Expiatory Rites in Keralite Tantra

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

This page relates ‘Woman and Tantric Expiatory Rites’ 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.

10. Woman and Tantric Expiatory Rites

The women deities have possessed more powerful position in the early Śaiva Tantric ritual manuals, even though the real life women have only a very inferior position. The priestly class tried to frighten the woman in the name of menstruation and related impurities. As far as the concept of menstruating impurity, the religious authorities and priestly class alienated the women in all ways of social life. Most of the South Indian Śaivāgmas give valuable information related to this matter. Bṛhatkālottara is the earliest Śaiva Tantra manual that denying the worship and religious observances of woman. It also says that the liberation of woman is attained from serving her husband’s commands. It is the visible result of Brahminic patriarchal ideas like Pātivratya. These concepts were also used for confining the freedom of women. The Kerala Tantric ritual manuals also share the same view. Prayogamañjarī, an earlier ritual manual in Kerala, says that a female servant (Dāsi) is gifted to a Brahmin for the removal of obstacles and impurity of temple courtyard and sanctum sanctorum.

In early Śākta Tantrism (7th to 9th centuries) women have a more powerful position equal to that of men. During this epoch, woman also participated in various ritual events like Homa, Pūja, Japa and Dhyāna.[1] This ritual participation gives a variety of positions to the women folk. The female ritual practitioners are divided into various categories. They are Sādhakī, Yoginī, Dūtī and Śakti.[2] Bhavabhūti’s Mālatīmādhava (CE 8th century Sanskrit drama) confirms that female practitioners had the same rights in that age.[3] The Tantric treatises like Siddhayogeśvarīmata, Tantrasadbhāva and Parātriṃśikāvivaraṇa considered that woman are equal to men in various rituals.[4] In Śākti-tantras women also attended and participated in various orthopraxis rituals like Cakrayāga, Pūja and various Homas. And these Śākta Tantras do not mention the impurity of menstruating woman. Moreover, the Brahmayāmalatantra recommends the observances and related ritual worships in menstrual periods of a woman.[5] Sanderson have given more attention to this fact. He evidently attests that in the early period women have participated in Tantric rituals. Gauḍavaho of Vakpatirāja and Apabhramaśa Mahāpurāṇa illuminates the participation of women in rituals.[6]

But the concepts of Dūtī in Brahmayāmalatantra also states that rituals are not women centric. The diplomatic ideas of priestly class are seen in this work. Dūtī is a common name of ritual partner. Brahmayāmalatantra or Picumata suggest that the Dūtī has to receive the Guru’s commands, she is characterized as brilliant, and she is endowed with the auspicious features and has mastered in the sitting postures (Āsana) of great spirit (Mahāsattva). She has to infuse with the essence of Tantra, should be loyal to her Guru, deity and husband. Also she should have the power to conquere hunger, thirst and fatigue, should be always dwelling in non-duality, is undiscriminating (Nirvikalpa) and non-covetous. She well knows how to reach Samādhi, she knows Yoga, conversant with scriptural knowledge (Jñājñāna) and practices of ascetic observances.[7] The Mantra part of Brahmayāmala gives more supporting documents in this context. Brahmayāmala includes the basic rituals like ritual bathing (Snāna), Mantric installation (Nyāsa), the Tālaka’s entering the ritual site (Devāgāra) and the performance of worship (Pūja).[8]

It can be seen that, the above definition of Dūtī and her ritual participation is not woman centric, in fact, it is a wicked way of the priestly class to manage woman for their ritual actions and sexual observances. At this point the women Tantric practitioner is in fact an instrument of the priestly class.

In this context the observations of Judit Torozsosk is very important, she considerably notes:

“It is a quasi-universal cultural phenomenon that women are associated with impurity and danger. Their dangerous impurity can make them menacing and powerful, in the way in which Tantric goddesses and Yoginīs are depicted. As these powerful and impure goddesses and Yoginīs make their way into the pantheon of Śākta scriptures, actual women, whether they embody these divine females or not, also gain more presence in these works […….] in Śākta scriptures they are not only allowed to participate in rituals, but their participation as ritual partners (Śakti) is often required, even if their role can be rather instrumental.”[9]

In Śaiva Siddhānta, the authors of Tantric ritual manuals consider that the menstruating woman is an impure and untouchable person and they suggest that in the period of menstruation one should not worship Śiva.[10] Prāyaścittasamuccya of Trilocanaśiva also says if the menstruation comes without her knowing, the things, which the menstruating woman (Malavadvastraya) touches at home, should be considered as polluted; they are not polluted by her mere proximity.[11]

The concept of menstruating impurity is also related to concept of Pāpa and Prāyaścitta. The levels of impurity of menstruating women were categorized by Trilocanaśiva as per the Varṇa system and the expiations are directed accordingly. if a woman touches a menstruating Śūdra, Vaiśya or Kṣatriya woman, then she should perform a Kṛcchravrata and half a Kṛcchravrata respectively, from which she becomes pure. If a Vaiśya woman touches a menstruating Kṣatriya or a Śūdra woman, then she is purified in each case by a quarter of Kṛcchra. If a Śūdra touches either of the preceding two when they are menstruating, then she is in each case purified by giving alone.[12] Trilocanaśiva recommends various expiatory rites for contact between a menstruating woman with Caṇḍālas and other low caste. And he strictly says that the place where the menstruating woman slept or ate becomes pure by applying cow-dung and the like. After taking a bath after her menstrual period she should definitely not see any other man other than her husband out of affection.[13]

Most of the Indian philosophical systems deeply discussed the concept of liberation, the way for it and other related matters. But in real life these ideas become mere dogma and these concepts proliferate the social hierarchy and cast system. Women and the majority of the human beings are denied the equality even in front of the god. In Śaiva Tantra, the famous Tantric manual Bṛhatkālottara strictly restricted the right of women for worshipping and doing other religious observances. It directs that in mind, speech and in action she should obey the orders of her husband. This text also states that women can acquire Puṇyāha from obeying husband’s commands. It reveals that liberation of woman is only through serving her husband.[14]

The Kerala Tantric ritual manuals like Viṣṇu-saṃhitā and Tantraprāyaścitta the commentaries of Tantrasamuccaya like Vivaraṇa and Vimarśinī also restrict the entering of menstruating woman in to temples. These texts direct appropriate expiations in the case of break of rule.[15] It is observed that up to the recent time (exactly up to 1965) the entry of women folk is denied in Thiruvalla temple, as the authority of the temple was vested in the hands of an ascetic (Yogiyār).[16] There are several records of expelling the lawbreaking women and of performing the due expiatory rituals for the removal of the ill-effects of the same.[17] For instance the Thiruvalla temple document no. 86 illustrates the details of expiation related to the entering of a woman, Veḷutteṭan by caste, in temple courtyard. The expiations like Godāna, Puṇyāha and Dravyakalaśa are performed there after expelling her. In addition to that a capital fine is also collected from her. There was a general custom in Kerala that the women are not expected to be in the sight of the ascetic people. The special worship and authority of some ascetic persons were prevalent in major temples of Kerala like Padmanabha Swami Temple at Thiruvananthapuram, Thiruvalla Viṣṇu temple, Tirupuliyūr temple and Vaṭakkunnāthan temple at Trissur. In Irinjalakkuda Viṣṇu temple, there is a custom that the Namputiri Brahmin ladies are not entering inside. No woman, except the children and aged, are allowed at the famous Sabarimala Śāstṛ temple even now. From these it is revealed that there was severe discrimination towards the women folk in principle and in practice of Kerala Tantra. Even now the field of Tantric worship in Kerala maintains a strict patriarchal system, as there is no single woman performing Tantric rites in temples.

Footnotes and references:


Judit Torzosk observes thus: “Finally, women are also entitled to perform many Śākta rites in the same way as men, on equal grounds. The examples demonstrate that women had the full right to perform ascetic observances initiatory worship to use the power of a deity, including pantheon worship combined with visualization, Mantra recitation and fire offerings. Although it happens that women are seen as less able to perform some rites than men, it also occurs that a rite or Mantra is said to be more efficient for them.” “Woman in Early Śākta Tantras: Dūtī, Yoginī and Sādhakī”, Tantric Traditions in Theory and Practices, Cracow Indological studies, Vol. XVI, p. 357.


Ibid, p. 342.


For the Yoginīs Kapālakuṇḍalā and Saudāmaṇī are said as performed similar sets of rituals and also possess the ability to fly, see 9.52 and 5.29.


Siddhayogeśvarīmata, 25.2, Tantrasadbhāva, 18.31, 3.224-25.


Brahmayāmalatantra or Picumata, 24.8-9.


Gauḍavaho of Vakpatirāja (5.319) and Apabhramaśa Mahāpurāṇa (79.7.5). Also see Sanderson, A., “The Śaiva Literature”, p. 6, fn. 22.


Csaba Kiss, The Brahmayāmalatantra, p. 256.


Ibid., ch. 45. The minute details of the sexual ritual are given here.


Judit, op.cit., p. 362.


Prāyaścittasamuccaya of Trilocanaśiva, 499.


Ibid., 503.


Ibid., 509.


Ibid., 523.


bhartrājñāpālanaṃ kāryaṃ karmaṇā manasā girā |
pūjāvratādikaṃ tyaktvā bhartrājñāṃ śilasārcayet ||
na bhartra sadṛśo vatsa srīṇāṃ
vai tārako guruḥ |
dharmārthakāmamokṣeṣu bhartā vai ko gururviduḥ ||
bhartrājñāpālanāddharmaścārthaṃ bhartrājñato labhet |
bhartṛtaśca bhavetkāmo mokṣo vai bhartṛsevanāt ||
evaṃ jñātvā prayatnena bhartrājñāṃ naiva laṅghayet |
. || Bṛhatkālottaratantra, 37.111-114.


eteṣāṃ cet striyā spṛṣṭo mohādvā yadi kāmataḥ |
pūrvoktā niṣkṛtiḥ kāryā śeṣaṃ brāhmaṇabhojanam ||
godānañca punaḥ kuryādgavyasnānaṃ ca yuktitaḥ |
brāhmaṇyā coramārgeṇa spṛṣṭe tu sadhusūdane ||
snapanaṃ kārayecchaktyā brāhmaṇānāñca bhojanam | Viṣṇu-saṃhitā
, 28.40-42. Also vide Tantraprāyaścitta, p. 20.
prasave narapaśvādermaraṇe puṣpitādibhiḥ |
caṇḍālādyaiśca śayite tadvadbāhyādiṣu tvapi || Tantrasamuccaya
, Vivaraṇa, 10.6.


Unnikrishnan Nair, P., ed., Thiruvalla Granthavari, p. 91.



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