Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Tantra & Possession – II

In my April 2017 Treadwells Lecture, I briefly touched on the growth of theistic religions in India during the early centuries of the common era. With the rise of theistic forms of religion, we get different articulations of how to enter into an intense, affective relationship to one’s chosen deity. Some devotees sought to absorb the power of their deity through the exchange of glance – darśan – a reciprocal act of seeing & knowing. Similarly, ingesting food (prasad) allows the divine grace of the deity to enter the body and thereby diminish the boundary between devotee and deity. Another powerful means to establish a relationship with deity is to take on the form of the deity – or take on a form that is considered pleasing to the deity. This doesn’t necessarily involve possession – but it’s not difficult to see how, once these ideas become popular, they can quickly develop into possession by a deity as indicative of a state of grace or power.

Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār
For an early example of identification with a deity I want to consider the case of Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār, the Tamil bhakti poet-saint. I first wrote about Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār in this post and since some of what I covered in the lecture is based on that essay, here I’m going to try and add some more thoughts on Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār.

Karaikkal Almmaiyar, 13th century Tamil NaduKārraikāl Aimmaiyār – the “Mother from Kārraikāl” is thought to have lived in the sixth century of the common era. She was probably the first poet to compose hymns to Śiva in Tamil. She has been recognised as a saint in Tamilnadu since the twelfth century and bronze representations of her can be viewed in numerous temples throughout the region. Four works are attributed to her: Arputat Tiruvantāti (“Sacred Linked Verses of Wonder”); Tiruvālaṅkāṭṭu Tiruppatikam (“The Sacred Decade of Verses 1 and 2”) and Tiruvirattai Manimālai (“Sacred Garland of Double Gems”).

Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār lived at a time when devotion to Śiva was spreading across India in both its lay and its initiatory forms. 1 There is epigraphical evidence that Tamil Pallava kings from the sixth century were familiar with the Āgamas 2 and Śaiva Siddhānta – the so-called ‘mainstream’ of the Mantramārga – quickly became established in the Tamil region, and came to include Tamil devotional elements in its temple rituals. However, the Pallavas were not exclusively Śaivas – they also patronised the followers of Viṣṇu, and supported both Buddhist and Jain establishments.

In the twelfth century, a court minister named Cēkkiḻār wrote a biography of Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār, which formed part of a collected biography of sixty-two other persons whose devotion to Śiva was considered to be exemplary – this volume, the Periya Purāṇam (“Great Traditional Story”) played a major role in establishing the sainthood of Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār and the other personages – who came to be known as the nāyaṉmārs (“leaders”). The Periya Purāṇam came to be considered as the culminating volume of the Tamil Śiva-bhakti canon, the Tirumuṟai (“Sacred Collection”).

Here’s a summary of Cēkkiḻār’s account of her life:

The woman who came to be known as Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār was born in the coastal town of Kārraikāl. She was originally named Puṉitavatiyār (“the pure one”), and was married to a successful merchant. She had been, from an early age, an ardent devotee of Śiva, yet she was a dutiful wife and was said to be beautiful. One day, one of her husband’s customers gave him two sweet mangoes, and he ordered his wife to serve them to him for the midday meal. A Śaivite holy man came to the house seeking alms, and she gave him one of the mangoes. When her husband came to eat, Puṉitavatiyār fed him and gave him the remaining mango. When He called for the other mango, Puṉitavatiyār prayed to Śiva for help, and a mango appeared, which she served to her husband. This mango was so delicious that her husband 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 Śiva in his presence. She did so, and another mango appeared. Her husband took fright at this miracle and fled from Puṉitavatiyār.

Her husband set up another household apart from Puṉitavatiyār. She continued the upkeep of his house as though he would return – he had not released her from being his wife. Eventually, Puṉitavatiyār’s parents found out what was going on and took their daughter to see him. He, by this time, had taken another wife and had a daughter from her. When Puṉitavatiyār realised that her husband did not want her as a wife, she prayed to Śiva to take away her beauty and to grant her the form of a ghoul. Śiva 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 abhorrence to praise.” She began walking on her hands, and Śiva 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.

Cēkkiḻār’s biographical account establishes Aimmaiyār as a “good wife” – one who embodies the traditional virtues of beauty and obedience to social custom. Aimmaiyār renounces her life in the domestic sphere, becomes one of Śiva’s ghoul attendants, and dwells in perpetual bliss with him.

Ghoul poetics
Aimmaiyār’s verses show that she is familiar with the Purānic stories of Śiva, his deeds, epithets, and nature, as wandering beggar-yogi, as hero and cosmic dancer. Yet she and the other Śaiva poet-saints created something new; focussing on their own personal relationship with Śiva, describing their feelings and experiences, they presented a direct engagement with the Lord. What’s notable about Aimmaiyār’s verses is that they have little in the way of autobiographical detail in them (recall that Cēkkiḻār’s biography was written some six centuries after her death). In the first verse of the Tiruvālaṅkāṭṭu poems she describes herself as a ghoul:

“A female ghoul with withered breasts, bulging veins,
hollow eyes, white teeth, shrivelled stomach,
red hair, two fangs,
bony ankles, elongated shins,
stays in this cemetery, howling angrily.
This place where my Lord dances in the fire with a cool body,
His streaming hair flying in all eight directions,
is Tiruvālaṅkāṭṭu.” 3

In her poems, Aimmaiyār presents herself as this female pēy (“ghoul”) – a status which is open to any devotee, ragardless of gender or caste.

Aimmaiyār’s verses also emphasize the direct experience of bhakti over other ways of approaching the Lord:

“Those who speak about bookish knowledge,
do not have real knowledge of the truth,
let them wander.
The nature of the One whose throat is like a blue jewel
is beyond limits.
To those who practice any kind of austerities,
who imagine Him in any form,
He will appear in that form.” 4

Aimmaiyār suggests here that the form in which devotees experience Śiva is a consequence of their devotion. Stories and legends may provide context – but what ultimately matters is the devotee’s own engagement – emotional and intellectual – with the divine.

For Aimmaiyār, knowing Śiva requires the devotee to transcend ordinary human awareness, and to see that the terrifying cremation ground is really the beautiful place of liberation. Her poetry urges people to give up a life rooted in family relationships and bounded by conventional rituals and goals, and instead live their lives as ritual offerings to Śiva. Here we can see an early articulation of the quintessential tantric idea that “in order to worship a god one must become a god” – and it is in this kind of intense, emotional theism that opens the way for possession to become a compelling way to participate in the deity’s power.

Much of Aimmaiyār’s poetry is suggestive of tantric themes, yet as both Elaine Craddock (2010) and Karen Pechilis (2016) point out, there are key differences. Although many of her verses situate Śiva dwelling in the cremation ground – a site of radical self-transformation, where one might experience both the horror of death and the beauty of the divine; Aimmaiyār does not approach Śiva through ritual or the aim of acquiring Siddhiḥ (magical abilities) – which is a characteristic of tantric cremation ground practice. Rather, the cremation ground as the site for an intense, unscripted emotional engagement with the infinitude of the divine. Her assumption of the ghoul form can be understood as a form of asceticism, recalling the Atimārga practices of groups such as the Pāśupatas 5 but again, although she occasionally describes Śiva as a wandering beggar, or ornamented by a garland of bones, the prominent form of Śiva she encounters is that of the “beautiful one who dances” 6 who is untouched and somehow distant from the horrors of the space. Pechelis, in her full-length study of Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār (2012) suggests that Aimmaiyār’s verses concerning the dancing form of Śiva may have played an influential part in developing the idea of Naṭarāja as an important representation of Śiva to whom one might express devotion – and of the dance itself from a particular heroic deed to an expression of eternity.

Elaine Craddock Śiva’s Demon Devotee (State University of New York, 2010)
Norman Cutler Songs of Experience: The Poetics of Tamil Devotion (Indiana University Press, 1987)
Patrick Olivelle (transl.) Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation (Oxford University Press, 1992)
Karen Pechilis Prentiss The Embodiment of Bhakti (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Karen Pechilis Interpreting Devotion: The Poetry and legacy of a Female Bhakti Saint of India (Routledge, 2012)
Karen Pechilis Bhakti and Tantra intertwined: the explorations of the Tamil Poetess Kārraikāl Aimmaiyār (International Journal of Dharma Studies, 2016, 4:2)


  1. the latter including both those initiatory traditions which came to be known as the Atimārgas, and the Mantramārga (‘Tantric Śaivism’).
  2. See Craddock, 2010, p26.
  3. Craddock, 2010, p38
  4. Craddock, 2010, p41
  5. In the prescriptive literature these Atimārgic traditions are supposedly restricted to Brahmin males, but there is some evidence to suggest that female practitioners existed too.
  6. Pechilis, 2016, p6.