Tantra’s Metahistory III: The Left-hand Path – I
Posted by Phil Hine in History, Occult, tantra | June 17th 2010 |  About poster: Phil HinecloseAuthor: Phil Hine
Name: Name: Phil Hine
About: Phil Hine practices a hybrised approach to tantra. He is an occasional author and lecturer; and is the author of Prime Chaos, Condensed Chaos and The PseudonomiconSee Authors Posts (220)
In popular occult discourse, the concept of the “Left-hand Path” is often stated as originating within the tantric traditions, and sometimes, its popularisation within western occultism is laid at the door of Madame Blavatsky and other popular Theosophical pundits of the late nineteenth century – to the extent that the conceptualisation of the idea of the LHP in wholly negative terms (as can be seen in the writings of successive western occultists – Dion Fortune for example) is something that begins with Madame Blavatsky. However, although she may have been one of the first occultists to write extensively about the Left Hand Path, its identification with moral (and spiritual) degeneracy certainly did not begin with Blavatsky. So for this post – combining two of my areas of interest – the representation of tantra and the occult movements of the late nineteenth century, I want to take a look at the historical development of the concept of the Left-hand path. I will briefly examine the emergence of the notion of the left-hand path in the writings of nineteenth century orientalists through their discovery/creation of “tantra”. I’ll take a look at how the idea of the “Left-Path” is used by Madame Blavatsky in a follow-up post.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europeans were increasingly representing India as an archaic, static culture in contract to the dynamic industrial modernity of the West. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, scholars such as William Jones (1746-94) had begun to translate ancient Indian texts such as the Laws of Manu. There was a tendency to treat ancient texts as authoritative (in the same way that the Bible was, in Europe) and texts such as the Upanisads and the Bhavagad Gita were taken as proving that an originary idealised “Hinduism” had once existed, but that contemporary Indian practices had (for various reasons) become corrupt and degenerate. The Vedas were understood as evidence that India had once had a monotheistic past. The first european scholars to mention tantra were Jones, and his contemporary, Colebrooke, who saw texts such as the Rudrayamala Tantra as representative of the antithesis of the Vedic tradition.
Although the East India Company had, for the most part, left India’s religious communities alone, in the early nineteenth century, it bowed to pressure from Evangelical and Unitarian reformers, and allowed missionaries greater latitude in India, and the government began to institute social, legal and moral reform across India. The first European stirrings of horror at tantra’s licentiousness are from missionaries, notably the French Abbe Dubois, who, in his Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (1807) had much to say about the shameless and sexual explicitness of Hindu religion. It is from Dubois that we get the first account of Sakti-puja:
“The ceremony takes place at night with more or less secrecy. The least disgusting of these orgies are those where they confine themselves to eating and drinking everything that the custom of the country forbids and where women and men … openly and shamelessly violate the commonest laws of decency.”
(quoted in Urban, pp49-50)
Another important early chronicler was the Baptist Reverend William Ward, for whom Hinduism as a whole was a religion of “idle, effeminate and dissolute people”. Ward’s book A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos (1817) identified the “tuntras” as practices which involved “things too abominable to be revealed to a Christian public”. For Ward, the presence of practices such as the “Chukra circle” in India were a clear indication of Hinduisms immorality. For Ward, Hinduism is entirely corrupt and degenerate, and India requires the civilising influence of the British government and Christianity.
This linkage between tantra and sexual perversion continues throughout the early nineteenth century. Horace H. Wilson occupied the first Boden chair of Sanskrit at Oxford University (1832), prior to which he had been a surgeon for the East India Company. In the 1828 edition of Asiatick Researches he published translations of three fragmentary ms, one of which, the ashtami vrata vidhana consisted of a description of a tantric ritual. Wilson was generally dismissive of tantric texts, calling them a “nonsensical extravagance” and a sign of “all that is abominable in the present state of Hindu religion”. In the 1832 edition of Asiatick Researches he continued his essay with a short exposition of “the Saktas”. Wilson divided the Saktas into the daksinacaris (“right-hand path”) and the “extremist” vamacaris – the “followers of the left hand” – who used the ritual known as the five makaras or the pancatattva. Wilson thought that these rites were practiced only infrequently. However, in two lectures given at Oxford in 1840, he made an explicit link between Sakta worship and animal sacrifices (associated with both Kali and Durga Puja), adding that “if the Tantras are to be believed many a man who calls himself a Saiva … etc is secretly a Sakta and a brother of the left-hand fraternity” (quoted in Taylor, p123). In 1840 the Governor-General of India passed a law intending to prohibit “Vagrants within the Towns of Calcutta and of Madras, and the Islands of Bombay and Colaba, extorting Alms by offensive and disgusting exhibitions and practices” (this included public nudity and practices which were becoming identified as “tantric”).
Sir Monier-Williams, Wilson’s successor at Oxford (most famous for his Sanskrit-English Dictionary first published in 1872) was equally dismissive of tantra – again equating it with Satkism (the worship of the feminine), and characterising it as “Hinduism … at its worst and most corrupt stage of development.” Monier-Williams was the first orientalist to describe “Tantrism” as a singular, monolithic class. In particular, as Biernacki (2007) notes, it is tantra’s association with the worship of female powers that Monier-Williams finds particularly problematic – making a “natural” correlation between the presence of female divinities and sexual immorality. Similar associations were made in regard to the devadasi temple dancers (see for example, Edward Sellon’s The Oriental Epicurean, or the Delights of Hindoo Sex (1865) in which the devadasis are described as “loose sluts who are consecrated in the worship of the perverted prickly gods of Hindoostan”). The French scholar A. Barth writing in Religions of India (1881) characterised tantra as “obscene observances” and asserted that “a Cakta of the left hand is almost always a hypocrite and a superstitious debauchee.”
Tantra was also identified with the decline of the once-noble Aryans, as I noted in the first post in this series and to the infamous so-called “cult of Thugee” and its relationship to the worship of “Kalee”.
“Happily the worst abominations of Saktism are gradually dying out in British India; and its true character is impressing itself on the convictions of the more highly educated Hindus.”
This image of tantra also found its way into popular literature. Richard Burton’s Vikram and the Vampire; or, Tales of Hindu Devilry (1870) contains references to a villanous “Tantri” who indulges in “all the pleasures of sense” and “abominable rites” – sections which, according to Hugh Urban, were creatively added by Burton himself and did not appear in the original Sanskrit source for Burton’s translation. Edward Sellon (1818-1866), like Burton, was an Indian army veteran. He is best known for his erotica, but he also wrote two papers: On the Phallic Worship of India (1863) and Sacti Puja, the Worship of the Female Powers (1866) and Annotations on the Sacred Writings of the Hindus (1865). In Sacti Puja Sellon states:
The Sacteyas are divided into two sects: the Daxin’ ácháram (or right hand), and Vámácharam (or left hand). Each sect renounces the established religion, and declares the worship of women supreme, every woman (according to them) being a Sacti, or image of the great goddess. Their rules for fasting, bathing, and prayer, are to the full as irksome as with the Brahmins themselves. The person worshipped is a woman or girl of the Brahminical caste (among the Daxin’ ácháram), who is elegantly dressed, and adorned with jewels and garlands. One, three, or nine females are to be thus adored by one or more men; but in the left hand mode, there is only one girl and one worshipper.
At the same time, tantra’s influence was also being used to explain the “degeneration” of Buddhism, by scholars such as Eugene Burnouf (1844) and later by the Tibetologist L. Austine Waddell (1889). However, these interpretations of tantra as degenerate and corrupt practice was not limited to European scholars. Indian commentators too, were keen to excoriate these practices. Some nineteenth century Indian reformers, influenced by the orientalist presentation of the golden age of the Vedas, saw tantra as responsible for India’s cultural ills. Dayananda Saraswati (1824-83), the founder of the Arya Samaj published several attacks on tantra, which he saw as something to eradicate through reform. Similarly, Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) published several attacks on the sources of decadence in Indian culture – in particular the Sakta Tantras.
Anti-tantric texts appeared, such as the Exposition of the Agamas or that portion of Hindoo Shastras, which Vamees or Left Hand Sect follow as Their Books of Revelation which was published in Ahmedabad by an anonymous author in 1874 (Rinehart, Stewart, 2000):
The object of these pages, is to hold up to light the the most filthy, infernal and obscene superstitions and pretended miraculous power of Mantra Shastris, who abound, in every town in India, especially in native states, where they find a large-patronage. … It is hoped that this publication will induce all those, who are concerned with the welfare of this great nation to unite in one common effort to put down the diabolical tenets inculcated by the “Vami” and “Kowl” sects. … It will be a grand triumph to free Hindoos from the snares of these knaves, who pass by the polite names of Mantra Shastris and Upakasas, but who deserve to be denounced as enemies to all that is decent, virtuous, and moral.
The book aimed to reveal the secret practices of groups of “Vamees” in order that they could be brought to the attention of reformers, and thereby eradicated.
This shows then, that the links between tantric practices, sexual immorality, cultural degeneration, worship of feminine powers and the left-hand path were fairly well-established well before Madame Blavatsky entered the picture.
Hugh B. Urban, Tantra: Sex Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (University of California Press, 2003)
Sharada Sugirtharajah, Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective (Routledge, 2003)
Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial India and The Mystic East (Routledge, 1999)
Loriliai Biernacki Rewnowned Goddess of Desire: Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Kathleen Taylor Sir John Woodroffe, Tantra and Bengal: an Indian soul in a European body? (Curzon, 2001)
R. Rhinehart and TK Stewart, The Anonymous Agama Prakasa: Preface to a Nineteenth-Century Gijarati Polemic in Tantra in Practice Edited by David Gordon White (Princeton, 2000)
Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester University Press, 1991)