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Geoffrey Samuel "Origins of Yoga & Tantra: Indic religion to the thirteenth century"

Cambridge 2008 (reviewed by Mogg Morgan)

This is a complex book but if you have some familiarity with Indian intellectual
history and are interested in new research on the background to Tantra – its crucial
reading. The author, who is professorial fellow at University of Wales Cardiff, aims to
provide background for "westerners ...personally involved in the practice" - which I
think it fair to say is self inclusive. Unlike some academics, Geoffrey is not jumping
on a bandwagon neither does he in any of his books, disparage his non academic

The usual starting point in any such study is the religion of Indus valley during the so-
called "Integration Era". The author does not feel we can learn very much from this
early material which is far from unambiguous and almost always interpreted by
reading later religious forms into it. Hence the much publicised so called "proto-
Shiva" may in fact be an ancient bull or buffalo deity.

In the chapter on "Stories and Sources" Geoffrey introduces the vexed question of the
confusing chronology of Indian texts (there is only one fixed point in whole 1000
years period - i.e. invasion of Alexander the great). He feels prompted to make a new
start and construct a sensible account of development of Indic civilisation on basis of
the archaeological record; bringing various textual sources into some sort of
relationship with it.

The previous neat progression from Vedas to Upanishads etc, is based on the Indian
equivalent of "sequence dating"; it focuses only on elite groups and should allow for
more diversity than some older scholars maintain. Folk sources can now be
countenanced as part of the picture, avoiding privileging the textual studies of older
generation of "classically influenced Orientalists.

I'm struck by the parallel with my own interest in the Egyptian magical religion,
which also seems to be undergoing this slight shift of gaze from elite narratives to an
interest in more heterodox perspectives. My own recent personal interest has focused
on the neglected "folk" tradition which is revealed more in archaeology than in the
elite textual tradition. It is there in the text - but one needs to read them in a different
way, IMO.

The "second urbanisation" of India deals with the situation leading up to the author's
main area of interest. This is the contentious topic of the "Aryanisation" of India - the
replacement at least of indigenous languages by the Indo-Aryan group which
originates before 1200bce in Afghan/Iran region. The political structure of the time
comprises multiple oligarchies or republics ruled by clan leaders etc. Via a process
described by Barry Kemp as rather like the board game Monopoly, some of these
clans accumulate sufficient economic and technological surplus to rise to become the
dominant mini kingdoms of the kind described in epics such as Mahabharata.

The next chapter moves into one of the most important regional dualities of the time -
the Kuru-Pancala versus the Kosala-Vedeha worlds. i.e. Punjab versus Central
Gangetic region; West contrasted with East; or as author reveals the "Lunar" dynasties
of the Mahabharata contrasted with the "solar" dynasties of the Ramayana. I’d add the
phyto-geographic - wheat versus rice.

Continuing with these themes of precursors - Geoffrey discusses the cult of the Yaksa
- powerful male and female nature spirits, different to the major gods of Hinduism -
perhaps representing a more chthonic religious sensibility. He then moves on to the
issue of the roots of the renunciation tradition of Buddhism which was a radical
departure from the orthodox householder based Brahmanism of Vedic religion. He
sees a possible progression here from the brotherhoods of warrior ascetics known as
Vratyas, who when not engaged in cattle raiding and pillage gathered for
transgressive rites in the forest. The link between these and the more pacifist Jain and
Buddhist monks is far from straightforward; but perhaps this is provided by a shared
interest in the cult of the dead - still a Buddhist specialism. This role of specialist
practitioners acting as go between with the realm of the dead, is one of the planks of
the authors analysis. (p.131) .

The initial attractiveness of the Buddha was maybe not his philosophical skill but
more his abilities as a magician or shaman to deal with these realms - and through
simple techniques gain insights into his own nature and those of others. His personal
techniques are firmed up at the request of advanced students and later writers and
perhaps become the "classic" techniques of the (Hindu) Yoga-Sutras.

It is significant that the Buddhist stupa is a cosmological construction around a burial

mound and that the iconography brings on board or on side potentially dangerous
nature spirits Yaksas etc.

The Brahmanical "alternative" tends to incorporate and submerge local deities and
traditions whereas Buddhists and Jains tend to become entangled with other traditions.
There is a well known schema of four ashramas (shrama = "to toil") which became
the dominant Brahmanical ideology - there are four stages –
Brahmacarin (celebate youth or student - the Brahmanic ideal),
forest dwelling hermit; renouncer/magical adept.
The later renunciation of ordinary life was reserved for a time after family
commitments etc were completed. But, so Geoffrey argues, perhaps these stages were
once distinct alternative lifestyles and reveal an ancient Brahmanic tradition for those
who devoted themselves to the magical life?

These then form the basis of the later practices called Tantra, combined with the
family or hereditary cults (kula) connected with the Yaksha/Yakshi. These cults are
folksy perhaps low status and deliberatively taboo breaking - the sexual component,
so the author says, is more about the magical power of ritually polluting substances
than the liberating power of sexuality.

Geoffrey seems to be following the academic consensus here - to be expected - i.e.

most academic studies of this material, whilst very revealing - cannot really see any
other rationale for the practice. This is maybe where the contemporary practitioner
might want to go further - personally I don’t find this theory of transgression as
explanation of Tantrik practice completely convincing . I suspect that there must be
something more, perhaps something special about the substances themselves and this
is an insight that stems from our own Hermetic /occult tradition - its the magical
secret if you like.

I suspect there is another story here that is yet to be revealed - perhaps some of the
creators of the Kaula system such as Matsyendranath had other sources of knowledge
apart from family traditions and gurus. Did Matsyendranath even have or need a
guru? Perhaps he choose to reframe the meaning of "kula" and find his own inner

With the end of the Gupta empire India in about the sixth century, the polity becomes
one of smaller clan chiefs and rajas. Tantra specialists offer their services to various
leaders looking for erotic and martial prowess - the two often linked. So although this
is the era of high status Tantrik temples such as those at Khajaraho - including the
special open air shrine for Kaulas rites - it is also a time of decline. The high profile
centre of tantra moves further east to the Khmer kingdom at Ankor reaching a final
point in Japan where it is connected with the foundation of some of it most famous

This final phase, Tantra's public face is in the service of oriental monarchies and the
state rather than as some individual path of gnosis and liberation. These aspects are
retained as secret private aspects of a mainstream state cult. The final, final stage is
the rebirth in the modern world, though much sanitized by its new eastern gurus - thus
Vivekanda's famous reframing of Yoga in a more Brahmanical mode. The underlying
Kaula doctrines of texts such as the Hathayogapradipika (Light on Yoga)-

As the practitioners begin to move in our own post modern world we can perhaps see,
as does the author, possible limitations in the views of the modern, "disenchanted"
academic. Most explanations, ingenuous and revealing as they usually are, can never
be totally the whole view.

There are a few simplifications in the review, perhaps inevitable,
e.g. the Vratya argument isn't mine and I have some reservations
about it, though I note John Powers has a new book out about the
Buddha (A Bull of a Man) stressing that the early image was not all
passivity and acceptance. I think we still tend to Christianise the
Buddha somewhat, and by now so do a lot of Asians.

On transgression and Tantra, what I was trying to suggest, though

it's perhaps not stated as clearly as I would like, is that you need
a double view; what it looks like from the inside and what it looks
like from the outside. If my version of Hart's line on low-caste
ritualists is plausible, the 'employers' (rajas, big men etc)
undoubtedly wanted something nasty, polluting, evil and powerful, and
they weren't necessarily very interested in the spiritual side of the

The practitioners would surely have seen things differently; for them
it was a spiritual trip about transcending ordinary reality, and the
cost of becoming, in effect, an outcaste (for those who weren't one
already) was worthwhile. As for when and how people developed the
sexual practices in the form we know them today, we can't be sure,
but there isn't much sign of them before the 8th-9th centuries in
South Asia (as opposed to East Asia).
Obviously that doesn't prove that they weren't there, but when they
appear in the 8th century, we hear about them from a whole lot of
different directions. Also, it isn't just sex that is the issue
here; it's death, the charnel-ground, decaying corpses, skulls, etc.

AS for how far Matsendranath et al derived most of their material

from a literal kula tradition, I'm not really certain. I'm pretty
sure it was more complex, and was again aiming to suggest that. The
tradition itself has plenty of indications of visionary and non-
material sources for the teachings.

Matsyendranath's circle and their Buddhist equivalents are the point

at which all this becomes somewhat historical however. I don't really
see the tenth and eleventh century as a time of decay and decline for
the Tantric traditions as a whole (as distinct from Buddhism), if
anything this is the time when they start to be more widely
available. Most of what we know of today goes back to this period. As
for the use by local rulers etc for dubious purposes, I suspect that
goes on all the way through. In the later material, we do get stories
of kings and princes as Tantric adepts, and clearly some practice of
more spiritualised versions of Tantra in court circles, but I think
the royal connections may have been talked up a bit by the gurus and
their disciples...

Take care