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Multiplicious Becomings: tantric theologies of the grotesque – I

“It can be said that becoming-animal is an affair of sorcery because (1) it implies an initial relation of alliance with a demon; (2) the demon functions as the borderline of an animal pack, into which the human being passes or in which his or her becoming takes place, by contagion; (3) this becoming itself implies a second alliance, with another human group; (4) this new borderline between the two groups guides the contagion of animal and human being within the pack. There is an entire politics of becomings-animal, as well as a politics of sorcery, which is elaborated in assemblages that are neither those of the family, nor of religion nor the State. Instead, they express minoritarian groups, or groups that are oppressed, prohibited, in revolt, or always on the fringe of recognised institutions, groups all the more secret for being extrinsic, in other words, anomic.”
Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

One of the major projects I am exploring here on enfolding is the sidling towards an (unnatural) alliance between Continental Philosophy, tantrisms, and queer theories. An obvious point of intersection between these three areas is the emphasis on multiplicities, metamorphosis, hybridity and the grotesque.

What is the grotesque? I am taking a cue here from Geoffrey Harpham:

“Grotesqueries both require and defeat definition; they are neither so regular and rythmical that they settle easily into our categories, nor so unprecendented that we do not recognise them at all. They stand at a margin of consciousness between the known and the unknown, the perceived and the unperceived, calling into question the adequacy of our ways of organising the world.” (2007, p3)

To confront the grotesque is to run head on into contradiction, ambiguity, confusion – to face that which seems familiar, yet leads us astray into unknown territory; a space which cannot be ordered, or resists ordering and categorisation by its own vitality. I tend to think of queer in a similar way, in the sense of queer theorists’ abiding interest in undoing; on untangling the normative, questioning certainties, and dreaming alternative imaginaries. Queer is for me, very much about commiting to a resistance to easy categorisation and admitting a multitude of voices, some of which may be paradoxical and contradictory. Queer is not only about issues of gender & sexuality, but extends into questioning identity, subjectivity, embodiment. It is a call to celebrate theologies of difference.

The ways of living that have come to be identified with the rather chimeric signifier “tantra” seeths with multiplicities and ambiguities, and to enter a tantric space requires the acceptance that whilst a first glance, there is much that seems familiar, there is much that is different, contradictory, and counter to what we might expect. Definitions of tantra abound, yet scholars and practitoners are increasingly abandoning the limitations imposed by definition and taking on board the idea of “polythetic classification” which, rather than attempting to define tantras with a single “essence”, allows for the examination of multiple, intersecting features. Whilst there have been a variety of attempts to come up with schema for deciding how many features a practice, text, or tradition must share with with others in order to be classed as “tantric”, tantra remains, as Hugh Urban (2003, p7) says, “one of the most elusive terms in the study of Asian Religions.” It is this elusiveness and resitance to codification which, for me, is one of the reasons why tantra is queer.

Popular respresentations of tantra tend to stress its supposed “marginality” – locating it at the periphery of Hindu civic life, a practice of “outsiders”. In this essay, I want will take a different tack, and examine three different “marginal” facets of practices associated with tantras, and show that that they are, in actually at the “centre” of tantric life ways. That what to those outside the practice looks marginal, becomes for the devotee, the centre of their orientation to the world – that the centre and the peripheral change easily shift and exchange places. The common thread which links the three features I will examine in this series of three posts is that of transformation and hybridity; the grotesque bodies of Karraikal Aimmaiyar – “the woman who became a ghoul”; Siva’s Ganas – “the hooligans of heaven” and the invasions of Sitala, a goddess of contaigon.

“The grotesque body, as we have often stressed, is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world.” Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World

The Woman who became a ghoul
Karaikkal Almmaiyar, 13th century Tamil NaduKarraikal Aimmaiyar (“the Mother from Karraikal”) was one of the earliest Tamil poets to write poems to Siva. Her 143 poems, written in Tamil, point towards a world where devotees may live in the eternal presence of Siva, and provides a window into the early developnent of Saivite philiosophy. Her story was hagiographised in the twelfth century Periya Puranam.

The woman who came to be known as Karraikal Aimmaiyar was born in the 6th century CE in the coastal town of Karraikal. She was originally named Punitavati, and was married to a successful merchant named Paramatattan. She had been, from an early age, an ardent devotee of Siva, yet she was a dutiful wife and was said to be beautiful. One day, one of Paramatattan’s customers gave him two sweet mangoes, and Paramatattan ordered his wife to serve them to him for the midday meal. A Saivite holy man came to Punitavati’s house seeking alms, and she gave him one of the mangoes. When Paramatattan came to eat, Punitavati fed him and gave him the remaining mango. When Paramatattan called for the other mango, Punitavati prayed to Siva for help, and a mango appeared, which she served to her husband. This mango was so delicious that Paramatattan became suspicious and asked his wife where she had obtained it. She told him, but he doubted her story and asked that she pray again to Siva in his presence. She did so, and another mango appeared. Paramatattan took fright at this miracle, and fled from Punitavati.

Paramatattan set up another household apart from Punitavati. She continued the upkeep of his house as though he would return – he had not released her from being his wife. Eventually, Punitavati’s parents found out what was going on and took their daughter to see him. Paramatattan, by this time, had taken another wife and had a daughter from her. When Punitavati appeared, they all fell at their feet and worshipped her as a goddess. When Punitavati realised that her husband did not want her as a wife, she prayed to Siva to take away her beauty and to grant her the form of a ghoul:

So I pray to thee that the flesh of my body, which has been sustaining beauty for his sake, may now be removed from my physical frame and I be granted the form of a ghoul to dance round thee with devotion
(quoted from Denton, 2004, p164)

Shiva granted this boon, and she made a journey to the Himalayas. It is told that the people she met on this journey were terrified by her, but that she “converted their abhorrance to praise.” She began walking on her hands, and Siva was so moved by her devotion that he greeted her as Ammai – “mother” and allowed her a place among his troupe of ganas and to eternally witness his dance.

The world as cremation ground

A female ghoul with withered breasts, bulging veins, hollow eyes,
white teeth and two fangs,
shriveled stomach, red hari, bony ankles, and elongated shins,
Stays in this cemetary, howling angrily.

This place where my Lord dances in the fire with a cool body,
His streaming hair flying in the eight directions,
is Tiruvalankatu.
(Karraikal Aimmaiyar, quoted from Craddock, 2007, p134)

Karraikal Aimmaiyar’s transformation – from devoted wife to ghoul-devotee shows the difference between the bounded world of the householder and that of a life lived entirely as an offering to Siva. This recalls an attitude to life-as-practice which can be found in later texts such as the Saundaryalahari:

Let my idle chatter be the muttering of prayer, my every manual movement the execution of ritual gesture,
my walking a ceremonial circumambulation, my eating and other acts the rite of sacrifice,
my lying down prostration in worship, my every pleasure enjoyed with dedication of myself,
let whatever activity is mine be some form of worship of you.

The image of Shiva in the cremation-ground, surrounded by ganas, ghosts, goblins and ghouls, offers a paradigm for his devotees, and the sadhana (practice) associated with the cremation-ground is highly prevalent in Tantra. In essence, the devotee, by practising the rites of the cremation-ground, emulates Shiva and becomes one of His family of ganas or becomes Shiva and is lord of his or her own categories.

In her poetry, Ammaiyar speaks as the pey – the ghoul or demon gana – a status that is available to all devotees of Siva, regardless of gender or caste. The cremation-ground is also frequently equated with the heart-space (hridya):

I thought of only One,
I was focused on only One,
I kept only One inside my heart.
Look at this One!
It is he who has Ganga on His head,
a moonbeam in His hair,
a radiant flame in His beautiful hand.
I have become His slave.
(quoted from Craddock, 2010, p72)


“Let those who say He lives in the sky say that,
Let others who say the King of the gods lives in this world say that
With spiritual wisdom I say
that the One with the radiant throat previously darkened
by poison
lives in my heart”

(quoted from Craddock, 2010, p116)

Again, the theme of Siva indwelling in the heart-space is one that can be found in later tantric texts. In Ammaiyar’s poems, the world becomes the cremation-ground, for those who share in the blazing vision of Siva (NB: See Paul Muller-Ortega’s The Triadic Heart of Siva for a full discussion of the heart in Saivite theology).

Smashan or cremation ground practices have been associated with early forms of tantra. These practices have received much attention in western accounts of tantra, particularly those who prioritise its “antinomian” nature and consequently there is a great deal of interest in groups such as the Aghoris and their historical forebears, the Kapalikas. Lynn Denton (p164) sees Ammaiyar as a prototypal Aghorinii – “the walking but utterly divine ghost”. This is particularly interesting in respect of Ammaiyar’s ability to “convert” the abhorrance of those horrified at her appearance, which recalls the injunctions in the Pasupata Sutra (2nd-3rd century CE?) that practitioners should “wander like a ghost” and to suffer the abuse of others, taking on their merit (see Gonda, 1977, Davidson, 2003). Kaundinya’s commentary makes this explicit:

“…ill-treatment should be regarded as a coronation to a poor man. It should be to him as the touchstone [is] to gold. …He should wander under false accusations on the principle that he who is dishonoured is on [the path to] acquiring merit and [performing] the religious injunction”

This conversion of the abhorrence of others is also a central feature of Aghori practice, and also points to the liminality of the cremation ground as a place in which radical transformations take place; as such, it is a place where power may be sought. As Jonathan Parry (2004, p266) points out, the Indian homology between body and cosmos extends to the cremation ground, which destroys the physical body, as the great fire annihilates the universe. There is a relationship between fire’s destructive and creative potential, and the heat (tapas) generated by austerities. Cremation is also a sacrifice – a replication of the primal creative sacrifice and dismemberment of Prajapati (Parry points to the parallels between cremation, sacrifice and birth in the Satapatha Brahmana).

Despite the association with Aghoris and left-hand practices such as eating human flesh, or corpse-sitting, both Parry and Ron Barrett (2008) stress that Aghori philosophy is recognisably that of mainstream Indian liberation theology:

“The theological line that the Aghori put at the forefront, however, is the notion that everything in creation partakes of Parmatma, the Supreme Being, and that therefore all category distinctions belong merely to the world of superficial appearances; no essential difference exists between the divine and the human, or between the pure and the polluted. As Lal Baba represented his own spiritual quest to me, he seeks to become “like that ideal Aghori, the sun, whose rays illuminate everything indiscriminately and yet remained undefiled by the excrement they touch.”
(Parry, 1994, p261-262)

Ron Barrett’s study of Aghori medicine proposes that for the Aghoris, discrimination is an illness, for which Aghori sadhana is the medicine. Confrontation with death is at the heart of their practice, although smashan-oriented practices are being supplanted by social services – educating street children and providing ashram-based care for those with socially stigmatised illnesses such as leprosy. Aghori Sakti (“power”) is rooted in their capacity to digest – and thereby transform (via an inward assimilation) – all experiences (see Barrett, 2008, pp132-137 for a discussion of the homologies between fire & digestion) regardless of whether or not they are auspicious or inauspicious.

Aghor is not a specific religion or set of practices, but rather a state of mind. It is a state of nondiscrimination in which there is no hatred, no fear, and no aversion to anyone or anything. … Contemplating divinity in the face of death is the ideal Aghor sadhana. Its purpose is to overcome fears and aversions that impede the process of spiritual liberation. The Aghori believe that the greatest human fear is that of death; all other aversions are but diminutive examples of this mortality anxiety. (Barrett, 2008, p140)

Barrett is careful to point out that not all Aghoris view themselves as tantrikas, and that for Aghoris, the relationship between left-hand and right-hand path practices is more complex than the binary opposition in which they tend to be framed:

Hari Baba then pointed out that vamamarg and dakshinamarg are complementary to each other; they are like two banks of a river that work together to channel the water in a certain direction. The disciple might use one or the other path, or a certain combination of both, at different stages of his or her development. Moreover, the disciple need not be an Aghori to combine left-hand approaches with right-hand ones. (Barrett, 2008, p152)

Barrett explains that for Aghoris, the guru is considered to be the best judge for the use of left-hand practices – depending on the guru’s teaching style, and the relationship between guru and disciple. Furthermore, he stresses that left-hand practices (such as consuming one’s own feces) are generally considered to be temporary exercises, rather than permanent ways of living.

all ghouls together

“…all were considered equal during carnival. Here in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by barriers of caste, property, profession and age.” (Bakhtin, p10)

The worlds of Karraikal Aimmaiyar and contemporary Aghoris can be thought of as carnivalesque, in that their nondiscriminatory orientation to the world, their practices of engagement, suspend all hierarchies and collapse binary oppositions. As Craddock (2007) observes, Karraikal Aimmaiyar’s poems speak to a community of devotees where notions of caste and gender are irrelevant – all are united in the blazing vision of Siva’s dance. Their practices, so often misread as antinomian or transgressive, are celebrations of the body’s capacities, a recognition of the carnality of corpses – a refusal to refute death. The woman-ghoul and the necrophagus Aghori seem to invite horror or repulsion from others, but the mistake is presume that their practices are inspired by a wish to be repulsive, to be horrific, to assert themselves against others. Rather, Aimmaiyar’s becoming-ghoul, the Aghor’s embrace of the viscerality of death points to a subjectivity not predicated on seperation.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World (Indiana University Press 2009)
Ron Barrett, Aghor medicine: pollution, death, and healing in northern India (University of California Press, 2008)
Elaine Craddock, Siva’s Demon Devotee: Karaikkal Ammaiyar (SUNY, 2010)
Elaine Craddock, The Anatomy of Devotion: The Life and Poetry of Karraikal Aimmaiyar in Pintchman, (ed) Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition ((Oxford University Press, 2007)
RM Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement (Motilal, 2003)
Lynn Teskey Denton Female Ascetics in Hinduism (SUNY, 2004)
Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press, 1987)
Jan Gonda Medieval Religious Literature in Sanskrit (Harrassowitz, 1977)
Roxanne Gupta, Kali Mayi – Myth and Reality in a Banares Ghetto in Encountering Kali: in the Margins, at the Center, in the West McDermott, Kripal (eds) (University of California Press, 2003).
Roxanne Gupta The Politics of heterodoxy and the Kina Rami ascetics of Banaras (Ph.D thesis, Syracuse University, 1993)
Geoffrey G. Harpham On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (The Davies Group Publishers, 2007)
Jonathan Parry, Death in Banaras (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Jonathan Parry Sacrificial Death and the Necrophagus Ascetic in Robben (ed) Death, mourning, and burial: a cross-cultural reader (Wiley, 2004)
Hugh Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (University of California Press, 2003)


  1. Chris
    Posted June 22nd 2011 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    An amazing article. I know very little about tantric teaching and history, but it is thoroughly interesting.

  2. Atomboy
    Posted June 25th 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Hello Phil,

    I am really excited to read about your project looking at Continental Philosophy, tantrisms, and queer theories. I am also thinking about multiplicity, hybridity and the grotesque in relation to Land Magick and ecological hyperspace which seems to be a meltdown of paganism, Tibetan Shamanism and Vajrayana Buddhism. I look forward to reading more of your investigations! Love and Hugs Atom x

  3. Alistair Livingston
    Posted June 25th 2011 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Sitala. That is what caught my attention. Buried deep in the archives is a text ‘Sitala and the Theology of the Repulsive‘ by Edward Dimock.- a chapter from a book. Which would have been reading for unit on Hinduism at School of Oriental Studies in 1990/1.

    In January 1996 had a strong impression of Sitala on a strange journey. Had to take one of my wife’s custom made dresses to a funeral directors in east London so she could be put in it for her wake. (She made her funeral arrangements some months before her death otherwise unexpected death).

    I have just checked the details – had to get a 69 bus from Walthamstow Central down through Leyton and Strafford to Canning Town, then through a dismal underpass into a council estate and then to Rathbone Street. E 16. There was a market at one end, cut off by a dual carriage way from the rest of the street. The Dimock text (now I remember) had a description of how Sitala in a ‘moment of supreme playfulness’ turned a human market place into a market for ghouls – with rotting human body parts instead of fruit and vegetables.

    I delivered the dress and walked back through the market and Rathbone became raw bone and the place of vibrant life became a place of death. I felt distinctive smell of the funeral director’s mortuary still lingering about me and it triggered a series of flashbacks… the white ash of a fire at a free festival and a shallow shit pit that looked like an open grave in a green field under a blue sky and a blazing sun… there were others, but faded away now.

    The moment passed, death gave way to life again and…I was going to say became forgotten, but more like a dazzling brilliant spark which has been folded around with layers of everyday experience since then which have dimmed it.

    At which point I would attempt a cross- linkage with Deleuze – but apart from a book on Spinoza, I haven’t read anything by him. What I have been doing for the past few years is make an attempt to understand Hegel, who (esp. via Marx) is a source for Continental Philosophy. However, it ain’t easy. Even after reading Stephen Houlgate’s ‘The Opening of Hegel’s Logic :From Being to Infinity’ (Purdue University press, 2006) – which took five months- as a belated attempt to find a starting point, I am still confused.

  4. Phil Hine
    Posted June 26th 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been really enjoying reading some of your blogposts – particularly yr write-ups on Bertiaux and the Graham Harvey review.

    The final part of this essay, which looks at Sitala – and yes, I’ve made some use of the Dimock essay – will be up in a week or so.

    I used to get really confused by reading Delueze & Guattari until a friend of advised me to “let yourself encounter the text and see what comes out of that meeting”. It seems to be working so far.