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Pure Shaktism, Tantric Feminism, and Alchemy
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In order to understand the “theological” intentions of Vajrayana and its iconography and psychology, it is of great value to draw a comparison to the matriarchal and gynocentric goddess cults of India. The high tensions and explosive forces in the sexual magic scenarios of the tantras can only be explained in the light of the conflicting manner in which the two cultural currents treat the dynamic between the sexes. To our knowledge there is no culture where the sexes have as theocratic systems given rise to such sophisticated and complex power struggles as in India — up to and including the present day.
Heinrich von Glasenapp calls pure Shaktism the contrary counter-force to androcentric Buddhism: “pure, hundred-percent Shaktism is the teaching of all those sects which regard Durga or one of her forms as the mistress of the world” (von Glasenapp, 1940, p. 123). Durga, that is just another name for the goddess Kali. She is worshipped by her followers as the highest universal deity. All other gods, whether masculine or feminine, emerge from her. She has both pleasant and horrific characteristics, but the dark and cruel traits predominate. She is traditionally linked to a destructive, man-destroying sexuality. She epitomizes forbidden sex, destructive rage, and death. Terror and madness count among her characteristics and it is believed her out and out destructiveness will one day reduce the world to rubble. Our era, which Hindus and Buddhists equally consider to be the “dark” one, and which is rushing headlong and inevitably towards its downfall, bears the name of this fearsome goddess — Kali yuga.
Kali appears to her believers as Shakti, that is as feminine energy in the form of a universal female divinity. In her omnipotence “she includes both the spiritual and the material principles and can therefore be understood to contain both the soul and nature ... The feminine principle creates the cosmos in combination with the masculine principle– though the masculine is always of secondary importance and subordinate to the feminine principle...” — reports the tantra researcher Agehananda Bharati (Bharati, 1977, p. 174).
Here the androcentric Wheel of Time has been rotated 180 degrees and Tantrism’s patriarchal pattern of dominance has been reinterpreted matriarchally. Instead of shaven-headed monks or long-haired Maha Siddhas, women now celebrate as “priestesses and female shamans”. The omnipotent divinity now reveals itself to be a woman. “Thus the followers of the Shakti school justify their appellation by the belief that god is a woman and it ought to be the aim of all to become a woman” (Bhattacharyya, 1982, p. 109) — writes Bhattacharyya in his history of the tantric currents.
The gynocentric male sacrifice:
According to one widely distributed view, the matriarchal element and goddess cult are believed to have been predominant for centuries in Indian society and can still now be discovered in folk culture (Bhattacharya, 1982, p. 116, note 41; Tiwari 1985). The native inhabitants of the first pre-Aryan agricultural societies were followers of the “great goddess”. Ritual objects from excavations of the ancient towns of Mohenjodaro and Harappa (c. 2500 B.C.E.) indicate that matriarchal cults were practiced there. Astounding parallels to the Babylonian goddesses of the Fertile Crescent have been drawn.
Only following the violent intrusion of patriarchal pastoral peoples from the north (around 1500 B.C.E.) was the native religion of India systematically displaced. From now on the Aryan caste system with its sacrificial priests (Brahmans) and warriors (Kshatriyas) at its peak determined social religious politics. Nor did the first phase of Buddhism show any essential change in the androcentric pattern. At the time of the Maurya and Gupta periods (around 300 C.E.) this experienced a decisive transformation. The ascetic doctrine of early Buddhism (Hinayana) gave way to the ideal of the compassionate Bodhisattva (Mahayana). Hinduism’s colorful lineage of gods developed — often represented as great mythical couples. But the archeologists have also excavated numerous clay figures from this epoch, which depict the Great Mother deity. Her figure even appears on coins. The submerged “feminine principle” of the earliest times thus reappeared between the third and seventh centuries C.E. in India.
Starting among the rural population it gained access to even the highest strata. “ The mass strength behind it,” Bhattacharyya informs us, “placed goddesses by the side of gods of all religions, but even by doing so the entire emotion centering round the Female Principle could not be channelised. So the need was felt for a new religion, entirely female dominated, a religion in which even the great gods like Visnu or Shiva would remain subordinated to the goddess. This new religion came to be known as Shaktism” (Bhattacharyya, 1982, p. 207).
The Buddhists were also not in a position to remain completely untouched by this renaissance of ancient female cults. This can be detected, for example, in the famous collection of poems, Therigatha, where Buddhist nuns sing of their liberation from the slavery of everyday family life. But there was never a real emancipation movement of female Buddhists. In contrast the followers of the Buddha Shakyamuni were successful in their epochal attempt to gain control of the “new women”, through integration and manipulation, without needing to combat or suppress the emergent “woman power” directly: the monks discovered Vajrayana.
There is much to be said for the suggestion the tantric practices, or at least similar rites, were originally part of the cult of worship of the great goddess, which in contrast to early Buddhism had a completely free and open attitude towards sexuality. This is also admitted implicitly by the Buddhist yogis when they project all the forces of the universes into a female archetype. Since they were convinced they possessed a technique (upaya) which in the final instance placed absolute power over the goddess in their hands, they could maintain this apparent omnipotence of the feminine without risk. One almost has the impression that they deliberately adopted the omnipotent matriarchal image.
Yet as soon as women actually grasped for power, this was seen by all the androcentric cults of India as a great disaster and much feared. The woman then appears as a bestial horror god or a bloodthirsty tigress who kills her lover, performs bizarre dances upon his corpse or places the still-aroused penis of the dead in her vulva. She is depicted as a being with a gaping maw and bloody canines. Numerous variants of such macabre portraits are known. In the light of such images of horror the fears of the men were thoroughly justified and man-destroying cult sacrifices were then no rarity in the vicinity of the black Kali.
The religious studies scholar Doniger O’Flaherty traces them all back to the archetypal ritual of an insect, which bears the name of “preying mantis”. This large locust bites off the head of the smaller male during copulation and then consumes it with relish (O’Flaherty, 1982, p. 81). Although the tales do not say that the goddess rips off the head of her lover with her teeth, she does decapitate him with a saber.
Such female cults are supposed to imitate vegetative events in nature. Just as the plants germinate, sprout, blossom, bear fruit and then die back to arise anew from seed, so death appeared to them to be a necessary aspect of life and the precondition for a rebirth. When the ancient cosmocentric mother goddess donates fertility, she demands in return bloody sacrifices. It was mostly animals and humans of male gender who had to surrender their lives to preserve and propagate the plant, animal and human kingdoms (Herrmann-Pfand, 1992, p. 102; Neumann, 1949, p. 55). It is not said, however, whether this vegetative orientation to the cult was the sole motive or whether there was not also a bloody demonstration of power within a religiously motivated struggle between the sexes involved.
The cruel rites of Kali in no way belong to the past. As the Indian press currently reports, in recent times more and more incidents of human sacrifice to the goddess have accumulated, in which it is primarily children who are offered up. The ancient and universal myth of the Earth Mother, who consumes her own progeny and fattens herself with their corpses, who greedily laps up the blood-seed of humans and animals, who lures life into her abyss and dark hole in order to destroy it, is actually celebrating a renaissance in contemporary India (Neumann, 1989, pp. 148–149).
The vajra and the double-headed ax:
Initially, men may have reacted with fear and then with protestation to such bloody matriarchal rites, as we can conclude from many patriarchal founding myths. Perhaps some kind of masculine anxiety neurosis, derived from long forgotten and suppressed struggles with matriarchy, lies hidden behind the seemingly pathological overemphasis accorded to the vajra and thus the “phallus” in Tantric Buddhism?
In a cultural history of the “diamond scepter” (vajra), the Tibetologist Siegbert Hummel mentions that the vajra was worshipped both in Vedic India and among the Greeks as a lightning symbol. The symbol entered Buddhism via the Hellenistic influence on the art of Gandhara. The current form only evolved over the course of centuries. Formerly, the vajra more resembled a “double-headed ax with lightning-like radiance” (Hummel, 1954, pp. 123ff.).
Hummel, who has also examined matriarchal influences on Tibetan culture in other works, surmises that the symbol had a Cretan gynocentric origin. But let us quote him directly: “Vajra” and “double-headed ax” presuppose “images of the Cretan mother deity, who carries a double-headed ax, as not just a sign but also an embodiment of her sovereignty and power as well as a magical instrument, a privilege, incidentally, which male deities significantly did not receive” (Hummel, 1954, p. 123). The Minoan cult object is said to have been used as a weapon with which the sacred bull was slaughtered.
This bovine blood ritual, which according to reports and myths of antiquity was widely distributed among the matriarchal cults of the Near East, brings the ancient male sacrifice into the discussion once more. Then the bull is considered a historically more recent substitute for the husband of the tribal queen, who herself was supposed to be the incarnation of a goddess. Following the expiry of his period in office, the priestesses sacrificed him and soaked the soil with his royal blood in order to generate fertility.
Aside from this, it is highly likely that ancient castration were linked with the double-headed ax (Hummel, 1954, pp. 123ff.). At any rate, the almighty Cybele bore this sharp implement as her emblem of power. Classical authors report with horror how the fanatical priests of this Phrygian mother-goddess let themselves be ritually emasculated or performed the mutilation themselves. “Cybelis” is said to be a translation of “double-headed ax” (Alexiou, n.d., p. 92).
If we accept Hummel’s account of the origin of the vajra as the man-destroying scepter of the great goddess, then the excessive reverence with which the Tantric Buddhists treat the “thunderbolt” becomes more comprehensible: The ax, which once felled or mutilated man has now become his most-feared magical weapon, with which he graphically demonstrates his victory over the great goddess.
In the vajra, the “diamond scepter”, “thunderbolt” or “phallus”, the androcentric control of the world is symbolized. It represents the superiority of the masculine spirit over the feminine nature. “The vajra”, Lama Govinda writes, “became ... the quintessence of supreme spiritual, a power which nothing can withstand and which is itself unassailable and invincible: just as a diamond, the hardest of all substances, can cut to pieces all other substances without itself being cut by anything else” (Govinda, 1991, p. 65). In order to demonstrate this omnipotence of absolute masculinity, there arose within “Vajrayana” the linguistic obsession which links all the events and protagonists of the tantric rituals to the word vajra.
It is not just the objects which are ceremonially sacrificed, like vajra-incense, vajra-shells, vajra-lamps, vajra-perfumes, vajra-flowers, vajra-flags, vajra-dresses and so forth which bear the Sanskrit name of the “diamond scepter”, but also all the ritual activities such as vajra-music, vajra-dance, vajra-motion, vajra-gestures. “The whole of this system pivots upon the idea of the vajra, which is the supreme ideal, but at the same time environs the initiate from his first steps. Everything which concerns the mystique training bears this name. The water of the preliminary purification, the pot that contains it, the sacred formula to repeat over it ... all is vajra” (Carelli, 1941, p. 6).
Even the symbol of supreme femininity, the “emptiness” (shunyata), is not spared its application. “The vajra represents the active principle,” writes Snellgrove, “the means towards enlightenment and the means of conversion, while the bell represents Perfection of Wisdom, known as the Void (sunyata). In the state of union, however, the vajra comprehends both these coefficients of enlightenment, the means and the wisdom” (Snellgrove, 1987, vol. 1, p. 131). “Shunyata”, we can read in Dasgupta, “which is firm, substantial, indivisible and impenetrable, incapable of being burnt and imperishable, is called Vajra... Vajra ... is the void and in Vajrayana everything is Vajra” (Dasgupta, 1974, pp. 77, 72).
Vajra and the “bell” (gantha) count as the two most important ritual objects in Tantrism. But here too the masculine “thunderbolt” has achieved supremacy. This is most graphically expressed in the symbolic construction of the feminine “bell”. In order to display its subordinacy to the masculine principle, it always possesses a handle in the form of a half vajra. One will also not find a gantha, which does not have numerous tiny “diamond scepters”, i.e., “phalluses”, engraved on its outer edge. The bell, visible and much-praised symbol of the feminine, is thus also under the hegemony of the “thunderbolt”.
The gesture of dominance with which the tantric master seals his consort during the sexual act is called the Vajrahumkara mudra: he crosses both hands behind the back of his partner, with the vajra held in his right hand, and the gantha in the left. The symbolic content of this gesture can only be the following: the yogi as androgyne is lord over both sexual energies, the masculine (symbolized by the vajra) and the feminine (symbolized by the gantha). In encircling ("sealing”) his wisdom consort with the androgyne gesture, he wishes to express that she is a part of his self, or rather, that he has absorbed her as his maha mudra ("inner woman”).
Among the noisy retinue of Kali can, in Hindu accounts, be found a cluster of lesser female demons known as dakinis. As we have already seen, these also play an indispensable role in the salvational practices of Buddhist Tantrism. The “sky walkers” -- as their name can be translated — are less a female species of angel; rather, they are primarily a subordinate class of female devils. Since they originally belonged to the Kali milieu, their historically more recent transformation into a Buddhist support unit must surely provide some interesting insights into the early history of Tantrism and its relation to the gynocentric cults.
The dakinis have a preference for hanging around crematoria. Their favorite fare is human flesh, which they use for magical purposes in their rituals. They visit sickness upon women, men, and children, especially fever, obsessions, consumption, and sterility. Like the European witches they fly through the air and assume the most varied animal forms. They thus torment those around them as cats, poisonous snakes, lionesses and bitches. They are reviled as “noise-makers, women who take away, hissers, and flesh-eaters”. As vampires, they suck up fresh blood and ritually consume menstrual discharge — their own or that of others. Like the Greek harpies, with whom they have much else in common, they devour afterbirth and feed themselves from corpses. They have a great predilection and craving for the male seed. These horror-women can even consume the breath of a living person (O’Flaherty, 1982, p. 237).
Their terrible appearance is described in a biography of the great Tibetan deliverer of salvation, Padmasambhava: some ride upon lions with their hair let out and carry skulls in their hands as signs of victory; others perch upon the backs of birds and let out shrill shrieks; the bodies of yet others are topped by ten faces and ten mouths with which they devour human hearts; a further group vomit up dogs and wolves; They generate lightning, and descend upon their victims with a thunderclap. “The trace of a third eye upon her forehead [can be found], they have long clawlike finger-nails, and a black heart in her vagina” (Stevens, 1990, p. 73). Ritual curved knives, with which they dismember corpses; a skull bowl out of which they slurp all sorts of blood; a small two-ended drum prepared from the brain-pans of two children, with which she summons her companions and a scepter, upon which three skulls are skewered, — are all considered part of a dakini’s standard equipment. The dakinis normally only reveal themselves to the Tantric — either as human women in flesh and blood or as dream figures, or as ghosts. In the bardo state, the time between death and rebirth, however, they encounter everyone who has died in order to carry out their horrific sacrifices. The Tibetan Book of the Dead also calls them gauris and many individuals among them are named: Ghasmari, Candali, Nari, Pukkasi and so forth. They ride upon buffaloes, wolves, jackals and lions; wear the most varied human bones as jewelry; clasp banners of children’s skin in their hands; their baldachins are made of human skin; they play their horrible melodies upon the hip bones of a Brahman girl from which they have fashioned flutes; as scepter one grasps the corpse of an infant, another rips the head of a man off and consumes it. With this dreadful display the “sky walkers” want to induce the spirit of the dead person to seek out in fear the protective womb of a human woman so as to be reborn. But should he courageously resist the frightful images, then he becomes freed from the “Wheel of Life” and is permitted to enter nirvana.
Consequently, the tantras urge that every adept procure for himself the arts and cunning of Cakrasamvara, the first Buddhist dakini subduer, in order to conquer and bind these female fiends, as he can only experience enlightenment by subjugating the demonesses. He then becomes lord over the feminine in general, precisely because this opposed him in its most terrible form as a death-goddess and he did not yield to it.
But the process has more than just a psychological dimension. Since the dakinis come from the army of the black Kali, for patriarchal Tantrism her subjugation is also a “theocratic” act. With every victory over a “sky walker” the gynocentric cult of the great black goddess is symbolically overpowered by the androcentric power of the Buddha.
The methods employed in this act of conquest are often brutal. When the Maha Siddha Tilopa met the queen of the dakinis in her palace in the form of an attractive and graceful girl (a witch’s illusion), he did not let the demoness pull the wool over his eyes. He tore the clothes from her body and raped her (Sierksma, 1966, p. 112). In the Guhyasamaja Tantra the masculine Hauptgottheit draws the dakinis to him with skewers and diamond hooks which “shine like scorching flames”. We have already mentioned Albert Grünwedel’s surmise above, that the “sky walkers” were originally real women who were transformed into pliant spiritual beings via a “tantric fire sacrifice”. The possibility cannot be excluded that the reason they suffered their fiery “witches’ fate” was that before their “Buddhization” they offered their services to the terrible Kali as priestesses.
Whilst it is true, as the Tibetan historian Buston tells us, that the demonesses were subjugated by the tantric divinity Cakrasamvara and converted to Buddhism, their cruelty was only partially overcome by the conversion. Actually, from this point on, there are two types of dakini and it is not uncommon that the two represent contrary aspects of a single “sky walker”. The dark, repulsive form is joined by a figure of light, an ethereal dancing fairy, a smiling virgin. This goodly part took over the role of the inana mudra for the yogi, the amiable spiritual woman and transcendent bearer of knowledge. In the next chapter we discuss in more detail how such a division of dakinis into evil witches and good fairies represents a primary event in tantric (and alchemic) control techniques.
Thus the evil party among the dakinis did not need to surrender their pre-Buddhist terrors, and unlike the bloody Erinyes from the Greek sagas, did not transform themselves into peace-loving pillars of the state like the Eumenides. Rather, the horror dakinis offered their destructive arts in the service of the new Buddhist doctrine. They continued to play a role as forms in which the death-mother and her former mistress, Kali, whom an adept needed to subdue, could appear. Their terrible emergence has become a downright essential, albeit mortally dangerous, stretch to be traversed upon the path of tantric enlightenment. Only at the end of a successful initiation do the “demonesses” appear in the form of “female angels”.
For Lama Govinda, however, who constantly attempts to exorcise all “witches’ dances” out of Tibetan Buddhism, their light form is the only truth: for him, the dakini represents that element of the “ethereal realm” which we are unable to perceive with our senses, since the Tibetan name for the sky walker, Khadoma, is said to have this meaning (Govinda, 1984, p. 228). The European lama explains the Khadomas to be “meditative geniuses”, “impulses of inspiration, which transform natural force into creative genius” (Govinda, 1984, p. 228) — in brief, they operate as the muses of the yogis. Govinda’s view is not all that incorrect, but he describes only the result of a many –layered and very complicated process, in which the demonic dakini is transformed via the “tantric female sacrifice” described above into a soft and ethereal “sky walker”.
Now is it just the wild former retinue of Kali which is subdued in Buddhist Tantrism, or is the dark goddess herself conquered? The Tibet researcher, Austine Waddell, has concluded on the basis of an illustration of the time god, Kalachakra, and his consort, Vishvamata, that we are dealing here with a representation of the Highest Buddha in union with the Hindu horror goddess Kali, who together do the devil’s work (Waddell, 1934, p. 131). These days, his interpretation is considered amusing, and is often cited as a warning example of Western ignorance and arrogance. But in our view Waddell is absolutely correct, and he is able to help us understand the mystery hidden at the heart of the Kalachakra Tantra.
For the entire post-Vedic Indian culture (i.e., for both Hinduism and Buddhism), the goddess Kali represents the horror mother of our decadent last days, which bear her name as the Kali yuga. Therefore, she is the “mistress of history”. More comprehensively — she is considered to be the personification of manifest time (kala) itself. In translation, the word kali means both the feminine form of ‘time’ and also the color ‘black’. As such, for Hinduism the goddess symbolized the apocalyptic “black hole” into which the entire material universe vanishes at the end of time. The closer we draw to the end of a cosmic cycle, the thicker the “darkness” becomes.
Her male counterpole and Buddhist challenger, Kalachakra, attempts — one could conclude from Waddell’s interpretation — to wrench the “Wheel of Time” from her, in order to himself become “Lord of History” and establish a worldwide androcentric Buddhocracy. In the current and the coming eon he wants that he and he alone has control over time. It is thus a matter of which of the two sexes controls the evolution of the complete polar universe — she as goddess or he as god? When the tantric master as the representative of the time god on earth succeeds in conquering the goddess Kali, then he has — according to tantric logic — cleared the way on his path to exclusive patriarchal world domination.
Aggression toward one another is thus the basis of the relation between the two gender-pretenders to the “time throne”. But the Buddhist Kalachakra god appears to proceed more cleverly than his Hindu opponent, Kali Vishvamata. Using magic techniques he understands how to goad the aggressive sexuality of the goddess and nonetheless bring it under his control.
We shall later see that it is also his intention to destroy the existing universe, which bears the name Kali yuga. For this reason he is extremely interested in the destructive aspects of time (kali) or, respectively, in the destructive power of the goddess, who can crush all forms of existence beneath her. “What is Kalachakrayana?”, a contemporary tantra commentator asks, and answers revealingly, “The word kala means time, death and destruction. Kalachakra is the wheel of destruction” (Dasgupta, 1974, p. 65).
The “alchemic female sacrifice”:
"The Kalachakra Tantra”, writes the American David Gordon White in his comprehensive history of Indian alchemy,”.... offers us the most penetrating view we have of any specifically Buddhist alchemical system” (White, 1996, p. 71). In the fifth chapter of the Time Tantra, the “great art” is treated as a separate discipline (Carelli, 1941, p. 21). In his commentary on the Kalachakra text, Pundarika compares the whole sexual magic procedure in this tantra with an alchemical work.
In India, alchemy was and still is a widely spread esoteric body of knowledge, and has been since the fourth century C.E. It is taught and employed as a holistic healing art, especially in Ayurveda. Alongside its medical uses, it was considered (as in China and the West) as the art of extracting gold (and thus wealth and power) from base substances. But over and above this, it was always regarded as an extremely effective means of attaining enlightenment. Indian yogis, especially the so-called Nath Siddhas, who had chosen the “great art” as their sacred technique, experienced their alchemic attempts not as “scientific” experimentation with chemical substances, but rather as a mystical exercise. They described themselves as followers of Rasayana and with the use of this term indicated that had chosen a special initiatory path, the “Path of Alchemy”. In their occult praxis they combined chemical experiments with exercises from Hatha Yoga and tantric sexual rites.
Arabic influences upon Indian alchemy are presumed, but the latter certainly predates these. Even older are the sophisticated alchemic–sexual magic experiments of the Taoists. For this reason, some important Western scholars of Asia, for example, David Gordon White, Agehananda Bharati, and Joseph Needham, are of the opinion that China could be considered a possible origin for both the “high art” and Indian Tantrism. On the other hand, European alchemy of early modern times (16th to 18th century) has so many similarities to the symbolic world of tantric-alchemic India, that — since a direct influence is difficult to imagine — one must either posit a common historical, most probably Egyptian, origin, or must assume that both esoteric currents drew upon the same archetypal reservoir of our collective unconsciousness. Most probably, both are the case.
In the West, the close relationship between occidental alchemy and Tantrism has been thematized by, among others, the religious studies scholar Mircea Eliade and Carl Gustav Jung, the depth psychologist. Jung more than once drew attention to the parallels between the two systems. His introduction to a quasi-tantric text from China with the title Das Geheimnis der goldenen Blüte [‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’] is just one example from many. Mircea Eliade also saw “a remarkable correspondence between Tantrism and the great western mysteriosophical [sic] current ..., in which at the beginning of the Christian era gnosis, hermetics, Greek/Egyptan alchemy and the traditions of the mysteries flowed together” (Eliade, 1985, p. 211). Of the more modern authors, it is primarily David Gordon White who deserves mention; he has exhaustively studied the close link between alchemic ideas and experiments and the Indian Siddhas (sorcerers) and their tantric practices. Without doubt, Tantrism and alchemy, whether of Indian or European provenance, share many fundamental images with one another.
Just like their oriental colleagues, the occidental alchemists expressed themselves in a twilight language (sandhabhasa). All the words, signs, and symbols, which were formulated to describe the experiments in their obscure “laboratories”, possessed multiple meanings and were only comprehensible to the “initiated”. Just as in some tantra texts, “secret” practices were represented by “harmless” images in the European treatises; this was especially true of the topic of erotic love and sexuality. This strong link to the erotic may appear absurd in the case of chemical experiments, but the alchemic world view was, just like that of Tantrism, dominated by the idea that our universe functions as the creation and interplay of a masculine and a feminine principle and that all levels of existence are interpenetrated by the polarity of the sexes. “Gender is in everything, everything has masculine and feminine principles, gender reveals itself on all levels”, we can read in a European treatise on the “great art” (Gebelein, 1991, p. 44).
This was also true for the sphere of chemical substances and compounds, the metals and elements. Both the tantric and the alchemic writings are therefore maps of the erotic imagination and anyone with a little speech psychology can recognize the pervasive sexual system of reference hidden in a hermetical text from the 16th century. At that time people did not have the slightest qualms about describing chemical processes as erotic events and erotic scenarios as chemical fusions. They behaved in exactly the same manner in the West as in the East.
Let us now examine tantric alchemy a little more closely. The Tibetan lama, Dragpa Jetsen, for example, distinguishes three aspects of the royal art: the “Alchemy of life: he can make his life last as long as the sun and moon [; the] Alchemy of body: he can make his body eternally be but sixteen years old [; and the] Alchemy of enjoyments: he can turn iron and copper into gold” (quoted by Beyer, 1978, p. 253). These three experiments, then, primarily concern two goals: firstly the attainment of immortality, and secondly the production of gold, that is, material wealth. Correspondingly, in a commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra we can read: “Then comes the practice of alchemy, which in this case means the production of gold through the use of the elixirs” (Newman, 1987, p. 120).
But for the “true” adept (whether Tantric or European alchemist) it was not just a matter of the actual yellow metal, but also the so-called “spiritual gold”. In the West this was understood to mean the “Philosopher’s Stone” or the “hermetical elixir”, which transformed the experimenter into a superman. Alchemy and Tantrism thus have the same spiritual goal. In order to achieve this, numerous processes of conversion were needed in the laboratory of the adept, which did not just take the form of chemical processes, but which the alchemist also experienced as successive transmutations of his personality, that is, his psyche was dissolved and then put together again a number of times in the course of the experimentation. Solve et coagula (dissolve and bind) is for this reason the first and most well-known maxim of the hermetical art. This principle too, controls the tantric ritual in numerous variants, as, say, when the yogi dissolves his human body in order to reconstruct it as a divine body.
Without going into numerous further parallels between Tantrism and the “great art”, we would like to concentrate here upon a primary event in European alchemy, which we term the “alchemic female sacrifice” and which plays an equally central role for the adept of the high art as the “tantric female sacrifice” does for the Tantric. There are three stages to be examined in this sacrificial event:
The sacrifice of the “dark woman” or the “black matter” (nigredo) The absorption of the “virgin milk” or gynergy (albedo) The construction of the cosmic androgyne (rubedo)
The starting point for an alchemical experiment is in both systems, the European and the Indian, the realm of coarse matter, the ignoble or base, so as to then transmute it in accordance with the “law of inversion” into something beneficent. This procedure is — as we have shown — completely tantric. Thus the Buddhist scholar, Aryadeva, (third century C.E.) can employ the following comparison: “Just as copper becomes pure gold when it is spread with a wonder tincture, so too will the [base] passions of the Knowing become aids to salvation” (von Glasenapp, 1940, p. 30). The same tantric view is taken up in the eighteenth century by the French adept Limojon de Saint-Didier, when he ascertains in his Triomphe Hermétique that, “the philosophers [alchemists] say, that one must seek perfection in imperfect things and that one finds it there” (Hutin, 1971, p. 25).
In European alchemy the coarse starting material for the experiments is known as the prima materia and is of a fundamentally feminine nature. Likewise, as in the tantras, base substances such as excrement, urine, menstrual blood, part of corpses and so forth are named in the alchemic texts, no matter which culture they belong to, as the physical starting materials for the experiments. Symbolically, the primal material is describe in images such as “snake, dragon, toad, viper, python”. It is also represented by every conceivable repulsive female figure — by witches, mixers of poison, whores, chthonic goddesses, by the “dragon mother” so often cited in depth psychology. All these are metaphors for the demonic nature of the feminine, as we also know it from as far back as the early phase of Buddhism. We may recall that Shakyamuni compared women in general with snakes, sharks and whores.
These misogynous terms for the prima materia are images which on the one hand seek to describe the untamed, death-bringing nature; on the other one readily admit that a secret force capable of producing everything in the phenomenal world is hidden within “Mother Nature”. Nature in alchemy has at its disposal the universal power of birth. It represents the primordial matrix of the elements, the massa confusa, the great chaos, from which creation bursts forth. On this basis, Titus Burckhardt, an enthusiastic expert on the great art, brings the western prima materia into direct comparison with tantric Shakti and the black goddess, Kali: “On the idea of Shakti are based all those tantric spiritual methods which are more closely related to alchemy than to any other of the spiritual arts. The Hindu, indeed, regard alchemy itself as a tantric method. As Kali, the Shakti is on the one hand the universal mother, who lovingly embraces all creatures, and on the other hand the tyrannical power which delivers them over to destruction, death, time, and space” (Burckhardt, 1986, p. 117). The alchemic first substance (prima materia or massa confusa) cannot be better personified in Tantrism than by Kali and her former retinue, the crematoria-haunting, horrifying dakinis.
Experimenting around with the primal material sounds quite harmless to someone who is not initiated. Yet a symbolic murder is hidden behind this. The black matter, a symbol of the fundamental feminine and of powerful nature from which we all come, is burned or in some cases vaporized, cut to pieces or dismembered. Thus, in destroying the prima materia we at the same time destroy our “mother” or, basically, the “ fundamentally feminine”. The European adept does not shy away from even the most crass killing metaphors: “open the lap of your mother”, it says in a French text from the 18th century, “with a steel blade, burrow into her entrails and press forward to her womb, there you will find our pure substance [the elixir]” (Bachelard, 1990, p. 282). Symbolically, this violent first act in the alchemic production is located within a context of sacrifice, death and the color black and is therefore called nigredo, that is “blackening”.
2. The absorption of the “virgin milk” or gynergy (inana mudra):
The “pure substance” or the “elixir”, which according to the quotation above is obtained from the entrails of Mother Nature, is in alchemy nothing other than the gynergy so sought after in Tantrism. Just like the Tantric, the alchemist thus draws a distinction between the “coarse” and the “sublime” feminine. After the destruction of the “dark mother”, the so-called nigredo, the second phase follows, which goes by the name of albedo ("whitening”). The adept understands this to mean the “liberation” of the subtle feminine ("pure substance”) from the clutches of the coarse “dragon” (prima materia). The master has thus transformed the black matter, which for him symbolizes the dark mother, following its burning or cutting up in his laboratory into an ethereal “girl” and then distilled from this the “pure Sophia”, the incarnation of wisdom, the “chaste moon goddess”, the “white queen of heaven”. One text talks “of the transformation of the Babylonian whore into a virgin” (Evola, 1993, p. 207).
Now this transmutation is not, as a contemporary observer would perhaps imagine the process to be, a purely spiritual/mental procedure. In the alchemist’s laboratory some form of black starting substance is in fact burned up, and a chemical, usually liquid substance really is extracted from this material, which the adept captures in a pear-shaped flask at the end of the experiment. The Indians refer to this liquid as rasa, their European colleagues as the “elixir”. Hence the name for Indian alchemy — Rasayana.
Even though all the interpreters in the discussion of the alchemic “virgin image” (the subtle feminine) are of the unanimous opinion that this is a matter of the spiritual and psychological source of inspiration for the man, this nevertheless has a physical existence as a magical fluid. The “white woman”, the “holy Sophia” is both an image of desire of the masculine psyche and the visible elixir in a glass. (In connection with the seed gnosis we shall show that this is also the case in Tantrism.)
This elixir has many names and is called among other things “moon dew” or aqua sapientiae (water of wisdom) or “white virgin milk”. The final (chemical) extraction of the wonder milk is known as ablactatio (milking). Even in such a concrete point there are parallels to Tantrism: In the still to be described “Vase initiation” of the Kalachakra Tantra, the ritual vessels which are offered up to the vajra master in sacrifice, represent the wisdom consorts (mudras). They are called “the vase that holds the white [the milk]" (Dhargyey, 1985, p. 8). Whatever ingredients this “moon dew” may consist of, in both cultural circles it is considered to be the elixir of wisdom (prajna) and a liquid form of gynergy. It is as strongly desired by every European adept as by every Tibetan tantric master.
We can thus state that, in Tantrism, the relation between the real woman (karma mudra) and the imaginary spirit woman (inana mudra) is the same as that between the dark mother (prima materia) and the “chaste moon goddess” (the feminine life-elixir or gynergy) in European alchemy. Therefore, the sacrifice of karma mudra (prima materia), drawn usually from the lower classes, and her transformation into a Buddhist “goddess” (inana mudra) is an alchemic drama. Another variation upon the identical hermetic play emerges in the victory of the vajra master over the dark horror dakini (prima materia) and her slaughter, after which she (post mortem) enters the tantric stage as a gentle, floating figure — as a nectar-giving “sky walker” ("the chaste moon goddess”). The witch-like cemetery whore has transformed herself into a sweet granter of wisdom.
Following the consumption of the “virgin milk”, the drawing off of the gynergy, the ethereal feminine is dissolved in the imagination of the alchemist and now becomes a part of his masculine-androgyne being. Thus, the second sacrifice of the woman, this time as “Sophia” or as an independent “spiritual being” takes place here, then the goal of the opus is reached only when the adept, just like the Tantric, has completely obliterated the autonomy of the feminine principle and integrated it within himself. To this end he works on and destroys the “chaste moon goddess” or the “white woman” (inana mudra), once more through the element of fire. The Italian occultist, Julius Evola, has described this procedure in clear and unvarnished terms: in this phase “sulfur and fire become active again, the now living masculine exerts an influence on the substance, ... gains the upper hand over the feminine, absorbs it and transmits its own nature to it” (Evola, 1983, p. 435). Accordingly, the feminine principle is completely absorbed by the masculine. Somewhat more prosaically expressed, this means the alchemist drinks the “virgin milk” mentioned above from his flask.
In summary, if we compare this alchemical process with Tantrism once more, then we can say that the alchemist sacrifices firstly the feminine “mother of all” (prima materia), just as the Tantric sacrifices the real woman, the karma mudra. From the destruction of the karma mudra the vajra master then obtains the “spiritual woman”, the inana mudra, just as the alchemist obtains the “Sophia” from the destruction of the prima materia. Then the Tantric internalizes the “spiritual woman” as maha mudra ("inner woman”), just as the adept of alchemy takes in the “white virgin” in the form of the luck-bringing feminine “moon dew”.
Once the work is completed, in both cases the feminine disappears as an external, independent and polar correspondence to the masculine and continues to function solely as an inner force (shakti) of the androgyne tantra master, or androgyne alchemist respectively. Within alchemy this internalization of the feminine principle (i.e., the construction of the maha mudra in Tantrism) is known by the term rubedo, that is “reddening”.
Since the symbolic sacrifice of the woman in both cases involves the use of the element of fire, in alchemy just as in Buddhist Tantrism we are dealing with an androcentric fire cult. Within both contexts a bisexual, ego-centered super being is produced via magic rites — a “spiritual king”, a “grand sorcerer” (Maha Siddha), a powerful “androgyne”, the “universal hermaphrodite”. “He is the hermaphrodite of the initial being,” C. G. Jung writes of the target figure of the alchemic project, “which steps apart in the classic brother–sister pair and unites itself in the ‘conjunctio’” (Jung, 1975, pp. 338, 340). Consequently, the final goal of every alchemical experiment which goes beyond simple moneymaking is the union of the sexes within the person of the adept, in the understanding that he could then develop unlimited power as a man–woman. The identical bisexual definition of the occidental super being is mirrored in the self-concept of the Tantric, who following his mystic union (conjunctio) with the feminine — that is to say, after the absorption of the gynergy — is reborn as the “lord of both sexes”.
In the West, as in the East, he then experiences himself to be the “father and mother of his self” — as a “child of his self” (Evola, 1993, p. 48) — “He marries himself, he impregnates himself”. He becomes “known as the father and begetter of all, because in him lives the seed and template of all things” (Evola, 1993, p. 35) To put it in one sentence — the mystic king of alchemy is in principle identical with the tantric Maha Siddha (grand sorcerer).
It would spring the bounds of this study to examine further patterns which link the two systems to one another. We shall, however, return to this where it seems necessary. In our opinion, all the events of Tantrism can be rediscovered in one form or another in the symbolic scenario of alchemy: the eroticization of the universe, the deadly dangers which are associated with the unchaining of the feminine elements, the “law of inversion”, the play upon fire, the swallowing of the “moon” (of the feminine) by the “sun” (the masculine), the mystical geography of the body, the mantras and mandalas, the mysticism surrounding the planets and stars, the micro-macrocosmic theory, the dark light and the clear light, the staged apocalypse, the grasp for power over the universe, the despotism of the patriarchal hermit, and so forth. We would like to let the matter rest with this list and close the chapter with a succinct statement from Lhundop Sopa, a contemporary Tibetan specialist on the Kalachakra Tantra: “Thus, the Kalachakra path becomes in the end like a kind of alchemy” (Newman, 1985, p. 150). Both systems are thus based upon the same original script.