By Sushma Amatya
Tantric traditions have survived and are being kept alive by adepts and practitioners in Nepal today. Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu is a significant center of tantra worship.
Nepal, especially the Kathmandu Valley, has been a nodal point of Tantra worship since ancient times. Even today, Tantra practice is alive in temples like the Pashupatinath in Kathmandu. It has been mentioned in Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda that Pashupati is a form of Shiva, a principal deity of Tantric worship. Pashu means the animalistic tendencies in a being, and pati, the lord who liberates beings from their base nature, frees the beings from shackles that bind them down, according to Dr Govind Tandan in Cultural Studies of Pashupati.
During the worship of Shiva Pashupatinath, certain Tantric rites are involved. Sri Yantra, the main symbol of Tantra, is used in the worship of the lord, says Dr Tandan, who earned his doctorate in the study of Pashupatinath. According to him, Tantric rites are particularly significant during a special ceremony called Pancha Bali, a sacrificial ritual that is offered to Bhairav (a Tantric deity). During the ritual, a raw piece of thread is taken from the sacrificial ceremony and offered to Pashupatinath.
Myths and Legends
Myths and holy texts (shastras) speak of the self-manifestation of the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu in Nepal. In Gopalraj Bansawali, it is mentioned that a cow taken for grazing in the area where the temple stands today would go and offer all her milk on a raised spot. Blinding rays of light emanated when the place was dug, and such was their intensity that everyone on the spot was annihilated. A sage recognized the light, covered the place and a lingam with five faces was established on the spot where the light of Shiva was believed to have revealed itself. Believers maintain that the original self-emanated lingam lies right below where the main temple stands today.
The Hyumath Khanda of the Pashu-pati Purana mentions that Vishnu himself covered the light with the present lingam. There are other versions of this manifestation. During the time of the Mahabharata, this site was described as Maheswarpur. It is cited in various texts that Pashupati has been worshiped since Vedic times, says Dr Tandan.
The five faces of the Pashupatinath lingam depict five elements of life, and each face has its own significance. The eastward face is called Tatpurush, the one facing south is called Aghor, the one facing north is called Bamdev (also known as Uma Maheswara), and the one facing west is called Saddhyojat (also known as Barun). The face on top is called Ishan and doesn’t have any features. This face is considered the most important among the five faces. It is said that this aspect of Shiva is least understood by mortal minds.
In ancient Tantric texts, the face that’s not visible, the one that faces downwards, is referred to as Kalangi Rudra. The Jalahari or the base signifies Parvati or Shakti. This symbolism has been misinterpreted crudely as symbols of mere procreation in human terms, says Dr Tandan. Because of its unique history, Pashupatinath is held in high regard and the site is considered one of the main pilgrimages of Hindus. It is said that the 33 crore Hindu deities are all embodied in the Shiva lingam. Devotees of Shiva flock to this temple once a year on the day of Shivaratri, the day that holds great significance for Shiva worshippers from all communities and sects.
The Mul Bhatta (main priest) of the Pashupatinath temple along with four priests daily performs a six-hour-long pooja (worship with rituals) inside the temple, which involves Tantra, mantra and yantra, and other Vedic rites.
Aghora has long been a source of much curiosity and speculation among lay people. It worships the Aghora aspect of Pashupatinath, the one who is so peaceful and at the same time can assume the most terrifying forms. The practitioners are known as Aghori Babas in Nepal.
One such ascetic, who lives by the ghats of the Pashupatinath Temple is Yogi Raj Tyagi Nath Aghori Baba, whose guru was Yogi Raj Ram Nath Aghori Baba of the Gorakhnath sect. This livewire of a man is in his mid-70s and lives by the Bhasmeshwar Ghat of the Pashupatinath temple.
Says Tyagi Nath, “Tantra consists basically of formulae, a way to go from ignorance to light. The word Aghori is actually ‘Oghori’, which means one who wishes to go to Paramatma (the Supreme One). People began calling the practitioners of Oghori as Aghori as they do not discriminate in eating and drinking; as for Oghori there is no difference between nectar and poison or between friends and enemies.” Tyagi Nath is a vegetarian, doesn’t imbibe intoxicants and uses his time preparing ayurvedic medicines for those who come to him seeking cure for various ailments. He also works for the maintenance of the ghat and he says that is his way of being of use to the people who come there to cremate their dead.
Robert E. Svoboda says in his book, Aghora: At the Left Hand of God: “Aghora is the apotheosis of Tantra…whose supreme deity is the mother goddess….Tantra has thus far been glimpsed in the West only in its most vulgar and debased forms, promulgated by unscrupulous scoundrels who equate sex with superconsciousness. Sex is indeed central to Tantra, the cosmic sexual union of universal dualities. The aim of Tantra is Laya, return of the seeker to the state of undifferentiated existence. Actually Tantra cannot be termed a religion because it is bereft of tenets and dogma. It consists only of methods for achieving this Laya or union of the individual with the infinite. This union is described with a sexual metaphor: the union of the personal ego (which is the female) with the absolute (male).’
The Aghora aspect of Shiva is put succinctly in this prayer: ‘The world considers You inauspicious, O Destroyer of Lust who plays in the smashan smeared with the ash from funeral pyres, wearing a necklace of human skulls, with ghouls for comrades. But for those who remember You with devotion, O Bestower of Boons, You are supremely auspicious.’—Shiva Mahima Stotra, 24.
Kathmandu valley forms the centre of an old civilization that holds in its nooks and corners innumerable myths, temples and practitioners who are steeped in the tradition of Tantra and are well versed in it. One of them is Bidya Nath Upadhyaya, acharya of Sanskrit from Banaras Hindu University who specializes in Nabyanyaya (Eastern logic). He grew up in a Tantric tradition founded by his forefather Lambakarna, who practised Shaiva Tantrism. Lambakarna was a close friend of another renowned Tantrik of Nepal, Jamna Guvaju, who practiced the Buddhist form of Tantra.
Bidya Nath has researched widely in this field after he retired as dean of Tribhuvan University and rector of Sanskrit University in Kathmandu. He has edited Tantra Chintamani and also written many articles on Tantra.
He says, ‘Tantra Shastra, also called Agama, was recited by Shiva, heard by Parvati (his consort) and accepted by Vishnu. Shiva was the origin of this knowledge. For the benefit of mankind, Shiva created ten Shaiva Agama, 18 Bhairav Agama, and 64 Tantra Agama that were handed down through the guru-disciple tradition. With time, there evolved many subdivisions of the Agama and for many, Tantra Shastra came to be reduced to mere worshiping and pleasing gods for personal benefit.’
Bidya Nath adds, ‘Tantra is a lifestyle, the main goal of which is salvation of one’s soul. Tantra says God exists everywhere. It inspires one to lead a pure life and leads one to the realization of the self as having a separate existence from one’s body. A true Tantrik knows no fear. To practice Tantra, one has to take diksha or dekha (in Newari, indigenous language of Kathmandu) from an accomplished teacher.
‘A beej mantra, that means power with the potential of God; is given to a disciple according to his nature and level of understanding. A yantra is used to establish God, to imagine the presence of God in the yantra and yoga is used to control mind, for the mind can both trap and liberate.’
Bidya Nath says that the Vedic form of worship places a limitation on people according to their birth, but Tantra is open to all. Everybody has a right to it. ‘Different gods, goddesses and ways of worship are adopted by people of different natures, according to their needs. But it is accepted and understood that God is one supreme existence.’
Today, the mere mention of Tantra seems to evoke a sense of fear born out of ignorance and because of rampant exploitation by charlatans. It is no different here in the ancient valley that’s being rapidly overtaken by commercialism, but if you seek you do find genuine practitioners who use their knowledge to help others. Bashudev Rajopadhyay, a retired school principal, is one such person. He practices Tantra to help people overcome their personal problems. His grandfather was a well-known Tantrik of his times, as was his father.
Bashudev says he helps those who seek him out to overcome physical, mental and emotional problems. According to him, Tantra has got a bad name due to many who misuse it for short-term gains and because it is misunderstood by people who don’t understand it’s essence. ‘Tantra used in a negative way can be very dangerous,’ he warns.
A few aging reticent teachers and even fewer sincere students makes this ancient science seem even more elusive and inaccessible. Says Sarbeswar Satpathy in his book Dasa Mahavidya and Tantra Shastra, ‘In order to understand the Tantras with all their varied aspects as a secret doctrine, one has to hold the key from a learned expert…Tantra is like a secret house-bride. The key to the method has been with the initiate and it is this initiate who can bring home the technical character of terminology of Tantra Shastra and an attempt to understand them by a common or general understanding would make the matter more complex due to the esoteric character of the rituals and the extent of the peculiar traditions known as Amnayas and various Acharas which are technical and not easily intelligible to the common masses.’
Tantra was a way of life in Nepal in the yesteryears. Ancient cities in the Kathmandu valley were designed in such a way that the gods surrounded the cities and people lived in the center, protected by them. A bird’s eye view would show that a city would be shaped like a khadga (sword) or some other shape with a meaning behind it.
There still exist many sites of Tantric worship in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan (the three cities inside Kathmandu valley), and the deities worshipped here include Taleju, Shyama Kali, Bhairav, Swet Kali, Kankeswari, Rakta Kali, Shoba Bhagwati, Machali, Raja Rajeswari, Dakshin Kali, Guheswori, Bhadra Kali, Nardevi, Sankata, Mahankal, Palanchowk Bhagawati, Kal Bhairav, Akash Bhairav, to mention a few. All the temples have their significant days and deities are worshiped here by devotees throughout the year.
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