Shakti and Shakta

by John Woodroffe | 1929 | 243,591 words

A collection of papers and essays addressing the Śakti aspect of the Śākta school of Hindu philosophy by John Woodroffe, also known as Arthur Avalon....

Preface to Second Edition

THIS present edition is practioally a new work, for I have revised and added to all the original Chapters and written six new ones (1, 5, 6, 10, 14 and 15). Seven of the original Chapters embodied a set of Lectures delivered before, and at the request of, the Vivekānanda Society in Calcutta, a circumstance which will explain both the manner of them as also the “Conclusions” with which the volume closes.

These Lectures and other collected papers traverse new ground in the Literature of Indian Reborn, for they are the first attempt to give an authenticated and understanding general account, from the Indian standpoint, of the chief features of the Doctrine and Practice of that class of Indian worshippers who are called Sāktas, that is, those who adore the Divine Power (Mahāśakti) as Mahādevī, the Great Mother (Magna Mater) of the universe. As this religious community shares in common with others certain principles and practices, the work is also necessarily an account of the worship and spiritual disciplines called Sādhanāwhich, in varying forms, are adopted by all communities of Indian worshippers (Sādhakas) governed by the Āgama and its numerous scriptures called Tantras. These Shāktas are to be found all over India, but are largely predominant in Bengal and Assam, in which former Province I have lived for about the last thirty years, and with the belief of whose people therefore I am more closely acquainted than with any other. And this, in part, accounts for the fact that I deal with their faith. Their doctrine and practice have not hitherto been understood and have been ill-spoken of, due to abuses which have occurred among the members of some sections of the community. If, then, I have succeeded in giving in this and other works a just account of the Scripture, and in reducing such evil as has been charged against some of its adherents to its right proportions, I shall be glad to have been in a position to make some small return to a Land which, more than any other, has been my home: and to which I am, in manifold ways, indebted.

Though, as I said in the last edition, I rate highly Śākta doctrine and (with some exceptions) Śākta rituals, I do not commit myself to the acceptance of everything which any Śākta may have held or done. And though I have furnished argument in favour of this much-abused faith and practice, I am not here concerned to establish the truth and rightness of either. It is sufficient, for my present purpose to show that it is reasonable, and that neither it, nor “the Tantra” is the absurd and altogether immoral thing which some have supposed it to be. My attitude is an objective one. I have endeavoured to explain my subject as simply and lucidly as the recondite matters treated of allow, from an entirely detached and unprejudiced standpoint.

In giving an account of lndian beliefs and practices, we, who are foreigners, must place ourselves in the skin of the Hindu, and must look at their doctrine and ritual through their eyes and not our own. It is difficult, I know, for most to do this: but until they can, their work lacks real value. And this is why, despite their industry and learning, the accounts given by Western authors of Eastern beliefs so generally fail to give their true meaning. Many, I think, do not even make the attempt. They look at the matter from the point of view of their own creed, or, (what is much worse), racial prejudice may stand in the way of the admission of any excellence or superiority in a coloured people. The method I follow is that of the Indian commentator, who, for the nonce, adapts himself to the standpoint of the doctrine which he explains. I mention this because two of my critics seem to think that my object is to establish the superiority of this particular form of Vedāntik teaching over others. One may, of course, have one’s personal preferences, but it is not my object here to establish the superiority of any school of Indian thought. This is a matter which each will decide for himself. One of these critics has said, “The Tantras are claimed to be the specific Śāstra for the. Kaliyuga by the Tāntriks. Mr. Avalon seems to have taken these latter at their own valuation; and this has considerably influenced his whole estimate of these books as Śāstras or authorities on the Hindu system. In doing so, he has fallen into a series of curious errors in regard to other and particularly the Vaiṣṇavic denominations.” This criticism which was passed on one of my earlier books has been repeated as regards this. What these errors are my critics have not told me. I did not intend to deal, nor am I aware of having dealt, with the Vaiṣṇava system beyond pointing out in the most general way that there is a Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva as well as a Śākta Āgama. I have criticized neither this nor the Śaiva Āgama, both of which schools are also of high value. Though the instructed Western reader is aware that there are other interpretations of Vedānta besides that of Śaṃkara, many write as if the Vedānta meant his Māyāvāda. This is not so. Vedānta is Upaniṣad of which there are varying interpretations. Each has certain merits and certain defects, as must necessarily be the case when we apply logic to that which is alogical. Indeed the point which I took, and which I had hoped I had made plain was this—Tantra Śāstra does not simply mean the Śākta Tantra. The latter is only one division of Āgama which has to-day three main schools, Śākta, Śaiva, and Vaiṣṇava. There are certain things common to all. There are certain matters wherein they differ. When it is said that the Tantra Śāstra is the scripture of the Kali age, what is meant is that the Āgama in all its schools is that. There are some ancient schools of Vaiṣṇava Āgama such as the Pañcarātra, and there are comparatively modern developments of Vaiṣṇava teaching and practice such as that of the great Caitanya. “Tāntrik” does not mean only “Śākta”. This is the main error of these critics and others. Naturally, I have taken the Śāktas “at their own valuation,” for my object is not to show that they are right and others wrong, or the contrary, but to state what they, the Śāktas, hold. They alone can say this. A quarrelsome attitude as regards other creeds is the mark of a lower mind and of what the Śāktas call a Paśu. I believe a different position is assumed by all higher Sādhakas to whatever denomination they belong. Certainly a wide and liberal view is taken by the Śākta. The Sammohana Tantra (Ch. IX) says that “it is only a fool who sees any difference between Rāma and Śiva.” Each has his path which, if sincerely pursued, will procure for him the fruit of it. Whether some paths in the Indian or other Religions are better and surer than others, and gain for their followers greater fruit, I do not here discuss.

J. W.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: