An archaeology of enlightenment

Tantra’s appeal has proven remarkably broad. What began on the margins of Indian society went on to command the patronage of royalty and transform Hinduism and Buddhism as it spread across Asia. Along the way, it created a rich archaeological legacy, capable of provoking radically different reactions from its audiences, as Imma Ramos told Matthew Symonds.

This 10th-century AD panel shows the Hindu god Shiva (on the far left) sitting with seven goddesses known as the mothers. Although three of them hold infants, their skeletal leader Chamunda projects a less maternal image: she is perched on a human corpse (on the far right). [All images: courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum, unless otherwise stated]

In the 10th century AD, a sandstone panel featuring eight figures was inserted into a temple in central India. The Hindu god Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, was placed on the far left of the scene, seated beside seven goddesses known as the Matrikas or mothers. Most are perched on the animals that acted as their vehicles, such as a swan, bull, and peacock, while three cradle infants on their laps. Any impression that this is a stock maternal scene, though, is dismissed by sight of the skeletal Matrika at the far right of the composition. This fearsome figure is known as Chamunda, and she was the mothers’ leader. The vehicle resting at her feet is no animal, but a human corpse, while Chamunda herself personifies battle-rage. This macabre appearance marks Chamunda apart from the other mothers, but they share her talent for war. When summoned to defeat demonic armies, the mothers perpetrated gruesome carnage, before drinking their victims’ blood and dancing ecstatically. It is all a far cry from earlier orthodox Hindu views of women as submissive and docile.

Celebrating feminine power lies at the heart of Tantra. Although the precise origins of this philosophy are unclear, its roots lie in Hinduism, and it probably emerged in the 6th century AD, with important early centres in eastern and north-west India. In many ways, Tantra can be seen as an anti-establishment response to orthodox Hindu teachings. These emphasised that the path to enlightenment took generations, and was advanced by shunning the trappings of material power and understanding that the world is an illusion. By contrast, Tantra offered a fast-track to enlightenment within a single lifetime, while also viewing the world as a divinely crafted reality, where it was desirable to gain physical or supernatural power.

A more complete 9th-century rendering of Chamunda shows her dancing on a corpse.

Perhaps Tantra’s greatest transgression lay in its willingness to reject longstanding divisions between social classes, and even a distinction between pure and impure substances. Orthodox Hinduism ordered society from birth, with four classes divided into priests, rulers and warriors, farmers and traders, and labourers. Women were prevented from being initiated, while a fifth group was excluded from this class structure altogether, because jobs such as cleaning toilets and preparing corpses brought its members into contact with substances that were judged impure and therefore left them polluted. Although people needed to be initiated before receiving Tantric teachings, all of its practitioners were judged uniformly capable of achieving enlightenment. The movement’s far-reaching influence is currently the subject of a fascinating British Museum exhibition: Tantra: enlightenment to revolution (see ‘Further information’ box).

Margins to mainstream

‘It was a reaction to existing religion,’ says Imma Ramos, exhibition curator at the British Museum. ‘We believe Tantra began among devotees of Shiva and Shakti. Shiva was a Hindu god, while Shakti is a Hindu concept, but more abstract in nature. It translates as divine feminine power, which is believed to infuse all aspects of material reality, so all goddesses are manifestations of Shakti. The veneration of Shiva and Shakti arose during the early centuries AD, with the first mention of Shakti occurring in a text dating to between the 3rd and the 5th centuries. While Tantra originates a bit later, it pushes this concept further and introduces new gods and goddesses who were uniquely ferocious and transgressive. Tantra essentially teaches that, to achieve rapid enlightenment, we need to engage with spiritual obstacles, such as desire, aversion, and fear, in order to transcend them. This is what is referenced by a great deal of Tantric imagery, which is unique in its inclusion of macabre and erotic elements.’

An early example from Nepal of a ‘Tantra’ – that is, a religious text. [Image: The Syndics of Cambridge University Library]

The word ‘Tantra’ is a Sanskrit one, and describes religious texts documenting rituals believed to have been disclosed by gods and goddesses. Given the importance of the written word to Tantra, it is perhaps unsurprising that most studies focus on its texts, but the imagery can tell its own story. This is well illustrated by the implications it holds for understanding what impact the focus on divine feminine power had on the lives of real women. ‘We don’t really know anything about the authors of early Tantric texts,’ says Imma, ‘but we assume that they were probably male. This does not mean that women were empowered in principle but not in practice, though. One thing we learn from studying Tantric material culture is that there are many representations of female gurus, demonstrating the importance of women as teachers. So we have the visual evidence to support the important role that women played. Within the texts themselves, women are described as essentially blurring the boundaries between mortal and divine, so they should be venerated as embodiments of Shakti. According to Tantric texts, this made them superior teachers, an idea that was radical for the time. Earlier Hindu and Buddhist traditions taught that the female body was an impediment to achieving enlightenment, whereas Tantra taught that women could achieve rapid enlightenment because they were natural embodiments of divine feminine power.’

Despite Tantra’s revolutionary approach, it swiftly proved to be just as attractive to establishment figures as to the groups living on society’s fringes. This uptake was aided by the political turmoil that wracked 6th-century India. ‘Two major dynasties had dominated India, but both collapsed around 550,’ Imma points out. ‘This led to the rise of many, many new kingdoms across the subcontinent, and they were all vying for power and territory. One major reason why Tantra became so popular is because all of these new rulers needed to prove themselves, so they were attracted to its promise of worldly power. For them, Tantric deities not only promised to help abolish inner obstacles to enlightenment, such as anger and greed, but they could also be harnessed as protectors of the realm, and were believed to protect it against intruders, epidemics, and so forth.’ Gaining elite patrons helped to spread Tantra, and by the 9th to 10th centuries it could be found across India. Pilgrims, traders, and teachers took it further, carrying it across Asia. Tantra proved just as adept at infiltrating Buddhism as Hinduism, once again overturning plenty of existing orthodoxies, including the role of women and the sort of subject matter suitable for religious imagery.

The myriad competing kingdoms making up medieval India not only offered a receptive audience for Tantric teachings, but also a backdrop against which the arts could flourish. Public building projects offered a way for kingdoms to showcase their power, wealth, and – hopefully – permanence, while venerating powerful gods was believed to help keep royal dynasties secure. A 12th-century inscription from a temple of Shiva, for example, records how a guru worshipping for 28 days without break was credited with helping to repel an invading army. By then, Tantric deities would long have been a familiar sight in many popular places of worship, as they seem to have been incorporated from around the 8th century onwards. As well as illustrating the movement’s growing popularity, this public visibility could be seen as at odds with Tantra’s requirement for initiation before gaining access to its secret knowledge.

‘There is a tension between the public and the private’, says Imma,‘which is essential for understanding Tantra’s role. People would have been familiar with Tantric masters, and able to recognise the incorporation of Tantric goddesses within temples. They would also receive popular forms of veneration. For example, according to the texts, Tantric temples would attract devotional worship during the day, with offerings like flowers, while rulers could also visit. At night, though, Tantric masters would have engaged in more private forms of worship, which could involve offerings of blood and flesh.’

Tantric imagery often involves levels of symbolism. This Tibetan bronze from 1500-1600 shows Raktayamari in union with Vajravetali, while standing on Yama, the Hindu god of death. The first two represent the union of compassion and wisdom, while their treatment of Yama shows them transcending death.

These were far from being the only commodities used in Tantric practices that might have raised the eyebrows of non-initiates. Substances that orthodoxy considered impure, including human remains, intoxicants, and sexual fluids, were identified as suitable gifts to the Tantric gods and goddesses, or even seen as consumable by mortal practitioners on the road to enlightenment. The potential violations to ritual purity were one reason why teachers were needed to provide careful guidance, but it also encouraged a split between those who took the Tantric texts at face value, and others who saw the ingesting of such substances as symbolic rather than a literal requirement. This question of what is real and what is metaphorical arises time and again with Tantra. That this ambiguity could be a strength, is well illustrated by considering the sculpture and artefacts the philosophy generated.

Further information
The Tantra: enlightenment to revolution exhibition is supported by the Bagri Foundation and will run until 24 January 2021 at the British Museum. For further details and updates during the COVID-19 pandemic, see

A fascinating and gloriously illustrated book has been published to accompany the exhibition: I Ramos (2020) Tantra: enlightenment to revolution (Thames & Hudson, £35, ISBN 978-0500480625).

CWA is grateful to Imma Ramos and Maxwell Blowfield.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 104 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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