The Left Hand of Tantra, Part 2
A look at how—and why—left-handed tantrics use wine, meat, and fish in the ritual practice of kaula tantra.
The ritual practice of kaula tantra is always done under the supervision of the master, who is called Chakreshwara, the lord of the circle. Only those who are purnabhishikta, lterally “the one who has taken a complete bath, are ever permitted to do this ritual alone. Preparations are made in the early evening.
The practice itself begins in the late evening and continues until dawn. This means that the practitioner must have complete mastery over his or her desire for sleep and feelings of fatigue. At the outset of the ritual, the Chakreshwara purifies the wine, meat, fish, and utensils by repeating specific mantras.
The practitioners who are familiar with these mantras join in the recitation, while the others simply observe. The food is placed on plates in front of each practitioner. Then, while sitting in a meditative posture, preferably padmasana (the lotus posture) or siddhasana (the accomplished posture), the initiates receive the first serving of wine.
The master pours it into a chalice which is precisely placed on another adhara chakra, which each aspirant has drawn on the ground beside his or her seat. The aspirants use this first serving of wine to purify themselves step by step, beginning with all the limbs of the body, followed by the internal organs, the senses, the ten pranas, the three faculties of mind, and, ultimately, the jiva (individual soul).
When this purification is complete, the aspirants pick up their chalices and, while maintaining a perfect meditative posture, balance it between the thumb, second finger, and little finger of the right hand, thus creating a mudra called tripadika mudra. They must hold the chalice in this mudra while they recite long prayers, do pranayamas, and engage in a prolonged meditation at the muladhara (root) chakra.
At the climax of their meditation, the aspirants are supposed to be totally absorbed in the kundalini shakti, which takes the form of a fire blazing in the firebowl of the muladhara. At this point they drink the wine, offering it into the fire of kundalini.
The verse that they recite while making this offering offers some insight into the intent behind this ritual:
ahantā-pātra-bharitam idantā-paramāmṛtam purnāhantāmaye bahnau juhomi siva-rupa-dhṛk
Assuming the form of Shiva, I offer this highest nectar of “this-is-ness” (objective reality) contained in the chalice of “I-am-ness” (subjective reality) into the fire of “perfect I-am-ness” (the Supreme I, the non-dual, transcendental reality).
The second, third, fourth, and fifth chalices of wine are offered into the fire of kundalini along with the meat and fish, as well as mudra (which is usually offered in the symbolic form of food consisting of grain) and physical union (which is usually acted out symbolically by mixing white and red sandalwood paste).
There is a famous saying among the tantrics, “Shame on the guru whose student gets drunk and loses control over his or her body and senses.”
Students who are not yet purnabhishikta are not permitted to make more than five offerings. Drunkenness is unthinkable—the student is required to maintain complete control over his or her body and senses at every moment. There is a famous saying among the tantrics, “Shame on the guru whose student gets drunk and loses control over his or her body and senses.”
This nightlong chakra worship creates an intensely devotional environment. The participants are in a state of ecstasy that has unfolded simultaneously from every aspect of the ritual: the magnificently decorated surroundings, the fragrant incense, the lamp encircled by the quiet darkness, the melody of the mantras recited by the group, the pranayama practices, and the mantra meditation.
A greater part of this divine intoxication is induced before the first chalice of wine is offered into the fire of kundalini shakti. Thus, the tantrics of this school claim that the stream of spiritual thoughts is already flowing, and the wine simply provides an additional impetus.
When the wine has taken effect, the Chakreshwara gives a brief but powerful discourse on spirituality. He or she reminds the aspirants of the transitory nature of the world and worldly objects; how short life is and how long the journey to the final goal; and how the day-to-day concerns of food, sleep, and shelter consume an enormous amount of time.
The Chakreshwara tells them that by transforming their attitudes about these things and by spiritualizing their daily activities, they can speed up the process of self-realization. When this discourse ends, the worship is adjourned. After taking a brief rest, the practitioners rise, complete their morning ablutions, and return to their full-time job: practice, practice, practice.
The daylight hours are filled with guided studies and contemplative practices, whose aim is to enable the student to internalize the ritualistic practices and thus go beyond them. This step is furthered by learning the symbolic meaning of the rituals and the ingredients used in them.
The tantric texts discuss how the whole universe is a great ritual and how the rituals that tantrics perform are an integral part of the ultimate ritual.
The tantric texts contain profound discussions on how the whole universe is a great ritual and how the rituals that tantrics perform are an integral part of the ultimate ritual. This understanding is what leads the aspirants to progress to the mishra and samaya schools of tantra, which focus on experiencing the oneness of mantra, yantra, the human body, and the corresponding divine force.
Although a discussion of these topics is beyond the scope of this article, taking a brief look at the inner significance and the symbolic meaning of the five makaras will provide a glimpse of the true intent of left-hand tantra.