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Book Review: Śāktapramodaḥ of Deva Nandan Singh, edited by Madhu Khanna

Madhu Khanna should need no introduction from me. She was one of the first contemporary scholars to produce a comprehensive examination of Srikula with her Ph.D dissertation – The Concept and Liturgy of the Śricakra Based on Śivānanda’s Trilogy (Oxford University, 1986) – and her publications include: Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity (1994), Rta, The Cosmic Order (2004), and Asian Perspectives on the World’s Religions After September 11 edited with Arvind Sharma, (2013). She is currently the director of the Tantra Foundation.

SaktapramodahHer latest book – Śāktapramodaḥ of Deva Nandan Singh – is an edited compendium of sixteen tantric ritual manuals in Sanskrit; ten of which are devoted to the cluster of goddesses known as the Mahāvidyās: Kālī, Tārā, Soḍaśī, Bhuvaneśvarī, Chinnamastā, Tripurabhairavi, Dhūmāvatī, Bagalāmukhī, Mātaṅgī, and Kamalā. One text is devoted to the worship of Kumārī, and the last group of 5 are: Gaṇeśa, Viṣṇu, Śiva, Durgā, and Sūrya. Each text gives the dhyana for the deity, discourses on mantra and yantra, and includes ritual sequences, protective Kavachas and litanies of divine epithets. The Sanskrit text is accompanied by the Yantras for each deity and lithographic images.

The Sanskrit ritual texts are prefaced by a comprehensive introduction (97pp) by Madhu Khanna. Divided into seven sections – and worthy of release as a standalone work in itself – it opens with an introduction to the author-patron of Śāktapramodaḥ, his family-lineage, and his motivations for compiling and publishing the texts. The writing, compilation, editing and publication of Śāktapramodaḥ was initiated at the behest of Rājā Deva Nandan Singh Bahādur, an aristocratic zamindar, who had amassed a large collection of Śākta materials. Rājā Deva Nandan Singh was concerned with the re-invigoration of Kālī worship in his region and set himself the task of compiling a manual for the benefit of Śāktas. The first edition of Śāktapramodaḥ ([for] the “Joy of Goddess Worshippers”) was published in 1891, and a second edition in 1894.

Dr. Khanna then gives a general overview of the Mahāvidyā goddesses, following with a detailed account of each of the Mahāvidyās; detailing their interrelationships, affiliations, and genealogies. In reviewing the long and tangled history of the emergence of goddess families (parivāra), Khanna identifies the emergence of the Devimāhātmya (circa 6th century CE) as a significant turning point (see Sakti bodies -I) with the tantrization of these clusters of goddesses reaching its height by the fifteenth century. She discusses the varying categorisations of the Mahāvidyās, noting that their enumeration varies according to different texts and traditions, and points out that the popular english translation of vidyā as “knowledge” hardly does justice to the esoteric character of these goddesses. As is well-known, an “origin story” of the Daśamahāvidyās can be found in the Mahābhāgavata Purāṇa (see Sakti bodies -II for some related discussion), however, Dr. Khanna points out that each of the goddesses of the Mahāvidyā group has her own history and prior affiliations – both theological and regional. She proposes that the most well-known cluster of ten Mahāvidyās would have been consolidated between the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and that, given the different sectarian origins of the deities – that for example, Tārā and Chinnamastā were popular deities in Tibetan Buddhism, whilst Kamalā (an epithet of Lakṣmī) is a Vaisnava goddess – hypothesises that the Mahāvidyās cluster illustrates an attempt to reconcile and syncretise Buddhist, Saivite, and Vaisnava theologies. She states that:

“…the Śāktas create a space and voice for subaltern associations. The integration of devis from different regions gives prominence to marginalized goddesses such as Mātaṅgī, Dhūmāvatī and Bagalāmukhī, who were outside the Brāhmanical mainstream. In giving these goddesses a place of importance, the Śāktas enlist a broad-based community support for their religion” (p55).

She views the Mahāvidyās as a composite group which allow a synthesis between the Kālīkula and Śrīkula currents of goddess worship.

The next section of the introduction reviews the main structural components of Tantric devi-puja using the ritual sequence of the Mahāvidyā Kālī as an example. Khanna provides a detailed overview of the major segments of tantric ritual following the sequence given in the Śāktapramodaḥdhyāna; yantra; mantra; puja-vidhi; stotra; kavaca; hṛdaya; upaniṣad; śatanāma/aṣṭakam; and sahasranāma. This is a really useful section for anyone with an interest in the performance of tantric ritual, particularly her discussion of the proto-upaniṣads relating to particular devis and the puja-vidhi of Kālī.

The fifth section focuses on the Kumārī Tantra and the place in Śākta worship of the worship of the goddess embodied in the form of a “virgin” or a “chaste young girl”. Khanna traces this practice back to texts such as the Taittrīya Āraṇyaka (circa 3-4th century BCE) and the accounts of Greek travellers. She outlines significant temples where the worship of Kumārī takes place, including the cult of Kumārī in Nepal (see Jeffrey S. Lidke’s The Goddess within and beyond the three cities: Sakta Tantra and the paradox of power in Nepala-Mandala (Ph.D thesis, University of California, 2000 for further discussion.) The Kumārī Tantra of Śāktapramodaḥ abolishes all distinctions based on caste, and prescribes that all maidens invited for this worship are to be considered as being identical to the goddess and thereby treated with the utmost respect.

Section six reviews the group of texts of the deities Gaṇeśa, Viṣṇu, Śiva, Durgā, and Sūrya forming a pentad, which Dr. Khanna traces from their Vedic & post-Vedic origins and the circa-6th century CE Vaisnava Bhāgavatas who worshipped this pentad of deities, and over time, acquired many affiliations and homologies (with the five elements, for example). The Śāktapramodaḥ orders the tantras so as to give supreme prominence to Durgā, which reflects the Śākta disposition of the supreme reality being the goddess, followed by Śiva, Gaṇeśa, Sūrya and Viṣṇu.

Dr. Khanna explains that the mode of worship in these five tantras follows the prescriptions of the dharmasāstras; the only tantric elements being the inclusion of nyāsa, mudrā and the āravaṇa-puja of the yantra – the worship of the circle of goddesses (with respect to Durgā and Sūrya). This indicates the ways that the Smārta tradition incorporated tantric elements into its praxis and complicates the popular assertion that tantric texts stood in stark opposition to mainstream religious currents in India.

The concluding section provides an interesting perspective on the Śāktapramodaḥ as a text which bears multiple influences – both in terms of intra-textual and cross-lineage transmissions – including the influence of texts such as the 10th-11th century Prapañcasāra; the Śāradātilaka Tantra and the Rudrayāmala Tantra. Dr. Khanna ends the introduction with a call for further research into the vast corpus of Śākta texts.

Works that focus on the Mahāvidyās are rare, and the late David Kinsley’s Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahāvidyās (University of California Press, 1997) is probably the most well-known scholarly work to date (at least in English). This dearth of material alone makes Śāktapramodaḥ considerably welcome, with much that will be of interest to contemporary tantra scholars and practitioners alike. Madhu Khanna provides a great deal of new information concerning the Mahāvidyās and tantra ritual practice in general, quite apart from her work editing the texts of the Śāktapramodaḥ and making them available in this format.

This is a marvellous work which any serious student of tantra should consider acquiring. The book’s production is of a very high quality, the cover wraparound showing a painting of the ten Mahāvidyās in the Mithila style by Bhattoji Jha. My only slight caveat would be that beautiful though it is, the book weighs nearly 2 kilograms and is thus literally “heavy reading”.

Śāktapramodaḥ of Deva Nandan Singh, edited by Madhu Khanna is available from DK Printworld Hardback, 728pp, $55 plus postage. I look forwards to Madhu Khanna’s The Śrīcakra as Tripurasundari, History, Symbol and Ritual which is forthcoming.