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Ganapati variations: Ganesa sorceries

Having spent most of my Ganesa-oriented practice performing long puja with the aim of inter-identification with Ganapati, reading Gudrun Bühneman’s Tantric Forms of Ganesa (DK Printworld, 2008) was something of an eye-opener, as she devotes a good deal of space to the supplementary rituals associated with the various forms of Ganesa in the circa-seventeenth century Vidyanarvatantra and other texts. These rites are the fire sacrifices (Kamayahoma) for achieving special aims, and the non-homa acts classed under the six acts of abhicara: – attraction (akarsana); immobilisation (stambhana); eradication (uccatana); subjugation (vasikarana); delusion (mohana) and liquidation (marana). In this post, I’m going to briefly examine some of these rituals and make some general remarks on the subject on tantric sorcery.

Abhicara can be thought of as “sorcery” – but it has a distinction association for several commentators with “harmful magic”. Laurie L. Patton translates the term as “to proceed against” and offers a general definition of an abhicara rite as “A sacrifice involving offerings or imprecations against an enemy, either human or divine” (2005, p237). Abhicara rituals are sometimes referred to as raudrakarman – “cruel” rites.

Bühneman’s exposition of abhicara rituals for achieving particular aims – what we would regard as sorcery (or “results magic”) is in itself interesting, as this aspect of tantra-practice often does not get the attention that it perhaps deserves. Possibly this is partially due to the notion that ritual for worldly achievements is of a lesser status than the aim of “liberation” (moksha). One need only to look at the numerous commentaries which cast the siddhis as impediments to to the ultimate goal of liberation as an associated example of this trend – although recent works by scholars such as David Gordon White (Sinister Yogis 2009) are now contesting and critiquing this perspective.

There is, for example, a strong link between tantric “sorcery” and kingship. Katherine Anne Harper, in her essay The Warring Saktis (2002) points out that magic was a tool of statecraft – citing as evidence the lists of mantras and other magical procedures for the subjugation of enemies in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. She argues that the patronage of martial Saktis such as the Saptamatrikas by kings was, in part, due to their ability to influence battles. Similarly, Gavin Flood (2006) points out that:

“…the new tantric conception of kingship saw the king as a deity warrior whose power is derived from the violent and erotic warrior goddesses worshipped as the retinue of a deity such as Bhairava, located at a particular level of revelation. The power of the king was linked to the power of the Goddess or goddesses and this power endowed at coronation or through tantric initiations by specialist priests. Indeed, through consecration and initiation these kings sought legitimacy from the textual traditions and sought to derive power through their identification with deities and use of their mantras.” (p78)

Texts such as the Netratantra deal extensively with rites both for kings to practice and for their protection – and rites aimed at subjugating other kings. David B. Gray (2007) points out that abhicara rites were also a feature of Buddhist practice:“Although the abhicara-homa is intended for the purpose of killing one’s foe or foes, it is to be employed as an expedience for the purpose of “subjugating evil teachings,” that is, eliminating those who propound them.” He provides an example of a fierce homa rite in the Cakrasamvara Tantra for the purpose of subduing a rival kingdom. (see also Natha History for an example of tantric king-making).

The supplementary rituals often require images of Ganesa made from potter’s clay into which other materials have been added, or made from the wood of particular trees. Sometimes dolls or other items are required, or yantras drawn onto various materials. These are empowered by repetitions of specific mantras, and may be eaten, buried in a particular place, applied to parts of the practitioner’s body or offered to another person. The rituals have a wide variety of objectives, ranging from the subjugation of individuals (women and kings are particularly popular), the fulfilment of wishes and desires in general, protection (i.e. from tigers, snakes, or thieves), the acquisition of siddhis and spells such as finding a woman a bridegroom or removing barrenness in women. There are rituals to cause or remove dissension, to destroy diseases and impediments, or to kill.

Several of the rituals which Bühneman summarises aim at what we might consider divinatory purposes, for example, a supplementary ritual for Mahaganapati (“the great Ganapati”) involves repeating the mantra om srim hrim klim glaum gam ganapataye varavada sarvajanam me vasam anaya svaha (which Bühneman renders as “Om srim hrim glaum gam svaha to Ganapati, O best boon-giver, bring everyone under my control”) at night until Ganesa appears in one’s dreams and grants knowledge of auspicious and inauspicious things. Another example of such a ritual requires that a vessel filled with fragrant water be placed on purified ground, and, covered with an earthen dish filled with ghee from a brown cow, be worshipped. A wick is placed in the ghee and the flame worshipped. To this is brought a prepubescent girl and a boy who has had the thread ceremony performed and they are to be empowered with 108 repetitions of the mantra – after which both will be able to answer questions about the past, present and future. A ritual to Ucchista-Ganapati (nb: Bühneman interprets the term Ucchista as relating to ritual impurity) requires making an image of Ganesa from the wood of a Nimba tree which has been broken by an elephant. This image is worshipped with red materials of various kinds on the fourth lunar day of either the bright or the dark half of the month, and empowered with one thousand repetitions of the mantra “Om obesiance to the venerable one who has one tusk, to the one who has an elephant face (and) a protruding belly, to the great-souled Ucchista, am krom hrim gam ghe ghe svaha.” after which it is thrown onto the banks of a river at night. Ganesa will appear in dreams and speak to the practitioner of the desired object.

Gudrun Bühneman, Tantric Forms of Ganesa DK Printworld, 2008
Gavin Flood The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion IB Tauris, 2006
David B. Gray, Compassionate violence?: on the ethical implications of tantric Buddhist ritual Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2007
Katherine Anne Harper, Robert L. Brown eds, The Roots of Tantra SUNY 2002
Laurie L. Patton, Bringing the gods to mind: mantra and ritual in early Indian sacrifice University of California Press, 2005
David Gordon White, Sinister Yogis University of Chicago Press, 2009