Kali Kaula review
Kali Kaula: A Manual of Tantric Magick by Jan Fries, Avalonia 2010, 574pp, p/bk
Whenever I’ve spoken on the subject of tantra over the last twenty years or so, someone in the audience has invariably asked me if there was one single book – aimed at occultists, providing a thorough overview and introduction to this most complex subject – which I could reccomend. Sadly, I’d shake my head and reply that there wasn’t anything to fit that bill.
Until now that is.
Jan Fries’ Kali Kaula is quite simply the best introduction to tantra written by a contemporary occultist ever.
Showing a firm commitment from the beginning to acknowledging the complexity and multivocality in those traditions we have come to know as “tantric” (Fries points out that “Tantra” as such, is an etic term) Fries has broken away from all the standard “approaches” I’ve come to expect from occult authors – which is to say that he actually is aware (gasp!) that there are tantric texts, quotes from them, and encourages the reader to dig them out and read them as well. Also, unlike the majority of occultists who attempt to deal with this vast and complex subject, he is aware that the last thirty years has seen a massive growth in “tantric studies” in the academic world, not only in traditional Indology and textual analysis, but also in ethnology and gender studies for example. Fries draws heavily on the work of well-known scholars such as David Gordon White, Douglas Renfrew Brooks, and June McDaniel – but again, he’s not doing what lesser authors tend to do – which is standing as an intermediary/interpreter – so that readers don’t have to read the scholarly work themselves. Fries actively encourages his readers to read the same books he’s drawn on. He actually makes it clear when he’s generalising or about to simplify a complex topic. His forays into cross-cultral comparativism are both thoughtful and well-argued, with good supporting evidence, and he admits that he’s had to leave a lot of areas either untouched or only sketched out lightly – topics such as alchemy or sorcery for example, or tantric traditions such as the Sahajiya or the Khartabhajas. Fries also breaks with “occult tradition” by giving clear references and quotations – you won’t find any vague wittering about “ancients” here!
I’m not going to go through Kali Kaula chapter by chapter, but instead, I want to draw attention to particular topics and how Fries deals with them. I was particularly charmed for example, by chapters 9 & 10 – which deals with what might be termed “Heart practice” and owes at least some debt to Paul Muller-Ortega’s The Triadic Heart of Siva (1989). It’s refreshing to see this kind of material making its way into the “occult” domain. Chapter 11 is perhaps the inevitable chapter on chakras, kundalini and so forth. Although Fries does discuss the chakra schema made familiar through Sir John Woodroffe’s The Serpent Power he stresses the metaphorical nature of chakras, points out that there are a multitude of schemas, rather than the reified schema one often finds in contemporary occult texts. Chapter 5 – “Masks of the Divine” sees Fries getting to grips with the difficult issue of “Gurus” – the necessity of having a human guru is fairly central to Indian tradition, but is perhaps one of the most tricky areas for contempary western occultists to deal with. Fries doesn’t offer any simplistic prescriptions either for or against the idea of the guru, but like many themes in this book, treats it as a complex phenomena which can be approached from different directions. The remainder of the chapter takes a look at some historical female saints, ascetics and tantric practitioners.
What about practice? Fries provides some really useful information on practices such as Nyasa, Mantra, Mudra, and breathing – the latter quite extensively, and some discussion of perceptual and memory exercises (which some readers may recall from his earlier book Visual Magick) and makes some highly plausible connections between some “tantric” practices and the “shaking” practices in Seidways. There’s useful chapters on approaching magical practice with the Mahavidyas and of course, with Kali in her various forms. There’s a good discussion of ritual-oriented practices such as Bhuta Suddhi.
As a “manual” Kali Kaula does not spoon-feed readers with simplified accounts of complex ideas, nor does Fries play the reductionist game of making tantric themes merely exotic analogues of already familiar western occult concepts. Fries’ attention to complexity and detail can make the book difficult going at times – but its well worth it. The book ends with a glosary of terms, a short section on language & pronunciation, and an extensive bibliography.
Really, for anyone who is at all interested in tantra-oriented practice, I cannot reccomend this book too highly. I’ll be looking at some of the topics Fries discusses in Kali Kaula in more depth in due course.