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 XXX - The Āgamas and the Future

[The following is a reprint of a very understanding article in the Modern Review (February 1918), by Dr. James H. Cousines, reviewing the works on Tanta Śāstra then published by Arthur Avalon, which have been considerably added to during the last ten years.]

INDIA is at present experiencing the interesting sensa tion of a national revivaland, like all other such happenings, a national revival is no more confined to nationality or nationalism than a religious revival is confined to religion. Such phenomena in the course of human history have revealed themselves in retrospect as incursions of energy from the hidden sources of life, to which the circumstances of the time have given an adventitious bentand it is not always even certain that the physical location of such movements was their true home. This reminds me that Mr. G. K. Chesterton has remarked in his book on “The Victorian Age in English Literature,” with his usual inconsequential profundity, that, “towards the end of the eighteenth century, the most important event in English history happened in France.” That is to say, the upheaval in human consciousness and emotion called the French Revolution was far from being exclusively French in the scene of its operation or its results. It revolved the world over: it moved in Wordsworth and Byron and Shelley, and in the latter is carrying its influence, in democratic thought expressed with the force of compelling imagination, right into the coming times.

It will be the same with the Indian National Revival. Te extent to which it means a revival, or perhaps a revolution, for instance in European drama and poetry is a matter with regard to which positive prophecy may be safely indulged in by anyone who has come into contact with the stage and literature of the last twenty years in Great Britain and Ireland, and who has also touched not merely the outer side of the work of Rabindranath Tagore to which publishers and book-sellers have an eye, but the vital force that Yeats felt and communicated when he murmered the songs of “Gitānjali” through the streets of Dublin and along the country lanes of Normandy.

But, even within its own territory, the Indian National Revival cannot be restricted to the political interpretation of nationality. One listens instinctively for reverbarations in the arts, in science, in religion, and one is not disappointed. The Calcutta painters and the researches of Bose come readily to the mind. Religion, however, is not so obvious; and yet I am inclined to think that a series of stout books, and some slender ones, all bound in bright red covers, which have been growing in number on my bookshelf during the last four or five years, will be found in future to be not isolated literary phenomena, interesting translations for the Sanskrit scholar, but an integral and perhaps vitally important constituent of the revival. I refer to the series of translations of works on the Tantra Śāstra or Āgama, with introductions and commentaries, by Arthur Avalon. [Principles of Tantra, 2 vols.; Tantra of the Great Liberation; Hymns to the Goddess; Wave of Bliss; Greatness of Shiva. Tāntrik Texts, 6 vols. (containing Tantrābhidhāna, Ṣaṭcakranirūpaṇa, Prapañcaska in Kulacūdāmani, Kulārṇava, and Kālīvilāsa)Studies in Mantra Śāstra and various Essays.] The number of their cursory readers is probably small, the number of their students smaller stillbut I think these books will rank among the precious things of the first quarter of the twentieth century, in much the aame way as “The Secret Doctrine” of Madame Blavatsky and “The perfect Way” of Dr. Anna Kingsford ranked in the last quarter of the nineteenth.

My purpose in writing this note on the first translations of this venerable scripture into a European language is not to enter into exposition or criticism, but to express a few general thoughts of a Western mind which have arisen during a sympathetic reading of the translations and the discovery of their affinity with and satisfaction of a need, which is showing itself outside India, for a restatement of religious and philosophical principles that will be at once wider in their contact with the actual constitution of humanity, and more explicit in contrast with the current sentimentality and vagueness of Western doctrine and mawkish practice.

My first contact with the Tāntrik teaching was through a footnote in “The Voice of the Silence” in which Madame Blavatsky refened to several sects of “sorcerers” as being “all Tāntrikas.” The assumption that, since the sorcerers were all Tāntrikas, all Tāntrikas were therefore sorcerers, is not necessarily involved in the footnote as I now read it with greater knowledge and experience. In any case, even if Madame Blavatsky adopted a hostile attitude to the Tantra, as she adopted a hostile attitude to spiritualism, we have the example of her great successor, Mrs. Besant, who has bridged the gulf between Theosophy and Spiritualism—or perhaps more accurately, between Theosophists and Spiritualists in their mutual search for the realization of the inner worlds of faculty and experience; an example which encourages those who, in the increasing light of modern research to which the translations under consideration are a notable contribution, are impelled to seek for the great unities underlyiug all diversities of rehgious thought and experience, even though they may, like myself, have found their own path towards the centre along another radius of the vast circle of manifestation.

Apart altogether from the question of Vāmācāra, antinomianism or abuses of Śākta Tāntrik ritual within the bounds of the general morality (which ritual, after all, is only concerned with one portion of a vast Scripture governing not only the Vāmācāris, Śākta or otherwise, but other communities), the fact that some of the root principles and ideas as well as practices of Hinduism, ancient and modern, are contained in the Tāntrik Scriptures makes it incumbent on those who wish to understand fully the sigmficance and development of religion to rid themselves of pre-conceptions and to study these books, in which the translator endeavours to substitute an accurate statement of the facts for the “general statements by way of condemnation” which have been the only kind of literature on the Tantras heretofore in the English language. “The abuses of the commoner people,” he complains, “as time went on developed such proportions as to ultimately obscure all other matters in the Tantra, thus depriving them of that attention which is their due.” Unfortunately, it is just such developments that the purposely critical eye lights upon. It abuses Islam for the banalities of Mohurram festivities, ignoring the fact that tiger-dancing and sword feats have no more bearing on the teachings of Koran than “Blind man’s buff” at a Christmas party has on the Sermon on the Mount. The translator undertakes to show that behind ihe alleged “black magic and sensual rites,” there exists within the Tantra, “a high philosophical doctrine and the means whereby its truth may be realized through development,” and the student who is worthy of the name can hardly escape the conclusion that the translator has succeeded in his great and memorable work. Indeed, the success achieved on the purely expository side is all the time enhanced by the challenging phenomenon of a decried and abused Eastern scripture being championed with missionary ardour (albeit in the most judicial manner) by a writer whose name takes him outside India in race (though the suggestion of France in one magazine might be modified in front of Burne Jones’ unfinished picture of Arthur in Avalon), and who expresses the most ancient and profound truths in the most excellent of modern English. Mr. Kipling may try to put a big “barrage” between East and West on the surface of the earth, but apparently under the surface there may be passages and channels beyond his ken. Reincarnation may be a useful key.

The press criticisms in the West which followed the first publication of the translations offered an excellent example of that process of finding in a thing that which we are capable of finding, which is referred to in a nonTāntrik scripture as “the savour of life unto life or of death unto death.” Such journals as had been in touch with recent Western movements in the direction of cultivating the esoteric sense, not merely in mythological and theological matters, but in all relations of life—seeing layer upon layer of significance and analogy in the simplest of acts— welcomed the work on the strength of the percentage of wisdom which it disclosed, and notwithstanding a frankly observed percentage of matter which is unfamiliar, and therefore repugnant, to the Western mind.

But, there were other journals of the “literary” and “oriental” order, to which the surface value of a thing makes most appeal, which fixed their critical eyes on certain phases of the Tantra Śāstra. They found a spot on the sun, ignored the shining surface, and proceeded to prophesy worse than the plagues of Egypt, as a sequel to the publication of books on the Tantra.

To value this kind of criticism for what it is worth, one has only to imagine the effect of a first reading of certain portions of the Old Testament, on a simple follower of some gentle and peace-loving faith. If he was as verbally clever as he was forgetful, or perhaps ignorant, of human psychology, he would probably spend himself in a piece of parallel smartness” to that of the “Athenæum” thus:—“It appears that this Psalm of David is the first to be translated into English. Unfortunately the programme of similar enterprises projected by the translator deprives us of the hope that it might also prove the last.”

The objection of the “Athenæum” reviewer, to the publication of the Tantra Śāstra is that, in it, “we find the lofty conceptions of earlier and purer beliefs often almost entirely obscured by brainless hocus-pocus and debasing and sensual rites.” We may pass by the suggestion of hocuspocus with a reference to the illuminating circumstance that a man of the eminence of Edward Carpenter (in his recently published Autobiographical Notes) can see nothing but literary hocus-pocus in the prose of George Meredith. The calling up of the ghosts of the dead, or the evocation of unseen powers by mantra, may be hocus-pocus in the East: when it is done by the witch of Endor in the Hebrew scriptures it is quite another matter!

The objection of the non-Christian reader to certain of the Psalms of David and to certain incidents in his history, would probably be grounded on the blood-thirstiness of the poet, his claims to the monopoly of a Divine Power which seems more savage than divine, and a sensuality that had no qualms (until afterwards when found out) in stooping to conspiracy and lying, not to mention murder by proxy. This is not, of course, all that is to be said on the subject, but it is the parallel to the “Athenæum” attitude to the Tantra. The “Athenæum” would assert that the iniquities of the Psalmist were part of his human nature and the circumstances of his time, and did not invalidate the truth of Christian teaching, precisely as an apologist of the Tantras might claim that past abuses in the application of some general principles of the Śākta Śāstra do not touch their truth.

This attitude of exclusiveness on both sides is one of the inevitable things in human nature, and one of the most interesting of psychological problems. It is also the greatest bar to the unification of religion, and can only be undermined by scientific and rational advance, or overleaped by intuition which comes from spiritual experience. I remember well a quaint and much respected figure in Dublin university life, some twenty years ago, a Profeseor of Oriental Languages or something of the kind, whose name now eludes me. Indeed, my only memory of his personality is of a brown skin and a foreign head-dress. But I remember the impact which a reply of his to some teasing undergraduates made on me. They twitted him of heathen ignorance in worshipping a God with three heads. He smiled and said it was almost as bad as worshipping a God with three persons, a sly dig at their Trinitarianism which they did not anticipate, and which helped at least one searcher after truth a stage nearer his desire. It is easy for the Westerner to condemn the “heathen practice” of slaughtering goats in the Temple of Kālī, and it is equally easy for the Westerner to excuse the slaughtering, not for religious sacrifice but for appetite, of vast numbers of cattle and sheep; which is funny and very sad.

It is somewhere round this point that the twin globes of heterodoxy (“your ’doxy”) and orthodoxy (“my ’doxy”) revolve. There are reprehensible practices connected with Tāntrik observance; but honesty compels the recognition of the fact that every practice supposed to be encouraged by the Tantras with a view to the attainment of occult powers or spiritual illumination is duplicated outside Tāntrik observance, and with no other motive than self-gratification.

The difference in position seems to be this; Christianity (which is the nominal religion of the critics of Tantra in the West, and must therefore mainly be referred to) narrows itself to a counsel of perfection in conduct, and hence, since the true observers of Christ’s injunctions (“Recompense no man evil for evil”—illustrated by the Great War!) are in an obvious “microscopic minority,” reduces the participants in salvation to a small and choice company. Christianity, as ordinarily interpreted, puts an impassable gulf between the ideal and human nature. The Āgama, on the contrary, throws its circumference around the whole circle of human activity, and by linking every phase of conduct with religion, endeavours to lift conduct from stage to stage, not, as in non-Tāntrik observance, by focussing attention on the act itself, which only intensifies it, but by gradually raising consciousness which will, in due time, influence conduct. It includes worship with flesh-foods, intoxicants and sex, because it recognizes that these are inherent in certain stage of human development, and because it believes that they are more certain to be transcended through being associated with the religious idea, than through being left alone, or in an antagonistic relationship to religion. I am quite aware that this statement of the matter will shock any of my Western friends who happen to read these lines: it shocks the Nonconformist lobe of my own brain which had a quarter of a century of careful development. But I cannot ignore the phallic element involved in every Christian marriage ceremony, and I cannot forget the fragments of slaughtered and cooked animals that are on every weddingbreakfast table. It all depends on mental adjustments, and what the great educationist, Herbart, calls the “apperception masses” that spring into relationship in response to impacts from without. The Mahādevī herself anticipated the degrading tendency of human nature in the Kali Yuga, when she said to Śiva: “I fear, O Lord! that even that which thou hast ordained for the good of men will, through them, turn out for evil.” But it would be as foolish to attribute the debasement of the observance to the Tantra as a whole, as it would be to blame the gigantic slaughter and gluttony of Christmas on the teachings of Jesus Christ. He Himself commanded his followers to do all things in His Name: Tantra takes the all to its fullest extent.

We must not, however, allow ourselves to be lured into the very mistake which we are condemning, that is, the fixing of attention on that which is, in reality, only a fractional part of Tāntrik teaching and practice even in its Śākta form. It is enough to expose the falsity of the current attitude of criticism, and to point out that the Tantra, recognizing the spiritual gradations of human evolution, not only takes cognizance of the “debasing and sensual” aspects of human nature, and tries to elevate them through religion, but puts its severest condemnation on those who participate in the lower rites when in consciousness they belong to the higher levels of evolution.

It is this recognition of psychic distinctions that marks the Tantra as a scripture that will appeal more and more to the future. Science has passed inwards from the physical to the psychical, and it will draw religion with it in due time, and leave those systems outside that have not a psychological basis to their faith and practice. In this respect, the Āgamas present a contrast to Christianitynot that the kernel of Christianity does not come from the same hidden Tree as all the other great Religions, but the over-growths have, in the case of Christian faith and practice, obscured the implicits psychology of the system by sentimentality. The Tantra Śāstra, in this respect, also presents a contrast to that other venerable presentation of the relationship of Humanity to Divinity and the Universe, the Vedānta, not, however, in ultimates, but in method. “The Tantra,” as the editor says, “harmonises Vedāntic monism and dualism. Its purpose is to give liberation to the jiva by a method through which monistic truth is reached through the dualistic world.” That is to say, it accepts the principle of the One Absolute as the source and goal of evolution, but it focusses its attention on a point nearer human power, and substitutes for philosophical dissertation, practice based on knowledge of, and relation with the relative world, though with the Absolute as aim. It says to the spiritual athlete, “Your aim of' a development so harmonious that it will appear to be as one, is excellent, but you will not secure it by discussion or meditation merely: you must realize the actuality (if not the philosophical reality) of biceps and triceps, and descend to pushing against walls and moving yourself up and down on a piece of common iron stretched between two ordinary wooden supports.” It says, “Faith is good, but it is unwise to defer practice until faith is secure. Get to work, and faith will follow: and be more than mere faith”;—an injunction which is not far removed from the Christian commandment to the disciple to live the life and he shall know of the doctrine.

There is a further distinction which has to be marked. Simple religion, such as Christianity, removes God from His creation, and removes Him also from full contact with a complete humanity by speaking of Him as single-sexed, and so vitiating the whole superstructure of commentary and custom. Simple philosophy, on the other hand, reduces everything to abstraction. The Tāntrik teacher, however, declares: “It is as impossible to hold the firmament between a pair of tongs as it is to worship an attributeless Brahman by a mind with attributes.” Tantra replaces the attributeless as an object of cohtemplation, by Śakti (the Creative Energy in all its forms, personified as feminine) as an object of worship, and holds that the subtler aspects of Śakti can only be reached through Her physical and mantra forms.

Thus, the Tantra Shastra unites the religious and philosophic functions of human nature, by presenting a system which is in line with modern psychology in its recognition of human divergencies on the level and in the vertical, and which at the same time gives to human and extra-human powers the warmth and appeal of personality. It is as monotheistic as Christianity or Islam, notwithstanding the weird kind of propagandist arithmetic that taught me in my ignorant youth that Hindus worshipped a thousand “gods” (but always spelt with a small g) when in simple reality, the thousand gods (as far as Tantra Śāstra is concerned) are but names for aspects and operations of the Mahādeva as recognition of the “Divine immanence,” which is slowly but certainly finding its way into the advanced religions of the West.

But the monotheism of the Śākta Tantra (that is, its unification of the fundamental duality of Śiva-Pārvati on the thither side of manifestation) is unassailable. This Śāstra is never guilty of the inconsistency of attributing to the One Absolute actions and qualities which can only properly belong to degrees of relativity. Thus it escapes the maze of contradiction in which orthodox Christian exegesis has lost itself (like Daedalus and lcarus in the labyrinth of their own building) by claiming its God as the One and Only, and then degrading that lofty conception to participation in prejudices and actions belonging purely to the relative planes of the universe. The Āgama also escapes the coldness and impersonality of philosophical abstraction which is only endurable by the few who are able to breathe in “the chill air that enfolds the wise.” Pure philosophy has never countenanced the personal element in devotion; otherwise it would not have been philosophy but religion. Long ago Caesar said that those who followed philosophy did not worship the gods. So much the worse for philosophy as a, moving influence in human advancement; it remains the intellectual interest of the learned few, when it might have been the inspirer and uplifter of the unlearned but intelligent many. The need of the future, nay, of the present, as I have pointed out in my book, “The Bases of Theosophy” is a restatement of truth in a form and through a method that will make religion philosophical and philosophy religious; and it appears to me that the Tantra Śāsta, being based on an experimental and demonstrable psychology, and vivified by the breath of personal devotion, and made practical by application in daily life, is bound to exert an ever-increasing influence on humanity as it rises towards the needs which the Śāstra supplies, including a ritual, with regard to which the editor, in a moment of refreshing belligerency, says: “Doubtless, to the newer ‘protestant’ spirit, whether issuing from Europe, Arabia or elsewhere, all ritual is liable to be regarded as ‘mummery,’ except, possibly, the particular and perhaps jejune variety which it calls its own.. . . . . . . . . . .for even the most desiccated Protestantism has not been able altogether to dispense with it.”

It is declared that the Tantra Śāstra was given as the scripture suitable to the Kali Yuga. The degeneracy of humanity in the present age was not considered to be capable of being influenced through speculation and meditation alone; but rather through discipline and mantrik practices that would vibrate through the material incrustations of the ages, and shake consciousness into activity. “The word is a mere display of letters,” says the author, referring to mere philosophical discussion, “whilst mantra is a mass of radiant energy. Sayings give advice to men of the world, whilst mantras awaken superhuman Śakti.”

Yet, while it may be quite true that a people gets just the government which it deserves, it is certain that an age does not get the regenerating influence that it needs in the same measure as the need. That which would assuredly be its salvation is always in advance. In earlier and less sophisticated times, the disease and its remedy may have existed and been applied side by side; but, to-day, we have an extraordinary monster (compounded of cheap literature and cheaper education) called Enlightened Public Opinion, or sometimes The Man in the Street, that interposes itself between principles of reform and their execution, and labels as “premature” the age’s most urgent need. That has been the experience of reform in the West, particularly during the last six or seven years in which it has become obvious to a few clear-seeing minds that the general vulgarization and materialization of life which was setting in all over the world (not excluding India) was the direct outcome of a predominantly masculine attitde and organization in affairs, including religion. Hence the struggle which developed not only in Great Britain and Ireland, but in America, Russia and elsewhere, with faint echoes in India as yet, for the active participation of the femhine element in all departments of life; with all that hangs upon that element not merely in the matter of sex difference, but in the qualities of conservation (which is not conservatism as many erroneously think), intuition, devotion, sacrifice, which must become active complements of the masculine qualities of aggression, reason, question, acquisitiveness, if a balanced human organization and character are to be achieved.

That struggle not only challenged the male exclusiveness of politics, in its personnel and its interests and methods, but invaded the very pulpits of Christendom. So acutely, indeed, did some women feel the lack of the presentation of the feminine side of life in the ordinary churches, that they banded themselves into a church run by women, but with a pulpit freely open to both sexes, and a liturgy and attitude that was exclusively human.

This innovation was, I am convinced, the deepest indicator of the source of the lopsided order of things; that is, a purely masculine concept of Divinity, and a consequent purely masculine religious organization with its sequel, a purely masculine social machine. The consciousness of that defect is growing in Europe, aided by the last great example of the logical end of unrelieved masculine aggression, the European War. The full inclusion of the feminine element in public life will be the great fight of the immediate future, together with the uprising of a complete democracy (displacing the pseudo-democracies of to-day) based on the equal rights and duties of men and women in the human household of the State.

These circumstances, and the manner in which they are capable of being met by the Tantra Śāstra, give another ground for the belief that some of the fundamental principles of this ancient scripture will become one of the religious influences in modern life, not necessarily directly, in the sense of superseding Christianity in the West, but certainly in an interaction through which the Śākta Śāstra will help as an irritant, so to speak, in the great oyster of Western, and perhaps Eastern, religion, to produce the Mother-pearl of a complete and true religious exegesis and practice.

All things are possible to a scripture whose supreme personifications, Śiva and Pārvati, give and receive instruction mutually, the feminine side being of equal importance with the masculine. On the knees of the Mother, as the author puts it, “all quarrels about duality and non-duality are settled. When the Mother seats herself in the heart, then everything, be it stained or stainless, becomes but an ornament for Her lotus feet.” “She lives in the bodies of all living creatures wherein She is present in the form of energy, even in such lifeless things as rocks and stones. There is no place in the world where Mahāmāya is not.” Here we have an anticipation of modern scientific thought as to the universal permeation of energy; but the Tāntrik idea of energy is of a Consciousness, and therefore of a Power related to personality, and so, capable not merely of scientific study but of worship, though the worship is always (to the higher Tāntrika) with the realization of the passing nature (Māya) of all limitation by contrast with the Supreme Reality.

With such an ideal as the Divine Father and Mother, equal in all respects in manifestation, and One beyond manifestation; and with all the implications of influence on conduct and organization inherent in such a belief; one is moved to pray for the purification of practice where such purification is needed, so that the Śāstra may without obstruction fulfil the prophecy of its future; for it is no less a spiritual than it is a physical truth, that it is only when masculine and feminine are in equal co-operation, though through dissimilar functions, that there is the possibility and promise of a future.

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