The Vehicle of the Thunderbolt
Quite early in the history of the Great Vehicle feminine divinities
found their way into the pantheon. One such was Prajñ?p?ramit?,
the Perfection of Insight, the personification of the qualities of the
Bodhisattva. Later, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who were thought
of as male, were, like the gods of Hinduism, endowed with wives, who were
the active aspect, the "force" or "potency" (?akti) of their husbands.
The god was thought of as transcendent and aloof, while the goddess was
active in the world; thus the god might be best approached through the
goddess. The productive activity of the divine was thought of in
terms of sexual union, an idea as old as the Rg Veda. With the spread
of these ideas sexual symbolism, and even sexual intercourse as a religious
rite, were incorporated into the teachings of some schools of both Hinduism
With these ideas were combined a new magical mysticism. The Lesser
Vehicle taught that the release was obtained by the gradual loss of individuality
through self-discipline and meditation; the Great Vehicle added that the
grave and help of the heavenly Buddhas and Bodhisattvas assisted the process.
The followers of the new teaching taught that it could be best attained
by acquiring magical power, which they called vajra (thunderbolt, or diamond).
Hence the new school of Buddhism was called Vajray?na, the Vehicle of the
Even the Sthaviravadins taught that the monk who reached a high stage
of detachment and mental training acquired supernatural powers. At
all times there were free-lance Buddhist monks, who did not live regularly
in monasteries under orthodox discipline, and who attempted feats of sorcery
and necromancy, such as the Buddha is said to have condemned. It
was perhaps among these free-lances that the ideas of the new Vehicle developed,
to be codified and given dignity under the P?la kings of Bengal and Bih?r.
Even in the 7th century Hsüan Tsang found certain monasteries permeated
with magical practices.
The chief divinities of the new sect were the "Saviouresses" (T?r?s),
the spouses of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There were also a host
of lesser divinities, many called by the names of demons, such as "outcaste
women" (m?tangis), demonesses (pi??cis), sorceresses (yoginis), and she-ghouls
(d?kinis). The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with their T?r?s were approximated
to the less amiable members of the Hindu pantheon, and were often depicted
with many arms in ferocious poses.
As in the days of the Br?hmanas, it was though that these deities should
be compelled rather than persuaded. The textbooks outlining the means
of doing this (s?dhana) were called Tantras, and hence the new cult is
often referred to as tantric. By pronouncing the right formula (mantra)
in the correct manner, or by drawing the correct magical symbol (yantra),
one might force the gods to bestow magical power on the worshiper and lead
him to the highest bliss. Among the many formulae of tantric Buddhism
one is specially famous--the "Six Syllables" (Sadaksar?), ?m mani padme
h?m, still written and repeated thousands of times daily in Tibet. This
phrase: "Ah! the jewel is indeed in the lotus!", may be sexual in significance,
mystically repeating the divine
coitus of the heavenly Buddha and Prajñ?p?ramit?, and of Avalokite?vara
and his T?r?.
Tantric Buddhism did not neglect the techniques of mental training which
were part of all the chief religions of India, but their direction was
altered. Their primary purpose was to obtain supernormal power.
The meditations of the Vajray?na were often positively psychopathic.
The practitioner of the system might so hypnotize himself as to imagine
that he was reborn from the womb of a T?r?, to kill his father the Buddha
and take his place. In sexual union with a female devotee he and
his partner would become Buddha and T?r?, or he himself might become T?r?.
In the sexual rites of tantric Buddhism all taboos were lifted. Even
incest was permitted, for what was sin to the ignorant was virtue to the
initiate. Drinking of alcohol, meat-eating, killing
of animals, and sometimes even of human beings--every imaginable sin--were
practiced at the tantric covens. These things were, however, done
under strict control, and only by the initiates at sacred ceremonies.
Like the Bengali tantricist of later times the Vajray?na initiate might
in his ordinary life be a normal man, whose occasional religious debauchery
served as a catharsis to his evil psychological propensities and was of
real help to him in leading the good life as he understood it.
Another form of religious ceremony was that practiced by the sects
which worshiped feminine divinities. These sects are generally known
as tantric (from their scriptures, called tantras), ?aktic (from their
worship of the ?akti, or personified energy go the god), or "left-hand"
(from the fact that the goddess sits on the left of her lord). Their
members believed that the usual Hindu rites and ceremonies, though not
wholly ineffectual, were only suitable for the ordinary worshipers of the
goddess; the adepts, who had undergone long rites of initiation, practiced
other ceremonies of much greater efficiency, similar to those of the Buddhists
of the "Vehicle of the Thunderbolt" (p. 280f). The Tantric rites
involved the breaking of all the usual taboos of
Hinduism. Small groups of initiates met at night, often in a
temple or private house, but also frequently in a burning-ground, among
the bones of the dead. The group formed a circle, seated around
the circumference of a large circular magical diagram (yanta, mandala)
drawn on the ground. Though the members of the circle might include
Brahmans and outcastes, there was no class distinction at the ceremony--all
were equal, and no ritual pollution occurred from their contact.
After regular evening worship, the propitiation of ghosts, and other rites,
the group would indulge in the five Ms (pañca-mak?ra): madya (alcoholic
drink), m?msa (meat), matsya (fish), mudr? (symbolical hand gestures, known
in other branches of Indian religion, and in dance and drama, p. 385),
and maithuna (sexual intercourse). The rites concluded with the worship
of the five elements, to which the five Ms mysteriously corresponded.
Among some Tantric groups the last of the five Ms involved promiscuous
copulation, while the members
of others brought their wives to the circle. With yet other groups
those rites which were reprehensible to orthodoxy were performed only symbolically.
The remarkable "black mass" of the Tantric sects, whether in Buddhism or
Hinduism, became very popular in Eastern India in the late medieval period.
It is still sometimes practiced, but quite without publicity, and it is
probably that with the growth of puritanism and rationalism, the number
of Tantric groups in India is now very small indeed.