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Indian Paths to Immortality
The emperor Aurangzeb issued a firman to Anand Nath, the abbot of Jakhbar, an obscure monastery in the Punjab, in 1661 or 1662:
The letter sent by Your Reverence has been received along with two tolahs of quicksilver. However, it is not so good as Your Reverence had given us to understand. It is desired that Your Reverence should treat some more quicksilver and have that sent, without unnecessary delay. A piece of cloth for a cloak and a sum of twenty-five rupees which have been sent as an offering will reach (Your Rever ence). Also, a few words have been written to the valiant Fateh Chand to the effect that he should always afford protection.
The greatest Mogul persecutor of Hinduism in history offers his protection to a Hindu abbot named Nath in exchange for twenty grams of treated mercury. What is the story behind this curious missive?
1. Sexual Fluids in Medieval India
Some time around the sixth century A.D., a wave of genius began to sweep over India, a wave that has yet to be stilled. This wave, which took the form of a body of religious thought and practice, has been interpreted in a number of different ways by Indians and westerners alike. What some have called called madness and abomination, others have deemed a path to ecstasy or the sublime. Such have been the evaluations of this phenomenon, which has, over some fourteen hundred years, never ceased to enthuse and confound.
The Indians who innovated this body of theory and practice called it tantra, "the warp (of reality)." The word has a most ancient pedigree. Its root, tan, means "to stretch," as one would a thread on a loom (also called tantra) or, in Vedic parlance, a body (tanu) to be sacrificed on an altar within the ritual framework (tantra). Those persons who followed the way of tantra were called tantrikas, and their written and orally transmitted works the Tantras.
Indian tantrism, in its Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain varieties, did not emerge out of a void. It was on the one hand influenced by cultural interactions with China, Tibet, central Asia, Persia, and Europe, interactions which had the Silk Road and medieval maritime routes and ports as their venue. Much more important, however, were the indigenous Indian roots of tantrism, which was not so much a departure from earlier forms of Hinduism as their continuation, albeit in sometimes tangential and heterodox ways. This book explores the uniquely Indian foundation of tantrism. More specifically, this book is an inquiry into those Hindu sectarian groups that have come to be known as the Siddhas, which, appropriating traditions that were more ancient than those of tantrism itself, did not in fact fully flower until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As a loosely structured religious community identified with a particular body of practice, the Sid-dhas have had greater staying power than the tantrikas and continue to form a visible part of the Indian religious landscape.
As a common noun, siddha means "realized, perfected one," a term generally applied to a practitioner (sadhaka, sadhu) who has through his practice (sadhana) realized his dual goal of superhuman powers (siddhis, "realizations," "perfections") and bodily immortality (jivanmukti). As a proper noun, Siddha becomes a broad sectarian appellation, applying to devotees of Siva in the Deccan (Mahesvara Siddhas), alchemists in Tamil Nadu (Sittars), a group of early Buddhist tantrikas from Bengal (Mahasiddhas, Siddhacaryas), the alchemists of medieval India (Rasa Siddhas) and, most especially, a mainly north Indian group known as the Nath Siddhas.
These last two groups greatly overlapped one another, with many of the most important Nath Siddhas—Gorakh, Matsyendra, Carpati, Dattatreya, Nagnath, adinath, and others—being the authors (if only by attribution) or transmitters of a wide array of revealed yogic and alchemical teachings. The medieval Nath Siddhas and Rasa Siddhas further interacted with a third group. This was the pascimamnaya (Western Transmission), a Sakta sect devoted to the worship of the goddess Kubjika which, based mainly in Nepal, also incorporated tantric, yogic, and alchemical elements into its doctrine and practice.
A major point of convergence between these three groups, within the broader tantric matrix, was their cult of the Siddhas who were for them not historical figures but rather demigods and intermediaries between the human and the divine. Cults of these semidivine Siddhas go back to at least the beginning of the common era; they and their peers the Vidyadharas (Wizards) are a standard fixture of Indian fantasy and adventure literature throughout the medieval period. Central to these cults was their "popular" soteriology, which had little in common with the "authorized" soteri-ologies of Vedic and classical Hinduism. The worlds of the Siddhas and Vidyadharas were the closest homologue India has known to popular western notions of heaven as a place of sensual gratification and freedom from the human condition. Those capable of acceding to these atmospheric levels remained there, liberated from the fruits of their acts (karma) and forever exempted from the lower worlds of rebirth (samsara) but not divested of their individuality as is the case with the impersonal workings of release into the Absolute (moksa). A precursor of the Puranic notion of the "seventh heaven" of brahmaloka or satyaloka, the world of the Siddhas was a place that endured even beyond the cyclic dissolution (pralaya) at the close of a cosmic eon (kalpa). This popular tradition, whose reflection is found in the lower hierarchies of the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons, in adventure and fantasy literature, and in humble shrines to these anonymous demigods, lay beyond the pale of brahmanic control and legitimation. So too would the medieval Siddha movements, which appropriated for themselves, with certain modifications, the preexisting Siddha soteriology.
The most important innovation of these medieval Siddha traditions (the Nath and Rasa Siddhas in particular) was the concrete and coherent method they proposed for the attainment of the Siddha world and Siddha status. This is what had been lacking in the earlier Siddha cults: the belief system was there, but the notions of how to reach that blessed abode were vague at best. Certain traditions maintained that it could be reached through travel, others through the miraculous intervention of the Siddhas one propiated, others through more serendipitous means. The later medieval Siddha movements proposed the following working principle: mere humans could, through their tantric, yogic, and alchemical practice, climb the ladder of being and accede to the ranks of the semidivine Siddhas. In this new perspective one could, by perfecting oneself, transform perfected role models into colleagues. A trace of the notion of a primordial ontological difference between those born perfect and those who made themselves perfect (not unlike the difference between old money and new) remains in works which categorize the Siddhas into the three oghas (streams)—the divine, the perfected, and the human—but the dividing line between them was a dotted one that could be crossed through a systematic body of esoteric practice.
Apart from this common heritage, a second point of convergence between the Nath Siddhas, Rasa Siddhas, and the Western Transmission lies in their common body of mystic doctrines and practices involving sexual fluids—male and female sexual fluids, to be sure, but ever so much more. Since the time of the Vedas, rasa—the fluid element found in the universe, sacrifice, and human beings—has been more or less identified by Indians with the fount of life. All fluids, including vital fluids in humans, plant resins, rain, the waters, and the sacrificial oblation, are so many manifestations of rasa. So too, since at least the dawn of the common era, Indians have known that the miracle of conception occurs through the union of male and female vital fluids, semen and uterine blood. With early tantrism, these procreative fluids came to be conceived as "power substances" for the worship of and ultimately the identification with gods and goddesses whose boundless energy was often portrayed as sexual in nature. Nearly always, the god in question was some form of Siva, the god whose worship in the form of a linga (phallus) dates from at least the second century B.C. The way to becoming a "second Siva"—for this has nearly always been the goal of tantric practice in its various forms—was, in early tantrism, realized through the conduit of a horde of wild goddesses (which the tantrikas identified with their human consorts), generally known as yoginis. These "bliss-starved" goddesses, attracted by offerings of mingled sexual fluids, would converge into the consciousness of the practitioner, to transform him, through their limitless libido, into a god on earth.
Following the brilliant tenth- through eleventh-century reconfiguration of Trika Kaulism by Abhinavagupta and others, most of the messy parts of tantric practice (at least outward practice) were cleaned up, aestheticized, and internalized in different ways. For the later "high" tantric schools, the cult of the yoginis and the ritual production, offering, and consumption of sexual fluids were continued, but only within the restricted context of the "secret practice" of an inner circle of initiates. Outwardly, however, ritual sexuality had undergone a paradigm shift. Sexual fluids themselves were no longer the way to godhead; rather, it was in the bliss of sexual orgasm that one realized god- consciousness for oneself.
In certain cases, all such transactions involving sexual fluids became wholly internalized and incorporated into the so-called subtle body (suksma sarira). Here, all humans were viewed as essentially androgynous with sexual intercourse an affair between a female serpentine nexus of energy, generally called the kundalini, and a male principle, identified with Siva, both of which were located within the subtle body. An intricate metaphysics of the subtle body—its relationship to the brute matter of the gross body as well as to the universal divine life force within, the bipolar dynamics of its male and female constituents, etc.—was developed in every tan-tric school.
It was especially within two tantric sects, the Western Transmission and the Yogini Kaula (transmitted by Matsyendra), that a practical concomitant to this speculative—and in some cases gnoseological or soteriological—metaphysics came to be elaborated. This was hatha yoga, the "method of violent exertion," whose system of the six cakras ("wheels [or circles] of transformation") became the centerpiece of the doctrine and practice of the Nath Siddhas—who claim their origins in the person and teachings of Matsyendranath. For the Nath Siddhas, the siddhis and jivanmukti were the direct results of the internal combination and transformation of sexual fluids into amrta, the divine nectar of immortality.
Matsyendranath and the founders of the Western Transmission were not alone, however, in their persistent emphasis on the sexual fluids as (generally internalized) power substances, rather than simply as byproducts of a transubstantiating experience of bliss. At about the same time as their hathayogic systems were being elaborated, the matter of sexual fluids was being broached from a novel and rather unexpected angle by a third group. These were the Rasa Siddhas, the alchemists of medieval India, whose doctrines are best summed up in a classic aphorism from the foundational Rasarnava: yatha lohe tatha dehe, "as in metal, so in the body"
In a universe that was the ongoing procreation of the phallic god Siva and his consort the Goddess, a pair whose procreative activity was mirrored in the fluid transactions and transformations of human sexuality, in a universe whose every facet reflected the fundamental complementarity of the male and female principles, the mineral world too had its sexual valences and fluids. In the case of the Goddess, her sexual emission, her seed, took the form of mica, while her uterine or menstrual blood was identified with sulfur. There are a number of reasons for these identifications, not the least of which are chemical: mica and sulfur are important reagents in the purification and activation of the mineral homologue to divine semen. This is mercury, and if there ever was an elective affinity to be found at the interface between chemistry and theology, this is it. For what a miraculous mineral mercury is! Mercury is a shining liquid, amazingly volatile, seemingly possessed of a life of its own: what better homology could one hope to find for the semen of a phallic god? But this is not all. Mercury's chemical behavior as well is nothing short of miraculous, and as such it stands, in the words of an early twentieth-century scholar alchemist as the "central idea upon which the whole structure of the Hindu Chemistry is erected: viz., the fact that mercury can be made to swallow, by special processes, a considerable quantity of gold or other metals, without any appreciable increase in the weight of the swallowing mercury"
Mercury, which when "swooned" drives away disease, "killed" revives itself, and "bound" affords the power of flight, is the presence in the mineral world of the sexual essence of the Absolute. As such, it is as all-absorbing as Siva who, at the end of cyclic time, implodes the entire universe into his yogic body, thereby transforming existence into essence. This is precisely what occurs in alchemical reactions. A "seed" (bija) of gold or silver is planted in mercury (whose powers of absorption have been massively enhanced through a series of treatments in sulfur, mica, and other mainly "female" elements), which then becomes possessed of a "mouth" capable of "swallowing," of absorbing into itself, according to the alchemical scriptures, millions, even billions and trillions, of times its mass in base metals. These are thereby transmuted into gold, and in a tradition in which "gold is immortality," that's saying a mouthful. All that remains is for the alchemist to swallow the mercury in question to himself become a second Siva, an immortal superman (Siddha) whose every bodily secretion becomes transmutative and transubstantiating. In tandem with his work in the laboratory, the Hindu alchemist also engages in the practice of hatha yoga, as well as a certain number of erotico-mystical tantric operations involving the sexual fluids that he and his female laboratory assistant generate in order to catalyze reactions between divine sexual fluids in their mineral forms. In the end, all is a continuity of sexual fluids.
2. Tantrikas, Siddhas, and Yogis
The sole surviving heirs to this medieval legacy are the Nath Siddhas, who continue to be revered, on a popular level at least, as India's masters of yoga and wizards of alchemy, the last living guides along the secret paths to supernatural power and bodily immortality. Theirs is a powerful legacy. On the one hand, they are perfected immortals who have chosen to remain in the world of men, moving through it even as they transcend its transience and attendant sorrows. On the other, for persons still trapped in this world, a good Siddha is hard to find.
Hindu tantrism disappeared as a major sectarian phenomenon a number of centuries ago, a victim of its own excesses. These excesses were primarily of two orders. The first and best documented is nonetheless less important than the second. This excess was one of bad publicity. In seeking to truly live out their principles of nondifference—between god and creature, elite and preterite, squalor and grandeur, the exalted and the demented—many tantrikas, openly indulging in cross-caste adultery, co-prophagy, and all manner of other purity violations and antisocial behavior (or at least openly claiming to do so), were simply revolting to the general public. The second excess, which truly sounded the death knell of tantrism as an important religious movement, came as the result of a sea change in tantric theory and practice. Following Abhinavagupta, tantrism became transformed into an elite mystic path that was all too complicated, refined, and cerebralized for common people to grasp. The man on the street could not recognize himself in its discourse. It bore too little resemblance to his experience as a mortal being inhabiting a body doomed to age and die, entangled in the meantime within a network of family and social relations; wielding plowshares, hammers, and the like; living, loving, and dying on the trampled earth of a village his people had inhabited for hundreds of years. The thirty-six or thirty-seven metaphysical levels of being were incomprehensible to India's masses and held few answers to their human concerns and aspirations.
Excerpted from The Alchemical Body by David Gordon White. Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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