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Jottings: on comparative demonologies

At my May 2017 lecture at Treadwells Bookshop examining Tantra & Trance Possession, I gave a very brief outline of “afflictive possession” in both Ayurvedic & Tantric texts – and what is sometimes referred to as bhūtavidyā (‘the science of spirits’) including some remarks on how this subject is treated in the Netra Tantra – an eighth-century Kashmiri text, possibly composed in court circles, which has much to say on the subject of possession, exorcism, and related topics.

In both Ayurvedic and the later tantric literature there are extensive taxonomies of spirits classified in a variety of ways. For example, the Aṣṭāṅgahṛadyasaṃhitā says:

““One whose eyes are red, who is angry, whose gaze is fixed, whose gait is crooked, and is unstable, whose breathing is incessantly short, whose tongue dangles and shakes, licking the corners of his mouth, who likes milk, jaggery, bathing, and who sleeps face down is regarded as inhabited by serpent demons, being fearful of sunlight as well.”

A YakshaIn the 19th chapter of Netra Tantra, Siva explains to the goddess that the various orders of beings – mātṛs (mothers), bhūtas (spirits) , grahas (seizers) and so forth – were originally created by him in order to defeat the Daityas – who were opposing the gods. On completing their assigned task, Siva granted these beings the boon of being invincible – and that they promptly took advantage of this by afflicting all other beings – including the gods, so that Siva had to create millions of mantras and vidyas in order to overcome them. Netra Tantra further explains that each group of entities belongs to a kula (“clan”) headed by a higher deity, and that in order to placate them, a sadhaka should propitiate the clan ruler. One example would be the Vinayakas – who are appeased by propitiating their lord, Vighnesa (Ganesha) with offerings of sweetmeats and alcohol (Flood, 2006, p90). The entities belonging to a particular clan are held to be emanations or particles of that ruling deity – perhaps in a similar manner that the ganas are sometimes held to be extensions or emanations of Siva (see this post).

Now this general concept – of hosts of spirits being ruled by a lord – will not be unfamiliar to anyone with any experience of the western Grimoire tradition, so I was not entirely surprised when, during the Q&A following the lecture, a member of the audience pointed to this similarity and asked me if I thought this implied a possible common origin for both the Grimoire tradition and Indian bhutavidya. I responded cagily – I am very wary of leaping to conclusions on the basis of apparent similarities betweeen geographically & culturally distant traditions – and, admittedly, I know very little of the Grimoire tradition, other than occasionally reading occasional posts on facebook by Jake-Stratton Kent.

Of course, comparative exercises of this kind can be useful – a recent post by Ben Joffe To See is to Call: Tantric Visualization, Summoning Spirits and the Mind as Petting Zoo demonstrates ably how such comparisons can be done fruitfully – without the need to posit a shared origin hypothesis, which can all too often lead into yet another riff on the primordialist refrain, which tends to view magical ‘systems’ as standing apart from their immediate cultural contexts.

A far easier approach would be to examine the relationship between ‘magical’ power structures and wider articulations of power relationships existing in India at the time that these texts were written – which brings me to the subject of the so-called ‘maṇḍala’ model of kingship.

I daresay most readers are generally familiar with the maṇḍala from a religious/magical perspective – a diagrammatic representation of the relationships between a central deity surrounded by subordinate deities – or emanations of that central deity, becoming at times, quite complex (for example, the Sri Yantra). What’s perhaps less well-known (outside academia) is the relationship to this schema to sovereignty.

Perhaps the earliest mention of the maṇḍala as a schema for arranging political relationships is in the sixth book of Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra – “the circle of kingdoms”. The Arthaśāstra has been speculatively dated to the first century of the common era. In Kauṭilya’s schema, a king is surrounded in a circle by other states, and due to their common boundaries, they are considered that king’s ‘natural’ enemies. Around these enemy kingdoms is a second circle of states, which, as they abut the territories of enemy kings, they are considered the king’s allies.

The period in Indian history during which the Śaiva mantramarg was rising to prominence (from around the sixth century of the common era) have been described by Ronald M Davidson (2002) as one of small kingdoms and states engaging in what he refers to as “military adventurism”. It is during this period – according to Davidson, that a new vision of kingship arises whereby the ruler is recast as a divine being – and, reciprocally, deities became king-like, portrayed as rulers, warriors, and acquiring the trappings and associations of royal power – holding court, living in palaces, and so forth. As Geoffrey Samuel points out (2008, p203) by this period, the ideal model of kingship was that of the feudal lord – sāmanta – with the major state surrounded by a circle of lesser states whose rulers paid homage to the king at the centre; a development of the earlier maṇḍala pattern which was the model for arrangements of deities and spirits in the tantric traditions. Just as kings came to be considered divine, so deities reinforced a ruler’s imperial status. There is evidence, for example, of kings being ‘married’ to goddesses and in courtly poetics and inscriptions, described as being equal to, if not surpassing the gods, in their various attributes.

So the organisation of the various orders of spirit beings into clans headed by an overlord – or a central deity from which they depend that is found in the Netra Tantra and elsewhere in tantric literature is in all likelyhood another example of what Davidson refers to as the ‘sāmantization’ of deities – the process by which deities, both local and regional, take on the characteristics of the political ideals of feudal kingship. These maṇḍala arrangements were re-enacted at different levels of society, from the mahārājādhirāja – the “king of kings” who ruled over other kingdoms as well as his own, to the relationships brtween indidivual kings and their ministers, generals, courtly retinue, through to the common people, and were enacted materially & spatially in temple and royal architecture and in the formalised, ritual arrangements of courtly etiquette (see Inden, 2006).

Ronald M. Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement (Columbia University Press, 2002)
Gavin Flood The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion (I.B. Tauris, 2006)
Ronald Inden Text & Practice: Essays on South Asian History (Oxford University Press, 2006)
Patrick Olivelle, King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra (Oxford University Press, 2013)
Geoffrey Samuel, The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Alexis Sanderson, Religion and the State: Saiva Officiants in the territory of the King’s Brahmanical Chaplain (available from
Frederick M. Smith The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilisation (Columbia University Press, 2006)
David Gordon White Netra Tantra at the Crossroads of the Demonological Cosmopolis in The Journal of Hindu Studies 2012: 5, 145-171