The leading misconception about Tantra among non-occultists is that it is all about having explosive sex. But that’s not what I’m writing about, today. The leading misconception about Tantra among occultists is that it is “Left-Hand” means the same thing among Eastern practices as Western. In other words, Tantric practices among Saivas and Saktas are often equated with satanism. There are a lot of problems with this interpretation, almost entirely based in the very different approaches to the broad notion of religion.
At its worst, satanism is a sincere worship or veneration of some notion of embodied evil. I shouldn’t have to go into much detail concerning how silly this is, but it may at least be helpful to point out the fact that Dharmic traditions do not generally even consider evil to be an absolute or archetype. To worship it, then, would not occur to them in the first place. Asuras and other “demonic” entities do make appearances in Dharma, but they’re nothing more than souls living out very different sorts of lives than ourselves. If they are evil, they are evil because of their thoughts and actions, not because of some immutable moral essence.
At best, satanism is an intentional mythologizing of selfish instinctual urges. These satanists — often, though not always, associated with or inspired by Anton LaVey’s “Church of Satan” — interpret Satan and the various other devils and demons of Abrahamic mythology to be personified symbols of their own egos and desires, the various rituals and ceremonies built up around them merely costumed metaphors. A friend of mine once described this form of satanism as “Ayn Rand in a robe” and, as far as sharp summations go, I could do no better.
Both of these “satanisms”, and the gradients between them, are basically nothing more than adolescent rebellions against the norms of the prevailing societies in which they occur. When a person’s notions of religion are based more or less in the Abrahamic traditions, and that person feels constrained and in need of a thorough break from those traditions, their options tend to be just as limited by the surrounding religious environment. Rebellion against the Judeo-Christian God is as simple as inverting the Judeo-Christian script, but that script is still binding!
Those tantriks who take to the especial worship of Kali — by no means the only option, but certainly the one best known of in the West — are not worshiping a demon, do they see themselves as making a pact with the devil, nor as merely turning Vedic Brahmanism on its head. They are practicing a tradition sufficient to itself, without needing reference to an adversary. More, they don’t necessarily believe themselves to be opposed to other sects and approaches. There is no denial of a God of Light; in fact, Saktas tend to see themselves as taking the most congenial route to the Light by way of the comfortable darkness of the merciful and loving Divine Mother. While many “orthodox” Christians might call this satanic, that only points to the paucity of interpretive frameworks they have to draw from and not to any accuracy in the judgment.
Another Tantric tradition often equated with satanism, usually by occultists who think this isn’t a bad thing to be equated to, are the Aghoris. These are a sect of wandering Saiva ascetics who, in an effort to become supremely detached to the ephemera of this world, occasionally perform such acts as meditation atop the greasy ashes left after funeral pyres, using human skulls as begging bowls or even objects of worship, seemingly severe acts of self-abnegation, and so forth. The apparently dark and unkempt visages of the Aghoris and their macabre ritual tools seem to be sufficient for most occultists to brand them as Left-Hand in a similar vein as satanism.
This brings us to the central problem: semantics. Both Dharmic and Western traditions make use of the terms “Right-Hand” and “Left-Hand”, more or less. (The Sanskrit term vama, sometimes used similarly to our “sinister” to mean both left-handed and untrustworthy or wicked, can also mean beautiful, agreeable, refractory, and a number of other nuanced meanings, so using it interchangeably is not always the wisest translation.) The Western traditions, however, do not seem to have a clear or consistent definition of the terms. I have seen the dichotomy put in any number of ways, from the relative position of their focus on the kabbalistic Tree of Life, to the simple “good versus evil”, to the partisan claims that one side is more “free” or more “legalistic” than the other. In Dharma, the definitions are much more, frankly, defined and technical.
In the first place, Tantra itself is not all “Left-Hand”; there are Right-Hand forms of Tantra, and it might sound odd to say so, but some of the most extreme forms of Saiva Tantra which look so sinister to Western eyes, with naked wandering ascetics covered in funereal ash and carrying tridents, lean more toward Right-Hand practice than Left-Hand. The big difference between the two is how they put “the five Ms” into practice. The five Ms are: madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched grain), and maithuna (sex). These are all strictly limited or entirely forbidden to Hindus of the Brahmin varna and, thus, to temple priests and monks; they take on special significance in Tantra not because Tantra seeks merely to annoy and undermine Brahmins, but because Tantra practitioners seek to transcend the categories of “clean” and “unclean”. “Aghori”, the sect mentioned previously, takes its name from “aghora”, meaning “not terrible” or “not repulsive”. An Aghori, then, is “one who is not repulsed” by anything.
Among Tantrics, these five substances have become symbolic of various processes of Yoga, thus:
- wine becomes intoxicating knowledge;
- meat becomes the control of speech (and, by extension, thought);
- fish becomes the pranic channels of Ida and Pingala;
- parched grain becomes concentration and meditation;
- and sex becomes samadhi, or total absorption.
The major distinction, then, between the Right-Hand and Left-Hand forms of Tantra is precisely how these symbols are enacted. In Right-Hand Tantra, they are purely symbolic, with the terms used almost as poetic glosses in descriptions of practical methods of Yoga, while in Left-Hand Tantra, they are used quite literally, albeit as ritual sacraments. Neither one is necessarily right or wrong; they are just different modes of accessing the same states. In neither case are they mere excuses for license, as is generally found among Western “Left-Hand” groups. And, to add to the subtlety of Dharmic understanding, it is somewhat rare for an individual practitioner to take an all-or-nothing approach to the five Ms; instead, any given practitioner might, for instance, abstain from the literal consumption of intoxicants and red meat, but may eat fish, parched grains, and forgo celibacy. The practitioner’s lineage of initiation is a factor, here, as is that practitioner’s own practice and sense of right action.
That last concept of “right action” cannot be left dangling. Some modern practitioners of Tantra have adopted something like the Rabelaisian “Do what thou wilt” as their prime ethical dictum, just as have Western followers of Aleister Crowley’s religion of Thelema, who are also often called “Left-Hand”. In genuine Tantra, however, the “thou” is interpreted more as “Thou”; so “Do what Thou wilt” becomes more an invocation than a dispensation for license. Perhaps if Crowley had understood it thus, he would not have beaten every wife and lover he had and died a penniless heroin addict.
So in Tantra, unlike in satanism and Western Left-Hand occultism, morality grows from devotion rather than rationalizing what we already want to do, which brings Tantra — of either dextral orientation — into a stronger resemblance to the teachings of Jesus Christ than of Crowley or LaVey. Those who wish to claim that “all paths lead to the same destination” are ignoring, intentionally or not, the fact that not all tools are equally efficient, and not all “solutions” are intended to address the same “problems”. Equally, similar terms from different contexts are not necessarily cognate.