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“Erotic Asceticism: The Razor’s Edge Observance (asidhārāvrata) and the Early History of Tantric Coital Ritual”

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“Erotic Asceticism: The Razor’s Edge Observance (asidhārāvrata) and the Early History of Tantric Coital Ritual”
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   1 Erotic Asceticism: The Knife’s Edge Observance ( asidh ! r  ! vrata ) and the Early History of Tantric Coital Ritual 1   Shaman Hatley Abstract This essay examines shifting representations of the “sword’s edge observance” ( asidh ! r  ! vrata ) across a range of Sanskrit literary and religious texts. Originally a Brahmanical ascetic discipline, an observance ( vrata ) by this name is the earliest ritual involving sexual contact documented in the corpus of ! aiva tantra s. In its tantric adaptation, an orthodox practice for the cultivation of sensory restraint was transformed into a means for supernatural attainment (  siddhi ). Diachronic study of the observance in three early ! aiva texts—the  Ni  " v !  satattvasa # hit  ! ,  Mata $  gap ! rame  " vara , and  Brahmay ! mala  —reveals changes in ritual emphases, women’s roles, and the nature of engagement in eroticism. Analysis of the asidh ! r  ! vrata  thus sheds light on the early history of tantric sexual rituals, which  by the end of the first millennium had become highly diverse. It is argued that the observance became increasingly obsolete with the rise of ! aiva sexual practices more magical, ecstatic, or gnostic in orientation. Keywords:  tantric ritual, religion and sexuality, asceticism, ! aivism, vrata   1  I would like to thank Harunaga I SAACSON , Mrinal K AUL , Csaba K ISS , James M ALLINSON , and the anonymous reviewers for providing a number of valuable suggestions and corrections. I would also like to thank Jacob D ALTON  for inviting me to present a version of this essay at a workshop, “The Evolution of Tantric Ritual” (Berkeley, March 2014). This provided an occasion to revise the essay, which was first written in 2009.   Post-print version of an article published in The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 79, 2 (2016): 329–45. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0041977X16000069   2 The transnational reinvention of Tantra as “sacred sexuality” in contemporary  popular culture has engendered a somewhat anemic response in scholarship. While Indologists undoubtedly recognize how little New-Age “tantric sex” has to do with the tantric traditions practiced historically in Asia, 2  we have provided inadequate corrective in the form of detailed studies on sexuality in traditional tantric practice systems. 3  The present article represents a small contribution in this direction, analysing the history and practice of a coital ritual known as “the sword’s edge observance” ( asidh ! r  ! vrata ). By the early second millennium in India, tantric sexual practices had developed considerable variety. Without aspiring to be comprehensive, this may  be illustrated by the following examples drawn from tantric literature: 1.   First must be mentioned “love magic:” ritual technologies for winning the affection, or at least the submission, of a sexual partner. This is one of the major aims of rites for ! kar   % a & a  (“attraction”) and va  "'  kara & a  (“subjugation”). What makes these tantric are the techniques for acquiring a lover: the sexual acts themselves may or may not be ritualised. Love magic is ancient, and certainly predates the tantra s. 4  It is a key theme in the ! aiva cult of Tripurasundar   "  , as illustrated by the V  ! make  " var  '  mata , one of its early scriptural sources. 2.   The targets of love magic may include non-human and supernatural  beings. In the ! aiva tantra  corpus, one of the earlier and more colourful examples is a rite in the Guhyas ( tra  of the  Ni  " v !  satattvasa # hit  !  by which one magically transforms a female goat or sheep ( aj ! ) into a woman who “fulfils all of one’s desires.” 5  A more typical example is that of  yak   % i &'   s ! dhana , rites for mastering dryads (  yak   % i &'  ), who may provide erotic and other kinds of pleasure. Yak   % i &'   s ! dhana  presumably has pre-   2   By “tantric traditions,” I refer to cults of a variety of deities in which texts known as tantra s form the principal scriptural authorities. For the early-medieval period in India, these comprised mainly the Buddhist Mantranaya (“Mantra Method”) or Vajray ! na, the Vai "# ava P ! ñcar ! tra, and $ aiva Mantram ! rga (“Path of Mantras”) and its offshoots; I refer to the later with the expression “Tantric $ aivism.”   3  Exceptions include the monographs of Miranda S HAW  (1994), David W HITE  (2003), and Loriliai B IERNACKI  (2007). Among older works, Edward D IMOCK ’s (1966) is particularly noteworthy.   4  On !  kar " a # a  and va $%  kara # a , and the history of Indian magic more generally, see Teun G OUDRIAAN  (1978). 5   Guhyas & tra  14.153: “Next, on either of the dark [nights], after fasting three nights, one takes hold of a ewe and smears its right ear with fresh butter. One should incant [the mantra] eight-thousand times before the southern image [i.e. face] of the deity. She becomes a beautiful woman and fulfills all of one’s desires” ( atha k  )%& ayor ekatamena t  )  r  ! tro  % ito aj !#  g  )  hya dak   % i & akar  && an navan '  ten ! bhyajya devasya dak   % i &!  y !#  m ( rttau a  %*  asahasra #  japet |  r  (  pavat  '   str  '   bhavati s !  ca sarvak  ! m !#  dad  ! ti ||).     3 tantric roots, and is described in a range of early Buddhist and ! aiva tantric texts, such as the  Mañju  " riyam ( lakalpa ,  Ni  " v !  satattvasa # hit  ! , and  Brahmay ! mala . 6  3.   A third, contrasting kind of tantric sexuality involves ritualised, orgasmic coitus wherein sexual fluids are given ritual function and meaning. This is exemplified by the  Brahmay ! mala ’s rites for the male practitioner known as the t  ! laka , and his female partner, the d  ( t  '   (“consort”) or  " akti  (“power”). 7  Unlike the previous examples, these practices are highly choreographed and incorporated into a demanding disciplinary regimen. Though described from the male perspective, they are performed by a couple, both of whom have received tantric initiation. 8  Oriented towards the attainment of supernatural power, their coital rituals are virtuoso  performances spanning long periods sequestered in a shrine or earthen chamber; in some cases these involve groups of women. 9  The gathered sexual fluids are both consumed and used as offerings to the deities. Although coitus is to be performed in a state of meditative concentration, gnosis and ecstasy are not otherwise emphasised. 4.   Highly regulated coitus may form an element of the secret assembly or ‘tantric feast’ (  ga & ama &+  ala ,  ga & acakra , etc.), as intimated in a number of Buddhist Yogin '  tantra s, such as chapter eight of the Sa # varodaya . 10  A ! aiva example is provided by the nocturnal “gathering of heroes” ( v '  ramel  !  pa ) described in the  Jayadrathay ! mala . While the gathering is in some respects tightly choreographed, the erotic acts are not: the heroes 6    Ni $ v !  satattvasa ' hit  !  , Guhyas & tra  10.81–84. This procedure, called  yak  " i #%  vidhi  (  yak  " i #  y !   e " a vidhi ( ), involves worship of an image that comes to life when the rite is complete: “When mastered, she [says], ‘what shall I do?’ ‘Be my wife’. He enjoys himself with her for the duration of the moon and stars” (  siddh !  s !  ki #  karom '  ti bh ! ry !  me bhavasveti |  tay !  saha ramate y ! vad ! candrat  ! rakam ). The subsequent verse (10.84) provides means for making a wife of a snake goddess ( n !  gin %  ). Cf. Guhyas & tra  14.83, which describes rites for subjugating female spirits—the  yak  " i #%  ,  pi $!  cin %  , and bh & t  %  . For a study of  yak  " i #%  s !  dhana  in the  Mañju $ riyam & lakalpa , see Miranda S HAW  (2009); for a study of  yak  " i #%  s !  dhana  in the Kak  " apu )  atantra , see Chieko Y AMANO  (2013). Yak  " i #%  s !  dhana  is the topic of chapter 65 of the  Brahmay !  mala .   7   The sexual practices of the s !  dhaka  are examined in admirable detail by Csaba K ISS  (  forthcoming ). These rites are expounded primarily in chapters 22, 24 and 45 of the  Brahmay !  mala .   8  Thus it is that the female practitioner is required to be knowledgable in trance ( sam !  dhi ), meditation (yoga), and scriptural doctrine (  jñ !  na ), and to be firm in her observances (45.188cd: sam !  dhijñ !  tha yogajñ !   jñ !  najñ !   sa '$ itavrat  !  ). 9   See  Brahmay ! mala  45.574–636 for a description of elaborate, protracted rituals performed by the male s !  dhaka  and groups of seven or eight initiated women. 10   A useful list of primary and secondary sources on the ga # acakra  is provided by Péter-Dániel S ZÁNTÓ  (2014).     4 ( v '  ra ) and  yogin '  s behave as impelled by the cosmic  " akti . Some dance, laugh, leap, give voice to mantras or to poetry, or perform mudr  ! s; others copulate, consuming the products thereof. 11  This unscripted sexuality takes on an ecstatic quality. 5.   In another mode of tantric sexuality, coitus is integral to the ceremony of initiation. Within ! aiva traditions, this is exemplified by the d  ( t  '   y !  ga  Abhinavagupta delineates in chapter twenty-nine of the Tantr  ! loka , wherein coitus is highly ritualized and has an ecstatic, gnostic emphasis. 12  Combining as it does the guru’s performance of coitus with an esoteric Kaula initiation, this invites comparison to the higher Vajray # na consecrations: the  guhy ! bhi  % eka  and  prajñ !  jñ ! n ! bhi  % eka  integral to initiation in most systems based on the Yogin '  tantra s. 13  6.   Another variety of tantric coital ritual is represented by the sexual yogas of the completion stage ( utpannakrama ) in Vajray # na  s ! dhana , such as taught in chapter six of the Ca &+  amah ! ro  % a & atantra , or in the Yoga of Six Limbs (  % a +  a $  gayoga ) of the K  # lacakra system. 14  While the Ca &+  amah ! ro  % a & atantra ’s completion stage involves copious, variegated coitus, in the latter, emphasis lies on interiority, gnosis, and the sublimation of bliss. Sexual union may be actual or performed through meditative visualisation. (One might also mention visualisations of the deities involving erotic imagery as a distinct dimension of tantric sexual  practice.) 7.   Some sexual practices associated with the tantric traditions are markedly corporeal. A comparatively well-known, though misunderstood example is that of the ha $ hayogic practice called vajrol  '  mudr  ! , recently studied by James M ALLINSON  (  forthcoming  ). Attested from the twelth or thirteenth century, this is a technique, he argues, by which the male practitioner learns to draw up liquids through the urethra with a tube, thereby attaining control over ejaculation; one may also, at least in theory, learn to draw sexual fluids back up into the body. Vajrol  '  mudr  !  thus facilitates sex without seminal loss. Ha $ hayogic texts suggest that women too may  practice this technique, the feasibility of which is unclear (ibid.). 11    Jayadrathay !  mala , " a )  ka  IV, v %  rat  !#*  avavidhikramapa )  ala  vv. 5–30b (S ANDERSON  2007, pp. 284–87).   12   For an annotated translation of this chapter, see D UPUCHE  (2003).   13   An erudite historical study of the higher consecrations is provided by I SAACSON  (2010), whose principle focus is the enigmatic “fourth empowerment” ( caturth !  bhi " eka ).   14   On the K ! lacakra system’s " a *  a + gayoga , see for instance S FERRA  (2000) and W ALLACE  (2012).   5 These examples, which could be multiplied, intimate much of the range of erotic practice found in the tantric traditions, differing in procedure, aim, and  premise, and emerging from multiple sectarian and historical contexts. “Tantric sex” is thus not a singular phenomenon, and clearer understanding of the history of tantric sexual practices requires detailed case studies. A final example forms the focus of the present essay: a distinctive coital ritual known as “the sword’s edge observance”—  asidh ! r  ! vrata ,   !  sidh ! ra #  vratam , kha +   gadh ! r  ! vrata , or, in the less polished Sanskrit of the  Brahmay ! mala  and some other sources, asidh ! ravrata . In brief, this is a practice in which the male practitioner exposes himself to various degrees of sexual temptation without fully consummating the act, maintaining sensory restraint. It seems to me that much can be learned concerning the early development of so-called “tantric sex” through historical examination of this practice, for, uniquely, its development can be traced through a range of orthodox Vedic, literary, ! aiva, and other texts. My study of the asidh ! r  ! vrata  ensues directly from my effort to edit and contextualise chapter forty of the  Brahmay ! mala  —“The Chapter of the Sword’s Edge Observance” ( asidh ! ravratapa *  ala ). This is a voluminous and relatively archaic ! aiva scripture ( circa  seventh–eighth centuries C . E .) also known by the title  Picumata . 15  It has been proposed that “tantric sex” was, in its srcinal form, principally a means for producing sexual fluids utilized as sacramental offerings to the goddesses. 16  Sexual fluids do figure prominently among the impure or “nondual” substances ( advaitadravya ) offered to goddesses and/or consumed in ritual, as described in ! aiva tantra s of the Vidy #  p  "$ ha, 17  especially the  Brahmay ! mala .  Nonetheless, such an instrumental view of the role of sexuality in early tantric ritual systems seems unhelpful, given the variety and complexity of the rites attested. Moreover, coital practices in which sexual fluids were collected or consumed are unlikely to have historical precedence, for a sexual ritual significantly different in nature finds earlier attestation in Tantric ! aivism. This is 15  On the  Brahmay ! mala  or  Picumata , see especially S ANDERSON  (1988, pp. 670–72); H ATLEY  (2007); K  ISS  (  forthcoming  ); and H ATLEY  (  forthcoming  ). The latter three  publications include editions of some of the text’s 104 chapters. An annotated critical edition and translation of the  Brahmay ! mala ’s asidh ! ravratapa *  ala  will be published in H ATLEY  (  forthcoming  ). 16  David W HITE  (2003), pp. 73–79. Venturing into considerably more speculative territory, W HITE , citing Dominique-Sila K  HAN  (1994), posits subaltern roots for such  practices—and indeed Tantra itself, which he opines “srcinated among a subaltern stratum of the Indian population that, lacking the means to procure the dravyam s of orthodox worship rites, made use of readily available human sexual fluids in its practice” (p. 67). As discussed in this essay, the case of the asidh ! r  ! vrata  instead suggests a degree of continuity between early Br  # hma % ical and tantric practices.   17  For an overview of the ! aiva scriptural canon and discussion of the “Wisdom Mantra Corpus” (Vidy #  p  "$ ha), a division of the “Tantras of Bhairava” (  Bhairavatantra s), see S ANDERSON  (1988).
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