LOVE AND MAGIC IN A JAVANESE CEMETERY
LOVE AND MAGIC IN A JAVANESE CEMETERY
Probably the most blatant and current expression of Tantrism in Java is the practice of having sexual intercourse—with strangers—in cemeteries. There are so many elements of this phenomenon that are purely Tantric that we are forced to accept that some of the most esoteric aspects of what is popularly known as “left-hand-path” Tantra are virtually common knowledge among the population of this predominantly Muslim country—and not only in theory, but most certainly in practice.
Kemukus is located in the Sragen District of Java, not far from the Sultanate of Solo and the temple complexes of Candi Sukuh and Candi Ceto. It is understood to be the tomb of a Javanese saint, Prince Samudra, who died for love (see photo opposite). Unfortunately, this is not a Harlequin Romance sort of love story. The woman he loved was his own mother.
There are several different versions of the story of Prince Samudra. Most are not as shocking as the popular version that involves incest and palace intrigue. But all versions agree that Prince Samudra is a symbol of unconditional (and illicit) love.
His tomb is at the top of the mountain— gunung—Kemukus. There is a steep stone staircase leading up to the tomb itself from a main gate (which is typical of many Javanese shrines). Along the way, there are small houses and shops selling bottles of water and local snacks. The small, concrete houses are used by couples to consummate their relationship—that is, when they do not use the open areas around the tomb. They are also used by local prostitutes to service the men who arrive on certain days of the Javanese calendar to find a stranger for the ritual, since there are usually many more men than women in attendance. As may be imagined, this has contributed to a kind of legalized prostitution at Kemukus.
... something beyond this seems to be involved in the use of corpses and cremation grounds, for it is often clear that people undertaking these rituals are householders who have not renounced the world, are not engaged in ascetic practices, do not seem primarily concerned with affirming the underlying divinity of the forbidden or the polluted, and are not undergoing initiation into a tantric cult. It is also clear that the desires that motivate this type of spirituality are often worldly: power over one's enemies, kingly authority, eloquence in speech, and so on. ... Corpses and cremation grounds ... seem to function as objects and places of power by ... means of which or in which extraordinary achievements may be accomplished.22
The devotees at Kemukus begin arriving as the sun goes down. Certain days—the Friday Pon and to a lesser extent the Friday Kliwon—are considered most auspicious for the performance of this ceremony These days are calculated according to the Javanese calendar, which uses a five-day week.23 The ritual specialists say that this ritual must be performed in seven consecutive months in order to be effective.
Couples pair up in the foreground of the shrine, along the walkways. Or, in many cases, men select one of the prostitutes who ply their trade at the shrine. This is not to say that all or even most of the women at the shrine are prostitutes, however. Many women do come to Kemukus because they have business concerns or family issues and have been told that this system works. It is a Javanese form of the Catholic novena in many ways, if the novena included sex.
The couples must then offer incense, flowers (and cash) to the juru kunci, the “key keeper” or guardian of the shrine. This is a Muslim man and, some claim, a dukun, or shaman, who actually blesses the union of the couple. The couple circumambulates the tomb of Prince Samudra and then retires to a private location to consummate the union. This often occurs in the open air, outdoors in the dark under the trees. In the last few years, however, rows of small buildings have been constructed to house the many couples who come to Kemukus seeking favors from the spirits.
On the author's visit to Kemukus in 2008, accompanied by two colleagues from the university, he witnessed several of these ceremonies. The concern of the women was that the men be circumcised—a necessary Islamic practice, but not one that is normally found among Hindu men. Thus, it seems that this quintessentially Tantric and Hindu ceremony has been Islamicized to an extent. The general atmosphere is solemn, not what a Westerner might expect of a place where temporary sexual liaisons are sanctioned. It is the union that is blessed, and the union has as its purpose the securing of a favorable outcome in the mundane world—an outcome guaranteed by spiritual forces. The sexual act is the second part of the ritual, the first being the blessing ceremony itself, which imposes upon the act the necessary seriousness and the invocation of the spirit of Prince Samudra.
As I have said, the ordinary rule is that the wife or Ādyā Śakti should be co-performer (Sahadharminī;) in the rite. An exception, however, exists where the Sādhaka has no wife or she is incompetent (Anadhikārinī). There seems to be a notion that the Śāstra directs union with some other person than the Sādhaka's wife. This is not so. A direction to go after other women as such would be counsel to commit fornication or adultery. What the Śāstra says is—that if the Sādhaka has no wife, or she is incompetent (Anadhikārinī), then only may the Sādhaka take some other Śakti. Next, this is for the purpose of ritual worship only. Just as any extra-ritual drinking is sin, so also outside worship any Maithuna, otherwise than with the wife, is sin.24
Similarly, the partners in the Kemukus ritual must be blessed before they can proceed to the remainder of the rite. It is not necessary that the sexual act be performed with a stranger, but this has become enshrined in the pilgrimage rite anyway. This fact has prompted Islamic purists to criticize the practice—as well as the pilgrimage itself—but it persists in spite of this.25
This may be because the fact of sex with a stranger seems to create a specific type of tension necessary for the ritual to succeed. There is no emotional stake in the relationship, no “baggage” that one carries into the ceremony that comes from a shared history with an individual partner. There is, in short, nothing to deflect attention away from the ritual itself. Both parties are there, ostensibly, for the same purpose—to get the attention of the spirit and to obtain favor. In the case of the prostitute, of course, the goal is different. She is there to facilitate the operation, but does not necessarily share in the desired outcome (improved health, success in business, etc). In this, however, she is not so different from the traditional female participants in some Tantric circles, who were chosen because of their low caste or outcast status. She is there as an object, to be true, but as an object of veneration. She represents Shakti, the female energy of the universe, just as the male represents Shiva. Quite simply, the fact that she is not her partner's wife may be a source of the power she brings to the ritual.
The need for what would ordinarily be called an “illicit” sexual relationship has a long pedigree in Tantra, a discipline that requires the breaking of a series of tabus. That is one reason why the story of Prince Samudra is so compelling. According to the version understood by the pilgrims, Samudra was involved in a carnal relationship with his own mother; in another version of the story, he stole one of his father's concubines. The Oedipal implications in both scenarios are clear; yet, the emphasis in the stories is on love, no matter what the cost, no matter how disapproving society may be.26 People go to Kemukus prepared to “love” a total stranger—to worship the idea of love itself as separate from any identification of the actual sexual partner and to attain union with a source of power (Shiva or Shakti) both within and beyond themselves. While the Tantric texts can help illuminate what takes place at Kemukus—and at a few other, similar sites in Java—the rituals of Kemukus can actually help us to understand Tantra better.
The name of Prince Samudra is, itself, suggestive. The Churning of the Milk Ocean, by which means amrita was created, is called in Sanskrit Samudra Manthan, which resonates with the name of the ill-fated Prince of Mount Kemukus. The word samudra can mean any body of water, but in this context, the temptation to link the Tantric rituals of Kemukus with the attainment of amrita is very strong, especially when we realize that temples in the same vicinity—Candi Sukuh and Candi Ceto—are also monuments to amrita.
There is prostitution in Java, of course. While many foreigners may not be aware of it in the smaller cities, it is certainly apparent in Jakarta. Local men, however, know how and where to procure prostitutes in the other cities and towns. There is no particular need to go to Kemukus for sex. The difference is that Kemukus is government-sanctioned: it is a religious site where a religious ritual is performed that happens to include sex. Indonesian sensitivity to local spiritual customs is an important hallmark of that society, and has contributed to the reputation of Indonesia as a democracy and a moderate Islamic country—one that understands and accepts the importance of adat, or local customs.
Also, Kemukus is not that easy to reach. It requires something of a pilgrimage and, in many cases, devotees treat it in exactly that way, choosing a more arduous approach across a nearby lake rather than simply driving up the mountain in a four-wheel drive. Anyone going to Kemukus has an agenda in mind that is not necessarily purely sexual. Yet, the allure of anonymous sex in a traditional religious setting, protected by the government and thus not subject to civil or criminal or religious penalties, may be part of the attraction, although certainly not the main attraction. People come to Kemukus with real problems they need to solve, real pain they wish to heal. They resort to this practice because of the consensus view that it works. It is a mundane application of a spiritual practice—the use of a deeply esoteric mechanism to achieve worldly gain. In this sense, it falls within the realm of magic rather than mysticism.
The Anonymity of Bodies
One point that may be important to this discussion is the fact that the corpses encountered either in the cremation or charnel grounds, or in the relatively more pristine Javanese cemetery, are those of strangers to the Tantrikas. The rites that are carried out in sometimes hideous circumstances—sitting atop corpses, kindling a sacrificial fire (a homa) in the corpse's mouth, having sexual intercourse next to, or on top of, a corpse—are all performed in proximity to the dead bodies of unknown persons. The intention is to sacralize death, to elevate the corpse to the status of a symbol of all bodies, all corpses, all death. But that is the “enlightened” view. In actuality, people with the best of spiritual intentions must confront the gruesome quality of a decaying body while in a psychologically vulnerable state. All the meditation, self-deprivation, fasting, and chanting does not prepare them for the actual confrontation. Add to this a requirement to perform sexually, and we may be forgiven if the impression we receive is that of a peculiar kind of training—perhaps that of a serial killer or other psycho-sexual monster.
The corpse is a stranger to the Tantrika, just as the victim is a stranger to the serial killer or lust murderer. They are both “stand-ins” for something deeper. In the case of the male serial killer of female victims, the victim is a stand-in for the mother, or a woman who has abused or betrayed the killer, or for womankind in general. To the Tantrika, the corpse is a stand-in for Death itself, but in a grander, more macrocosmic manifestation. The corpse is a stand-in for the Tantrika, as well, for the Tantrika will one day become reduced to that very state, to the charnel ground or the cemetery. It represents the stage in alchemy of the putrefaction of the body, a necessary preliminary to obtaining the Philosopher's Stone. It is also part of the initiation of Siberian shamans, who must experience death and dismemberment and even disemboweling before they can reach spiritual attainments.
What if the corpse in the charnel ground, however, were that of a loved one? Or of someone known to the Tantrika in some other context? The associations—psychological, emotional, perhaps even sexual—would provide a virtually insurmountable obstacle. The concept of death would be more real, more poignant—–and would, in this case, threaten to derail the entire ritual by making it an act of pure necromancy. The vivid memories of the life of the body would be recalled in the midst of this intense and extremely focused ritual, and the fundamental purpose of the rite would be forgotten. It is impossible to think of death in the abstract with a corpse in front of you—especially when it is the corpse of someone you know.
The necessary anonymity of the dead body is thus a key for understanding the necessary anonymity of the living body—either the sexual partner of a Tantrika in a rite of pure Tantra, or the “tantroid” rite that is performed at Gunung Kemukus. It is the abstract concept of shakti, of psycho-sexual power if you will, that is the focus of the ritual and not the desire someone has for a loved one. As death is rendered symbolic and abstract, even with the corpse present before the Tantrika, so is love rendered equally abstract, equally symbolic, even as the body of the partner is joined in sexual embrace.
There is a strong tradition in Indian religion—including most especially Tantric forms—of meditation in cemeteries or charnel grounds. The reality can be much more hideous than this simple description seems to convey. In India (as well as in Tibet and Nepal), bodies are either cremated or, in some cases, left in the open air to decay gradually and become the food of carrion birds, jackals, and other predators. This is sometimes referred to in the West as “sky burial.” That means that the rituals that are said to take place in “cemeteries” actually take place in some of the most frightening and disturbing places on earth—places littered with decaying bodies and whitened bones, with the eerie sounds of animals and birds feasting on the remains. It is a nightmarish tableau, with similarities to the experiences in the forests and jungles of shamans, who must undergo their own virtual dismemberment and destruction at the mercy of wild animals, demons, and nature. The Western concept of cemeteries does not do this scenario justice.
In the West, a dead body is handled in a discreet and nearly invisible fashion. From the hospital or morgue to the funeral home to the cemetery or crematorium, the body is handled by professionals. It is usually embalmed (unless there is a religious objection) and put in a box, fully dressed, where it may be viewed in a decorous public area like a church or funeral home, and then brought to a cemetery and buried (or cremated from the coffin itself ). The point is that Westerners are “protected” from the gruesome facts of death. What is left is grief over the loss of a loved one, but the terror of the charnel ground—the blunt fact of the horrorshow image of the decaying body left out in the elements to be devoured by birds and beasts—does not obtain.
The grounds at Kemukus do not in any way resemble the Indian version, of course. Prince Samudra is said to have converted to Islam, and Islamic burial customs do not include “sky burial.” But the idea of sex with a stranger at a tomb is as close to the Tantric ideal as one is likely to get in Java, or anywhere else outside the Indian sub-continent.
While reports of Tantric circles meeting in charnel grounds in India and performing intricate sexual rituals there are commonplace in the literature, we rarely come across an analysis of what the psychological or psycho-spiritual effects of this particular aspect of Tantric ritual may be. Imagine, for a moment, the sights, smells, and sounds of a place reserved for the open-air disposal of corpses. Imagine that place at night, in the company of Tantric practitioners, after an appropriate fast and many hours of chanting mantras. The ritual of the five elements takes place; alcohol and perhaps a hallucinogenic drug are consumed.27 Then the sexual aspect of the ritual—the fifth element—begins. What is the impact of this on human consciousness—which is, after all, the ground of spiritual experience?
One might say that to have sex—to commit an act of creation—in a place of death is to collapse time.
The goddess of the graveyard is Kali, the Black Goddess who appears to the uninitiated as a hideous being with a necklace of skulls and a skull cup (kapala) filled with blood. She has a long, lolling red tongue and is often depicted dancing on the inert body of Shiva. Entire volumes have been written about this goddess and her importance to Indian religion generally, including the fact that blood sacrifice is still an essential element of her worship in many regions. Her name is the feminine form of the Sanskrit root kala, which means “black,” but also “time.” We have come across this term before in connection with the sixteen vaginal secretions known as kalas that refer to the divisions of the lunar month as well. Thus, the relevance of Kali to Tantric esoteric philosophy consists of these ideas of time, death, and the feminine, in addition to traditional Tantric concepts of fertility for those Tantrikas who view Kali as the Mahadevi, or Great Goddess.
In Java, however, one is hard-pressed to find any evidence of a Kali cult at the various temples we have been investigating. The feminine is usually represented by Uma, Parvati, Sita, or the more fearsome Durga who, in some Tantric traditions, is a manifestation of Kali and is also often worshipped in cemeteries or in other desolate places. Durga worship was certainly known in Java, particularly in the 10th to the 13th centuries.28 Statues of Durga have been found at various sites, some of them royal temple complexes where it is believed the kings of Java invoked Durga to protect their kingdoms from enemies. These statues are virtually identical in many respects to those of Kali.
Both Durga and Kali are considered feminine aspects of Shiva, representing his less pacific attributes of anger and fierceness, respectively. (Parvati and Uma represent Shiva's calmness.) It is important to remember, however, that each of these feminine aspects of Shiva represent Shakti, or the spiritual power of Shiva. In this instance, then, we may say that Durga is the shakti, or power, of Shiva, just as the other goddesses are. Although Durga has a different personality from that of Uma or Parvati, she is nonetheless also a manifestation of Shiva's power. Calmness, anger, and fierceness become normal, acceptable, even expected attributes of divinity, and the goddesses become carriers of these forces. Indeed, Durga is often pictured astride a lion, thereby evoking similarities with the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet (and by extension, with the familiar tarot trump, Strength). To make matters more interesting, both Sekhmet and Durga are considered responsible for epidemics. Yet, even though Sekhmet is considered the personification of anger and fierceness, she is also a benevolent goddess under the right circumstances—yet another similarity she shares with Durga.
The categorization of the feminine as the source of spiritual power was one of the supreme contributions of Tantra to Asian religion, for it elevated the status of women—every woman, of every caste—to equality with men. Female divinities enjoyed equality with male divinities—if not, at times, superiority. This happened in the cult of Shakti, which elevates the female above the male and includes the worship of Durga. As we have seen, it is to Uma that we owe the actual Creation itself, otherwise Shiva would have been content to remain in meditation for eternity. While it is beyond the scope of this work, it is interesting to speculate on whether the elevation of women in Tantric theory and praxis was one reason for the vehement opposition of the Brahmins to this discipline, for it upset the social hierarchy and especially the caste system.
That said, no temple to Durga has been discovered in Java so far, leading some scholars to believe that the predominant form of Tantra in Java was the worship of Shiva rather than Shakti.29 Regardless, the graveyard is still an important locus for Javanese spirituality and specifically for those rituals associated with invoking spiritual assistance in worldly affairs. Durga, like Kali, is often invoked in the graveyard setting, especially when asking for magical assistance in some mundane goal. Further, while no temples specifically dedicated to Durga have been found in Java, statues of Durga in Shiva temples are nonetheless common there, so her worship was normative.
To have sex in a graveyard setting, however, is to take the concept of a magical spell for power a step further. It is an invocation of the feminine power, of Shakti, in the last place one would expect it. If the core of feminine power is fertility, conception, and birth, then a cemetery would seem to be an inappropriate place to worship a goddess, or the power of a goddess. The connection can be found in the iconic image of Kali dancing on the corpse of Shiva.
To Tantrikas, this is a profound revelation of the identity of Shakti. It instructs that the human body is no more than a lump of flesh without the quickening power of the feminine. It is the energy expended in the act of intercourse that is preserved in the human being that results from it. For a male, the energy is dissipated immediately after orgasm; for the female, the energy is preserved in the process of conception and gestation. The male is spent, even falls asleep; the female begins the nine months of alchemical transformation. We may see an analogue to this in the concept of Kundalini, the Serpent Goddess said to reside at the base of the spine. She represents Shakti, and must rise through the chakras of the human body to mate with Shiva, who waits for her, inert, at the highest chakra. All the energy, therefore, is feminine. It is the goddess who must seek out the god, as Uma sought Shiva.
Further, to have sex in a charnel ground drives home an important point that language itself is inadequate to convey. To achieve orgasm in front of a corpse—to create this terrible contradiction—is to experience divine power in a way that is inexpressible in words. The initiate, who has been prepared by intensive periods of meditation and fasting, breaks the five tabus of the pancatattva, one by one, until finally the partner is embraced and the sexual act, the maithuna, begins. Seeing the end result of conception before you as you labor to conceive raises basic, primal —yet wordless—questions. It puts into a kind of relief the emotional baggage many have acquired in relation to sexuality and neutralizes these “hang-ups” by changing the context in so dramatic and extreme a fashion. While there are no corpses lying on the ground in Kemukus, it is still a tomb and a place of death. Associating the sex act with Prince Samudra's incest removes the practitioner from the social and religious frames in which sexuality is normally contained, while at the same time providing another, equally acceptable albeit very different, context. It is a ritual that provokes, even demands, transcendence. It is an act oddly imbued with implications of compassion, of clarity and revelation.
It is also an act of defiance.
In the West, the nexus of sex and death has taken on hues of rebellion. The famous Black Mass has similarities to Tantric rites. Like the pancatattva, it also breaks social and religious tabus in an atmosphere of illicit ritual and sexuality, but it is strangely devoid of any redeeming spiritual dimensions. The Black Mass is almost completely political, designed to repudiate the Church's dogma and organization and to “liberate” its participants from the psychological hold of the Church. There is no pretense of attaining higher spiritual states through the practice of the Black Mass; the very practice itself implies that such higher states are a fiction, since by performing the Black Mass one risks eternal damnation in the eyes of the Church. However, according to some sources, the Mass can be used to obtain worldly benefits if it is used as a means to worship the Church's main opponent, Satan. In this way, the more mundane goals of both Tantra and the Black Mass find common ground.
This is not to say that Tantra was not political, or did not have political overtones. Secret meetings of groups consisting of mixed castes and genders occurring in graveyards at night were de facto political. They constituted a challenge to acceptable religious and social behavior and may even have arisen as a response to this behavior. Yet, the main purpose—the organizing principle behind these occult Tantric groups—is not understood as political, but rather as spiritual in nature. The difficulty lies in separating the spiritual from the political in any situation where there are groups of individuals meeting in secret for ideological reasons (as opposed to purely criminal conspiracies). As it says in 1 Samuel, 15:23: “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.”
The similarities between Tantra and Western occultism do not end there, however. One can easily interpret the grimoires of the medieval European magicians and sorcerers as Tantras. Books in which the use of occult diagrams, words of power, and ritual gestures—what in Tantra are called yantra, mantra, and mudra, respectively—are recommended for the acquisition of temporal power, and the acquisition of power outside normal channels of endeavor at that, are always a threat to social institutions. According to these sorcerer's workbooks, ideal locations for the summoning of spiritual forces are remote and desolate places, including mountains, caves, forests, and deserted buildings. Thus, the same sites that could be used for conspiratorial purposes are also recommended for ritual contact with spiritual power.30
One of the texts giving instructions for this procedure is called the Uddisa-tantra, but the idea that a dead body can be reanimated is known to Indian literature just as it is in the West.31 A more important function of cemetery magic, however, is the acquisition of siddhas, occult powers, through the agency of the spiritual forces that inhabit the charnel grounds.
The cemetery or charnel ground is a liminal site, a borderland between two forms of existence.32 The living go there to leave the dead; the dead pass through to another form of existence, eventually even another life in this world (according to Indian beliefs concerning reincarnation and the afterlife). Thus, one can look at the cemetery as a place where the normally impermeable border between life and death is a bit more transparent, a bit more fragile. Charnel grounds are believed to be filled with strange creatures, ghosts and vampires, demons, and otherworldly forms of life that can be contacted by Tantrikas for purposes mundane as well as lofty. Rituals are performed before decaying or burned corpses or, at times, on top of them. There are even rites in which a sacred ritual fire is lighted in the very mouth of a dead body.
In Java, cemeteries are considered to be full of shakti that is derived from the ancestors who are either buried there or who are deemed to be in some sort of sacred relationship with that particular spot. People who died violent deaths—either in that spot or buried in that spot—are good sources of this type of shakti. Their spirits are called siluman, and are invoked by those looking for wealth who offer sacrifices to them for that purpose.33 This is in line with Tantric thinking on the subject, which values the skulls of people who have died violently for use as sacrificial vessels (kapala). Skulls of criminals and the insane are valued for this purpose as well.
In addition, it is not uncommon to hear of those who marry the ghosts and spirits that frequent these cemeteries, including a snake spirit called an ipri that takes the form of a beautiful woman. The ipri arrives at midnight and has intercourse with her “husband,” then leaves him money. The marriage is usually arranged by a shaman local to the haunted site; he may even be the caretaker of the cemetery, the juru kunci. This theme of marriage to a beautiful snake spirit has become enshrined in one of Java's most famous rituals, in which ideas of power, fertility, and transgression are interlaced. This is mentioned to emphasize the fact that the beliefs and practices we are discussing do not represent the actions of a marginal community in Java, but rather reflect general attitudes that extend to the sultans themselves. We discussed the phenomenon of the Goddess of the Southern Sea, Nyai Lara Kidul, and her marriage to the sultans of Yogyakarta and Solo in the previous chapter. For now, it is enough to understand that these facets of the Javanese belief system may be remnants of Tantric rituals that were introduced to the island from India as early as the sixth or seventh century CE.
A serpent goddess is a familiar meme to those who study Kundalini yoga, in which the shakti of a human body—the Kundalini—is represented as a snake goddess coiled at the base of the spine. The goal of Kundalini yoga is to raise the serpent goddess up the chakras of the body to mate with Shiva, who rests at the level of the sixth chakra, analogous to the pineal gland in the brain, or what some devotees refer to as the “third eye.” Just as the snake goddesses are chthonic entities who dwell below the earth, so Kundalini is a snake goddess who dwells at the lowest extremity of the torso.34 Both are “married” in occult rites, resulting in the acquisition of siddhas—paranormal and other abilities.
For Western readers, the image of the serpent goddess Kundalini rising up the spinal column calls to mind the familiar scene of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent's promise to Eve—“ye shall be as gods” (Genesis 3:5)—is reflected in the expectations of yogins who intend to attain enlightenment through this practice. The same image is used frequently in Western alchemy, as a serpent crucified to a wooden cross, which symbol is usually understood as representing fixed mercury (an iteration of the same concept in a seemingly different context).
As we saw in a previous chapter, the connection of the serpent with divine knowledge, even immortality, is an essential part of the Indian belief system. The churning of the cosmic ocean takes place with a serpent wrapped around Mount Sumeru, which results in the production of amrita, the elixir vitae. In Java, the serpent spirit (the siluman) gives wealth. In Kundalini yoga, the serpent spirit gives immortality (amrita). In this, the beliefs are virtually identical to those of Western alchemy, which strives to produce both the elixir of life and the Philosopher's Stone—immortality and the transformation of base metals into gold.
In both systems, it is necessary to proceed through the stage known to the alchemists as putrefactio: putrefaction, the decaying corpse. In Tantra, this stage is embraced in actual practice through rituals in charnel grounds, but also in the use of skeletal material for ritual objects. As mentioned above, one of these is the kapala—a cup made from the skull of a person who died a violent death. The photo on page 280 shows an example of one of these that is in the author's possession.
The interior is made of silver, and the rim is decorated with a series of silver skulls around the circumference of the skull. Liquids like blood, wine, milk, and other substances are poured into this vessel. Examples of the kapala are found in many Tibetan tangkas, particularly those of wrathful deities like Kali, when it is usually depicted as full of human blood.
The photo on page 281 shows the heavily carved crown of the skull, depicting a god and goddess in the embrace known as yab-yum. As can be seen, the deities are trampling on two corpses. The god wears a tiger skin and a belt of skulls, and one of his arms is holding a trident—all of which indicates that the god in question is Shiva, in erotic embrace with his Shakti.
That the skeletal material for these kapalas comes from unfortunate souls who died violently or had horrific lives is born out by the memoire of a contemporary traveler in Northern India and Nepal, Andrea Loseries-Leick, who writes:
For certain Tantrik practices the use of particular skulls is indicated. For instance all offering rites (gser skyems) for female protectors such as Palden Lhamo (dPalldan Lha mo) and Ekajati should be performed with a skull of a 25-year-old woman who has died during childbirth. In the Yamanataka-Tantra used in the Drikung lineage a black skull (thod nag) as an offering vessel is mentioned, ideally derived from a promiscuous woman, as well as a skull of an incestuous person.35
She also writes concerning an object known as the kangling, a trumpet made from a human thighbone, noting that “... a Kangling made of the left thighbone of a sixteen-year-old Brahmin girl is valued highest.”36
Another instrument made of human skeletal material is the damaru, or sacred drum, shown on page 283. The damaru is made from two skulls bound together at the crowns with silver, with animal skin stretched across each one to make the drum's surface.
Concerning the damaru, Loseries-Leick writes:
Ideally, one skull should be from a sixteen-year-old girl born in the Year of the Dragon, while the other half may derive from a sixteen-year-old boy born in the Year of the Tiger ... In any case, the two skulls should be of different gender.37
She goes on to write that certain Tantric sects, like the Kapalikas and Aghoris, use human fat to anoint the skulls to keep them from drying out.38 This fat is obtained from the cremation grounds themselves, as it drips from the bodies. She claims she personally used this substance on her own collection of ritual skulls, but they were confiscated at a border crossing.
The intention of this author is not to shock or titillate his readers but to convince them of the seriousness with which this type of morbid ritual activity—involving death, putrefaction, and the direct confrontation of the absolutely worst facts of human existence—is taken by the Tantrikas. As we saw previously, the use of every type of human excretion and remains is a commonplace among some Tantric sects. Indeed, their incorporation, either symbolically or in reality, is central to many otherwise benign-sounding initiations—for instance, the famous Kalachakra initiation of the Dalai Lama that has been conducted as part of his global spiritual program, involving at times thousands of participants, in many countries around the world. It is safe to assume that very few of these initiates are aware of the language of the core texts of the Kalachakra Tantra, like the Sekoddesa commentary on the Paramadibuddha.39 This commentary uses language so explicit that it bears a warning by the editor:
Without devoting too much time to an analysis of this text, with its description of the “descent of semen” and the necessity of maintaining “the vajra erect,” it will be enough to quote the commentary on stanzas 83–85:
This enigmatic statement equating sexual union with death is an appropriate one with which to end this discussion of the fascinating sexual ritual that takes place at Gunung Kemukus at the tomb of a prince who fell in love with his mother, and was slain.
21 Helen Crovetto, “Bhairavi Cakra: Goddess Mandalas/Rituals in Contemporary Tantra's Nondualism,” Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Third Series, Number 8, Fall 2006, p. 241.
23 The five days are called Legi, Pahing, Pon, Wagi, and Kliwon, names that we encounter in the extremely complicated Balinese calendar system as well. Recourse to a Javanese calendar (or the traditional almanac known as primbon) is necessary for understanding how this five-day week relates to the other calendars in use in Java, and to the greater cyclical calendars also in use by the Javanese. The “Friday Pon” is, as the name implies, when the Javanese day of Pon falls on the Gregorian day of Friday. This occurs once every 35 days (Javanese 5-day week × Gregorian 7-day week = 35 days). Thus, the ritual should be performed once every 35 days on the Friday Pon, for a total of seven consecutive Friday Pons. Perhaps coincidentally, a cycle of five phases of seven days each appears in a Japanese Tantric context as the gestation period of a mystical fetus (see James H. Sanford, “Wind, Waters, Stupas, Mandalas: Fetal Buddhahood in Shingon,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1997 24/1–2, p. 20).
25 As the union is blessed, and as the sex involved takes place only within the ritual context—the sacred time and sacred place—there is a strong argument that this does not support claims of adultery or fornication, which would be against Islamic law. The acceptance of polygamy in Islam, as well as the relative ease of getting a divorce, may also contribute to the somewhat relaxed attitude toward this practice.
26 As we have seen, even the sultans of Yogyakarta and of Solo are expected to maintain an extra-marital “relationship” with the Goddess of the Southern Ocean in an annual ritual that appears to have Tantric roots.
27 The use of datura as an entheogen in Tantric rites and texts is well-documented. See Parker and Lux, “Psychoactive Plants in Tantric Buddhism: Cannabis and Datura in Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism,” Erowid Extracts, Number 14, June 2008, pp. 6–11; Parker, R. C., “The Use of Entheogens in the Vajrayana Tradition: a brief summary of preliminary findings together with a partial bibliography,” 2008, n.p.
28 See, for instance, Hariani Santiko of the Universitas Indonesia, “The Goddess Durga in the East-Javanese Period,” Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 56, 1997: 209–226. However, no temple dedicated to Durga has so far been discovered in Indonesia, although other temples contain cella in which her statue may be found.
30 It is, perhaps, the genius of the Indonesian government to accommodate these practices as statesanctioned, which tends to rob them of their value as a threat to the political status quo and instead keeps them in the realm of the purely spiritual. We will look at this idea—the idea of transgression—in a more detailed way in the chapters that follow.
32 See Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1969) for the seminal work on liminality. Also Kinsley, Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine, pp. 237–238 for the application of this concept to the Indian charnel ground, and Robert Wessing, “Spirits of the Earth and Spirits of the Water: Chthonic Forces in the Mountains of West Java,” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 47, 1988: 43–61 for similar references specific to Java.
39 Edward A. Arnold, ed., As Long as Space Endures: Essays on the Kalachakra Tantra in Honor of H.H. the Dalai Lama (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2009), p. 51. The Paramadibuddha is the root Tantra of the Kalachakra system, which, according to tradition, was taught by the Buddha himself one year after his enlightenment. There is no complete text of this document in either Sanskrit or Tibetan, although portions of it do exist in various forms. While the core text can be reliably dated to the first years of the 11th century ce, it is believed the Kalachakra initiation is much older and can be dated to the seventh century CE. An abridged form of the Paramadibuddha became known as the Sri Kalachakra, which is the Tantra in regular use by Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists today.
40 Arnold, As Long as Space Endures, p. 52.
41 Arnold, As Long as Space Endures, p. 73.