1927 | 11,233,916 words
Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....
The Perspective of the Tantras
K. Guru Dutt
The word Tantra is derived from the root–tan–meaning to draw out, to spread. The significance is clearly brought out in words like tanta: what is spun out like a thread, a strand; and tanu: the body, in which the spirit has spread out or revealed itself. In Hindu religious usage, Tantra stands for ritual in general, whether of the external variety or dealing with methods of introspection. Ritual has been called the art of religion, and most historical religions have been associated with some form or other of ritual, although the relative importance attached to it has varied greatly. The cloth of religion has been made up of the strands of Tantra, whatever may be the philosophical design into which the strands have been woven. To vary the image, ritualism has been, as it were, the body–tanu–in which the spirit of religion has most commonly manifested. As ordinarily there is no smoke without a fire, it would be in order to say that there is no ritual with- out religion, and wherever there is ritual, there is Tantra.
Going to Vedic antiquity, it is seen that the prayer and praise which form the substance of the Samhita or Mantra portion of the Vedas went hand in hand with a sacrificial scheme which has been elaborated in the bulky treatises known as the Brahmanas. Some scholars are of opinion that sacrificial formalism was a later and rather invidious growth, while others, no less competent, maintain that it was always there and that every Mantra presupposes it. Without deciding for either extreme, it would be safe to say that Mantra and Brahmana were never dissociated from each other, just as in common parlance it is usual in India to use the phrase of it, mantra-tantra, coupling the two words not merely on account of the superficial rhyme but presumably on account of some deeper affinity. The Brahmanas could well be described as the Tantras of the Veda. It is interesting to note that the root brih: to expand or grow, from which the word Brahmana is derived, is allied in significance to the root tan: to spread out. In either case, history shows that the Brahmanas as well as the Tantras expanded or spread out to such an unconscionable extent that they provoked the inevitable reaction. Indeed religious history looks as if it were a play of opposing forces, action and reaction, the tendency of ritual to grow at the expense of the spirit and the tendency of the human spirit to keep it within bounds.
In almost prehistoric times, the Avestan schism with its pronounced ethical and dualistic bent was in all likelihood protest against the naturalistic, monistic and ritualist trend of the Vedic religion. Within the Indian fold itself, the earliest Upanishads aimed at a simplification of ritual, and Buddhism was but one of the forms which the reaction took, and yoga another. Yet the formalistic ritualistic germ seems to have go inside each one of these protests and to have had a prolific growth. From the Avestan religion were derived the semitic religions of the Middle East which developed vigorous cults and rituals of their own. The religion of Christ started as protest against the formalism of the “pharisees and scribes”, but soon settled down into the forms of the great Catholic Church with its ever-growing ritualistic tradition. In due course came the protest of the Reformation.
Indian religious history also shows parallel movements. The earlier Upanishads adopted the Vedic deities and concepts for purposes of esoteric meditation. It was at this time that the method of Pratikopasana was brought into being. But soon there came up a mass of Upanishads dealing exclusively with Yoga and ritual, Mantra sastra or varna sadhana, as it is often called in the Tantras. This was however no alien growth. We have it on the authority of Prof. S. N. Das Gupta that this Varna Sadhana which forms such a large portion of the content of the Tantras was not a creation of the Tantra but only a development of the Pratikopasana which was first attempted in the age of the Aranyakas, and that the Tantras merely combined the Vedic teaching with the Yoga method and elaborated the result. The evolution of Buddhism too was on similar lines. The teaching of the four noble truths which form the core of primitive Buddhism had already developed into a cult and a ritual in the Hinayana. Dr. Waddell, an unsympathetic critic, derives the Mahayana from the alliance of the original Buddhism with Yoga. As he puts it, this “Yoga parasite containing within itself the germs of Tantrism” soon developed “monster growths” which “cankered the little life of purely Buddhist stock” in the Mahayana. Between Mahayana Buddhism and the revived Puranic or Tantric Hinduism there was little difference in outlook. These restored and vastly reinforced ritualisms, however, provoked in due course further reactions. Predominant among these was the Bhakti school, which proclaimed the comparative futility of ritual and stressed the need for bhava or emotion. Yet it is interesting to note that all the surviving sections of this school have developed their own forms and ritual, whether it be the orthodox Vaishnava or the followers of the Maratha saints, or of Kabir or Chaitanya. Such is the persistence and vitality of the tendency towards form and ritual, the inherent Tantrikism of man, or at any rate of the Hindu.
This tendency cannot be properly understood unless it is recognised as a perfectly normal and legitimate phenomenon, which becomes pathological only when it runs into excess. The Indian Tantras do show occasional symptoms of such excess, but judged as a whole they are far from being “pathological excrescences” on the surface of Hinduism as they have been dubbed by prejudiced foreign observers, and by their Indian manasaputras, their intellectual progeny. For too long, this opinion has held the field and few have cared to investigate the truth or falsity of the charge. But there are some signs of a change, although not of a complete one. Thus, Keyserling says in his Travel Diary, “I am personally convinced that the teachings of the Tantras are correct on the whole, but that it is nevertheless in the order of things that they meet with less and less observance, for the development of humanity tends away from ritualism.” With reference to this, however, Woodroffe observes, “I have my doubts as regards this last point. A strong ritualistic revival is in force today and there is always likely to be the reciprocal reaction of Puritanism and Ritualism.”
Balanced Indian opinion through the ages has always given a high place to Tantra. The world Agama, which stands indifferently for the Veda and the Tantra, has been adopted by common consent for indicating authoritative tradition, the third canon of right knowledge. Kulluka Bhatta, the celebrated commentator on Manu does not step outside the pale of orthodoxy when he asserts that Sruti or the revealed word is twofold, Vaidik and Tantrik vaidiki tantriki caiva dvividha sruti kirtita. This is strictly in keeping with the teaching of Sri Krishna in the Bhagavata that religious practice or Acara is of three kinds: Vaidik, Tantrik, and Misra or composite. The generality of Hindu observances today could only be classified as Misra, so inextricably are the Vaidik and Tantrik elements mixed up in it. The Veda and Tantra do indeed constitute the warp and woof of Hindu thought and usage.
Even the most cursory examination of the commonest samskaras or ceremonials, those connected with birth, the investiture of the sacred thread, marriage and death will at once reveal this double framework. The well-known daily observance known as the Sandhyavandana furnishes a good illustration, showing how intimately the two strains have been blended in it to form a homogeneous and artistic whole. The core of the Sandhya- vandana is the Gayatri, a mantra from the Rigveda addressed to the deity Savitar, the beneficent energy animating the Sun, praying for stimulation and enlivening of the worshipper’s intelligence. Subserving it are a number of other mantras invoking the Waters, Agni, etc. Yet these are imbedded in a setting which is wholly Tantrik, purporting to be the worship of a feminine deity known as Sandhya personifying the three times of worship, the morning twilight, noon and the evening twilight. Although the Gayatri is addressed to the male deity Savitar, the mantra itself is pictured for purposes of dhyana as a goddess with five faces and ten arms, each face having a different colour and each hand bearing a weapon. The weapons are characteristic of the five great divinities in whom Puranic or Tantrik worship settled down: Ganesha, Vishnu, Siva, Devi and Surya, the wellknown Pancayatana. The repetition of the Gayatri is preceded by mystic syllables known as Vyahritis to which great importance is attached and which are similar to the Bijaksharas of Tantrik meditation. The whole is eked out with all the familiar components of Tantrik sadhana, bhusuddhi, bhutasiddhi, bhutoccatana, nyasa, mudra and what not.
It would be interesting to try to separate these overlapping strands and examine their distinctive characteristics. It cannot however be lost sight of that the element of Tantra has infiltrated into the Veda itself. The mantras of the Rigveda indicate their ritual application at every step. In the Yajurveda, ritualistic usage predominates and this Samhita is in the main a volume of sacrificial formulae to be used in conjunction with selected mantras from the Rigveda. The text of the Samaveda consists of extracts from the Rigveda, adapted for being sung or chanted in different modes, and having special reference to their use in the Soma sacrifices. Above all, the Atharva Veda with its mystic invocations and its incantations for medicinal and magical purposes, has the most direct affinity with the Tantras proper in aim and content and even in form. Tantrik tradition holds that apart from the extant text of the Atharva Veda, there is another known as the Saubhagya Kanda whose methodology is identical with that of the Tantras and which forms the foundation of later Tantrik doctrine and practice. The connection between the Atharva Veda and the Tantra has long been recognised, as may be seen, for example, from the definition of the practices known as Abhicara as “the karma described in the Tantras and the Atharva Veda”. Of the Brahmana treaties, it has already been mentioned that they constitute the tantra or technique of the Veda. The Upanishads are appendices to these Brahmanas. That the bulk of them the so-called minor or later ones deal with topics similar to those of the Tantra is a matter of common knowledge. Characteristically, the large majority of them are attached to the Atharva Veda. Even the earliest Upanishads have in them distinct Tantrik tendencies which will be referred to later on.
A possible misapprehension has to be cleared up at this stage. It might be possibly and plausibly objected that what has have been called the Tantrik element is really the Puranic element, and that this has to be distinguished from the Tantras proper. No doubt, the Puranas are a branch of Hindu religious literature distinct from the Tantras, but it is beyond doubt that the spirit of the two is very similar if not identical. The Puranas are comprised mainly of mythological accounts of the creation of the world, the stories of avataras, of famous kings of the solar and lunar dynasties and such other legendary matter. No doubt philosophy and religious conduct come in for notice in the Puranas, but only incidentally. On the other hand, the Tantras are solely concerned with these, being essentially Sadhana Sastras. This must be the reason why the Bhagavata as well as Kulluka, Bhatta have preferred the term Tantrik in their classification where at first sight the word Puranic would seem to have been more appropriate.
It has been urged against the Tantras that as compared with the Vedas and even the Puranas, they are of recent origin and hence not authoritative. It must be admitted that their language as well as references to contemporary events and ideas bear out their modernity. But although the form may be recent, it would not be safe to assert that the content or at least the core of it is not derived from the remote past. This holds good of the Puranas also, the name itself suggesting immemorial antiquity. References, however brief and scrappy, in the Vedas to Puranic names and episodes establish beyond doubt that the subject matter of the Puranas was already extant. There are good grounds for holding that the Puranic mythology can lay claim to an age far greater than what Western orientalists are willing to concede and that this is the case with the Tantrik doctrine and practices also. Thus it has been held, and not without grounds, that the cult of Siva and Sakti with which the Tantras are prominently associated was already established and flourishing four millenniums before Christ in the civilisation of the Indus valley. In historic times, Pliny mentions the worship of Kanya Kumari at Cape Comorin, a fact which suggests that it must have been established in the south of India long before the time of the Periplus. In fact, there is much in the Tantra which points to a connection with the aboriginal inhabitants of India, as may be inferred from historic evidence as well from survivals embedded in the habits and customs of primitive tribes still to be found in India.
The evolution of Hinduism has been mainly through syncretic methods and only occasionally through supersession, and the growth of the Tantras and Puranas has been on characteristically similar lines. They remind one of the great Indian temples whose sacred nucleus is most often some tiny shrine where some small idol or even stone formation was being worshipped from time immemorial. With the slow passage of time, the old shrine was built upon and around or even renovated and enclosures and Gopurams came into being commensurate with the piety and wealth of generations of devotees. Even the name and attributes of the deity itself may have undergone a metamorphosis as in the classic instance of Tirupati. Yet these temples have continued to be the focus of the devotion of millions through the centuries and their sacredness has, if at all, gained in the process.
There is also another aspect of the matter, which invites consideration. Where there is the capacity for evolution and progress, for practice and experiment, antiquity is by no means the test of merk or authenticity. Hindu opinion has always maintained that religion is a matter of sadhana and experiment. That the number of the Vedas and Puranas was fixed long ago while the number of the Tantras was growing until recently, is in many respects a point in favour of the Tantras, for they profess to be practical interest and value, as in the case of scientific research. This must be the basis of the claim put forward by the Tantras that they are the sole scriptures for the Kaliyuga. It is certainly true, that notwithstanding their many shortcomings, the Tantras have shown in the field of sadhana or specific religious endeavour a courage, an enterprise and a spirit of adventure not to be matched elsewhere even in the superb range of Hinduism. It is their unique merit that they, as it were, turned the course of the stream of spiritual effort on itself, and, in the words of Aurobindo Ghose, converted the very obstacles to spiritual realisation into stepping stones.
The content and specific character of the Tantras may now be examined in somewhat greater detail. It is observed, at the very outset, that they are mainly concerned with the ritual worship of deities of Puranic origin although there is a vast increase in subsidiary nomenclature. The principal divinities are five in number, Ganesha, Vishnu, Surya, Shiva and Sakti, already referred to as the Panchayatana, a term which well brings out their integral connection with one other. They are not independent and un-related entities, as foreign scholars and local sectarians often try to make out, but are five branches proceeding from the same trunk, five aspects of the same central unity. At present the cults of Ganapati and Surya are not numerically important and we almost merged in those of Siva, Sakti and Vishnu respectively. Ganesha is absorbed in Siva-Sakti whose offspring indeed he is said to be. Vishnu and Surya are considered as interchangeable forms, as may be seen, for example, from the designation of the sun as Surya-Narayana, and the declaration of Sri Krishna in the Gita that he is Vishnu among the Adityas. The cults of Siva and Sakti, too, are bound up in the most intimate fashion, the relation between the two entities being described as avinabhava sambandha or aprithak-siddhi. Mythology beautifully pictures this in the image of Ardhanari-Isvara whose right half represents Siva and the left Sakti. Thus only two main groups are left over, the Vaishnava and the Shaiva-Shakta.
It cannot be sufficiently stressed that there is no unbridgeable gulf between the Vaishnava and Shaiva schemes. Notwithstanding sectarian fanaticism, enlightened Hindu opinion has always maintained that there is complete identity between Vishnu and Siva. Any number of passages could be cited in support of this position from the Mahabharata, the Puranas, the Tantras and the Upanishads. Thus a well-known Upanishad, the Skandopanishad, devotes itself to expounding the unity of Vishnu and Siva, and the Sammohana Tantra calls him a fool who sees difference between the two. In a manner of speaking, the link between them is provided by the concept of Sakti. Devi is described in mythology in several episodes as the sister of Krishna or Vishnu, and in others as the consort of Siva. It is interesting to note that in the Kenopanishad there is the profound allegory in which Uma, the daughter of Himavat (who is no other than Siva’s spouse), is depicted as the Sakti of Brahman revealing herself to the gods. On the other hand, the Supreme Power or Essence is designated as Mahamaya or Vishnumaya in the celebrated episode in the Markandeya Purana, variously known as the Candi or Durga Saptasati or Devi Mahatmya, which is, as it were, the Bible of the Durga cult. It is one and the same essence, whether associated with Siva or Vishnu or Brahma, the three members of the great Hindu Trinity, called severally Mahakali, Mahalakshmi or Adisakti. Considered in this broad and liberal aspect, Sakti is the least sectarian of concepts because Ishta-devata, the chosen deity, is itself Sakti. In this sense all the Tantras may well be described as Sakta.
However, leaving out the great mass of the Buddhist Tantras, the orthodox Hindu Tantras could be divided into two broad groups already mentioned, the Vaishnava and the Saiva-Sakta. Of these, the Vaishnava is much smaller in range and compass, and is made up of the Pancharatra and Vaikhanasa Agamas. The Pancharatra partakes more of the specific character of Tantra, while the Vaikhanasa is said to be composite of Vedic and Puranik elements. An idea of the contents of the former may be got from Dr. O. Schrader’s excellent Introduction to the Pancharatra.
The extant literature bearing on the Siva-Sakti group is very voluminous. According to the emphasis, it has two subdivisions, the Saiva proper and the Sakta, although these two have very much in common with each other. The Saiva Agama has two main branches, the Northern and the Southern, the former associated with the Trika school of Kashmir and the latter having affinities with the Saiva Siddhanta of South India. The large bulk of the remaining Tantras belong to the Sakta School with its endless ramifications. Overlapping classifications abound here. One such is based on form. Most Tantras take the form of dialogues between Siva and Devi. Those in which Siva is the principal speaker have been called Agamas, while those in which Devi speaks are called Nigamas. There is again a well known division into Dakshina and Vama, the right and left hand paths based on the character of observances. The former advocates disciplines which are on the whole in conformity with the Vedic prescriptions regarding conduct; in the latter, on the other hand, scope is allowed for practices which are conventionally considered objectionable, the use of meat and liquor and of the sex act in ritual. On this account, the Vamachara school has come in for a great deal of notoriety and condemnation. Even in the Vamachara there are grades and levels the highest according to their own tradition being the Kaula sadhana in which complete freedom is claimed from all traditional restraints. There are sets of Tantras belonging to both the schools, sometimes roughly, but not quite correctly, described as Vaidika and Avaidika.
There is also something like a territorial division among the Sakta traditions or sampradayas. Thus there are four principal sampradayas: Kashmira, Gouda, Vilasa and Kerala. Among these it is said that the Gouda tradition, which was dominant in Bengal, has the greatest affinities with Vamachara, and the Kerala with Dakshiha or Vedachara. This latter is often designated Samayachara, and a classification of Tantras into Kaula, Samaya and Misra or mixed is popular, their number being 64, 5 and 8 respectively. The Sammohana Tantra mentions 64 Tantras, 327 Upatantras and also other Sakta scriptures going under the name of Yamalas, Damaras and Samhitas. There is a further division based on origin from each of the six faces of Siva, four facing the cardinal points of the compass, one upwards and another downwards. These have been called the six amnayas: Shadamnaya. Thus it is said in the Devi Agama that Siva’s Eastern (front) face is of pearl-like lustre with three eyes and crowned by the crescent moon. By this face he is said to have revealed the deities Bhuvanesvari, Triputa, Lalita, Padma, Sulini, Sarasvati, Tvarita, Nitya, Vajraprastarini, Annapurna, Mahalakshmi, Lakshmi, and Vagvadini, with all their rites and mantras. Similar lists are given for the other faces or Amnayas ending with the sixth or lowest face, Ishanamnaya, through which are said to have been revealed Devatasthana, Asana, Yantra, Mala, Naivedya, Balidana, Sadhana, Purascharana and Mantrasiddhi.
It is through the monumental labours of Sir John Woodroffe that a substantial plot out of this vast demesne has been thrown open to the public. In his own name as well as under the pen-name of Arthur Avalon he has given to the world a representative series of Tantrik Texts with scholarly introductions arid in some cases (e. g., the Mahanirvana Tantra) with full translations, as well as expository writings which display great courage as well as insight. Many of these latter are wen known and deservedly: Is India Civilized? Shakti and Shakta, Serpent Power, The Garland of Letters and the series known as The World as Power and Reality, to mention only a few. He has laid India under a deep debt of gratitude by his fearless championing of one of the most misunderstood aspects of her religion and culture. One who is interested in the subject could not have a better introduction to the subject than through the writings of Woodroffe. Much of the factual matter presented in this essay is derived from this source. For many, his writings have proved the harbingers of a revival of faith in the efficacy of Sadhana or experimental religion. Practically for the first time in English he attempted to take ritualism seriously and to provide its rationale, which although by no means the last word on the subject, is packed with fruitful suggestions. No one who enters the field can advance even a step without paying his tribute of admiration to this pioneer who made himself something like an intellectual outcaste among many of his own people by venturing into a region which for long has been deemed intellectually “untouchable”. To him, almost entirely, is due the change in attitude towards the appreciation of Tantrik religion to which reference has been made above.
The reasons for this remarkable change have been given variously. Thus the French savant M. Masson Oursel attributes it to the fact that “as one increasingly explored the Tantrik literature, hitherto almost unknown, the discovery is not of more and more dissimilarities, but of a closer and closer connection between these scriptures and other religions.” This, no doubt, partly accounts for the change in attitude. There is, indeed, an innate conservatism in man which responds favourably only to the accustomed and familiar but at once closes up and presents a defensive and hostile front towards whatever is novel or out of the way, reminding one of the ancient Greeks who dubbed everything outside their own limited Hellenic horizon as barbarian. Scholars seem to be no exception to this rule, especially when appraising an alien culture. The change itself is described by the famous Orientalist, Winternitz, as follows: “Up till the present, we have been accustomed to see nothing else in Saktism and the Tantras, the sacred books of this sect, than wild superstition, occult humbug, idiocy, empty magic and a cult with a most objectionable morality,” but that subsequent to the publication of the Tantrik Texts by Avalon, it is being realised that these things are indeed to be found in this religion and in its sacred texts, but that by these things contents are nevertheless in no wise exhausted. On the contrary, we rather find that behind the nonsense there lies hidden, after all, much deep sense and that immorality is not the end and aim of the cult of the Mother. We find that the mysticism of the Tantras has been built upon the basis of that mystic doctrine of the unity of the sou1 and of all with the Brahman, which is proclaimed in the Upanishads and which belongs to the most profound speculations which the Indian spirit has imagined.”
This strange commentary offers much food for thought. One cannot help wondering how nonsense and such deep sense could go hand in. hand, and whether, after all, the nonsense might not have been really something else. This judgment requires more careful examination, which may be amply worth while. Its commencement savours more of prejudice and deep-seated dislike than of reason, and almost borders on invective. Evidently, the critic’s sense of respectability has been outraged and is having its revenge: the intellectual respectability of orthodox science–for magic is the bete noir of science–and the ethical respectability of conventional morality. And it has to be conceded, at the very start, that the outlook of the Tantras is distinctly magical, and that in them there has also been a deliberate taking of liberties with conventional morality. “The very head and front of their offending hath this extent, no more!” But a magical outlook need not necessarily be superstitious, although in these days it requires considerable courage to say so. It was a very wise saying of Bacon that there may be a superstition in avoiding superstition. More than at any time in the recent past is it being realised today that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the current philosophy, and that this more is not to be spirited away by a denial however vehement.
Investigations, whether in the psychological laboratory or the seance room, or the outside world of everyday experience, have established beyond doubt that there is a comparatively intangible but non-the-less real side of human experience not accountable to the mechanical regularities of science. Very little room is left here for superstitious credulity or ignorance. For example, the remarkable experiments of Dr. J. B. Rhine of Duke University have shown that what he has called extra-sensory perception is a hard fact and that people do have access to faculties like telepathy and clairvoyance under favourable circumstances and in a far larger measure than would be thought ordinarily possible. That prevision of future happenings is feasible has been shown by J. W. Dunne in his very interesting book, An Experiment with Time, where he tries to eke out his facts by a novel scientific theory. The mere admission of the possibility of such phenomena has very far-reaching consequences for science as well as philosophy. The conviction regarding the reality of such experiences is also the prelude to the search for methods by which such faculties may be developed. What a colossal waste of human opportunity it would be if mankind were to start the search afresh ignoring the vast material that is at hand! Yet, in the Tantras and the treatises on Yoga there is an amount of stuff gathered with infinite patience through centuries which would amply repay attention, if only the deep sincerity of the authors of these works were realised and the records taken seriously. Occultism need not all be humbug nor magic empty.
The evidence of the Tantras and of innumerable sadhakas goes to show that the occultism was not humbug nor the magic empty. The crucial test of any form of sadhana is efficacy, whether it leads to the desired result or not. The balance of testimony is that sadhana did lead to siddhi, if the necessary conditions, mainly psychological, were satisfied. The question arises how if magic was successful in the past why the success is not demonstrable now. It is not too much to say that it does not work now because the psychic atmosphere is, as it were, unsuitable, and hence the art is practically lost. But as the Yoga Sutra points out, siddhis on a minor scale can be had by even ordinary people with very little sadhana, like the perception of scents and the hearing of sounds without any objective basis, and that although these are of no use by themselves, they serve a useful purpose in carrying conviction to the sadhaka regarding the potentialities of further sadhana. It may be said without hesitation that the great attraction of the Tantras to the modern mind lies in the prospects raised by the tangible experience of minor siddhis. People find here something tangible, “thick”, to use William James’s word, something scientific and demonstrable in the broadest sense, which is a welcome change from the “thin” airy nothings of argumentative and speculative philosophy or the blind emotionalism of popular types of religion.
But the Tantras are not works which “he who runs may read”. They do not “carry their heart on their sleeve for daws to peck at”. They can be appreciated, if at all, as footnotes to sadhana. They are precisely what they claim to be, descriptions of processes and a record of results, and are not at all the outcome of imaginative speculation. This applies to the dhyanas of Yoga, to sadhana with the mantras and yantras of the Tantra, as well as to the meditations known as the Upanishadic vidyas. Failure to understand this is at the bottom of that impatience and lack of comprehension which provoke double-edged epithets like “idiocy”. A well-known historian of science has said complacently that the great division of mankind is into those who are willing to use the experimental method, and those who are not. Yet with what facility is not a scholar or scientist prepared to condemn off-hand results claiming to be based on experiment, while he himself is neither willing to experiment nor even to concede the validity of the experimental method. The rejection is pontifical, contemptuous and final. The loss, unfortunately, is not so much his as that of humanity.”
The implications of the magical outlook for science and philosophy are well worth examination. The oldest religions were an intimate compound of so-called “pure” religion of science and magic, the last being, as it were, the ground-work in which the other two manifested themselves. Such was the case with the religions of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, not to speak of the Western Hemisphere. In recent times, a host of investigators, beginning with Tylor, have tried to tackle the problem of the origins of religion. Huge works like Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough bear testimony to the vast quantity of material that has been collected. Anthropologists as well as students of mythology, and folklore, of philology and ethnology have devoted their attention to the subject. The latest to enter the field are the psychologists, especially of the psycho-analytical school, and Freud has had as interesting things to say as any one else. But all of them appear to have approached the subject through their own prepossessions, with postulates drawn from mechanistic biology and physical science and, after herculean labours, have proclaimed results comparable in human significance to the proverbial mouse which the mountain brought forth. And this mouse they had taken with them at the very start!
The hypothesis put forward by them and commonly accepted makes out magic as the villain of the piece, a spurious interloper whose elimination made it possible for true science and true religion to emerge. It is asserted that there can be no conflict between these two as they function in entirely distinct spheres, science in the physical world and religion in that of values where science does not intrude. Magic is pictured as the common enemy of both. But there are not wanting authorities like Freud who attempt to make out that religion itself has no better foundation than magic, and that it is nothing more than a “compensatory fantasy”, an attempt to “escape from reality”, as may be seen from his much discussed book, The future of an Illusion. He would leave nothing to mankind but mechanistic science to fall upon. And he has numerous adherents in spirit.
To discuss all the issues involved here would be impossible within the compass of a short paper. The principal issue may however be categorically stated. Religion implies a magical view of the universe. At its core it has been concerned with the perception and appreciation of something akin to personality at the of the universe, though not necessarily in the crude anthropomorphical sense. The most universal feature of all religions is the conviction that the constitution of the universe permits specific response to prayer. It is based on a monistic view of experience, positing its continuity and the possibility of psychophysical interaction. There is no sharp and unbridgeable gulf between matter and spirit or between subject and object. Ritual is no more than symbolic activity which exploits this conviction and helps to bring the individual into harmonious relation with his environment in the broadest sense. It results in direct experience, which is its sole aim as well as justification. But science by its very nature is hostile to such a view, being founded on assumptions unconnected with personality or purpose. In the very nature of things a conflict is inevitable between the religious and scientific attitudes, as they are alternative and antithetical modes of approach to experience. The problem is not solved but merely evaded by saying that science is not opposed to religion but only to the magical view of the universe which has gone along with it, or that science and religion work in wholly different spheres which do not intersect. To retain the husk of religion after discarding its most vital assumption is like keeping the bath tub after throwing out the baby.
The perspective of the Tantras is frankly magical. They have courageously experimented and have sought to preserve the integrity of experience, even where it involved going counter to accepted religious and moral traditions where these had become petrified and ceased to have significance. Their tendencies have often been revolutionary and this accounts for the deep hostilities they have aroused. They have been an adventure of the religious spirit. The incidents of the particular adventure are nothing, but the spirit of adventure is everything. The Tantrik adventure was in the field of the individual psyche, and its upshot was to show that this field was not a tiny dark patch but a veritable mirror held up to the universe, nothing less than a microcosmos. The distinction of the Tantras is that their spirit is not “other-worldly”. The Tantrik does not start with far-fetched assumptions. For him, the tangible world of actual experiences, this very world: Jagat is the mother: Amba. It is Devi and not the Devil. Between this world and the other there is no inevitable conflict. The limited experience is never separated from the Supreme and ineffable experience. The energy, Sakti, which is manifest in and as the universe, is indissoluble union with the Supreme Person, Siva. Siva and Sakti do not operate in incommensurable worlds like the Energy of science and the God of religion, nor do they oppose each other in a common sphere. The ecstasy of their union was the goal of the Tantrik sadhaka. When once this is experienced, all the paraphernalia of ritual becomes superfluous. If this is not realisable, what then is the use of all the ritualistic impedimenta? That is the message and significance of the Tantras for the modern world.