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Shiva Shakti Shakta, Hindu Religion and Tantra

Tantra and the Tantrik Hindu religion: Shakti and Shakta

by Arthur Avalon, $19.95 large size paperback, $10.60 ebook


This book is a profound assimilation of Arthur Avalon's essays on the mystic spiritual tradition of Goddess worship in Hinduism. An essential book for any era, the subtle, eternal truths offered within the covers of this book take the reader into the holistic realm of divine inner union. Originally published in 1918, this incredible work of scholarship, mysticism, and wisdom has been resurrected by Iconoclast Press so as to keep the treasures of understandings found within this book available to the world.  

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Hindu Religion : Tantra : Shakti and Shakta : Chapter Three: What Are the Tantras and Their Significance?

A VERY common expression in English writings is "The Tantra"; but its use is often due to a misconception and leads to others. For what does Tantra mean? The word denotes injunction (Vidhi), regulation (Niyama), Shastra generally or treatise. Thus Shamkara calls the Samkhya a Tantra. A secular writing may be called Tantra. For the following note I am indebted to Professor Surendranath Das Gupta. "The word 'Tantra' has been derived in the Kashika-Vritti (7-2-9) from the root 'Tan' 'to spread' by the Aunadika rule Sarvadhatubhyah tran, with the addition of the suffix 'tran'. Vacaspati, Anandagiri, and Govindananda, however, derive the word from the root 'Tatri' of 'Tantri' in the sense of Vyutpadana, origination or knowledge. In Ganapatha, however, 'Tantri' has the same meaning as 'Tan' 'to spread' and it is probable that the former root is a modification of the latter. The meaning Vyutpadana is also probably derived by narrowing the general sense of Vistara which is the meaning of the root 'Tan'."

According to the derivation of 'Tantra' from Tan, to spread, Tantra is that (Scripture) by which knowledge (Jnana) is spread (Tanyate, vistaryate jnanam anena, iti Tantram). The Suffix Tra is from the root 'to save'. That knowledge is spread which saves. What is that but religious knowledge? Therefore, as here and generally used, Tantra means a particular kind of religious scripture. The Kamika Agama of the Shaiva Siddhanta (Tantrantara Patala) says:

Tanoti vipulan arthan tattvamantra-samanvitan

Trananca kurute yasmat tantram ityabhidhyate.

(It is called Tantra because it promulgates great knowledge concerning Tattva and Mantra and because it saves.)

It is a common misconception that Tantra is the name only of the Scripture of the Shaktas or worshippers of Shakti. This is not so. There are Tantras of other sects of the Agama, Tantras of Shaivas, Vaishnavas and so forth. We cannot speak of "The Treatise" nor of "The Tantra" any more than we can or do speak of the Purana, the Samhita. We can speak of "the Tantras" as we do of "the Puranas". These Tantras are Shastras of what is called the Agama. In a review of one of my works it was suggested that the Agama is a class of Scriptures dealing with the worship of Saguna Ishvara which was revealed at the close of the age of the Upanishads, and introduced partly because of the falling into desuetude of the Vaidika Acara, and partly because of the increasing numbers of persons entering the Hindu fold who were not competent (Adhikari) for that Acara. I will not however deal with this historical question beyond noting the fact that the Agama is open to all persons of all castes and both sexes, and is not subject to the restrictions of the Vaidika Acara. This last term is a common one and comes from the verbal root char, which means to move or to act, the prefix 3 being probably used in the sense of restriction. Acara thus means practice, way, rule of life governing a Sadhaka, or one who does Sadhana or practice for some desired end (Siddhi).

The Agamas are divided into three main groups according as the Ishtadevata worshipped is Shakti, Shiva or Vishnu. The first is the Shakta Agama, the second the Shaivagama, and the third the Vaishnava Agama or Pancaratra. This last is the Scripture to which the Shrimad Bhagavata (X. 90. 34) refers as Sattvata Tantra in the lines,

Tenoktang sattvatang tantram yaj jnattva muktibhag bhavet

Yatra strishudradasanang sangskaro vaisnavah smritah.

Some Agamas are called Vaidik (Vaidika Agama) and some non-Vaidik (Avaidika). The Kurma Purana (XVI.1) mentions as belonging to the latter, Kapala, Lakula, Vama, Bhairava, Purva, Pashcima, Pancaratra, Pashupata and many others. Pashupata again is said to be both Vaidika and Avaidika such as Lakula. Kurma Purana (Uttarabhaga, Ch. 38) says "By Me was first composed, for the attainment of Liberation, Shrauta (Vaidika) Pashupata which is excellent, subtle, and secret, the essence of Veda (Vedasara). The learned devoted to Veda should meditate on Shiva Pashupati. This is Pashupata Yoga to be practiced by seekers of Liberation. By Me also have been spoken Pashupata, Soma, Lakula and Bhairava opposed to Veda (Vedavadaviruddhani). These should not be practiced. They are outside Veda." Sanatkumara Samhita says:

Shrautashrautavibhedena dvividhastu shivagamah

Shrutisaramapah shrautah sah punar dvividho matah

Svatantra itarash ceti svatantro dashadha pura

Tatha' shtadashadha pashcat siddhanta iti giyate

Itarah shrutisaras tu shatakoti-pravistarah.

(See also Vayu Samhita, Ch. I. 28

(Shaivagama is of two kinds, Shrauta and Ashrauta. Shrauta is Shrautisaramaya and of two kinds, Svatantra and Itara. Svatantra is first of ten kinds and then Siddhanta of eighteen kinds. (This is the Shaivasiddhanta Agama with 28 Mula Agamas and 207 Upagamas. It is Shuddhadvaita because in it there is no Visheshana). Itara is Shrutisara with numerous varieties. Into this mass of sects I do not attempt here to enter, except in a general way. My subject is the doctrine and ritual of the Shaktas. There are said to be Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta Upanishads favoring one or another doctrine.

We must, however, in all cases distinguish between what a School says of itself and what others say of it. So far as I am aware all Agamas, whatever be their origin, claim now to be based on Shruti, though of course as different interpretations are put on Shruti, those who accept one interpretation are apt to speak of differing Schools as heretical. These main divisions again have subdivisions. Thus there are several Schools of Shaivas; and there are Shaktas with their nine Amnayas, four Sampradayas (Kerala, Kashmira, Gauda and Vilasa) each divided into two-fold division of inner and outer worship (Sammohana Tantra, Ch. V). There is for instance the Northern Shaiva School called Trika of Kashmir, in which country at one time Tantra Shastras were very prevalent. There is again the Southern Shaiva School called Shaivasiddhanta. The Shaktas who are to be found throughout India are largely prevalent in Bengal and Assam. The Shaktas are rather allied with the Northern Advaita Shaiva than with the others, though in them also there is worship of Shakti. Shiva and Shakti are one and he who worships one necessarily worships the other. But whereas the Shaiva predominantly worships Shiva, the Shakta predominantly worships the Shakti side of the Ardhanarishvara Murti, which is both Shiva and Shakti.

Mahavishnu and Sadashiva are also one. As the Sammohana Tantra (Ch. VIII) says, "Without Prakriti the Samsara (World) cannot be. Without Purusha true knowledge cannot be attained. Therefore should both be worshipped; with Mahakali, Mahakala." Some, it says, speak of Shiva, some of Shakti, some of Narayana (Vishnu). But the supreme Narayana (Adinarayana) is supreme Shiva (Parashambhu), the Nirguna Brahman, pure as crystal. The two aspects of the Supreme reflect the one in the other. The Reflection (Pratibimba) is Maya whence the World-Lords (Lokapalas) and the Worlds are born. The Adya Lalita (Mahashakti) at one time assumed the male form of Krishna and at another that of Rama (Ch. IX). For all aspects are in Mahakali, one with Bhairava Mahakala, who is Mahavishnu. "It is only a fool" it says, "who sees any difference between Rama and Shiva." This is of course to look at the matter from the high Vedantik standpoint of Shakta doctrine. Nevertheless separate worship and rituals exist among the Sects. A common philosophical basis of the Shaivas and those of Shaktas, who are Agamavadins, is the doctrine of the Thirty-six Tantras. These are referred to in the Tantra (Ch. VII) so well known in Bengal which is called Kularnava. They are also referred to in other Shakta works and their commentaries such as the Anandalahari. The Sharada Tilaka, a great authority amongst the Bengal Shaktas, is the work of Lakshmanacarya, an author of the Kashmir Shaiva school. The latter school as also the Shaktas are Advaitins. The Shaiva Siddhanta and Pancaratra are Shuddhadvaita and Vishishtadvaita respectively. There is also a great body of Buddhist Tantras of differing schools. (I have published one -- the Shricakra Sambhara Tantra as Vol. VII of Tantrik Texts.) Now all these schools have Tantras of their own. The original connection of the Shaiva schools is said to be shown amongst other things, by the fact that some Tantras arc common, such as Mrigendra and Matanga Tantras. It has been asserted that the Shakta school is not historically connected with the Shaivas. No grounds were given for this statement. Whatever be the historical origins of the former, the two appear to be in several respects allied at present, as any one who knows Shakta literature may find out for himself. In fact Shakta literature is in parts unintelligible to one unacquainted with some features of what is called the Shaiva Darshana. How otherwise is it that the 36 Tattvas and Shadadhva (see my Garland of Letters) are common to both?

The Shaktas have again been divided into three groups. Thus the esteemed Pandit R. Ananta Shastri in the Introduction to his edition of Anandalahari speaks of the Kaula or Shakta Shastras with sixty-four Tantras; the Mishra with eight Tantras; and the Samaya group which are said to be the most important of the Shakta Agamas, of which five are mentioned. This classification purports to be based on the nature of the object pursued, according as it belongs to one or the other of the Purusharthas. Pancaratra literature is very considerable, one hundred and eight works being mentioned by the same Pandit in Vol. XIII, pp. 357-363 of The Theosophist. I would refer the reader also to the very valuable edition of the Ahirbudhnya Samhita by my friend Dr. Otto Schrader, with an Introduction by the learned Doctor on the Pancaratra system where many Vaishnava Tantras and Samhitas are cited. The Trika school has many Tantras of which the leading one is Malinivijaya. The Svacchanda Tantra comes next. Jagadisha Chandra Chattopadhyaya Vidyavaridhi has written with learning and lucidity on this school. The Shaivasiddhanta has twenty-eight leading Tantras and a large number of Upagamas, such as Taraka Tantra, Vama Tantra and others, which will be found enumerated in Schomerus' Der Shaiva-siddhanta, Nallasvami Pillai's Studies in Shaivasiddhanta (p. 294), and Shivajnanasiddihiyar (p. 211). The Sammohana Tantra (Ch. VI) mentions 64 Tantras, 327 Upatantras, as also Yamalas, Damaras, Samhitas and other Scriptures of the Shaiva class; 75 Tantras, 205 Upatantras, also Yamalas, Damaras, Samhitas of the Vaishnava class; numerous Tantras and other scriptures of the Ganapatya and Saura classes, and a number of Puranas, Upapuranas and other variously named Scriptures of the Bauddha class. It then (Ch. VII) mentions over 500 Tantras and nearly the same number of Upatantras, of some 22 Agamas, Cinagama (see Ch. VI post), Buddhagama, Jaina, Pashupata, Kapalika, Pancaratra, Bhairava and others. There is thus a vast mass of Tantras in the Agamas belonging to differing schools of doctrine and practice, all of which must be studied before we can speak with certainty as to what the mighty Agama as a whole is. In this book I briefly deal with one section of it only. Nevertheless when these Agamas have been examined and are better known, it will, I think, be found that they are largely variant aspects of the same general ideas and practices.

As instances of general ideas I may cite the following: the conception of Deity as a supreme Personality (Parahanta) and of the double aspect of God in one of which He really is or becomes the Universe; a true emanation from Him in His creative aspect; successive emanations (Abhasa, Vyuha) as of "fire from fire" from subtle to gross; doctrine of Shakti; pure and impure creation; the denial of unconscious Maya, such as Shamkara teaches; doctrine of Maya Kosha and the Kancukas (the six Shaiva Kancukas being, as Dr. Schrader says, represented by the possibly earlier classification in the Pancaratra of the three Samkocas); the carrying of the origin of things up and beyond Purusha-Prakriti; acceptance at a later stage of Purusha-Prakriti, the Samkhyan Gunas, and evolution of Tattvas as applied to the doctrine of Shakti; affirmance of the reality of the Universe; emphasis on devotion (Bhakti); provision for all castes and both sexes.

Instances of common practice are for example Mantra, Bija, Yantra, Mudra, Nyasa, Bhutashuddhi, Kundaliyoga, construction and consecration of temples and images (Kriya), religious and social observances (Carya) such as Ahnika, Varnashramadharma, Utsava; and practical magic (Maya-yoga). Where there is Mantra, Yantra, Nyasa, Diksha, Guru and the like, there is Tantra Shastra. In fact one of the names of the latter is Mantra Shastra. With these similarities there are certain variations of doctrines and practice between the schools. Necessarily also, even on points of common similarity, there is some variance in terminology and exposition which is unessential. Thus when looking at their broad features, it is of no account whether with the Pancaratra we speak of Lakshmi, Shakti, Vyuha, Samkoca; or whether in terms of other schools we speak of Tripurasundari and Mahakali, Tattvas and Kancukas. Again there are some differences in ritual which are not of great moment except in one and that a notable instance. I refer to the well-known division of worshippers into Dakshinacara and Vamacara. The secret Sadhana of some of the latter (which I may here say is not usually understood) has acquired such notoriety that to most the term "The Tantra" connotes this particular worship and its abuses and nothing else. I may here also observe that it is a mistake to suppose that aberrations in doctrine and practice are peculiar to India. A Missionary wrote to me some years ago that this country was "a demon-haunted land". There are demons here, but they are not the only inhabitants; and tendencies to be found here have existed elsewhere. The West has produced many a doctrine and practice of an antinomian character. Some of the most extreme are to be found there. Moreover, though this does not seem to be recognized, it is nevertheless the fact that these Kaula rites are philosophically based on monistic doctrine. Now it is this Kaula doctrine and practice, limited probably, as being a secret doctrine, at all times to comparatively few, which has come to be known as "The Tantra". Nothing is more incorrect. This is but one division of worshippers who again are but one section of the numerous followers of the Agamas, Shaiva, Shakta and Vaishnava. Though there are certain common features which may be called Tantrik yet one cannot speak of "The Tantra" as though it were one entirely homogeneous doctrine and practice. Still less can we identify it with the particular practices and theories of one division of worshippers only. Further the Tantras are concerned with Science, Law, Medicine and a variety of subjects other than spiritual doctrine or worship. Thus Indian chemistry and medicine are largely indebted to the Tantrikas.

According to a common notion the word "Tantra" is (to use the language of a well-known work) "restricted to the necromantic books of the latter Shivaic or Shakti mysticism" (Waddell's Buddhism of Tibet, p, 164). As charity covers many sins, so "mystic" and "mysticism" are words which cover much ignorance. "Necromancy" too looms unnecessarily large in writers of this school. It is, however, the fact that Western authors generally so understand the term "Tantra". They are, however, in error in so doing as previously explained. Here I shortly deal with the significance of the Tantra Shastra, which is of course also misunderstood, being generally spoken of as a jumble of "black magic," and "erotic mysticism," cemented together by a ritual which is "meaningless mummery". A large number of persons who talk in this strain have never had a Tantra in their hands, and such Orientalists as have read some portions of these Scriptures have not generally understood them, otherwise they would not have found them to be so "meaningless". They may be bad, or they may be good, but they have a meaning. Men are not such fools as to believe for ages in what is meaningless. The use of this term implies that their content had no meaning to them. Very likely; for to define as they do Mantra as "mystical words," Mudra as "mystical gestures" and Yantra as "mystical diagrams" does not imply knowledge. These erroneous notions as to the nature of the Agama are of course due to the mistaken identification of the whole body of the Scripture with one section of it. Further this last is only known through the abuses to which its dangerous practices as carried out by inferior persons have given rise. It is stated in the Shastra itself in which they are prescribed that the path is full of difficulty and peril and he who fails upon it goes to Hell. That there are those who have so failed, and others who have been guilty of evil magic, is well known. I am not in this Hindu Religion : Tantra : Shakti and Shakta : Chapter concerned with this special ritual or magic but with the practices which govern the life of the vast mass of the Indian people to be found in the Tantras of the Agamas of the different schools which I have mentioned.

A Western writer in a review of one of my books has expressed the opinion that the Tantra Shastra (I think he meant the Shakta) was, at least in its origin, alien and indeed hostile to the Veda. He said: "We are strongly of opinion that in their essence the two principles are fundamentally opposed and that the Tantra only used Vedic forms to mask its essential opposition." I will not discuss this question here. It is, however, the fact now, as it has been for centuries past, that the Agamavadins claim to base their doctrine on Veda. The Vedanta is the final authority and basis for the doctrines set forth in the Tantras, though the latter interpret the Vedanta in various ways. The real meaning of Vedanta is Upanishad and nothing else. Many persons, however, speak of Vedanta as though it meant the philosophy of Shamkara or whatever other philosopher they follow. This of course is incorrect. Vedanta is Shruti. Shamkara's philosophy is merely one interpretation of Shruti just as Ramanuja's is another and that of the Shaivagama or Kaulagama is a third. There is no question of competition between Vedanta as Shruti and Tantra Shastra. It is, however, the fact that each of the followers of the different schools of Agama contend that their interpretation of the Shruti texts is the true one and superior to that of other schools. As a stranger to all these sects, I am not here concerned to show that one system is better than the other. Each will adopt that, which most suits him. I am only stating the facts. As the Ahirbudhnya Samhita of the Pancaratra Agama says, the aspects of God are infinite, and no philosopher can seize and duly express more than one aspect. This is perfectly true. All systems of interpretation have some merits as they have defects, that of Shamkara included. The latter by his Mayavada is able to preserve more completely than any other interpretation the changelessness and stainlessness of Brahman. It does this, however, at the cost of certain defects, which do not exist in other schools, which have also their own peculiar merits and shortcomings. The basis and seat of authority is Shruti or experience and the Agama interprets Shruti in its own way. Thus the Shaiva-Shakta doctrines are specific solutions of the Vedantic theme which differ in several respects from that of Shamkara, though as they agree (I speak of the Northern Shaiva School) with him on the fundamental question of the unity of Jivatma and Paramatma, they are therefore Advaita.

The next question is how the experience of which the Agama speaks may be gained. This is also prescribed in the Shastra in the form of peculiar Sadhanas or disciplines. In the first place there must be a healthy physical and moral life. To know a thing in its ultimate sense is to be that thing. To know Brahman is, according to Advaita, to be Brahman. One cannot realize Brahman the Pure except by being oneself pure (Shuddhacitta). But to attain and keep this state, as well as progress therein, certain specific means, practices, rituals or disciplines are necessary. The result cannot be got by mere philosophical talk about Brahman. Religion is a practical activity. Just as the body requires exercise, training and gymnastic, so does the mind. This may be of a merely intellectual or spiritual kind. The means employed are called Sadhana which comes from the root "Sadh," to exert. Sadhana is that which leads to Siddhi. Sadhana is the development of Shakti. Man is Consciousness (Atma) vehicled by Shakti in the form of mind and body. But this Shakti is at base Pure Consciousness, just as Atma is; for Atma and Shakti are one. Man is thus a vast magazine of both latent and expressed power. The object of Sadhana is to develop man's Shakti, whether for temporal or spiritual purposes. But where is Sadhana to be found P Seeing that the Vaidika Acara has fallen in practical desuetude we can find it nowhere but in the Agamas and in the Puranas which are replete with Tantrik rituals. The Tantras of these Agamas therefore contain both a practical exposition of' spiritual doctrine and the means by which the truth it teaches may be realized. Their authority does not depend, as Western writers and some of their Eastern followers suppose, on the date when they were revealed but on the question whether Siddhi is gained thereby. This too is the proof of Ayurveda. The test of medicine is that it cures. If Siddhi is not obtained, the fact it is written "Shiva uvaca" (Shiva speaks) or the like counts for nothing. The Agama therefore is a practical exposition and application of Doctrine varying according to its different schools.

The latest tendency in modern Western philosophy is to rest upon intuition, as it was formerly the tendency to glorify dialectic. Intuition has, however, to be led into higher and higher possibilities by means of Sadhana. This term means work or practice, which in its result is the gradual unfolding of the Spirit's vast latent magazine of power (Shakti), enjoyment and vision which everyone possesses in himself. The philosophy of the Agama is, as a friend and collaborator of mine, Professor Pramathanatha Mukhyo-padhyaya, very well put it, a practical philosophy, adding, that what the intellectual world wants to-day is this sort of philosophy; a philosophy which not merely argues but experiments. The form which Sadhana takes is a secondary matter. One goal may be reached by many paths. What is the path in any particular case depends on considerations of personal capacity and temperament, race and faith. For the Hindu there is the Agama which contains forms of discipline which his race has evolved and are therefore prima facie suitable for him. This is not to say that these forms are unalterable or acceptable to all. Others will adopt other forms of Sadhana suitable to them. Thus, amongst Christians, the Catholic Church prescribes a full and powerful Sadhana in its Sacraments (Samskara) and Worship (Puja, Upasana), Meditation (Dhyana), Rosary (Japa) and the like. But any system to be fruitful must experiment to gain experience, The significance of the Tantra Shastra lies in this that it claims to afford a means available to all, of whatever caste and of either sex, whereby the truths taught may be practically realized.

The Tantras both in India and Tibet are the expression of principles which are of universal application. The mere statement of religious truths avails not. What is necessary for all is a practical method of realization. This too the occultist needs. Further the ordinary run of mankind can neither apprehend, nor do they derive satisfaction from mere metaphysical concepts. They accept them only when presented in personal form. They care not for Shunyata, the Void, nor Saccidananda in the sense of mere Consciousness -- Being -- Bliss. They appeal to personal Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, Shiva, Vishnu, Devi who will hear their prayer, and grant them aid. Next they cannot stand by themselves. They need the counsel and guidance of priest and Guru and the fortifying virtues of the sacraments. They need a definite picture of their object of worship, such as is detailed in the Dhyana of the Devatas, an image, a Yantra, a Mandala and so forth, a developed ritual and pictorial religion. This is not to say that they are wrong. These natural tendencies, however, become accentuated in course of time to a point where "superstition," mechanical devotion and lifeless formalism and other abuses are produced. There then takes place what is called a "Reform," in the direction of a more spiritual religion. This too is accentuated to the point of barrenness. Religion becomes sterile to produce practical result and ritual and pictorial religion recurs. So Buddhism, which in its origin has been represented to be a reaction against excessive and barren ritualism, could not rest with a mere statement of the noble truths and the eightfold path. Something practical was needed. The Mahayana (Thegpa Chhenpo) was produced. Nagarjuna in the second century A.D. (?) is said to have promulgated ideas to be found in the Tantras. In order to realize the desired end, use was made of all the powers of man, physical and mental. Theistic notions as also Yoga came again to the fore in the Yogacarya and other Buddhist systems. The worship of images and an elaborate ritual was introduced. The worship of the Shaktis spread. The Mantrayana and Vajrayana found acceptance with, what an English writer (The Buddhism of Tibet by L. Waddell) describes in the usual style as its "silly mummery of unmeaning jargon and gibberish," the latter being said to be "the most depraved form of Buddhist doctrine." So-called Tantrik Buddhism became thus fully developed. A Tantrik reformer in the person of Tsongkhapa arose, who codified the Tantras in his work Lam-rim Chhen-mo. The great code, the Kah-gyur, contains in one of its sections the Tantras (Rgyud) containing ritual, worship of the Divine Mothers, theology, astrology and natural science, as do their Indian counterparts. These are of four classes, the Kriya, Carya, Yoga, Anuttara Tantras, the latter comprising Maha, Anu and Ati-Yoga Tantras. The Tan-ghur similarly contains many volumes of Tantras (Rgyud). Then, at length, Buddhism was driven from out of India. Brahmanism and its rituals survived and increased, until both in our day and the nearer past we see in the so-called reformed sects a movement towards what is claimed to be a more spiritual religion. Throughout the ages the same movements of action and reaction manifest. What is right here lies in the middle course. Some practical method and ritual is necessary if religion is not to be barren of result. The nature of the method and ritual will vary according to the capacity and development of men. On the other hand, the "crooked influence of time" tends to overlay the essential spiritual truths with unintelligent and dead formalism. The Tantra Shastra stands for a principle of high value though, like other things admittedly good, it is capable of, and has suffered, abuse. An important point in this connection should be noted. In Europe we see extreme puritan reaction with the result that the religious movements which embody them become one-sided and without provision for ordinary human needs. Brahmanism has ever been all-inclusive, producing a Sadhana of varying kinds, material and mental, for the different stages of spiritual advancement and exempting from further ritual those for whom, by reason of their attainment, it is no longer necessary.

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