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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Caste in the Hindustan

An essay on the history of caste in greater India:

The Indo-Aryans, whose culture became dominant, introduced into the region their social pyramid with three classes, or varnas: the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Kshtriyas (warriors and rulers), and the Vaishyas (traders and merchants). They added a fourth varna after their arrival: the Shudras (laborers and artisans). All four varnas appear in the earliest known Indo-Aryan text, the Rig Veda, and were no doubt a feature of the emerging Vedic society. As the settled indigenous communities became part of the early Vedic society, they also adopted its principle of hierarchy, turning their own occupational subgroups into castes, or jatis…

Many historians have criticized Dumont’s pioneering analysis of Indian caste, accusing him of overstating the power of the Brahmins and of the ‘purity’ principle in shaping caste, which implies that Indian society was static, homogeneous, and integrated rather than what it has been: dynamic, notoriously diverse, and fragmented. They claim that norms, inter-caste relations, and social practices were always fluid, with the Brahmin not the only reference point. Today’s caste system, they argue, was heavily shaped by the social, administrative, and economic changes that began in early colonial times—until then, a lot of Indians ‘were still comparatively untouched by the norms of jati and varna as we now understand them.’ [4] Census classifications and differential state policies also hardened caste identities in modern times.

[photo from]

National languages

I have always found people’s need for a “national language” quite strange. And this whole april08tlemarkparisicartoonoffthemarkcomplaining that people don’t speak “our” language. Why do people care? I know, I know, it is tied up with other factors, but still. The idea that there should be a national language is fairly new, as is, I suppose, the concept of a nation in general. But here are some excerpts from a book talking explicitly about this phenomenon, and some of the disastrous (and ridiculous) irredentist consequences of it.

We still have this problem in multilingual states. Wales sometimes seems almost as secessionist as Scotland. Quebec has the persistent Bloc Qebecuois. China has Tibetan/Uighur troubles. Belgium is being torn apart. I guess Switzerland and India are the exceptions. Any ideas on why this is? Anyway, I liked this take on the issue:

Although there is more to nationalism than just language, the idea of identifying a political state with a single language is a central idea of nationalism. When you contemplate why it is that today we expect any state to have a single language and think of Canada or Belgium as “weird” (and don’t forget Switzerland), what you’re really contemplating is why the nation-state has become dominant in the modern world.

Among those who study such things, the standard and mainstream thesis is that there is a fundamental incompatibility between a multinational state and a modern state.

But as they say, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.