By Amodini January 2005 The primary energy, main orientation, and patron deities of tantra are overwhelmingly feminine. Tantra has divinised all aspects of women’s lives. My friend Suparna (name changed to protect privacy) is a survivor. She is beautiful, with that indefinable quality that makes heads turn wherever she goes. She is gifted with great style, and being in her company is an experience of pure magic. As a talented and creative artist, she has the ability to turn every venture into a remarkable success, including design and teaching. She has a passion for the great outdoors, and some of her other interests include martial arts and mountaineering. And she has the knack of doing all of this with great style on a small budget. Unfortunately, the cherished golden touch was not extended to her relationships, so that she is forever suffering from heartbreak and uncertainty—one of those famous cosmic raw deals. She had to undergo a painful divorce and rebuild her life nearly from scratch as a single mother with a demanding young son and little money. The steady stream of men in her life has helped to anchor her emotionally, and although the relationships did not last, Suparna has gone from strength to strength in her growth as an independent person, an artist, in her career, and in all that she does. Icon of PowerSuparna reminds me of Chhinnamasta, one of the Dasha Mahavidyas of Tantra who are the bearers of ‘greater knowledge’. The Dasha Mahavidyas are ten goddesses that are singularly independent, with no corresponding masculine consort to temper or balance their force. Chhinnamasta, of all Tantric goddesses, fascinates me the most despite the horrific iconography with its strong element of bibhatsa, an amalgam of horror and revulsion, which surrounds her. She is the goddess who, having set out for a hunt with her two attendants, and unable to pacify their demands for food, cuts her head off to feed them with her own blood. In many visual depictions of Chhinnamasta, a couple is shown engaged in sex at her feet, woman on top! One hand of the goddess holds a fearsome sickle, while another holds her own severed head. Three strong streams of blood gush forth in an arc from her throat, the central one pouring into the open mouth of the severed head held in a cradling palm, while two other streams on either side of the central one pour into the open mouths of hungry yoginis. Chhinnamasta appears to be the embodiment of the liberated dancing force of the kundalini, gaining both creative and nurturing power from the sexual act. She is free of inhibitions, as indicated by the position of woman on top in the sex act. There is great power and control in her deliberate and unhesitating act of self-sacrifice, and the three nourishing streams of blood represent the three major nadis involved in spiritual illumination—ida, pingala and sushumna. Sacrificing the head has not destroyed her, and she is shown as being herself nourished along with her two attendants. The curious imagery perhaps symbolises conscious and willing sacrifice of the ego and its conditioned or self-imposed limitations, bringing strength and growth in wisdom for self and others. As always in Indian iconography, the message is complex and multi-layered, and in the sense of Tantra, demanding resolution of the paradox of the horrific and the venerable within the same icon, which alone leads to the power of liberation. Essence of TantraSantosh Sachdeva, author and illustrator of books on her personal experience of working with the kundalini, asserts that Tantra is a lot more than our limited perception of what is supposedly practised by the Tantrikas in common lore. Tantra is all there is, she says, reaffirming, “Tantra is everywhere!” What she means, of course, is that the elements of Tantra are essentially built into all types of spiritual work on the yogic path of discipleship. She sees in meditation a Tibetan monk engrossed in smashan (cremation ground) sadhana, with the earth moving in the form a giant snake, which depicts the powerful force of kundalini. The smashan symbolises the borderland between life and death, and practising meditation there is a core practice at a particular stage in yogic sadhana. Santosh sees herself in a past life as a male sadhu in the unmani stage, oblivious to danger, laughing in pure bliss while pouring red-hot coals over his own head. Her present life may represent a blessed time out, enjoying the fruits of past karma involving rigorous asceticism, even while taking her sadhana to a different level of detached immersion. The point is that progress in discipleship involves Tantra, even though the core practices may be manageably split across different lifetimes as the soul evolves. This is especially true for women, when womanly decorum is important to being accepted as teachers and gurus, and breaking the codes of social acceptance is not quite de rigueur. Interestingly, some of my staid, elderly women friends who are themselves deeply and cerebrally into understanding spirituality as linked to personal experience, display a very positive attitude towards Tantra and its great importance for men and women sadhaks on the path. Consciousness EvolutionIf Tantra involves stretching, or expansion, then it is important to understand what it is that is being stretched here. I may conjecture that Tantra deals with techniques for body and mind expansion, that lead to a release of energy, and all the associated gifts that come along the process of growth in holistic consciousness and liberation. Removal of karmic knots and blockages in the energy channels, through repeated practice, are what bring about release of energy for the male or female sadhak, in a finely graduated manner under the watchful eye of a realised master. We are defined by our human limitations brought through karma and social conditioning in the broadest sense, within a rigid three-dimensional framework. Experience of the material world through our five physical senses, and the development of a healthy ego that permits what we do to get ahead in the course of living, inform the parameters of manageable existence. In modern living, it is the ego that is the king, and the mind—which sharply etches the ego—the overall master. The mind survives on the basis of narrowness and illusion, and rides on defence mechanisms that seek to manage the overwhelming chaos in one’s environment. The splitting of experience into polar opposites, serves as a handy tool to make sense of the chaos: I against you, good against evil, right against wrong, black against white, negative against positive, and so on. In the processes of conditioning and socialization, personal energy is channeled through socially acceptable furrows, keeping life straightforward and manageable for the individual and society, from birth to death. A simple enough scheme, quite in contrast to the complex and multidimensional web of existence, especially now in the 21st century, when every bit of energy you can garner in your life is not enough to cope with the challenges of making a successful life, and also to make sense of the ever-growing chaos out there. And then we turn to yoga, as a holistic knowledge-based system, which brings the guaranteed release of energy and empowerment in our lives, to help us combat in active and dynamic terms the creeping sense of apathy, helplessness, victimhood and fear of failure. Tantra, an essential part of yoga, and vice versa, simply means ‘technique’ in vernacular, and appropriately so because it gives the practical methodology for removal of energy blocks, release of energy and empowerment in the life of the sadhak. I have come to an appreciation of Tantra as an ancient, de-gendered system of integrated knowledge and practice on the path of spiritual evolution. Women AdeptsDeconditioning from social prescriptions of behaviour, including taboos, is a powerful means of energy release and empowerment in Tantra, and if this is so for men, it is much more so for women for whom, suppression and repression from cradle to grave is a defining quality of life. While for men, very often the act of breaking taboos is seen as a matter of outstanding bravura, it is severely frowned upon in the case of women. Thus in the case of Swami Samartha Ramdas, his alertness in running away from the marriage altar to take up sanyas upon hearing the warning cry of ‘Savadhan!’ (‘be careful’), is a highly celebrated act. On the other hand, it was the fate of the Afghan woman saint of Pune, Hazrat Baba Jaan, to be hounded and exiled from her homeland for her refusal to enter into matrimony, reviled for bringing shame and dishonor upon her family. Similarly, take the instance of Meera’s unworldly devotion to Krishna, put to severe test in an uncompromising milieu. There have been women adepts in Tantra and yoga since ancient times, Parvati being the first disciple of Shiva, ‘the king of yoga’. However, there are practically no pointers on the special process of training and indoctrination for women, despite the clear awareness that there are few bars to formal training in Tantra. In the case of women adepts, often their status of power has been a closely guarded secret, if only to ward off interference in their on-going sadhana, and the search for such yoginis remains an elusive task to this day. Immensely gifted women saints immersed in domestic routine like Janabai, Muktabai and Bahinabai in Maharashtra are known to this day for their illuminating verse, no less than realised masters like Dnyaneshwar and Namdeo. Yogananda mentions in his Autobiography of A Yogi the 14th century ‘sky clad’ Lalla Yogiswari (‘supreme mistress of yoga’), considered one of the patron saints of Kashmir. He has also referred to Shankari Mai Jiew, trained from ea
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