In the 10th century AD, a sandstone panel featuring eight figures was inserted into a temple in central India. The Hindu god Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, was placed on the far left of the scene, seated beside seven goddesses known as the Matrikas or mothers. Most are perched on the animals that acted as their vehicles, such as a swan, bull, and peacock, while three cradle infants on their laps. Any impression that this is a stock maternal scene, though, is dismissed by sight of the skeletal Matrika at the far right of the composition. This fearsome figure is known as Chamunda, and she was the mothers’ leader. The vehicle resting at her feet is no animal, but a human corpse, while Chamunda herself personifies battle-rage. This macabre appearance marks Chamunda apart from the other mothers, but they share her talent for war. When summoned to defeat demonic armies, the mothers perpetrated gruesome carnage, before drinking their victims’ blood and dancing ecstatically. It is all a far cry from earlier orthodox Hindu views of women as submissive and docile.
Celebrating feminine power lies at the heart of Tantra. Although the precise origins of this philosophy are unclear, its roots lie in Hinduism, and it probably emerged in the 6th century AD, with important early centres in eastern and north-west India. In many ways, Tantra can be seen as an anti-establishment response to orthodox Hindu teachings. These emphasised that the path to enlightenment took generations, and was advanced by shunning the trappings of material power and understanding that the world is an illusion. By contrast, Tantra offered a fast-track to enlightenment within a single lifetime, while also viewing the world as a divinely crafted reality, where it was desirable to gain physical or supernatural power.
Perhaps Tantra’s greatest transgression lay in its willingness to reject longstanding divisions between social classes, and even a distinction between pure and impure substances. Orthodox Hinduism ordered society from birth, with four classes divided into priests, rulers and warriors, farmers and traders, and labourers. Women were prevented from being initiated, while a fifth group was excluded from this class structure altogether, because jobs such as cleaning toilets and preparing corpses brought its members into contact with substances that were judged impure and therefore left them polluted. Although people needed to be initiated before receiving Tantric teachings, all of its practitioners were judged uniformly capable of achieving enlightenment. The movement’s far- reaching influence is currently the subject of a fascinating British Museum exhibition: Tantra: enlightenment to revolution (see ‘Further information’ box on p.41).
Margins to mainstream
‘It was a reaction to existing religion,’ says Imma Ramos, exhibition curator at the British Museum. ‘We believe Tantra began among devotees of Shiva and Shakti. Shiva was a Hindu god, while Shakti is a Hindu concept, but more abstract in nature. It translates as divine feminine power, which is believed to infuse all aspects of material reality, so all goddesses are manifestations of Shakti. The veneration of Shiva and Shakti arose during the early centuries AD, with the first mention of Shakti occurring in a text dating to between the 3rd and the 5th centuries. While Tantra originates a bit later, it pushes this concept further and introduces new gods and goddesses who were uniquely ferocious and transgressive. Tantra essentially teaches that, to achieve rapid enlightenment, we need to engage with spiritual obstacles, such as desire, aversion, and fear, in order to transcend them. This is what is referenced by a great deal of Tantric imagery, which is unique in its inclusion of macabre and erotic elements.’
The word ‘Tantra’ is a Sanskrit one, and describes religious texts documenting rituals believed to have been disclosed by gods and goddesses. Given the importance of the written word to Tantra, it is perhaps unsurprising that most studies focus on its texts, but the imagery can tell its own story. This is well illustrated by the implications it holds for understanding what impact the focus on divine feminine power had on the lives of real women. ‘We don’t really know anything about the authors of early Tantric texts,’ says Imma, ‘but we assume that they were probably male. This does not mean that women were empowered in principle but not in practice, though. One thing we learn from studying Tantric material culture is that there are many representations of female gurus, demonstrating the importance of women as teachers. So we have the visual evidence to support the important role that women played. Within the texts themselves, women are described as essentially blurring the boundaries between mortal and divine, so they should be venerated as embodiments of Shakti. According to Tantric texts, this made them superior teachers, an idea that was radical for the time. Earlier Hindu and Buddhist traditions taught that the female body was an impediment to achieving enlightenment, whereas Tantra taught that women could achieve rapid enlightenment because they were natural embodiments of divine feminine power.’
Despite Tantra’s revolutionary approach, it swiftly proved to be just as attractive to establishment figures as to the groups living on society’s fringes. This uptake was aided by the political turmoil that wracked 6th- century India. ‘Two major dynasties had dominated India, but both collapsed around 550,’ Imma points out. ‘This led to the rise of many, many new kingdoms across the subcontinent, and they were all vying for power and territory. One major reason why Tantra became so popular is because all of these new rulers needed to prove themselves, so they were attracted to its promise of worldly power. For them, Tantric deities not only promised to help abolish inner obstacles to enlightenment, such as anger and greed, but they could also be harnessed as protectors of the realm, and were believed to protect it against intruders, epidemics, and so forth.’ Gaining elite patrons helped to spread Tantra, and by the 9th to 10th centuries it could be found across India. Pilgrims, traders, and teachers took it further, carrying it across Asia. Tantra proved just as adept at infiltrating Buddhism as Hinduism, once again overturning plenty of existing orthodoxies, including the role of women and the sort of subject matter suitable for religious imagery.
The myriad competing kingdoms making up medieval India not only offered a receptive audience for Tantric teachings, but also a backdrop against which the arts could flourish. Public building projects offered a way for kingdoms to showcase their power, wealth, and – hopefully – permanence, while venerating powerful gods was believed to help keep royal dynasties secure. A 12th-century inscription from a temple of Shiva, for example, records how a guru worshipping for 28 days without break was credited with helping to repel an invading army. By then, Tantric deities would long have been a familiar sight in many popular places of worship, as they seem to have been incorporated from around the 8th century onwards. As well as illustrating the movement’s growing popularity, this public visibility could be seen as at odds with Tantra’s requirement for initiation before gaining access to its secret knowledge.
‘There is a tension between the public and the private’, says Imma, ‘which is essential for understanding Tantra’s role. People would have been familiar with Tantric masters, and able to recognise the incorporation of Tantric goddesses within temples. They would also receive popular forms of veneration. For example, according to the texts, Tantric temples would attract devotional worship during the day, with offerings like flowers, while rulers could also visit. At night, though, Tantric masters would have engaged in more private forms of worship, which could involve offerings of blood and flesh.’
These were far from being the only commodities used in Tantric practices that might have raised the eyebrows of non-initiates. Substances that orthodoxy considered impure, including human remains, intoxicants, and sexual fluids, were identified as suitable gifts to the Tantric gods and goddesses, or even seen as consumable by mortal practitioners on the road to enlightenment. The potential violations to ritual purity were one reason why teachers were needed to provide careful guidance, but it also encouraged a split between those who took the Tantric texts at face value, and others who saw the ingesting of such substances as symbolic rather than a literal requirement. This question of what is real and what is metaphorical arises time and again with Tantra. That this ambiguity could be a strength, is well illustrated by considering the sculpture and artefacts the philosophy generated.
More than meets the eye
Where orthodox Hindu and Buddhist imagery had presented deities in a tranquil state, Tantric gods and goddesses were shown in an altogether different light. Acts of sexual abandon were depicted with relish, while unsettling scenes were also a stock in trade. These could feature fanged or heavily armed deities, garlands of severed heads, corpses, dripping blood, and demonic sidekicks. Unsurprisingly, the skeletal Matrika Chamunda offered fertile ground for creepy imagery. Sculpture emphasised her uncanny stare and emaciated skin drawn tight over her bones, while human skulls were a favoured adornment and cremation grounds a regular haunt. Another popular subject was a manifestation of Shiva known as Bhairava, or the Lord of the Demonic Dead. In a fit of rage, Shiva had sent Bhairava to claim one of the heads of another god. Although Bhairava succeeded, he was punished and left to roam cremation grounds for 12 years, using the god’s head as a begging bowl. It was an existence that would have resonated with many on the margins of society.
‘The inclusion of the macabre, the transgressive or the erotic is often a way to recognise if a deity is Tantric’, Imma says. ‘But it has also been the source of much misunderstanding. The subject matter is often demonstrating something of a Tantric nature. In terms of what it means, according to the Tantric world view, only the most ferocious deities can abolish your inner obstacles to spiritual enlightenment. So, when you see scenes of violent carnage, it is often a metaphor for overcoming these inner obstacles. Tantric goddesses wielding multiple weapons, for example, have a deeper meaning. One armament can be the sword of wisdom, which destroys your ties to a sense of self. Equally, when deities sit on or trample corpses, the corpse is a symbol of the ego. So there are really interesting levels of symbolism that need to be read and understood. This is also true of the erotic imagery, with sex often representing the union of divine qualities such as wisdom and compassion, to be meditated upon and internalised. Seen this way, there was no contradiction in erotic imagery being produced in a Buddhist monastic context by celibate monks and nuns, for example.’
When it comes to the balance between what was literal and what was metaphorical, actual human body parts could play a part in Tantric Buddhism. Real-world versions of the cups and drums made from skulls seen brandished by Tantric deities exist, as do trumpets and aprons fashioned from human bones, with the exhibition featuring several examples from Tibet. Such artefacts were used during rituals, with the human remains believed to be infused with the power of the living individuals they were once part of. As a result, the bones of eminent lamas were particularly sought after. Sometimes such important individuals would bequeath their mortal remains to a monastery, but on other occasions charnel grounds presented an alternative way to secure the necessary materials. Some of the resulting adornments were beautifully worked, with one early 20th-century British colonial official in Tibet describing ‘splendid specimens… exquisitely carved from human bones’. It would be fair to observe that the colonial authorities in India took a rather dimmer view of some of its Tantric art. Their perceptions emphasise the very different reactions that material culture can inspire in different audiences, posing wider questions about how ancient imagery is interpreted.
‘Colonial officials in 19th-century India, during British rule, completely misunderstood Tantric imagery,’ Imma says. ‘They didn’t recognise the philosophy underpinning the imagery and assumed that it was demonic. They were particularly appalled by images of the goddess Kali. While she looks incredibly ferocious, with her gaping mouth and sword, she is a maternal figure, who in effect acts as a guide on the path to enlightenment.’ Despite this, images of Kali associated with corpses were taken as indications that she received real human sacrifices, leading to practitioners of Tantra being painted as violent criminals. Most notorious were the bands of Thugs – essentially brigands – who were believed to slay travellers on the road as sacrifices to Kali. A need to control such alleged horrors presented a handy excuse for the colonial authorities to tighten movement restrictions.
Meanwhile, a Western fascination with the Thugs led to models showing their supposed sacrifices being commissioned. One example, displayed in London, was even blamed for a surge in local villainy, with a contemporary commentator claiming it planted dangerous ideas in impressionable minds. Some of the erotic sculpture sent back from India was also deemed too risky for public consumption. One example, acquired by the British Museum in 1805, featured two scenes of a sexual nature. An earlier account of one of these had delicately noted ‘a man and a woman, in an attitude that I shall not venture to describe…’. This explicit sculpture was deposited in what has become known as the Secret Museum, a repository for objects sufficiently risqué that only a select group of visitors were permitted to inspect them. There the sculpture remained until the 1960s.
This coincided with a proliferation of Tantric imagery on the streets of London. ‘Tantra is reinterpreted in the 1960s and ’70s,’ Imma explains. ‘It is reimagined as a free-love movement that is simultaneously anti-capitalist and ecological, in the service of progressive politics. So, in Britain and the States, Tantra is seen as a liberating and anti-establishment force. There are examples of psychedelic posters, with one in the exhibition conveying an ecological message by drawing on Tantra’s affirmation of the world as divine and something that must be protected. Another instance is a poster inspired by Tantric depictions of sexual union, which reads its source material as essentially that of a cult of ecstasy. One example that will be familiar to many is the mouth and lolling tongue motif adopted by the Rolling Stones, which is modelled on depictions of Kali, whose demeanour had seemed so threatening in the 19th century. You certainly get some interesting and unexpected Western reinterpretations and appropriations of the philosophy.’
The Tantra: enlightenment to revolution exhibition is supported by the Bagri Foundation and will run until 24 January 2021 at the British Museum. For further details and updates during the COVID-19 pandemic, see www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/tantra-enlightenment-revolution.
A fascinating and gloriously illustrated book has been published to accompany the exhibition: I Ramos (2020) Tantra: enlightenment to revolution (Thames & Hudson, £35, ISBN 978-0500480625).
CWA is grateful to Imma Ramos and Maxwell Blowfield.
ALL IMAGES: courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, unless otherwise stated.