Tantra for the practitioner

Christopher D. Wallis, Oxford graduate in Comparative Religion and assistant professor of Sanskrit in Berkeley, treats us to a very well-written book: Tantra Illuminated. The Philosophy, History and Practice of a Timeless Tradition (Anusara Press, The Woodlands TX, 2012). It is academically sound yet stands out among the dry academic works by being very engaged with the theme of the book.

The writer defines himself as a scholar-practitioner, initiated while a teenager. First off, he goes through a lengthy exercise of defining his subject, drawing on external and internal understandings of Tantra. The word, literally “weaving-loom”, means “system”, “handbook to a system”, and then simply “book”. It is a class of scriptures written in the second half of the first millennium and the beginning of the second. Its topic is how to achieve liberation and other things besides.

A necessary explanation here is that Tantra has nothing to do with the Kāma Sūtra and very little with sexuality. (And to the extent it has, it teaches intercourse with retention of semen, so what most men look for in the sex act is the one thing to be avoided.) Of course, New Age channels and the internet are full of disinformation on the matter, and for some more time we will have to live with the Western conception of Tantra as related to sex. Sometimes workshop on Tantra are announced by teachers unconnected with the legitimate tradition: “If you feel like testing them, you can ask them what Tantra [scripture] they are drawing on (…) and which Tantric mantra they use in their daily sādhana [regular spiritual practice].” (p.432) But at least this gives the writer the opportunity to unchain his devils against the internet, an endless source of false claims about Indian religions.

At the end of it, he clarifies that he will limit himself to one specific tradition within Tantra, one that he knows intimately by practice: Śaiva Tantra as (once) practised in Kaśmīr.

A priceless compendium

The book contains a number of appendixes detailing the master-pupil lines of the different branches of Shaivism and Tantra. The height of this tradition was in the 10th century, with the Kashmiri polymaths Utpaladeva and Abhināvagupta. A quarter of the book (p.191-320) consists of a necessarily incomplete but already very detailed history of Kashmiri Shaivism and its offshoots in South India, Indonesia and Tibet.

To get a vivid picture of this tradition and of Indian asceticism in general, these biographical glimpses of its major figures are unsurpassed. Nine different traditions within Śaiva Tantra are described. Opposite poles are the orthodox or right-hand path, now still known as Śaiva Siddhānta, and the deliberately transgressive left-hand path of Kaula Tantra. Some of its schools were imposing institutions, but “like [the Buddhist university of] Nālandā, they were destroyed in the Muslim invasions”. (p.196) However, Shaivism’s loss of ascendancy was not only due to Islamic destruction: there was a spontaneous shift to the devotional Bhakti movement (which teaches surrender to the deity rather than autonomy through techniques) and the rise of the Nāth Yogis with their simplification of Shaivism known as Haṭha Yoga.

Another quarter (p.321-420) is devoted to the practice of this path. At length the writer explains the concepts and actual performance of initiation (dīkṣā) and transmission of energy (śaktipāta), and all the other practices, including the devotional ritual before a likeness of the deity and the meditative visualization (dhyāna) that is so typical of Tantra. Ideally, one pictures the deity in detail, with all the iconographical information depicted nowadays on dog-posters, and then identifies completely with the chosen god. We also learn that Abhināvagupta already taught what we know as “affirmations” of “positive thinking” under the name of śuddha-vikalpa (“pure resolve”): if you are dogged by a negative thought or self-image, carefully formulate its opposite and then repeat it mentally as a mantra.

But first the author gives us an enlightening summary of the philosophy of Śaiva Tantra (p.45-191). The teachings are at once related to lived reality. Thus, the four states of consciousness (waking, dreaming, sleeping and meditation) are not only explained, as they are in many books, but their occasional combinations are elaborated on: dreaming-in-waking, meditation-in-dreaming etc. Everything east of the Indus is counted, so we get the 36 Tattva-s (“substance”, “thatness”), the 12 goddesses or Kālī-s, the 4 levels of language, etc. But the overriding feature of this worldview is the couple Śiva and Śakti, and what they signify.


Like the devotional tendency (Bhakti), Kashmiri Shaivism is quite popular with Indophiles from a Christian background, because its God-centredness feels so familiar. The fourth-highest of the 36 Tattva-s, “substances”, in the Kashmiri Shaiva system is Īśvara, “the Lord”. Wallis holds it equal to the monotheistic Deity, meaning Yahweh or Allah, but also Kṛṣṇa or Avalokiteśvara, “the Lord who looks down (on the people below)”, the Buddhist personification of compassion. “Īśvara is a generic, non-sectarian form of God”. (p.142) He also equates idam aham, “this I am”, with the Biblical Ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I am who I am”.

“This I am” encapsulates the Upanishadic worldview in which everyone is a drop in the ocean of Brahma, and as such also related to one another. Thus, I am equal to the one in the sun: “Him am I”, So’ham. It has nothing to do with the Biblical concept of one jealous God. By contrast, “I am what I am” is what Moses imagines God answers to him when he asks for God’s name. The way the expression was used in similar contexts, it really means: “I don’t need to answer you, I can be anyone I want”. Many Christian theologians falsely translate it is “I am that I am”, which can be understood philosophically as “my essence is the fact that I exist”, at once an instant proof of God’s existence. They, and the Bible context itself, link it with a folk-etymology of the name Yahweh as “the being one”, “He Who is”, related to the verb form ehyeh. We have to get away from these exegetical concoctions and submit to the scientific approach of these texts. A century ago already, the Orientalist Julius Wellhausen showed that Yahweh comes from a Semitic root still preserved in Arabic and means “the blower”, “the storm”.

According to Wallis, the pre-Tantrik “Śaivas of the Atimārga were complete monotheists, some of the earliest monotheists in Indian ‘religion’.” (p.200) Well, no. It is already questionable whether they really worshipped strictly one God; but even if they did, it would not make them “monotheists”. The prefix mono- does not mean “one”, it means “alone”, and that is why Biblical scholars chose this term to describe the worship of a “jealous God” who tolerates no one beside Himself. No Śaiva text is quoted as calling on its readers to smash the idols of Viṣṇu. Moreover, we learn: “Some of them believed that Śiva had many lower emanations, called the Rudras, divine beings that ruled the various dimensions of reality.” (p.200) So, by Biblical standards, they were still polytheists. Note that many fashion-conscious anglicized Hindus claim that Hinduism is monotheistic, quoting the Ṛg-Vedic phrase: “The wise ones call the True one by many names.” This too will fail to satisfy Biblical monotheists, but it proves that Wallis only follows a widespread trend when he claims monotheism for his cherished tradition.

Kashmiri Shaivism is profoundly different from the Biblical religions, yet it has at any rate the element “theism” in common with them. But even this is not certain: a few scholars consider Kashmiri Shaivism as an atheistic system at heart. At any rate, the substance “God” is only number 4, and is crowned by three higher essences: Sadāśiva, “always/still Śiva”, Śakti, “energy, power”, and the highest, Śiva. Strictly, Śiva means “the auspicious one”, an apotropeic euphemism with which to flatter the terrible Vedic stormgod Rudra, “red (in the face)”, “angry”. But “Śiva is not the name of a god. Rather, the word is understood to signify the peaceful, quiescent ground of all reality.” (p.144)

At most, Śiva is a deus otiosus, “less likely to attract worship in a spiritual system that is focused primarily on the empowerment of its adherents.” Therefore, “it is usually Śakti who is worshipped as the highest principle”. (p.145) The role division is: “While Śakti is extroversive, immanent, manifest, omniform and dynamic, Śiva is introversive, transcendent, unmanifest, formless and still. Śiva is the absolute void of pure Consciousness.” (p.144) Typically, Śiva is depicted as masculine, Śakti as feminine. In some schools she totally eclipses her consort and acts as the first principle; this is called Shaktism.

God and Her Son

One thing is insufferable about this book, and another one deserves to be noted because it is not so innocent. Firstly, the politically desirable use of “she” when a person of unspecified gender is meant, and where proper English would require “he”, e.g. “each individual must decide for herself” (p.433), is already bad in general. Regularly, even for the Supreme Being “She” is used. Thus, in the middle of a discussion on Śiva, he speaks of “Her power”, and how we can “realize Her as formless”. (p.187) By contrast, the goddess Kālī is properly described as “She”. (p.189) Sometimes, the writer seems to realize the awkwardness of this practice of his (hers?), so we suspect some self-irony in a sentence like: “merely a temporary part He played, a dance She danced”. (p.162)

If anything, tinkering with God’s gender should take the Germanic etymology into account, which used the word God, meaning “worthy of worship”, “the sacred” (corresponding to Sankrit huta), as a neuter noun. Christianity made it masculine, as a translation of Deus/Theos. The Bible, both in its Hebrew and in its Greek parts, and every known religion that pays respect to it, exclusively uses the word “God” as masculine.

The role reversal with God as feminine is especially inept in the present context. Tantra sets particular store by sexual symbolism and counts God/Śiva as male, his manifestation and energy/Śakti as female. If I hadn’t read that elsewhere, I could have learned it in this very book. In India, Śiva is always indicated as “He”, eventhough he is the god who sometimes appears as one with his consort, Ardhanarīśvara, “the Lord who is half woman”. Here, at any rate, we see him in another appearance: Śiva as the perfect male united with his female counterpart. He gives a signal, she carries it out. It is like in procreation, where the man performs ten minutes’ play while the woman goes through all the motions of pregnancy, childbirth and suckling. Or if you prefer, it is like in ballroom dancing, where the man indicates the moves and directions while the woman does a lot more of the actual moving.

Overruling a venerable Indian tradition thousands of years old, with a profound symbolic structure, just to be on the safe side of a contemporary American fad, does not show much respect. Serious practitioners of that same tradition will doubt the writer’s assurance that he himself has hands-on experience of it. Rather, he is one of those Westerners who stays in his comfort zone when tasting at elements from an Indian tradition, which he adapts to his own (or his culture’s) idiosyncrasies.

Hatred of Hinduism

Secondly, many readers will overlook it, tucked away as it is in a half-sentence on p.112, and otherwise not realize its broader ideological significance: “In mainstream Hinduism – which incidentally has almost nothing to do with Śaiva Tantra except that it has sometimes been influenced by the latter – destruction is considered the special purview of Śiva when He is placed on a par with Viṣṇu and Brahmā.”

Most non-academic readers will be surprised to hear it, but the ruling convention among India-watchers is to have and express a fierce hatred of Hinduism. “South-Asian Studies” is one of the rare disciplines where the so-called experts actively work for the destruction of their major object of study. So, the one and only way of making the study of Śaiva Tantra respectable, and to be seen practising it, is to distance it as far as possible from “Hinduism”.

The statement that “mainstream Hinduism has almost nothing to do with Śaiva Tantra” is ridiculously untrue. The general Tantra and Yoga tradition is thoroughly Hindu, and most of Kashmiri Shaivism’s concepts existed before in Hindu scripture and still exist in other Hindu traditions. For instance, the central concept of the 36 Tattva-s (“elements”, “substances”) fully incorporates the older Sāṁkhya system of 25 Tattva-s without altering anything about it. The remaining Tattva-s too are familiar from other branches of Hinduism: rāgā (non-specific desire), māyā (manifest reality as the magic power of the deity), vidyā (systematic knowledge), Īśvara (Lord), Śakti, Śiva. Of māyā, he claims that “in other tradition, māyā means illusion” while in Tantra it means “”the Divine’s power to project itself into manifestation” (p.140). In fact, “illusion” is the meaning specific to Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, while the general Vedic or “Hindu” meaning is “a conjuror’s power to take any form”, and more precisely the alleged Tantric meaning of “the Divine’s power to project itself into manifestation”.

From the various definitions of Tantra which Wallis gives (p.33-34), the elements “theism”, “kuṇḍalinī yoga”, “mantra-science”, “yantra-s/maṇḍala-s”, “the gurū”, “bipolar symbology of god/goddess”, “secret path”, “initiation”, “ritual, esp. evocation and worship of deities”, “analogical thinking including microcosmic/macrocosmic correlation”, “mudrā-s”, “linguistic mysticism” and “spiritual psychology” will be familiar to practitioners of other Hindu traditions than Śaiva Tantra. Most of these components are already attested in the Veda Saṁhitā-s, the Upaniṣad-s or the Mahābhārata. Similarly, the four levels of understanding language and scripture, discussed at length on p.163-174, are already part of the Vedic tradition. When Śaiva Tantra became a distinct school, it simply continued most concepts and practices that it found. If Tantra must perforce be non-Hindu, fact remains that it borrowed just about everything from Hinduism.

Disparaging Hinduism as non-existent

A very common expression of this officially-sanctioned anti-Hindu attitude is the denial that Hinduism even exists. This writer pretends to be very original when he, predictably, takes this same position. For the benefit of the ignorant reader he starts “clarifying the biggest misunderstanding: there is no such thing as ‘Hinduism’”. (p.37)

Of course “Hindu” is a foreign word not used by Hindus referring to themselves in the classics. But it is not a “European” or “colonial” (meaning Portuguese or British) term. This Persian geographical term, meaning “people living at or beyond the Indus river”, was introduced by the Muslim invaders and already used by the Muslim scholar Albiruni in the 11th century. It meant every Indian Pagan, i.e. every Indian who was not a Jew, Christian or Muslim. That same negative definition is used in the political definition by Vināyak Dāmodar Sāvarkar in his influential book Hindutva (1924) and in the Hindu Marriage Act (1955). Practitioners of Śaiva Tantra will therefore commonly be designated as “Hindus”, whether they like it or not. And they like it enough when they solicit donations from the Hindu public, though (like the Hare Kṛṣṇa-s) they claim to be non-Hindu before a Western academic or Christian audience.

Moreover, modern scholarship has acknowledged Hindu attempts at defining a common ground since at least the 13th century. The several compendia of philosophies, typically treating Buddhism on a par with Sāṁkhya and other schools, served to see a common ground and aim in the different schools of what is now called Hinduism.

It is not necessary to espouse a common belief or ritual to share a common culture. Wallis uses a Christian definition of “religion”, viz. a common truth claim regarding the ultimate questions, and applies it to the Indian situation where it has no relevance. This assumption of Christian categories is typical of “Nehruvian secularism”, the state ideology in India and in the South-Asian Studies departments of the West. It does profound injustice to the Indian traditions (pantha) which share a common respect for the sacred (dharma) and a “live and let live” attitude to each other.


So, if the writer is a man of honour, he will apologize for these two cases of abject conformism. He will also correct them in a future edition. For, in spite of these mistakes, it is still to be hoped that this pleasant book about a momentous and little-known subject will go through many reprints.

koenraad_elstKoenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he began fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. He regularly blogs at koenraadelst.blogspot.com on issues pertaining to Hinduism today.