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Book review: Tantra Illuminated

I’m often asked by correspondents if there’s “one book” that will cover all aspects of tantra for a general reader. Of course there are many books which make the bold claim of being “the only book” a reader will ever need, but if there’s one book that I would unhesistatingly recommend to anyone – indeed that deserves a place on any bookshelf – it would be Christopher Wallis’ Tantra Illuminated (Mattamayūra Press, 2013, 506pp, p/bk).

This is not a book of ritual, nor is it jammed full of practices. Nor is it an attempt to syncretise tantrik teachings with western magical methods and ideas. People chasing “transgressive spirituality” or darque grimoires will have to look elsewhere. What Tantra Illuminated is though, is a clear and thorough introduction to the philosophy and history of nondual Śaiva Tantra from a scholar-practitioner who has brought together his own tantra practice with a rigorous approach to the very latest scholarly work on the subject – creating a unique work which will, I am sure, be of interest to anyone with a serious interest in Tantra.

Tantra IlluminatedPart One of Tantra Illuminated covers the basic teachings and philosophy of nondual Śaiva Tantra, and this alone makes the book an outstanding contribution to works on Tantra. Wallis outlines and explains the major concepts of Śaiva Tantra such as the five powers or Śaktis, the 36 Tattvas, and the Four levels of the Word in a thorough anc clear manner. Having spent some years struggling with some of these concepts, I can only applaud Christopher Wallis for having produced such a clear exegesis of the Śaiva philosophy.

Part Two of the book is devoted to a condensed history of the development of the Śaiva tradition – from the early beginnings of the Tantrik movement, to the Nine Sampradāyas. For each of the Sampradāyas Wallis provides information on the deities, principal mantra, key texts, and some discussion of the history and key concepts associated with that lineage. Of particular interest here is the section on the Kālīkula traditions – in particular, the Krama tradition – of which, there has been as yet very little published. Wallis draws heavily on the work of Alexis Sanderson here, and again this section is outstanding – providing an overview of Tantrik history which – hopefully – will help counter some of the wild and fanciful accounts of Tantrik history which are all too common in general works on the subject. This section also includes a discussion of Kashmir Shaivism, the contributions of the great master Abhinavagupta (including a summary of the contents of his great work, the Tantrāloka. Wallis also outlines later the development of post-classical tantra; tantra’s relationship to haṭha-yoga and “Modern Postural Yoga” (see this post for some related discussion).

Part Three of Tantra Illuminated is concerned with practice. Opening with a lengthy and thought-provoking discussion of two major concepts which are important to Tantrik practice – Śaktipāta and dīkṣā (initiation), Wallis moves on to a discussion of the figure of the guru – always a controversial subject in the West – and makes some salient points which are often missed out, particularly that “There is simply nothing in the practice of guru-yoga that indicates that the disciple ought to give up her capacity for independent critical thinking” (p342). He then gives a lucid overview of the three upāyas – the “Skillful Means to Liberation” and ends with an account of Tantrik ritual theory. Finally in this section, Wallis deals with the difficulties and hurdles faced by those who would practice Tantra Sādhanā today. He discusses issues which will be no doubt familiar to many readers – finding a guru, cultural bias, and the all-pervasive identification of Tantra with sex.

The final section of the book – the Afterword – gives the reader some useful advice on “finding out more”. Wallis gives a list of recommended scholars and their works, cautions against the use of the internet, and provides some useful tips on how to approach possible gurus – if you can find one that is!

Heavily footnoted, Tantra Illuminated also has three appendices giving (1) a translation of the opening verses of Abhinava’s Tantrāloka; (2) A brief overview of Krama worship; and (3) a list of key tantrik texts – sorted by sampradāya. There is also a brief guide on the pronunciation of Sanskrit.

All in all, Tantra Illuminated is simply excellent. I’ve only sketched out the contents of this book in order to keep this review from becoming too unwieldy. If you’re interested in tantra, you can do no no better than this book. I wish something like it had been available when I made my own tentative steps on this path some twenty-odd years ago. It would have saved me much puzzlement, and it is definitely a book I will return to again and again.