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 XXII - Vedānta and Tantra Śāstra

[Speech at the Meeting held in Calcutta on the Anniversary of Swavi Vivekānanda on 28th January 1917.]

WHEN your representative asked me to speak this even ing, he suggested to me as my subject, that Śāstra which is a practical application of the Vedāntic teaching. Mere talk about Vedānta is nothing but a high form of amusement. If more than this is to be achieved, definite Sādhanā is necessary. In the grand opening chapter of the Kulārṇava Tantra it is said:—“In this world are countless masses of beings suffering all manner of pain. Old age is waiting like a tigress. Life ebbs away as it were water from out of a broken pot. Disease kills like enemies. Prosperity is but a dream; youth is like a flower. Life is seen and gone like lightning. The body is but a bubble of water. How then can one know this and yet remain content? The Jīvātmā passes through lakhs of existence, yet only as man can he obtain the truth. It is with great difficulty that one is born as man. Therefore, he is a selfkiller who, having obtained such excellent birth does not know what is for his good. Some there be who having drunk the wine of delusion are lost in world pursuits, reck not the flight of time and are moved not at the sight of suffering. There are others who have tumbled in the deep well of the Six Philosophies—idle disputants tossed on the bewildering ocean of the Vedas and Śāstras. They study day and night and learn words. Some again, overpowered by conceit, talk of Unmani though not in any way realizing it. Mere words and talk cannot dispel the delusion of the wandering. Darkness is not dispelled by the mention of the word ‘lamp.’ What then is there to do? The Śastras are many, life is short and there are a million obstacles. Therefore should their essence be mastered just as the Haṃsa separates the milk from the water with which it has been mixed.”

It then says that knowledge alone can gain liberation. But, what is this knowledge, and how may it be got? Knowledge in the Śāstric sense is actual immediate experience (Sākṣātkāra), not the mere reading about it in books, however divine, and however useful as a preliminary such study may be.

How then to gain it? The answer is, by Sādhanā—a term which comes from the root “to exert.” It is necessary to exert oneself according to certain disciplines which the various religions of the world provide for their adherents. Much shallow talk takes place on the subject of ritual. It is quite true that some overlook the fact that it is merely a means to an end. But it is a necessary means all the same. This end cannot be achieved by merely sitting in Padmāsana and attempting to meditate on the Nirguṇa Brahman. One may as well try to seize the air with a pair of tongs. How then may the Vedāntic truth be realized? The Indian Śāstra purports to give the means for the Indian body and mind. What Śāstra? Not the Karmakaṇḍa of the Vedras, because with the exception of a few hardly surviving rites, such as Homa, it has passed away. The actual discipline you will find in the Tantras of the Āgamas.

I prefer the use of this term to that of “the Tantra,” now so common, but which has risen from a misconception and leads to others. Tantra means injunction (Vidhi) or regulation (Niyama) or treatise, i.e., simply Śāstra. Thus Śaṃkara calls the Sāṃkhya “Tantra.” One cannot speak of “the Tantra” any more than one can speak of “the treatise.” We do not speak of the Puṛāṇa, the Saṃhitā, but of the Purāṇas and Saṃhitās. Why then speak of “the Tantra”? One can speak of the Tantras or Tantra Śāstra. The fact is that there is an Āgama of several schools, Śaiva, Śākta and Vaiṣṇava. Śiva and Śakti are one. The Śaiva (in the narrower sense) predominantly worships the right side of the Ardhanarīśvara Mūrti, the Śākta worships the left (Vāma or Śakti) side; the place of woman being on the left. The Vaiṣṇava Āgama is the famous Pañcarātra, though there are Tantras not of this school in which Viṣṇu is the Iṣṭadevatā. All Āgamas of whatever group share certain common ideas, outlook and practice. There are also certain differences. Thus, the Northern Śaivāgama which is called Trika and not “the Tantra” is, as is also the Śātkta Tantra, Advaita. The Southern Śaiva school which is called Śaiva Siddhānta and not “the Tantra,” as also the Vaiṣṇava Āgama or Pañcarātra (and not “the Tantra”) are Viśi ṣṭādvaita. There is some variance in ritual also as follows from variance in the I ṣṭadevatāworshipped. Thus, as you all know, it is only in some forms of worship that there is animal sacrifice, and in one division, again, of worshippers, there are rites which have led to those abuses which have gained for “the Tantra” its ill fame. A person who eats meat can never, it is said, attain Siddhi in the Śiva Mantra according to Dakṣinopāsana. Each one of these schools has its own Tantras of which there were at one time probably thousands. The Śaiva Siddāinta speaks of 28 chief Tantras or Āgamas with many Upatantras. In Bengal mention is made of 64. There are numerous Tantras of the Northern Śaiva school of which the Mālinīvijaya and Svacchanda Tantras are leading examples. The original connection between the Śaiva schools of North and South is shown by the fact that there are some books which are common to both, such as the Mātaṅga and Mṛgendra Tantras. The Pañcarātra is composed of many Tantras, such as Lakṣ ̣ mīand Padma Tantras and other works called Saṃhītas. In the Commentary to the Brahma Saṃhīta which has been called the “essence of Vaiṣṇavism,” you will find Jīva Gosmami constantly referring to Gautamīya Tantra. How then has it come about that there is the ignorant notion that (to use the words of an English work on Tibetan Buddhism) “Tantras is restricted to the necromantic books of the later Shivaic or Shakti mysticism”? I can only explain this by the fact that those who so speak had no knowledge of the Tantras as a whole, and were possibly to some extent misled by the Bengali use of the term “the Tantra,” to denote the Śākta Tantras current in Bengal. Naturally, the Bengalis spoke of their Tantras as “the Tantra,” but it does not follow that this expression truly represents the fact. I might develop this point at great length but cannot do so here. I wish merely to correct e common notion.

Well, it is in these Tantras or the Āgamas that you will find the ritual and Sādhanā which governs the orthodox life of the day, as also in some of the Purāṇas which contain much Tāntrik ritual.

I am not concerned to discuss the merits or the reverse of these various forms of Sādhanā. But the Āgama teaches an important lesson the value of which all must admit, namely:—mere talk about Religion and its truths will achieve nothing spiritual. There must be action (Kriyā). Definite means must be adopted if the truth is to be realized. The Vedānta is not spoken of as a mere speculation as some Western Orientalists describe it to be. It claims to be based on experience. The Āgamas say that if you follow their direction you will gain Siddhi. As a Tibetan Buddhist once explained to me, the Tantras were regarded by his people rather as a scientific discovery than as a revelationthat is, something discovered by the self rather than imparted from without. They claim to be the revealed means by which the Tattva or other matters may be discovered. But the point is, whether you follow these directions or not, you must follow some. For this reason every ancient faith has its ritual. It is only in modern times that persons with but little understanding of the subject have thought ritual to be unnecessary. Their condemnation of it is based on the undoubted abuses of mechanical and unintelligent devotion. But because a thing is abused it does not follow that it is itself bad.

The Āgama is, as a friend of mine well put it, a practical philosophy, adding what the intellectual world wants most to-day is this sort of philosophy—a philosophy which not merely argues but expriments. He rightly points out that the latest tendency in modern Western philosophy is to rest upon intuition, as it was formerly the tendency to glorify dialectics. But, as to the latter “Tarkapratishthānāt,” intuition, however, has to be led into higher and higher possibilities by means of Sādhanā, which is merely the gradual unfolding of the Spirit’s vast latent magazine of power, enjoyment, and vision which every one possesses in himself. All that exists is here. There is no need to throw one’s eyes into the heavens for it. The Viśvasūra Tantra says, “What is here is there: what is not here is nowhere.” As I have said, I am not here concerned with the truth or expediency of any particular religion or method (a question which each must decide for himself), but to point out that the principle is fully sound, namely, that Religion is and is based on spiritual experience, and if you wish to gain such experience it is not enough to talk about or have a vague wish for it, but you must adopt some definite means well calculated to produce it. The claim of the Āgama is that it provides such means and is thus a practical application of the teaching of the Vedānta. The watchword of every Tāntrik is Kriyā—to be up and doing. You will find in the useful compilation called Yatidharmanirnaya that even Dandins of Śaṃkara’s school follow a Tāntrik ritual suited to their state. In fact all must act who have not achieved.

This leads me to say a word on the Svāmi in whose honour we meet to-day. He was always up and doing. The qualities I most admire in him are his activity, manliness and courage. There are still Indians (though fortunately not so numerous as there were when I first came to India now getting on for 30 years ago) who seem to be ashamed of and would apologize for their life, customs, race, art, philosophy and religion and so forth. The Svāmi was not of this sort. He was, on the contrary, amongst the first to affirm his Hindu faith and to issue a bold challenge to all who attacked it. This was the attitude of a man. It is also a manly attitude to boldly reject this faith if after fully studying and understanding it you find that the doctrines it preaches do not commend themselves to your reason. For we must, at all cost, have intellectual, as well as every other form of honesty. But this is another thing from the shame-faced apology of which I speak and which is neither one thing nor another. The Svāmi spoke up and acted. And for this all must honour him who, whatever be their own religious beliefs, value sincerity, truth and courage which are the badge of every nobility. And so I offer these few words to his memory which we all here, either by our speech or presence, honour to-day.

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