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 Power
Suparna 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 Tantra
Santosh 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.
If 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.
Deconditioning 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 early childhood by the great Tailanga Swami of Varanasi. She spent most of her life as a brahmacharini (celibate woman seeker) in the Himalayan caves, coming out of seclusion every few years to attend the Kumbha Mela. Yogananda has also described Mataji (known to some as Lakshmi), the sister of Mahavatar Baba, who has attained immortality, being nearly as spiritually advanced as her brother. Little in actual fact is known about Bhairavi Brahmani, the Tantra guru of Ramakrishna Paramahansa. She is said to have been a learned Vedic scholar and a realized master of yoga, who tutored him through the ‘64 yogini’ path of Tantra.
Purusha and Prakriti
An important part of Tantra lies in understanding and coming to terms with the feminine energy of the universe, both for men and for women. It is understood in the broadest sense that Purusha or the Divine Supreme in its masculine form is an aspect of the fully realized soul, powerless and unattainable without its union with the dynamic feminine that arises out of matter in the universe, or Prakriti, with all her transformative potential. This is true for both genders.
There is a beautiful story that illustrates this to perfection. Meera, the medieval saint immersed in her love for Krishna, and already known far and wide for her spiritual attainment, sought out the chief of the Muth in Vrindavan during a celebrated visit to what is one of the main Vaishnav centres of India. The Muth chief sent a terse message, “I don’t see women!” Meera smiled sweetly, and sent her reply, “Who is the man here?” The simple answer served like a powerful shaktipat for the ‘lord of the ashram’, awakening him instantaneously from his drunken arrogance of spiritual authority. He came running to where she stood beyond the gates of the great hermitage, to fall at her feet in abject surrender. The meaning of her response was of course that ‘we are all women, as lovers of Krishna; his beloved gopis. So who is the man here, other than Krishna, the supreme realized soul?’
Yogananda also mentions a similar anecdote about Lalla Yogiswari of Kashmir who, when asked by a contemporary devotee about why she did not wear any clothes, replied that she saw no man around her!
Freeing the Feminine
In Tantra, the freeing of feminine energies is a dance that is conducted in smashan grounds beyond the pale of civilized society, in the borderlands between life and death, with all the attendant perils marking the liminal areas between sanity and madness, in association with disincarnate spirits and elementals that are part of existence in those realms.
What emerges through this understanding is the awareness that the yogic process must involve for men and women, a process of ‘re-ifying’ and honoring the feminine within from under deep overlays of negative social conditioning.
It contains many well-defined steps that may seem bizarre and outlandish to the casual observer, but inherently are a part of accepting, honoring and making your own, and thus deeply validating those aspects of the feminine self that are rejected and driven underground in the course of ‘civilization’. Without undergoing this training, there can be no liberation!
The same is true about the negation of sexual expression, as beautifully highlighted in the oft-repeated story of Adi Shankara, the celibate scholar and ascetic of great repute, having to acknowledge defeat in a debate with the wife of Mandana Mishra, since his knowledge of Advaita was incomplete without the experience of sex.
There are reported instances of male sadhaks completely donning the persona of a woman, in modes of dress and behavior, in order to validate the feminine within and experience oneness with the Goddess at all times. Swami Ram Baba (ex-Dewas) has described in his book the experience of living with one such advanced aspirant in the course of his trek up the mountain at Girnar.
Tantra, the genderless path to supreme knowledge, thus requires ultimately the full assimilation of the feminine within one’s psyche through powerful yogic rituals, in order to develop harmonious alignment with the feminine cosmic energies. Is it any surprise then that most realized masters seem to impress their followers with an unassuming gentleness that springs forth in authentic expression of a deeply compassionate and loving core?
Most followers subconsciously associate the guru with the exalted qualities of a mother, even while calling him ‘Baba’ or father. In Marathi, we find the interesting overt appellation of mauli or mother, so that the preceptor becomes guru mauli. Seeing the guru as the engendered feminine mother makes it easy for devotees to surrender to him free of all fears and worries like children. The woman guru, quite appropriately, also takes over the mantle of the mother, or simply, Mataji!
Goddesses of Tantra
Tantric Indian and Tibetan iconography apportions a terrifying and seemingly grotesque aspect to some of the goddesses that hold sway over Tantra, from among the Dasha Mahavidyas that are supposed to liberate the seeker through higher knowledge. Not all of them are in fact terrible, for they also include the beautiful and benign but independent goddesses like Shodashi, Bhuvaneshwari and Kamala. On the other hand, Kali, Tara, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Chhinnamasta, Bagalamukhi and Matangi display a terrible appearance, some naked with fangs bared, others with necklaces or girdles of human skulls and freshly severed arms. Some of them display mastery over the sexual act and sexual energies through associated images, while others are shown as being either devious or existing beyond the pale of civilization.
Jean Shinoda Bolen in her book Goddesses in Everywoman discusses the goddesses in the Greek and Roman legends as Jungian archetypes that can be introjected and assimilated within the psyche, serving as the bridge between powerlessness and power for women. Tantra has developed to perfection the art and the science of nyasa and prana pratishtha in ritual worship. Through these mechanisms, using a powerful visualization and chanting process, the sadhak undertakes projection techniques to imbue an idol or icon with the living breath of the worshiper; the divine and munificent qualities that spring to life are further invoked, introjected and assimilated in a counter process to welcome grace in one’s life.
It is interesting to see how the horrible-looking independent goddesses of the Shakta tradition (that worship the Supreme Goddess as Shakti) serve to create holistic awareness of the destructive potential of denied aspects of existence. The corresponding energies are driven into the smashans, having been set beyond social parameters. Such aspects include the feminine sexual fullness and power that is second to none, and forces of denial, decay and destruction. The feminine must then be fully reclaimed through fearless meditation in the midst of the destruction of the burning grounds! Through overcoming revulsion and fear, the sadhak attains release of repressed energies, aligning with them in fact until they are fully acknowledged, honored and incorporated within the psyche on its journey towards wholeness. Paradoxically, the goddesses are adored as bringers of abundance, quick to please, and as granting boons for success in material life and happiness in family life. They destroy enemies of the sadhak, freeing him from ignorance and evil.
Nothing represents the negative rasas of bhaya, raudra and bibhatsa more than the imagery used for the goddesses of Tantra. Honoring and validating their primacy to all existence takes the sadhak beyond the limits of ‘acceptable knowledge’ to the greater knowledge of reality and a state of cosmic oneness. A comparable vision is of the terrifying cosmic form displayed to Arjuna by Krishna in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Women and Liberation
An unvalidated facet of women’s lives in literature on spirituality concerns the crossing of deeply-ingrained civilizational taboos in the natural course of different life-stages. Thus the menstruating woman overcomes trauma related to bloodshed and its management; the virginal bride surrenders to sexual violation after laying to rest long-held taboos against sex; the mother has to clean nappies and manage bodily wastes. There is the acceptance of the pain of childbirth, and an act of creation in deeply meaningful cooperation with the cosmic forces of creation, which, if consciously engaged in, can bring tremendous expansion in consciousness. In fact, often women do report powerful kundalini experiences during childbirth, as also out-of-body experiences.
Then comes menopause, which can be a powerful phase of release from conventional taboos related to menstruation, sex and childbearing. There is an unacknowledged increase in power for menopausal women. Many women have now begun to associate menopausal symptoms of heat in the body to the kundalini at last asserting her pre-eminence in the lives and affairs of women. Widowhood, at the end of the spectrum, represents traditional isolation that posits the woman beyond the pale of domestic respectability, and this stage too involves release through coming to terms with her own power, free from restrictions. This same can also be said of the woman who has suffered deep violation of her self and her energies through abuse, battering and rape. Under wise guidance, such a woman can come face-to-face with her own ultimate indestructability, and the release and power that Tantra can initiate in her life.
In the words of Clarissa Pinkola Estés, celebrated author of Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, ‘A woman who has lived a torturous life and delved deeply into it definitely has inestimable depth. Though she came to it through pain, if she has done the hard work of clinging to consciousness, she will have a deep and thriving soul-life and a fierce belief in herself regardless of occasional ego-waverings.’
Thus the Dasha Mahavidyas can be seen to represent different stages of women’s lives, from the munificent goddesses like the lush virgin Shodashi, the nurturing earth goddess Bhuvaneshwari, or the graceful bestower of abundance, Kamala, all the way to the sexually powerful yet self-sacrificing Chhinnamasta, and besides Kali and Tara, there is Bhairavi who governs death and decay, the deceitful Bagalamukhi, the widow Dhumavati, or the outcaste Matangi.
For women, to dwell on the energies represented by the Dasha Mahavidyas, and on their connection with areas of life and awareness they represent, brings about release and liberation on the path of wisdom. It is possible to reclaim power lost through repression, denial, vulnerability and victimhood by accessing these energies that are already aligned in the feminine mode, with lesser resistance and fearsome consequences than experienced by male sadhaks. Under the guidance of wise gurus, Tantra makes it possible to go beyond the destructive manifestation of energies and a move towards greater equanimity, wisdom, compassion, love and the innate qualities of womanly nurturance, for the benefit of the self and others.
In the final reckoning, these are the ruthless goddesses of fate who await at various crossroads of every woman’s life, and offer to help the serious aspirant cross the ocean of deceit and illusion, to reach the higher realms of truth, beauty and bliss. There comes a time in sadhana when the seeker has attained equanimity and is no longer swayed through ignorance, apathy, illusion, greed, jealousy, covetousness, guilt, fear and anger. There is no longer any carryover of negativity unconsciously accumulated across lifetimes of repression. There is no need left for the sadhak to project any aversions outwardly, and it is possible to face the goddesses with complete surrender as a child or lover. That is the greatest transformative moment, when the sadhak has stepped into the realm of the goddesses of power, having fully integrated the feminine within. This is when the man or woman sadhak becomes a yogi or a master.
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