South Asian models of royal polity.
Central to tantric constructions of kingship is the
notion that the king, standing at the center of his
kingdom, mirrors the godhead at the center of its
realm, his or her divine or celestial kingdom.
However, whereas the godheads heavenly kingdom is unchanging and eternal, the terrestrial
rulers kingdom is made so through the utopia of
the mandala. As such, the idealized, constructed
kingdom of the mandala serves as a template
between real landscapes, both geographical and
political, and the heavenly kingdom of the godhead, with the person of the king as god on earth
constituting the microcosmic presence of the
Such models rarely corresponded to the actual
situation of medieval South Asian polities, in
which the relationships between vassals and overlords were constantly being overturned through
warfare, alliances, subterfuge, and marriage. This
period, which was marked by a ruralization of the
ruling classes throughout much of South Asia,
saw kings reinforcing their socioeconomic links
with agrarian society through marriage with its
daughters, and by embracing the agrarian cults of
regional kuladevs and goddesses of the land. This
new synthesis was therefore one that simultaneously effected the divinization of kings who
assumed the positions of tantric gods or their
incarnations at the centers of vast mandalas of
supernatural beings and the concomitant feudalization of divinity, wherein the gods of Tantra
became homologized with warlords and feudal
This model of tantric polity finds expression
in the political theory of the Mnasollsa, a
12th-century mirror of kings. Taking the
Arthastra (see artha), Indias classical manual
on statecraft as its starting point, the Mnasollsa
adds a new element to the Arthastras standard
list of the seven allies and enemies who make up a
rulers circle of kings. That eighth element is the
kings akti, which, according to this source, controls all of the other elements in his circle of power
relations. The intimate, even sexual, nature of a
tantric kings relationship to his clan goddess is



underscored in a number of ways, through her

identification with his queen, his akti and with
r ( r Laksm), the fickle goddess of royal sovereignty who only shares a kings marriage bed
and throne for so long as he remains the most
powerful ruler on earth. From Nepal to Tamil
Nadu, and from Gujarat to Bali, the clan goddess
resided within the royal palace, which was at once
a royal warriors dwelling, a tantric goddess temple, and the site of the royal bedchamber. As such
the god-king and his goddess-wife would both
have been models of and for the divine dyad at the
heart of Hindu tantric mandalas.
This self-identification of kings and queens
with tantric deities also found expression in temple construction, most particularly in the symbolism of the royal temple, which lay at the center of
a mandala-like network of temples that brought
the local goddesses of the kingdom into the royal
orbit. It is important to note that freestanding
temples did not begin to appear on the South and
Southeast Asian landscape until the tantric period.
The great temples, most often constructed in royal
capitals, were intended to concretize a kings claim
that, more than his vassal warlords, he was a godking (devarja). The deities with whom these
kings nearly always identified themselves were
one or another form of Visnu
(including his tantric
forms, as Narasim ha, the man-lion, or the fourheaded Vaikunth a of Kashmir) or of iva (including the tantric Sadiva, Bhairava, and so forth) or
Srya. The kings identification with the deity in
the sanctum of his royal temple was operative on
several levels. These included

tantric imagery, often erotic, in its iconographic

program. The floorplans and other architectural
features of these temples were often generated
from tantric diagrams: a prime example of this are
the yoginyantras and kmakalyantras, tantric
blueprints described in the 9th- to 12th-century
ilpapraka, an Orissan guide to tantric architecture. In fact, the sole technical and theoretical
guides to South Asian temple construction are
tantric works, including a class of texts known as
the pratisth atantras (installation Tantras), which
provide technical instructions for the installation
(pratisth ) of ivalingas (see linga) and other
divine images and the consecration of temples and
other religious edifices, as well as principles of
temple architecture, iconometry, and iconography.
A wealth of historical data textual, inscriptional, artistic, and architectural supports the
thesis that between the 7th and 12th centuries
(and in some cases down to the colonial period),
many if not most of the royal houses of the Hindu
world, in India, Nepal, Indonesia, and continental
Southeast Asia, embraced Tantra. As such, the
paradigm of feudal lordship became the model for
all of Hindu tantric practice, through which any
practitioner, regardless of his station in life, could
transform himself into a superhuman cosmocrat,
controlling a universe of which he was, through
his identity with the god at the center of the
mandala, simultaneously the creator, preserver,
and destroyer.

the name of the god which, in the case of

temples dedicated to a form of iva, often comprised the kings own name with the aiva vara
(master) suffix;
the facial features of the god (which were
made to resemble those of the king); and
the temples dimensions, whose baseline unit
of measure was derived from the kings own body

The most important sources for the data of Hindu

Tantra are the tantric scriptures and their commentarial traditions. While the great bulk of these
are aiva (or kta-aiva), a number of Vaisna va
and Saura (which enshrine Srya, the sun god, as
the supreme being) Tantras are also extant. In
addition to these, there have also existed demonological Bhtatantras (Tantras of the beings),
Visatantras (poison Tantras), Ganapatitantras
(Tantras of the lords of the host; see Ganapati/
Ganea), and Garudatantras (Tantras for protection against snakebite, named for Visnu
s serpentslaying mount, the divine bird Garuda).
Hindu tantric metaphysics may be dualist (as in
the case of Vaisna va Pcartra and aiva Atimrga
and Mantramrga traditions), with the soteriological goal of becoming like god or intimately
close to god, or nondualist (in the Mantrapth a

The god-king generally shared his inner sanctum

with a form of the goddess, who was often a tantric
goddess and simultaneously a lineage goddess or
goddess of the land.
Regardless of their sectarian identifications, all
medieval temples were constructed according to
tantric principles. In the medieval period, no temple was built that did not have some element of

Tantric Texts and Traditions



and Vidyptha revelations of the kta-aiva

canon), with the goal of becoming god, or more
properly speaking, realizing ones intrinsic divinity. In every case, salvation is realized through a
combination of ritual practice, the visionary cultivation (bhvan) of meditative insight, and devotion to the divine. Through a set of transformative
rituals, the practitioner becomes progressively
incorporated into his community, moving ever
closer to liberation as he remounts the hierarchy
of being back to its divine source. In the dualist
system of the aiva mantramrga, ritual practice
effects the progressive removal of the ontological
substance called the primordial stain (mala) or
fetter (pa) which is the sole differentiate
between the divinity (pati) and mortal creatures
(pau). At the end of ones life, when all of a practitioners fetters have been ritually removed, he
becomes godlike, or joins god in his heaven. In
certain of the esoteric tantric systems of the
Mantraptha and Vidyptha which were the
objects of extensive commentaries by Utpaladeva
(fl. 900950 CE), Abhinavagupta (fl. 9751025)
and the latters disciple Ksemarja in particular
ritual practice becomes increasingly internalized
into a set of meditation techniques involving
visualization, mantra repetition, and yogic and
spiritual exercises. Here, ritual activity becomes
abstracted into intellection often through a rigorous meditative analysis of the mantric phonemes with the final goal being the expansion of
the practitioners individual consciousness into a
trans-individual god consciousness, by virtue of
which he sees the world and the entire Hindu
tantric pantheon of beings and energies as I
(aham) rather than that (idam). This state of
consciousness, which in a gnoseological system is
also a state of being, is referred to in these works as
ones Bhairava nature or Bhairava consciousness: the being of god-as-pure-consciousness,
viewing the entire universe as self.

The aiva Atimrga and Mantramrga

The revealed scriptures of the Hindu tantric canon
came to be hierarchized in a number of 8th- to
10th-century Kashmiri works, according to which
higher teachings entailed ascending levels of
power and obligation. While this classification
system was unique to medieval Kashmir, it is a
useful heuristic inasmuch as its presentation of
the various tantric scriptural traditions closely
tracks with the historical emergence of tantric
movements, bodies of practice, and sectarian

orders. For the most part, the works catalogued

here were Brahmanic compositions that incorporated much of the imagery and many of the deities
of earlier ascetic traditions.
The scriptures and the traditions these canons
incorporate are divided in these Kashmiri postscriptural systematizations into two broad categories: the restricted teachings (viesatantra) of
various nonkta-aiva tantric groups and the
more restricted (viesatara) obligations of the
Kashmiri kta-aiva systems themselves. Belonging to the level of restricted teachings are the
scriptures of the aiva, Vaisna va, and Saura canons. Earliest among these are aiva scriptures dating from the middle of the 1st millennium CE: the
Pupatastra and Nih vsatattvasam hit. These
were representative works of the Pupatas and
Lkulas, the two main branches of the aiva
Atimrga, religious orders whose membership
was restricted to male Brahman ascetics. According to these scriptures, the transformative power
of initiation and intense visionary practice would
empower the Rudra souls (see iva) of these
ascetics to realize liberation, which was tantamount to ascending to and ruling over the highest
levels of the aiva cosmos. This goal of ruling over
entire classes of demigod beings was also a common feature of Siddha traditions, as documented
in several tantric scriptures, works attributed to
the Nth yogs, and alchemical works like the
11th-century Rasrnava (see Rasyana).
Far more prominent in the tantric aiva canon
are the later works of the aiva Siddhnta orthodoxy, called the Mantramrga, which date from
between the 6th and 13th centuries. The scriptures
of this canon, also known as the gamas, are traditionally divided into ten aivgamas (because
revealed by the five mouths of Sadiva, the mild
form of iva enshrined in these scriptures) and
18 Raudrgamas (revealed by Rudra, a vedic name
of iva). In addition to these are an indeterminate
number of secondary works, called the Upgamas.
The content of these works is theoretically divided
into four sections (pdas), which focus on doctrine (vidy), meditative practice (yoga), ritual
(kriy), and rules of religious observance (cary)
with the kriy section being by far the most extensive. Ritual is the most prominent feature of
the aiva Siddhnta system for the simple reason
that the physical impurity (mala) that is the sole
impediment to liberation can only be removed
through ritual activity. Because this is a dualist
system, however, liberation is defined as identity

with (as opposed to absorption into) iva, or intimate proximity to iva in the world of iva.
Originally the province of ascetics in quest of
supernatural powers (as opposed to the Atimrga
ascetics, whose goal was liberation), the aiva
Siddhnta scriptures were gradually reconfigured
into guides for the private practice of the aiva
laity (mhevaras), married householders who
made up, then as now, the great majority of aiva
practitioners. Here, ritual injunctions, originally
concerning the personal worship practices of
aiva ascetics, were greatly expanded from the
11th century onward and so came to serve as
guides to the remarkably intricate public ritual
programs of the great iva temples of South India
and Southeast Asia. While certain of these scriptures (such as the Kmikgama and Mrgendrgama)
are significant, it is massive commentarial
works like the 1095 CE Somaambhupaddhati
that are our most important sources for understanding the private and public religion of the

The aiva Mantraptha and the Cult of

Whereas the goddess is totally absent from the allmale Atimrga pantheon, feminine energy (akti)
does figure, as a metaphysical abstraction at least,
in the Mantramrga sources, which also represent
Sadiva together with his divine spouse, Um. It
is in the more restricted systems, many of which
coalesced in medieval Kashmir, that tantric goddesses are brought increasingly to the fore, to the
point of eclipsing their male counterparts in certain pantheons. Due to the predominance of the
feminine in these systems, they are often termed
kta-aiva. Because they are nondualist, the
metaphysics of these systems differ radically from
those of the Atimrga and Mantramrga. That is,
they do not posit a difference between god and his
creatures, but rather view all that exists in the universe as internal to god and animated by an allpenetrating and omnipresent akti. Flowing from
this metaphysics is a nondualist soteriology,
according to which the practitioner ultimately
realizes his innate divinity.
More heterodox and esoteric than the scriptures of the Mantramrga are the Bhairava
Tantras, which are classified under the heading of
the Mantraptha (mantra mound) because their
supreme deity Bhairava is, like the powerful
speech acts known as mantras, masculine. Traditionally 64 in number, the Bhairava Tantras encap-


sulate the worldview and practice of the tantric

mainstream of 6th- to 11th-century Kashmir,
where Hindu Tantra was in its fullest flower.
Viewed as the most powerful form of iva, the
Bhairava of these Tantras carries forward his
legacy as god of the cremation ground and as the
demonological bhtantha. The quintessential
wrathful deity gape mouthed with fangs apparent, wild hair, wide and glaring eyes, and carrying
a skull-bowl (kapla), a severed head, a skulltopped staff (khatvnga), and various weapons in
his multiple hands, Bhairavas iconography is
inspired by the dress and regalia of the early skullbearing ascetics whose goals of supernatural
powers (siddhis) required that they undertake
special mortuary, sexual, and magical rites in cremation grounds. Each of the Bhairavas of these
scriptural traditions is accompanied by a akti,
who remains subordinate to him: it is to her that
he, in his different forms, reveals these scriptures.
While two early tantric works list the names of
the 64 Bhairava Tantras, very few of these titles are
extant, and it is likely that few of them ever existed.
By far the most prominent among this canons
primary scriptures is the 6th- to 10th-century
Svacchandabhairavatantra, which constitutes a
ritual and theological guide to the cult of Svacchanda Bhairava, a mild form of Bhairava who,
together with his consort Aghorevar, was the
most widely worshipped tantric deity in Hindu
Kashmir. Svacchanda Bhairavas iconography
places him astride the prostrate corpse of Sadiva,
the supreme being of the Mantramrga: this phenomenon, of the superenthronement of a tantric
deity upon the supreme being of the cult that his
(or her) system supersedes, is a common feature
of tantric iconography. Although not included in
the canon of the Mantraptha, the 700850 CE
Netratantra is also noteworthy. On the one hand,
its cult of Amrteabhairava and his consort
Amrtalaksm was second only to that of Svacchanda Bhairava in medieval Kashmir. On the
other, the Netratantra contains a comprehensive
guide for the ritual protection of kings, Brahmans,
and other royal subjects, and so provides a window onto the effective role of tantric specialists in
royal courts and broader medieval society.

The kta-aiva Vidyptha

The scriptural canon representing the highest
level of esoteric practice is associated, to increasing degrees, with autonomous tantric goddesses
who are cast as being either hierarchically



superior to their male consorts or without male

consorts altogether. These are the scriptures classified under the heading of the Vidypth a (vidy
mound), because its primary deities are, like the
powerful speech acts known as vidys, exclusively
feminine. Figuring prominently in all vidyptha
traditions are the sixty-four yogins, which, divided
into eight clans or families, radiate outward from
a phalanx of eight mother goddess, who in turn
form the entourage of one or another form of
Bhairava, beginning with the four-faced Manthna
The 15 scriptures of the Vidyptha are divided
into three subgroups, each representing higher
levels of esotericism, heteropraxy, and feminization than the preceding. These are the three
Vmatantras (Tantras of the left) or Guhyatantras
(secret Tantras), the five Ymalatantras (union
Tantras), and the seven aktitantras (energy
1. The Tantras of the Left.
None of the three Vmatantras referred to in
Kashmiri sources the Nayottara, Mahraudra,
and Mahsammoha is extant. However, the cult
of the supreme being of this canon, a four-faced
form of iva named Tumburu, is attested in
epigraphy and iconography from the Southeast
Asian kingdom of Angkor, as well as in the
Vnikhatantra, of which a manuscript has been
preserved in Nepal. Tumburu has four goddess
consorts named Jay, Vijay, Ajit, and Aparjit,
names that are evocative of victory and invincibility. The principal topic of the Vmatantras is magical rites, both for the subjugation, defeat, and
slaughter of ones enemies and for the pacification
of malevolent spirits. In later tantric works, these
become the object of the six acts (satkarmans) of
tantric sorcery. Outside of this classificatory system but also primarily concerned with demonology and magical rites are the Bhtatantras and
Garudatantras, of which two are extant: the
Kriyklagunottaratantra and Totulatantra.
2. The Union Tantras.
Heavily inflected by Kplika imagery, the union
Tantras are our prime source for data on the early
Kaula rites: initiations, ritualized sex, visionary
practices, and induced possession by the horrific
yogins. The Ymalatantras are massive works:
the Jayadrathaymala, consecrated to the horrific
goddess Kl, is four thousand verses in length,

while the Rudraymalas verse count is incalculable, due to its innumerable layers of redaction and
allied scriptures that claim to be portions of it. The
earliest full account of the yogic cakras as we know
them is found in the circa 13th-century redaction
of this work.
Although each of the union Tantras is revealed
by a Bhairava, these works portray his divine consorts in increasingly autonomous roles, with the
divine pair in union (ymala) surrounded by an
entirely female horde of yogin-type goddesses. So,
for example, whereas the Picumatabrahmaymalas
mandala has Kaplea (Lord of the Skull),
Bhairava, and Candakplin (The Furious Goddess of the Skull) at its center, all of the other
deities in this system are female, and the most
powerful worship mantras revealed in this scripture are those of Candakplin, rather than of
her male consort. This aligns with the practices
described in these works: like Bhairava in his
mandala, the male practitioner stands alone in
(and as) a universe of feminine being(s), ritually
surrounding himself with yogins or their human
counterparts, and visualizing his own body and
consciousness as teeming, at every level, with feminine energies. Through the ritual and visionary
practices documented in these works, the tantric
practitioner realizes a powerful self-illuminating
expansion of consciousness that, transcending all
dualities, allows him to realize his own intrinsic
nondual Bhairava nature.
3. The Energy Tantras and the Four Transmissions.
The most esoteric revelations, in which Bhairava
becomes eclipsed by the goddess(es) to the point
of disappearing, are those of the aktitantras,
which carry forward the archaic skull-bearer traditions in their most complete and unexpurgated
forms. The cults associated with the energy Tantras are subdivided into four mnyas (transmissions). These transmissions, which are classified
according to the four cardinal directions, are
differentiated by the names and forms of the goddesses that rule them from the heart of their
respective mandalas. The richest and most widely
commentated among these, and the most authentic source of data for the Kaula traditions, are the
works of the eastern transmission, which center
on the cult of a triad (trika) of goddesses named
Par, Parpar, and Apar, each of which is
enthroned upon a prostrate Bhairava. The principal scriptures of the eastern transmission, also

known as the Trika Kaula, are the Malinvijayottaratantra, Siddhayogevarmata, and Tantrasadbhva;
however the Trika Kaula was also strongly influenced by Krama traditions.
Unlike every other tantric revelation, those of
the Krama, the northern transmission, were
directly transmitted by clans of yogins, also known
as mistresses of the mounds (pthevars), to the
founding male gurus of the original Kaula lineages. As such, Abhinavagupta and other commentators on the aktitantras prized these as the
most authentic and powerful of the Kaula revelations. An essential scripture of the Krama Kaula is
the Jayadrathaymala, which, although technically a union Tantra, devotes its final three sections to the pure akti cults of the hideous goddess
Kl, now portrayed as totally independent of any
male consort whatsoever. Other important Krama
scriptures include the Cicinmatasrasamuccaya,
Devpacaataka, and Kramasadbhva, which are
remarkable inasmuch as in them, it is Kl who
reveals the tantric gnosis to Bhairava.
Another feature of the Krama is its pentadic
structure, in which a series of five circles (cakras)
of goddesses the Kls, mothers (mtrs/mtrks),
yogins, and so forth sequentially generate the
cosmic cycles of creation and resorption in an
unending series of luminous pulsations. A similar
pentadic structure, also linked to cakras of goddesses, is the hallmark of the western transmission, whose principal deity is the hunchbacked
goddess Kubjik. The principal scriptures of
the Kubjik Tantras the Kubjikmata, the
Satshasrasam hit, and the massive 24,000-verse
Manthnabhairavatantra also feature a system
of five cakras. Here, the cakras are circles of goddesses: devs, dts, mtrs, yogins, and khecar
deities (see below), aligned along the vertical axis
of the yogic body. One can see in the Kubjikmatas
plotting of clusters of feminine energies onto the
body an early adumbration of what would become
the subtle body mapping of Hatha Yoga traditions: other early sources that do the same include
the Jayadrathaymala and Netratantra. While the
scriptures of this transmission are younger than
those of the Trika and Krama, they were widely
disseminated, in medieval Nepal in particular,
where Kubjik was long identified with the royal
kuladev Taleju.
The youngest of the four transmissions, the
southern, is especially devoted to the cult of the
goddess Tripurasundar. Also known as rvidy,


this is a living tradition, with Tripurasundar being

venerated by Smrta Brahmans in Tamil Nadu as
well as several segments of the population of the
Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. This tradition is
highly distinctive inasmuch as rather than a divine
image or mantra, the divine dyad is ideally venerated and visualized as a highly complex diagram
comprisings multiple sets of intersecting triangles,
called the ryantra (see mandalas and yantras).
This diagram and its worship program are described
at length in the principal scriptures of this transmission, the Tantrarjatantra, Vmakevarmata,
and the Yoginhrdayam.

Vaisnava Tantric Traditions

The principal Vaisna va or Pcartra scriptures
date from between the 8th and 14th centuries.
While these works glorify Visnu
and his consort
Laksm ( r Laksm) as supreme beings, much
of their content is derivative of that of the earlier
aiva Mantramrga canon, even if their general
tone is more orthodox. Prominent among these
are a group referred to as the three jewels, comprising the Pauskarasam hit, the Stvatatantra,
and the Jaykhyasam hit. In addition to these, the
Ahirbudhnyasam hit and the Laksmtantra are
also significant Pcartra works.
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Bengal
was the venue for a tantric revival, mainly among
the Brahman orthodoxy. Featuring a curious
blending of the cults of the adorable Krsn a of
Vaisna va bhakti with the horrific goddess Kl
(now softened into a mother figure), this movement produced several Sanskit-language works
that sought to bring Tantra into conformity with
orthodox Hindu law. A work that typified the
Bengali tantric revival was the 18th-century
Mahnirvnatantra. Regardless of its derivative
nature, Tantra was enough of a Brahmanic religious fashion in early 20th-century Bengal to
excite the imagination of the Sir John Woodroffe,
who went on to become the father of Western
tantric studies.
A more heterodox form of Vaisna va tantric
practice, also from Bengal, is chronicled in the
mainly Bengali-language canon of the Vaisna va
Sahajiys, whose works date from the 16th to the
20th century. While this was a bhakti tradition,
some of its texts enjoin devotees to venerate the
divine pair of Rdh and Krsn a by imitating
their sexual dalliance through ritual intercourse.



Other Sources
The content of Hindu Tantra is not limited to
scripture alone. The category of Tantrasstra
(tantric instruction) also includes important bodies of commentary. Indeed, much of the content of
the Tantras would be incomprehensible, were it
not for the works of such Kashmiri schoolmen as
the great Abhinavagupta, Utpaladeva, Ksemarja,
and Jayaratha. Elsewhere, comprehensive digests
and manuals such as the Somaambhupaddhati
came to eclipse the scriptures of the Mantramrga
as guides to personal and public worship for personal and public worship. These in turn were
gradually incorporated into the Purnas, such
that this canon of devotional Hinduism has come
to constitute a storehouse of tantric traditions
regarding worship, temple construction, iconography, and so forth. Other medieval sources
of Hindu tantric tradition include individually
authored hymns of praise to tantric gods and
goddesses, and digests of Mantrastra such as
the Mantramahodadhi and the radtilaka of
Laksmanadeika. Many of these works continue
to be widely used in India; on a humbler scale,
hundreds of cheaply printed chapbooks containing spells and other tantric techniques for seducing women and amassing power and wealth are
available in bazaars across the entire subcontinent.

Kaula Esotericism and Tantric

The initations and rites of the reformed Kaula
were predicated upon the principle that the divine
permeated and animated the universe through a
flow of energy and gnosis, transmitted to human
practitioners through the clans of superhuman
yogins. This process was mapped onto a Kaula
mandala, made up of the lord and lady of the kula
(Kulevara and Kulevar) surrounded by the eight
mothers, the four founding male siddhas of the
Kaula, their consorts known as dts (female
messengers), who were the human embodiments
of the yogins the offspring of these couples, and
their respective dts. The founding siddha of the
present age, named Macchanda (Lord of Fishes),
constitutes an important link between the Kaula
and another important order, which would carry
forward the tantric legacy into the 20th century:
these are the Nth yogs, whose traditions
maintain that their founder Gorakhnth was
the disciple of Macchanda (or Matsyendranth).

Macchanda is also a tutelary deity of the Kathmandu Valley, where his mythology also links him
to Gorakhnth. It is also Macchanda who, according to the Kaulajnanirnaya, received the original Kaula revelations, together with the yogins, at
the ptha of Kmarpa.
According to Kaula tradition, Macchanda was
the father of 12 sons. Among these, the six who
were noncelibate became the founders of the six
initiatory lineages (ovallis), to which there were
attached, in the medieval period, specific networks of monasteries or lodges (mathas) scattered across the Indian subcontinent. This network
reproduced on a social level the net of yogins
(yoginpajara) that enlivened the entire universe
to be sure, but which also crisscrossed the Indian
landscape in particular, with its energy grid.
Therefore, when a novice was initiated into one of
these lineages by a teacher (guru) and a dt, his
was at once an induction into a cosmic clan, a network of energy, and a body of fluid teachings
issued as the grace (anugraha) of the yogins.
The most distinctive aspect of Hindu is
enshrined in the ancient yogin-related practices
of the skull-bearing ascetics of Uddiyna and
other ancient tantric pthas. Heiresses to the
ancient South Asian cults of the horrific and often
anthropophagic yakss and grahans (female seizers), the medieval yogins were a horde of ravening
female beings that preyed upon every sort of life
form, possessing their victims from within and
without to suck the life out of them. Often portrayed with the heads or bodies of animals and
birds, the superhuman yogins embodied themselves in carrion-feeding denizens of charnel or
cremation grounds (mana) jackals, hyenas,
vultures, kites, and so forth as well as jungle
predators (including, in the vegetable kingdom,
jungle vines that strangle and overcome host
trees), swarming creatures (birds, insects, serpents), and agents of epidemic and pestilence.
These are the forms in which the yogins are represented in the medieval sculpture of the distinctive
roofless yogin temples, as well as in tantric scripture and popular literature. It was these nightmare
creatures that skull-bearing (kplika) or heroic
(vra) male tantric practitioners themselves
decked out with the bones and skulls of the yogins
victims confronted in the dark of the moon at
their various haunts: charnel grounds, mountaintop pthas, caves, forests, and empty temples.
Armed with the magical weapons of their mantras, these solitary ascetics summoned the khecar

(airborne) and bhcar (land-based) yogins down
from the sky and up out of their underground lairs
in order that they possess them.
Possession may take several forms, the most
fundamental of these being the yogins consumption of their victims, which, as works like the
Netratantra assert, is not killing since all that they
destroy is the accumulated burden of stain (mala)
that differentiates creatures from the supreme god
iva. In this context, eating their victims is the
yogins form of grace (anugraha). Such a gruesome means to grace was not acceptable, however,
to the aiva mainstream of medieval Kashmir,
which was principally composed of Brahman
householders. So it was that in the 10th and 11th
centuries, the leading Trika exegetes (Abhinavagupta and Ksemarja in particular) synthesized
the data found in the various Ymalatantras
and aktitantras into an integrated body of theory
and practice that rendered the Kaula accessible and
acceptable to high-caste householders. In this new
domesticated synthesis, the original skull-bearer
practices of induced possession, self-sacrifice to
the yogins, and the consumption of sexual fluids
were internalized into visionary practices by
means of which a member of conventional
Brahman society could realize a secret alternative
identity in fact, his true Bhairava identity
even as he remained, to all appearances, obedient
to the conformist rules of the high-caste married
Whereas these secret rituals removed much of
the macabre from the original skull-bearer practices, they retained and expanded upon their
erotic component. In the secret practice of the
reformed Kaula, the yogins embodied in the dt
consorts of male practitioners offered divine grace
in the form of the fluid gnosis, the sexual or menstrual emissions issuing from their lower mouths
or vulvas. Through the consumption of the yogins
fluid gnosis, the initiate entered into a possessed
state, in which his contracted consciousness
instantaneously exploded into the all-pervasive
Kaula consciousness, of the universe as the
embodied self of the divine, whose energies were
those of the yogins themselves.
The sexual rites of the Kaula took several forms,
including meditation upon and veneration of the
yoni, the vulva, of the dt consort, a practice
described in the Yonitantra, a late medieval Tantra
from Bengal. Worship of tantric gods and goddesses, and of the yogins in particular, included
offerings of the sexual fluids of both the male


practitioner and his dt consort, fluids that would

then be sacramentally consumed from a leaf,
chalice, or incised skull vessel (called a tra: this
was also a principal iconographic representation
of the god Bhairava) often in conjunction with
other bodily emissions, as well as wine, fish, flesh,
and so forth. The most common term for the
conjoined sexual emissions employed in these
rites is kundagolaka, with kunda referring to
the well or pit of the vulva itself. When sexual
fluids were consumed in combination with
other human or nonhuman comestibles, terms
such as pacamakra, pacmrta, and pacatattva
were employed. The best known of these, the
pacamakra (the five m-words, referring to
the first letter of the Sanskrit names for these substances), comprises fish, flesh, liquor, sexual fluids, and the act of intercourse that produces those
fluids. The pacmrta (five nectars) or pacatattva
(five essences) blend the sexual fluids with human
phlegm, urine, and excrement. Intrinsically repulsive and utterly anathema to Brahmans whose
conventional self-identity was grounded in orthodox purity codes, the consumption of these cocktails in a ritual or initiatory setting could serve
as the means to sudden enlightenment. In fact,
the initiate who could, without hesitation, drain
off a skull-cup filled with these substances, was
considered to have realized an immediate breakthrough into divine consciousness in its essential
nature, uncontaminated by conceptual or ethical
The most comprehensive account of Kaula sexual practice is found in Abhinavaguptas description of the kulayga, the clan sacrifice, a secret
rite reserved for an elite inner circle of initiates.
Comprising nearly two hundred verses of the
Tantrlokas 29th chapter, the ritual instructions
for the kulayga begin with the mutual veneration
of the bodies of the male vra (or siddha or yogi)
and the dt. Gradually awakening each others
wheels of energy (a reference to the Trika conceptualization of the yogic cakras) through various acts of foreplay, the pair is made to become as
one, both physically and spiritually. Realizing a
state of vibrational bliss (spanda) in which all
sense of self gives way to the wondrous discovery
of the self and a great bliss that is at once sensual
and beyond sensation, the pair unites sexually.
Now the practitioner worships the vulva of his
consort (called the mouth of the yogin), and
then touches it, causing her to spontaneously emit
her sexual fluids. The pair then offers these to



the gods before partaking of their conjoined emissions, passing them back and forth, from mouth
to mouth. After a second and third act of intercourse, complemented by a wealth of ritual observances, the yogs consciousness is said to fuse with
the absolute. Many tantric sources also describe collective sexual practices, called cakrapjs (veneration of the circle) or yoginmelapas (mingling with
the yogins), whose goal was to awaken the energy
of the divine among all participants.
Apart from such secret rites as the kulayga and
yoginmelapas, observed by a limited number of
special initiates, the sexual content of the Kaula
rites was increasingly abstracted or sublimated
into the visionary practice of experiencing the
universe as self through the medium of the body.
Whereas the sexual content of the Kaula rites
originally had the production of a sacramentally
transformative ritual substance (dravya) as its
principal goal, later tantric sexual practice came to
be grounded in a theory of transformative aesthetics, in which the experience of orgasm effected
a breakthrough from contracted self-consciousness to an expansive god consciousness, an experience of the entire universe as the transcendent
The language of sexuality nonetheless persisted,
even as oral or genital congress with duts or
yogins was phased out of the ritual program. One
sees this especially in the internalization of the
yogins and various other saktis of the tantric universe in the emerging constructs of the yogic or
subtle body. Beginning in 8th- to 9th-century
works like the Jayadrathaymala and Netratantra,
a system of cakras (circles of goddesses) began to
map the pthas and circular temples of yogin practice onto the body. Over the following centuries,
in works such as the Kubjikmata and Rudraymala,
these became elaborated and regularized into the
standard system of six plus one cakras of Hatha
Yoga. Here, rather than offering ones bodily constituents as food, or ones semen in sexual intercourse to external yogins, the entire process was
incorporated within the body of the male practitioner. By effectively situating his akti entirely
within his own body, the cakra system permitted
the male practitioner to further sublimate sexual
ritual into visionary practice. Over time, the multiple goddesses and yogins were abstracted into
the one akti who, embodied in the female
kundalin (she who is coiled), is said to sleep with
her mouth over a subtle linga in the lower abdo-

men. Awakened through breath control and other

techniques, she is made to rise through the cakras
to unite in the cranial vault with the male iva,
their union generating a sudden expansion of
consciousness on the part of the practitioner.
With the advent of Hath a Yoga as recorded in
works such as the circa 12th-century Goraksaataka
and Vivekamrtanda (attributed to Gorakhnth),
these practices were further transformed, with the
kundalin being supplanted by her fluid signifier:
blood. Here, the androgynous yog, embodying
both the male and the female poles of tantric sexuality, was able to autonomously manipulate his
male and female fluids (red blood and white
semen) by controlling his male and female breath
channels (the male, lunar id and the female, solar
pingal). Through the hydraulic and thermodynamic process of raising his fluids, energy, and
breath, he caused his cranial vault to be filled
with semen, which, now transmuted into nectar,
afforded him the immortality and supernatural
powers of the siddha. These hathayogic constructions and transformations of the body, in which
the final trace of the yogins of tantric practice
entirely disappears likely drew upon another body
of practice whose textual record dates back to the
10th century. This is Hindu alchemy (rasyana),
whose principal reagents, mercury and sulfur,
were identified with the semen of the god iva (or
Bhairava) and the uterine blood of Bhairav or
some other form of the Great Goddess. These sexually marked reagents together with the bodylike bicameral apparatus of the Hindu alchemist,
and the thermodynamic processes of alchemical
transformation likely served as models for the
later hathayogic constructs. The greatest work of
Hindu alchemy, the 11th-century Rasrnava, calls
itself a Tantra and explicitly incorporates several
references to the Mantraptha and Vidyptha:
adoration of a form of Svacchandabhairava (here
called Rasabhairava), the goddesses of the Trika,
and numerous other tantric goddesses; the use
of mantras, yantras, and an elaborate tantric
mandala; and tantric visualization, initiation, and
so forth.

Tantric Ritual
For most tantric householder practitioners, the
sexual content of Kaula ritual has been either sublimated to the point of being unrecognizable, or

entirely elided from religious life. This sublimation of the sexual may take several forms. Most
commonly, male and female bodies, sexual organs,
and sexual fluids are semanticized into the male
and female phonemes of the Sanskrit alphabet, the
building blocks of tantric mantras and vidys. In
other cases, they are abstracted into the intersecting lines and triangles of geometric diagrams like
the ryantra. Even such graphically sexual images
as the linga-yoni, the phallus of iva engaged in the
vulva of his divine consort, become deconstructed,
in these systems, into an elaborate set of wholly
desexualized cosmic principles. In addition to constituting acoustic and visual meditation supports,
tantric mantras, yantras, and images also serve as
ritual templates, channels of communication
between the human and the divine, which permit
humans to approach and worship the divine.
Indeed, the rituals of Hindu devotion, in household practice as well as in the great temples of the
subcontinent, have always been essentially tantric.
For a small but significant cohort of tantric
practitioners heirs to the elite nondual syntheses
of Abhinavagupta and other great medieval commentators tantric ritual is a means to the end of
gnosis ( jna), the luminous realization of god
consciousness. For most, however, the purpose of
tantric ritual is to gradually purge the soul of its
ontological stain (mala) and afford liberation at
the end of ones life. Here, even if tantric ritual is
mechanistic in its form, it is nonetheless transformative, since through its rote repetition every day
of his life, the tantric practitioner is doing nothing
less than constructing a divine personhood.
Tantric ritual begins with the purification
(bhtauddhi) of the worshipper-practitioner
(because, as the adage goes, one must become a
god in order to worship god), as well as of the worship site itself. This is accomplished through purificatory baths and demonifuge fire offerings
(homa), as well as the use of mantras to incinerate
ones physical body from within. Mantras and
mudrs (seals effected through elaborate configurations of the fingers) are the tools the practitioner next employs for the installation (nysa), in
the place of his now nonexistent body parts, of the
body of god in all its details, including multiple
heads, hands, and attributes. All of these are
meticulously envisioned, as is the throne in the
practitioners own heart upon which the god is
installed and mentally worshipped with oblations
(arghya) and repeated worship formulas (japa).


Now, the practitioner projects the deity within

outside of himself, onto the concrete icon that is to
serve as his worship support a linga-yoni for
iva, a ryantra for Tripurasundar, an incised
skull (tra) for Bhairava, and so on. Once again,
this involves a detailed meditation upon, a cultivation (bhvan) of, the divine in all its details,
including lotus thrones, the entire divine entourage, and so forth. The worshipper then enlivens
the external worship support, often by breathing
through his nostrils onto a flower, which is then
placed upon the icon. The ritual is concluded with
the worship of the icon, with concrete offerings of
water, flowers, unguents, oil lamps, arghya, and
so forth.
While much of tantric ritual, past and present,
has been carried out in the service of worship
of the divine, the archaic demonological roots of
Tantra also persist down to the present day. Here,
tantric ritual generally connotes the coercion of
noxious but relatively weak demonic beings (spirits of the dead, zombies or other creatures created
through sorcery, etc.) through a combination of
tribute offerings (bali) often in the form of blood
sacrifice and threats of violence. In the latter
case, tantric ritual generally involves calling upon
a male Bhairava-type bhtantha or a female
mtr to discipline or destroy the offending spirit.
This sort of tantric sorcery, which was dramatized
in the Kathsaritsgara and other medieval
anthologies of fantasy and adventure literature,
is as lively a tradition today as it was over two
thousand years ago.

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David G. White