Expiatory Rites in Keralite Tantra

by T. S. Syamkumar | 2017 | 59,416 words

This page relates ‘Expiatory Rites in Shakta-Tantras’ of the study on Expiatory Rites in Sanskrit literature and ancient Indian religion and society, with special reference to Keralite Tantra. Further references to texts include those found in Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism as well as Dharmashastra literature. This study also investigates temple records and inscriptions of Kerala in order to demonstrate the connection between social life and expiatory rites and its evolution.

3. Expiatory Rites in Śākta-Tantras

The Goddess centered Tantras or Śakti-Tantras generally divided into four Āmnāyas viz., Pūrvāmnāya, Uttarāmnāya, Paścimāmnāya and Dakṣiṇāmnāya.[1] The scriptures includes in this division like Siddha-yogeśvarīmata, Mālinīvijayottara, Ciṃciṇīmatasārasaṃgraha, Devī-pañcaśataka, Kramasadbhāva, Manthānabhairavatantra and Kubjikā-mata. These scriptures do not discuss the temple related expiatory rites. Even though the Siddhayogeśvarīmata and Jñārṇavatantra deals some diminutive form of expiation related to Tantric practioner. Jñārṇavatantra, suggests the worship of goddess for the removing of grievous sins.[2]

Śakti-Tantras were not gravely discussing the concept of expiations related to temple rituals. They importantly give the esoteric, philosophical and mystical ideas of Tantric rituals. But at the same time, a Kaula[3] text Mahānirvāṇatantra,[4] manifests a distinct and elaborate idea of expiatory rituals. It considers that sin is two-fold as doing mischief to one’s own self and the same towards others.[5] And it shares a belief that by the punishment administrated by the king one is released of the sin. Similar to Smṛtis and Purāṇic literature, it frightens in the name of hell. It believes that those who are not purified by the expiation, they have to live eternally in the hell.[6] Impact of Smṛtis were very much seen in Mahānirvāṇatantra. The description of the role of king is a good example. It suggests that the king should punish a Brahmin or a Tantric worshipper with warning only.[7] The major part of the expiatory chapter of this treatise suggests fasting, Dāna, feasting of Kaula Brahmins, Pūrṇābhiṣeka, chanting of Mantras, Vyāhṛtihoma etc. as expiatory rites. Some of the important expiations dealt in this work are illustrated below:

Expiatory Rites Related to Woman: Most parts of Mahānirvāṇa-tantra describe expiatory rites related to woman. If a man who has had sex with his step mother, daughter in law, mother in law, the preceptor’s wife, paternal grandmother, maternal grandmother, uncle’s daughter’s, maternal uncle’s daughter’s, maternal uncle’s wife, brother’s wife, brother’s daughter, sister’s daughter, master’s daughter, and a maiden are sin full acts.[8] Mahānirvāṇa-tantra suggests cutting off the male organ as atonement for this. The woman who knowingly engages in those sinful actions, it recommends that they should be driven out of the house as expiation.[9] If one unknowingly marries any one of these women either according to Brāhma, Śaiva or any other mode of marriage, it is considered as a major sin. The expiation is fasting with grains only for one full moon month.[10] If a man who has knowingly had sex with a Brahmin girl, he should cut off his male organ as atonement. As well as the woman’s face has to be disfigured and her limbs are be cut off, her head is to be shaven and driven out of the kingdom as expiation. Mahānirvāṇa-tantra also considers that Pratiloma marriage is a major sin; confiscation of his property and fasting with grain only are the expiatory rites. If a Śaiva or a Brahmin woman has had sex with another man, she has to forsake the life of Brahmin or Śaiva.[11] Also having sex with the prostitutes is a sin, fasting with three nights only on grain is its expiation.[12] A man’s touching and conversation with another’s woman in a solitary place is a major sin, fasting with only on grain is the expiation. In another case, the Kula woman, who lustfully sees another man, converses with him, touches him or embraces him, is cleansed off her sins severally by fasting for two, four and eight days. Moreover, a man who sees the secret parts or naked parts of a woman is cleansed off his sin by fasting only.[13] If a husband witnesses his wife committing adultery with her paramour, then the husband should kill his wife and her paramour. Mahānirvāṇa-tantra also suggests that the king should not inflict capital or any other punishment on him (husband).[14] The most other peculiarity of Mahānirvāṇatantra is that it describes the details of expiations regarding widows. A different expiatory rite associated with the state of a virgin is, if a maiden is married with a eunuch and if this fact sees light after a long time, the king can marry her again.[15] In addition, it is considered that abortion is also a sin full matter; at that time Mahānirvāṇa-tantra advocates that the king should give him hard punishments.

Expiations on Killing:

Accordingly if foolishly, unknowingly or by mistake, a man commits a murder, the king should inflict the punishment of a heavy fine on him.[16] Moreover, it thought that if by negligence a man kills another with a weapon or by using a beast, his sin is washed off by a fine or a physical chastisement.[17]

Punishment and Expiation:

The wicked or immoral life of a person, or an acting of spreading false rumours, theft, false witnesses, or false hood, drinking of Sura etc. are considered as major sins. For washing of this sin, Mahānirvāṇa-tantra puts forward that the king should punish those persons with fines proportionate to their offences.[18]

Expiatory Rites for Touching and Eating of Impure Substances:

If a man consciously eats human flesh or beef he is to cleanse himself by fasting for a fortnight as his expiation.[19] At the same time, fasting for three days is recommended for eating the meat of a beast of the shape of human beings or that of animals, which live on flesh. Furthermore, if a man takes food touched by a Mleccha, Yavana, Caṇḍāla or by one who is against Kula religion or by a beast, he is freed from his sin by fasting for a fortnight. If unknowingly a man takes the remnant of the food taken by them, he should act fast for a fortnight as expiation. In addition, the touching of the food of outcastes or law castes is a sinful act; fasting for three days is expiation.[20] Also Mahānirvāṇa-tantra thinks that when there is dearth of food, when there is a famine or at a time when life is at stake if a man partakes of a forbidden food, he commits no sin thereby.[21]

In Mahānirvāṇa-tantra, impurity is considered as a major case to be expiated. It deliberated that the seeing and touching of a dead body affected as a hard impurity. If a dead body is found in a pond or well, twenty one jars of full of sacred water should be consecrated with Mantras and to be poured in to the pond or well for the purification of the water. If a dead body of an elephant is found, one hundred jars filled with water should be consecrated with Mantras and to be poured into that pond. Thus it suggests Kalaśa is the most important purificatory ritual of impure places.[22] If the house is seen polluted by snake-biting or the fall of thunderbolt, it is to be purified by the performance of one hundred Vyāhṛtihomas.[23]

Expiatory Rites for Killing a Cow: According to Mahānirvāṇa-tantra, killing of cow is a sinful act. For the washing of this sin, it suggest a Kṛcchravrata as an expiatory rite. After the completion of this Vrata one should shave his head and feed his Kaula kinsmen and friends for having been freed from this sin. The killing of an elephant, camel, buffalo, horse, deer, lamb, goat, cat, peacock, goose, etc. are considered as firm sins. For the avoidance of evil effects, it requests to perform fasting for three days as atonement.[24]


In various contexts Mahānirvāṇa-tantra demands to perform a variety of vows for freeing from sins. If anyone vilifies them or uses harsh words against the father, mother and preceptor, it insists to do a Vrata for five days from averting sins.[25] As Mahānirvāṇa-tantra thinks that if a man in a state of an old age or illness is incapable to fast, at this time the feeding of twelve Brahmins can be done as an expiatory rite.[26]

Chanting of Gāyatrī Mantra:

If any one cannot complete a vow or disregards the injunctions of a deity or touches an idol in a state of impurity, it advises doing Gāyatrī chanting.[27] For all other sins committed intentionally or unintentionally the recitation of Gāyatrī is advised as the most suitable expiation.[28]


Those who suffer from leprosy or valetudinarians are entitled to perform rites for their departed manes as well as for celestials by making gifts of gold.[29]

The expiatory chapter of Mahānirvāṇa-tantra is a distinct work in the systems of Śākta Tantrism, because most of the Śākta systems were not seriously carried out by the concept of sins and their expiations. It seems as the indication the Vedicisation and Brahminisation of Tantra, for the reason that impact of Smṛtis and Vedic culture were immensely seen in Mahānirvāṇa-tantra. The recitation of Gāyatrīmantra and Vyāhṛtihoma’s are the examples of Vedic culture.

Sanderson opines:

“[….] (1) the observances at the first juncture of the day (Pūrvasandhya) (2) the recitation of the Gāyatrī (Japaḥ) (3) fire sacrifice (Homaḥ) (4) ‘whatever other rituals are traditional.’ The first two are the most elementary of the Brahmanical duties, since they are obligatory even for one who has gone through initiation in to the study of the Veda (Upanayanam) and has not yet married and for a married man who has not yet established a sacrificial fire.”[30]

Another point is the impact of Dharmaśāstra literature. The majority of the expiatory rites described in Mahānirvāṇa-tantra is similar to that of Smṛtis. The concept of Pratiloma marriage, role of king and the punishment are the examples. The Dharmasūtra authorities and Manu strongly restricted the Pratiloma Marriage.[31] Moreover from the period of Dharmasūtras, drinking of Sura is considered as a sinful act.[32] The use of wine, flesh and sexual intercourse were observed as parts of the Tantric rituals, especially in Kaula Tantras and earliest Śaiva manuals.[33] But in Mahānirvāṇa-tantra, the uses of flesh and wine are strictly prohibited. And the concept of punishment is the of impact of Dharma legal literature.[34] According to Wezler, Lubin and Zrenner, punishment is a social rite; it mostly used to denote the readmission to one’s previous cast group after the punishment or paying fee. Moreover the punishment is performed for social crimes and other related activities. In Dharmasūtras the expiatory rites are interlinked with social rites and customs.[35] Hence gradually these punishment rites are also influenced on the Tantras. Mahānirvāṇa-tantra suggests that the king should punish a Brahmin only with words. As well, it can be seen that the text gives more importance to the feeding of Brahmins as expiation. Another most important fact is the concept of impurity. Mahānirvāṇa-tantra strongly restricts the touching of outcastes, Mleccha, Yavana and Caṇḍāla. Loius Dumont’s thesis laid out that each caste is located on a hierarchical gradation of purity. This study generally states that the purity is the basis of hierarchy of ancient India.[36]

Madan, another scholar in this field, opines:

“According to traditional caste ideology, which is obviously the brainchild of Brahmins, the key to the rank order lies in the notion of the ritual purity.”[37]

Madan has also stated that caste is interconnected with the concept of ritual impurity.[38] Most of the scholars evidently indicate that the central point of caste system is impurity.[39] The role of woman and their status are very inferior in Mahānirvāṇa-tantra The earlier periods women have also participated in the Tantric rituals in the name of Dūtī, Sādhakī and Yoginī. In Brahmayāmala-tantra, it can be seen that the sexual observances are also performed.[40] But in Mahānirvāṇa-tantra the sex with woman is strongly restricted. Also it restricts the members of outcastes and other religions to have sex with Brahmin woman as a sinful act. In a study of the expiatory chapter of Mahānirvāṇa-tantra, it is evident that most of the ideas were acquired from Dharma legal literature. The Dharmasūtras of Āpastamba, Gautama, Vasiṣṭa and Baudhāyana think that sex with preceptors wife, drinking wine, killing of cow and other animals, using harsh words, touching of outcastes especially the Caṇḍāla are the sinful acts. The penance chapters of theses scriptures elaborately discuss these sins and their remedies. It is evident that the impacts of Dharma legal literature were clearly seen in Mahānirvāṇatantra.

Śaiva Siddhāntāgamas provide a major role of expiatory rites in Tantric rituals and temple rites. They also bestow more attention to the concept of sin, ritual mistakes and expiatory rites. In general, the expiatory rites in Āgamas perceived that the impact of Śaiva expiatory rites can be obviously seen in Vaiṣṇava expiations. The Āgamas also adapts various Vedic rites. The chanting of Gāyatrī and Vyāhṛtihoma were good examples. The Śākta system of Tantras rarely discusses the concept of expiation. Also the impact of Dharma legal rites is evidently seen in later versions of Mahānirvāṇa-tantra The influence of Jyotiṣa, which is seen in later Tantric rituals of Kerala, is not seen in Āgama expiations. The Āgamas were not prescribing the astrological determination in case of impurities affected in temples. The Tantric rituals of Kerala maintain some unique features along with the general traits of the Āgamic corpus mentioned above.

Footnotes and references:


For a detail discussion of Goddess centered Tantras and their list, See Sanderson, “The Śaiva Literature”, pp. 35-41. Also see Ajithan, P.I., The Ritualistic Tradition of Tantra in Kerala: A study on its Characteristic Features and Transmission, PhD dissertation, Dept. of Sanskrit Sahitya, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, 2014, pp. 30-35.


It is observed that the Kula tradition is developed within the context of Kāpālika cremation ground asceticism. The term Kula means family and it indicates the family of goddess i.e., Tantric female deities. For details vide Flood, Gavin, An Introduction to Hinduism, Manas Saikia for Foundation books, New Delhi, 1998, pp. 165-166.


According to N.N. Bhattacharya the date of Mahānirvāṇatantra is not much earlier than 18th century CE. And he notes: “The Mahānirvāṇatantra has been regarded by scholars as a ‘refined’ work. The present form of the text is not much earlier than the 18th century and it is burdened with Vedantic elements, but there are reasons to believe that the text had an older form. Its very name suggests that its earlier versions were utilized by the Buddhists. Subsequently Vedantic ideas were interpolated, pure Tantric ritualistic aspects were modified, and it was fashioned in such a way that it would appeal to the Hindu taste in General [……]. The Mahānirvāṇatantra represents the best of the sophisticated Tantric tradition.” Bhattacharya, N.N., History of the Tantric Religion, Manohar, Delhi, 1999, pp. 73-84.


svāniṣṭamātrajananātparāniṣṭopapādanāt |
tadeva pāpaṃ dvividhaṃ jānīhi kulanāyike || Mahānirvāṇa-tantra
, 11.15.


Mahānirvāṇa-tantra, 11.17.


Ibid., 11.25.


Ibid., 11.32-34.




Ibid., 11.36.


Ibid., 11.38-41.


Ibid., 11.43.


Ibid., 11.48-50.


Ibid., 11.53.


Ibid., 11.66.


Ibid., 11.72.


Ibid., 11.81.


In this case, Mahānirvāṇa-tantra advocates that the king should confiscate the property of the sinner and burn his tongue.
nendriyāṇi vaśe yasya madavihvalacetasaḥ |
devātāgurumaryyādollaṅghino bhayarūpiṇaḥ ||
nikhilānarthayogyasya pāpinaḥ śivaghātinaḥ |
dahejjihvāṃ haredarthāṃstāḍayettaṃ ca pārthivaḥ || Mahānirvāṇa-tantra
, 11.116-117.
Moreover, fasting only with grains is atonement for washing their sins.
brāhmīṃ bhāryyāṃ surāṃ mattāḥ pāyayanto dvijātayaḥ |
śudhyeyurbhāryyayā sārddhaṃ pañcāhaṃ kaṇabhojanāt || Mahānirvāṇa-tantra
, 11.122.


bhuñjāno mānavaṃ māṃsaṃ gomāṃsaṃ jñānataḥ śive |
upoṣya pakṣaṃ śuddhassyātprāyaścittamidaṃ smṛtam || Mahānirvāṇa-tantra
, 11.125.


Ibid., 11.126-129.


Ibid., 11.131,






Mahānirvāṇa-tantra, 11.139-142. The hunting of a King is not considered as a sinful matter, for the reason that hunting is the eternal duty of the King.


Ibid., 11.145-146.


upavāsāsamarthaścedrujā vā jarasāpi vā |
tadā pratyupavāsaṃ ca bhojayeddvādaśa dvijān || Mahānirvāṇa-tantra
, 11.151.


Ibid., 11.144.


Ibid., 11.153.


Ibid., 11.155.


Sanderson, Alexis, “Śaivism and Brahmanism in the Early Medieval Period”, Gonda Lecture, 2006, p. 8-9.


Manusmṛti, 11.57-67; and also see the expiatory chapters of the Dharmasūtras of Āpastamba, Vasiṣṭa, Gautama and Baudhāyana.


Āpastamba-dharmasūtra, 1.25.10, and see the expiatory chapters of Vasiṣṭa, Gautama and Baudhāyana. Also see “Expiation Rites in Connection with ‘Surāpāna’ in Manusmṛti”, Ananta International Journal for Sanskrit Research, Tarka Jana, 2017, pp. 193-195.


See Brahmayāmalatantra or Picumata ch. 45 and Tantrāloka ch. 5, 25 and 29. Also see Kulārṇavatantra. Sanderson notes: “In Vimalaprabodha’s account in the Kāḷīkulakramārccana of the Krama ritual in which male and female adepts are worshipped collectively with offerings of food and drink (Cakrakrīḍa) […].” Cf. “The Śaiva Literature”, p. 64 and p. 43, fn. 166. And also he evidently remarks: “A trident is smeared with the five jewels and menstrual blood the goddess is installed in it and worshipped” See, “Śaivism and Tantric Tradition”, p. 681. In this context Gavin Flood alludes: “At a deeper layer of Trika liturgy, for spirituality elect, lies the ‘secret ritual’ (the Kulayāga) which involves offering the goddess meat and alcohol, and ritual sex between the practitioner and his female partner […]”, Flood, Gavin, An Introduction to Hinduism, Manas Saikia for Foundation books, New Delhi, 1998, p. 168.


Sanderson has evidently noted the conventional features of Kulamārga. They are: (i) erotic ritual with a female companion (ii) sanguinary practices (iii) collective orgiastic rites celebrated by assemblies of initiates and woman of low caste. See “The Śaiva Literature”, pp. 57-58.


Michel M B Zrenner, The concept of Prāyaścitta in the Introductory Passages of Ratnakaraṇḍika, M.Phil. Dissertation, Faculty of Philosophy, Ruprecht-Karls-University, Heidelberg, 2015, p. 82. For more discussions see, Lahiri, Tarapada, Crime and Punishment in Ancient India, Radiant Books, New Delhi, 1986 and Das Gupta, Ram Prasad, Crime and Punishment in Ancient India, Bharatiya Kalaprakashan, Delhi, 2007. And also see Lubin, Timothy, “Punishment and Expiation: Overlapping Domains in Brahmanical Law”, Indological Tauranessia (33), eds. Nalini Balbir, et.al., Torine, AIT, 2007.


Vide Dumont, Louis., Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.


Cited by Patrick Olivelle, “Caste and Purity: A study in the Language of Dharma Literature”, Tradition Pluralism and Identity, pp. 47-48.




Ibid., p. 48.


Brahmayāmalatantra or Picumata, ch.45.

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