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The Descent of Tantra in the Modern Age

Aritra Ghosh Dastidar is serving as the Co-convenor of Agrivision in South Bengal and as Associate Literary Editor (Saha sāhitya sanyōjaka) for Sanskar Bharati, South Bengal division. As a student of St Stephen’s School, Dum Dum, even while studying Science he would draw parallels between Ancient Vedic science and modern science. His understanding of Bharatiya Sciences steadily connected the dots about higher order modern science.

Recently, in an essay competition organized by TSSP he wrote about the “Current scientific relevance of Ancient Vedic literature”. He learnt a lot during the Young Researchers Conclave organized by Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal at Galgotias university, Greater NOIDA, and became connected to new people which increased his enthusiasm and motivation for knowing more about Indic culture and traditions.

At the recently held Tantra and Tantric Traditions, he spoke on Saiva Siddhanta Āgamas: Exploring the Esoteric Tantric Traditions Of Shaivism. In this interview he answers more questions about this topic.

In the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, Parvati asks Shiva to show her practically how to put into action what he says and frequently there are conversations between them where Shiva seems to be the teacher and Devi the student. In your definition of āgamas and Tantra, would you draw a parallel between the two, where you define āgamas as being theoretical, discursive while Tantra focuses on practical aspects.

The word rava in Sanskrit means sound. Bhairava is that which is beyond sound. Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, is so named, because it is a Tantra, which is a set of techniques, in this case, one hundred and twelve such techniques – the purpose of which is to gain knowledge, or Vijnana, which is beyond sound, Bhairava. Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is a compilation of one hundred and sixty two beautiful shlokas, which capture a conversation between Lord Shiva, and devi Parvati. An etymology describes the concept of āgama by dividing the word in a-ga-ma: ‘a’ represents the verb agam- ‘to come”, because the text comes from the five mouths of Shiva; ‘ga’ represents gam- “to go”, because it went to Parvati; and ‘ma’ represents man – ‘to accept’, because it was accepted by Vishnu.

While āgama is essentially a tradition, Tantra is a technique, but both share the same ideology. In almost all the āgama texts, the first chapter is called “tantravatara“, meaning ‘the descent of Tantra’. In several books the two terms are used interchangeably. The chief priest in a temple is known either as āgamika or tantri, there being no palpable difference in their roles. The āgama texts and the Tantra deal with the same subjects and adopt the same principles. But the āgama is wider in scope, and surely it contains matters which are theoretical, discursive and speculative. āgama is said to be characterized by seven lakshanas (“saptabhir lakṣanairyuktam tvāgamam”): creation (sṛsti), dissolution (pralaya), worship of gods (devatārcana), spiritual practices (sādhana), repetition of the mantras (puraścarana), the group of

six magical practices (śat- karma-sadhana) and contemplative techniques (dhyāna- yoga). Tantra deals only with the practical aspects and methodological issues of āgamas. So, from the above discussions we can say that Tantras and āgamas are similar and synonymous to each other.

From this, arises the question: what are the different forms of Shaiva Tantra and how did you get to study them?

In Vyavaharika Shivabheda avastha (behavioral stage), Sadahsiva possesses five heads, namely

  1. Sadyojata  (Paschim vaktra),
  2. Vamadeva (Uttara/Vama vaktra),
  3. Aghora (Dakshina vaktra),
  4. Tatpurusha (Purva Vaktra) and
  5.  Ishana (Urdhwa vaktra) .

There are mainly three major divisions of whole Agamic Literature, those are:

  • Bheda (10 Shivabhedāgamas or Shiva Tantras): At the bheda (Shiva) avastha the ten āgamas emerged and propaged to ten different Shiva ganas named (i.e. Pranavashiva, Sushiva etc), thus called Shivāgamas.
  • Bheda-abheda (18 Rudrabhedāgamas or Rudra tantras) : At the bheda-abheda (Rudra) avastha the eighteen āgamas emerged and propagated to eighteen different Rudraganas named (i.e. Anadirudra, Nidhanesha etc), thus called Rudrāgamas.
  • Abheda (64 Bhairavāgamas).

This whole (10+18+64 =) 92 tantras together are called Shivasashana or Trikasasana. My paper was on Shaiva Siddhanta āgamas which includes only the 10 Shiva Tantras and 18 Rudra tantras and is said to be revealed from the Ishan face (Urdhwāmnaya).

I take immense pride in sharing how my university senior from Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, played a pivotal role in nurturing my profound interest in Shaivism. Being a nationalist Indian with a strong passion for Hindu philosophy, Tantra, and Vedas, delving into Tantric Shaivism was a natural choice for me.

My senior, Rohit Kumar Choudhary, a source of inspiration, not only encouraged my exploration of Shaivism but also generously provided me with valuable books on the subject. His support went beyond just lending me books; he patiently cleared my doubts whenever I sought his guidance. This act of mentorship reflects the essence of our Hindu ethos, where knowledge-sharing is a sacred tradition.

Through this experience, I’ve not only deepened my understanding of Shaivism but also forged a deeper connection with the rich tapestry of Hindu philosophy and the profound wisdom found in the āgamas. It’s a testament to the enduring spirit of India’s cultural and intellectual heritage, and I am truly grateful for my senior’s guidance on this enlightening journey.

Just like in Shakta worship, Shaivite Tantra uses ritualistic worship including mantras, yantras, and mudras. What is the difference between them? Which do you follow and why?

In the Shakta tradition, the traditional worship and rituals are entirely centered around Devi, Bhairavi, Bhairav ganas, or matrika ganas. Each deity within this tradition possesses distinct mantras and Yantras. On the other hand, in Siddhanta Shaiva tantras, the focus of worship is exclusively on Shiva, including Sadashiva, whether in the forms of Nataraja, Dakshinamurthy, Chandrashekhara, or Maha Sadashiva. Additionally, there are rituals involving Bhairava, Devi, Vasu Devata, Dwarpala, Shivganas, and more. The Yantras used for each deity in Saiva Siddhanta differ from those in the Shakta tradition, with the exception of the Sri Yantra.

In terms of Mantras and Beejas, we can identify both similarities and dissimilarities between the two traditions, although the order of Matrika remains consistent for both. When it comes to hand gestures or Mudras, similarities exist, but the Saiva System stands out for its extensive and distinctive use of Mudras compared to the Shakta tradition.

What are your thoughts in Atmashuddhi? How is it possible to follow this in a modern context?

Following the below practices rooted in Shaivism in the modern day can result in their potential benefits based on scientific understanding:

(Figure 1 : Practicing Atmashuddhi)

  1. Morning Meditation: Getting up at Brahmamuhurta, typically between 3:30-6:00 am, aligns with the body’s circadian rhythms. During this time, melatonin production is lower, making it easier to wake up and be alert. Morning meditation, especially on Shiva, can help reduce stress, improve focus, and enhance mental clarity. It sets a positive tone for the day by calming the mind and improving emotional well-being.
  1. Ablution, Bathing, Moistening, Sweating, and Tarpan: These rituals involve cleansing practices that have physical and psychological benefits. Ablution and bathing remove dirt and bacteria from the body, preventing infections. Sweating during these rituals can regulate body temperature and eliminate toxins. The Tarpan ritual can foster a sense of connection and gratitude, promoting mental well-being.
  1. Guided Bathing and Chanting: Bathing with the inclusion of chanting mantras or prayers can promote relaxation and stress reduction. The rhythmic repetition of words or sounds can have a calming effect on the mind, lowering cortisol levels (a stress hormone) and promoting overall mental well-being. This can improve blood circulation, relax muscles, and promote skin health. Chanting during bathing helps in deepening the meditative state, reducing stress, and enhancing mindfulness, which can lead to a more positive outlook on life. Bathing rituals that include cleansing and moisturizing practices can promote skin health. Using natural ingredients and oils can hydrate the skin, prevent dryness, and maintain its natural glow.
  1. Brushing with Mantras: The practice of chanting mantras while brushing is akin to mindfulness meditation. It focuses attention on the task at hand, promoting mindfulness and reducing stress. The act of transferring water from hand to hand and reciting mantras can also stimulate neural connections in the brain and promote mental clarity.  Regular brushing, whether during rituals or not, is essential for maintaining personal hygiene. It removes dirt, food particles, and microbes from the oral space, reducing the risk of infections and bad odor.

Incorporating these practices into modern life can contribute to overall well-being by promoting physical health, reducing stress, and enhancing mental and emotional balance. While rooted in tradition, these practices align with principles of mindfulness, hygiene, and well-being that can be appreciated from a scientific perspective in today’s fast-paced world.

 The Sakaladhikara text mentions that the location of Dakshina-murti is under the banyan tree (vata-vriksha) on the Kailasa mountain.  How does your study of native plants and trees help you in your study of our philosophical texts?

As a passionate student of Hindu philosophy, tantra, and Vedas with a deep interest in native plants and trees, I find a profound connection between my botanical studies and the exploration of philosophical texts. Here’s how my study of native flora enriches my understanding of our philosophical heritage:

  1. Symbolic Insight: Native plants and trees often serve as powerful symbols in philosophical texts, reflecting the interconnectedness of life. My agricultural knowledge helps me grasp the symbolism and metaphorical meanings hidden within these texts. For instance, in one of my Bengali books “Krishi, Paribesh o Krishtir Antarjagat” (Co-authored with my Professor Dr. Kalyan Chakrabarti), we talk about the agricultural and horticultural aspects of Durga puja.
  1. Nature’s Interdependence: The belief in the interdependence of all life forms and the environment is a recurring theme in many philosophies. My study of native plants underscores this principle, enhancing my appreciation for the interconnected web of existence.
  1. Environmental Ethics: Today’s discussions on environmental ethics align closely with ancient philosophical ideals. My botanical expertise equips me to engage in these discussions from a philosophical perspective and advocate for ethical environmental practices in local stages.
  1. Ritualistic Significance: Numerous rituals and worship practices involve native plants and trees. My horticultural knowledge enables me to delve deeper into the significance of these rituals and their philosophical underpinnings. In newer findings, researchers conclude that Bael bark reduces the testosterone level which is used for Yajnas since long ages. Also the leaf, seed and fruit from earlier studies is known to affect male fertility in a reversible manner.
  1. Meditative Connection: Some texts encourage connecting with nature for meditation and spiritual growth. With my understanding of native flora, I can better identify and appreciate natural settings conducive to these practices.
  1. Prakriti-Purusha Dynamics: The philosophical concept of prakriti (nature) and purusha (consciousness) resonates with my biological studies, as I witness the duality of life and its reflection in the external world. I have talked about it extensively in my research paper of INSPIRE journal.
  1. Modern Ecological Philosophy: My horticultural insights contribute to my understanding of modern ecological philosophy, which often draws from ancient wisdom about the relationships between living beings and the environment. Holistically, it motivates me to associate myself with NGOs like Gram samriddhi foundation striving to make the earth greener by planting more and more trees.
  1. Balance and Sustainability: Philosophical texts advocate balance and moderation in life, ideals that align with the role of native plants in ecosystem equilibrium and sustainability. Thus, I have been a strong proponent of organic farming and Vrikshāyurveda.

Through the lens of native plants and trees, I bridge theory and practical wisdom, deepening my connection to our philosophical heritage. This unique perspective reinforces the timeless principles found in these texts and equips me to address contemporary environmental and ethical challenges with philosophical depth.

Could you tell us about Shaiva texts of Bengal and how they influenced you?

Honestly speaking, there are very few and rare books regarding Shaivism in Bangla, not even a single Shaiva āgama has been translated here. But, some books on Tantra by Mahāmahopādhyāy Sri Gopinath Kobiraj helped me the most. Apart from these books, some English books like Saivāgamas (by M. Arunachalam), Kamikāgamas, Diptāgamas etc. are helpful in knowing about Shaivism.

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