“Tantric” upaniShad-s and their role in Hindu thought
The point of origin of the later sectarian upaniShads is unclear. It appears that the early shaiva-s and vaiShNava-s had begun the composing upaniShadic material in the latest phase of the vedic era. The oldest amongst these is the shaiva-leaning upaniShad- shvetAshvatara, which incorporates several verses from the shatarudriya of the kR^iShNa-yajurveda. The atharva-shiras and the nArAyaNa-valli seem to the next set of upaniShads composed by the shaivas and vaiShNavas respectively. The bahvR^icha upaniShad with a shrIkula orientation is of unclear provenance, eventhough its character suggests that it is definitely much later than the former upaniShads. Beyond these there are a series of “tantric” upaniShad-s that appear even later and their sole purpose appears to be expound particular tantric mantra-s.
Examples of these include:
1) avyakta and nR^isiMha-tApinI: expound the highest anuShTubh mantra of viShNu, the mantrarAja, which is described in the ahirbudhnya saMhitA of the pA~ncharAtra stream.
ugraM vIraM mahA-viShNuM jvalantaM sarvato-mukhaM|
nR^isimhaM bhIShaNam bhadraM mR^ityur mR^ityuM namAmy-ahaM ||
The latter upaniShad also gives the mantra of sudarshana: oM sahasrAra huM phaT | This is also expounded in the ahirbudhnya saMhitA and other pA~ncharAtra texts like lakShmI-tantra.
2) tripurA, tripurA-tApinI and devI: expounds the shrIvidyA mantras, especially those the kAdi mata and hAdi mata. The tripurA-tApinI gives the relationship between the savitrI and the pa~nchadashi of shrIvidyA. It also provides hints regarding the mantra forms other than those of kAma and lopAmudrA.
3) sarasvatI-rahasya: expounds on the bIja mantra-s of sarasvatI
4) gaNapati atharvashiras: expounds on the mUla mantra of vinAyaka: gaM gaNapataye namaH |
5) dattAtreya: expounds the dattAtreya mantras
6) hayagrIva: expounds several hayagrIva vidyAs.
7) garuDa: expounds the mahA-viSha-nivAraNa vidyA.
8) gopAla-tApinI: expounds the 18-syllabled gopijanavallabha mantra: klIM kR^iShNAya govindAya gopI-jana-vallabhAya svAhA |. This mantra is expounded in the brahma saMhitA of the pA~ncharAtra stream.
9) varada: expounds the celebrated “rakShohano valagahano…” mantra of vinAyaka
10) tArA: expounds the mantra of tArA and here parivAra devatas.
The nR^isiMhatApini is commented upon by gauDapAda and sha~Nkara bhagavatpAda suggesting that examples of these tantric upaniShad-s were already in place by 600-700 CE. A simple analysis of these upaniShads reveal several important common features.
-They typically expound mantras that are also expounded independently in tantras such as pA~ncharAtra tantras, rudra tantras and shrIkula tantras. However, we do not find these tantras that discuss the same mantras citing the upaniShad-s or vice-versa. It almost appears as though they are two independent expositions of the mantra, though they have similarities in their explanations
-tantric upaniShads typically have a section asserting the primacy of the mantra (often calling in the source of the world, and the cause of siddhis and victory of the gods) they discuss, a philosophical section that typically imitates the classical vedic upaniShads in some form or the other, and many times a “many-one” saMbandha section. This many-one saMbandha identifies the deity, whose mantra under consideration, with large sections of the Hindu pantheon (see footnote 1 for a socio-historical discussion of this point). These saMbandhas follow a model that first appears in the non-tantric upaniShad atharva-shiras with the formula:
yo vai rudraH sa bhagavAn yash cha [deity name, e.g. skanda] tasmai vai namo-namaH |
shorter identifications are also seen in the parallel narAyaNa-valli: e.g. sa brahmaa sa shivaH sa hariH sendraH so.akSharaH paramaH svarAT |
-They may or may not directly incorporate a few vedic mantra-s from saMhita-s and may on several occasions bear the epithet tApinI (glowing?).
Some major questions are raised by these upaniShad-s. If the tantra-s associated with these traditions expound the same mantras, then why do these upaniShads do the same. The tantras appear to seek no vedic precedence for their mantra, and these tantric upaniShads do not really acknowledge the source tantra-s but directly mirror their vedic prototypes. As we know the major tantric traditions are not non-dvija and had their own validity of independent standing amongst dvijas. Also the canonical shruti remained un-altered despite the composition of these obviously later tantric upaniShads. The presence of such texts relatively early as suggested by sha~nkara and gauDapAda’s citation of nR^isimha-tApinI, suggests that they developed in parallel with the tantra-s of the school. So it is our proposition (unlike what has been commonly proposed by secular scholars) these tantric upaniShad-s were not composed merely to give a shruti-authority for the tantric traditions. Instead their role was to provide the user of the mantra with: 1) saMbandha-s that need to be understood so that the mantra assumes a “global” or universal perspective by assuming the essences of all the deities or the universe with which it is identified. 2) identification of the mantra gyANa (“knowledge”) with the most fundamental or root aspects of the outer universe (and often thereby its inner reflection in the sAdhaka). These connections provided to the mantra allow its “full expression” for the sAdhaka within the technical frame of prayoga (See footnote 2 for the historical aspects of this feature).
(nR^isiMha-tApinI and avyakta to be considered later)
Footnote 1) An important mistake made by Western and their fellow-travelling Hindu scholars is to equate the many-one saMbhandhas seen in several Hindu sectarian traditions as a tendency for monotheism. In fact nothing can be farther from the truth, in fact all these sectarian Hindu streams are as polytheisitic as the formal vedic/smArta stream. In making these identifications they are not even subsuming the many deities of the pantheon, they fully accept their functional differentiation and specific roles in the “world of the gods”. By establishing the many-one saMbandha they are seeing their root sectarian deity and/or his mantra/s generating the diversity of the “world of the gods” as emanations or evolutes. This important point, was at the heart of the syncretic religious development in the late Hellenistic Greek world and the classical Roman empire. This resulted in establishment of saMbandhas with deities outside of the IE Greco-Roman tradition to include Egyptian and Middle Eastern deities. This tendency was also operational in the nAstIka matas of the Hindus that spread over Eurasia. An early mechanism of saMbandha, which was prevalent throughout the old heathen world, but persistant in Hindus throughout their history was the macranthropic motif. It is in this important point they differ from the Abrahamistic monotheisms, that exclude and deny the very existence all other deities of the “world of the gods” with extreme vehemence. Hindus and other heathens mistakenly try to view monotheism through their lens of “many-one” saMbandha and are unable to understand their outright exclusion by the monotheist.
Footnote 2) Much of Eurasiatic textual tradition is intentionally correlative. The establishment of saMbandhas is the process by the essential essence (a tautology) of older layers of the tradition are incorporated into the new development. In the heathen West a process very similar to the emergence of the tantric upaniShads happened in the dying stages of the Macedonian successor states and the rise of the Roman empire. This was the Neo-Platonic revolution. The correlative process established saMbandha-s between the Platonic philosophy and the newer “mystery” religion and associated rituals. Thus, we have a Neo-Platonic philosophical core with elements very like vedAnta around, a shell of rituals similar to the tantras in height of the Roman empire.