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Eros and Magic in Java
By Peter Levenda
NICOLAS-HAYS, INC.Copyright © 2011 Peter Levenda
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An Introduction to Tantra
Almost every study of Tantrism begins by apologizing.
Robert L. Brown
The reason for the apology is simple, and points us in the direction we want to go: there is no consensus among scholars as to what the term Tantra actually refers. It is, in fact, a Western concept (as is Hinduism). Tantra is the result of more than a century of colonial scholars visiting India and seeing a discrepancy between normative Vedic Brahmanism and some shocking antinomian practices that we, in the West, would probably term "magic," or that equally slippery concept, "shamanism." Tantra became identified as a separate philosophy and was divided into Hindu Tantra and Buddhist Tantra—which is a misleading distinction that will get us nowhere in the end and which, logically, makes no sense if Tantra really is a separate philosophy.
In fact, according to André Padoux, one of the leading scholars of Tantra in the world today:
Neither in traditional India nor in Sanskrit texts is there a term for Tantrism; no description or definition of such a category is to be found anywhere. We know also that, more often than not, Tantric texts are not called Tantra.
Part of the problem lies in the West's reliance on the written word—on textuality and on textual analysis. Scholars have discovered books called Tantras that were written by Buddhists and still others that were written by Hindus—i.e., non-Buddhist Indians. This seems to indicate that there is some fundamental difference between the two practices. In fact, on the level of theory, there are differences, even important ones. On the level of practice, however, they are much the same. And Tantra is all about the practice.
And this is the point I want to make, and the direction in which we want to go.
There are two main religious currents that gave rise to the phenomenon known as Tantra: Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism is a catch-all term for what may better be described as "Hindu religious traditions," for there is no single religious faith that can be described as Hinduism. Rather Hinduism is a wide variety of religious and spiritual experiences encountered on the sub-continent of India. While we will continue to use the term Hinduism for the sake of convenience, it should be noted that we do that primarily to distinguish the indigenous religions of India from Buddhism, which came much later.
There are scriptures that are considered Hindu; these include the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Puranas, among others. There are also the famous epic poems the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that are just as important to the Indian people and that also were introduced into Indonesia at an early date. These epics were embraced by the population there as well, finding one manifestation in the famous wayang kulit, the shadow puppet theater that has tremendous cultural, social, and religious importance for the Javanese.
It was Vedic Hinduism that provided the rigid social structure known as the caste system. No one really knows how old the Vedas are, but they can be reliably dated to sometime in the second millennium BCE. Written in Sanskrit, they may be considered the core texts of Indian culture and faith. They contain instructions for the various rituals that should be performed, but they also contain medical knowledge, astronomical lore, and—in the case of the Atharva Veda, the so-called "fourth Veda"—occult texts as well.
One of the primary rituals of Vedic Hinduism is the Homa, or fire ritual, sometimes also called the Agnihotra (agni is the Sanskrit word for "fire"; hotra means "healing") when used to refer to the twice-daily fire offering, the most basic form of the ritual. This rite is reminiscent of the fire rituals of the Zoroastrians and has many variations, depending on their purpose. It is considered quite ancient and probably pre-Vedic. Basically, a fire is created in a special device using consecrated material—often ghee (clarified butter), as well as milk, honey, or other substances specific to the purpose. These form the basis of offerings, which are accompanied by the relevant prayers and meditations. The device or fire pit is often in the shape of an upside-down pyramid that allows the fire to burn quite hot. The cardinal direction practitioners face during the Homa ritual is of great importance, as are the number of Brahmins who are performing it and the purpose for which it is being performed. Even in the relatively staid Vedic practice of the Homa ritual, the symbolism is often interpreted quite deliberately in a sexual manner, with the fire representing the yoni, or sexual organs, of a goddess. The Homa ritual eventually found a place in Tibetan Buddhist practice, as well as in Japanese Shingon ritual. Its practice is amply represented in the Tantric temples of Java.
Buddhism, of course, owes its origins to its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, who it is said was a prince living in northeast India sometime in the sixth century BCE, or perhaps a little later. While not much is known definitively about his life, most sources agree that he was born to a family of privilege and he is usually referred to as Prince Siddhartha. At the age of twenty-nine, he decided to end his life of ease and isolation from the rest of the world and ventured outside the palace walls to see real human existence as it is.
According to canonical Buddhist sources, he was astonished and saddened by the sights of sickness, death, and misery that were everywhere in the world, and he devoted himself to finding a solution to the human condition. After years of false starts with a variety of gurus and ascetic disciplines, he chose silent meditation. During the course of this practice, he realized that the root of all suffering was attachment: to things, to people, to ideas, and particularly to the concept of an individual self. The solution, he claimed, was non-attachment, even to the self, even to the gods. Because humans were attached to objects that gave them no real joy or happiness, he came to the conclusion that these objects did not really exist in any kind of absolute sense, but were illusions and impediments to spiritual liberation—here understood as freedom from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. By grasping after things, we remain unsettled spiritually. In fact, by assuming that we have a soul at all (or an ego, a self, a personality), we identify with the ephemeral, with a string of events that we believe constitute individuality. By withdrawing from the world—or, at least, from lusting after the things of the world—we begin to find a well of inner peace.
While accepting that we are making a much longer and more detailed story too short, we can say that the Buddha attained an exalted state of consciousness—illumination, or enlightenment, the ultimate stage—and then proceeded to teach others how to reach the same stage. The methods utilized by Buddhists involve intellectual study, meditation, and a kind of psycho-spiritual practice of negation in order to reach a perfect state of non-attachment. Among the Eastern Orthodox monks of the Christian world, this is sometimes called apophatism. It is a way of knowing God by saying what God is not, as opposed to what God is, since God is essentially unknowable. To a Buddhist, however, there is no God at all. God is perhaps the supreme illusion, the last obstacle on the way to perfect illumination. The end result of Buddhist apophatism is the realization that there is only a kind of absolute, albeit blissful, Void.
Buddhism is non-dualist for obvious reasons. In Buddhism, there is no "this" and "that." The multiplicity of things perceived is an illusion, a kind of magic theater that distracts the spirit from true understanding. The goal of Buddhist practice is to achieve perfect Unity, a state where there is no "I" and "you" and "it," but only pure essential Being. However, one cannot arrive at that destination overnight, or merely by thinking very hard about it. It requires a program of phased initiations involving strenuous forms of meditation and ritual practice, and these vary from school to school, from sect to sect.
The oldest form of Buddhism, known as Theravada, is found today primarily in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Mahayana Buddhism, a later form, is discovered in northern Asia: in China, Japan, and Korea. In Tibet, however, there is a third form, known as Vajrayana Buddhism, that is virtually indistinguishable from Tantra, but that has roots in Mahayana Buddhism as well as in the indigenous religion of Tibet.
Theravadin Buddhist scriptures include the Pali Canon, the oldest known Buddhist writings, which contain a variety of what are known as suttas (or, in non-Pali usage, the more familiar sutras). These include instructions for Buddhist disciples and discipline, as well as deeper articulations of Buddhist thought. One of the most famous of these is the Dhammapada, which has undergone several translations (including that by Max Muller in his Sacred Books of the East series), and the Brahmajala Sutta.
Mahayana scriptures are of later creation, but are based—to a certain extent—on some of the earlier Theravadin suttas. The origins of Mahayana Buddhism are in dispute, but the earliest Mahayana writings date from about the first century CE and are largely known from their Chinese- and Tibetan-language originals. While Theravada is thought to represent a pure form of Buddhism, Mahayana is sometimes characterized as a "popular" form of the same belief system. Perhaps the most famous of the Mahayana scriptures are the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Heart Sutra, the latter of which is only sixteen sentences long and contains the famous phrase: "Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form."
In India, Buddhism reached an early crescendo, but had lost a great deal of its influence by the beginning of the medieval period. The Hindu religious tradition, however, continued and became stronger. As India moved out of its Buddhist period, Tantra grew quickly and may be said to have come into its own.
As mentioned, there are actual texts known as Tantras. These are largely in the form of dialogues between the Indian God Shiva and his female consort. This consort can be identified variously as Parvati, as Uma, as any one of dozens of other goddesses, or simply as Shakti. In any case, the female consort represents power: spiritual power. The whole focus of Tantra is on this power, which is believed to pervade every aspect, every particle, of the universe. By aligning oneself with this power, one can also effect material ends. For that reason, Tantra has had a following among those who find the traditional methods of worship, the caste system, and the Brahminical hierarchies stifling or inefficient, and among those who wish to have direct experience of the divine. The motivation for this may be purely spiritual—enlightenment or nirvana— or it may be purely mundane—for instance, obtaining a lover, wealth, or health. Or it may be both at the same time. In this, Tantra is virtually identical to Western forms of ceremonial magic and, indeed, the two systems have a great deal in common.
Tantra cuts across denominational boundaries, as does Western magic. One can be Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant—or anything else, for that matter—and still be a magician in the Western sense. Magic is a practice, as opposed to a coherent, carefully articulated philosophy, although it is predicated on a certain view of the interconnectedness of the universe, the doctrine of correspondences, and the idea that knowledge of the inner workings of the universe can give a person the ability to effect change at a distance using methods that seem to defy normal concepts of cause and effect. It is also based on a belief that you can become "as a god." Indeed, some magicians are drawn to the practice because they believe it enables them to commune directly with the divine, without the encumbrance of a high priest or other middle-man. It is a practice that is available to anyone, from clergyman to commoner, as is Tantra. And it is a threat to the status quo—politically, religiously, and culturally.
As is Tantra.
Like magic, Tantra is a technology. It is a means to an end. It involves the manipulation of consciousness through ritual, the end result of which has been pre-determined by the practitioner. And, as a technology, it makes use of all available materials. The tools of Tantra are the tools of consciousness—the five senses. Virtually anything can be employed in a Tantric ritual, from food and wine, to drugs, icons, incense, music, and sex, but always with a concentration on the physical body itself. While many of the texts called Tantras are deeply profound in their explanations of how reality is structured—using either dualist or non-dualist approaches—the attraction of Tantra is found mainly in the practices that permit devotees access to altered states of consciousness and the elevation of the mind to spiritual realms—i.e., to illumination.
Without these practices, the texts themselves are virtually useless. The texts are methodologies that are meant to be applied, instruction manuals intended to be used. They are recipe books, in a sense—and imagine how useless a recipe book is in the hands of someone who does not cook. This is the distinction that can be made between normative scripture-based religions like Christianity and Tantra. In Christianity, the Bible is the ultimate spiritual authority and, for many fundamentalist Christians, the only authority. Reading the Bible and preaching the Bible constitutes the core experience. (Conversely, a mystic may observe that those who can, do; while those who can't, preach.) A Tantrika (a practitioner of Tantra) may well ask: How can we use the Bible to attain altered states of consciousness? How can we use the Bible to come directly into the presence of the divine? Is the Bible a manual of operation? Does the Bible teach how to breathe, how to chant, how to visualize?
That the Bible does none of these things is obvious. However, there were groups of believers—both Jewish and Christian—who analyzed Biblical writings to derive physical and spiritual practices from them. These were the Kabbalists, the mystics, the magicians. Their role models were Ezekiel, Moses, and Solomon (and, for Christian Kabbalists, the Book of Revelation). They wrote their own texts, their own "Tantras": the grimoires. In Asia, the Tantrikas based their ritual syntax on their own spiritual culture—the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata—and eventually developed the wider and more specific field of texts known as the Agamas, the Samhitas, and of course the Tantras themselves. Thus, there would be greater communication between a medieval European magician or sorcerer and a medieval Indian Tantrika than there would be between a Catholic priest and a Brahmin. Indeed, there are respected scholars in this field who have promoted the idea that there was actual contact between Kabbalists and Tantrikas centuries ago, with a resulting cross-fertilization of ideas and practices. We will come to that later.
It is my intention to demonstrate that the practice of Tantra, in some sense, takes place outside the philosophical or theological structures that have been imposed on it, either by adherents of the different religions through which Tantric texts have appeared over the centuries (most notably Indian religions, but also Chinese and Japanese faith systems) or by foreign observers such as English colonial scholars and commentators. Indonesia is a useful laboratory for this investigation, because many of the religions of the world have had an impact on its culture—especially in Java—from the Hindu religious traditions and Buddhism (in all its forms) to Islam and Christianity, and even including such modern-day spiritual movements as Theosophy. With all that, however, certain indigenous practices and beliefs have survived the imposition of foreign dogmas and faith systems ever since the beginning of Java's recorded history. From this perspective, Javanese mysticism has as much to say to us about how Tantra not only survives but thrives in a multireligious, multi-cultural environment as does any study of Tantra in its indigenous land, the Indian sub-continent.
In order to accomplish this, we will look first at the history of Tantra and even offer some ideas concerning its origins. Using this as a roadmap, we will then approach Javanese mysticism—kejawen and kebatinan— and then Java's Tantric temples themselves to understand why they were designed the way they were. We will look at present-day Javanese practices that bear striking similarity to Tantra as traditionally understood. Then we will use what we have learned from this fusion of theory and practice, text and ritual, to take a look at modern Western ideas of Tantra, as enshrined in the rituals and concepts of modern esoteric and hermetic societies, Western and Eastern.
Excerpted from Tantric Temples by Peter Levenda. Copyright © 2011 Peter Levenda. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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