The Goddess Tara

An excerpt from Dalrymple’s upcoming book discusses the death cult of Tara. Hindu Tantra is alive and well, especially in Bengal, Kerala, Bhutan, and Nepal. The Tantric idea of reaching God by opposing social conventions is interesting; I can’t tell if that is just the perspective of a Westerner, though, or if it is actually a good approximation of their belief.

Tara is believed to be especially attracted to bones and skeletons, and for this reason the dread-locked and ash-smeared sadhus who live in the cremation ground here, above the river and under the great spreading banyan trees, decorate their huts with lines of human skulls, many clearly belonging to children.

“So how do you go about finding the right skull?” I asked Manisha.

“The Doms who administer the cremation ghats find them for us,” she replied, matter-of-factly. “They keep them for us and when we need them, they give them to us. The best ones are suicides,” she added. “When someone has drunk poison or hanged themselves, their skulls are especially powerful. So are the skulls of innocent and pure kumaris—virgin girls. ”…

From the way that Manisha spoke, it was clear that for her the goddess was not something terrible. She talked intimately of her as Ma Tara—Mother Tara—as if she were a benign matriarch, a quite different image from that on the popular prints that I had seen in the bazaar on the way. It is true that sometimes Tara is shown as a nursing mother or enthroned in the paradise of Kailasa or on the Isle of Gems. But usually she is depicted with four arms, nearly naked with matted hair and a blood-red lolling tongue, sitting upon a tiger’s skin and wearing a garland of freshly-severed heads. She wields a blood-smeared cleaver as she stands victorious, dripping with blood, over a dead corpse with an erect phallus. “Ah,” she said. “This is true. This is her wild side. But all this just means she can fight the devils on your behalf.”…

Tara is, after all, one of the most wild and wayward of Hindu goddesses, and cannot be tamed and contained within a mere temple image. After all, she is not only the goddess of supreme knowledge, who grants her devotees the ability to know and realize the Absolute, she is also the Lady Twilight, the Cheater of Death, a figure of horror and terror, a stalker of funeral pyres, who slaughters demons and evil yakshis without hesitation, becoming as terrible as them in order to defeat them. In the 10th-century hymn of a hundred names from the Mundamala-Tantra, Tara is called She Who likes Blood, She Who Is Smeared with Blood, and She Who Enjoys Blood Sacrifice. And while Tara has a healthy appetite for animal blood, the Mundamala-Tantra explicitly states that she prefers that of humans, in particular that taken from the forehead, hands and breasts of her devotees.

Moreover, the sexual part of medieval Indian Tantra is quite different both in aim and practice from the “Tantric sex” marketed by Western publishers in alluringly illustrated manuals. Early Tantric texts make no reference to pleasure, bliss, or ecstasy: the sexual intercourse involved in the rites was not an end to itself so much as means of generating the semen whose consumption lay at the heart of these Tantric fertility rituals—a sort of inverted Tantric version of the offerings made in Vedic fire sacrifices.

At the root of Tantra lies a deeply subversive and heterodox concept: the idea of reaching God by opposing convention, ignoring social mores, and breaking taboos. Whereas caste Hindus believe that purity and good living are safeguarded by avoiding meat and alcoholic drink, by keeping away from unclean places like cremation grounds and avoiding polluting substances such as bodily fluids, Tantrics believe that one path to salvation lies in pushing every boundary and inverting these strictures, transforming what is polluting into an instrument of power.

When I first arrived in the area, I had tracked down a famous Tantric skull-feeder who had previously been the subject of a distinguished academic monograph by an American professor of comparative religion. Yes, said the old Tantric, all that had been written about him was true, and yes he did still cure skulls and use their power. But sadly, he said, he could not talk to me about the details. Why was that? I asked. Because, he said, his two sons were now ophthalmologists in New Jersey. They had firmly forbidden him from giving any more interviews about what he did in case rumors of the family dabbling in black magic damaged their profitable East Coast practice.

Here is more about the book, Nine Lives. Below the fold are a couple of videos of other traditional South Asian practices that are managing to hold on in the new India – as it were.

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