Growing up in the village I was the fascinated witness of numerous simple tantric practices. For example, there were those in the village who did not seem to possess a profound knowledge of philosophy or spirituality but who had extraordinary healing powers. I saw that some of them could neutralize the effect of a cobra bite by using tantric mantras (a practice still common in the villages today). The instant they heard that someone had been bitten, they considered it their duty to drop everything and rush to the victim’s aid. They never accepted anything in return.
This was also the case with the malis, a particular group of villagers who knew the ritual of certain herbs, which gave them the ability to cure smallpox. Like those who could heal snakebites, the malis felt that they were morally obliged to come to the aid of those infected by smallpox and arrest the spread of the disease through their practices by restoring harmony in the atmosphere.
Another tantric phenomenon centered around a bowl which could be used to identify a thief. The technique was simple. If an object was stolen, the bowl would be passed around and when it reached the thief it became so hot that it would blister his hand. Another gentleman, who was not even recognized as a tantric, had yet another metal bowl that served as the locus for his power to find objects stolen by others. To him that bowl was a living entity and every day he worshiped the power contained in it. Everyone but the thieves admired him. If something was stolen, he could invoke the force of that bowl, which would then float through the air to the place where the object was hidden. If the object was buried, the bowl would spin on the ground above that spot.
Years later, when I joined the university, first in Banaras and later in Allahabad, I had the opportunity to meet tantrics of such stature that my mind still cannot comprehend them. Among them were Swami Sadananda, Bhagawan Ram Aughar, Pramath Nath Avadhut, Damaru Wale Baba, Bhuta Baba, and Datia Wale Swami, to name only a few. These masters were not interested in performing miracles, yet miracles manifested through them as sparks emerge from a flame.
For example, snakes, monkeys, leopards, and other wild beasts followed Damaru Wale Baba as he walked in the jungles of Assam. Whenever he made a special offering called shiva bali during a special tantric group practice known as chakra puja, a female jackal would invariably materialize out of thin air to accept it. Datia Wale Swami, an adept of one of the most esoteric tantric paths, known as bagala mukhi, was able to immobilize bullets that had already been fired, a feat witnessed by hundreds of people in central India.
During my college years I became so absorbed in the study of logic, Western philosophy, and non-tantric schools of Indian philosophy that I began to doubt the miraculous path of tantra and the extraordinary feats that I had seen with my own eyes. My enchantment with the academic study of philosophy, which places exclusive emphasis on logic and pure reason, led me to believe that tantric phenomena were mere acts of magic.
A little later, when I was initiated by my master, Sri Swami Rama (who himself represented the lineage of Shankaracharya, the founder of Vedanta philosophy), my skepticism about rituals and the existence of a divinity outside me (such as the one which is supposed to reside in shrines and temples) became even more entrenched. For a time, when I was living in Swami Rama’s company, I focused only on such practices that can be validated scientifically and intellectually. But before long I witnessed a series of events that brought me back to my original belief in tantra.
One such event took place while I was traveling with a group of Americans visiting one of tantrism’s most prominent shrines, Jwala Mukhi, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was the last day of a nine-day celebration called Nava Ratri, and there were tens of thousands of pilgrims in the vicinity. The line to the shrine was at least half a mile long, and it was moving slower than a slug. The sun was hot, even by Indian standards. Understaffed and overwhelmed, the police were managing the crowd by forcing it to move through a maze to reduce the congestion.
I was worried that the Americans, who were not accustomed to such heat, might collapse long before we reached the shrine.
By the time our group managed to separate itself from the main crowd in the bazaar and squeeze into line we had already finished our water. I was worried that the Americans, who were not accustomed to such heat, might collapse long before we reached the shrine. While I was pondering what to do, a gentleman approached me and said with authority, “You should go and ask the police. They will let you and the people with you go to the temple without following the line.”
We were so close to the tail end of the line that I did not see any police, so I asked, “What police?”
“You people follow me,” he replied, asking me to tell the group to ignore everyone and simply stay behind us. He went ahead, shouting, “Hey, move! Let these people through.” And as he walked, the crowd opened, giving him and those following him room to pass. I was so busy keeping the group together that I had no time to wonder why the crowd was parting so willingly in his presence.
As we neared the temple we finally met the policemen, and our guide instructed me to talk to them. By this time I realized that something mysterious was going on, so I tried to watch him while I initiated a conversation with the police. Other members of the group were watching him too. But as soon as I spoke, he disappeared right before our eyes.
From that point on, everyone around us appeared to be enchanted. When we arrived at the main hall, the police and the temple authorities blocked the line. They let the pilgrims already inside the temple go out, and then asked us to enter through the exit passage. In peace and privacy we paid our homage to the eternal flame, which had been flaring out from the walls of the cave for untold ages.
Later, when I talked about this incident to some of the learned people associated with that shrine, they told me with unshakable conviction that the gentleman was either Guru Gorakhnatha, an immortal sage who lives there, or one of the attendant forces of the Divine Mother. And when I asked my gurudeva (who always taught “Look within and find within”) if this was a mass hallucination or, if not, how something outside of me could be so powerful and real, he replied, “Why can’t the Divinity that is inside you be outside you too? It is everywhere. Due to the age-long sadhana of the adepts, the Divine Force dwells in such places in a condensed, concentrated, and vibrant form.
“The Divinity Awakened within you helps you find the Divinity outside you.”
“There is nothing like reality being within or without,” my gurudeva continued. “The wall between within and without is only for those who are ignorant. The Divinity awakened within you helps you find the Divinity outside you, and vice versa.” This answer allowed me to comprehend the basic premise of tantra: “Yatha pindande, tatha brahmande—Whatever is in the body is also in the universe.”
Tantric sites—such as Kamakhya in Assam; the Chinnamasta shrine in Bihar; Datia, Khajuruho, and Ujjain in central India; Pashupati Nath in Nepal; and Kali Math, Sri Nagar, Bhairav Ghati, Tunganath, Kedarnath, and Chamunda Devi in the Indian Himalayas—are the living abodes of tantra. Here we can meet adepts in whose presence we can experience the full spectrum of tantra—from tantra for healing scorpion stings, curing fever and psychosomatic diseases, and producing fire from the mouth, all the way to tantra for cultivating retentive power, awakening kundalini, having a direct vision of the chosen deity, developing clairvoyance, and attaining the highest spiritual illumination through the practice of yantras such as Kala Chakra and Sri Chakra.