by Octavio Salvado.
Tantra, by its very definition is ‘Expansive’. Tantra means to move beyond our limits and as such, it delivers a vast body of philosophical insights and an equally deep toolkit of practices and technologies to support those concepts.
We, as modern yogis are most familiar with the practice of Asana, which despite modern terming belongs to Tantra not Yoga. Nevertheless, Tantra’s scope is profoundly larger than dealing with bones and biomechanics.
Here are some of the major topics that Tantra covers: Consciousness, Prana, Kundalini, Creation and destruction of the physical universe, Worship of deities, Classification of beings, Astrology, Astronomy, Chakras, Nadis, Rituals, Initiations, Medicine, Ayurveda, Mantra, Yantra, Bandha, Mudra, Magic, Sex and Death.
These last three categories – Sex, Death and Magic, along with additional elements of certain other categories, comprise what is termed ‘Left Handed Tantra’, also known as Aghora.
On the other side of the fence, literally, is ‘Right Handed Tantra’, whose technologies comprise the foundation of what most of us regular (non-naked, non-ash smeared) Yogis practice today. The Right Handed path is considered the more ‘savory’ or pure path dealing primarily with the forces of light. (Cultural side note: In India and also here in Bali, the right hand is used for eating, praying, writing and greeting others, while the left hand is considered ‘dirty’ and used for less wholesome things, washing ourselves after going to the toilet for example).
Yet even though some of the Left Handed practices are confronting and often challenge our beliefs about morality and social acceptability, we cannot deny that these darker elements of Tantra exist as a part of the same system to which we prescribe and furthermore, that they even birthed some of our modern day yoga rituals that seem harmless to the uninitiated eye.
For instance, many of the practice done by Aghori’s or left handed Tantrikas happens in the cremation ground (Smashan in yoga-speak). One reason for this is that they will be left alone to do their work, but its also because wherever there is death, according to many traditions, the veil between the ordinary world and the subtle or spiritual dimension is very thin.
Not many people know it, but Savasana, the practice of lying corpse-like on the ground at the end of class, originates in the Smashan, except there, you actually lay or sit on top of an actual corpse. This practice is called ‘Sava-sadhana’.
The idea behind this kind of practice is TRANSMUTATION and to completely eradicate any hint of reactivity triggered by fear of an external stimulus. In Aghora, everything is fair game, quite simply, because it’s all God after all, isn’t it? Death, shit, blood and wine? It’s all Shiva, so why not embrace it all equally. This is the Left handed path and yes, there is a lot of magic involved it. In fact, it was magic that brought the west its first taste of Tantra.
Sir John Woodroffe, an English judge and scholar working in India during the British Rule in the late 1800’s one day found himself unable to pronounce a guilty verdict in court. It was an open and shut case, the man was clearly guilty, the evidence was there but for some reason, Woodroffe could not physically speak the word ‘Guilty’. The hearing was postponed and later, when Woodroffe consulted his Indian colleagues, they told him not to worry, that more than likely the family of the accused had paid an Aghori to put a temporary spell on him and that it would pass in a few days.
Sure enough, a few days passed and at the next hearing the man was pronounced guilty by Woodroffe and sent off to jail. It was this event that completely shook Woodroffe’s worldview and caused a chain reaction that would ultimately lead him to become a dedicated student of Tantra and author of the West’s first Tantric text, ‘Serpent Power.’ He published the book under the alias ‘Arthur Avalon’.
Likewise, here in Bali magic exists as an everyday norm. I can attest to that myself! About 6 weeks ago I developed a terrible chest infection that I simply couldn’t shake. I was also having a great deal of trouble sleeping. It was suggested to me that a jealous neighbor (yes… THE neighbor) had paid someone to put a curse on me and that if I wanted to get rid of these symptoms then getting the curse lifted was the only option.
By this stage it had been over a month and I was getting desperate. Nothing was working. So I went for it. I found a psychic spell-lifter and she told me straight, “you’ve been cursed”. So she went to work, moaning, burping and farting until peace was made on the spiritual dimension and I was freed of my curse. In all seriousness though… the cough disappeared the next day and I’ve been sleeping like a champion ever since. This is the world of Yoga, people. Sorry if I’ve shattered any illusions that Yoga is about hamstrings and sexy leggings. Yoga is alchemy. Yoga, straight up, is about magic.
And by far, Aghora leads the field in regards to the manipulation of matter, energy and consciousness. Unfortunately, although not surprisingly, the Left Handed path does come at a price however. Think about it, it’s just not possible to lead a regular human life and follow the Aghora path simultaneously, the split is just too dramatic. Drinking from a skull one moment and sipping coffee with friends at a cafe the next? Probably not.
So it is really the Right Handed path – Asana, pranayama, bandha, mudra, mantra and ritual that should interest us the most. Yes, perhaps it’s a little slower, however be clear on this: the results are the same – the removal of the sheathes that separate the world of flesh and bone from that of spirit and higher forces.
Welcome to the real world of Yoga.