“Arthur Avalon” was was the pen-name of Sir John Woodroffe (1865-1936), judge of the High Court of Calcutta and Professor of Law at the University of Calcutta. At a time when many western orientalists considered Tantra to be little more than a ‘supersititious degeneration’ of Vedic orthodoxy, Woodroffe was keen to demonstrate that Tantra was a philosophically sophisticated system in its own right, and with the aid of his translator, Atal Bihari Ghose, published a series of books presenting tantric ideas for a western audience.
According to John Mumford, Woodroffe became interested in Tantra from an incident at court. It is said that one day he had great difficulty concentrating on the case before him, and one of his servants informed him that a tantric sadhu had been employed by the defendant to sit outside the courthouse and chant mantras to cloud his thoughts. Outside, Woodroffe found an ash-covered sadhu chanting a Sanskrit litany. The Indian Police drove the sadhu away and Woodroffe instantly felt his mind clear, and moreover, instilled in him a desire to find out more about Tantric practices.
The most influential of these books is The Serpent Power – a translation and commentary of the sixteenth-century Sat-Cakra-Nirupana Tantra – from which arises the most popular conception of the 7-Chakra system. Woodroffe also appears to have been the source for the often-quoted relationships between chakras and the western anatomical glandular system. The Serpent Power is probably one of the primary text from which the majority of ‘popular’ western New Age/Occult appropriations on Kundalini arises.
Woodroffe’s writing is often difficult going, as his books are very philosophical, lack indexes, and there is often no clear distinction between translated text and his own commentary. Although his work is a useful resource for modern students of Tantra, they are biased towards Woodroffe’s own intellectual and moral prejudices. For example, Woodroffe saw the West as “scientific” and India as “spiritual” and never hesitated to make cross-cultural correlations (for example, he wanted to demonstrate that Indian metaphysics were based on ‘scientific’ concepts). He also downplayed the role played by magic or sorcery in tantra, and also its erotic qualities. He wanted to distance the sophisticated doctrines of tantra from its more notorious assciation with sorcery and sexuality. He proposed the view that descriptions of antinomian practices in tantric texts were ‘symbolic’ rather than actual.In part, this reflected both western values at the time and also a desire on the part of an Indian intellectual elite to both ‘purify’ and domesticate Hindu tantra.
Woodroffe’s published works include:
- The Serpent Power
- Shakti & Shakta
- Hymns to the Goddess
- Tantra of the Great Liberation
- The Garland of Letters
- The Kulanarva Tantra
There is a biography of Woodroffe by Kathleen Taylor: Sir John Woodroffe, Tantra and Bengal: ‘An Indian Soul in a European Body Curzon Press (2001). ISBN 070071345X