Women in Hindu Shakta Tantra

June McDaniel

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WOMEN IN HINDU SHAKTA TANTRA TIMELINE

Sixth to seventh centuries c.e.:  The earliest Hindu Shakta tantric texts were composed in India.

Tenth to fourteenth centuries:  Tantra slowly became more popular in India, with a flourishing of additional texts.

Sixteenth century and onward:  Hindu Shakta Tantra slowly declined by the sixteenth century, with the rise of devotional religion (bhakti), though some tantras have been written since that period.

Twentieth century:  New forms of Hindu Shakta Tantra developed, influenced by Rajneesh (1931–1990), later known as Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh and then Osho, who taught a syncretic form of Hindu Tantra and began to attract devotees in both India and in the West.

HISTORY OF WOMEN IN HINDU SHAKTA TANTRA

The history of Shakta Tantra has been much debated. The term tantra originally referred to a set of texts, and the word was later broadened to include the ideas described in those texts. The etymological origin of the term is from the Sanskrit word for weaving and loom, thus ideas that are woven together. Its earliest use is in the Vedic texts, referring to a model or theory. Later tantric ideas have traditionally been secret, and Tantra has often been an underground form of religiosity within the broad and diverse religious tradition that came to be known as Hinduism. Tantra can include a set of methods, techniques, and systems, leading to a religious goal. A tantrika is a person who follows the ideas and rituals described in these texts. Typical tantric techniques include the use of mantras (sacred words), mudras (symbolic hand positions), yantras (visual images, often in geometrical patterns, which act as maps of the inner worlds found through meditation), puja (ritual worship), and diksha (initiation) by a teacher (guru). Meditation (dhyana) in Tantra makes use of visualization, and a popular form of visualization involves the ritual purification of the person and environment and the placement of deities within the body (nyasa).

Tantras often focused on Hindu deities, and the tantras that developed within the Hindu Shakta tradition focused on Shakti, as the cosmic feminine power. Goddess worship in India is very old, and there are statues that appear to archaeologists to show goddess worship dating from about 7000–6000 b.c.e. in Madhya Pradesh. The Devi Sukta hymn of the Rig Veda describes a goddess (devi) who creates the world without any other higher being, and who exists as infinite and eternal consciousness. This text is variously dated from about 1500 b.c.e. This goddess is Devi or Shakti, who was later understood to take the form of other goddesses, such as Sarasvati, Lakshmi, Durga and Parvati.

Goddess worship developed as a form or sect of Hinduism, today called Shaktism. Some Shaktas (the followers of Shakti) generally understand the Goddess to be the supreme, ultimate, eternal reality of all existence, much like the concept of brahman (ultimate and unconditioned consciousness) in the Hindu Vedanta tradition. She is considered to be simultaneously the source of all creation, its embodiment, and the energy that animates and governs it, and that into which everything will ultimately return. Other forms of Shaktism focus on a particular goddess, who becomes the creator of the universe and the savior of souls. This form of Shaktism was influenced by the devotional (bhakti) tradition and emphasizes love of the goddess. Specific forms or emanations of the goddess are understood to act as the devotee’s personal goddess or spiritual guide, called the Ishtadevi.

The earliest Hindu Shakta tantric texts in India date from about the sixth to seventh centuries c.e. (Flood 2006). They were written in Sanskrit. Tantra slowly became more popular, with a flourishing of texts during the tenth to fourteenth centuries. Tantra slowly declined in India by the sixteenth century, with the rise of devotional religion (bhakti) and the influence of Islam, though some tantras have been written since that period.

Two major styles of Shakta tantric traditions can be found, called the Srikula and the Kalikula. Kula means “family” or “clan,” and the term is used here to refer to the followers of different goddesses. In the Srikula tradition of southern India, the goddess Shri or Lakshmi is understood as being the ultimate goddess. She is associated with luck and good fortune, both beautiful and beneficent, and worshipped as Lalita Tripura Sundari. Her symbol is the Sri yantra [Image at right] or Sri Cakra. In the Kalikula tradition of northern and eastern India, the goddess Kali is the chief goddess, worshipped as Durga, Chandi, Tara, and the goddess’ emanations, called the Mahavidyas. Kali is the loving mother who protects her children and whose fierceness guards them. She is outwardly frightening (with dark blue skin, pointed teeth, and a necklace of skulls) but inwardly she is beautiful. She can guarantee a good rebirth or great religious insight, and her worship is often communal, especially at festivals, such as Kali Puja and Durga Puja. Both of these tantric traditions continue to exist in India, and exercise considerable influence.

There has been much misunderstanding of tantric ideas. Some tantric texts describe two paths, the left and the right way (vamachara and dakshinachara). British writers later translated these as “left hand” and “right hand.” There is no term for “hand” in the Sanskrit, and the term is considered demeaning, for the left hand in India is associated with bathroom behavior. The left way is the form of Tantra that involves the rituals of sex and death that horrified the colonialists. The tantric goal is to overcome the horror and the fascination that these held, and for the practitioner to gain the detachment necessary to understand ultimate truth.

We must deduce the past roles of women in Hindu Shakta Tantra from their mention in tantric texts, as we have no other documents to consider from this time. It is useful to keep in mind that texts do not always represent the realities on the ground. We do have ethnographic data from the twentieth century, and scholars are able to interview practitioners. In addition, New Age religious expressions came to the fore in the twentieth century. New Age practitioners, however, have redefined Shakta Tantra in ways that its Indian practitioners would not recognize as Tantra. This profile examines the roles of women in ancient, late medieval, early modern, and contemporary contexts.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS CONCERNING WOMEN’S ROLES 

For the ancient period, the Brahmayamala Tantra, dated approximately from the seventh to ninth centuries c.e., presents three major roles for women. The first is the female ritual partner (called the shakti or duti), who assists the male tantrika in his meditative and ritual practice. She is described as beautiful, heroic, educated in tantric teachings, loyal to guru, deity and husband. She is capable of yogic detachment and asceticism. She has intercourse with the male tantrika in certain rituals, and their sexual fluids are collected for ingestion, in order to gain spiritual or magical power. She may be the wife of the male practitioner, or a “guest shakti.” She is used as a source of power for the male tantrika, but the text does not say what she gains from the ritual.

The second role is the yogini, literally a female practitioner of yoga (“discipline”). The term is ambiguous, as it sometimes refers to supernatural women and sometimes to human ones. There are divine yoginis who are benevolent and worshipped with mantras, there are wrathful yoginis who are offered blood, and there are human yoginis who transmit tantric teachings and are given food offerings. Human yoginis are understood to belong to kulas (clans) based on the seven Mother Goddesses. Yoginis who are human women are believed to be capable of gaining siddhis (supernatural powers) and bestowing them on male tantrikas. Some have male counterparts, called viras (heroes).

The third role is the sadhaki, the female practitioner of a spiritual path. She is initiated into a lineage and gets a new name ending with “shakti,” for example, Adishakti. She may practice with a male tantrika individually or in a group. Her meditative practices include identification with a deity (especially a goddess), and she may become a guru to a group of disciples. Such female tantrikas take ascetic vows, chant mantras, and do visualization meditation (for more detail on these roles, see Torzsok 2014 and Hatley 2019).

The late medieval Kaula Shakta texts show similar roles for women: those with the goddess within them, yoginis, and ritual partners. In the Kularnava Tantra, usually dated between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, it states that the male tantrika must worship Shakti within all women, to purify the woman with mantras if she is not initiated, and offer her flowers, incense, and other gifts if she is initiated. This worship is necessary for ritual practice, and a woman of any caste can act as the dwelling place of the goddess.

Some of these rituals have continued in mainstream Shakta religion today, such as the worship ceremonies of kumari puja (worship of young girls) and stri puja (worship of women).  Kumari puja or kanya puja [Image at right] is the ritual worship of girls who are sacred because the goddess dwells in them. They are to be worshipped with lamps, incense, flowers, food and drink, and gifts, offered by the male tantrika who has a pure mind and devotion to the goddess. He recognizes the goddess within each girl and chants mantras, then he salutes her, and bids her to leave. This is done with girls from one to nine years old, and the ritual continues today as a part of the popular Durga Puja festival. At that time, it is considered a devotional ritual, an appreciation of the children, rather than a tantric rite.

The tantrika will also worship adult women in stri puja, in which the goddess is understood to dwell within a woman of child-bearing age. There is worship of tantric couples, bhairavas (a term that refers both to attendants of the god Shiva and human men) and their shaktis, with gifts and devotion, recognizing both god and goddess within, to gain the favor of the goddess and her attendant yoginis. (Bhairava, “frightful,” is a wrathful form of Shiva in Hinduism, and his male worshippers take on that name.)

The next role is that of yogini. Once again, there are both supernatural and physical women who are called yoginis. The Kularnava Tantra notes that there are millions of supernatural yoginis who wish to be worshipped, and if they are not, the male tantrika becomes like a pashu (an animal) to them (they are displeased with him). They live in the skies, in sacred places, and also in kula trees, which should be worshipped. There are also human kula-yoginis, who are beautiful, wise, and initiated. They must be willing tantric companions and should never be forced to participate. Such women should be honored, and never condemned, insulted, lied to, or harmed. Indeed, like all women they should be treated as mothers; even if a woman commits a hundred crimes, she should never be struck, not even by a flower (Das 1383/1977). However, the Kularnava Tantra states that the woman must be beautiful, young, pious, devoted to her guru and god, always smiling, pleasing, and without jealousy, among other qualities. The female tantrika cannot be unattractive or old or sleepy, and she cannot feel desire or argue with her partner; these disqualify her from tantric practice, even if she has been initiated.

It is ambiguous if the human yoginis described in the Kularnava Tantra are equivalent to the female partners in sexual rituals; the descriptions of bliss in the sexual chakra, located in the lower abdomen, sometimes use the terms yogis and yoginis. The term “chakra” literally means circle, and it is used in two senses in the tantric literature. It may be a circle of ritual worshippers (thus the circle of people performing sexual ritual), or it may refer to the chakras or energy centers along the spine in the subtle body. Their imagery is used during kundalini yoga, a practice that involves meditation on the subtle body. It is practiced in order to raise the shakti or energy, the kundalini, which is coiled like a serpent at the base of the spine. The kundalini energy rises up the spinal column or sushumna, through the chakras until union with the god Shiva is achieved when the kundalini reaches the sahasrara chakra, whose location is symbolically placed over the crown of the head.

The Kularnava Tantra notes that female tantrikas who act as partners must hide this role, as a married woman keeps secret her pregnancy by a lover. Some Hindu sacred texts, like the Vedas and Puranas, are said to flaunt themselves like prostitutes, while the tantras are secret, like a daughter-in-law who is silent in the house (of her husband’s extended family). The ritual practice is to please the goddess, so forbidden actions are allowed. Union with the partner represents liberation, sleepiness is samadhi, eating is offering food into the sacrificial fire; all actions should be reinterpreted as sacred ones. (Samadhi in Hinduism refers to a state of total concentration, bringing the person to a state of unity with the divine.) The yogis and yoginis in the ritual circle represent the god Shiva and the goddess Shakti, and the boundaries of worldly marriage are temporarily ignored. This violation of norms is understood to lead to freedom, first from ordinary restraints like caste restrictions, and then from all limited ideas. Female ritual partners can perform mantras, visualization, meditation, homa sacrificial fires, and other major ritual practices. If the ritual is successful, they can gain ultimate union with the goddess (see Das 1383/1977).

Early Modern Tantrism appears in the Mahanirvana Tantra, although the text has been the subject of much debate. There are ritual sections that appear quite old, so that some scholars date the text from the eleventh to twelfth century c.e. But there are also ideas that appear to echo colonial concerns from the eighteenth century. These include forbidding the suicide of widows (sati) on their husbands’ funeral pyres, support for widow remarriage, childhood education, female inheritance (for wives and daughters), and forbidding renunciation for men who have wives and young children. For the purposes of this essay, it seems appropriate to date the text from the eighteenth century, as an early modern text.

There are two major roles for women in the Mahanirvana Tantra: as supernatural figures and as human ritual practitioners or kula shaktis. The supernatural figures include yoginis, dakinis (female spirits), and matrikas (divine mothers). The yoginis are the attendants of the Devi (Goddess), who dance with male bhairavas and gods. They can give siddhis (special powers) to male tantrikas who honor them, as can the dakinis and matrikas (who are only mentioned in passing in the text). The form of the Devi or Goddess emphasized in this text is Adya Shakti Kali, [Image at right] goddess of primordial power, who is said to live deep within the heart of all individuals.

The female practitioners or kula shaktis perform rituals with the male tantrikas. However, as we presently live in the Kali Yuga (the age of decline and strife), the traditional rituals have been changed in the Mahanirvana Tantra. In the Bhairavi (wife of Shiva) and Kula chakra circles, the rituals no longer call for wine and sexual practice. Instead, the participants eat sweets and meditate on the lotus feet of the goddess. For the chakra, women should be married, either long-term or in temporary tantric marriage, and should be honored and cherished. Within the circle, all men are the image of Shiva, and all women are identical to Devi. Within the chakra, caste and purity rules are suspended, and all things are equally brahman (in this case, parts of the ultimate state of consciousness).

The Mahanirvana Tantra speaks more of generalized attitudes than ritual rules for women. Male tantrikas should respect and love their wives, giving them gifts and saying “pleasing words.” The tantrika whose wife is faithful and happy will be a favorite of the goddess. While there are many rules for the male vira tantrika, the kula shakti is barely mentioned as an individual. All ascetic practices are for male practitioners, and no female gurus are mentioned. Women are largely ritual accessories for tantric practice, though the text emphasizes the importance of men treating them well in ordinary life (Avalon [Woodroffe] 1913/1972).

The roles for women in Tantra become more diversified in the contemporary period. There are female tantrikas who are renunciant practitioners, and holy women of various types: the sannyasini is the woman who has renounced worldly life; the brahmacharini is the woman who is dedicated to celibacy, service, and obedience to a tradition; the yogini is the woman who practices yoga, especially kundalini yoga; and the grihi sadhika is the woman who is married but has left her husband to pursue a spiritual life. A woman may be a devotee of a tantric deity, and worship with tantric mantras, or she, as a “bhar-lady,” may get possessed by a goddess as a vocation. The female tantrika may also be a wife who practices tantric sexual ritual as a part of her marriage, or a professional ritual partner in tantric sexual practice outside of marriage. She may be a stri-guru, a female teacher, usually celibate and head of a group of devotees or an ashram. She may also be a widow or celibate wife, whose practice involves ritual tantric puja (worship), a mixture of devotional love of a deity and service to that deity, and tantric ritual meditation.

While the role of ritual consort for sexual ritual is perhaps the most well-known image of women in Tantra in the West, it does not have the freedom and status often associated with it by Westerners. Such a role is sometimes called the vesya, which means loose woman or prostitute. The Niruttara Tantra suggests ritual worship of the vesya, including those who come from a tantric family, those who are independent of family, those who join (the profession) voluntarily, those who are married to male tantrikas, and those who have been ritually united with the deity. In this usage, the term “vesya” does not refer specifically to a prostitute, but rather to a woman who roams about as freely as a prostitute may, and enjoys herself like Kali. She has sex accompanied by the chanting of mantras and meditates upon the union of Mahakala (“The Great One beyond Time and Death,” a wrathful version of Shiva) and Kalika (Kali). [Image at right] While such an image may initially give an impression of a free woman in the modern sense, this is not the case; her freedom is limited by roles defined in the Niruttara Tantra. She is not a tantric vesya if she becomes involved with a man other than her husband; as the text phrases it, if she worships a Shiva other than her own bhairava, she will live in the fierce hells until the destruction of the universe. If she gets involved with other male practitioners due to passion, desire for money, or other temptations, she will go to hell. She is then called pashu-vesya, an animalistic prostitute. Any man involved with her will suffer disease, sorrow and loss of money (Bannerji 1978). The proper vesya must be chaste and pious, doing rituals with her own partner. She cannot be respected and take on a different partner, and thus she cannot instruct other male partners by ritual. It is not a role that is generally desired in the Hindu community.

ORGANIZATIONAL ROLES PERFORMED BY WOMEN 

In the tantric imagination, female practitioners tend to be idealized. For instance, the Guptasadhana Tantra gives a visualization of the female guru: She is located in the Sahasrara, the thousand-petaled lotus chakra above the head in the subtle body, and her eyes look like lotus petals. She has high breasts and a slender waist, and she is shining like a ruby. She wears red clothes and jewels. She is seated at the left of her husband, and her hands display the mudras for giving boons and freedom from fear. She is graceful, delicate and beautiful.

Such an image is quite different from the reality of the physical female tantric gurus who have been interviewed, who tend to be older, unmarried, sometimes bald renunciants, often toughened from asceticism and outdoor life, looking strong and sometimes grizzled. They generally do not wear jewelry or perfume or bright colors, seeking to avoid the dangers of sexual attractiveness. The last thing they want is to be beautiful and delicate, while sleeping alone on temple floors or wandering on pilgrimage (they often travel alone and need to defend themselves). Their emphasis is on independence and attaining liberation rather than seductiveness towards men.

The female tantrikas [Image at right]  interviewed and described by informants in West Bengal, India, during fieldwork in 1984, 1994, and 2018 (see McDaniel 2004 for more detailed examples) tended to fall into five categories:

Celibate tantric yoginis. These women, whose status was the highest among the women interviewed, were lifelong celibates. Many were gurus with disciples, and some headed temples, ashrams (retreat and meditation centers) or tantric study circles. Some emphasized the importance of devotion towards the goddess or guru, others were believed by their disciples to be partial or full incarnations of the Goddess. Tantra for them was a dedicated practice involving mantras, visualization meditation, austerities, and kriya (ritual actions). For them, the goal of Tantra was to gain liberation and also Shakti, both as the Goddess and as spiritual power. For one guru, tantric ritual revealed a person’s “inner history,” giving the power to “see inside,” to watch the inner life of the spirit. The goal was to “gain” the goddess Shakti (sakti labh kara), to have her dwell in the heart. It is Shakti who enlightens one, who brings one to the highest states. Shiva is as useless as a corpse, and that is why he is portrayed as one (a common devotional image has Kali standing upon a prone Shiva). [Image at right] In the practice of kundalini yoga, the male and female aspects of the person are united, and there is no necessity for any union between individuals in the physical world. For another female guru of a group of devotees, tantric ritual was a way of getting a fused identity with Shakti, which lasts over a lifetime. The mantras, mudras, trances and rituals are ways of preparing the body for Shakti’s entrance. Union with Adya Shakti (Primordial Shakti) is the highest state possible, for she is identical with brahman and mother of the universe. As another female tantric guru in the lineage of Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886) stated, Tantra sadhana (spiritual practice) ritual, with its meditative and ascetic techniques, is the best way to show devotion to guru and goddess. None of the female gurus said that lata sadhana, sexual ritual, was evil, or sinful, or scandalous. They simply said it was rare and unnecessary. Some female tantrikas were more outspoken, saying that no man was going to take away the power they had gained by hard austerities and long recitation of mantras. Several female tantrikas mentioned that sexual ritual would result in the loss of their spiritual power.

Holy women. These women, called grihi sadhikas, had been married but left their husbands and families to follow a religious calling. They had lower status than the lifelong celibates, but some had disciples. Often, they would wander, practicing tantric meditation and worship, and live at temples or ashrams. Some would go into states of possession by the Goddess (Kali bhava), or other deities, induced by chanting tantric bija (“seed” or syllable) mantras or singing hymns to the Devi. Tantra for them combined devotion and possession, usually in response to a call by the Goddess. The goal of Tantra was to follow the Goddess’ will, sometimes in an ascetic setting. Often the holy woman had been initiated by the kulaguru, the family’s Shakta tantric household priest and heard a prophetic call from a goddess in a dream or vision, who asked her to perform special actions (not to oil her hair or not to eat certain foods, for example) and to go on a pilgrimage. She left the household, and survived by begging, telling fortunes, giving blessings, or being possessed, and earning donations from observers. She gained social status when she started to attract devotees, and sometimes she might have a special set of supernatural powers given by the goddess to whom she is devoted (especially abilities at healing or materializing food). If she underwent possession, she was usually possessed by the goddess Kali, though she may be possessed by other deities as well. Some dressed in classic tantric fashion, red clothing, matted hair, rudraksha malas (a string of 108 prayer beads consisting of seeds sacred to Shiva) worn as heavy necklaces, and carried a large trident (both to represent devotion to the god Shiva and for protection). (On the problems of abuse for female renunciants, see DeNapoli forthcoming.)

Tantric wives. These women performed tantric ritual sex and worship as part of devotion towards husband and guru. The woman was often initiated by the same guru as her husband and followed his teachings. Tantra for tantric wives was a form of service, involving obedience to both husband and guru, and following women’s marital obligations (stridharma). The goal of Tantra here was to fulfill dharma and social obligations. In the case of one such couple interviewed, the man emphasized adventure and pleasure (he claimed that male tantrikas could have sex for four hours), and increased attractiveness. Tantra was fun, exciting, and a way to escape the routine. His wife’s perspective was quite different. Tantric practice for her was obedience to guru and God, and a way to help her husband and please him. Tantra was not rebellion, it was an obligation. Tantric householder wives are rarely interviewed, for they do not stand out as practitioners, and they tend to identify themselves as basically traditional wives who are following religious teachings.

Professional consorts. These women performed ritual sex and tantric worship as a way to make a living, and the consort (as well as her children) was generally supported by the man who was her ritual partner. The woman might move from one male tantrika to another, depending on who would shelter and support her. Tantra here was professional sexual practice, a career choice. The goal of Tantra was to help the male tantrika in his practice, make money, and possibly get a permanent home and a male protector. Such a role is a very low-status one in the society of West Bengal. These women were understood as having a specialty within the profession of prostitution, as some had skills in dominating men (like the goddess Kali does). It was rather like an addendum to the courtesan’s traditional sixty-four arts, an extra set of skills that professional women could gain. Interviewers were told that most of such women were low-caste and wanted to gain extra money for the household, or else they were widows (especially child widows, whose husbands died before they could consummate the marriage) who had no other way to make a living. Some informants condemned them, but most pitied them. A series of articles by the anthropologist Bholanath Bhattacharya presented interviews with a wide variety of professional ritual consorts (Bhattacharya 1977).

Celibate wives and widows. These women are householders, who incorporate tantric practice as an aspect of worship. For them, Tantra is a form of devotion, especially in combination with bhakti yoga. The goal of Tantra is to please the Goddess and gain blessings, within a domestic setting, using tantric mantras and visualization for worship. The celibate wife remains in the household, and has already had children and wants no more, or has been celibate for the entire marriage, as in the famous case of the Bengali Shakta saint Anandamayi Ma (1896–1982).  [Image at right] The wife becomes a devotee and leads a privately ascetic life. She spends most of her time in the worship room before the deity’s image, while the husband acquiesces and stays celibate. Sometimes the wife may become a pujarini, a worship leader, for a group of other women, or the leader of a kirtan, devotional singing, group. In such cases she gains a reputation as a holy woman, while the husband stays in the background. Many husbands are quite amenable to the wife becoming a celibate devotee in later years.

Shakta tantric and devotional practice may also be found within the home as performed by widows. The householder widow who spends her life in religious ritual and pilgrimage may be respected or disparaged. Some Shakta religious widow-matriarchs, who are called holy women by members of the extended family, dominate both their households and the brahmin priests called in to perform rituals. They hold the keys to the household and the moneybox, and thus have financial control over the family, despite their renunciation. On the other hand, some non-Shakta widows are ignored, alone and unwanted, where even their gurus looked down on them (for more, see McDaniel 2004).

All of these are contemporary Hindu practitioners in India. But on the more tangential side of contemporary female tantric practitioners, we also have the healers, shamanesses, priestesses, and other figures of New Age Tantra in the West. [Image at right] In this wide-ranging set of beliefs and rituals, the Goddess has been recast as life energy, sexual passion, the creativity of the universe, and other non-theistic forms. There are some ideas that are widespread: that Tantra is equivalent to sexuality, that the “yoga of love” is intended to heal sexual traumas, and that greater individual pleasure will help the world.

This approach was first popularized by Bhagavan Sri Rajneesh (1931–1990, after 1989 known as Osho), who was born into a Jain family and rebelled against the asceticism of his family religious tradition. He created his own form of Tantra, claiming that Tantra had no texts or rituals, that it was only rebellion and freedom. He called his followers neo-sannyasins and neo-sannyasinis, who should be free of all discipline, including the bondage of marriage. Their lives should be filled with pleasure, as the true path to enlightenment was through “spiritual sex” or “sacred sexuality.” A host of semi-religious traditions followed his ideas, whose adherents also claim to follow tantric practices. Some roles for women in these groups are:

Healers of “sexual wounds,” counselors, therapists and surrogates, whose actions would heal the “passion deficit” of the modern world. More pleasure and desire in human life was believed to heal the earth from pollution, by increasing cosmic life energy in practitioners (which would affect the Earth). Often such techniques as breathwork, bioenergetics, and bodywork are included. Kali sometimes is understood as a psychological archetype of female rage. (For examples, see “Learn Authentic Tantra” 2018; Rose 2020; and Shastra 2019.)

Female sexual gurus teaching the “yoga of love” to help women gain “valley orgasms,” which will bring about the Age of the Goddess. Tantric texts are rarely mentioned, but when they are, it is claimed that they were written by women. Much more popular is the Kama Sutra, a Hindu text on the good life, which includes additional helpful instructions, such as how to find a wife and how to keep your hair from turning grey. As a note, the Kama Sutra is neither religious nor tantric. (For examples, see Muir and Muir 2010; and the websites, Amara Karuna [2020]; Simone [2020]; “Tantra as a Healing Art” [2020]; and Psalm Isidora [2020].)

Tantric shamanesses, who claim to bring alienated humans closer to the Earth and to plant and animal species, to realize the “tantric pulsation of the universe.” This includes such specializations as Wild Woman and Body Whisperer. Meditation on “tribal tantric union” is included, such as the relationship of Grandfather Sun and Mother Earth. (Examples include, The Tantric Shaman [2020]; Venus Rising Association [2020]; Erickson [2020]; Temple of Bliss [2020]; Pomar [2020]; Phillips 2020; and “Shedding Skins” 2018.)

Priestesses of “erotic magical tantra,” showing the influence of the Western Magical Tradition. The goal is attaining supernatural abilities, such as keeping the body young into old age, learning esoteric wisdom, and gaining wealth without work. The priestess combines Asian and European practices, and may act as the holder of energy for the male actor (she can be the altar for the Black Mass or the locale of the Sephiroth, emanations from God, of Hermetic Qabalah). She may be an active participant, dedicating her orgasms to magical accomplishments. She may be an “erotic empowerment guide,” a “sex magick leader,” or a manipulator of orgone energy. Here we see the influence of such figures as Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) and Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), as well as some aspects of Neopaganism. The goal of supernatural abilities (siddhis) does bear some resemblance to folk forms of Hindu Shakta Tantra. (For example, see Tantric Priestess of the Sensual Arts [2020]; Kara 2016; “Priestess Training” [2020]; Szivak 2013; Priestess School by Sofia Sundari [2020]; Sanders [2020]; Posada 2012; Ciela Alchemy [2020]; Wicca India [2020]; “Facilitators” [2020]).

Scholars debate whether this sort of use of Hindu tantric imagery as an addition to other traditions should be condemned as misuse and misunderstanding, studied as an interesting syncretism, or ignored. Most Hindu tantrikas would have no idea what to make of Western practitioners with no lineage, initiation, ascetic practices, or traditional teachings.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES FACING WOMEN

There are several issues of concern for Shakta Tantra female practitioners in India, especially in West Bengal. It has always been difficult for women and girls to leave their families and go off to become wandering renunciants. Girls are expected to marry and have children, not plunge alone into jungles and mountains to follow a call from a goddess. Even if they join an ashram or existing devotional group with tantric teachings, there is still suspicion about what they may really be doing.

Tantra is a hidden tradition in Indian Hinduism due to its secrecy and its frequent practice in remote places. It has had a bad reputation due in part to the negative depiction of Tantra in the eighth-century play Malatimadhava by Bhavabhuti, which combined sorcery, tantric practice, and human sacrifice. This was a fictional story that became very popular and gave a negative image to tantric practice ever since, with the hero rescuing the innocent young maiden from the evil tantrika who wanted to sacrifice her to Kali in order to gain supernatural powers. As tantrikas do meditate in cremation grounds (where dead bodies are burned rather than buried), and offer symbolic sacrifices, it is not an exaggeration to say that people could be in danger. While no practicing tantrika interviewed had any knowledge of or inclination towards human sacrifice, it is still associated with Tantra in the popular imagination.

Then there is the problem of women travelling alone in India. While holy women should be respected by others, and not molested, this is not always the case. Female tantrikas have told of both sadhus (male renunciants of various types) and householder men who have tried to seduce them, and some men will simply try to attack them. Thus, women must be able to run or to fight (their carrying large walking sticks and tridents is useful). Besides getting food, this is a major reason why having disciples is important for female tantrikas.

Women may be pressured by gurus or husbands into tantric practice, even if it is not something that interests them. This is not just a problem for Tantra, women may always be pressured by the men in their lives to practice religious rituals, whether they feel personally devoted or not. Such rituals become a part of the woman’s stridharma, obligations as a wife, which also include having children, feeding her family, advising on family affairs, and pleasing her husband and other members of his family. The ideal wife is a pativrata, totally dedicated to husband and family. An independent religious life violates this ideal.

A different sort of challenge is found in modern Western Tantra, which bears little resemblance to the practices on which it is ostensibly based. Some female tantrikas in India have heard of Western Tantra (with the coming of the internet to India) and wonder what in the world these people are doing. The West is wealthy and powerful, and for some female tantrikas it makes them ask themselves whether they are taking the right path in life. Others consider the incorporation of Western ideas into their practice. Still others get swept into the tide of rising fundamentalist Hindu Nationalism in India, joining religious political parties and redefining Shakta Tantra as nationalism and worship of Mother India. 

Hindu Shakta Tantra continues to be an evolving religious tradition, in which women have played important roles. It is also an area of much misunderstanding, so it is useful to clarify women’s roles and how they have changed over time. While in India, Shakta tantric practice (especially combined with devotional goddess worship) is a sign of being traditional, in the West, it is a sign of being radical, often incorporating psychology, ecology, feminism and the arts. As climate change becomes more visible, especially combined with the illnesses and droughts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, religions that are more sympathetic to nature and the feminine may gain a higher profile.

IMAGES:

Image #1: Sri Yantra or Sri Chakra made of gold.
Image #2: Hindu priests worship young girls as Kumari as part of a ritual during the Durga Puja festival celebrations in Kolkata, India, October 17, 2018. Photographer: Rupak De Chowdhuri. Reuters.
Image #3: Depiction of the goddess Adya Kali, image from Adyapeath, West Bengal, 2018.
Image #4: Tantric form of Ma Kali, with multiple heads, representing powers and worlds in which she can act.
Image #5: Interview with female tantrika, Bakreshwar, West Bengal, 1994.
Image #6: Tantric Kali, with multiple arms for abilities, standing on Shiva.
Image #7: The famous Shakta saint, Anandamayi Ma. Popular devotional picture.
Image #8: New Age image of Virabhadra Kali, personifying female rage.

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SUPPLEMENTARY RESOURCES

Samuel, Geoffrey. 2010. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, David Gordon. 2000. Tantra in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Publication date:
25 June 2020

 

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Updated: — 11:32 pm

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