Encounters with the Terrible

The first Zurich International Conference on Indian Literature and Philosophy (ZICILP) took place on February 19–20, 2016 at University of Zurich as a collaboration of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies – Indian Studies and the URPP Asia and Europe. Organized by Angelika Malinar and Olga Serbaeva, it had the title “Transgression and Encounters with the Terrible in Buddhist and Śaiva Tantras.”

Olga Serbaeva Saraogi

The conference had the following aims: 1. to discover what subjects are related to horror and transgression in Buddhist and the Śaiva tantras; 2. to find out how they were interpreted from within the traditions as well as from outside; and finally, 3. to explore different levels at which Buddhist and Śaiva tantras are interconnected. The conference consisted of two independent parts. On the first day, the presentations were held, whereas on the second day, the workshop on the technicalities of the edition of the tantric texts took place. This conference attracted a number of world-famous specialists in Buddhist and Śaiva tantras, from all over the world.

Transgressing the split between Śaivism and Buddhism

The keynote speaker, Harunaga Isaacson (University of Hamburg), presented a paper on aspects of interaction between Śaiva and Buddhist tantric traditions, outlining the essential similarity in the general ritual structures that include mantras, mudrās, fire-offerings and maṇḍala. Isaacson also addressed the most transgressive ritual practices, namely, the practice of selling human flesh (mahāmāṃsavikraya), or making the dead body raise for various magical needs (vetālasādhana). This is, however, a transgression of the rules of generally accepted human behaviour, and especially of the Vedic injunctions concerning purity. Another aspect, evoked by Isaacson, is the transgression of, so to say, one’s own religious identity by a Buddhist practitioner, who pretends to be a Śaiva in order to obtain a girl for sexual practice. The fascinating passage presented by Isaacson belongs to the Buddhist text called the Guhyasiddhi.

Péter-Dániel Szántó (Oxford University), presented the recently (re-)discovered tantric manuscripts of the Cakrasamvara corpus with some of their most important parallels, including the Sarvabuddhasamāyogaḍākinījālasaṃvara, the Buddhist text which is probably the closest to the root text of the yoginī-related tantras on both Buddhist and Śaiva sides. It is possible that this manuscript provides the ancient variants of transgressive yoginī-related practices reflected in later texts. The importance of this discovery can hardly be overestimated, and the edition of the text is eagerly awaited.

The idea and symbolism of horror

David Gray (Santa Clara University) presented a paper on the idea of horror in the Buddhist tantras, with the cremation ground being the most prominent symbol of it. It is the playground of the terrifying witches (i.e. ḍākinīs), and Gray discussed the encounters with them as described in the belles-lettres, tantras, and hagiographical literature. One of the most interesting aspects brought in by Gray is the opposition and interplay of fear and laughter in the practice. The interpretation of the horror passages in the tantric literature is complicated by the fact that there is almost always a possibility of the internal, esoteric interpretation, bringing all those terrifying encounters with the ḍākinīs from outside within the subtle body of the practitioner.

Tsunehiko Sugiki (Kaichi International University) centered his presentation mainly on the technical aspects of mantras and maṇḍalas in the Cakrasamvara tradition. It is typical for the tantric deities to trample upon the deities of the opponent current, and in the description on the Heruka maṇḍala in its form restored by Sugiki, we effectively find Heruka standing upon Bhairava and Kālarātrī, as clearly representing the existing at the same time Śaiva tantric traditions. The maṇḍala itself is filled with the terrifying armed deities, holding human skulls, and skins of non-Buddhist gods. However, some of those deities are given a more esoteric interpretation: They impersonate the qualities of Buddhist teaching, regardless of their iconographic aspects.

Jung-Lan Bang (Hamburg University) presented her research on the question of death in Śaiva and Buddhist tantras. Bang demonstrated a well-build table of the time as running internally in the practitioner, in her main source text of the Tantrasadbhāvatantra. She listed and compared the signs of approaching death that, on the one hand, are the physical changes on the body and, on the other hand, are subtle signs, such as bindus or “shadow” that are only perceivable in specially provoked states of consciousness. The main aspect of transgression here lies in the fact that in the tantric texts the procedure of conquering death is literally called “cheating death.” The ways to cheat time and thus death include śānti- or pacifying rituals, addressing the deities of long life or related to “nectar” (Amṛteśvara, etc.). As one, rather definite option, a yogic suicide (utkrānti) is prescribed.

Kinds and functions of yoginīs

Somdev Vasudeva (Kyoto University) selected as his subject the disease provoking yoginīs in the early Śaiva tantras, with particular attention to the Kulasāra. The sequence of these goddesses, namely, vāmeśvarī, khecarī, gocarī, dikcarī and bhūcarī, has been traced by Vasudeva in a variety of texts, from the classification of ketus in the Atharvavedapariśiṣṭa, to the texts of the Krama. Two aspects of transgression are evoked: 1. the destructive actions of the yoginīs provoking disease or even the death of a person unrelated to the tantras; and 2. the transgressions done by the tantric practitioners which specifically punished by the attacks of yoginīs. Besides these two, the Kulasāra makes out of the yoginīs precisely that threshold overstepping of which constitutes transgression.

Judit Törzsök (University of Lille) also worked on the varieties of yoginīs. In her paper she sought to define who the śākinīs are, concluding that they are the most sinister kind of yoginīs. She tentatively called them “bad witches” versus yoginīs, who are “good witches.” Törzsök notes their particular importance in the haṭhamelaka. In opposition to yoginīs of the higher orders, the śakinīs are considered to be impure and terrifying. Törzsök argued that the ḍākinīs, śākinīs, and other words of similar formation are identical, based on the evidence that it was forbidden for the initiated to pronounce some words and syllables.

External and internal interpretations

Olga Serbaeva (University of Zurich) talked about one of the most emblematic tantric transgressions, namely, ritualised human sacrifice. Among numerous passages prescribing it, there is a set that stands apart, and these passages are all related to the concept of the “seven-times-reborn” victim (saptajanmapaśu), who is recognized with the help of the physical and visionary (dhyāna) signs, and killed at the behest and to the great joy of the yoginīs. The flesh of the seven-times-born is the most powerful magical substance in both śaiva (Tantrasādbhava, Yoginīsaṃcāraprakaraṇa) and Buddhist (Abhidhānottara) tantric texts, and it is either offered to fire or consumed. Starting with a presupposition that for the initiated any non-initiated human is potentially a paśu, i.e. victim, Serbaeva argued that in case of seven-times-born, this is completely subverted to become a means of rectifying the transgression made by the initiated themselves, such as revealing mantras to the non-initiated, or abandoning the practice. That is, the victim in question is not some person duped and killed, but a potentially divine being, a (former) tantric practitioner himself, who needs to undergo multiple rebirths to expiate his original transgression.

Shaman Hatley (University of Massachusetts) spoke about an object that became, like a human skull-bowl, the symbol of recognition of extreme tantric traditions on both Śaiva and Buddhist sides. It is called khaṭvāṅga, and is depicted as a stick with one or more human heads on it. It is carried by tantric deities, but it has many layers of interpretation other than the physical. Hatley evoked the fact that it is probably more often visualized (dhārayet) than physically carried around, and that it can be interpreted, like all other arms the deities hold, as a mudrā or hand-gesture.

Intergration of transgression

Yonghyun Lee (Sungkyunkwan University) presented a paper on the significance of the Kālacakramaṇḍala for Abhayākaragupta’s Vajrāvalī System. In this presentation, Lee principally addressed the following aspects related to transgression: 1. the problem of the incorporation of foreign, non-Buddhist elements within Buddhist tantric tradition; and 2. the question of renovation of the Vajrayāna with the introduction of the Kālacakra doctrine, which can be seen as transgression in relation to all what precedes it. Lee demonstrates how the new elements, brought in by the Kālacakratantra, were interpreted as “skilful means,” one of the purposes of their inclusion would be to attract the heretics to the Buddhist doctrine. Lee’s work is a very good example of how an interpretation by a single person, namely Abhayākaragupta, of the heterogeneous elements can largely reshape a whole tradition.

Trangressing borders

Andrea Acri’s (Nalanda University and ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute) presentation went beyond the conference’s pre-defined Indian borders. He discussed the adaptation of the Bhairava cult in South-East Asia, namely in the Javano-Balinese world. Translated into a variety of local contexts, the figure of Bhairava is, on the one hand, barely recognizable, and, on the other hand, still appears to preserve its sinister and transgressive original characteristics.

Elisa Ganser (University of Zurich) presented a paper on how dramatic performance domesticated the Tantric ritual according to medieval dramaturgical sources. Like David Gray, she raised the question of the interconnection between the transgressive and the humorous, but in non-ritual texts. The parody of the transgressive, of performing it while not being the insider of the tradition in question, appears to be a very important question for understanding medieval Indian dramas, which Ganser addressed through Sanskrit and Prakrit sources.

The panel presentations were followed by a general discussion outlining the multiple modalities of the terrible and the transgressive in the variety of medieval Indian sources.

Abhidhānottara workshop

The workshop that followed the discussion was rooted in the project of editing and translating the Abhidhānottaratantra in the frame of “84000.co,” which united some of the conference participants as a team. It was dedicated to the technical aspects of this critical edition of the Sanskrit tantric texts. In that context, Olga Serbaeva presented a paper on parallel passages between the Abhidhānottara and the Śaiva tantras, and David Gray and Harunaga Isaacson demonstrated how to finalize the edition taking the first chapter of the Abhidhānottara as an example. A volume of the conference proceedings is now in preparation.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 16–18)