A group Conversation :- Tantra : a Belief System?

Kamakotikripa
Namo Devyai, I am a Upasaka of Srividya from the age of fifteen and have used Chaturtaari according to the instructions of my revered Guru Shri Guhanandanatha. Chidanandanaatha, who happened to be a close associate and a dear friend of mine, has explained the necessity of using Vedic Pranava in one of his works, the name of which I do not recollect.

Also, apart from the authority of Rudrayamala Tantra regarding the Varnashrama Dharma, one may also look into Meru Tantra and kularnava tantras. It is very sad to notice people straying away from Vedas. It is also very unfortunate that people see foul play in the great work of our Acharyas, who have resurrected the Shakta tradition from a state of ignorance and superstition. Pranava forms the very basis of the entire Vedic and Tantric literature. Though Shakti Pranava/s are equally powerful, it is totally impossible to accept that addition of Pranava reduces the efficacy of a mantra. Yes, Navakshari should be chanted without Pranava. But as far as Srividya goes, chaturataari is much more powerful than tritaari. A close examination of Dataatreya and Dakshinamurthi Samhitas makes this point clear. My Guru explicitly warned against incomplete study of tantras. What results, if otherwise, is half- baked knowledge, which apart from leading nowhere, causes further damage.

The main problem with most aspirants today is that they are not aware of the underlying significance and theoretical philosophy of most Tantric sayings. Superficial understanding leads to more illusion in the name of Tantra. People like Woodroffe and others are partly to be blamed for this. He misunderstood many concepts of Tantra and without hesitation propagated the same. I feel terrible when I glance at some of his works like the translation on Kamakalavilasa and others. The result is that most believe and ape what they think is real Tantra. Unless one understands Vedanta and the concepts of Veda properly, the study of Tantra and thereby the achievement in Tantra remain incomplete.

Srimadacharya, who was well aware of the pitfalls of practices like Pancha makaras, advised people to do away with such non-essential practices. However, in his work Tantraavataarakrama, he clearly says that this is not suitable in the days of Kali yuga, where people are filled with qualities like gluttony, lust and greed. The non-universality of the makara Sadhana is the sole reason for the Acharya to advice against it.

And to speak of Sadhana without the application of makara as being incomplete is total falsehood. Be it the Pancha makara or whatever else you follow, unless that realization of the self, as expounded by the Upanishads results, everything else is but futile. And kaulikas these days, as you have rightly pointed out, rest solely in the pashu level, and not even raise to the vira bhavana, let alone the Divyatva. This is because of their non-understanding of the Upanishadic truths and their mechanical adherence to the so-called Tantric authority.

All these hold good, if and only if,they are non-contradictory to the Vedas. No authority can override the authority of the Vedas. Not even the much acclaimed kalpa sutras. It is unfortunate that people are moving away from their roots, the eternal Vedas. And here I see a gentleman who accuses the Acharyas of `Vedicizing' Srividya, as if Vedas were a disease that affected Srividya. Srividya is the very essence of the Vedas. And to see it separately from the Vedas or as contradictory to the Vedas is an erroneous stand. One has to banish all that is not acceptable by the Vedic threshold and shun all pseudo- tantric concepts. Basically, a serious student of Tantra must have a strong background of Sankhya, Vedanta, agama and Tantra Shastras before he actually takes a plunge into the ocean of Tantra. If otherwise, all that results is a blind adherence to mistaken notions. Vishwanatha Nambudari.

Devi Bhakta

Namaskar Kamakotikripa ji!

I have been rather consistently blown away by some of Harsha's posts; but your endorsement -- coming from a Srividya Upasaka, initiated at 15 and now 92 years old! -- is an astonishingly worthy compliment! And allow me to take this opportunity to thank you for gracing our Group with your learned presence.

For what it's worth, I agree with both you and Harsha in your discussion of the Pranava (AUM) and the Devi Pranava (HRIM). But I'll readily admit that I cannot engage either of you on the fine points of Srividya; you're both *way* beyond my depth of understanding and experience. I would, however, like to address a couple of your broader observations.

For example, you note, "It is very sad to notice people straying away from Vedas" in their understanding and application of Tantra. You add, "My Guru explicitly warned against incomplete study of tantras. What results, if otherwise, is half-baked knowledge, which apart from leading nowhere, causes further damage."

You then explain that an "incomplete study" of the Tantras is one in which the aspirant is "not aware of the underlying significance and theoretical philosophy of most Tantric sayings." This sort of "superficial understanding" -- as I read your post -- is one that does not recognize the Vedic underpinnings of the philosophy.

Fair enough. I think any honest observer would agree that engaging in any Tantric practice without a comprehensive understanding of what you are doing and saying and what it all means at various levels is (at best) useless and (at worst) potentially dangerous.

But I lose you when you say, "People like Woodroffe and others are partly to be blamed for this. He misunderstood many concepts of Tantra and without hesitation propagated the same. ... The result is that most believe and ape what they think is real Tantra."

This is a very strong accusation indeed, and I want to be sure I understand you thoroughly. So first I'd ask, who do you have in mind when you say "people like Woodroffe"? Because it seems to me that Woodroffe is in something of a class by himself. If you mean to group him with other Raj-era "Orientalists," then I disagree -- Woodroffe was, if anything, an antidote to their Eurocentric (not to say racist) hackwork.

Now, I've acknowledged before that I'm an admirer of Woodroffe's work -- but I am certainly not his blind defender or his apologist. I am quite aware that his writings have their shortcomings. But it'd be a miracle if they didn't, wouldn't it? Think about it: He translated these works nearly 100 years ago, with no prior studies to compare his work against. He was a true pioneer, and -- in that sense -- it is a great tribute to him that his extremely esoteric books are still in print, and in most aspects reliable.

On the other hand, I would not join Adi-Shakti16 in lumping Woodroffe together with "other Western scholars like Coburn, Kinsley etc." Thomas Coburn and David Kinsley -- and I would name C. M. Brown, Douglas Brooks, and Wendy O'Flaherty as other standouts in this category -- are modern scholars, working three generations after Woodroffe. They approach Tantric and Shakta scriptures quite clinically and objectively, providing carefully distanced "outsider" analysis. They are not devotional writers, and their work is meant to be purely informational; not for practical, ritual instruction.

Woodroffe, by contrast, was more of a gentleman scholar in the classic mode of the "eccentric Englishman" -- retiring after dinner in slippers and a smoking jacket to pore over ancient texts in his private library. Although an Oxford law professor, he was not a objective academic in the modern sense -- he freely loaded his books with personal musings, private correspondence, editorializing and grinding axes in the the grand style.

His closest modern successor would probably be a writer like David Frawley, a highly trained non-academic and Western convert to Hinduism, who does not even pretend to be objective -- openly dedicating his words to his guru, Ganapati Muni. Like Frawley, Woodroffe was also, although he did not publicly acknowledge it, an initiated Shakta -- I don't know which lineage, but it was a Bengali school. And so, like Frawley, Woodroffe eventually let *his* guru's take on Tantra inform his interpretations and studies.

So when you say that Woodroffe "misunderstood many concepts of Tantra and without hesitation propagated the same ... I feel terrible when I glance at some of his works," you are probably engaging in a slightly sectarian debate. Because Woodroffe wrote of Shaktism as it was revealed to him by his gurus. In the same way, the Archbishop of Canterbury probably "feels terrible" when he hears Pope John Paul II's take on the Bible, though both men purport to preach that same book.And in the same way, the Hassidic Jewish rabbi is always sure that the the Reform Jewish rabbi "misunderstands many concepts" of their common Judaism.

You state that, "Basically, a serious student of Tantra must have a strong background of Sankhya, Vedanta, agama and Tantra Shastras before he actually takes a plunge into the ocean of Tantra." You are right to call it an ocean: Shakta Tantrism is only one of the forms in takes within Hinduism. There is also Shaiva Tantrism, Krishnaiva Tantrism, Tantas focusing on Ganesh, and on and on. Outside Hinduism, there are, of course, Tantric forms of Buddhism -- the Dalai Lama is a Tantric. And Tantra probably influenced Islam (though Sufism) and Christianity (through Gnosticism) as well. These non-Hindu forms of Tantra do not rest on the Vedas.

In fact, as you know, Tantra is not a belief system as much as it is a methodology -- a practical means through which to realize whatever path it is that you are following. Although modern Tantric Hinduism emerged in the first millenium CE, its roots -- in all likelihood -- stretch back long before the Vedas. Archeological excavations within the last 50-100 years have revealed that Tantra shares a profound continuity with Paleolithic, Neolithic and early Bronze Age spiritual belief systems. Because these belief systems tended to be Goddess-focused, Hindu Shaktism proved to be especially fertile ground (no pun intended) for its development.

Having said all that, however, I agree with you 100 percent that modern Hindu forms of Tantrism are thoroughly grounded in the Vedas -- if they were not, they would not be Hinduism! BUT, if it is your contention that Woodroffe teaches otherwise, you are mistaken. I will close by letting Mr. Woodroffe speak for himself:

"The Vedanta is the final authority and basis for the doctrines setforth in the Tantras, though the latter interpret the Vedenta in various ways."-- Sir John Woodroffe, "The Tantras and Their Significance"

"Let it be as you will regarding [theories on the non-Vedic] origin of the Shakta Agama; but at present, Shakta worship is an integral part of Hinduism, and as such admits the authority of the Vedas."-- Sir John Woodroffe, "Tantra Shastra and Veda"

"Whatever may have been its origin -- as to which nothing is of a certainty known; Mother Goddess Worship is as old as the World -- Shakta doctrine is now a form of Vedanta which may be called Shakti-Vada of Shakta Vedanta."-- Sir John Woodroffe, "Shakti and Shakta: Conclusions"

"The Tantra Shastra recognizes and claims not to be in conflict withVeda or any other recognized Shastra. ... "-- Sir John Woodroffe, "Tantra Shastra and Veda"

NOTE: Woodroffe here adds that "most of the commonly accepted ritual of the day [in Hinduism] is Tantrik," and provides a detailed appendix prepared by one "Sj. Braja Lal Mukherji, M.A.," who offers evidence that each of the Panchamakara rituals (sex, wine, meat, etc.) -- "which have been assumed to be non-Vaidik" -- can in fact be traced to the Vedas.

I could go on and on citing such passages, but I trust this sampling is sufficient to acquit Sir John of the charges levelled against him? In any event, I'd look forward to your further observations, and thank you once again for joining us.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe

Omprem

OM Devi Bhakta

As always, you have presented an excellent and thorough case,which, I'm sure, will serve to acquit your client of any wrong-doing.

I do, however, have one quibble. You say, "Tantra is not a belief system as much as it is a methodology." Must not a methodology be based on a belief system. The methodology must have a basis from which it arises and toward which it inspires. That belief system is usually integral to the methodology.

Is not this so for Tantra?

If the belief in a feminine cosmic principle were to be abandoned or radically down-graded, what would happen to Tantra? If the human body and bodily existence were to be revaluated so that an ascetic, Maya-based viewpoint were to be reinstated, what would happen to Tantra? In both cases, there would be profound changes in store for the dakshina marga and the vama marga, would there not? They would cease to exist as you know them. Perhaps only the kula marga would remain relatively unscathed (if it is truly an equivalent of kundalini yoga). So, it seems that one cannot separate easily a methodology from its belief system. One entails the other.

OM Namah Sivaya

devi_bhakta

Namaskar OmPrem ji:

Thanks for your post. You comment: "I do have one quibble: You say, 'Tantra is not a belief system as much as it is a methodology.' Must not a methodology be based on a belief system? The methodology must have a basis from which it arises and toward which it inspires. That belief system is usually integral to the methodology."

True enough. My point, however, was that the belief system upon which any given form of Tantra rests is highly variable. Perhaps I should have said that Tantra is not *confined to a particular* belief system. In any event, please let me explain and clarify why I made the statement as I did:

Last year, Princeton University's Readings in Religion Series published a 700-page tome called "Tantra in Practice," edited by Prof. David Gordon White. In it, a large array of experts offered essays showing what "Tantra" means in the context of different countries, cultures, religions, and various sub-sects within those religions. Still, in trying to coax a single, universally applicable definition of Tantra out of this wealth of information, White could offer only this: "Tantra is an Asian body of beliefs and practices that seeks to channel the divine energy that grounds the universe, in creative and liberating ways."

Another knowledgeable scholar, the eminent Sanskritist Teun Goudriaan, in his 1981 "Hindu Tantric Literature in Sanskrit" was equally hesitant to offer a comprehensive definition. He wrote simply that Tantrism is "a collection of practices and symbols of a ritualistic, sometimes magical character." He added that these practices and symbols were "predominantly, but by no means exclusively, Shakta."

And since a discussion of Woodroffe occasioned your query, here is his two cents on the subject: "If the word 'Tantric' be used as meaning an adherent of the Tantra Shastra, then the word is without definite meaning. A man to whom the application is given may be a worshiper of Surya, Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti [etc., with each individual school employing widely] varying doctrines and practice."

So Tantra is, broadly, a belief system -- but it is *always* employed through another, more specific belief system -- be it Shaktism, Shaivism, Buddhism, Taoism or what have you. The common thread seems to be that Everything, both manifest and transcendent, is part of a single, unified body of Energy. Because this energy is endlessly creative, giving birth to all that is, it is usually conceived as Feminine at at least as an Androgyne (Yin-Yang, Shiva-Shakti, etc.). That energy, in microcosm, is contained in every being in Creation, and can be accessed by "individual" beings through certain spiritual practices.

You conclude that "one cannot separate easily a methodology from its belief system. One entails the other." That is true -- and it was the point of my last post. Kamakotikripa had asserted that Tantra cannot be properly understood without a study of the Vedas, and my reply was in essence, "This is true -- but only for modern Hindu forms of Tantra." In the same vein, Kamakotikripa seemed to be complaining that Woodroffe did not preach Tantra as *he* understood it -- my reply was that Woodroffe (who always stressed that his analyses were limited to presenting North Indian forms of Shakta Tantrism) might not have a *wrong* understanding, but simply a different one.

Does that help at all, or just confuse the matter more? In any event, thanks as always for your valuable contributions to our forum, OmPrem ji.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe

Omprem

OM Devi Bhakta

"an Asian body of beliefs and practices that seeks to channel the divine energy that grounds the universe, in creative and liberating ways."

"a collection of practices and symbols of a ritualistic, sometimes magical character."

These attempts to characterize Tantra are so general as to apply to all spiritual/religious practices, Asian or otherwise. They are essentially meaningless.

But you make the more salient point that, "The common thread seems to be that Everything, both manifest and transcendent, is part of a single, unified body of Energy. Because this energy is endlessly creative, giving birth to all that is, it is usually conceived as Feminine at at least as an Androgyne (Yin-Yang, Shiva-Shakti, etc.). That energy, in microcosm, is contained in every being in Creation, and can be accessed by "individual" beings through certain spiritual practices." This accords with my limited understanding of Tantra and follows the two points that I raised in my post - that Tantra entails a belief in a feminine energy principle and that practice is focused on manipulating that energy principle.

Non-Tantra belief systems and practices could agree with the first but add that the background from which that energy arises is our true identity and identification with that background (Brahman, Satchidananda) is the goal of the practices. The energy is the means. The background is the goal. Both are contained in each other. Both the energy and the background exist 'in every being in Creation'.

Non-Tantra belief systems would change your first statement and say that, "Everything, manifest and transcendent, is part of a single, unified body of Energy but that the single, unified body of Energy arises from an Unknowable Absolute that can only be fully experienced when, to quote Georg Fuerstein, 'all psychomental phenomena have been transcended'.

It seems to me that Tantra can be distinguished by its belief in a feminine energy and a belief in accessing and celebrating that energy. The reason for accessing that energy is where the various modalities diverge. Celebration of the energy is another area of divergence. How does this sound to you?

OM Namah Sivaya

devi_bhakta

Namaskar OmPremji:

Regarding the scholarly definitions I cited in my last post, you state that they "are so general as to apply to all spiritual/religious practices, Asian or otherwise. They are essentially meaningless."

I think that if you'll re-read my post closely, you'll see that this is precisely why I offered these quotes: To show that even the most knowledgeable experts on Tantra find it too broad to usefully define as a "belief system." Rather, they say, it is an approach to many belief systems.

*** But you make the more salient point ... that Tantra entails a belief in a feminine energy principle and that practice is focused on manipulating that energy principle. ***

Yes, my defition is more specific, but only because I do not have the breadth of knowledge that the scholarly experts do. Everything I know of Tantra is from a Shakta viewpoint. But again, Tantric methodology has been applied to many non-Shakta belief systems. Tantra and Shaktism are not the same thing.

*** Non-Tantra belief systems and practices [would say] ... the energy [Shakti] is the means. The background [Shiva] is the goal.***

If you replaced the word "non-Tantra" above with "non-Shakta" then I would agree with you. Would Shaiva Tantras not consider Shiva the goal? I don't mean to sound flippant; I just believe that the definition of Tantra is considerably more subtle that that -- certainly more subtle than I am capable of rendering; and apparently too subtle for the scholars I cited as well.

This statement could also obscure the issue raised in my first post, to wit, that the Vedas and Tantric forms of Hinduism are not opposed. To again quote Woodroffe (expanding upon a quote contained in that first post):

"The Vedanta is the final authority and basis for the doctrines set forth in the Tantras. ... The real meaning of 'Vedanta' is Upanishad and nothing else. Many persons, however, speak of Vedanta as though it meant the philosophy of Shankara (or whatever philosopher they follow). This, of course, is incorrect. Vedanta is Sruti. Shankara's philosophy is merely one interpretation of Sruti, just as Ramanuja's is another and that of Shaiva-Agama is a third. There is no question of competition between Vedanta as Sruti and Tantra Shastra. ...

"All systems of interpretation have some merits as they have defects, that of Shankara included. .... The Agama [body of Tantric scripture] interprets Sruti in its own way. Thus the Shaiva-Shakta doctrines are specific solutions of the Vedantic theme which differ in several respects from that of Shankara, -- though, as they agree with him on the fundamental question of the uunity of Jiva-atma and Parama-atma, they are therefore Advaita."

(Sorry for this long, difficult passage! But I think it's a relevant point here!)

*** It seems to me that Tantra can be distinguished by its belief in a feminine energy and a belief in accessing and celebrating that energy. The reason for accessing that energy is where the various modalities diverge. Celebration of the energy is another area of divergence. How does this sound to you? ***

Again, I would agree with this definition completely if you were to replace the word "Tantra" with "Shaktism." But it is too narrow for the term "Tantra" -- for all of the reasons set out above and in my other posts. Again, Shaktism and Tantra are not interchangeable terms. Tantra can be applied to Shaktism, and Shaktism can be applied to Tantra, but I believe that neither is in all cases indispensable to the other.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe

omprem

OM Devi Bhakta

You posed the question, "Would Shaiva Tantras not consider Shiva the goal?"

I think they would NOT consider Shiva the final goal. Shiva as the destroyer is there to remind the aspirant that all connnection to the phenomenal world and all egoism must be severed, if one is know and identify with their true essence, i.e. Brahman.

Shiva has form. As long as an aspirant knows form, considers form real, he/she still has some way to go toward Self-Realization.

OM Tryambhakam Yajamahe
Sugandhim Pushtivardhanam
Urvarukamiva Bandhanan
Mrityor Mukshiya Maamritat


OM. We worship the three-eyed One (Lord Shiva), who is fragrant and who nourishes well all beings; may He liberate us from death for the sake of Immortality even as a cucumber is severed from its bondaga (to the creeper).

It is clear from the above that Shiva is the instrument of our liberation (just as the Guru is the instrument and just as Shakti is the instrument).

Shiva-Shakti is the process of enlightenment. It symbolizes the union of male-female, the union of all. But the aspirant eventually must move beyond that, must move beyond all names and forms, including Cosmic Consciousness, if he/she is to enter the final superconscious state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi or Asamprajnata Samadhi or Nirbija Samadhi.

OM Namah Sivaya

devi bhakta

Namaskar OmPremji:

Thank you for a very powerful post. I especially liked your observation that "Shiva is the instrument of our liberation (just as the Guru is the instrument and just as Shakti is the instrument)." I always come away from our discussions wiser than I entered into them. Thank you once again for your excellent and learned contributions to this forum.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe

harshanand_16

Dear friends,

I really am not able to follow this scholarly discussion, but since the gentleman has commented on Arthur Avlon, let me tell you a few things. First of all, I am myself an admirer of his superb writing style. No doubt he was mainly responsible for removing a lot of misconceptioons on Tantra. However, he has erronoeusly commented at various places. Being a student of Srividya, it is but natural to notice his flaws mainly in kamakalavilasa. This perhaps was due to his theoritical-limited understang of this specialized branch. Also, most Hindus have rigidly protected tantric secrets by techniques such as sandhabasa, virodhalakshana etc. This explains his inaccessibility to many traditioanlly guraded authentic stuff. Arthur Avalon is no doubt a scholar, but his teachings certainly lack the quality that would raise them to the position of a scripture. He has to be read, studied and then one has to simply move over! One cannot really continue to be awestruck with his writings and regard them as the ultimate sources of scriptures. His imperfections, though natural in a human being of limited consciousness and a clear exhibition of his unawareness of the actual tantra, which lies mainly in practice, indeed can cause a great deal of damage to a serious aspirant of tantra, if followed without reason. Yes, his works are suitable for preparing a ground-work, for an insight into tantra, and i feel one may simply discard them later! Namo Parashaktyai!

Colin

Namaste Devi bhakta and everyone.

Two appreciations of Woodroffe:

"Through the English works and translations of the Tantrika Texts of Sir John Woodroffe and through the Life and Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna the doctrine of God as Mother has spread throughout the religious world."-- Swami Jagadisvarananda, in the preface to his translation of the _Devi Mahatmya_.

"Even in modern times, Tantra has claimed a number of adherents in foreign countries. Among them, Sir John Woodroffe stands head and shoulders above all."-- S.C.Banerji, in his book, _A Brief History of Tantra Literature_.

Om Shantih,

Devi bhakta

Namaskar Harsha!

Thank you. I am in complete agreement with every point in your post.

*** he was mainly responsible for removing a lot of misconceptioonson Tantra ***

Precisely. That is his clearly stated purpose, again and again throughout his writings.

*** Being a student of Srividya, it is but natural to notice his flaws mainly in kamakalavilasa. This perhaps was due to his theoritical-limited understang of this specialized branch.***

Correct. He very often stated that he was necessarily -- by virtue of the fact he was communicating through the printed page -- limited to theoretical discussion, whereas the true realm of Tantra is action. My knowledge of Srividya is also limited to theory (and here Douglas Renfrew Brooks is vastly more informative than Woodroffe) and so I defer to your superior knowledge as to any specific errors.

*** Also, most Hindus have rigidly protected tantric secrets by techniques such as sandhabasa, virodhalakshana etc. This explains his inaccessibility to many traditioanlly guarded authentic stuff. ***

True. Woodroffe repeatedly warns that true Tantra is a practice that requires diksha -- initiation -- and fully qualified guidance (guru). You can learn *about* it from books, but not the thing itself. As an initiate himself, Woodroffe told what could be told, and withheld what could not. But he did not mislead (or at least that's the point I'm arguing in all my posts on this subject).

*** Arthur Avalon is no doubt a scholar, but his teachings certainly lack the quality that would raise them to the position of a scripture. He has to be read, studied and then one has to simply move over! ***

This is definitely true.

*** His works are suitable for preparing a ground-work, for an insight into tantra, and i feel one may simply discard them later! ***

Right. One has to begin somewhere -- and with so much garbage circulating out there under the guise of "Tantra", it is a breath of fresh air to come upon as a guide to the "real thing" who is as reliable, down-to-earth and eloquent as Mr. Woodroffe.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe

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