Its supposed to be terrifying.
Sitting on the Corpse's Chest: The Tantric Ritual of Shava-sadhana
by June McDaniel from Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls
Whereas other regional forms of tantra in India are famed for their real or imagined sexual rituals, the Bengali style of Shakta tantra is perhaps most marked by its emphasis on death. Shava-sadhana, or the ritual practice of sitting on a corpse, is one of its most important rituals. For many practitioners interviewed, it is the single most important ritual in Shakta tantra.
The corpse ritual contains the three strands of Bengali Shaktism: folk, tantric, and bhakti. But it is primarily a tantric ritual, and rarely performed in folk Shaktism or Shakta bhakti. From the folk perspective, the power of the corpse ritual leads to enhancement of life on earth. Challenging death leads to immortality, which is defined as amarta, nondeath, a situation implying long life, wealth, and power. From the yogic or tantric perspective, rituals in the burning ground lead to detachment from the physical world and union with a transcendent ground, as Shiva or Shakti or brahman. There is also a third interpretation for the ritual, which involves the incorporation of the devotional or bhakti perspective. From this angle, the ritual brings a loving relationship with a deity who has a form and personality, and gives salvation by grace. All of these are present in the ritual and literature of the shava-sadhana rite.
In the typical shava-sadhana rite, on a new-moon night (or the eighth or fourteenth day of the moon), the practitioner should go to a burning ground or some other lonely spot (a deserted house, a riverside, under a bilva tree, or on a hill). He (or she) should bring a corpse, young and attractive, low-caste, of a person who died by violence, drowning, or snakebite. The body is washed, and placed on a blanket, deerskin or tiger skin. The practitioner should worship it, and then sit on the corpse and contemplate the god or goddess. He or she will experience fearful images and sounds, as well as temptations, but he must remain emotionally detached-or else he may go insane. If he is successful, he may gain the power to use a mantra (mantrasiddhi), or become one with Shiva using the corpse as a mediator, or have a vision of the goddess. In the visionary case, she may appear to possess the corpse, or appear before the practitioner as a beautiful woman, a little girl, or a great goddess in the sky.
The origin of the corpse ritual is unknown. Shaivite Kapalikas and Kalamukhas early on made use of skulls and bones, and folk religion throughout India has used ritual sacrifices, including at times human sacrifices, to propitiate the gods and to make the ground fertile."' Kapalika practitioners worshiped the god Bhairava Shiva, and traditionally wore ashes from burned corpses as well as skull necklaces. The Kapalika carried a skull (kapala) that was used as an eating bowl, and wore a loincloth and animal skins. The word kapalin (skull-bearer) occurs in a third-century CE sutra (the Yajnavalkya-smriti 3.243), and Kapalikas are mentioned by name in texts from the ninth century CE onward."' They were known for their austerities and tantric practices. In Ramacandra's Kaumudimitrananda, a Kapalika offers oblations of human intestines into a ritual fire and revives a corpse (who then strikes the Kapalika).'' In Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara (written between Io63 and io8i CE), a Kapalika worships a corpse within a ritual circle or mandala, to gain power over a woman with whom he had fallen in love. Also in this text, a Kapalika brought a woman back to life while she was already on a blazing funeral pyre, and took her back to his cave by using his magical powers. Her husband followed, and threw the Kapalika's magical khatvanga staff into the Ganges. Somadeva comments, "Thus heretics, who make a mockery of the Shivagamas for the pleasure of evil accomplishments, fall [into ruin], as they had already fallen [into sin]."is
Narendranath Bhattacarya writes that this practice involves murder, for the tantrika gets a young chandala boy drunk and kills him, and uses him as the corpse in the ritual. Bhattacarya calls the practice "a typical and clumsy overgrowth of the primitive beliefs and rituals connected with fertility, death and revival."I ", I should note, however, that tantrikas with whom I have spoken say that the goddess must choose the corpse-indeed, finding the right corpse is proof that it is time to perform the ritual. To kill a person in order to create your own corpse would be to take over the goddess's responsibilities, and would displease her (and pleasing the goddess is the point of the ritual). Sadhakas with whom I spoke at the Shakta site of Tarapith reclined on piles of skulls and bones to address their devotees, and some of these bones had been used in ritual practices.
The use of corpses in ritual has also been associated with possession trance and asceticism. In the old Bengali gambhira rites (these forms are rarely seen today) there was a corpse dance, and the corpse was "awakened" life was instilled, without visible signs. The corpse was purified by mantras, and placed in a pool or tied to high branches of a tree. A hadi or low-caste scavenger would then decorate it with wreaths and vermilion, and tie a cord around its waist. The presence of the corpse inspired the god Shiva to possess his devotees, and they would become strong with Shiva's own endurance and capable of withstanding various austerities: needles and nails driven into the body, through the tongue, and into the sides with cloths hanging that are dipped in ghee and then lit on fire. There was also possession by ghosts (bhutas and pretas) or by the goddess Mashan Chamunda Kali, and the participants would sing songs to avert evil."' The possession of the corpse appeared to have acted as the trigger or inspiration for these other forms of possession.
The corpse ritual is usually associated with magic and power in the world by writers, and its religious dimensions are neglected. Even in Mircea Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion, Andre Padoux writes that, "Another `secret' worship is done with a corpse. It is used to achieve particular goals, usually evil."", From this perspective, the shavavada or way of the corpse is understood as a ritual of black magic. Its practice is nilasadhana, here translated more as the dark practice rather than the ritual of Shiva. It may also be understood as fertility magic, whereby death brings life. The magical view of the practice is often seen in folklore. In a typical description from Folktales of Hindustan, King Vikramaditya encounters an evil exminister:
He found the yogi seated in the midst of the fire, and before him lay a ghastly corpse. The dead body lay flat on its back, and a person, in whom the Raja recognised one of his discharged and discontented ministers, was sitting on the chest of the dead body. He was repeating some mantras, and now and then putting a flower immersed in red sandal paste, with leaves of bel and incense, into the mouth of the dead body. The terrible ceremony of raising the corpse was being gone through, and after an hour or so the ex-minister exclaimed, "Speak, 0 son, speak." Then Vikram saw to his terror the lips of the dead body move, but heard no sound. Again the ex-minister cried out: "Speak, 0 son, speak. Thee, 0 my beloved son, have I sacri ficed to mother Kali, in order to wreak vengeance on the ungrateful Raja. Speak, 0 son, speak." ... Again, the cruel father and exminister cried out for the third time, but without success. "'
As Jonathan Parry has pointed out, the corpse is viewed as polluting and dangerous, but also as an object of great purity, even a deity.12O It is the auspicious sacrifice, said to be Shiva himself, and an extreme of both impurity and sanctity. Parry describes the shava-sadhana ritual as it is performed by the Shaivite Aghoris of Varanasi:
According to the descriptions I was given, the corpse is held fast during the sava-sadhana by a silken thread, which binds its wrist or ankle to a stake in the ground. It is then surrounded by a protective circle, within which the evil spirits of the cremation ground cannot penetrate, and outside of which are placed meat and liquor for them to consume. These spirits will try to engage the adept in a dialogue which he must at all costs resist. Provided that he is sufficiently resolute, they will eventually tire and accept the offerings he has left for them. This is a sign that his austerities will be rewarded. The corpse's mouth will relax, allowing the Aghori to feed it a tiny quantity of khrr [rice pudding]. He will subsequently decapitate it in order to acquire the skull, or cut a bone from the spine, and finally immerse its remains in the river. This is followed by a period of severe ascetic restraint which completes his mastery over the deceased's spirit. The ojha, who is a specialist in the control over the malevolent dead, is also said to perform sava-sadhana for similar ends. But while the Aghori sits on the corpse's chest, the ojha sits on the stomach.' 2'
According to this description, no religious transformations take place in the Aghori-he merely wishes to gain a skull, and control over a spirit, through whom he may communicate with other spirits.122 Shava-sadhana here is a magical process in which evil spirits try to penetrate the protective circle, and the practitioner conquers by ignoring them. Eventually, by gaining the skull and performing austerities, he also conquers the soul of the deceased. 121
In West Bengal, there are practitioners known as pishacha tantrikas, tantrikas who have gained power over pishachas or demonic creatures. Such power is often believed to be gained by practices at the burning ground. They are exorcists, and do a good business in protective amulets and intrafamilial revenge. One such tantrika interviewed in Calcutta had a back room full of dusty, grey-brown human skulls and bones, and I was told by informants that these objects had the most power (shakti) of anything in his supply. He had on the wall a picture of a skeleton sitting in meditation upon a corpse, with a red mandala of Kundalini at the navel area. In this image, the corpse was symbolic of the physical body, left behind during meditation.
These approaches to shava-sadhana are heavily magical, and do not appear to have a traditionally religious end in sight, such as proximity to a god or entrance into a state of liberation or brahman. However, there are other forms of this rite that are understood to be religious practices.
The corpse ritual is part of the tantric path known as vamachara (the way of the left or reverse practice) or kulachara (the way of a family group or religious lineage). The goal is loosening the person from the bonds of samsarahe or she is no longer attached, neither hates nor fears, is ashamed of nothing, and has gone beyond all traditional notions of good and evil. Such a person is in the state of divyabhava, beyond purity and impurity. It is a radical breaking of attachment, with both the world of samsara and traditional morality.
The Shaivite tantrika, who follows the yogic approach, seeks total concentration and conquest of fear, and worships the gods all around him and in the corpse. When the god dwells in his body for the fifteen years following the ritual, his own body is understood to be the body of Shiva, thus sanctified and treated as ritually pure. As David Kinsley writes, "Surrounded by death in the place of death, those aspects of reality that end in the fires of the cremation ground become distasteful ... attachment to the world and the ego is cut, and union with Shiva, the conqueror of death, is sought."124
From the yogic perspective, the goal is to sit on the corpse and gain detachment from the fear of death and spiritual discernment, recognizing both world and self as finite, and even dead in comparison to the realm of brahman. This recognition should cause repulsion toward the physical world, and attraction toward infinity as Shiva or brahman or infinite consciousness. The tantric dimension can also include theistic elements and interpretation.
The devotional approach to the corpse ritual interprets the practice to be a sign of true love, and evidence of one's passion and dedication to the goddess. Indeed, the goddess is herself often seated on a corpse in her iconography. Shiva without Shakti is said to be a corpse, and the goddess (often in the form of Kali) may stand over him or sit upon him. The practitioner meditates upon Shakti in the heart lotus, wearing the dead bodies of two boys as earrings, with a belt made of dead men's hands, sitting upon the (spirits) (pretas) of Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Ishvara, and Sadashiva. They are dead, because they cannot act without her power. 12, She is naked, and surrounded by jackals. In her form as Ucchishtachandalini, she is wearing a red sari and ornaments, carrying a skull and a sword, and is sitting on a corpse. She is worshiped when the practitioner is in an impure state, with impure objects.
Ideally, the corpse ritual brings about a vision of the goddess. As Woodroffe notes:
In successful Savasana the Devi, it is said, appears to the Sadhaka. In Sava-sadhana the Sadhaka sits astride on the back of a corpse (heading [toward] the north), on which he draws a Yantra and then does Japa.... The Devata materializes by means of the corpse. There is possession of it (Avesa)-that is, entry of the Devata into the dead body. At the conclusion of a successful rite, it is said, that the head of the corpse turns round, and, facing the Sadhaka, speaks, bidding him name his boon, which may be spiritual or worldly advancement as he wishes. This is part of the Nila Sadhana done by the "Hero" (Vira), for it and Savasana are attended by many ter- rors.'27
The devotee sits upon the corpse to call down the goddess, who saves him when he is threatened by demons or ghosts. As the Tantra Tattva phrases it, "If her son is in trouble, Ma runs down from her golden throne on Mt. Kailasa, without staying even to arrange her dress, and extends her ten fear-dispelling arms in ten directions, crying 'fear not.' "12 The Mother's compassion toward her children is a well-known theme in Bengali song and story. The poet Dasarathi Ray states of the goddess as Jagadamba:
Here the tantrika is the child of the deity, overwhelmed by fear and love, who seeks to dwell in the lap of the goddess. This is the bhakti surrender of the devotee, who passes the ocean of birth and death to dwell in eternity with his goddess. The ritual of shava-sadhana is a powerful way to call down the goddess, for her power (shakti) is understood to dwell most strongly in corpses, burning grounds, jackals, and natural sites."" In this ritual, the corpse itself becomes the body of the deity, and the practitioner also becomes ritually sanctified. The goddess is often worshiped in other bodies, where the power of the mantra (mantra-shakti) reveals her true form. She may be worshiped as Kumari in the bodies of young virgins, as Uma in jackals, as Mother of Siddhis within the brahmani bird or kite."' She may enter the corpse itself, and speak through its mouth, or she may appear in a vision. The goddess descends as a savioress in the midst of fear, as Bhattacarya explains:
When all earthly means fail ... when in that terrible and pitiless great cremation ground, where horrors do a frantic dance, there is, despite the presence of the all-good Mother, nothing in all the infinite world which for our safety we can call our own; in that deep darkness of a new-moon night, haunted with destructive Bhairavas, Vetalas, Siddhas, Bhutas, Vatukas, and Dakinis ... when the firm and heroic heart of even the great Vira shakes with fear; when even the intricate bonds of the Sadhaka's posture on the back of the corpse which is awakened by Mantra is loosened; when with a faning (sic) heart the Vira feels as he sits the earth quake furiously under him; when without means of rescue he is about to fall and be crushed; when he is overtaken by the swoon of death-if even at such times the Sadhaka but ... extends his uplifted hands, saying, "Save me, I pray thee, 0 Gurudeva!" then the Mother of the world, who is Herself the Guru, at once forgets all his faults, dispels all his difficulties with Her glance, and stretching forth ten hands instead of two, says: "Come, my child, there is no more fear," and blesses the Sadhaka by raising him to Her assuring bosom."'
Here danger is deliberately sought, so that the Mother goddess must come down and rescue the devotee.
One of the earliest stories of the Shakta form of the corpse ritual is the story of Sarvananda of Mehar. This story was told to me by several informants in Calcutta, and seems to be an important origin story for Bengali tantrikas. Sarvananda was believed to have lived in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, and to have attained siddhi by means of this ritual on new-moon night.
The story of Sarvananda begins with his grandfather, Vasudeva Bhattacharya, of Tipperah, in what is now West Bengal. He was a devoted Shakta, who went to Kamakhya in Assam to practice tantric worship of the goddess (shakti sadhana). He heard a voice say that he would attain liberation in his next life, when he would be reborn as his own grandson. He gave to his servant Purnananda an engraved piece of copper with his mantra (or according to some sources, a yantra), for worshiping the goddess.
Later Sarvananda, the grandson, was also attended by Purnananda, now an old man. The boy was uneducated, and both neighbors and family jeered at his lack of intelligence. While wandering about depressed he was initiated by a passing sannyasi, who told him to perform ritual practice with Purnananda. Purnananda told him about the most powerful form of practice, the corpse ritual.
Sarvananda and Purnananda assembled all the ritual implements, and only needed a recently dead corpse to serve as the seat of the tantric practitioner. Purnananda volunteered for this so that he might be blessed for his sacrifice, and Sarvananda agreed. Purnananda strangled himself, warning Sarvananda that he should be neither tempted nor afraid, and only ask for the vision of the Mother.
Sarvananda sat on the corpse of Purnananda; he saw horrible ghosts, terrible storms, beautiful heavenly dancers, and finally the vision of the Mother. He remained detached throughout. The goddess blessed him and revived Purnananda, and Sarvananda became a siddha purusha, a liberated person. The dark, new-moon night was miraculously transformed into a shining full-moon night. He also gained the power of vak siddhi, so that all of his statements became true. He was the first tantrika to see the goddess in all of her ten major forms in one night (the dasha mahavidya).I33
Thus the corpse ritual evoked the goddess, who blessed Sarvananda with wisdom, and combined folk, yogic, and devotional goals (some of the most powerful Shakta stories combine these strands). His practice came by inspiration, but over time the ritual became suggested and even required, with a threat of hell for its nonperformance. As the Kali Tantra says of the practitioner:
12. He who worships [the goddess] Parvati without the corpse ritual will live a terrible life in Naraka [a hell-world] until the great destruction at the end of the world. "'
Another famous practitioner of the corpse ritual was the eighteenthcentury Shakta poet Ramprasad Sen. He performed this ritual on a funeral pyre using a mala or rosary made of human bone. He also performed it under a bilva tree, on a seat made of the skulls of five animals, including humans (panchamunda asana). He too was blessed by a vision of the goddess.
According to Shakta folklore, it is the devotion of the practitioner that brings the goddess down to him. He is so loving that he is willing to risk the dangers of the burning ground, its ghosts and demons and jackals, to bring the goddess to him. She may enter his heart, or she may enter the corpse when it becomes a dwelling place (murti) for the goddess. Its head is said to turn around, and begin speaking affectionately (or sometimes terrifyingly) to the devotee. When the devotee asks for a boon, the goddess cannot refuse.
To bring the goddess Shakti into the corpse is also to bring life and power (shakti) into it, as Shakti is said to enliven Shiva. Some tantrikas compare the devotee's own body to a corpse, saying that the goddess must enter into the heart to enliven it. Others say that the practitioner himself becomes both the goddess and the corpse, realizing in him or herself both the divine spirit and the physical body.
In this practice, the corpse plays several roles. It may act as a ritual instrument, more an object than a subject (the individual soul of the dead person is of little or no interest here). From the folk perspective, the corpse is a magical battery-it stores energy (shakti). This is why its topknot of hair is tied: to hold the energy in during the ritual, and release it at the end (immersing the corpse in water serves this same function). From the yogic and tantric perspective, it is a warning; it motivates detachment from the physical world, destroys the fear of death, and brings union with the deity. From the devotional perspective, it may be a vessel or icon, into which the goddess descends for a temporary dwelling, or a favorite object of hers, which attracts her blessing.
Why should a corpse be capable of being possessed by a god or goddess? Normally this state is reserved for living renunciants, professional oracles, and devotees. However, in this case, the corpse is not really dead.
In Indian tradition, there are two understandings of the moment of death. One is the moment of physical death. The other is the time of cremation, and more specifically the kapala kriya-the ritual midway through the cremation, when the chief mourner cracks open the skull of the burnt corpse with a staff, to release the prana or vital breath. There is thus a distinction between physical death of the body and ritual death of the soul. Death impurity begins at the release of the prang, and the shraddha rite of commemoration is performed on the anniversary of the burning of the body, not of the death., 16 Before the time of ritual death, the corpse is in a liminal state, neither fully dead nor alive, and thus an appropriate home for a deity who may exist on earth and in his or her heaven.
Despite the presence of deities, the religious elements shown in the corpse ritual (union with the god, devotion to the goddess) have not been emphasized by the few writers to discuss this ritual. Why? There are several possible reasons. The magical dimension has been sensationalized in the memoirs and exposes by writers in India, and associated with the criminal and perverse. Westerners, especially missionaries and Victorians, were repulsed by the whole tantric dimension and saw it as evil and demonic. In India, the corpse is associated by brahmanical Hinduism with impurity, the opposite of religion, and such impurity is threatening and perverse. Tantrikas respond with the desire to keep advanced rituals secret, and ignore the accusations or call their calumniators "spiritually primitive," like animals (pashus). For these reasons, and perhaps others, both tantrics and their opponents tend to suppress the religious dimensions of the ritual.
The goals for these variants of the corpse ritual are both religious and magical. From a folk perspective, the practitioner magically gains long life and power. The corpse is the personification of death, a challenge to conquer and later control. From the tantric approach, the corpse is used to facilitate detachment and identification with the deity-for Shiva, the god, is in many ways identical with shava, the corpse. Immortality is divine identity with a god and earthly identity as an avadhuta, one who has completely destroyed the passions, and the body of the practitioner becomes the body of Shiva. This destruction of attachment is echoed in the corpse as the destruction of life. For the devotional approach, the goal is intense love of the goddess, the enlivening of the passions, echoed in the corpse which comes to life under the benevolent gaze of the Mother, who gives her blessings to the devotee.
All of these understandings of the corpse ritual are followed by different tantric groups. Shava-sadhana is a central tantric ritual in West Bengal, and as such, it defines what it means to be a Bengali tantrika. It unites the folk, devotional, and yogic aspects of the tradition, and thus connects the tantric practice to the larger Shakta tradition.
Edited by RongzomFan, 18 December 2013 - 08:55 AM.
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