Tantric bodiesWendy Doniger -- 20 May 2004
KISS OF THE YOGINI: Tantric sex in its South Asian context
David Gordon White, 372pp. | University of Chicago Press. | $43; distributed in the UK by Wiley. £30.50. 0 226 89483 5
There are many good, dull books about Tantra and many that are bad but interesting. This is true of many areas of knowledge, but Tantra is particularly susceptible both to juicy sensationalism and to an overcompensating academic desiccation. Kiss of the Yogini is one of the few good, interesting books about Tantra, a passionately argued work that transforms scholarly understanding of its subject. If it goes too far in arguing its essential point about the origin of Tantra, such excess is justified by the book’s courageous stance against a political censorship that goes much further in the opposite direction.
How you define Tantra is largely determined by what you want to say about it. To the extent that the general reading public is familiar with the term, Tantra has become an Orientalist wet dream, a transgressive, weird, sexy, dangerous world. Many people refer to the Kamasutra, or even The Joy of Sex, as Tantric. But Tantric practice has a narrower and more precise historical genealogy. In David Gordon White’s account, the distinguishing characteristic of South Asian Tantra in its earliest documented stage is a ritual in which bodily fluids – sexual or menstrual discharge – were swallowed as transformative “power substances”.
He tells us that Tantra originated some time between the sixth and eighth centuries of the Common Era in central India, among a subaltern stratum of the Indian population who used intoxicating drinks and sacrificed animals to terrifying clan deities. In the ninth or eleventh century this ritual developed into an erotic mystical practice, and the clan deities were replaced by a horde of ravishingly beautiful, terrifying and powerful female deities called Yoginis. The Yoginis continued to be worshipped with blood offerings and animal sacrifices but came to be propitiated also by exchanging sexual fluids with the male practitioners and by consuming those fluids (as well as other prohibited foods). In return, the Yoginis would grant the practitioners, at the very least, “a powerful expansion of . . . the limited consciousness of the conformist Brahmin practitioner” and, at most, supernatural powers, including the power of flight.
A significant reform took place in the eleventh century, when certain elite Brahmin Tantric practitioners, led by the great theologian Abhinavagupta in Kashmir, marginalized the ritual of fluid exchange and sublimated it into a wider body of ritual and meditative techniques. These techniques, White argues, were designed not to threaten the purity regulations that were required for high-caste social constructions of the self in India. The theoreticians eliminated the major goal of the hard-core Tantrics, the transformation and consumption of the substances, and kept only the minor goal, the expansion of consciousness, now viewed as the cultivation of a divine state of mind homologous to the bliss experienced in sexual orgasm. This was soft-core, or High Hindu, Tantra, a revisionist transformation “from a kind of doing to a kind of knowing”. Thus, for example, the drinking of female menstrual discharge became abstracted into a programme of meditation mantras. Such transformations are familiar from other religions: a rough parallel might be seen in the internalization of the sacrifice in Judaism after the destruction of the Temple.
White argues that this revision was modified or qualified in a number of ways. First, there was still a place in secret initiations for the consumption of prohibited foods and sexual fluids, though even here the referent was no longer power or the transformation of the worshipper but merely “the transformative psychological effect of overcoming conventional notions of propriety through the consumption of polluting substances”. Another sort of compromise consisted in sexual rituals performed only within the confines of coitus reservatus, thus eliminating precisely the essential point of the earlier ritual, the release of the fluids, and replacing it with the promise of a blissful expansion of consciousness. In this way the earlier, unreconstructed form of Tantra, the hard-core, persisted as a kind of underground river, flowing beneath the new, bowdlerized, dominant form.
And, finally, a system of “overcoding” permitted high-caste, conformist householder practitioners to have it both ways, to lead a double life by living conventionally while experimenting in secret with Tantric identities. Such people might put on a public face of Hindu orthodoxy, claiming to eighteenth-century missionaries, for instance, that they were shocked by Tantric practices in which they themselves participated. Thus Hindus bowdlerized their own tradition. But this native tendency was further exacerbated by the superimposition of a distorted Western image of Tantra, namely “the sensationalist productions of Christian missionaries and colonial administrators, who portrayed Tantra as little more than a congeries of sexual perversions and abominations”.
Just as pizza, once a Neapolitan speciality, spread throughout Italy as a result of its popularity in America, so Tantra’s reputation in India was significantly affected by its notoriety in Europe. Today, many scholars both within and without Hinduism insist that the sort of hard-core Tantra that White describes never existed and that Tantra has always been solely a technique of meditation. When scholars of this ilk encounter the blatantly sexual statements of the hard-core texts (and the Tantras do contain statements like: “The body of every living creature is made of semen and blood. The deities who are fond of sexual pleasure drink semen and blood”), they interpret them metaphorically, somewhat in the manner in which rationalizing Greeks interpreted their own myths as allegories.
An example of this tendency in Tantra is the case of the Five M-Words: matsya, mamsa, madya, mudra and maithuna. Their literal meaning may be approximated in English by Five F-Words: fish, flesh, fermented liquids (wine), frumentum (grain) and fornication. Fish, flesh, and wine were prohibited for high-caste Hindus, and there is little debate about either the connotation or the denotation of these terms, but the other two have proved problematic. White argues that mudra, whose primary meaning is “seal” (as in “seal ring”), has here the sense that it has in the yogic term vajroli mudra, “seal of the place of the male organ”, and therefore refers to “the technique of urethral suction by means of which the Tantric yogin, having ejaculated into his partner, draws his semen together with her sexual emission back into his penis” (the so-called fountain-pen effect). In this interpretation mudra signifies the practitioner’s consort’s vulva, and, by extension, the fluids from the vulva. The final element, maithuna, is usually translated as sexual intercourse, pairing, but White argues that it means more precisely “what is derived from sexual intercourse”, “the fluid product of sexual intercourse” or “sexual emission”.
The Five Ms were substitutes for an early pentad described in some Kaula texts, the so-called Five Jewels, which consisted of semen, urine, faeces, menstrual blood, and phlegm and were also known as the Five Nectars (with marrow in place of phlegm). These pentads have a complex history. The Five Jewels were probably themselves already substitutes for the “five products of the cow” (panchagavya) which orthodox Hindus ingested to purify themselves of pollution: clarified butter, milk, and yogurt, plus bovine urine and faeces. The Five Jewels or Nectars may have been a deliberate antinomian travesty of this orthodox ritual; one Tantric text explicitly parodied the “five products of the cow” by substituting for the bovine urine and faeces the cow’s blood and flesh, an abomination (because it involved the killing of the cow) that deliberately subverted orthodox categories of purity. But the early Tantrics may simply have been too poor to procure the orthodox, bovine substances and therefore have “made use of readily available human sexual fluids” instead. (Similarly, White argues, the early Tantrics, not having access to the complex Sanskrit mantras that were the prerogative of Brahmins, derived their mantras of nonsense syllables from the inarticulate moans that the Goddess made during intercourse, the divine counterpart to the sounds that the Kamasutra attributes to human women.) The soft-core reinterpretation of the Five Ms did away with the bodily fluids entirely, introducing new ritual substitutes, glossing madya (wine) as a meditational nectar, mamsa (flesh) as the tongue of the practitioner, matsya (fish) as his breaths, mudra as inner knowledge (or, sometimes, as parched grain, kidney beans, or “any cereal believed to possess aphrodisiac properties”), and maithuna as “supreme essence”.
Whether or not one accepts White’s interpretation of maithuna and mudra, few would deny that the dominant trend in Tantric interpretation has long been, and remains, metaphorical or metaphysical. But how do we know that the original, supposedly hard-core school were not also interpreting their texts metaphorically? The soft-core assumption that the texts speak only metaphorically implies that Tantric sex was never a ritual but always a myth, that (as has been argued in the case of cannibalism) it was something that some people thought other people were doing, when in fact no one was doing anything of the sort. This would mean that even the people who wrote the early Tantric texts merely imagined that they were doing what they said they were doing. After all, people have imagined that they have flown to heaven and walked among the gods, so why not imagine that you’re drinking your sister’s menstrual blood? White, however, argues that Tantric ritual texts tell us precisely what the practitioners did, that they mean what they say. He therefore eagerly joins in two battles that are raging far beyond the bounds of South Asian scholarship, one epistemological and the other political. The fight about the nature of knowledge asks, “How do you know when a text does or does not mean just what it says?”. And the closely related fight about the ownership (nowadays sometimes called appropriation) of knowledge asks, “Who says?”, or “Who gets to decide this?”. In the case of Tantra, is it the South Asian people whose culture invented and nourished the tradition, or the European and American scholars who have studied it for several centuries? Epistemology meets politics when a foreign scholar such as White dares to challenge a long-standing South Asian tradition of interpreting Tantra’s ritualized sexual practices metaphorically, as a search for mystical transcendence, insisting instead that, historically, the actual physical substances of sex are essential to the tradition.
White supports his assertions philologically, with a painstakingly detailed study of statements drawn primarily from Sanskrit texts, heavily supplemented by literary, artistic, medical, political and architectural sources (and further documented by a full one hundred pages of critical apparatus). He also builds on the great burgeoning of Tantric studies in the past two decades, particularly in the work of Alexis Sanderson, Michel Strickmann, Sanjukta Gupta, Mark Dyczskowski and Hugh Urban. White marshals historical evidence – from inscriptions, court records and other supporting data – that, though Tantrics carried out their sexual rites in relatively remote areas, these rites were not “a particularly well guarded secret”. Tantric practices were, in Robert Levy’s phrase, “advertised secrets”. And White points out that the hard-core ritual practice continues to this day, particularly among the Bauls of Bengal and the Nizarpanths (“Hinduized” Ismai’ilis of western India). In the final chapter of the book we meet the inheritor of what White claims is “an unbroken line of teachers and disciples” – living Yoginis, enduring for the most part in the greatly reduced form of aged, poor, widowed and socially marginalized women.
Not everyone will accept White’s specific dating of the stages of Tantric development, or even his more general hypothesis of a historical evolution. Bracketing the historical development, one might simply argue that Tantra was for some people a ritual and for others merely a myth, or that it was for some people a sexual ritual and for others a meditational ritual. White’s historical argument implies that Tantra was a ritual that became, for the dominant culture, a kind of myth, that from the eleventh century Hindus who continued actually to perform the rituals (hard-core) described them in a code that made it appear that they were merely performing them symbolically (soft- core). The assumption that this transformation has taken place enables White to restore the text that the revisionists had eclipsed, to break the code and reconstruct the pre-transformed text, much as Freud – a constant presence in this book – worked backwards to reconstruct the meaning of the dream before it had been censored, to restore the dream that the censoring superego and the dream work had masked.
But White is not entirely consistent in his literalism. When the texts state that the male participants in the Kaula rites feed the Yoginis semen and blood drawn from their bodies in exchange for the magical power of flight, White argues that the female consorts (standing for the Yoginis) really did consume the fluids and drink the blood, but he does not argue that the male practitioners really flew. And when a text speaks of mixing the Yogini’s two milks (her breast-milk and her menstrual discharge) he says it is describing “an impossible ritual practice”, since menstruation stops during lactation, and, in any case, Yoginis never have children and hence never lactate. He concludes, therefore, that this is an instance of powerful “Tantric transgressivity” best read as a piece of the Tantric “prescriptive imagination”. Only because this could not be done does White assume it was not done. But is there any reason to assume that the physically possible act of drinking menstrual blood was done other than that it could be done? White proves beyond any doubt that the early Tantrics may well have ingested these fluids, but it is impossible for him to prove that they actually did. Bending over backwards is not the most comfortable position from which to argue.
The argument in Kiss of the Yogini, however, has a political importance that eclipses reservations of this kind. In arguing for the sexual meaning of the texts, White is flying in the face of the revisionist Hindu hermeneutic tradition that began in the eleventh century, was favoured by Hindus educated in the British tradition from the nineteenth century onwards, and prevails in India today. The contemporary Indian view is complicated by a new political twist. Right-wing Hindu groups, in India and in the diaspora, have increasingly asserted their wish, indeed their right, to control scholarship about Hinduism. They have transformed the soft-core interpretation of Tantra from one among others to the only acceptable view.
They have particularly targeted for their attacks scholars who use Freudian paradigms. These are faulted for being non-native to the tradition to which European and American scholars apply them and for projecting obscenity onto Hindu phenomena that have (such people insist) nothing to do with sex. Many contemporary Hindus, particularly of the Hindutva persuasion (that is, followers of the recently ousted Hindu Nationalist BJP, with its repressive and purity-obsessed policies), insist that Tantra has nothing to do with sex.
They also accuse non-Hindu scholars of eroticizing Hinduism by asserting that the Siva-lingam represents an erect phallus. What once seemed a righteous revolution against Orientalism now threatens to turn into a reign of terror.Hindu fundamentalist attacks on Freudian interpretations argue that none of what they call these “distorted characterizations” has any scriptural validity according to Hindu tenets or eminent Hindu scholars. This position finds some support in Western scholarly traditions: Wilfred Cantwell Smith argued that no historian of religions should ever make a statement about any religion that some members of that religion would not recognize and accept. This view is still honoured by many conscientious scholars who follow the take-a-Hindu-to- dinner, Parliament-of-world-religions approach. It is not, however, the only approach; other scholars believe that it is possible to know aspects of Hinduism that few if any practitioners of the
religion would be aware of (through the study, for example, of texts now available only in Tibetan translation, and newly excavated inscriptions, as well as new interpretations). As Richard Shweder asked, in a review of Michael F. Brown’s Who Owns Native Culture?, “Is cultural heritage something that ought to be owned, patented, copyrighted, trade-marked, licensed, exclusively controlled or treated as the private property of particular ethnic groups?”. Schweder answered the question thus: “Contact between cultures and processes such as borrowing, appropriation, migration and diffusion have been ubiquitous for so long that little remains of the authentically indigenous”.
Thus the Hindu fundamentalists are right in saying that Tantra, as they know it, has nothing to do with sex, and White is equally right in maintaining that the Tantra he has excavated has everything to do with sex. The problem arises only when either of them becomes monolithic and insists that there is no Tantra but their Tantra, all others being heretics.
It is not only Hindu fundamentalists whom White disagrees with. He is equally critical of New Age appropriations of Tantric texts. He excoriates the Americans who “cobbled together the pathetic hybrid of New Age ‘Tantric sex’”, who “blend together Indian erotics, erotic art, techniques of massage, Ayurveda, and yoga into a single invented tradition”. New Age Tantra, he suggests, is to medieval Tantra what finger painting is to fine art, and he rails against “the funhouse mirror world of modern-day Tantra, in which Indian practitioners and gurus take their ideas from Western scholars and sell them to Western disciples thirsting for initiation into the mysteries of the East”. Here is another sort of pizza effect: India itself as the source of the Western misappropriation of India.
White’s point is that authenticity is not a matter of where you come from but what you know. He is as anti-Orientalist as the Hindutva faction, but for a subtler and more generous reason. American “colonization and commodification of another people’s religious belief systems”, he writes, “runs roughshod over the sensibilities of authentic modern-day Asian practitioners of Tantra, the silent Tantric majority”. By reconstructing the medieval South Asian Kaula and Tantric traditions that involved sexual practices, David White hopes to restore the dignity and autonomy of the people who invented them and continue to practise them. This monumental scholarly work does precisely that.