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The Role of Yoga in Bengali Shaktism

by June McDaniel February, 2016


Tara, who is considered to be an emanation or mahavidya form of Kali in Bengal. Photo courtesy of June McDaniel


In the bhakti traditions of West Bengal, yogic ritual has been used to create a wide variety of habits of emotion, thought and behavior. While bhakti is often associated with spontaneous love, there are various yogic disciplines which have been developed to modulate the emotional extremes of bhakti devotion.

The love of deities may be passionate or obedient, wide-ranging or focused, ordered or wild. As Friedhelm Hardy has shown, there is intellectual bhakti which emphasizes loyalty and obedience, and there is ecstatic, emotional bhakti which is overwhelming and intoxicating. [1] Such states may come to the person spontaneously, or be a result of disciplined practice. Bhakti and yoga are often opposed in Indian thought- one emphasizes the emotions, the other suppresses them. According to one popular perspective, bhakti focuses upon the heart, while yoga works on the mind and body. But if we examine the bhakti traditions of West Bengal, yogic ritual holds an important place. However, the role of yogic rituals differs in the various forms of bhakti.

In Bengali Shaktism, yogic ritual tends to have different emphases for those bhaktas and gurus who define themselves as spontaneous or “called” devotees of the goddess, and for those bhaktas who also identify themselves as yogis or tantrikas (or who perform tantric styles of ritual). For those devotees who entered the tradition due to spontaneous visionary experiences (darsana), dream commands and prophetic calls, yoga acts to limit religious experience to appropriate times and places. It brings the habit of denial, and ways to control religious passion. For those who entered the tradition in order to find the goddess and gain her love, it brings the habit of remembering her.

Many Shakta practitioners report dreams, visions, trances and feelings of love that drew them to the goddess, and yoga practice which was learned later, which allowed them to discipline and control the experiences. Shakta bhakti is a largely charismatic tradition, where leadership is determined by a person’s experiences and expressed relationship to the deity. While some Shakta texts emphasize the importance of having a guru, [2] in practice many Shaktas have never had a physical guru or undergone diksa (initiation), and they rise to religious status outside of any institutional framework. Instructions for yogic practice often come directly in dreams and trances, and are understood as a gift from the goddess.

In this type of modern Shaktism, spontaneous bhakti leads the person to the heavens, but yoga brings him or her back to earth. Erratic visions and trance states can make observers uncomfortable, while trances that only occur at specific times (such as within ritual contexts on Tuesdays and Saturdays) allow observers to interact more normally in the social environment. A major function of yogic ritual is to make the ecstatic fit for dharmic interaction, and also to allow the devotee to explore the paths of knowledge given as a gift by the goddess out of love. Many Shakta practitioners reported in interview that they derived their yogic practices from dreams and spontaneous insights.

For Shakta bhaktas who are also tantrikas, yogic ritual tends to bring supernatural skills which may be applied to pragmatic ends, as well as a future life in the lap of the goddess. Yogic ritual brings the habit of spiritual exploration, which may be learned from religious texts and from other practitioners. Some tantrikas learn yoga from traditional gurus, some from texts found in libraries or at Shakta sacred places (pithas), others learn from tribal ojhas and gunins. The goals of Shakta religiosity can be found in folklore and in Shakta hagiographies, in sacred texts and poetry. Yogic ritual brings both limitation and expansion of experience.

Thus we have several basic relationships between bhakti traditions and yogic ritual. Yoga may be a way of limiting religious experience, and also of generating it. It may be a lineage practice to find the deity, and also a gift of knowledge from the deity who has appeared spontaneously. It may show authenticity, with the person being willing to act on his or her beliefs, and also heresy, violating the god’s will for human action. While the popular understanding of yoga is disciplined meditation leading to liberation or moksa, this is rarely found in the Bengali yogic traditions. Yogic practice in West Bengal is heavily involved with both tantra and bhakti. It is largely theistic and eclectic, and incorporates many folk traditions.

We shall examine these traditions in greater detail. The data for this paper comes from practitioners of these traditions interviewed in several areas of West Bengal, including Kolkata, Siuri, Navadvipa, Bolpur, Bakreshwar, and Jayadev-Kenduli.[3]

Sri Yantra

Kali of Thuggee was said to be worshipped by the Thugs in Calcutta, photo courtesy of June McDaniel

Bengali Shaktism

Bengali Shaktas interviewed who were described by their followers as siddha gurus frequently spoke of early spontaneous ecstatic experiences that they could not explain to others. The practice of yoga allowed them to limit and control these experiences, and it gave them something to teach disciples. It also gave them a descriptive language, and a cosmology on which they could map ecstatic events.

The most popular definition for a guru in West Bengal is someone who does sadhana (especially yoga sadhana) and has disciples. You don’t need many disciples to be a guru- even one disciple will define a guru. But you do need some way to limit erratic behavior. Even the Bengali “mad saints” (pagal siddhas) whose sanity was questioned usually had some sort of yogic practice to claim for gravitas. And siddhas who had no guru or yogic training themselves often claimed divine yogic teaching in dreams or visions. Within Shaktism, yoga confirms religious identity, especially defining the status of guru. The guru was someone who could control trances and ecstatic states, rather than having them occur spontaneously, and this skill was accomplished through yogic practice. It makes the devotee into a guru in Shaktism, allowing memory and understanding of the goddess’ presence and words.

In popular Shakta bhakti, we see both possession by the goddess and a conscious awareness of union with the goddess. The state of possession was generally called bhar, while the conscious communication with or merger with the deity was called bhava. There might be a subjective sense ofbhava, a state of individual religious passion or insight, or it could become a “wave of bhava” which could suddenly fill a village. Bhavacan be understood as both an individual and a shared state.

Bhar is a state that tends to be gendered - in West Bengal women are generally possessed by goddesses, and men are generally possessed by gods. It is more frequent among women, when the goddess Kali calls a woman to serve her, and she obeys. Kali initially comes erratically in dreams and visions, but later adapts to ritual practice, and comes during the weekly sessions of prayer and chanting in temples, houses, and clearings in the jungle. Initially Kali comes when she wishes, but yogic practice creates an agreement, and afterwards Kali comes when she is invoked. Male possession is relatively rare, and usually occurs during rituals of endurance or tapas, when Shiva’s presence allows the male practitioner to stand hunger and pain. The state of bhava is less gendered, and many male devotees have described relationships in which Kali shared both awareness and love.

kali blue

Blue Kali, photo courtesy of June McDaniel

In possession trance, the person who is in the state of bhar loses individual consciousness, and it is understood to be the deity who speaks and acts through the person. There is thus no memory of what occurred afterwards- people who had been in possession states could not answer questions about the state, and generally deferred to disciples, fellow ritual practitioners, and family members who had been present. These people would remember what the possessed person had said and done.

Bhar is considered to be an inferior form of religious experience, as the person’s mind is too weak and immature to maintain awareness in the deity’s presence. The state of bhava (devi or deva-bhava) is a superior state, because the person retains both consciousness and memory. This ability is gained through yogic practice. As one informant phrased it, you cannot put 1,000 volts of power through wires that can handle only 100 volts. The human brain and nervous system are like a weak electrical system, they cannot hold divine sakti naturally. It is the function of yogic ritual to strengthen the spirit and the body, so that the person does not faint and display convulsive movements (as often happens during possession trance). Creating a visualized place in the heart for the deity allows the human mind to remain and observe events. Then both deity and person can share the same mind, as they are localized in different spaces (with the self at the periphery watching the deity at the center, or the mind watching the deity who is located inside the heart).

kali heart

The Kali Heart, June McDaniel's own meditative image of Kali

Yogic meditation combined with devotion can channel and control the entrance and exit of the deity. It may result in a reorganization of the personality, in which the deity becomes the true or deeper self, and the devotee becomes the surface self (this may be phrased as the devi becoming the atman, while the individual person identifies with the jiva). People in whom this transformation occurs are often called siddha or perfected, as the deity is constantly present and accessible, eternally living the heart. They do not need a temporary state of bhava, as they have an extended or permanent merger of identity with the deity, and can identify with the deity and speak from the divine perspective without the necessity of ritual.

More generally, the term “bhava” refers to a state, something like the modern term “altered state of consciousness” and it can include a wide variety of ideas and emotions. It is perhaps the closest term in Bengali for the Western phrase “religious experience.” It is used just as ambiguously to refer to a wide variety of feelings and states of mind, and a more superficial bhava or mood can be linked to the deeper states of mahabhava (the great bhava or state) and bhavavesa (possession by bhava, or having a god possess the person’s mind or heart). But the term was used most frequently by my informants to refer to the perception of deities (as an equivalent of darsan or “seeing” a deity), an identification with a deity or spirit (devabhava or devavesa), or simply an emotional state (such as premabhava or bhaktibhava). The Bengali saint Anandamayi Ma gave a good description of the local Bengali understanding of bhava:

When something is boiled in a closed vessel, there comes a stage when the vapor will push up the lid and, unless force is used, the vessel cannot be kept covered any more. In a similar manner, when… a wave of ecstatic emotion surges up from within, it becomes difficult to check it. This ecstatic emotion is called bhava. It emerges from deep within and expresses itself outwardly[4]

Such states may occur spontaneously to individuals, or be channeled by the ritual practices of a traditional lineage. Yogic ritual is putting a lid on it, suppressing the bhava until there is a suitable time for it. Ecstatic people tend to seek gurus who teach them how to fit religious experiences into the culture, but they do not always find them Some Shaktas have been initiated by gurus about whom they knew little, gurus whose gods they do not know, nor do they know where the wandering guru now resides, or whether he or she has ever initiated any other disciples. Some have no gurus at all, and they simply wander because they feel called to do so, with ritual practices revealed by dreams and spontaneous visions[5].

When there is no clear religious affiliation, such ecstatics and visionaries are simply called madmen, pagals, and considered to be impossible for ordinary people to understand. This is also the view of their ecstatic states. When ecstatic states cannot be fit into a known religious pattern, they are often not categorized as religious events by religious traditions, for the scholars cannot recognize them. Nobody knows how to interpret them. Ecstatic states are then called forms of insanity, and the religious visionaries are called fools and madmen. In rural West Bengal, the fools and madmen known as pagals are often admired by villagers, for they may be helpful as well as erratic, and they might also be in touch with gods in some unknown way. If you cannot understand their ecstatic states, you never know.

Some siddhas are given the title of avatar. This word is often used loosely to refer to a powerful siddha (as opposed to its technical definition, which would be the incarnation of a particular god). Some famous Indian holy people who have been called avatars, such as Anandamayi Ma and Meher Baba, did not have religious beliefs that could be clearly fit into any previous Indian religious category. In the case of Anandamayi Ma, her disciples understand her to have been born enlightened, so it was never necessary for her to actually learn about religion, or follow any particular religion, or to perform rituals (yogic or otherwise). Meher Baba (of Iranian descent) had his own theology and cosmology, which did not fit into any existing religion. He declared himself an avatar, and was particularly interested in contacting masts, those people whose religious experiences defied categorization, and were usually understood as madmen.

kali dark

Dark Kali, photo courtesy of June McDaniel

In research which involved studying the lives of over a dozen ecstatic siddhas or saints, several biographical themes emerged. Many had childhood experiences of ecstasy, which were tolerated if parents were themselves ecstatics, but usually ecstatic states were rejected as signs of insanity. Such claims often came to a crisis point, at which time the parents called Ayurvedic healers or local exorcists to cure the children (usually teenagers by this time) of visions. These interventions did not work, and the ecstatics were then forced into marriages, to cure them by immersion in social responsibilities. Some siddhas managed to evade marriage, and went into lives of seclusion or wandering. As they grew into adults, many had visions, trances, and bodily effects of ecstatic states, and they were understood to perform miracles. Siddhas thus came to develop a new religious or social identity, usually after extended ritual practice. Those who decided to join a religious institution would perform public rituals, which would give others a sense of their stability, or they would be declared an avatar by devotees, and found their own religious groups.[6] These people found disciples, and acceptance as gurus, based on both the presence and control of religious experiences.

More tantric Shaktas might make use of ritual handbooks, but did not depend on them. Books are recognized as sacred objects and hold sacred power or sakti, as a sacred place might, but reading a book cannot guarantee religious experiences of sakti. As the Kularnava Tantra has it, one may practice in many ways, but “divine knowledge (kulajnana) emerges of its own accord,” one can only limit and channel it. [7] One needs no instruction, as one does not need instruction to know what one has dreamed. While tantric and yogic manuals gave detailed instructions for particular supernatural powers, more general ideals come from folklore and from tribal traditions.

One major figure of folklore who is often discussed as a great Shakta tantric yogi in West Bengal is Vikramaditya. His story has many variations, from Somadeva Bhatta’s Katha Sarit Sagara to the Vetala Panchavimsati. There were even two television serials on the DD National Channel of Doordarshan (Indian television) portraying him as a superhero.[8] There are many stories about his adventures, and he is a good example of a Shakta bhakta and yogi who figures in many popular stories.[9] There are variations of his story in many areas of India.

According to the South Indian stories of the Old Deccan Days, Vicram Maharajah received his yogic powers, especially the ability to have his soul leave his body and enter the bodies of other beings, from the god Ganapati.[10] However, in the most popular collection of stories known to my Bengali informants, the Thirty Two Throne Tales or Simhasana Dwatrimsika, Raja Vikramaditya received his yogic powers from the goddess Bhadra-Kali, whose temple was on the Ganapati River. He was willing to sacrifice his life for her (usually by attempting to cut off his own head with a sword), and she rewarded him by giving him yogic abilities. The stories show his repeated willingness to give up his life for the goddess in this fashion, and his undergoing a series of deaths and transformations- with each he would gain more yogic powers. [11] Initially, Vikramaditya decided to expand his small kingdom, and chose Bhadra-Kali as his personal deity. He performed dangerous feats to impress her and get her blessing, and she agreed to help him found a kingdom, and gain wealth and fame. He always prayed to the goddess for help on his later adventures, expressing his deep love and devotion, and she gave him knowledge and rescued him from difficulty.

Vikramaditya's stories show the fusion of yoga and Shakta bhakti. Due to his practice of the sava-sadhana ritual, in which a person meditates upon a corpse at the burning ground, Vikramaditya gained a helper. A vetala (usually translated as ghoul or vampire, but actually a corpse that has been reanimated) becomes his servant, and flies him around the world. He gains herbs which can change a person's gender, from male to female and vice versa. He performs the Indian rope trick, gains knowledge of past lives, turns enchanted animals back into humans, and exorcises possessing ghosts and demons. He restores the dead to life numerous times (by the use of Kali's magical ash), and conquers a demon whose life-essence is hidden in an insect in a tortoise in a lake in the heart of a distant mountain. He gains numerous magical objects: a sword which kills anyone and returns to its sheath, a pouch which can provide any gold and jewels, sandals which can take a person anywhere in the blink of an eye, a cane which can give life even to the most mutilated body. He wins numerous beautiful wives (including a heavenly dancer or apsaras) in the process, and gets gifts from yoginis.

The goddess Kali was attracted by his strength and courage, and would give him all that he asked. He could make himself tiny or large, understand the languages of the animals, take on the forms of women and ascetics, fly through the air on his mount (a corpse come back to life), visit the heavens and get involved with beautiful apsarases, and eventually he gained the ability to rule for a thousand years. Because he could project his soul into other bodies, he was often absent from the throne, and his friend and brother Bhatti would take over for him while he was incarnated in other forms.

white kali

A photo of White Kali which was on June McDaniel's 'Offering Flowers' book cover,
quite a rare find, photo courtesy of June McDaniel

He goes through many bodily transformations, again showing powers gained through tantric and yogic practices. At one point, Vikramaditya was trapped in a parrot body by a deceitful friend to whom he had taught the secret of transferring souls from one body to another. With his natural gifts, he became a leader of the parrot community, and went through many adventures to regain his original body. He jumped into boiling ghee to sacrifice his body to feed seven cannibalistic sages, and he shared the flesh of his own old body with them when they gave him a new one. He came to life many times due to Bhadra-Kali's grace, after his head had been chopped off. Sometimes he offers his head, and sometimes his whole body.

As well as being able to return to life after his own death, he was also able to bring several dead cities back to life after their inhabitants had been enchanted. These included the cities of Swarnapuri, cursed by the sage Visvamitra, and Varanasi, cursed by a female sage. One cursed city, Jeevitpur, was described by the seventh statue, during the seven-year period when Vikramaditya was under the dominance of Shani, god of bad luck.[12] During this time, Vikramaditya had to go out and perform a variety of labors for king Mathurendra, involving traversing land saturated with snake poison, risking a poisonous bride (her husbands were killed by a snake that lived inside her), fighting enemies, and braving a well of mercury. During his adventures, he also visited heaven (svarga loka) and hell (patal loka).

In one Vikramaditya story, which has become a popular story in Bengali folklore, a wandering sadhu had fallen in love with the beautiful princess Hasamukhi, who has pearls fall from her mouth when she laughs. The sadhu cursed the king and city to become lifeless, with only the princess and himself alive. When the sadhu leaves the city, he makes her a corpse and revives her on his return. He kept her head and body separated, but the oil within his wand could unite the two and bring her to life. The lives of the townspeople were locked in a copper vessel buried beneath the sacrificial area (bali-pitha) of the Kali temple. Vikramaditya found out through his servant (who had taken the form of a lizard) that they could be released by sacrificing an elephant to Kali and trading his life for theirs. The sadhu could only be killed if his head was severed and no blood touched the ground (a variant of the story of Kali and Raktabija in the Devi-Mahatmya), and his trunk kept tossing in the sky for one and a half hours. Vikramaditya succeeds in doing this, and brings back the lives of the people in the kingdom.[13] Vikrama's army was finally defeated by a magical army made of earthen warriors. Vikaramaditya buried his throne, predicted the future, and freed his vetala servant. He died by having his head severed (this time it stayed severed), and his wives lit a fire and immolated themselves. His minister Bhatti also committed suicide, by yogic means.

Vikramaditya was the perfect Shakta tantrika, combining religious practice and magical abilities with worldly life, and discipline (yoga) with pleasure (bhoga). He was a dedicated Shakta bhakta, beloved by the goddess Kali, and he shared in her powers over life and death. He was a hero, a sage, and a magician, as well as a lover and a compassionate king, who gained world fame and admiration even from the gods. He was a yogic siddha, gaining supernatural abilities by birth (his father was a yogi, and he himself had many yogic past lives), through ritual practice, and through devotion. He was charitable, brave and just; he knew the languages of all animals, even the "eye-languages of ants," and possessed all forms of yogic and magical ability. He was the ideal figure for many Shakta tantrikas practicing in rural West Bengal.

Shakta tantrikas may learn ritual practices from texts, or from visions, and also from Adivasi religious practitioners. Modern Shakta tantric yogis reported in interview that they continued to exchange knowledge and ritual techniques with Adivasi healers, the ojhas and gunins, and that this has been going on for as long as any of them could remember. It is a sort of continuing education. As a result, there has been a mixing of Hindu and tribal practices carried down by oral tradition and taught to disciples. An example of this confluence of ritual practices can be found in the training of the Adivasi religious specialist, the Santal-Munda ojha or gunin. As an example, we may look at a particular village, Bhumij Dhan Sol.

In this village, the religious specialist or gunin is taught by apprenticeship to be a healer, using mantras and herbs. He is a master of ghosts, spirits and deities, and he can make amulets to counteract evil influences. He is initiated into mantras by his teacher, an experienced gunin, who gives him a practical demonstration of their power by invoking gods and spirits. The apprentice must then practice the mantras and visualizations given by his teacher, preferably at a burning ground or alone in the woods. His final test should occur on a Tuesday or a Saturday, during which he must enter the burning ground, sit on a pyre, and chant mantras to appease and enlist the help of spirits. If he is full of power, the bamboo poles used for burning corpses will stand up at attention. If he is frightened or nervous, he will die. The brave gunin will control the spirits by the use of an empowered human bone (especially the upper arm bone). The apprentice sits on the ashes of a funeral pyre, and offers parched grain to ghosts. He draws down a spirit, gets an agreement that it will assist him, and digs through the ground and cuts away bone from what remains of the corpse. This bone controls the spirits, and lets the gunin know when a person is possessed. He may also learn some forms of divination (by blowing air, water, salt, mustard seeds, and other ways).[14] He then becomes master of these spirits.

Such rituals are not generally part of classical or scholastic tantric yoga, but they are widely seen in folk tantra. They involve meditating at the burning ground, the conquest of spirits, initiation by mantras from a guru, and prediction of the future. We also see the drama of the burning ground, the initiate risking madness and death for the sake of his ritual practice, the use of parched grain to pacify spirits, and rituals on days sacred to Kali. However, we should note that yogic knowledge is limited by gender. These skills are reserved for men in Santal and Munda religions- when women seek to practice them, they are understood to be witches, and dangerous to the community.

The yoga found in folk tantra emphasizes siddhis or supernatural abilities. There are many folk tantrikas in West Bengal, and the focus of the rituals tends to be on dealing with ill health (especially snakebite) and misfortune, and some practitioners seek to overcome death. When spirits and ancestors are invoked, there may be an exchange of mantras for sakti, in which the tantrika may take the power of the dead souls to fuel his meditation, and in exchange gives mantras which will allow the soul to be liberated. It is a sort of economic exchange, understood to be of benefit to both.

Folk tantrikas are often portrayed as villains in the popular literature. For instance, in the collection The Folktales of Bengal, the story of “The Man Who Wished to be Perfect” describes a tantric renunciant who worshipped Kali, and sought perfection from the spirits of the dead. He had sacrificed six men at Kali’s temple, and the seventh victim would give him perfection (siddhi labh kara). His last intended victim, a prince, escapes sacrifice. He kills the tantrika (by pretending that he did not know how to bow before the goddess as a sacrifice- and when the tantrika showed him how, the prince beheaded him while he was bowed down). The prince then brings the tantrika’s collection of skulls back to life. The goddess Kali gives the prince the perfection that the tantric sadhu tried to attain by years of ritual and sacrifice.[15] Here siddhi comes not through ritual practice, but rather through the goddess’ will. The theme of the evil tantrika who is killed while showing a victim how to prostrate himself before the goddess is also found in West Bengal in the Krittivasa version of the Ramayana (popularly known as the major Bengali Ramayana), as Kali tells Rama how to conquer Mahiravana.[16]

kalighat kali

Kalighat Kali, photo courtesy of June McDaniel

I would note that, while the stereotype of the tantrika who meditates on death is generally portrayed as evil, modern death tantrikas find this to be insulting and discriminatory. I found that the death tantrikas (or smasana tantrikas, those who meditate at the burning ground) that I interviewed were quite friendly. They did make use of skulls, but tended to have arrangements with the doms who cared for the dead at hospitals to get the skulls of unclaimed corpses; such bodies are recycled in various ways.[17] The tantrikas interviewed were quite willing to discuss their relationships with the spirits of the dead, and considered their interactions to be a fair exchange. Indeed, they were much more sociable than the classical, brahmanical tantrikas that I interviewed, who tended to be academics more concerned with caste and status than with religious experiences.

In folk tantric practice, many ritual practices come from dreams. The idea that a god or goddess comes down in dreams to give teachings is widespread, and many folk practitioners spoke of their learning yogic skills from the visionary experience. Yogis in the Shakta folk tradition often described having dream commands (svapnadesa) from a goddess to found a temple and give offerings in a certain way. This differs from the Shakta classical tradition, which is focused upon mantras and disciplines, and past revelations rather than present ones. For Shakta yogis who are illiterate, and who may have adiksa guru but not a siksa one, learning by dream and vision is the only way to have extended instruction in meditation techniques. [18]

The more classical forms of tantra emphasize transformation through meditation, which may lead to the god Shiva or the goddess Shakti Kali. In West Bengal, these figures tend to be interchangeable - the husband and wife share the same substance and the same powers. Even Shiva sites with 108 lingas tend to be sakti pithas as well, places sacred to the goddess because her body parts fell there when she died in her incarnation as Sati, and Vishnu (or Sani) chopped her to pieces to cure Shiva’s madness at her death. But while the classical tantric literature speaks of gaining Shiva’s identity or sivatva, or the knowledge of Brahman (brahmajnana), Bengali folk tantrikas focused on merging with Shakti, or salvation by her for a good afterlife. Classical tantra involves a smaller audience in Bengal, for it requires knowledge of Sanskrit (thus high caste status).

The brahmanical, Veda-based, classical style of shakta tantra, in Bengal often called the Kali-kula or tradition of Kali worship, is dying out as a practice. It has been under siege by communist ideology and Western science, both of which have redefined the nature of knowledge. Informants who used to know Kali-kula practitioners say that their teachers have died and taken their knowledge with them, both because they have been persecuted and because no good students have come to them. But folk tantrikas still survive, advertising their abilities at astrology and the creation of astrological rings, palmistry, alternative healing, spells for accomplishing various goals and dealing with family problems.

Yogic ritual in Bengali Shaktism also involved the worship of the tantric mahavidya or great wisdom goddesses, who are usually understood to be forms of the goddess Kali. They are specialized for gifts in certain areas, and each goddess form has her own priests and tantrikas who worship her as their personal deity (istadevi). In the Brihaddharma Purana (Madhya 6.12), Sati wished to go to Daksha's sacrifice, and Shiva did not want her to go. Fire flashed from her third eye, and she was transformed into Kali (Shyama). When he saw this, Shiva was terrified, and he tried to escape and run away. However, all of the ten directions were blocked by the emanated forms of Sati. These were the ten mahavidyas, and Sati got to go where she wished.

The mahavidya goddesses are understood to be ritual specialists, to be contacted if certain goals are desired. They are also associated with astrology, and can bless or obstruct earthly events. For some shakta tantrikas, they are mediators between humble devotees and the distant and powerful creator goddess. For others, they are experts and yogic teachers who can bring knowledge and power. In the theistic yoga of Bengali Shaktism, worship of these goddesses can bring the tantrika yogic insight into higher states of consciousness. All of these approaches to yoga in Bengali Shakta tantra mediate experience of the goddess, enhancing it or hiding it as needed.


Yogic ritual in the Bengali bhakti traditions serves a variety of different functions. Bengali yogic practices tend to be characterized by varying constructions, transformations and organizations of the inner or spiritual body. For Shaktas, we have a body of centers of energy or sakti. In the folk traditions, there is an emphasis on magical transformations of the body, projection of the soul, and control through long life or conscious reincarnation. For the more classical Shakta tantric practices, kundalini yoga involves the cakras and bodily channels of energy, cleansing of the elements (bhutasuddhi), the chanting of bija mantras and the placement of deities ritually into parts of the body (nyasa). These link the goddess Kundalini Shakti to the god Shiva, bringing spiritual realization.

Yoga and tantra may be lifestyles, they may be claims of truth or power, they may be one’s day job or evening hobby. But they are most importantly a means of salvation from the power of death, and a path towards immortality. Yoga and tantra may bring you towards the divine or away from it, and ritual practice may be an ideal lifestyle or a set of cautionary tales. They are idealized and forbidden, paths to insight or power.


[1] Friedhelm Hardy, Viraha-Bhakti: The early history of Krsna devotion in South India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983. See especially pp. 36-49.

[2] We see an emphasis of the importance of the guru in many Shakta tantric texts. However, modern practicing Shakta tantrikas often report learning about religious rituals in other ways, and many state that they have never met a guru, though they have often tried to find one that they trusted..

[3] The details of the interviews can be found in June McDaniel, The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Further interview data may also be found in my book Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[4] McDaniel, The Madness of the Saints, p. 200.

[5] As one charismatic guru, Yogi Bhajan, told an audience at the University of Chicago many years ago, “I am my own lineage.” This was his response to a question of whether he had ever been initiated by a guru. His followers were thrilled, but most scholars in the audience were horrified.

[6] McDaniel, The Madness of the Saints, p. 260.

[7] Kularnava tantra 11.28. Prakasita hoe may also be translated as ‘revealed’ or ‘shining forth.’ See the citation in my The Madness of the Saints, 1989, p. 112.

[8] Vikramaditya was to the protagonist of two serials on Doordarshan, “Vikram aur Betaal” and “Singhasan Battisi.” The “Vikram aur Betaal” version was particularly popular, and won a Mahashivaratri Award, as well as an All-India Film Goers Award for Outstanding Television Serial. These were originally shown in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but continue into eternity on repeat broadcasts.

[9] Despite the fact that he is a foreigner or bidesi (coming from Ujjain rather than West Bengal), as a devotee of Kali he was viewed by informants as a sort of honorary Bengali, and thus an ideal figure.

[10] Mary Frere, ed. Old Deccan Days or Hindoo Fairy Legends Current in Southern India, Collected from Oral Tradition. New Delhi, Madras: Asian Educational Services, 1989 (1889), pp. 71-75.

[11] V.A. K. Aiyer, The Stories of Vikramaditya (Simhasana Dwatrimsika). Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, pp. 10-11. Though this version was printed in South India, it is the most popular version available in Bengali bookstores. Perhaps the second most popular collection is Utpal Sengupta, Chotadera Batrisa Simhasana. Calcutta: Mahesa Publication, n.d..

[12] . Aiyer, Ibid, p. 119-123.

[13] A version of this story is found in Lal Behari Dey’s Folktales of Bengal. Calcutta: Uccharan, 1993 (1883).

[14] Gour Chandra Bagchi, "Village Survey Monograph on Bhumij Dhan Sol", Census of India 1961, West Bengal and Sikkim, vol. XVI, part VI (5). (Calcutta: Government of India Publications, 1967), pp. 186-188. Blowing various substances may transmit power, and it may also allow deities to enter who influence the objects blown-upon.

[15] Rev. Lal Behari Dey, Folktales of Bengal. Calcutta: Uccharan, 1993 (1883), p. 163.

[16] Rai Sahab Dineshchandra Sen, The Bengali Ramayanas. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1920, p. 280. This is part of the “Mahiravaner pala” of the Ramayana by Krittivasa.

[17] A front page headline in Calcutta newspaper when I was last there noted that the major problem for patients in the local hospitals was jackals (who came in at night if the doors were left open). This is another fate for unclaimed corpses.

[18] A diksa guru is one who gives initiation, while a siksa guru gives extended teachings, over the course of years. Many Shaktas interviewed have only met their gurus once in their lives. They got a mantra written on their tongues or whispered into their ears, and they never saw their gurus again.

June McDaniel

by June McDaniel

February, 2016

About June McDaniel

June McDaniel specializes in the study of religious experience, especially in the Hindu tradition.

In her own words
I work in the field of the History of Religions, in which we study the history and development of religious ideas, and how religious experiences are understood and interpreted in different cultures. In teaching, I believe that it is important for students to learn both the range of religions--which means gaining wide knowledge of many religious traditions, both present and past--and also to develop depth within a specific tradition, to gain expertise and insight into its religious perspectives. While such skills as critical thinking and analytic ability are important, I also emphasize developing empathy towards other cultures, and the ability to look at events through other religious perspectives. A good researcher can be both insider and outsider in the religion of his or her expertise, and be capable of comparing religious themes and ideas across both classical and folk traditions.

The courses I teach include World Religions, Women and Religion, Mysticism and Religious Experience, Religions of India, Sacred Texts of the East, Phenomenology of Religion, and Myth, Ritual and Symbol.

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