Saivism and the Tantric Traditions

by Alexis Sanderson

An exhaustive presentation of Shaivism, esoteric Tantrism, and the duality of female/male power.

Guhyakali Sanderson

Publication: Book Section (chap 36) of The World's Religions, ed. Stewart Sutherland, Leslie Houlden, Peter Clarke and Friedhelm Hardy, Routledge, GB

Published: 1988

Author: Alexis Sanderson

Pages: 25

Language : English

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This essay of reference leads us through the many forms of Shaivism (Saivism), here defined as "a number of distinct but historically related systems comprising theology, ritual, observance and yoga, which have been propagated in India as the teachings of the Hindu deity Siva. A Saiva is one who practices such a system. To understand the term to mean 'a worshipper of Siva' or 'one whose deity is Siva' is less precise; for a Saiva may well be a worshipper not of Siva but of the Goddess (Devi). Though she is commonly represented as the consort of Siva and, theologically, as that god's inherent power (sakti), it is nonetheless the defining mark of certain forms of Saivism that she is seen as transcending this marital and logical subordination."

The primacy given to the female element over the male one, which does not seem to have influenced the Khmer form of Shaivism and Tantric Buddhism -- where the union of the two principles is the spiritual aim --, inspires several specific tantric trends, including:

  • The Cult of Guhyakali: "It is'a common phenomenon in the history of the Tantric traditions that such refinements as those of the Krama are quickly written into the lower, more concretely elaborated rituals which they sought to transcend. So there has flourished, from at least the tenth century to the present, a cult in which the mystical deity-schemata of the Krama are fleshed out with iconic form as the retinue of the Goddess Guhyakali. The source of this concretisation is the Tantric tradition of the Mata. In her three-faced and eight-armed form, Guhyakali's faces are worshipped as the three Mata goddesses Trailokyaqamara, Matacakresvari and Matalakasmi (=Ghoraghoratara). Thus she is seen as the transcendent unity of that tradition. Further, in her principal form she is virtually identical with the third of these goddesses. Eight- and finally fifty-four-armed, black and ten-faced, she dances on the body of Bhairava in the centre of a cremation ground."
  • The Cult of Yoginis: "Accessible from the main cults of the Vidyapitha, and underlying them in a more or less constant form, is the more ancient cult of Rudra/Bhairava in association with female spirits (Yoginis). In the Atimarga and thence in the Mantramarga the series of cosmic levels (bhuvaniidhvan) is governed by Rudras. When the initiate passed into this subjacent tradition he found that this masculine hierarchy was replaced by ranks of wild, blood-drinking, skull-decked Yoginis. Radiating out from the heart of the Deity as an all-pervasive network of power (yoginijala), they re-populated this vertical order of the Saiva cosmos, appropriated the cycle of time (ruling as incarnations in each of the four world-ages (yuga), and irradiated sacred space by sending forth emanations enshrined and worshipped in power-seats (pitha) connected with cremation grounds throughout the sub-continent. The goal of the initiate was to force or entice these Yoginis to gather before him and receive him into their band (yoginigana), sharing with him their miraculous powers and esoteric knowledge. The time favoured for such invocations was the fourteenth night of the dark fortnight, the night of the day of spirits (bhtitadina); and the most efficacious site was the cremation ground, the foremost of their meeting-places. The Siva worshipped in these rites is Manthana-Rudra (or Manthana-Bhairava), a fourfaced and therefore secondary or archaic form. Not 'married' to the Goddess as in the cults of entry, he is rather the wild ascetic who leads the Yogini hordes (yoginigainaniiyaka)."

Photo: A representation of Goddess Guhyakali (from the essay).

Tags: India, esoterism, tantrism, religion, religious trends, Saivism, Shaivism, yoga, ascetism, gender roles, yogini

About the Author

Alexis Sanderson

Alexis Sanderson

Alexis G. J. S. Sanderson (b. 1948) is an indologist and Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College at the University of Oxford, where he was Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics until his retirement in 2015.

A scholar of Sanskrit and Indian religions, he specializes in Shaivism and esoteric Śaiva Tantra.

In 2003, he published, among numerous other publications, "The Śaiva Religion Among the Khmers", Part I." (Part I: Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 90-91 (2003–2004), pp. 349–463).