The Tantric Guru

The importance accorded to the spiritual master, the guru or acarya, was a general characteristic of Indian culture from very early times, and the trait was developed and intensified in Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism. It goes back to the Vedic period and is still visible in India today.

A reason for the guru's importance may lie in the fact that Indian traditions always gave precedence to the oral/aural/verbal, rather than to the written, form of religious or spiritual teachings. The Vedic Revelation is not scripture. It is sruti, that which has been heard and which is transmitted by word of mouth. The Buddha and the Jina taught orally, and their teaching was long committed to memory only. The various Tantric doctrines, though they seem to have been written down early (by the fifth or sixth century C.E., perhaps, for Hindu Tantras, earlier for the Buddhist ones), were also deemed to have been revealed - that is, told, orally expressed - by a deity to a first master and then transmitted in the same oral fashion to initiates alone, through a succession of masters (gurupar- amparya), to succeeding generations of believers or adepts. Tantric texts that embody this sort of teaching in writing are therefore often couched in the form of a dialogue between a deity and a mortal, or between two deities speaking in mythical times - one asking to be taught, the other revealing orally his/her teaching.

In this Indian context, the highest wisdom, liberating truth, can issue only from the mouth of the master: gurumukhad eva. All such teaching, moreover, is nec• essarily esoteric. It is given, orally, only to those whom the guru considers worthy of receiving it and capable of keeping it secret. The esoteric transmission of doc• trine by the guru to his chosen disciple includes the (necessarily oral) transmission of a mantra that is believed to be all-powerful, superhuman in nature: only some• one endowed with superhuman powers can have access to and transmit such a power. This is a further reason why the Tantric guru is regarded as divine.

Tantric texts often do not expressly state that the guru is divine. They take it 

for granted, so obvious is such a notion to them. This identification with the deity goes so far that in some cases it is not clear whether the Tantra refers to the master or to the deity. For example, there is a passage in the Yoginihrdaya (a Saiva text dating probably from the tenth or eleventh century C.E., but still read and used in Srividya circles today) which exhorts the adept to invoke and perceive mentally in one of the centers (cakras) of his "subtle" imaginary body the presence of the "footprints or sandals of the Master" (gurupadukas); these, says the text, "pervade the universe and fill it with celestial ambrosia," that is, with bliss. Now, the com• mentary explains this paduka to be that of the guru, but it goes on to quote a stanza that mentions only the deity, while alluding further on to the paduka of "the guru whose nature is that of the supreme Siva." To realize mystically the supreme nature of the gurupaduka, says the Yoginihrdaya, is also to realize one's total identity with the supreme deity. What the adept is to experience is thus both the spiritual presence in his heart of his guru and the presence of the deity: they are both there but as one and the same, both transcendant and immanent reality. As appears in the translation given below of excerpts from the Kularnavatantra, this is what is generally implied by the term paduka.

Admittedly, the Yoginihrdaya belongs doctrinally to the nondualistic form of Saivism for which the supreme godhead forms the essence and omnipresent substrate of the cosmos, a divine essence that pervades the guru as well. However, it goes further than that. For this Tantric text (as for many others) there is a real, active, all-powerful and grace-bestowing presence of the deity existing in, or rather as, the guru. He has to be divine because in spiritual matters one gives not so much what one has as what one is.

The reverence and respect paid to the guru are reflected in the fact that Tantric ritual worship usually begins by an invocation of the guru (gurusmarana) by which the worshiper places him/herself mentally within his/her own tradition: rather than one's own guru, it is the succession of the gurus of one's tradition, the guruparamparya or gurupahkti, which is thus made spiritually present.

In the Saiva Kaula traditions, this gurupahkti is sometimes described as consisting of a threefold succession or "flow" (ogha) of masters, the first group being "divine" (divya), the second "accomplished" (siddha) and the last "human" (man- ova). If not historically then at least mythically, this flow links all the succeding gurus to the supreme godhead by whom the tradition is supposed to have been originally revealed. In this threefold succession (sometimes considered to correspond to the yugas, the succeeding ages of the world), the gurus are progressively less perfect as they pass from a divine to a mere human condition. However, even human gurus are incarnations of the godhead and are to be worshiped as such by their disciples.

Tantric traditions are not alone in viewing the guru as divine. It could be said that Indian gurus of whatever persuasion, and whether living in the past or the present, are regarded by their disciples as divine. A well-known and remarkable non-Tantric instance of such divinization is that of Caitanya, who came to be regarded as an androgynous incarnation of Radha and Krsna. It is well known that Ananda Moyi, who died a few years ago, used to be worshiped in Varanasi as an incarnation of the goddess Durga. More curious is the case of Sobha Ma, who lives in Varanasi now, and who is considered by her disciples as a manifes• tation of the (Tantric) goddess Kali. But once a year, she is worshiped by them as an incarnation of the non-Tantric god Krsna. One is also tempted to refer to the famous Bengali guru Ramakrsna, who came from a Tantric milieu, was a priest of Kali, and was initiated by two Tantric ascetics. But he stopped halfway, lacking the will to act as a real tantrika. Such instances (and many others could be quoted) are clearly due to the diffusion, throughout India, of the Tantric conception of the guru. As a well-known stanza from the Kularnavatantra (12.45) puts it, "Whoever regards the guru as a human being, the mantra as mere letters, and the images [of deities] as stone, goes to hell." The proper attitude toward the guru is sum• marized by another oft-quoted stanza from the same text (12.49): "The guru is the father, the guru is the mother, the guru is God, the supreme Lord. When Siva is angry, the guru saves [from his wrath]. When the guru is angry, nobody [can help]." Many such quotations could be cited. The Tantrarajatantra (The King of All Tantras), an undated - perhaps seventeenth-century - text belonging to the Srividya tradition, includes in its first chapter a brief hymn to the guru, identifying him with different aspects of the deity or of the cosmos; the human condition appears to be utterly transcended.

A richer and more detailed description of the Tantric guru is that of the twelfth chapter (ullasa), "concerning the footprints [of the guru]," of the Kularnavatantra. This Saiva Tantra is an important text of the Kaula tradition, and one of the best known. Its date is unknown, but it is certainly earlier than the fifteenth century. It was edited by Arthur Avalon and commented upon by him. The chapter in question, 129 stanzas in length, is too long to be translated here in its entirety. But the excerpts below show how far the extolling of the guru can go. Excessive praise is of course an ancient Indian literary practice, and it was never to be taken literally. But in its excess the Kularnavatantra expresses a widespread, typically Tantric perception of the spiritual master. The eulogy is reinforced in the following chapter of the same text, all 133 stanzas of which deal with the qualities, good or bad, of the guru and of the disciple. It describes especially the traits a disciple must exhibit in order for him to be chosen and then to serve his master properly: absolute devotion and submission are the rule.

Considered to be drvine, deserving of praise, and treated as a deity, the Tantric guru is naturally a figure to be worshiped. Indeed, a gurupuja, ritual worship of the guru, is sometimes prescribed. It is to be carried out by the newly initiated disciple for the master who has initiated him, and by the newly consecrated acarya for the master who has consecrated him and whom he is to succeed. The puja may consist of a mere recitation (japa) of the gurumantra, which is sometimes a long formula, and sometimes simply Om Om sri gurave namah. Whether short or long, the gurumantra, when its japa is completed, is to be "offered" by the per• former of the rite and symbolically placed in the guru's right hand. This is prescribed in all Tantric cults for the final japa of the deity's mantra. This rite is interesting as a symbolic offering both of one's prayer and of oneself to the godhead - or to the guru.

The gurupuja may also be a complete ritual program during which the guru, seated on a throne (asana) that symbolizes the whole cosmos (which he is thus deemed to transcend), is worshiped "with his mantras" and with the same offer• ings as those made to a deity, with the remainder of the offered drinks or food then being consumed (as in any puja) by the disciple, who must also worship the "wheel of power" (sakticakra) presumed to encircle the guru. If all this is not done, it is said, the whole initiation ritual would be void and without effect.

Such being the divine nature ascribed to the Tantric guru and the worship shown him, we would expect him to appear mysteriously, as a supernatural being spontaneously endowed with all manner of perfections and uncommon powers. But in fact only the founding masters of Tantric traditions, Hindu or Buddhist, are ever described in such a way. This is often the case with the Siddhas. Well- known examples are those of Matsyendranatha and Goraksanatha, the mythical founders of the Natha tradition. On the other hand, whenever human rather than mythical gurus are concerned, Tantric texts carefully describe and emphasize the necessity of their ritual initiation (diksa) or consecration (abhiseka). The guru, though essentially divine, is a human person who in fact becomes divine only after a ritual empowerment by which his master transmits to him his own supernatural excellence, together with his spiritual powers and ritual qualifications. There is such a thing as the "making of a master" (acaryakaranam).

As a rule the acarya- (or guru-) diksa or abhiseka is the highest in a series of initiations and is therefore given only to persons who have already received lesser initiations. To become a guru one must, in addition, have a number of social, physical, and mental qualities. These vary according to the doctrines, preferences, or prejudices of the different Tantric traditions. They concern caste (often the guru must be a brahman, he must at least be of good family, a kulin), gender (usually only males can be gurus), family (a guru is normally married), knowledge of the scriptures (the Sastras) and the ability to explain them, and so forth. Texts often insist on the beauty, majestic appearance, deep voice, and other physical traits a guru ought to possess. Some Tantras say a good guru cannot come from certain parts of India. The thirteenth chapter of the Kuldrnavatantra mentions different kinds of guru, with different capacities and different ways of teaching and practicing different rituals. It lists the particular subjects with which a guru ought to be conversant. It also mentions and warns against bad gurus. Only the sadguru, the real guru, the embodiment of absolute truth, saves and is to be worshiped. All of this goes to show that though extolled as divine, the Tantric guru is also viewed a mere mortal who is not above human frailties. A point worth noting is that the guru takes over his office and his powers from the master, who initiates him and thereby transfers and relinquishes to him his own role and authority. According to the Mrgendrdgama, the initiating master says to his suc• cessor: "The power and authority I resign to you now, you will henceforth wield until you transmit them to another." The rule is that there are never two masters officially active at the same time in the same guruparamparya.

The importance thus attributed to ritual notions and practices should not come as a surprise. The Tantric world is permeated and fundamentally characterized by ritual. Contrary to what some believe, tantrikas are not antiritualists or trans- gressive mystical seekers of supernatural powers and liberation. They are first and foremost super-ritualists, "specialists in intensified ritual." Ritual, however, cannot be separated from the doctrine that accompanies and justifies it: in the case of Hindu Tantra, the prevailing ideology is that of the pervasive presence of divine power, sakti, a power conceived of differently in different Tantric systems, but one that can be mastered and deployed ritually to gain mundane or supramun- dane ends. These two aspects of the Tantric reality come together in the acary- abhiseka, in which the guru is spiritually consecrated and is invested (thanks to the mantras he ritually receives) with supernatural powers, powers of such inten• sity that he is divinized.

Some Tantric traditions, notably the dualist Saiva Siddhanta whose scriptures are the Sanskrit Agamas, insist on the absolute and total efficacy of ritual. Such is also the position of the Vaisnava tradition of the Pancaratra, despite the im• portance given there to devotion to the Lord. Others, notably the nondualist Saivas, consider that the principal element in the making of a guru is not the ritual of the diksa, but rather the divine influx of power: the grace of God (anu- graha) or the "descent of power" (saktipata).

Thus, the Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta (tenth to eleventh century) contrasts the ritually initiated, "fabricated" (kalpita) gurus with those who are "not fabricated" (akalpita) but spontaneously and directly illuminated (and hence ini• tiated) by Siva's grace. This is a position, Abhinavagupta says, that was already held by such earlier Tantras as the Brahmayamala and even of Agamas such as the Kiranagama. The highest guru, according to him, is the one called "spon• taneous" (svayambhu) because he is spontaneously and divinely schooled in all the traditional sciences. Such a master is absolutely perfect (samsiddhika), omnis• cient, and divine; he destroys ignorance and spreads bliss by his mere presence. Illuminated by the light of intuitive knowledge (pratibham jnanam), he is some• times called pratibhaguru. This guru, Abhinavagupta explains, is in fact initiated by the "goddesses of his own consciousness" (svasamvittidevibhir diksitah). This is interesting, since it identifies the powers and movements that sustain and an• imate a person's spiritual, mental, and physical life with divine entities. This perception of one's powers as identical with, or reflecting, a set of deities (the Kalis), this conception of these "goddesses as the blissful, uncontracted awareness which is within and behind one's individuality" (to quote Alexis Sanderson), was taken over by Abhinavagupta from the Kashmiri form of the ancient Saiva Krama tradition.

An akalpitaguru, according to him, may also be ritually initiated, in particular so as to learn (and be able to teach) certain doctrines or practices. He is then said to be an akalpitakalpita ("fabricated and not-fabricated") guru. Such a master, says Abhinavagupta, is really the god Bhairava. Continually deepening his perfect knowledge of all the Tantras and religious treatises, following the teaching of his own Master but also remaining constantly immersed in the light of divine Con-sciousness, he reaches such a degree of plenitude (purnata) that he is identified with Bhairava, that fearsome form of Siva. The Brahmayamalatantra further teaches that a person can be initiated and enlightened (that is, liberated) thanks only to the effulgence or power (sphuratta) of a mantra. By means of this method, says the Tantra, one may become an acarya in a month. This may be taken as yet another example of the power ascribed to mantras in Tantric Hinduism. But the Tantra explains that this sort of direct mantric initiation is obtained while one performs a particular ritual of worship of the goddess Rakta: "Raktadevi initiates progressively through the japa of her mantras. This however can be done only if one has found such a guru as can transmit the mantra." Even divine action sometimes needs the help of human power. Here, however, the idea is to exclude the possibility of obtaining a mantra by finding it for oneself in a text: a written mantra, as is well known, is powerless.

Emphasis on the divinity of the guru is proper to Hindu Tantric traditions. The Buddhist Tantric conception is naturally different. Buddhist Tantric spiritual masters are also regarded as superhuman. But there seems to be more emphasis on the strangeness or eccentricity, as well as the supernatural origins and extraordinary feats and powers, of these "accomplished" beings (called Siddhas or Ma- hasiddhas), than on their divine nature. In Tibetan Buddhism, they may be sprul- sku, incarnate lamas, which also places them on a higher plane than that of ordinary people. Their disciples as well must obey and serve them slavishly. The sufferings and acts of self-denial of such disciples form part of the biographies of the great spiritual masters (especially the Tibetan ones). The trials endured by Milarepa as the disciple of Marpa, or of Naropa as the disciple of Tilopa are well known. The tales are largely imaginary or allegorical, but their raison d'etre is to underline the supernatural nature and powers of these exceptional, quasi-divine beings. The Tantric guru is always held to be superhuman.

 The Kularnavatantra, edited by Arthur Avalon [Sir John Woodroffe] (Madras: Ganesh, 1965) includes a long introduction, two chapters of which provide a partial translation and commentary on chapters 12 and 13 of that work. The two sections of verses translated below are based on that edition, from chapters 12 and 13, respectively.

 

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