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....

Chapter XIII - Sarvānandanātha

[Reprinted from The Hindustan Review, Vol. 41, January 1920.]

THE Sarvollāsa, a copy of which came into my possession some three years ago, is a rare MS. It is a Saṃgraha by the Sarvavidyāsiddha Sarvānandanātha, who, though celebrated amongst the Bengal followers of the Āgama, is, I should think, almost unknown to the general public. There is a life in Sanskrit of Sarvānandanātha entitled Sarvānandataranginī by his son Śivanātha in which an account of the attainment of his Siddhi is given and I am indebted in respect of this article to a short unpublished memoir by Sj. Dinesha Chandra Bhattācārya, formerly Research Scholar, who as a native of Tipperah has had the desire to see Sarvānandanātha’s place in the History of the so-called “Tāntricism” in Bengal duly recognized.

It is said that Sarvānanda had striven for Siddhi for seven previous births and a verse preserves the names of the places where he died in these successive lives. His grandfather Vāsudeva originally lived at Purvasthali in the Burdwan district but was led by a divine call to Mehar in Tipperah where in ages past Mātaṅga Muni had done Tapas. A deep hole is still shown as being of Mātaṅga’s time. It is also said that round about the place where Sarvānandanātha performed his Śavasādhanā, adept Sādhakas even now discover the hidden Liṅga establihsed by Mātaṅga marked out by equally hidden barriers of Kīlakas.

Vāsudeva then went to Kāmākhyāwhere he died after undergoing severe Tapas. He left his son at Mehar who himself afterwards had a son, the grandson of Vāsudeva. In fact it is said that the grandfather Vāsudeva was reborn as the son of his own son, that is, as Sarvānanda. In early life the latter was stupid and illiterate. He was sharply rebuked by the local Rajah for his ignorance in proclaiming a New Moon day to be Full Moon day. Being severely punihsed by his relatives he determined to begin his letters and went out to search for the necessary palm-leaves. There in the jungle he met a Sannyasi, who was Mahādeva himself in that form and who whispered in his ear a Mantra and gave him certain instructions. His servant Puna was an advanced Sādhaka, who had been psychically developed under Vāsudeva. Puna separating the subtle (Sūkṣmadeha) from the gross body, served as a corpse on the back of which Sarvānanda performed Śavasādhanāand attained Siddhi that same new moon night on which to the amazement of all a perfct moon shone over Mehar. This full moon episode is probably the most famous of Sarvānanda’s wonders.

Some time after Sarvhnanda left Mehar after having given utterance to the curse that his own family would die out in the 22nd, and that of the local chief in the 15th generation. This last announcement is said to have come true as the Rajah’s descendant in the fifteenth generation actually died without issue, though the family survives through his adopted son. Sarvānanda started for Benares but stopped at Senhati in Jessore where he was compelled to marry again and where he lived for some years. His place of worship at Senhati is still shown. At the age of 50 he went to Benares with his servant Puna and nephew Sadānanda. At Benares the Śaiva Dandins were then, as now, predominant. He quarrelled with them, or they with him, on account of his doctrines and practice.

In return for their treatment of him he to their awe and possibly disgust converted (so it is said) their food into meat and wine. Of course the Benares Dandins, as is usual in such case, give a different amount of the matter. Their tradition is that, after a Śāstric debate, Sarvānanda was convinced by the Dandins that the Siddhi which he boasted of was no real Siddhi at all and was then made a convert to their own doctrines, which is the most satisfactory of all results for the men of piety who wrangle with others and try to make them come over to their views. It is worthy of note how quarrelsome in all ages many of the pious and wonder-workers have been. But perhaps we do not hear so much of the quieter sages who lived and let others live, diffusing their views not amongst those who were satisfied with what they knew or thought they knew, but among such as had not found and therefore sought.

After this event Sarvānanda disappeared from Benares which rather points to the fact that the Dandins did not acquire a distinguished adversary for their community. Tradition is silent as to what happened to him later and as to the date and place of his end.

Sj. Dinesh Chandra Bhattācārya has made for me a calculation as to the date of Sarvānanda’s Siddhi which fell on a Pauśa Saṃkrānti corresponding to Chaturdasi or Amāvāsya falling on a Friday. Between 1200 and 1700 A.D. there are three dates on which the above combination took place, viz., 1342, 1426 and 1548 A.D. The first date is too early as 15 or 16 generations, to which his family descends at present, does not carry us so far back. The last date seems too late. For according to tradition Jānakīvallabha Gurvvācārya, himself a famous Siddha, and fifth in descent from Sarvānanda, was a contemporary of one of the “twelve Bhuiyas” of Bengal late in the reign of Akbar (circ. 1600 A.D.). The date 1426 A.D. is therefore adopted. It will thus appear that he lived about a century before the three great Bengal Tāntrikas, namely, Krishānanda, Brahmānanda and Purnānanda, all of whom are of the 16th century. But this calculation has still to be verified by data culled from an examination of the Sarvollāsa such as the authorities which its author cites.

This last work, I am told, is that by which he is best known. Two other short Tātrika worb are ascribed to a Sarvānanda though whether it is the same Siddha is not certain. There is, I am told, a Navārnapūjapaddhati by Sarvānandanātha in a MS. dated 1668 Vikramābda in the Raghunāth Temple Library in Kashmir and another work the Tripurārchanadīpikā is reported from the Central Provinces.

As is usual in such cases there is a legend that Sarvānanda is still living by Kāyavyuha in some hidden resort of Siddha-puruṣas. The author of the memoir from which I quote, tells of a Sādhu who said to my informant that some years ago he met Sarvānandanātha in a place called Champakāranya but only for a few minutes, for the Sādhu was himself miraculously wafted elsewhere.

Some very curious reading of deep interest to the psychologist, the student of psychic phenomena and the historian of religions is to be found in the stories which are told of Sādhus and Siddhas of Sarvānanda’s type who, whether they did all that is recounted of them or not, yet lived so strangely, as for instance, to take another case, that of Brahmānanda the author of the Śāktānandatarangini who, going in his youth in quest of a prostitute, found in the house he entered and in the woman who came to him his own mother, herself the victim of a Mussulman ravisher. It was the horror of this encounter which converted his mind and led him to hecome a Sādhu, during which life he did Dhyāna in the body of a dead and rotting elephant and the other things related of him. They await collection. But when their value has been discovered possibly these traditions may have disappeared. Even if all the facts related of these Sādhus and Siddhas were the work of imagination (and whilst some of them may be so, others are in all probability true enough) they are worth preservation as such. The history of the human mind is as much a fact as anything which is reverenced because it is “objective.” This last class of fact is generally only the common experience. It is attractive, yet sometimes fearsome, to follow the mind’s wanderings both in the light and in that curious dark, which only explorers in these paths know. If one does not lose one's way (and in this lies a peril) we emerge with a confidence in ourselves at having paseed a test—a confidence which will serve our future. In any case as I have said there is an opportunity of research for those whose workings are in the outer crust of mere historical fact.

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