Sri Vidya, Gender, Thealogy, Immanence – Some Notes
“Creation arises in joy, abides in joy and returns to joy… Lalita awakens the receptive soul to the bliss that underlies all things” Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses (1994: 89).
I was standing in water the other day and the angle of it created a stream broken into drops, cascading from the end of my chin. Each drop chased the preceding one and, looking down at them, I was hit by amazement. Their light-catching, simple procession immersed me in immediate wonderment. But I was not bathing in a dramatic waterfall, merely showering on ordinary morning. Tantrism is a philosophy of the cultivation of everyday ecstasy.
Some contributors to enfolding.org study and practise a form of tantrism grounded in Sri Vidya. Sri Vidya tantra focuses on the divine as Sri Lalita Tripura Sundari, which translates as “she the most beautiful goddess of the three worlds”. Lalita, or “she who plays”, may be thought of as a triplicity because it is said that Brahma the creator, Visnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer are her powers.
Sri Vidya is Shaktism, where the divine as feminine is given prominence, whilst other forms of tantrism may emphasise Shiva or Vishnu. It is also a cult of ecstatic experience. Sri Vidya “espouses a kind of ‘divine materialism’ where “matter and spirit are not ultimately distinct but are a continuity subsumed within sakti, the dynamic feminine creative principle” The Hindu World (2004: 143).
As a philosophy or a theaology (thea = goddess, as opposed to theo = god) Sri Vidya is startlingly different from the historical philosophies and theologies that Westerners are most familiar with. Aristotle, in The Generation of Animals (circa 330 BC), considered that “the female always provides the material, the male that which fashions it… While the body is from the female, it is the soul that is from the male, for the soul is the reality of a particular body”. This active/ passive, mind/ body split, foundation of Western thought, gave to man the mind and to woman the body, elevating the former and debasing the latter. And it was coded into the next two thousand years of Western culture (for an excellent history of that trajectory in medical science see Thomas Lacquer’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, 1992).
Written tantric texts cannot be dated earlier than the 9th or 10th centuries AD, but some scholars, for example Thomas McEvilley, consider, based on an interpretation of archaeological evidence, that the roots of tantra lie in the Indus valley culture some 2800 BC.
In Sri Vidya tantrism there is no mind/ body split nor is there a separation between the human spirit and the divine. This makes it a philosophy of monism, as opposed to dualism. It is a pantheistic (the divine is present in all living things) and also an immanent philosophy (the spirit as material). It differs from the non-dualism of Aidvata Vedanta, a school of philosophy, based in the Vedas, which also believes human spirit and the divine are not separate; because in that philosophy the material world is a reflection or an illusion of the divine, and for the soul to return to consciousness of union with the divine that illusion must be overcome. Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, also conceived of the world as a less perfect reflection of the divine, as the famous “allegory of the cave” in the Republic (circa 400 BC) exposits, and Plato had a profound influence on Christianity with its conceptual split between the divine ideal and the debased material. By contrast, in Sri Vidya the material world simply is divine. Thus, for Sri Vidya tantric practitioners, it is in mindful/ worshipful experiences of and through the body that we may experience spiritual ecstasy, our one-ness with Lalita:
“This whole world is interwoven in Me; It is I that am the Îs’vara that resides in causal bodies; I am the Sutrâtman, Hiranyagarbha that resides in subtle bodies and it is I that am the Virât, residing in the gross bodies. I am Brahmâ, Visnu, and Mahes’vara; I am the Brâhmâ, Vaisnavi and Raudrî S’aktis. I am the Sun, I am the Moon, I am the Stars; I am beast, birds, Chandâlas, and I am the Thief, I am the cruel hunter; I am the virtuous high-souled persons and I am the female, male, and hermaphrodite… There is nothing moving or unmoving, that can exist without Me.”
Devi-Bhagavata Purana (11th century text: chapter 33).
And unlike Aristotle, tantrism views the feminine principle Shakti as active and dynamic and the male principle Shiva as passive and quiescent, although in Sri Vidya tantrism both are aspects of Lalita and are thus not in fact separate and distinct.
Contemporary Western paganisms tend not to have tremendously developed theo or thealogies; these religions are after all very young. But, whether elaborately theorised or not, “divine materialism” or the divinity of the body, is a core belief. This means that the celebration the sacred principle of sexuality tends to be key. And additionally, because second wave (1970s) feminism is one of the roots of contemporary Western paganisms, the divine feminine likewise tends to be prominent.
“Of all the world’s religions, Hinduism has the most elaborate living goddess traditions… [but]… a necessary correlation between powerful goddesses and empowered women would imply simplistic theories of role models” write Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen Erndl in Is the Goddess a Feminist? The Politics of South Asian Goddesses (2000: 11 and 17) The complexities of the relationship between the divine feminine and the social position of women was brought home to me very recently. I met a young woman from India on a weekend workshop with Starhawk, who had come, she said, on a “spiritual pilgrimage” to the UK in search of feminist goddess religion. She told me she did not feel comfortable visiting the temples back home because the priests were inclined to sexually molest young women and she said felt stifled by the expectations of her parents’ patriarchal culture. As a Western student of Sri Vidya tantrism, a goddess-centered spiritual practice originating in India, I had to smile at the juxtaposition of our journeys, she to the West and I to the East, crossing continents in search of divinity we could stand tall within.
Because it blasts Aristotle out of the water, Sri Vidya tantrism feels revolutionary, mind-blowingly radical even, to me. In fact tantrism has both strongly egalitarian and strongly elitist tendencies, of which more in another post…
On a closing note, I wonder what the difference might be between the “divine materialism” of Sri Vidya, the celebration of the body we find in modern Western paganisms, and contemporary capitalism itself, which has, after all, elevated consumerism to the status of right moral action? More on this next time…