Elizabeth Sharpe and “The Secrets of the Kaula Circle”
Elizabeth Sharpe (1888-1941) is one of the “forgotten” writers on India of the early twentieth century. Born in Bangalore in 1888, she seems to have spent most of her life in India, with a brief trip to England in the 1930s. She wrote several books concerning aspects of Indian life, including at least one work on tantra; translated sanskrit texts such as the Siva Sahasranama; and had a passionate interest in the education of women in India. She is best-known for her 1936 novella, The Secrets of the Kaula Circle – a tale of black magic and left-hand tantric “orgies” which featured a recognisably unflattering portrayal of Aleister Crowley.
Very little is known about Elizabeth Sharpe in terms of biographical information. She was born in Bangalore in 1888, her full name being Phoebe Elizabeth Lavender, and at the age of 17 in 1905, married an officer of the Royal Ordnance Corps, John Charles Sharpe (1877-1943). According to David Templeman (in his introduction to the recent Teitan Press edition of The Secrets of the Kaula Circle) although the two were never formally divorced, they led quite seperate lives.
Elizabeth Sharpe was the personal secretary of the Thakur Sahib of Limbdi province (now part of Gujurat state) Sri Sir Daulatsingh (1868-1940), of whom she later wrote a biography. She also acted as private tutor to his sons, and also special adviser to the Thakur regarding the education of women. She is known to have corresponded with Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore (he wrote the foreword to her biography of the Thakur) and A.C. Benson (Master of Magdalene College) – mainly concerning matters relating to the education of one of the Thakur’s sons.
Under the British Empire, Limbdi was classified as a “salute state” – a protocolary privilege by which the ruler would be formally greeted with a gun salute – the number of salutes reflecting the degree of prestige accorded to the ruler of a princely state. The 21 gun salute was the highest salute accorded to a local ruler. The Thakur of Limbdi was accorded a 9-gun salute. Sri Daulatsingh was considered an able ruler and administrator, particularly with regard to education and agriculture and was granted the titles of KCIE (Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire) and KSCI (Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India). He represented India at the state opening of the first parliament of the commonwealth of Australia in 1901 and was, by all accounts, very supportive of the British in the Great War, raising war funds and encouraging his subjects to join the armed forces. His predecessor, Maharana Sri Sir Jaswantsinhji Fatehsinhji Sahib (1859-1907) attended the 1887 Golden Jubilee celebration for Queen Victoria in London – and later in the same year, made a visit to the USA. He is particularly notable for being an influence on Vivekananda – and to have rescued Vivekananda when he fell into the hands of a “degenerate sect of sex-worshippers” (see Swami Vivekananda’s Wanderings In Gujarat for account). Lord Willingdon, the Governor of Bombay, paid a visit to Limbdi in 1916, the day of the formal opening of the Lady Willingdon Girls’ School (Indian States: A Biographical, Historical, and Administrative Survey 1922) – although the school seems to have been founded in 1859.
Elizabeth Sharpe published a number of books between the period 1924-1939. These were: Shri Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita (London: Arthur H. Stockwell, 1924); The Flame of God: A Mystical Autobiography (London: Rider & Co., 1929); Shiva or the Past of India (London: Luzac & Co., 1930) – which included translations of sections of the Shiva Sahasranama and Anandalahari; the aforementioned biography Thakore Sahib Shri Sir Daulat Singh of Limbdi, Kathiawar (London: John Murray, 1931);The Tantrik Doctrine of Immaculate Conception (London: Luzac & Co., 1933); Philosophy of Yoga (London: Luzac & Co., 1933); The India that is India (London: Luzac & Co., 1934); her “semi-fictional” novel The Secrets of the Kaula Circle (London: Luzac & Co., 1936) which, of all her work, has received the most attention; An Eight Hundred Year Old Book of Indian Medicine and Formulas (London: Luzac & Co., 1937); The Great Cremation Ground-Mahasmasana (London: Luzac & Co., 1938) and Indian Tales (London: Luzac & Co., 1939) – which included her translation of the biography of a 16th century Jain monk. She also wrote the preface to Swami Ramdas’ At the Feet of God (1928).
Thus far, I have only managed to obtain two of Sharpe’s books – The India that is India and The Secrets of the Kaula Circle.
The India that is India
The India that is India is a collection of essays, many of which had originally appeared in the Indian Illustrated Weekly or in the New York-based World. Sharpe’s foreword relates that “These articles were written of India and Indians, to prevent Europeans applying their own standards of judgement in solving problems which are essentially matters for the Eastern people alone. What the Western world itself feels about the matter is not the criterion best suited for a balanced judgement.” Many of the book’s essays reflect Sharpe’s keen interest in the lives of women – from her descriptions of the life led by Indian princesses, the women of the Zenanas, marriage customs and a chapter on “The Education of Girls”.
There is also an essay on Jains, and two chapters discussing “Fakirs and Sadhus”. Sharpe explains that there are good and bad Sadhus – that some are solitary and lead simple lives, whilst others have become “very worldly” acting as though they were judges and barristers. Some sadhus, she says, are merely criminals in disguise, and there are those who practice “revolting austerities”. She relates an incident where 5,000 Vairagis rioted at a Kumbha Mela “because they were disappointed about the distribution of food” (pp44-45). She goes on to briefly discuss several of kinds of Sadhus – for example, the sword and rifle-carrying Nagars (i.e. Nagas). She then turns to the sects of Yoga ascetics, including the Kanphatas and their founder, Goraknath and the Aghories whom, she says, “are the most feared of all the Indian ascetics” going on to describe an encounter with an Aghori ascetic. In her chapter on “Religions and Fairs” she then turns to a discussion of the “Vamacharis (left-hand worshippers) of Shiva and Shakti”. She opines that “These exoteric worshippers have done more to bring the Tantras into disrepute than any other sect in India to-day” (p52). She briefly describes the “so-called kaula-circle” which culminates with couples retiring to a private chamber “where the man was supposed to have worshipped the woman as “mother.”” She says that, due to scandals, this form of worship is now “held in considerable disrepute.” She quotes a letter (p53) from a Sri Vidya adept which states that:
“a genuine Shri Vidya Upasaka,” … must always have his lady, or her lord with him or her. Only the really initiated know the use of the other sex in these practices, which while on the border-land of sex, are actually entirely devotional, mystic and supremely holy. The least trace of evil, or sensual, sexual desire would turn the Sadhaka into a beast: in fact amongst Sadhakas there are many who prowl about and hide their sensualism in the maze of rituals and poojas.”
This is somewhat reminiscent of Kulanarva-Tantra 5.112: “One who experiences the bliss of union in sexual relationship as being between the Supreme Power (Parasakti) and the Self-such a person knows the meaning of sexual relations; others are inferior, indulging only to pursue women.”
The chapter continues with a discussion of the worship of Krishna and Radha, the various temples and maths devoted to Krishna, and various Vaishvana sects of ascetics. In this section, she briefly mentions the cross-dressing Sakhibhavas: “Certain Sadhus, called Sakhi-Bavas, go about in feminine attire, personating Radha, and worship Krishna thus attired. They hope, ingeniously, to win Krishna’s favour quicker by this method, believing that He will be more attracted by a worship from one in the form of His beloved. … their numbers are steadily lessening; and they do not command the respect of the public that they did formerly” (p54). (Note: see For the Love of God: Variations of the Vaisnava School of Krishna Devotion – Ashe Journal Vol.2 No.4, for some related discussion).
Secrets of the Kaula Circle
So, on to The Secrets of the Kaula Circle which has just been re-issued (2012) by The Teiten Press with an introduction by David Templeman. (Alternatively, there is a pdf scan of the original Luzac & Co. edition available on this link Secrets of the Kaula Circle – pdf, 10.8mb). Appended to the novella is a translation of a hatha yoga ms entitled “The Science of Breath”.
Sharpe, in her introduction, explains Secrets as “a history of fictitious people – many things are disclosed: there is a faithful account of the orgies practised, and the reason why the shibboleth used is retained is that the reader may recognise the methods used in capturing the imagination of the unwary. … it is published to warn both the Western and Eastern worlds that the pure paths of worship retaining the good and the ideal are the best.” She follows with a note explaining that “The publishers thought it advisable to omit certain portions of this book” which, although as she admits, results in a “certain disconnectedness” does not believe that it impairs the overall message. She also notes having “met with some unwelcome attention from various occult societies” – presumably from her previous writings. Of course, exactly what was omitted from Secrets is unknown (unless the original ms of the book can be discovered) . David Templeman comments that “It is difficult not to speculate that the excluded material might have detailed the tantric sexual activities and the round of offerings and oblations that we know took place in the course of such gatherings” (2012, pxxii). As he points out, and I have discussed in my series on the Kamasutra such omissions were not unusual, particularly where publishers were wary of prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act.
Without wanting give too many “spoilers” – the plot of Secrets concerns a woman named “Mary de la Mont” who fell under the sway of, and married a “Lama” – “a man of superhuman power”. Mary recounts her adventures with the Lama and reveals some of the yogic practices she engaged in, and experiences of past lives.
The first chapter recounts a ritual “from an old book”:
“A young and lovely girl was brought to an altar, before which lay a sarcophagus in which reposed a very old man some thousands of years old it was believed.
The girl approached the recumbent man and placed the nipples of her breast, first one then another, in his mouth. The corpse-like creature, whose mummified lips could not, at first, hold the firm nipples began suddenly to suck heartily and soon grew young.
He then tried to clasp the fainting girl in his arms; but she eluded him, floating far above the concourse of the chanting worshippers.
Returning to earth at last, she again allowed him to drink of her body.”
The description of the “orgy” of the Kaula Circle comes in the sixth chapter:
“The “Kaula” circle is the circle of the worshippers of the left-hand path, whose secret none but they of this circle have known till now.
In this circle, the woman is the “mother” – but all her desires are fulfilled: that is the vow.
Few women come through the ordeal pure, unstained: for it is believed that the husband is born of the mother, and the mother and the wife are interchangeable terms in the circle.
… Man after man, woman after woman passed by me, singing, reeling and dead drunk.
Later on, they would be forced to drink the forty-two bottles of wine prescribed by the rules of the ceremony: eat, drink and be merry and die: for their doom – poor fools – was already on them.
… I still remember that inner courtyard: stark-naked men and women, who, from time to time, with excrutiating yells, leapt to their feet, shaking their heads backwards and forwards, the women with loosened locks falling in black disorder about their heaving, shaking breasts.
A voice would then cry out in deepest scorn the sonorous Sanscrit Tantrik verse: “Let their desires be satisfied.”
And there would be a perfect orgy of bestiality.”
This description bears some examination. It bears some resemblance to the popular descriptions of tantric orgies from the early nineteenth century, such as those given by William Ward (see see this post) or the French Abbé Dubois’ “reported” account of Shakti-Puja:
Among the abominable mysteries current in India, there is one that is all too well-known: this is the practice called sakty-poudja…. The celebration of these mysteries, invariably foul as concerns their content, can at times vary in their form. In certain cases, the immediate objects of the sacrifice to Sakty are a large vessel that has been filled with local alcohol and a girl who has reached the age of puberty. This latter, entirely naked, stands in an altogether indecent pose. They then summon the goddess Sakty, whom they presume accepts their invitation by simultaneously establishing herself in the vessel of alcohol and that portion of the girl’s anatomy which modesty prohibits me from naming. … brahmans, sudras, pariahs, men and women all become drunk on the alcohol consecrated to Sakty, the which they drink from the same vessel, touching it with their lips…. The men and women then throw themselves on the food, avidly gobbling it down. The same chunk of food passes from mouth to mouth, and is successively chewed away until it has been entirely consumed…. In this case, the people are persuaded that they are in no way sullied by eating and drinking in such a revolting manner. When they have at last become entirely intoxicated, men and women mingle freely and pass the remainder of the night together….
(quoted from David Gordon White, Tantric Sects and Tantric Sex: The Flow of Secret Tantric Gnosis 1998)
Such accounts of “tantrik” orgies were fairly common throughout the colonial period (see Tantra’s Metahistory III: The Left-hand Path – I and Lecture Notes: On Edward Sellon – II for related discussion).
What’s particularly interesting regarding Sharpe’s account is the stress she places on drunken-ness (as does Dubois). It may be of course, that this passage originally contained details of sexual rites as Templeman suggests, which were removed by the publishers. However, i would draw the readers’ attention to the recent work of Annette Wilke on Kaula texts, in particular, her essay Negotiating Tantra and Veda in the Parasurama-Kalpa Tradition in which she asserts that: “Singling out sexual rites from the integrated whole of the pancamakara may be a Western bias. In any case it is not by chance that alcohol is presumably called “the first.” It is actually the most important ritual substance in the PKS (PKS = Parasurama Kalpasutra) as well as in the KT. (KT = Kulanarva Tantra) KT 5.77 equates liquor with the god Bhairava and the goddess, that is, their self-revelation. Excessive drinking was apparently a form of possession trance. … In singling out sexual rites, then, too much stress has been laid upon them. Indeed a stronger focus on alcohol than on intercourse is acknowledged in the commentary tradition too” (Wilke, 2012, p145).
It is of course, in the Kulanarva Tantra that we find one of the most well-known set of verses on such rituals:
“67. Intoxicated by passion, the women take shelter with other men, treating them as their own. Each man also takes a new woman and treats her as his own, when in the state of advanced ecstatic joy.
68. Seized by delusion, the men embrace other men…
71. O Shambhavi! The yogis take the food from each other’s plates and dance with their drinking pots on their heads…
73. The women who are not in their normal senses clap and sing songs whose words are unclear, and they stagger while dancing.
74. Yogis who are intoxicated with alcohol fall upon the women, and the intoxicated yoginis fall upon the men, O Kulanayika! They are induced to perform such actions, to fulfill their mutual desires.
75. When this state of ecstasy is not accompanied by corrupt thoughts, the bull among yogis reaches the state of godhood (devata-bhava).”
Also of interest is Sharpe’s location of the origin of Kaula worship in Mongolia, and that the action of the novella is set in Tibet, rather than India. This, at first glance, seems peculiar, but given the increasing antipathy to Kaula and tantric practices in late colonial India, this can be thought of as a way of (geographically) distancing the degenerate practices of the Kaula circle from mainstream Indian culture – which Sharpe, in her other writings, displayed a deep commitment to. David Templeman, in his introduction to the Teitan reprint, points out that Vivekananda also located the origins of the “evils” of tantra in Tibet.
In addition to Mary de la Mont’s Lama-Guru – and the mysterious figure identified by the numbers “666” (guess who) – the novella features the “Maharaja of X” of whom the narrator says “this strange mixture of Dr. Jeykll and Mr.Hyde was, at one time, the main topic of talk of more than half of India: so extraordinary and so varied were his eccentricities; yet so perfect and so cultured were his views on life, modelled in phrases above reproach.” It is possible that this is an oblique reference to the “Maharaja” of the 1862 Vallabhacharya scandal, which drew widespread comment in both India and Europe.
It’s difficult to say how influential Secrets was. It seems to have received favourable reviews at the time of its publication, and it is occasionally cited as a reference in popular works on tantric sex to this day. One book which draws heavily on Secrets is Omar Garrison’s 1964 book, Tantra: the Yoga of Sex – an important book in the twisted tale of western imaginings of tantra – which I will be writing about in due course.
As far as I am aware, there has been little scholarly interest in Elizabeth Sharpe. Hugh Urban briefly discusses her (2003, 2006) in relation to Secrets of the Kaula Circle – which he describes (2003, p112) as “one of the most vivid descriptions of the depraved rites of the Tantras” as part of a discussion of women romantic novelists of the late colonial period. Hopefully, Teitan’s reprint of Secrets will inspire more attention to be given to this fascinating woman, her life and her writings.
Christopher Buyers’ comprehensive review of Indian Salute States
Scanned Books from Archaeological Survey of India asi.nic.in collection
Hugh Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2003); Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism (University of California Press, 2006)
David Gordon White, Tantric Sects and Tantric Sex: The Flow of Secret Tantric Gnosis in Wolfson (ed) Rending the Veil (Seven Bridges Press, 1998: 249-70)
Annette Wilke, Negotiating Tantra and Veda in the Parasurama-Kalpa Tradition in Husken & Neubert (eds) Negotiating Rites (Oxford University Press, 2011)