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Tantra and Bangla folk literature

  • Published at 03:43 pm August 5th, 2017
  • Last updated at 04:18 pm August 10th, 2017
Tantra and Bangla folk literature
In our contemporary vernacular use, the “Tantra” is often used as a suffix meaning “ism”, government/political system, or philosophical/ideological school, for example, "monarchy" is Raj-tantra, "democracy" is Gana-tantra, and individualism is Sva-tantra. But when we use the word in the arena of religion or spiritual practices, it stinks awfully – mainly of sexual excesses and sometimes even of black magic. Yet a great body of literature in Bangla ranging from the thousand-year-old Charyagiti down to Ramprasad Sen-Lalon Fakir-Bhaba Pagla to the contemporary mystic singers and folk poets is heavily influenced by Tantra. The urban classes may have forgotten the creed, but the folk writers and singers still treasure the (probably pre-historic) heritage of Tantra. That the word Tantra means an esoteric practice or religious ritualism, according to a number of Indologists, is a colonial-era European invention (Padoux 2002, White 2005, Gray 2016). It was so perhaps because of the colonialists’ memory of the practices of the Dionysian cult. The negative connotations that Tantra acquired even in the Indian sub-continent about its association with sex and magic are triggered mainly by an exaggerated and ignorant perception caused by people’s negative attitudes towards sex and sexuality as a result of its prolonged suppression in society under all the major religions. The two cardinal reasons for the mass-misconception about Tantra are the heavily publicised erotic cave sculptures at Khajuraho and the metaphoric language of the Charyapada that often alludes to sexual union or lovemaking. According to Wikipaedia, the Khajuraho temples, primarily devoted to Shiva and built between 970 AD and 1030 AD, “...have a rich display of intricately carved statues. While they are famous for their erotic sculpture, sexual themes cover less than 10% of the temple sculpture. Further, most erotic scene panels are neither prominent nor emphasized at the expense of the rest; rather they are in proportional balance with the non-sexual images. The viewer has to look closely to find them, or be directed by a guide. The arts cover numerous aspects of human life and values considered important in Hindu pantheon.”
So the primary reason for misconstruing Tantra is the sexually repressed mass-consciousness. But Tantra is not based on sex but on sexual energy, of controlling and using it to perfect one’s own self.
As for the Charyapadas, they are the works of a group of Yogic and Tantric masters belonging to the Buddhist Vajrayana sect and probably also to the Shaivite sub-sect called Nath Sampradaya. The Charyapadas are written in a twilight (metaphoric) language and so are mostly misunderstood. People tend to forget that Tantra, which is much older than Buddhism, should not be judged by the alleged excesses practised by members of a mere sub-sect of Mahayana Buddhism. Tantra literally means “loom, warp, weave.” The Sanskrit root “tan” means the warping of threads on a loom. It implies “interweaving of traditions and teachings as threads” into a text, technique or practice. As a system of esoteric spiritual practice, Tantra predates even the earliest of Vedas. The word appears in the hymns of the Rigveda with the meaning of “warp” (weaving). It is found in other Vedic-era texts like the Atharvaveda and many Brahmanas. In Vedic and post-Vedic texts, the contextual meaning of Tantra is that which is “principal or essential part, main point, model, framework, feature”. In the Smritis and epics of Hinduism (and Jainism), the term means “doctrine, rule, theory, method, technique or chapter” and the word appears both as a separate word and as a common suffix, such as atma-tantra meaning “doctrine or theory of Atman (soul, self)” (Sir Monier Monier-Williams et al, 2002).
but suffice it to say here that the mystics in the Eastern hemisphere of the globe have known for long that “Whatever is there in the cosmos are in this body, too.”
As the number of Tantra’s definitions is as large as there are religious cults and philosophical schools in the world, I’d put an end to defining Tantra by quoting two masters who really deserve to be cited. The great grammarian Panini (5th century BCE) explains Tantra through the example of “Sva-tantra” which, he states, means “independent” or a person who is his own “warp, cloth, weaver, promoter, karta (actor).” Patanjali, the grandmaster of yoga, quotes and accepts Panini’s definition. He says the metaphorical definition of Tantra as “warp (weaving), extended cloth” is relevant to many contexts, adding that it also means “principal, main”. Patanjali also offers this semantic definition of Tantra – it is structural rules, standard procedures, centralized guide or knowledge in any field that applies to many elements (Douglas Renfrew Brooks, 1990). So the primary reason for misconstruing Tantra is the sexually repressed mass-consciousness. But Tantra is not based on sex but on sexual energy, of controlling and using it to perfect one’s own self. It’s no secret that every human being has two hemispheres in his brain – right and left. The right brain that controls the left side of the body is emotional, imaginative, empathic, intuitive, creative, and giving – the dominant character traits of women, while the left brain that controls the other side of the body is masculine in characteristics and shows the traits of reason, calculation, ideation, planning, ruthlessness, possessiveness, etc. In every individual, one of the hemispheres plays the dominant role and thus determines his/her gender role, while the other half remains mostly dormant. While morphing its way to the current configuration, the human species somehow figured out that if the two poles of its gender roles can be fused, it can become more wholesome, do things much better and be happier than ever. In our time, this conclusion has been echoed by Carl Gustaf Jung in Liber Novus: “But if you pay close attention, you will see that the most masculine man has a feminine soul, and the most feminine woman has a masculine soul.” Prof María Carolina Concha, a psychotherapist and a follower of Jung, says: The soul’ that accumulates in the ego’s consciousness during the opus has a feminine character in the male and a masculine in the female. The soul [anima] wants to reconcile and unite; the animus tries to discern and discriminate. Therefore, the word "Tantra" stands for the very process of merging an individual’s masculine and feminine selves into a complete whole. One then becomes really Sva-tantra, independent. So the Dombi with whom Kahnupada makes love in his "Charya 10" is his own feminine self. It’s the boat on which the boatman makes his reverse journey; and it’s depicted in the statue of the half-man-half-woman deity called Ardhanarisvara. We will not delve much into the particulars of the process of becoming a whole human, but suffice it to say here that the mystics in the Eastern hemisphere of the globe have known for long that “Whatever is there in the cosmos are in this body, too.” A human being first makes himself whole and then continues to seek the “man of the mind” (Moner Manush), as do the Bauls. In the West, the motto is phrased as “As Above So Below” and the fusion of inner man with inner woman is called the Inner Alchemy. Tantra and Inner Alchemy need a ladder (the spine, the Jakob’s Ladder mentioned in the Bible) to climb from the naval, where the sun aka feminine vitality resides, up to the crown of the head, where the moon/masculine/nectar is. If this is a religion, well Yoga too then is a religion; if this is spiritual, psychotherapy too is spiritual; if this is sexual excess, then a flower too is so – only in the last case, the access is committed by a plant.
Azfar Aziz is a Dhaka-based freelance journalist, writer and poet.