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Paolo Eugenio Rosati
Violence and Eroticism in Early Mediaeval Tantra at Kāmākhyā
In this essay, Paolo Rosati discusses one of the numerous factors that contributed to the emergence of the Tantric cult of the Goddess Kāmākhyā: the relationship between death imaginary and sexual symbolism. Mythological sources reveal that when Naraka—the first mytho-historical king of Kāmarūpa—ascended to the throne of Prāgjyotiṣapura, the cult of the Goddess Kāmākhyā was institutionalised within the folds of Brahmanism. The Kāmarūpa kingship, through the legitimation of Naraka as the royal ancestor and his related symbols of sexuality and death, integrated and justified the Tantric cult of Kāmākhyā centred on blood sacrifices and sexual rites, while the ritual violence of shedding blood emerged as the prescribed ritual in acceding to the kingship of Kāmarūpa.
The north-eastern offshoot of the Indian subcontinent is a peripheral region that connects India with Indochina sharing, indeed, its borders with the modern state of Myanmar. The temple of Kāmākhyā is located on top of Nīlācala (Blue Mountain), in the Brahmaputra Valley (Assam). The Brahmaputra plain has been the socio-religious centre of north-eastern India throughout its mediaeval history. More specifically, since the early mediaeval period, the valley has emerged as a place of cross-cultural encounter and interchange between the Brahmanised kings of Kāmarūpa (the land of desire)1—who ruled from Prāgjyotiṣapura2—and the local inhabitants of the hills and forests surrounding the plain.
During the mediaeval period—approximately around the end of the seventh century—Kāmākhyā emerged as a Tantric Goddess who presides over Nīlācala, also well-known as the yoni pīṭha (seat of the vulva), a religious centre where she is worshipped in her non-anthropomorphic form of a yoni stone. Her temple is surrounded by ten private Mahāvidyā shrines, a peculiarity in south Asian religious architecture.3 The sacred yoni stone is preserved inside the temple’s womb-chamber (gabhagṛha), an obscure and claustrophobic sanctum that, today, is always crowded with pilgrims arriving mostly from West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and the states of northeast India4. The yoni is covered by the water of a natural underground stream, which prevents the sacred stone from being seen directly. As a consequence, it is necessary to touch it to experience the darśana (seeing).
Inside the womb-chamber the sexual symbolism related to the cult of Kāmākhyā is extremely clear, although its superimposition over “the primeval death imagery of Nīlacala, which is supposed to have been an ancient tribal cremation ground” has been detected. While the water inside the sanctum is easily read as a symbolic substitute for the sexual fluids of the Goddess and may be considered an explicit symbol of eros,5 on the other hand, the death imagery is far more explicit outside the womb-chamber, where animals are still ritually slaughtered. However, the devotees, climbing down more than one hundred steps “to reach the garbhagṛha” symbolically “descend to the subterranean world”. The yoni is therefore not only the “matrix of the universe”, but “also the access point to the power of the ancestors” 6.
This double symbolism is well-mirrored by the goddess Kāmākhyā and her related ritual praxis. In fact, on the one hand, she is a caring mother, related to the universe of love, sex, and desire; on the other, she is a terrifying mother, leader of the yoginīs,7 who are a cluster of female deities, “angry” because “hungry” and “thirsty” for blood and flesh 8.
Naraka and the Legitimisation of Eroticism and Death
In order to trace back the roots of Kāmākhyā’s ambivalence, a glance at the origin of Brahmanised kingship in northeast India is necessary. The ethnic and cultural origins of the early kings of Kāmarūpa are obscure, although the Kālikāpurāṇa—an early mediaeval text compiled in northeast India in the ninth–eleventh century—preserves a myth that connects north-eastern kingship to Naraka—a hero revered as the founder of the kingdom of Kāmarūpa. According to the myth, Naraka not only conquered the northeast, but he also united its population under his royal banner by adopting the cult of Kāmākhyā, already worshipped by local tribes (kirātas) 9.
In spite of the fact that Naraka’s Puranic biography has no evidence of historicity, his story definitely underlines an ancient connexion between the cult of the Goddess Kāmākhyā—centred on the worship (pūjā) of her yoni—and the impurity of menstrual blood, a trait borrowed from the Earth goddess (Pṛthvī). Indeed, Naraka was conceived during her menstrual period by Pṛthvī—an element that relates the demi-god to the universe of impurity10—when she was assaulted by Viṣṇu in his Varāha (wild boar) form11. Thus, Naraka is widely related to eros, and particularly to the prohibition for menstruating women to have sex—while she is identified as an impure being by the Vedic and Puranic sources12. The menstrual blood contaminated Varāha as well as the embryo growing inside the Earth goddess’s womb.
Naraka, identified as an asura (i.e. anti-god), transmitted his asuric condition to his family (Bhaumas) and to the later early mediaeval royal families. Not only was Naraka therefore the hero who associated the Goddess Kāmākhyā with the Brahmanical universe, but he also endangered the Brahmanical power related to the Vedic tradition. In fact, Naraka is described as “powerful enough even to torment the ambrosia-drinking gods” on the Dubi Copper Plates of Bhāskaravarman (v.2)13. However, Naraka’s myth shows a convergence of the eroticism related to womanhood, sexual fluids, and specific sexual prescriptions (including their violation) with the death imagery. Indeed, when Naraka was born he was found by his step-father, the king of Mithilā,14 Janaka, on his sacrificial ground, “lying and crying inside a human skull”15.
The king found the body [i.e. the child]like the blazing fire in his brilliance, like the moon in lustre and like the sun in splendour and picked him up remembering the promise he made to Pṛthvī in the past, the way the Fire god picked up Kārttikeya (son of Śiva and Pārvatī) from the midst of sara grasses 1
The association of Naraka with a human skull, on a cremation ground, relates the future king of Kāmarūpa either to Śiva as the skull-bearer (kapālin) par excellence or to the ancestral magic powers linked to the handling of corpses and bones, later appropriated by the socio-religious milieu of esoteric Buddhist traditions.
The association of Naraka with a human skull, on a cremation ground, relates the future king of Kāmarūpa either to Śiva as the skull-bearer (kapālin) par excellence—after he decapitated Brahmā, being thus guilty of Brahmanicide—or to the ancestral magic powers linked to the handling of corpses and bones later appropriated by the socio-religious milieu of the esoteric Buddhist traditions, which David Gray termed as “the cult of the charnel ground”. States such as “awakening” or “gnosis of awakening” in the Buddhist context are widely associated with death—“meaning that death provided an opportunity for awakening that is difficult to achieve in normal states of consciousness” 17.
Hence, Naraka—the king who subdued the populations of the Brahmaputra Valley and its surrounding hills and forests, and then united Brahmanised and non-Brahmanised people in the cult of Kāmākhyā—can be described as a socio-religious tool used by the compiler(s) (paurāṇika[s]) of the Kālikāpurāṇa to explain the fusion of values belonging to non-Sanskritic culture with the Brahmanical tradition. Naraka, as the first (mytho-historical) king, legitimised the incorporation within Brahmanism of traits that were perceived as polluting and impure by the Vedic-Brahmanic culture. Consequently, because Naraka’s biological mother was menstruating when he was conceived, menstrual blood assumed a prominent position as a powerful albeit dangerous element at Kāmākhyā. Death imagery was also incorporated within the Kāmākhyā cult mainly, but not only, through the practice of blood sacrifices to nourish the Goddess.
On the one hand, Naraka transmitted the sexual traits of the Earth goddess to Kāmākhyā; on the other hand, he transmitted the death imagery of the cremation ground to the Goddess. In fact, the Naraka myth seems to equate the Earth goddess to the Goddess Kāmākhyā, the former being the biological mother of King Naraka and the latter the mother of the kingdom of Kāmarūpa18.
The Intersection of Sexuality and Death in Tantra
The early mediaeval dynasties of Kāmarūpa —the Varman (fourth to seventh century), the Śālastambha (seventh to tenth century), and the Pāla (tenth to thirteenth century)19—are the first historical dynasties of northeast India. They all traced their roots back to the Bhauma dynasty—the mytho-historical royal family founded by Naraka20. The early mediaeval kings of Kāmarūpa, in tracing this link to Naraka, thus accepted the divine powers derived from Viṣṇu/Varāha as well as the dangerous asuric powers represented by menstrual blood and the charnel ground.
The sexual rite is usually considered more powerful than blood sacrifice, although both methods, by different paths, reach the same goal, which is power, either religious or political.
Sexuality and death imagery were symbolically integrated within the cult of the Goddess Kāmākhyā. Her earthly abode was constructed on a hilltop which in the past was a tribal sacrificial ground, inside which is preserved the yoni stone—the icon of the Goddess. Two are the Tantric methods of satisfying the Goddess Kāmākhyā: 1) nourishing her with the blood and flesh of sacrificial victims; 2) worshipping her yoni either physically or symbolically.
Offering blood and flesh was thus clearly connected with the imagery of death and violence, whereas the yoni pūjā was linked to the universe of desire and sexuality21. Kāmākhyā is therefore a dangerous and dreadful mother, as well as a caring mother22. Her terrifying aspect is satisfied by her devotees through blood sacrifices. By nourishing the Goddess with blood and flesh, her energy (śakti) is empowered, so that once a year, when she menstruates, her śakti vivifies the earth23. Kāmākhyā’s loving and peaceful aspect is linked to her yoni and its sexual fluids, which endow her devotees with supernatural powers (siddhis)24.
Offering sacrificial blood to the Goddess was the necessary act to become king25. Only the king, however, could command a human sacrifice26, a ritual act capable of releasing inestimable power27. This prescription gave the king control over who could obtain such energy (śakti). However, animal sacrifices could be officiated without royal interference. For the king, blood sacrifices were necessary to destroy his enemies and maintain his established power, while for other devotees they were needed primarily to reach liberation (mokṣa)28. Historically, Tantra has been a vehicle to spread religious and political ideas29, closely linked to the royal power, whereas the śakti “is also the material power that flows through the social body and the state as well as the physical body and the cosmos”30. This Tantric path related to the violence of bloodshed is called the “orthodox method”, as opposed to the “heterodox method”31.
The “heterodox method” is related to the worship of the yoni of Kāmākhyā, by far the most secret ritual performed within the folds of Hindu-Tantra traditions. Devotees drinking the yoni’s water obtain liberation and supernatural powers. What do the texts mean by yoni’s water? On the one hand, the Kālikāpurāṇa states that one has to drink the reddish water flowing inside the sacred cave (guhā) of Kāmākhyā in order to obtain supernatural powers32. Furthermore, devotees also bathed in the sacred water in order to achieve liberation33. On the other hand, later mediaeval sources—related to the Tantric Kaula school—transformed this symbolic ritual into the physical praxis of drinking the sexual fluids from a human yoginī’s vulva34.
The sexual rite is usually considered more powerful than blood sacrifice, although both methods, by different paths, reach the same goal, which is power, either religious or political. Although by performing the most secret yoni pūjā, devotees as well as the kings could obtain a number of inestimable powers35, it was the offering of blood that allowed a person to become king. In this way, ritual violence emerges as the Tantric path closer to the Brahmanised kingship, a fact that also emerges in other south Asian regions with a high non-Brahmanic density36. The idea that Tantra is mostly an esoteric, sexual and ecstatic path towards salvation based on desire (kāma) in order to obtain enjoyment (bhukti), supernatural powers, and liberation is therefore flawed and only partially true37.
In conclusion, both the Tantric rituals performed in early mediaeval Kāmarūpa are an access-door to what Hugh Urban calls “the power at the margins”38, a cross-cultural power required to dominate a region mostly inhabited by non-Sanskritic people.
- The mediaeval kingdom of Kāmarūpa corresponds to the modern states of Assam, Meghalaya and part of Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Bhutan.
- Present-day city of Guwahati.
- At present, no other south Asian site is known where private shrines for each of the ten Mahāvidyās are preserved. On the other hand, there are a number of sites where the Mahāvidyās are worshipped as a cluster. See, D. Kinsley: The Tantric Vision of the Divine Feminine. The Ten Mahāvidyās. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2008 (1st. ed. 1998).
- This group of states is also called Seven Sisters; further than Assam, the other six are Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura
- This equation between water and sexual symbol is also affirmed by devotees, although they do not consider the sexuality behind the symbol of worship a yoni and its sexual fluids.
- P.E. Rosati: “The Cross-Cultural Kingship in Early Medieval Kāmarūpa: Blood, Desire and Magic,” in: G.A. Hayes and S. Timalsina (eds.), “The Society for Tantric Studies Proceedings ”, Special issue, Religions, vol. 8 (212), pp. 9–10. doi.org/10.3390/rel8100212. See, R.M. Davidson: Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement, New York, Columbia University Press, 2002, pp. 224–225.
- B. Shastri (trans.): Kālikāpurāṇa: Sanskrit Text with English Translation, Delhi, Nag Publishers, 2018 (1st ed. 1991), 54.34; 63.44 (hereafter, KP).
- D.G. White: Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in Its South Asian Contexts, Chicago/London, The University of Chicago Press, 2006 (1st ed. 2003), pp. 3–4.
- The biography of Naraka is preserved in KP: Ch. 36–40.
- However, according to F. Appfel-Marglin (“Female Sexuality in the Hindu World,” in: C.W. Atkinson (ed.), Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality, Boston (MA), Beacon Press, 1985, pp. 40–44), menstrual blood encompasses auspicious and inauspicious aspects, thus not being related exclusively to just one of these aspects.
- KP: 30.34.
- Regarding menstrual blood, see, J. Leslie: “Menstruation Myths,” in: J. Leslie (ed.), Myth and Mythmaking: Continuous Evolution in Indian Tradition, , Richmond, Curzon Press, 1996, pp. 90–94.
- M.M. Sharma: Inscriptions of Ancient Assam, Guwahati, Dept. Publications Guwahati University, 1978, p. 20.
- Mithilā was the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Vidheas, probably located between Bihar and southern Nepal.
- Rosati: “The Cross-Cultural Kingship,” op. cit., p. 6; see also KP: 37. 46–52.
- KP: 37.53–54.
- D.B. Gray: “Skull Imagery and Skull Magic in the Yoginī Tantras,” Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (Third Series), no. 8 (Fall), 2006, pp. 24–25.
- However, this reading could be considered reductive. Indeed, the intersecting, sharing, and encompassing process of such trans-cultural traits is far more complex. In fact, the sexual symbolism relating to the Earth goddess is encountered all over the world. Yet death imagery is also a transcultural element. Nevertheless, here I wish to point out how the compiler(s) of a Sanskrit text—who needed to spread Brahmanism in a region dominated by non-Brahmanic people—legitimised or tried to legitimise non-orthodox traits of the goddess Kāmākhyā and her Tantric cult.
- They are the Pāla of Kāmarūpa, a different dynasty from the Pāla of Bengal.
- P.C. Choudhury: The History of Civilization of the People of Assam up to 12th Century A.D, Guwahati, Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies in Assam, 1959, pp. 139–147.
- Both these traits connect Kāmākhyā to the cluster of yoginīs; see P.E. Rosati: “The Roots of the Two Sides of Kāmākhyā: Blending Death and Sex in Tantra,” in: P.E. Rosati (ed.), “The Blend of
- Tantra: Continuity and Discontinuity within South Asia Mainstream Religions,” Special Issue, Religions of South Asia, vol. 13, 2019 [forthcoming].
- It is difficult to affirm whether or not Kāmākhyā always encompasses both these aspects, showing herself sometimes as a dreadful mother and sometimes as a loving mother, but never forgetting her other side.
- Even today, once every year, the Ambuvācī melā celebrates, during the raining season, the menstrual cycle of Kāmākhyā.
- According to early mediaeval textual Tantric traditions, just staying near the yoni pīṭha was sufficient to obtain supernatural powers; see C.P. Bagchi (ed.) and M. Magee (trans.): Kaulajñāna-nirṇaya of the School of Matsyendranatha, Varanasi, Prachya Prakashan, 1986 (1st ed. 1934), 16.7–10.
- KP: 84.79–81.
- KP: 67.116–118.
- KP: 67.18.
- KP: 67.5–6.
- C. Orzech: Politics and Transcendent Wisdom: The Scripture of the Human Kings in the Creation of Chinese Buddhism, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998, p. 8.
- H.B. Urban: The Power of Tantra: Religious, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies, New York, I. B. Tauris, 2010 (1st ed. 2009), p. 73.
- KP: 74.139b–140.
- KP: 62.88b–90.
- KP: 80.31b–32a.
- B.N. Shastri (ed.): Kāmākhyā-Tantra, Delhi/Varanasi, Bharatiya Vidya Prakashana, 1990, 4.22.
- Such as the power to “see a buried treasure” (guṭikāñjana), the “power of diving underneath the earth” (pātālasiddhi), “an ointment […]enabling […]to move anywhere undiscovered” (pādalepa), “the power of transmitting base metals into gold or finding an elixir of immortality” (rasāyana), “a sword over which mantras have been uttered, so that success in battle is guaranteed” (khaḍaga), the power to become “invisible” (antaradhāna), the power “to fly up in the sky” (khecara), “the power to go swiftly everywhere on earth” (bhūcara), and “the power to make one’s enemy flee from the country with all attendant disgrace” (uccāṭana); see, K.R. Van Kooij, Worship of the Goddess According to the Kālikāpurāṇa: A Translation with an Introduction and Notes of Chapters 54–69, Leiden,
- Brill, 1972, pp. 24–25.
- This is the case of rock-cut representations of the two self-decapitating and self-mutilating worshippers in the mediaeval art of Tamil dynasties of south India, such as the Pallava and Cōḷa. The two devotees are depicted on either side of what is probably the tribal goddess Korravai, identified as the Brahmanic Victorious Durgā; see, J.C. Harle, “Durgā, Goddess of Victory,” Artibus Asiae, vol. 26. nos. 3–4, 1963, pp. 237–246.
- Cf. M. Biardeau: L’Induismo. Antropologia di una civiltà (trans. by F. Poli), Milano, Mondadori (1st ed. in French, L’hindouisme, anthropologie d’une civilization, Paris, Flammarion, 1995), pp. 185–193; A. Padoux: “Tantrism: An Overview,” in: M. Eliade (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religions, vol. 15, New York, MacMillan, pp. 271–273.
- Urban: The Power of Tantra, op. cit., p. 26.