The erotic, the warlike and the imperial in the tantra age

The primary paurANika text of the shrI-kula tradition is the famed lalitopAkhyAnam, which is tagged to the brahmANDa purANam. The text describes the exploits of the central deity of the shrI-kula system, tripurasundarI, who is simultaneously praised as simultaneously erotic:
kAmesha-j~nAta-saubhAgya-mArdavoru-dvayAnvitA – she with a pair of graceful, smooth thighs which are enjoyed by kAmesha (her bhairava consort).

kAmeshvara-prema-ratna-maNi-pratipaNa-stanI – she who paid back the love of kAmesha by giving her breasts which are like jewel [pots]

bhaNDAsura-vadhodyukta-shaktisenA-samanvitA – she who is surrounded by an army of goddesses ready to slay bhaNDAsura

bhaNDAsurendra-nirmukta-shastra-pratyastra-varShiNI – she who showers missiles to counter the weapons hurled by bhaNDAsura

kAmeshvarAstra-nirdagdha-sabhaNDAsura-shUnyakA – she who annihilated bhaNDAsura by burning him with the kAmeshvara missile

And imperial:
shrImahArAj~nI – the empress
shrImat-siMhAsaneshvarI – the goddess seated on the imperial throne
rAja-rAjeshvarI – the imperial goddess

This triad of metaphors, while reaching a literary culmination in the lalitopAkhyAnam, is a theme which is present in some form in other kaula traditions such as those of the pUrvAMnAya (the trika goddess and bhairava-s), uttarAMnAya (kAlI), paschimAMnAya (kubjikA and navAtman). The kaula tradition appears to have gained considerable prominence with the teachings of fisherman-teacher matsyendra and his successors. He is named as the primary teacher or nAtha of this yuga (mentioned by his prAkR^itic name as macChanda vibhu (nAtha) by the great Kashmirian tAntrika abhinavagupta) and is said to have authored the kaula-j~nAna-nirNaya, a definitive yoginI-kaula work. The kula tradition also influenced the emerging gANapatya sect, giving rise to a kaula version of it, whose founder is said to have been heramba-suta. A version of this tradition transplanted to China and Japan acquired considerable popularity there and survives in the latter country to date, even if in a diluted form. Eventually, within the core Astika tradition, we find streams of smArta-s attributing the origin of the kula system, in a somewhat “domesticated” form, to the advaita teacher shaMkarAcharya. Thus, a notable text of this tradition, the saundaryalahari, which presents the kubjikA and tripurA kula systems, is attributed to shaMkarAchArya. Reflexes of these expressions also thoroughly permeate the bauddha yoga and yoginI tantra-s. Versions such as the bauddha sAdhanA of the vilAsinI-s and padma-nR^ityeshvara closely imitate the shrIkula tradition. The bauddha tAntrika tradition ultimately culminated in their grand synthesis, which again parallels the shaiva kaula tradition, in the form of the kAlachakra-tantra, which teaches the system centered on deities, the 4-headed, 24-armed kAlachakra and his 4-headed and 8-armed consort vishvamAtA. Such lateral influences emanating from the core shaiva kula tradition are also seen in the jaina bhairava tantra-s. Thus, it is clear that the kula “movement” was a pervasive one, which impacted not only the source religion but also it paratypes both in the sub-continent of jaMbudvIpa and the greater Indosphere in Tibet and the east.

If we look closely, this triad of metaphors is also seen in the language of royal discourse as what might be termed the “tantra age” unfolded in India. As an example let us consider the royal praise supposed to have been composed by the noted lexicographer amara-siMha to praise the great monarch vikramAditya chandragupta-II:

abhayam abhayaM deva brUmas tavaasi-latA-vadhUH kuvalaya-dala-shyAmA shatror uraH sthala-shAyinI |
samaya-sulabhAM kIrtiM bhavyAm asUta sutAm asAv api ramayituM rAgaandheva bhramaty akhilaM jagat ||

abhayam= guarantee of protection (in this context); deva= lord; brUmaH= we say; tava=your; asi= sword; lata=creeper, here a flammard’s blade (i.e. like the kris which survives in the Malay archipelago); vadhuH= bride; kuvalaya=blue water-lily; dala= petal; shyAmA= dark; shatroH= enemy (genitive); uraH= chest; sthala= place; shAyinI= rested upon.

samaya= in due course; sulabhAM= effectively/easily; kIrtiM= fame; bhavyAm= beautiful; asuta= conceived; sutAM= daughter; asau=who; api= now; ramayitum= to cause pleasure; rAgAndhA= passionate woman; iva= like; bhramati= wanders; akhilaM= entire; jagat= world.

Give us the guarantee our protection, O lord, when we say that your flammard-blade-bride, dark as the petal of a blue water-lily [Footnote 1], has laid herself on your enemy’s chest; there, she in due course easily conceived a beautiful daughter kIrti (fame) who now roams about the entire world like a passionate woman to bring pleasure to all!

This trend is also apparent in the royal inscriptions from the “tantra age”. For example, we may consider the famous inscription of  the jaina poet ravikIrti describing the exploits of the chAlukyan emperors:
nAnA heti shatAbhighAta-patita-bhrAtaashva-patti-dvIpe nR^ityAd bhIma-kabandha-khaDga-kiraNa-jvAlA-sahasre raNe |
lakshmIr-bhAvita-chApalaapi cha kR^ita shauryeNa yen[a]AtmasAd rAjA[A]sIj jayasiMha-vallabha iti khyAtash chAlukyAnvayaH ||

There was, of the chAlukya dynasty, the king named jayasiMha-vallabha, who in battle – where horses, infantry and elephants, bewildered, fell down under the strokes of many hundreds of weapons, and where thousands of frightful headless trunks and of flashes of rays of swords were leaping to and fro – by his valor made fortune his own [woman], even though she is suspected of fickleness [Translation adapted from Epigraphia Indica Vol. 6].

Or this verse with a simultaneous heroic and erotic cadence of describing the conquest of the emperor ma~Ngalesha:
sphuran-mayUkhair-asi-dipikA-shatair vyudasya mAta~Nga-tamisra-sa~nchayam |
avAptavAnyo raNa-ra~Nga-mandire kaTachchuri-shrI-lalanA parigraham ||

Who in that fortress, which was the drama-theater of the battle-field, took in marriage the damsel,
the fortune of the kaTachchuris [form of the haihaya clan kalachuri-s of later history], having scattered the gathering gloom, i.e. the array of elephants (of the adversary), with hundreds of bright-rayed lamps, i.e. the swords (of his army) [Translation adapted from Epigraphia Indica Vol. 6].

It is not as if the sexual element was not associated with the royal in earlier Hindu tradition. Indeed, this is an inheritance from the Indo-European past of the Hindus. It was expressed in their early tradition within the grand culmination of all shrauta rites, the ashvamedha, performed by the supreme monarch upon subjugation of all rival kings. Here, the sacrifice of the horse is followed by the central sexual ritual along with the sexual banter between the brAhmaNa ritualists and the royal ladies. However, we see this as being primarily a fertility ritual – as fecundity of the people and other animals directly translated into armies and power of the rAShTra – a fact made clear in the yajus and atharvan incantations used in the ashvamedha. This is paralleled in the Roman and Celtic versions of the horse sacrifice [the only account of the Germanic one indicates a purely fertility ritual with no royal dimension], suggesting that the link goes pretty deep in the Indo-European past. However, we believe that the expressions we see in the “tantra age” are somewhat distinct – they embody what is termed the shR^i~NgAra rasa (eroticism) in saMskR^ita aesthetics rather than a primarily fertility element (though shR^i~NgAra could merely represent an aesthetic metaphor for the latter).

The explicit emphasis on rasa-s was first seen the Hindu theater as described in its earliest surviving text, the nATyashAstra of bharata. By contrast with the poetry of the itihAsa-s, we can see that this form of poetic expression was probably originally exclusively used in the theater as opposed to the royal courts. From here it appears to have merged with and then taken over the conventions of court poetry, which were originally represented by the itihAsa-s. Indeed the exalted ashvamedha ritual involved the participation of two kinds of performers: The sUta who composed and recited itihAsa – the recitation of which is explicitly mentioned as being done on the pariplava nights in the ashvamedha rite. The rite also involved sessions where shailUSha-s (actors) and raibhin-s/nArAshaMsin-s (associated poets) put up their performances. Thus, such old royal rituals themselves might have provided the setting for the beginnings of the hybridization of different poetic conventions that then crystallized as the classical saMskR^ita kAvya. With the expression of rasa and the associated theory of dhvani becoming the mainstay of kAvya, the old fertility element in royal power might have been re-configured s the expression shR^i~NgAra rasa.

Given the parallel expression of these metaphors in both royal discourse and kula tantra-s, we suggest that the two were intimately linked. However, we posit that the above motifs in classical kAvya were not a secondary consequence of this linkage, rather kAvya was itself the initial catalyst for it. Under this scenario we posit that the emergence of classical kAvya as the main mode of poetic expression in the royal court [Footnote 2] brought with it the need to emphasize the rasa-s even as in the theater. Simultaneously, the reworkings of the purANa-s into neo-purANa-s allowed this form of expression to also enter what was once the exclusive domain of the religious sUta poetry (originally similar to the itihAsa poetry under the category itihAsa-purANa). Thus, we see expressions in an extant shiva purANa (Venkateshvara Steam Press edition) that are paralleled in the kumArasaMbhava of kAlidAsa. These developments were also paralleled in space and time by the kaula reconfiguration of the sexual ritual of the older shaiva tantra. In those older tantra-s like the siddhayogeshvarI-mata and pichu-mata or brahma-yAmala (which teaches the system of the deities kapAlIsha bhairava and his consort raktachAmuNDA) the sexual ritual is primarily for production of substance (kuNDagola), which also used as offering to the deities. In the kaula reconfiguration the ritual was not just for the old purpose but also for the act of pleasing the deities residing in the various parts of the body via the highest pleasurable experience, namely ratisukham. Indeed, it is accompanied by other pleasurable experiences (bhoga) such as perfumes (gandha/lepa), food (bhojana) and drinks (pAnaka), which similarly please the deities of the various organs. Now the aesthetic theory of classical kAvya fitted well into this kaula paradigm because kAvya also produces what was termed originally in the theatrical theory as the sthAyibhAva. The experience of sthAyibhAva-s was an ultimately pleasurable experience – the reason for enjoyment of poetry or theater. Thus, kAvya too could be used to please the deities of the organs, with the shR^i~NgAraM, vIraM and adbhutaM being the most pleasurable and deeply moving (thus most pleasing to the deities) of the rasa-s. Thus, it appears that the aesthetics of kAvya was incorporated as a part of the kaula tradition. We see this plainly manifested in the saundaryalahari or the commentaries of abhinavagupta on the nATyashAstra and the lochana on dhvanyAloka of Anandavardhana.

In the subsequent phase, paralleling the rise of the saiddhantika shaiva AchArya-s as major teachers of most major royal courts of bhArata and the greater Indosphere there was also an epigraphically less visible network of kaula and other bhairava-srotas teachers and their bauddha imitators. They were reinforced by charismatic siddha-s, successors of the original kaula tradition of matsyendra. We posit that the increasing influence of these in royal discourse resulted in a strong juxtaposition of the triad of motifs, the erotic, the warlike and the imperial. Of course this was also in part adopted by the other shaiva and vaiShNava tAntrika teachers resulting in further amplification. For example, the polymath saiddhAntika from the Tamil country, aghorashiva deshika, was among other things also a noted exponent of kAvya and the theater.

We conclude with a praise by a forgotten poet of king bhojadeva paramAra who lay towards the end of this period and was often compared to emperor vikramAditya who lay closer to its beginnings:

svasti kShIrAbdhi-madhyAn nija-dayita-bhujAbhyantara-sthaabja-hastA kShmAyAm-akShAma-kIrtiM kushalayati mahAbhU-bhujaM bhojadevam |
kShemaM me .anyad yugAntAvadhi tapatu bhavAn yad yasho ghoShaNAbhir devo nidrA-daridraH saphalayati harir yauvana-rddhiM mameti ||

svasti= blessing; kShIrAbdhi= milk ocean; madhyAn= midst; nija-dayita= own husband; bhujAbhyantara-stha= enclosed within the embrace of the arms; abja-hastA= lotus hands; kShmAyAm= on the earth; akShAma-kIrtiM= undamaged fame; mahAbhU-bhujaM= emperor; bhojadevam.

kshemaM= conferring security; me= my; anyad= moreover; yugAntAvadhi= period encompassed by the ends of yuga-s; tapatu= blaze (third person imperative); bhavAn=you; yad= who; yashaH= glory; ghoShaNAbhir= by the loud announcements; devaH= god; nidrA= sleep; daridraH= deprive; saphalayati= fulfills; hariH= viShNu; yauvana= youthful; R^iddhiM= endowments; mama= my ; iti= thus
“Blessings! by my conferring of security may you blaze forth for the whole period between two yuga-endings”. Thus, in the midst of the ocean of milk, enclosed in the embrace of her own husband’s arms the lotus-handed [lakShmI] blesses emperor bhojadeva, whose fame is undamaged on the earth; the god hari, deprived of his sleep by the loud announcements of whose (bhojadeva’s) glory, fulfills the promise of my [lakShmI’s] youthful endowments.

Thus, herein the erotic fulfillment of lakShmI’s endowments by viShNu is linked to the glory of the king bhojadeva – the same metaphor now lie in a vaiShNava context.

Footnote 1: The dark colored water-lily sword-blade appears to be prevalent metaphor from the “tantra age” of India. For example we encounter it in the Bhagalpur inscription of nArAyaNapAla, the king of Bengal, in punning verse:
bhayAd arAtibhir yasya raNa-mUrdhani visphuran
asir indIvara-shyAmo dadR^ishe pIta-lohitaH ||
From fear of it, while it was flashing on the battle-front, his dark water-lily sword-blade looked as though it was yellow-red-hot [pun: as though it had drunk blood] to his enemies.

Footnote 2: We may note that Tamil anthologies pura-nAnUru and aka-nAnUru, most of whose poems were in place by the first 400 years of the common era, celebrate the vIra and the shR^i~NgAra rasa respectively. These poems appear to have been mostly composed under the patronage of the Tamil warlords and kings. Thus, by this period the influence of kAvya was spreading beyond the Indo-Aryan languages and inspiring parallel expressions even in Tamil. This suggests that it was a pan-India phenomenon by that time.

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