Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



During the European Middle Ages, The Tantras (Weaving), a syncretic Sanskrit encyclopedia of the Pala Empire (750-1174), proposed a philosophy of unifying creation. In the third century A.D., Buddhism altered its orthodoxy to accommodate a literary exploration of the body and the psyche. Influenced by vernacular romance and inspirational verse, writers of the resulting texts offered Brahmans of Assam, Bengal, and Kashmir a means of satisfying their desire to unite with the divine. In a period of widespread translation into other Asian languages, writers of nonsectarian tantras gave guidance to practitioners of Hinduism and Buddhism in Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, and Tibet. Among such writers was Padmasambhava, a Tibetan evangelizer and lama who also composed the Tibetan BOOK OF THE DEAD (ca. A.D. 775).

Tantras consist of chants, collections of psalms, legends, FABLES, dialogues, parables, incantations, and charms based on the tensions between yin and yang, a universal polarity. The Lakshmi Tantra (ca. A.D. 950), an Asian contribution to GODDESS LORE, enshrines the divine female in glory and, in the EPITHALAMIUM, wreathes her with human gratitude for passion and sexual satisfaction. An attack against pious exhibitionism, the Hevajra Tantra (ca. A.D. 790) uses mysticism to express human freedom at all social levels through direct knowledge. The Kularnava Tantra (Ocean of Tantrism, ca. A.D. 1000) scorns bookishness for depriving the scholar of such concrete experiences as ritual coitus. The Sarada Tilaka Tantra (ca. 1000) summarizes CREATION LORE, godhood, and magic. Compiled after the fall of the Pala Empire and during the rise of Islam in India, the Mahanirvana Tantra (1295) speaks of the blessings of earth and fosters an enjoyment of food. A guide to pleasure in NATURE, superstition, passion, food, and alcohol, the text advocates a controlled indulgence in earthly joys devoid of shame or fear.

Sources of Tantric Wisdom

The forerunners of the tantric canon, written during the Guptan Empire (ca. A.D. 280-550), use poetry and aphorisms to identify the duties of Buddhism and Hinduism. A parable in the Yogacara Bhumi Sutra (A.D. 284) recommends reconciliation and forgiveness as prefaces to contentment. The Guhyasamaja Tantra (Total of mysteries), which the sage Asanga wrote around A.D. 350, outlines the value of meditation and standardizes the tantric tradition. Saraha, a Bengali arrow maker, monk, and poet, compiled 280 verses in the SATIRE Dohakosha (Treasury of songs, ca. A.D. 790), which mocks ascetics and the religious hierarchy for public posturing. Sahara extols the human form and encourages seekers to celebrate the physical senses with the wonder and delight of children. At the command of Emperor Junna, the Japanese cleric Kukai (774-835) composed 10 volumes on Buddhist spiritual illumination entitled the Juju Shinron (Ten stages of religious consciousness, A.D. 830), a parallel to Indian and Tibetan tantric writings.

Tantric WISDOM encompasses the extremes of the human condition. The Kalachakra Tantra (Wheel of time tantra, A.D. 966), a collection of initiation and purification rites from northwestern India, describes in Sanskrit the cycles and rhythms

of phenomena, both in the body and the universe. From the Buddhist perspective on life, the aphorisms comment on the inevitability of pain:

In the womb there is the suffering of dwelling in the womb;

at birth and while a child there is also suffering.

Youth and adulthood are filled with the great sufferings of

losing one's mate, wealth, and fortune, as well as the great suffering of the afflictive emotions.

The old have the suffering of death. (quoted in Dalai Lama 1999, 39-40).

While acknowledging suffering, the spiritual movement called Tantra instructed ordinary worshippers to refrain from needless hurt. Texts revolutionized social convention by honoring women and branding womanizers and wife beaters as sinners. Tantric writing elevated wives to equal partnership in marriage, accepted females in positions of authority, and denounced suttee, the obligation forced on widows to share their dead husbands' funeral pyres.


Dalai Lama XIV. Kalachakra Tantra: Rite of Initiation. Edited and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins. Somerville, Mass: Wisdom Publications, 1999.

Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth Prayers from Around the World. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991.

Urban, Hugh B. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.