One of the things which I have noticed over the past decade is that many people who follow a Pagan path are not completely satisfied with what they have found. While it is true that many, if not most Pagans are completely happy with their spiritual direction, I have found that many are seeking something...more. This "more" falls into one of two main categories:
Let me make clear again that I am not criticizing any path or the people following that path. What I am saying is that some people are looking for more than what has been available. This search has led to reconstructions of Pagan traditions from smaller and smaller areas in Europe. More recently, this has begun to accept Latino forms of Paganism (Brujeria, Macumba, etc.) and those of an Afro-Caribbean path (Voudoun, Santeria, etc.). This all has been valuable in opening up research into a wide variety of Pagan ways.
But there is another way which has not yet become intertwined in Western Neo-Paganism, even though many of its ideas, although foreign to traditional Western Paganism, have been accepted by Witches, Wiccans, ceremonial magicians and others.
When discussing the notion of foreign additions to ancient Paganism that appear in Neo-Pagan traditions, many come to mind:
As you can see, there are a wide variety of concepts which have been adopted in modern Western Neo-Paganism that seem to have ancient India as their source. Gardner, of course, spent many years in India and some have postulated that his version of the Craft may have had some influences from that country. Indeed, Ann Moura, in her book, Origins of Modern Witchcraft, makes a case for the source of modern civilization in an area called Sind. Although this area is now in Pakistan, it gave us the name "India." From Sind, the ancient religion of Shiva and Shakti spread out around the world. The author reveals that virtually every aspect of modern Witchcraft can be traced back to the ancient Sind religion: The notion of the triple goddess (a Maiden, Mother, and Crone) comes straight from there; The idea of the God being horned is derived from an image of Shiva; Many of the mythic images we associate with Greece and Rome originally came from this faith.
To answer the needs of seekers for "more," it makes sense to see if there is an ancient form of Paganism which is still alive in India today. If so, is it genuinely old and does it offer a wide range of spiritual and magical practices? Surprisingly, the answer to these questions is,
PAGANISM IN INDIA
For many people in the U.S., Paganism is any religion which is not Judaism or Christianity. More and more, this definition is moving to include Islam. Certainly if any religion could be conceived of as a major faith on the level of these three religions, it must be Hinduism. India is currently the second most populous country in the world and most of the people there are Hindus. But that is like saying that the major religion of the U.S.A. is Christianity. Both of these descriptions are true, and both are false.
In the U.S.A. there are thousands of denominations of Christianity. Although they have some (or many) similar beliefs, there are many Christian sects which are decidedly at variance with each other's philosophy and theology. The same is true of Hinduism in India, but to a greater extreme. Christians (for the most part) worship the deity Jesus. Depending upon the sect, Hindus worship one or more of the members of a triad of deities, or their consorts, or an incarnation of one of those deities, or a lesser deity. Thus, different Hindu paths not only have different traditions, but they also seem to worship different gods.
And yet, for the most part, Hinduism is tolerant of various sects (as well as other religions who are not proactively trying to convert them). One person worships Krishna, another Shakti, another Ganesha. Although, as in any culture, there have been fanatics, they generally recognize each other as Hindu. This is a far cry from the West were people have been persecuted for worshiping a different god or a different version of the same deity.
The reason for this tolerance goes back to the earliest of spiritual notions which seems to fill all of Hinduism. Specifically, a basis of Hinduism is that there is one ultimate deity, known as Brahman (who should not be confused with Brahma, part of the primary Hindu trinity), who is basically unknowable. All other deities are simply aspects of Brahman. Each manifests certain qualities of the Divine. It is for this reason that Hinduism has been called a monotheistic religion with thousands of gods.
This is Hinduism today. It is the mainstream of Hindu thought. If we follow the comparison above and say that Wicca/Witchcraft/Neo-Paganism are re-establishments of certain styles of pre-Christian belief in the West, what is the comparison in India? What preceded Hinduism?
The surprising answer: Tantra.
TANTRA: THE NEW
Today, there are two major trends in Tantric philosophy, belief and practice. The most common form seen in the West (and the focus of most of the pop-culture books on the subject) has been called "neo-Tantra" by Georg Feuerstein in his book, Tantra (p.xiii). The focus of neo-Tantra is on bliss resulting from certain mental, physical, and spiritual practices. The goal in neo-Tantra is to extend this period of Tantric Bliss for many minutes or hours. Most of the books on Tantra today only discuss neo-Tantra and define it as Tantra per se. Some of the techniques used by neo-Tantrics are taken from foreign sources, including Taoism, Reichian therapy, Esalen massage techniques, and more. As I write this, a friend of mine is attending a course in "Tantsu," or Tantric Shiatsu.
It is neo-Tantra that most Westerners think of when they hear about Tantra. Thus, most Westerners think that Tantra is only about bliss and sex.
Sex is a very delicate subject in the West. Comedians and films joke about it, but honest discussions of the subject tend to be either clinical and dry or lurid. Such discussions often cause nervous tittering in audiences. In my experience, most people come to neo-Tantra for one of two reasons. Either they are (in the term used by Colin Wilson) "Outsiders," societal adventurers looking for more in their sexual and spiritual lives, or they are so dissatisfied with their sexual lives that they are willing to break through deeply-felt societal barriers to improving sexuality in order to see if neo-Tantra can help them.
To these brave souls neo-Tantra is nothing less than a revelation. Most modern western spiritual practices—primarily praying, reading sacred scriptures, and meditating—are strictly mental in nature. Neo-Tantra, on the other hand involves great physicality. Along with the mental work of understanding the philosophy and visualization, neo-Tantra can include massage, movement, breathwork and yoga, as well as eroticism.
Although neo-Tantra is not the same as the historic Tantra, is does reveal to its practitioners a wide variety of spiritual truths, including that the body and sexuality can be spiritual and that what many, if not most Westerners consider to be sex is just a tip of an enormous, spiritual, blissful iceberg.
TANTRA: THE TRADITIONAL
Just as the sexual revelations of neo-Tantra indicate that what is commonly considered sex is just a small part of a much broader possibility, so, too, is neo-Tantra but a small part of the very ancient ideas of what I call Traditional Tantra.
As Moura revealed, the earliest sources of what became Tantra and Hinduism began in the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent and expanded in all directions. Originally, it was strictly a growing, oral tradition. The books known in India collectively as The Tantras (of which there are traditionally 108, which is a number of numerological importance) were not written down for thousands of years, however most scholars acknowledge that the roots of Tantra go back 7,000—10,000 years or more. Even today there are Traditional Tantric paths which can trace their roots, leader by leader, back many hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. It is, indeed, an ancient Pagan spiritual path. For a modern look at the ancient traditions of Tantra as well as neo-Tantra, Witchcraft, and even Western sex magic, I highly recommend Dr. Jonn Mumford's unique book, Ecstasy Through Tantra.
As a Pagan religion, there are two major directions. One worships Shiva and his consort. The consort is usually seen as the goddess Parvati, also known as Uma by and several other names. The other direction worships Shakti and her consort, Shiva. If this sounds a bit confusing, remember that all the gods and goddesses are simply variations of Brahman, each expressing different qualities of the divine. The sounds of the names are triggers to releasing the qualities of Brahman (which is why they are used in spiritual practices) that are identified by the name.
Each direction has many sub-paths, ranging from asceticism to the more famous spiritualizing of sexuality. Most Traditional Tantrics accept all of these paths as necessary for various individuals, even if their personal path differs from those of others.
There are numerous holidays on the calendar as well as daily rituals and practices. The rituals can be as simple as lighting a candle and chanting to very complex ones that take more than a week to perform. The holidays are celebrated differently in various parts of India, even having different names from location to location. They range in attitude from somber to the joyous holiday known as Holi, where people spray each other with colored water or powder. Generally, there is at least one religious holiday per lunar month.
Traditional Tantra has various religious traditions which can only be defined as Pagan. Modern Hinduism bases itself primarily on the Vedas, a series of books which were written earlier than the books known as The Tantras. However, the Tantras were initially an oral tradition, and many believe that the oral version of the Tantra predates the Vedas by as much as a 1,000 years or more.
NEO-PAGANISM AND TRADITIONAL TANTRA
Beside having numerous spiritual paths which honor both a god and goddess, modern Western Neo-Paganism and Traditional Tantra have numerous other similarities. For example, divinatory systems used in Neo-Paganism may include the Tarot, runes, astrology, palmistry, etc. In Traditional Tantra, both palmistry and astrology are popularly used. The astrology practiced by Tantrics is not the same as is practiced in the West. Westerners usually follow tropical astrology while Tantrics follow sidereal astrology and include concepts usually not considered important in the West. As a result, western astrology tends to focus on the personality while Tantric astrology focuses on predictions, dates, etc. Even the basic design of the horoscope chart is different. In the West we have the familiar circle divided into sections. In Tantra, the most frequently used designs are rectangles divided into subsections. Curiously, one such design remains in use by practitioners of astrological geomancy in the West.
One of the popular practices of Neo-Paganism in the West is doing healings: for self, for others, for the Earth. The same is true of Traditional Tantra. It has an enormous medical system using herbs and spiritual energy (collectively known as ayurveda). The methods of working with energy are often copied in western Neo-Paganism, and include breathwork, visualization, raising the energy (technically called laya yoga, but more commonly known as kundalini yoga), an understanding of the spiritual and physical bodies of humans, and much more. Rituals and techniques to send healing energy remotely are quite well known and practiced. For a full set of lessons on this from a Traditional Tantra point of view, there is currently nothing better than the lessons found in A Chakra & Kundalini Workbook, also by Dr. Mumford.
Another aspect of modern Neo-Paganism is the belief in, and use of, magic. A wide variety of practices are used. In India, Tantrics are known for their magical abilities. The primary methods include herbal magic, chanting, and the use of special symbols.
In short, virtually every aspect of Neo-Paganism can be found in Traditional Tantra.SOMETHING'S BEEN MISSING
Those of you familiar with my writings know that I come from both a ceremonial magick and Neo-Pagan background. So there was, for me, something missing in Traditional Tantra.
One of the amazing things about ceremonial magick is its use of numerology. This is most commonly found in the form of Gematria, a system which takes Hebrew letters and converts them to numbers. Words with the same numeration can be seen as having an important relationship to each other. In this way you can find hidden meanings in spiritual texts, most traditionally, the Hebrew bible. However, this has been expanded to other languages and texts by ceremonial magicians.
Traditional Tantra does have a means of working with words and finding hidden concepts by giving words multiple meanings. Philologists refer to this as the use of "intentional language" while Tantrics call it Sandhya Bhasha ("Twilight Language"). However, I had never seen anything along the likes of Gematria.
That is, I never saw anything like it until I read The Eastern Mysteries by David Allen Hulse. In it he writes, "...in the copious writings of both Blavatsky and Crowley we are unable to find the correct numerical key to the Sanskrit alphabet. However, 20th-century scholarship has uncovered and translated the texts which contain these codes without fully appreciating or detailing these keys" (p.224).
In The Eastern Mysteries, Hulse finally does exactly this work, opening up an exciting, new way to work with and understand the ancient texts of India and Tibet. Sanskrit (known as the Devanagari alphabet) has fifty letters, twice as many as English or Hebrew. The brevity of this article makes it impossible to share these complex systems. Hulse explains that there are eight numerological systems which can be used with Sanskrit. He presents four of them which can immediately be used.
I think it is fair to ask, "Does such numerology work?" There is no simple answer to this question. So far, I'e seen is no scientific evidence which gives an objective, cause-and-effect proof of numerology. Perhaps it would be better to ask, "Does using numerology of this sort give results?" As many thousands, perhaps millions of people over the past several thousand years can attest, numerology has produced positive results in their lives. Was this due to the direct activity of numbers or did the working out of the numerology act as a gateway, opening a practitioner's creativity, subconscious powers, or psychic abilities? Perhaps numerology gets results due to a blending of two or more of these potential causes for its success. The bottom line, however, is that it works.
There is another powerful way of working with the letters revealed in this book. As many people reading this know, each Hebrew letter has a meaning. For example, the fourth letter, Dallet, means "door." Here, Hulse reveals the symbolic meaning for each of the Sanskrit letters. Although I cannot easily reproduce the letters here, I can give you an intriguing concept: the Sanskrit letter which sounds like our "g" means "Buddha-nature; going, moving, being; a song, hymn." The "d" means "mixture, blend, riot, uproar, tumult, bombast, confusion." I can see how it would be very easy to create a divinatory deck based totally on the ancient Sanskrit alphabet.
This just scratches the surface of the codes and information revealed in this book about one of the world's most ancient languages. For those of us who also want to have a mental acrobatics understanding of a system, Hulse's book had made clear what was missing. I think we owe him a great debt.
WHY SOME MIGHT CONSIDER ADOPTING THIS NEW PATH
I can only answer for myself. Specifically, Traditional Tantra is genuinely an ancient path. Many of the versions of it can be traced back a thousand years or more. Many of the techniques expand upon the repertoire that is most commonly used in the West by Neo-Pagans. It is not better than any other path, but it is a path that is available to those who are seeking "more" and have not yet found it.
Editor's Note: All quotes used by permission.