More on this important topic appears in June McDaniel’s Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls, the best study on Säkta folk religion and obsession in modern India which I have ever come upon (highly recommended). McDaniel classes several types of Tantrikas. Of course, the situation of modern Tantrikas differs from those a thousand years ago, hence I would ask your caution in projecting the status quo on periods about which we know far too little. Nowadays, several types of women are involved in Tantra. First, there are the female gurus Like male gurus, these women are professionals who have dedicated themselves completely to the spiritual life. Most of them have undergone decades of training. Especially the ones who were never married and remain celibate have a high status in the eyes of the population. However, celibacy is not a must. Then there are holy women and widows who lived a married life, had children, but received a religious call. These Tantrikas left their families, went on pilgrimage, associated themselves with some temple or institution, and generally only visit their husbands and kids on occasion. Such women often live on the road. They make a living by begging, making talismans, telling fortunes, and some of them gain followers or students. Obsession by deities is an important part of their spiritual discipline. Then there are the Tantric wives- Here we encounter women who are living in marriage with their husbands. In many cases, it is the husband who is devoted to Tantric discipline, while the wife sees it her spiritual duty to participate. Orthodox Indian thought demands absolute obedience from housewives, hence, even if the woman participates in hard core ritual she still remains dutiful to traditional Dharma. Such women generally receive training from a guru- Some of them achieve a high degree of spiritual and magical competence. Others only do the rites as this is expected of them. In either case, the married Täntrikä is usually reluctant in talking about her activities. She does not seek fame, wealth, or contact to outsiders.

An early form of the ‘Tantric wife’ may be the veSya, who appears in elder literature. The term veSya literally means a prostitute, but the actual meaning is that of a sexually active and independently minded Täntrikä. Unlike a prostitute, the veSya is married to her partner. She practices ritual, has training in mantra and visualisation and seeks union with the divine- Within the relationship she can be quite demanding- Nevertheless, she is expected to remain true to her husband. Should she have congress with other men, she is sure to suffer divine punishment,  so will the men who bed her. Then there are celibate wives. Usually they receive a divine call, or simply become obsessed or visionary. Such women remain living in the -household, but they dedicate themselves completely to a religious life. Same achieve a high status as holy women, organise public ceremonies, or run religious communities. Their husbands can say goodbye to any sort of love life, but they do gain a high status in the eyes of the community. They often profit from the money made by their spouses and generally believe that their karman improves. Last there is a group of professional Tantric ritual assistants. These women often follow a hereditary tradition, you might almost call it a class. Such women receive training from one or several gurus. The program includes breathing exercises, meditation, mantras, and a lot of yoga aimed at controlling sexual passion and inner energy flow. Such women hire their services to Täntrikas who have no competent ritual partners. The greatest danger to their profession is to become pregnant. In this sort of ritual format, men are expected to retain their sperm. A pregnancy is not desirable at all, in fact, a male orgasm means that the rite has failed. McDaniels cites a study by Bholanath Bhattacharjee, who interviewed forty-eight professional ritual consorts. In one case story, the worshipper impregnated the woman and then abandoned her. However, he later came back, saying that if his guru liked practicing with her, he would take her back and also pay her rent and support the baby. The woman agreed, mainly as poverty forced her to. Eventually she met the guru and became his ritual partner (bhairavi).

It has become a fashion to claim that Tantra was basically a male affair where women participated as ritual aides. In the opinion of several experts (it’s a nice day and I won’t bother to name names) women were simply used by the male adepts. They were a part of the rites, but the rites were performed for the spiritual and magical aims of the males. Women, so it is claimed, got some food, presents, got drunk, and got fucked for the sake of male spirituality or sorcery. They may have had a bit of fun when they were venerated as the goddess and perhaps an orgasm or two, but that’s it. This picture is so incomplete that it hurts. What of the women who founded Tantric lineages, such as Krama? What of the women who initiated men? What of the women who were gurus? True enough, Hindu Tantric literature cites few instances of female leadership. For all their Siktic preferences, many texts seem aimed at male readers, if only as it was highly uncommon that women could read. Then there are the conventions of language. In Sanskrit, just as in many European languages, it is common usage to use the male form, all the while implying that female readers (readeresses) are also addressed. Such conventions make it difficult to descend female elements. Likewise, Tantras are usually attributed to gods. There are Tantras around which may well have been written, edited, or amended by highly initiated women, but as the text is of divine origin, we have no idea who composed it. And there are further signs for those who look closely. What of the Yoginis mentioned in the KJN, dwelling at the Yoni shrine, eager to initiate devout men? No, this is not a reference to temple prostitution, which became a fashion a few centuries later, and had no Tantric meaning whatsoever. Shared ritual in Tantra is by no means confined to sexual activity. Indeed, lovemaking constitutes only a small section of possible activities and it is usually not the most important one. After all, Tantra aims at liberation, and if you go for that, you will find daily discipline, meditation, ritual, devotion, and the transformation of your own demons, fears, cravings, and hang-ups to be more essential than an occasional feast of the Five Ms. Only New Age Tantra is totally obsessed with sex and hedonism.

While most Hindu Tantrics seek to transcend or transform the world, Western Tantrics wallow in it. McDaniels spoke to numerous Bengali Tantrikäs who considered sexual rites to be of peripheral importance. In general, so she was told, it is the men who need sexual ritual to leam to control their passions and desires. From this perspective, men are weaker than women. As she points out, Indian sons are indulged and petted, while Indian daughters are taught to give the best food and toys to their brothers. Indian women thus learn to sacrifice their desires at an early age- Sexual ritual is basically for people who are weak rather than strong – and weak people do not belong at the burning ground. The same may be said regarding larger ritual assemblies or cakras. In some Tantras (such as the “VI) the ritual circle is described like a mad, drugged group-sex orgy. However, we have no way of estimating what they were like in real life. Some of the accounts are so over-the-top that I suspect that they happened in the imagination In modern Bengal, cakras are prohibited. Even so, thy do happen on rare occasions, However, as June McDaniel explains, they are not opportunities for sexual indulgence or wife swapping. The main goal of a cakra is to attain union with the gods or to become temporarily obsessed by them. When sex is involved, it is simply to copy the behaviour of the deities. There exists, however, a new son of ritual cakra in modern Bengal. It is called the pagu cakra and promotes all sorts of indulgence, sexual and otherwise. The aim of the pagu cakra is pleasure by all means. Its participants lack all spiritual training and discipline, their sole ritual being a parody of the genuine rites. As it turns out, the pagu cakra celebrates exactly the sort of loose living that Westerners, in particular New Age Tantrics, mistake for real Tantra. What of female gurus (stri guru)?

One of the Rudrayämalas quotes her specifications. She must be righteous, of good conduct, devoted to her guru (i.e. in a line of spiritual succession), she must be in command of her senses, know the essential meaning of all mantras (this is much like taking a university degree), enjoy worship, be of good character, with lotus-like eyes, good at recitation, she must possess jewels and ornaments (a reference to her cakras?), peaceful, of kula-family, with a moon like (cool and serene) face, able to explain Siva’s wisdom (you can do that only if you are Siva), and able to grant final release. Well, a woman like this wasn’t born enlightened. To become a guru you need training. The Tripurä Rahasya, a beautiful work on inner worship of the Sri Vidyä tradition, gives a lengthy account of one such guru. One day prince Hemacüqla was out in the forest hunting. He lost his companions, as royals always seem to do when faced with the real world, but eventually he came upon a singularly beautiful hermitage. There he encountered Hemalekhå, the adopted daughter of the jungle dwelling Saiva saint Vyäghrapäda. The two fell in love and before long they were married. Instead of being a well-behaved queen, however, Hemalekhä proceeded to initiate her husband, mainly by telling him wonderfully complex stories and sending him to a lonely room for months of meditation. In due course, Hemacüda became an enlightened sovereign, fiercely devoted to the inner worship of the goddess Tripurä, Thanks to Hemalekhäs teaching, all inhabitants of the city became enlightened and even the birds chanted mantras through the lazy, sunny day. If you like trance-stories closely resembling the style of Milton H. Erickson, this is the book for you. And while we are at it, another interesting woman sage, clad in saffron robes, with long, tangled hair and a youthful appearance thanks to rejuvenating yoga. She instructs the court of king Janaka and defeats the hot-headed in philosophical argument.

KIN gives a list of the qualities a ritual Sakti should have. Among them are beauty, white eyes, dishevelled hair, eloquence, fearlessness, devotion to Kulägama, calmness, a lovely nature, freedom from doubts, truthfulness, freedom from cruelty and being grounded in her own body. The good book calls her a heroine and ‘the ultimate one’. Again, a partner with so many good qualities does not fall from heaven. Such a character needs years of training and meditation, possibly over several lifetimes. The KCT goes beyond this, describes a form of courtship. The well-advanced sadhaka arrives in a village, town, marketplace, or square where he is seen by a young woman. On seeing him, she is freed of her sons. Looking at him sideways, longing enters her mind. She is jolted out of her everyday behaviour, her mind is troubled, she allows her sari to slip, revealing a nipple, and hastily covers herself again. At the junction of her feet (i.e. at the yoni) the sexual urge arises. She speaks with her friends, makes enquiries, and learns who the sadhaka is, from what family he comes, what he is doing and so on. About five minutes later the two are in bed together and he is moving his penis just like the god Käma. The episode is striking as it tells of the entire affair from her point of view. She picks the worshipper, she gives him a sign of invitation, she enquires about his qualifications, and allows him to approach. All of it in highly poetical language. It is her desire that makes the union possible, without her consent he stands no chance at all. Later on she addresses him as ‘my son’, and indeed, the relationship between them is much like that between a goddess and her worshipper. Was this passage of the KCT composed by a woman? In Tantric literature women (just like gurus and students) suffer from idealisation. You read of their exalted qualities and their closeness to the divine. Often they are called young, beautiful, tender, wise, un-worldly, polite, well behaved, highly spiritual, quiet, peaceful, and so on, How about elder Täntrikäs? How about Täntrikäs who despise fancy dress and submissive behaviour? What of those resolute ladies who have survived years on the road, who have shaved their hair, slept on cremation places, and run their own spiritual communities? In some texts, the ritual partner is described in the same poetic metaphors as a goddess. Which makes it hard to tell the difference. Are we talking of flesh & blood women living real lives, of idealised consorts worshipped from a distance, or is the perfect ritual partner a spiritual entity, a manifestation of the ParaSakti in the imagination?

Täntrikäs are easier to trace when we look at Tantric Buddhism. Buddhism itself was not very favourably disposed towards women (apart from pitying them), but when Indian Buddhists encountered Tantric Saktas, usually while having a picnic at a cremation place, the systems used and created something entirely new and practical. Indeed there are some systems, such as the Yogini-kula, which can be found in Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. Anyway, it seems that the Buddhists learned to Worhip women, and with women, when they encountered Hindu Saktas. Unlike the Hindus, the Buddhists were organised and they collected books in libraries. Now once the Muslims invaded northern India, they crushed what remained of Indian Buddhism and destroyed all the monasteries and libraries they could find. This meant the end of Indian Buddhism but, of course, the libraries in other countries survived. For this reason we find some of the most important Indian Buddhist scriptures in Nepal, Tibet, China, and other countries. Not that the Yogini cults were popular. The Buddhists may have been better at documenting history than their Hindu colleagues, but nevertheless a good many frowned at spiritually dominant women. As a result, a lot of female gurus were turned into male gurus by the simple method of misspelling their names. It often takes only a single letter to change the gender of a name Last, there is plain dumb sexism.

Tibet, for instance, had a wide range of pioneering female saints (see Miranda Shaw’s ground-breaking Passionate Enlightenment and read it!). These women composed scripture, sang songs of enlightenment, gave Tantric feasts, initiated males (including most of the founding fathers of Tibetan Buddhism), founded lineages, taught, educated, trained, and shaped much of what remains best in Tantric Buddhism. Many were sorceresses, ran Tantric organisations, performed miracles, healed, cursed, and brought enlightenment. Today, with regard to women, Tibet has the most retarded sort of Buddhism anywhere. The brilliant ladies of the early days are happily forgotten. For several decades, the present Dalai Lama has been sharply criticised by feminists. In his branch of Buddhism. unlike all the others, women cannot attain the highest degrees. Will this ever be changed? Sadly, as he claims, he is stuck within the system and cannot alter it, Which strikes me as a dumb excuse. If Avalokitesvara incarnate cannot change this sorry little system, who can? Anyway, there is a lot missing in Hindu scripture that appears with glaring directness in Tantric Buddhism. Where most hindu Tantras barely hint at lovemaking, secretions, and the role of the Sakti, some Buddhist texts of the Yogini school are more than explicit. Ingestion of fluids, veneration of women, men who fail in their liberation as they cannot transcend their sexism.- all of it appears, boldly outspoken, in works composed by brilliant female gurus. And as it just so happened, these masterpieces of spiritual literature happen to be thoroughly unpopular in modem Tibetan Buddhism.