Chapter 15: Tantric Puranas and the Tantras

By: Tanner



How to define Hindu Tantra? Sometimes it’s defined in terms of theology, sometimes social attitudes, sometimes rituals. Doniger is going to lay out a whole lot of mythological history before she actually describes it. Let’s dive in.


So, this guy named Harsha started a kingdom in between the times when there was a single larger power or governing force. There’s lots of info about him because there were poets that followed him around and wrote prose about him and things that happened in his kingdom.

The Harshacharita was Bana’s prose poem about Harsha (Bana was a poet that followed Harsha). It states that the practice of suttee (the death or suicide of a widow) was looked down upon by Harsha and Bana. Harsha’s sister, Rajya Sri, was about to commit suicide after her husband died, and Harsha said “no way” and grabbed her from the pyre. Harsha wanted to control her so that he could have power over the Maukhari kingdom.

There are multiple sources that talk about proto-Tantric stuff. Doniger states: “Tantric features, though not yet full-blown Tantra, arose in the early centuries of the first millennium CE and later came to be regarded as Tantric—through our bête noire, hindsight” (410). We need to look at the Puranas that were composed from 600-900 CE for the “mythological underpinnings” of Tantric rituals” (410). A person named Lakulisha started a sect of Pashupatas, worshippers of Shiva as Lord of Beasts. Lots of people started following this practice and they lived in cremation grounds and offered blood, meat, alcohol, and sexual fluids during their rituals. Weird folks. An early text talks about how the Pashupatas carried skull staffs and bowls made out of skulls, and those are apparently tied back to the fact that Shiva was the “paradigmatic” Brahmin killer. Shiva beheaded Brahma, so he went from 5 heads to 4. BUT WAIT. APPARENTLY there are other versions of this story. The story on 412 says that Shiva created a person called the “Terrifying One” to actually cut off Brahma’s head. So, in this story, it wasn’t actually Shiva who did it, but his “Terrfying One” called Bhairava.

After a few more pages, Doniger states “With this mythological corpus as a prelude, let us now consider Tantra itself” (419). So here we go.


Doniger uses the term “zen diagram” to describe the group of qualities that make up Tantric worship. Although, she notes that not all of these things need to be present in a given text or at a given ritual for them to have significance.

The qualities are: Worship of the goddess, Initiation, Group worship, Secrecy, Antinomian behavior, Sexual rituals that involve the ingestion of bodily fluids.

“There are Tantric texts, Tantric rituals, Tantric myths, Tantric art forms, and, above all, Tantric worshipers. There are Tantric mantras (repeated formulas), Tantric yantras (mystical designs), and Tantras (esoteric texts), as well as Tantric gods and their consorts” (420). This became a pretty popular thing, and took over a large portion of India even though it started in the North, probably in areas around Nepal, Bengal, and Assam. Tantrics sort of promise that if you are a Hindu renouncer on the path of Release, you can find it even in heaven after you die. The heavens of Vishnu, Shiva, or “the goddess” promise this Release. Basically, the Tantric path promises escape from reincarnation. Tantra offers the best of both worlds! It’s called “enjoyment-release.” You can have fun and sex but also reach moksha! This is described as the unity of “sensual delight and spiritual flight” (421).

So what do the Tantric texts say to do? The Five M words, duh! All of these five things start with ‘M’ in Sanskrit.

madya – wine

mamsa – meat

matsya – fish

mudra – farina (a form of grain)

maithuna – fornication
Image result for tantra



First of all, let’s read the passage on page 408 about how Bana and Harsha were against suttee BUT let’s also think about the fact that he only wanted his sister alive so he could have power?????? I call BS!

Okay. Here we go. So, basically, I am very intrigued by this entire chapter. Doniger seems to be very scatterbrained, but the whole thing about the skull bowls and the bodily fluids that were talked about with the Pashupatas obviously has a very clear connection to Tantra. So, I think she did a good job of connecting history with observable Tantric practice. Also, a “very Tantric thing to do” was to drink blood mixed with semen. So, yeah. Some people tried to “sanitize” these practices by saying that they are just symbolic, which of course we in the Western world understand very clearly given the fact that a lot of things in Western religious traditions are supposed to be considered symbolic (Jesus’ flesh and blood, anyone?). Page 430 talks about how some people think that none of this was ever real, and that the people who wrote these texts just wrote from their imagination. I think it is really interesting to think about how certain aspects of a culture can become embarrassing or frustrating over time, so new members of those cultures choose to act like those aspects never existed.

So the question is, what is the role of the women? Is this all about men twisting previously highly regarded Hindu texts and stories to fulfill their thirsty minds? Doniger states that “it is by no means clear that Tantra benefited rather than exploited the women involved.” So, women were used to summon “the goddess” by which the man would unite with because he had summoned Shiva. The two unite to produce a Release for the man. I’ll leave it at that. I personally think that a lot of the underpinnings of this whole practice had to do with the fact that men wanted to reach moksha but they still wanted to have sex and drink alcohol and eat things that traditionally, renouncers were not allowed to eat. That is what it boils down to in my mind. The notion that you can do whatever you want and still get into heaven and find Release sort of mirrors a Western ideology of heaven, in that you can be a sinner your whole life but still reach heaven if you ask God to forgive you (sorry for condensing Catholicism and Christianity into a short little sentence). The Tantrics sort of disregarded certain aspects of caste, turning certain Brahmin ideals on their heads, which I think is very fascinating. The idea that you don’t have to be in the same caste as your Tantra partner is pretty cool.

SIDE NOTE! The Aghori’s are an extremist group of the sort of Tantra that don’t care about what the conventional sensibilities of India and Hinduism have to say. Here is a video! It’s fascinating!

Another thing that really made me curious about the legitimacy of these traditions was the fact that so many of the mythological stories were changed depending on who told them! It makes me think that people changed the stories to further their thoughts on what Tantra should be, or what any aspect of Hinduism should be. I don’t think this relates just to Tantra, I think this can be said about any ur-text that we have talked about. The fact that there are comic books of popular and important Hindu texts is another example. Stories change, and that change is a very important part of what makes a religious tradition what it is. It’s a tradition that will be passed on forever in many different ways.

That was very scatterbrained, but it reflects the way that Doniger goes about describing the tradition of Tantra.



  1. Given the bit of history that Doniger talks about, why do you think Tantra became so popular?
  2. What about the role of the women? Do you feel that this practice is sexist, or in other words, uses the female for the male’s benefit?
  3. How do you see this concept fitting in with the larger tradition of Hinduism?




5 thoughts on “Chapter 15: Tantric Puranas and the Tantras

Add yours

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog post, I think you do a good job of highlighting the scattered information in this chapter while raising some interesting critiques about hinduism and religion in general. I thought it was really interesting when you brought up who writes down these traditions and the idea that the stories are created to benefit the elite. This is something I have thought about a lot when looking at various religious practices. I also really liked that you discussed the role of women in Tantric practices. I find the role of women in Hinduism in general very interesting. They have such varied roles depending on what you are looking at. Women serve as gods, as objects for rituals while at the same time being imitated by men writing poetry. Doniger says that “Some women found a kind of autonomy, freedom from their families, in the Tantric community…” (433). It would have been interesting to me if she discussed this point in a little more detail that she did. She frequently points out inequality but does not go into detail and that is something that is very obvious in this chapter. Especially since women are a critical part of this practice.


  2. One effect of the involvement of sex in Tantric ritual is that it makes women indispensable – it takes two. This is a complete one-eighty from Vedic ritual, where the only woman present would sit hidden from view, immobile. That makes Tantra sound significantly more inclusive and equal toward women, but that begs the question, is it really? Or does the physical inclusion of women simply mask continued oppression? There was some writing at the time against the practice of suttee, such as that by Bana which Doniger includes on page 408, saying that it is “a valuable piece of evidence of resistance to such ritual immolations during Harsha’s reign” (409). Based on this quote, it sounds like Doniger is of the opinion that the Tantric community was indeed more fair toward women, at least on the important issue of suttee. There are other passages which give women power. In one, the goddess Chandika kills Shumbha by tricking him into fighting a battle with her (416). In another, Maharisha underestimates the power of women and suffers the consequences (417). However, this second story also says that Durga was only capable of such power because “although she did not appear to be a man, she had a man’s nature and was merely assuming a woman’s form because he had asked to be killed by a woman” (417). This story gave me mixed messages, and my conclusion is that maybe the Tantric community, and this story, were in the in between zone on the road to equality; perhaps they were better than what had come before, but by no means all the way there.


  3. To respond to question 1 on why the Tantra became so popular, I think mainly it was a way to rebel against the popular “Hindu” ideals. I really appreciated how you brought up the Aghori, I think that’s a great example of what I want to say. From the video I watched it seemed as if they’re slightly (very) disgusting proofs of faith (rubbing dead peoples ashes on themselves, eating rotted flesh) is just the most extreme response to the “pure” life that the Brahmins lead in the caste system. Even though they’re performing theses pretty gruesome acts, they still are connected to god as their belief claims. I think the Tantras are a milder version of this kind of rebellious belief, as you said in your summary, “Tantra offers the best of both worlds! It’s called “enjoyment-release.” You can have fun and sex but also reach moksha”! What’s interesting to me is how this idea of rebellion on old upheld beliefs to more favorable ones seems evident in every religion (to an extent of course). For a Western example, the protestant movement gained strength from people rejecting the old system and believing that any individual could have a personal experience with God, that you don’t need someone else to lead and guide you and show you God. Similar to the protestant movement, normal people could have more experiences with gods without the interjection of the higher caste through the Tantra. Furthermore they could still keep their previously “impure” desires while still connecting to the gods, and that, in my opinion, ultimately drove it’s popularity.


  4. To attempt to answer your third question on how I think Tantra fits into Hinduism on a broader scale, I think that it is a reflection of how religions change with time. You briefly talked about this in your blog post, but I think that we see changes in every religion as they are passed down through time. For example, the Ramayana is not a specific written text but a performed story that changes and adapts to those telling it every time it is shared. This change could come simply from translation, or it could come from the changing ideals in our society as time goes on. I think religion is built to adapt to the people who follow it. The belief that some people hold about the Tantras that they were created as a way for men to be able to do what they want and still reach moksha shows, in my mind, show a religion can be twisted to fit the times.
    I am also reminded by this view of the Tantras of our class discussion last week about suttee, or the death/suicide of a woman who’s husband has died. We talked about the story of how this tradition in Nepal ended because a powerful king wanted to save a particular woman so he changed the rule requiring suttee. This seems very similar to the Tantras changing rules about the mixing of castes.


  5. In response to the first question, I believe the Tantras became popular because it could be seen as some sort of cheat method, being able to have sex and have release seems ideal to some. It also seems to be a rebellion against traditional “Hindu” ideals like what Copcam said in their blog post. It just seems like such a “oh is that an option? ill take it!” kind of deal with the Tantras. “The unity of sensual delight and spiritual flight” is a damn good saying that I feel could really hook people in practicing this. I also think it could have become popular because of the 5 M’s, it looks like there are no vegetables mentioned, so this could have possibly been (and this is a long shot, trust me) a message to tell young adults that “hey you don’t have to eat your veggies AND you can have sex!”


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