Twilight Of The Buddha: Tantra As It Had Risen Against Brahminism

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History has it that, a good eighteen centuries ago, there flourished in the Indian subcontinent a Buddhist philosopher named Nagarjuna. He is credited with having introduced a vital ingredient in subsequent subcontinental mystical concept – that of ‘Shunya’ or emptiness. A rather simplified understanding would be a realization of the emptiness or void (‘a-bhava’) – one  that would stretch beyond us once we negate the binary or the duality between being (‘swa-bhava’) and not-being (‘nih-swa-bhava’). The Sanskrit word for duality is ‘dwaita’. Thus, it is because of this negation of duality that this concept has often been mentioned of in Sanskrit literature as ‘A-dwaita Shunya’ – meaning, the non-dual void.

History also has it that, Buddhism had risen and flourished in the Indian subcontinent as a counter-reaction to the caste-oppression of the Brahmins. Nonetheless, certain Brahminical elements have also had continued to corrupt the religion across history. One such element, Gaudapada, had flourished in Bengal a good four centuries after the times of Nagarjuna. His adherence to Brahminism, despite being indoctrinated and initiated into the Buddhist order of ‘Madhyamaka’ or the Middle Path as was strengthened and propounded by Nagarjuna, is attested by the fact that he is still revered by the ‘Saraswat’ Brahmins along the western and southern coastlines of the peninsular subcontinent.  The suffix ‘pada’ was commonly used by the scholars of Buddhism in those days. It was a short-form for the Sanskrit word ’padacharya’, meaning, poet-scholar. As for Gaudapa, he took the concept of Adwaita Shunya and replaced the Shunya with a draconian, indignant and iniquitous Brahminical text – Vedanta.

This did not stop here. Gaudapada found a disciple in Govindacharya. This Govindacharya, subsequently, set up his ashrama by the river Narmada and continued preaching this caste-discriminatory Adwaita Vedanta philosophy. The philosophy found a shot in arm from Govindacharya’s disciple Shankaracharya, often referred to in subsequent Hindu literature as Adi-Shankar. With Shankaracharya, the assimilation of a ‘Hindu’ identity of the Vedic and post-Vedic Aryan orders of faith was nigh-complete. Caste-system had to be re-clamped by the Brahmins. The need to destroy Buddhism and efface it from the subcontinent had arisen. Thus, by the 9th century AD, we see the marauding forces of Shanaracharya and his disciples razing the stupas and monasteries to ground. Noted monasteries such as the one at tucked in the Himalayas at Badri (distt. Uttarakhand) were soon converted into Hindu temples. Even sites of adivasi worship such as the Shabar deity at Puri (distt. Odisha) by the Bay of Bengal were not spared.

It is true that on and from the 7th century AD, Brahminism was upping its ante against Buddhism. But the resistances were splendid! If one looks at the history of the anti-caste Bhakti movement that had risen across the subcontinent against the tyranny of casteism in the past one & a half millennia, one sees the rise of Vajrayana (Thunder Vehicle) and the subsequent streams of Sahajayana (Easy Vehicle), Kalachakrayana (Wheel of Time Vehicle) Buddhism and even of the Nath order which has, over time, come to become a stream of Hinduism as it is understood today – all as a dialectic friction with the rising communal distemper of the casteist Shankaracharya-ilk.  Thus, around the same time as that of Shankaracharya and his misdeeds, we find figures such Padmasambhava setting out towards to Himalayas to seek refuge for the Buddhism across the forbidding passes. Around the same time, the codification and canonical development of Vajrayana Buddhism began, along with its own set of pantheon – in an order where each deity represents realms of consciousness, being, realization and such other ‘Bhaav’-s or states. Much of what is understood as Tantra today finds its rudiments in Vajrayana – through crypts and codes – all that seek to reveal some deeper realms of understanding and perception but shy away from spelling them out.

It is with the development Vajrayana across the eastern parts of the subcontinent from the 7th to the 12th centuries AD when Buddhism still had royal patrons in those parts that the term Gujhya-Samaja or Secret-Society began rising to prominence in erstwhile & subsequent topical scriptures. The names of many Tantric scholars and poets who thrived in those times also come to light, along with some cryptic, lyrically arranged verses by such and a few other anonymous poets of those times. Here, a question rises: Why such secrecy? The answer is blowing in the dreary Tibetan winds. The Brahmins were brutal to the Buddhists. The wisdom had to be saved from physically violent destruction as well as cooption – something the Brahminical order has been historically adept at.

Many scripts containing such cryptic metaphysical verses have been preserved in and around Tibet where Vajrayana Buddhism had flourished, with imperial patronage, till the last century. Some even contain explanations of the mystical connotations through ‘Teeka’-s or short notes written in Sanskrit alongside the verses. Common sense insists that the language used was a proto-language to modern languages & dialects such as Bangla, Axhomiya, Odiya, Angika, Magahi, Maithil etc which are spoken in the eastern subcontinent. By and large, it would then have been a mixture of the late Pali, Ardha-Magadhi (half-Magadhi – denoting the language used in the eastern part of the Magadha Mahajanapada, a language which finds its earliest mention in the Natya Shastra compilation that came to be in the 2nd century BC), ‘Paishachi’ (denoting a cluster of languages used by multiple indigenous communities of the subcontinent – the word ‘Pishach’, meaning zombie, was used as a race-slur against these communities in earliest Vedic scriptures on language titled ‘Prakrit Prakash’, attributed to a mythical sage Vararuchi), etc. Nonetheless, ‘modern’-day Brahminical scholars continue quibbling over which modern-day language bears true inheritance of the language in which the Tantric texts were written during those days.

One peculiar aspect of the manner in which this proto-language was used by the Tantrics in their verses could, however, never be overlooked. In 1916, Haraprasad Shastri, after laboring through certain scriptures of such verses & their explanations he had stumbled upon in the Royal Durbar Library at Kathmandu while serving his tenure as a ‘travelling pundit’ attached to the Asiatic Society, had said that the language is one of ‘light and darkness’. He had named it ‘Shandhyo Bhasha’ (literally: Language of the Evening). This peculiarity was further highlighted by Mircea Eliade, who, in 1971, had used the term ‘Twilight Language’ to denote this proto-modern language. As such scholars agree, the language, through its words, syntaxes and structures, have a literal meaning that any lay listener can comprehend and perhaps enjoy along with its musical element. However, all these hint at some deeper connotations – which are the mystical connotations that only those who are initiated into the Secret Societies of various koulas or Tantric sects can understand. Thus, each such song contains two or more layers of meanings. Multiplicities to puzzle the stupid Brahmin.

The Tantrics have been known to have been heterodox in life and living. A term ‘Vamachara’, meaning Left-Hand-Praxis, have often been used to distinguish them from the caste-Hindu orthodoxy and their ‘Right-Hand-Praxis’ or Dakshinachara disciplines of faith. The anger of the heterodox against the orthodox simmers in some of the poetry.

Thus we find Vajrayana bard Sarahapada, himself, in all probability, born in a Brahmin family, raging out loud:


The Brahmins know nothing but how to discriminate

They have lain this down that only they can read the Vedas

They make fire-holes on earth and worship flames

They dare disturb the universe

Smoke from flames make eyes water

As their pointless exercises continue

And then there are all these rules

Coded down, spelled out,

backed by punishments,

across the hours,

through sticks and stones

Can such random a god ever be true?

The Brahmins – they brim in prim dresses

They bear manners of the gentlemen

And speak smooth words

Like swans feigning sagacity

false flows their world, they forget,

That there can never be a scale

To weigh religion against irreligion.

This is from the Dohakosha or Compilation of Doha Verses written by Vajrayana philosopher Saraha or Sarahapa or Sarahapada who had flourished a good thirteen centuries ago.  In that scripture, he continues to vent his ire against all the four religious orthodoxies of those times:  the Brahmins, the Theist or Caste-Hindu believers (‘Ishwarvadi’-s), the Jain’ Kshapanaka’-s and the Mahayana Buddhists.

Another such Vajrayana bard was Kanhapa or Krishnacharya, who is also revered to in the Nath sect as Kanifnath – one of the Nine Naths or Nava Nathas who are held in high esteem as the earliest guru-s of that order. The scripture containing his collection of Dohakosha contain Sanskrit notes written by Mekhala. Mekhala & her sister Kankhala are revered to in Tibetan Buddhist mythos as the two Sever-Headed Sisters. Curiously, centuries after the wane of Buddhism from the eastern subcontinent, they have together been deified and have since acquired space in the Lokayata pantheon and mythos as ‘Chhinnamasta’ – the Sever-Headed Goddess!

Many cryptic verses by Saraha, Kanha and other prominent Vajrayana Tantrics who had flourished in eastern subcontinent were compiled in a manuscript titled ‘Charyacharyavinishchaya’ or ‘Charyapada’. This Kanhapada, in many of his poems, speaks of a muse. He addresses her by her community name – Dombi – Dom woman.

Dombi, your house lies beyond the city

Brahmins and Shaven-Heads touch you alike

O Dombi I’ll make love to you

I am Kanha, Shameless, Naked Kapalika Yogi

One lotus has sixty-four petals

Poor Dombi dances on it

O Dombi, I ask you with love

Whose boat do you ferry on?

You sell loom to them

You sell bamboo-wicker-baskets to me

For you, I surrender my actor’s sack

Oh, you are Dombi, I am Kapalika

I wear a garland made of bones for you

Dombi breaks through the waves of the lake

To eat lotus stems

I kill Dombi

I take her life.

(Charyapada Verse 10)

He continues in the same vein in verse no. 18, which ends in the following note:

Some call you bad,

But the intellectuals hold on to you

Kanha sings, you are Kaama-Chandali,

Oh Dombi, you are the greatest flirt ever!

Such verses contain apparent community names such as Dom, Chandala, and even Bangali (Bhusukupa, verse 49, Charyapada). Certain ‘ragas’ that had been identified in the scriptures bear names such as ‘Bangal’, ‘Shabar’ etc refer to such community-identities. Even the names of some of these Tantric-poets, such as Dombipa and Shabarpa, indicate their community origin. However, as the notes reveal, these terms were also used as codes to denote certain left-handed that is ‘Vamachara’ or Tantric praxis involving the praxitioners own body – loosely connoted as ‘Kaya-Sadhana’ or the Body-Praxis. These community-identifying words are thus also clues to paths that constitute the ritual core of Tantra.

Shabarpa, whose name indicates his adivasi origins, writes for his muse Shabari –

On hills and ranges high and tall lives Shabari girl

She dons peacock plumes

She wears a red gunja-seed garland

Shabar is crazy in love, oh, please do disturb

She is your wife, she is Easy Beauty (‘Sahaja-Sundari’)

Many trees bloomed, their branches touched the sky

She wears earrings holding Thunder (‘Vajra-dhari’)

She roams this forest all alone

Shabar makes a cot out of three metals

He then makes a bed

Shabar and ‘Nairamani’[1] make love all night

The mind is a betel-leaf.

In great joy, they eat it with camphor

Holding his Empty (‘Shunya’) Soullessness to his throat-Chakra

He spends the night in great happiness

Guru’s words are like arrows with tails

Strike your mind with such an arrow

One arrow to strike utmost (‘Param’) Niravana

Strike it!

In sagely Guru’s anger, Shabar rages

He enters where the mountain peaks meet

How do we look for him?

(Charyapada Verse 28)

It is not just striking Niravana through love that Shabar talks about. He also dwells in a breathtaking, magical realm of bliss of almost an entire cycle of life in Verse No 50 of the same collection:

Across the skies lies the third house –

It is but a field!

Axe hacks heart

‘Nairamani’ girl hugs neck

She awakes to uproot!

Leave, leave these terribly illusive forms

of Maya and Moha

Shabar lives in great happiness

with the woman who is emptiness (‘Shunya’)

The third house is like the sky

White cotton-flowers bloom

In the moonlight all around the third house,

yet another house can be seen –

it is but the house of moonlight

blooming across the dark skies!

Green melons have ripened

Shabar & Shabari gets drunk in that

They make love across days on end

Shabar feels empty

A pyre is placed on four bamboo-poles

Shabar’s body is burned

Vultures & foxes weep

The drunken craze of being (‘Bhavamatta’) is killed

Its offerings are scattered in all Ten Directions

Behold, Shabar attains Nirvana!

Shabar is not Shabar anymore.

Needless to say, these Vajrayana poets who had flourished in the eastern subcontinent as a syncretic counter-reaction to Brahminical re-mobilisation have all been venerated, in Tibetan Buddhism & also in the Natha sect of Hinduism as it is understood today, as the eighty-four attained ones or the 84 Siddhacharyas. Sadly, given that all the names poets hold, are, in all probability, male-names, the ravages of patriarchy even on the counter-Brahminical heterodoxy that Tantra represents cannot be denied. The women poets and philosophers were pushed to the Anonymous nom-de-plume of ‘Dakini’ – literally Witch. Nath legends tell the tale of one ‘Jnana-Dakini’ or Wisdom-Witch ‘Moynamoti’. More prominently, many wisdom laden sayings on agrarian ecology known as ‘Vachana’-s exist in the name of one such ‘Witch’ Khana, exist, till date, within the folds of folk-wisdom of the agrarian communities of rural Bengal. Legend has it that, men, being unable to digest a woman saying such deep and useful things on agrarian ecology based largely on lunar cycles, seasonal planetary movements and, perhaps, then-prevalent folk-wisdom, had cut her tongue. Many of her sayings have survived over two millennia.

It beggars mention here that, on this same topic, yet another Tantric scripture exists. It is titled ‘Dakranava’, meanings, ‘Wizard’s Ocean’. Books on this topic reflect an ancient indigenous wisdom-flow of the subcontinent. Till date, this reflects on the Panjika or lunar calendars that determine the worship rituals of Hindu festivities. Unfortunately, the reification-focused forces of Hinduism have converted that this wisdom of what to sow when, where to build an ideal house or where and when make a crop-field based on where the waters flow and how the winds blow, the moon waxes and wanes, the stars change positions across the sky through the passing seasons and so on, into piles of superstitious and oft-discriminatory practices. This, again, points at an older debasement. Legend has it that Ecology or Vastu-Tantra was developed in its rudimentary form by indigenous Mayasura who had cohesed such natural wisdom. Modern-day Hindutva has condemned this ancient ecological wisdom of the indigenous subcontinent to the status of upmarket interior-decoration.

It is true that the violent re-rise of Brahminical Hinduism, along with certain stupid decisions of the late Pala kings such as banning fishing and hunting on the religious ground that violence to all sentience is to be shunned – something that made the fishing and hunting communities of Rarh-Bengal rise, through riparian guerilla action commandeered through fleets of fast moving, armed and armoured boats, in what has been known as the Kaivartya Vidroha of the 11th century AD, — had, ensured a virtual obliteration of Buddhism from the subcontinent. Drawing from the 19th century demographic analysis of HH Risley, one shudders to imagine how violence on women and children must have risen through child-marriages, reckless Brahminnical polygamy, the suttee, rigid enforcement of austere and lifelong chastity on widows including child widows and such other evils must have raged in society as the caste and gotra defined Kulin-Brahminical systems of endogamy and exogamy was clamped unto the nascent Bangali society of those times. Even the Brahminical commentators, out of shame, have, on multiple occasions, had sought, albeit in vein, to hide the names of the Hindu kings of Bengal from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries AD – kings such as Vallala Sena and Niladhwaja – who had actively participated in this enforced clampdown of caste-Hinduism – under a common nom-de-plume ‘Adisura’ – meaning, ‘the Earliest Aryan’.

It is also true that, on and from the 19th century AD, the neo-Brahminical land-holding babu and bhadralok gentry of Bengal had been active agents of Hindutva. In 1893, Vivekananda had, in the Chicago Parliament of World Religions, proclaimed himself to be from the lineage of Shankaracharya, thereby, siding unabashedly with the casteist Hindu order. Curiously, nowhere in that so-called ‘Parliament’ had this Hindutva-agent mentioned the name of his real life praxis-initiator Ramakrishna.   Hindutva has been on the rise ever since. The pitches have gone too damn shrill lately.

However, all the wisdom could not be effaced. Owing to the ‘light and darkness’ of the language, the real kaya-sadhana disciplines have been followed by the secretive Tantric Koulakrams. Narratives of reverence to the Vajrayana bard Tilopa shown by such orders even in the crematoriums and praxis-centers of Pithas of the Tantrics of 20th century Bengal exist. Even Haraprasad Shastri, while looking at an ancient painting of one such Tantric bard ‘Naropa’ exclaims – ‘he looks just like the Bauls of today!’

After the wane of Buddhism, many dalit communities of the subcontinent, being browbeaten back to the indignant caste-folds of Hinduism, sought refuge in Vaishnavism and then in Sufi. Today, people from many Vaishnav dalit communities continue keeping their heads shaved in remembrance to a casteless past. The Easy Vehicle or Sahajayana cult, having mixed with the heterodox views of a great 14th CE philosopher named Nityananda from within the Vaishnava-cult, led to the Sahajiya-Vaishnava order. One section of this order exists as it is today, whereas the other, after the influx of Sufi, gave rise to the Baul. In continuity with the practice of the Buddhist bhikkhus and shramans, basking to make a living has been continued by these sects. The songs that these minstrels sing speak of the casteless, religionless essence of human realization, just like those by Kabir do.

Kabir’s path, Sikhism and other orders of faith that had risen across the Middle Ages arose as a counter-reaction to Brahminical oppression, just like Buddhism had in more ancient times, also held the essence of Shunya or the void – a vision that the caste-Hindu orders shuns like plague because it seeks to dilute the very foundations of caste-division which forms the cornerstone of their vile game of power. Thus, we find terms like ‘Niranjana’ used by the Sikhs, Kabir-panthis, Baul-Fakir-Dervishes and the Lokayata and verily indigenous Dharma worshippers consisting of the dalit Dom and multiple other rural rooted communities. Even the prevalent worship of the mother goddess Tara across Bengal, Axhom & Nepal – which, akin to the Nath worship of Shiva, has since been by and large absorbed by mainstream Hinduism – reveals glimpses from the Vajrayana past.

Side by side with all these, multiple Nath-Pantha myths that had begun evolving before the Shaivite Nath order was absorbed in entirety by caste-Hindu power-brokers reveal a continuity of this cultural resistance through poetry and music. It further establishes the role of Tantra within the folds of the anti-Brahminical ‘bhakti’ movements of the subcontinent. The resistances have since continued. While dealing with the history of Bengal, one must never forget this, that, in the eighteenth century, the Fakirs of Bengal were one of the first communities to rise in staunch revolt against the oppressive colonial forces. It began in 1774, four years after a terrible famine had raged through almost the entire of the subcontinent. The Fakir Revolt raged across extensive tracts of Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand from 1774 to 1778. It was led from the fore by Majnu Shah. Cultures of resistance were provided for by, among others, Lalan Fakir. One good century after this, Bankimachandra Chattopadhyaya, yet another noted Hindutva-agent sought to mutilate this history and portray it as a victorious war raged by an utterly fictitious sect of Vedic monks against the Muslim community in his so-called magnum opus Anandamath.

Despite all the ravages, the wisdom has not been obliterated in entirety yet. Strains of the music have become faint, agrarian ecologies have been ravaged by localities, carnivals where the music once flowed have become sites of relentless caste crimes perpetrated and superstitions practiced by idolaters. Nonetheless, what matters is, that, it still exists!

[1] In Vajrayana, ‘Nairamani’ represents Nairatman or a realization for soullessness and is connoted as the goddess of the Sciences – Vijnanan Skandha

Atindriyo Chakrabarty is a poet and writer.


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