The Role of Women in Tantra

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

In tantra there are two important poles of energy known as Shiva and Shakti. In fact, Shiva and Shakti have various spheres of existence and operation in the cosmos and in the individual. In the ordinary human society man and woman represent Shiva and Shakti respectively. In the universal mind, time and space represent Shiva and Shakti aspects. In spiritual life, mind and prana represent Shiva and Shakti. In hatha yogic texts, these two Shaktis are known as ida and pingala. Ida represents the consciousness and pingala represents the life force, or prana.

These two Shaktis are the opposite poles of energy. Ordinarily, they are never together, but at the time of creation, they meet at a point of union on every sphere. In the universal mind, time and space come together at the nucleus, and when they unite, then the explosion takes place in matter. Here, time is represented by plus energy and space by minus energy.

Aspects of awakening

In the ordinary human society, man and woman are the two different poles of energy. These energy poles have been discussed in detail in the ancient tantric tradition. You may have seen a photograph of Kali standing practically naked, with one foot placed on Shiva, who is flat on the ground. She has a ferocious expression, a blood stained tongue and a mala of 108 human skulls. That is Kali in the awakened state. You may also have come across some pictures, though they are very rare, of Shiva seated in lotus posture. Half of his body is Shiva and half is Shakti. Then, you may have seen the picture of Shiva and Parvati sitting in the position of guru and disciple. Shiva is seated in lotus posture, and Parvati is seated on a lower platform. Shiva is instructing her in the secrets of tantra. These are three examples. The fourth example, you may also have heard about. About 110 miles from Monghyr is a very important centre of tantra known as Tarapeetha. There you can see Lord Shiva sucking at the breast of Shakti.

These are the relationships between Shiva and Shakti at different levels of evolution and awakening. At one point, Shakti is the disciple and Shiva is the guru; that is, woman is the disciple and man is the guru. At another level, they are not at all different. Shiva and Shakti are intertwined together in one body, one frame and one idea. At yet another level of evolution, Shakti is supreme and Shiva is subservient. Now, this is the philosophical interpretation of the stages of awakening of the inherent shakti in everybody.

Spiritual awareness of the woman

In the tantric tradition, the woman is considered to be higher than the man so far as the tantric initiations are concerned. This should by no means be understood as a social claim. It is purely a spiritual attitude in relation to the evolution of higher consciousness. The frame of a woman, her emotions, and her psychic evolution is definitely higher than that of a man. Awakening of the spiritual force, that is, kundalini, is much easier in the body of a woman than in the body of a man.

Besides this, there is another important point that we have to understand. Generally, a man who goes into the deeper realms of mind and comes out, is not able to bring those experiences back with him, but a woman can. It seems to me that there is very little difference between a woman's inner and outer awareness. When you go very deep into your consciousness, you have certain experiences. But when you return from that deeper state of mind to the gross awareness, a veil falls in between those experiences and the conscious mind. In the case of a woman, this veil does not fall.

Apart from this, the psychic being of a woman is highly charged with spiritual awareness. The external expression that you will find in a woman or in a girl - love for beauty, tenderness, sympathy, understanding, are expressions of her inner state. I usually make a joke. I say, if all women leave this world, it would become a desert. There would be no colours, perfumes, smiles or beauty. This indicates that the inner awareness of woman is very receptive and ready to explode.

In the realm of kundalini yoga also, the woman's body is charged by a particular centre. Mooladhara chakra in the male body is intricately situated in a very congested area. Men do moola bandha and still nothing happens. But in a woman's body, you can even touch mooladhara with your fingers. Therefore, awakening can take place in a woman's body much more quickly than in the body of a man.

Another important point is that woman has always been the main transporter of energy and man the medium. The woman may not be your wife; she could be your mother, daughter or disciple. Mary was Christ's mother. The Mother of Aurobindo Ashram was a disciple. In the same way, in the tantric tradition, there is the story of the sixty four yoginis. The word yogini is the feminine gender of yogi. Now, these yoginis are worshipped all over India. There are sixty four temples dedicated to the sixty four aspects of feminine energy. One of them is in Assam, another in Calcutta at Kali Ghat.

Vama Marga

Now, when we study the books on tantra, we clearly come across one central theme: Shakti is the creator, and Shiva is instrumental. Shiva has never been considered a creator. One of the greatest thinkers and sages of India, Adi Shankaracharya, wrote in the first line of his most famous tantric work, 'Without Shakti, how can Shiva create?' Therefore, the Hindus have accepted the union of man and woman in order to facilitate the process of evolution through tantra.

Although, from time to time, the relationship between man and woman has had different purposes due to the cultural influences from various parts of the world, in Hinduism we have continued to remain steadfast on one point, that the relationship between man and woman has a spiritual objective.

Therefore, in tantra, a woman's place is on the left side. Before marriage, the girl sits on the right side, and when the marriage ceremony has taken place, then she sits on the left. She is thus known as vama. In Sanskrit, 'vama' means one who is on the left side. Vama also refers to ida.

There is an old story about Sita and Rama. When Rama was over sixty years of age, his wife Sita became pregnant and went to live for some time in the ashram of a saint. During this period, one of Sri Rama's duties as emperor was to perform a certain religious ceremony. However, the wise men ruled that he could not perform that ceremony without his wife in attendance. Because Sita could not be present and the ceremony was compulsory, they constructed a statue of her, and when the ceremony was being conducted the statue was placed on Rama's left side.

Now, in western countries, vama marga is a very misunderstood concept. They call it 'left hand tantra', which is an incorrect translation. If you are reading a book on tantra and find the words 'left hand tantra', take a red pencil and cross them out. In tantra, vama marga actually means the path of spiritual evolution, which is practised with your wife. Marga means path and vama means the wife, the woman, the partner, whichever she may be.

Tantric relationship

In vama marga, it is Shakti who is important, not only in sexual life but in spiritual practices, carrying out the processes of creation and in conducting most of the spiritual rituals. Amongst Hindus, all the rituals, religious and otherwise, are mainly conducted by women; men have to sit quietly. Woman is the commissioner; man is the participant. Whether it is an ordinary social ceremony, a religious ceremony, the worship of sonic deity, or a day of fasting, it is the woman who has to introduce it. The man just has to follow her. This is the tradition in India known as initiation from the woman to the man.

Now, what is vama marga? It is the spiritual path which can be practised along with your partner. The second division is called kalachakra. This involves the mother giving initiation in the son. The north of Bihar particularly is the centre for this type of initiation. Up to the borders of Nepal in the north. Assam in the east, and Uttar Pradesh in the west, is the area in which the kalachakra initiation is prevalent, even today. According to this tradition, the son considers his mother a goddess. Every morning, just as Christians go to church on Sundays or Hindus go to the temple and bow down before the deity, or do some sort of prostration, in the same way, the son approaches his mother. This is not just a social respect that he pays to the elders of the family. It is a spiritual adoration which is performed, not because she is his mother, but because she is his guru.

The same thing is done in vama marga as well, but here it is not the son, but the partner who prostrates before the woman. Then the spiritual mark or mark of blessing has to be put. It is she who places it on him, not he who places it on her.

So these are the two important roles in which the woman is involved in tantra. It is a sad mistake to consider the woman in tantra only as a sexual partner. Sexual life is important, but it is not the only relationship that can exist between a man and woman. After all, your mother is also a woman, so too is your daughter, as well as your wife. Now, are you going to have the tantric relationship with all these, or are you going to have sexual relationships with all of them?

Misuse of tantra

At present the west is rebelling against its own religion. That is why they are confusing and misinterpreting tantra. They are trying to create anarchy in the sexual sphere of man. Many teachers in India are also confused on this matter. In tantra you don't have to fight with your religion or tradition. Tantra never said that sexual life is a sin. It says that sexual interaction is a natural urge; do it if you like. Religion in the west has said it is a sin; only one man was born without sin, and all the rest were born with sin. Naturally you have to rise above that guilt.

So you have to find some sort of explanation for sexual life, and tantra has become a cover. Tantric thought is very clear and straightforward regarding this point. A verse in one of the ancient texts states that there is no harm if you drink wine, eat meat, or indulge in the sexual act. These are natural urges of all human beings, but if you can transcend them, your spiritual progress will be very rapid. As such, tantra should not become a cover for any particular urge in human life.

The woman comes first

In tantra the role of initiator is shifted from the male to the female. Ramakrishna Paramahansa always considered his wife Sarada as Devi, or goddess. In Sanskrit Devi means illumined or illustrious. When Ramakrishna was married, he was very young and his wife was still a child, but he only regarded her as the Divine Mother. That is how he always behaved towards her, and that is what he considered her to be.

In tantra, the woman has to be dealt with very carefully because she is the high tension line for kundalini energy. You do not have to be afraid of her, but you have to be very careful, because in her lies the potentiality of a great explosion, if you have a wife, well, she is your wife. But if she is going to be a tantric partner in your spiritual life, then it is for a different purpose and then the process is entirely different,

In India, right from the beginning, there has been this tradition. Whenever you make a reference to a man and woman, you always refer to the woman first and then the man. We never say Ram Sita, we always say Sita Ram. You never hear Shyam Radhe: it is Radhe Shyam, Radha being the feminine and Shyam the masculine. This is because in the scheme of evolution. Shakti comes first and Shiva comes next. With this attitude, if you go On in spiritual life, either with your wife, daughter or disciple, then you have to see that she is the activator and you are the participant in every sphere. Even if a man has realised the higher awareness, he will still have difficulty in communicating that to others if he does not bring a woman into the picture.

Hypothesis in hatha yoga

In tantra it is also to be remembered that there is another path called dakshina marga or Vedic tantra. Here the woman is not necessary, neither as daughter, mother or wife, because the aspirant is considered to have both forces within himself. Ida is feminine and pingala masculine, union between the mental and pranic forces is equivalent to union between a man and woman. That is the hypothesis in hatha yoga, ida is shakti and pingala is shiva. When they unite in ajna chakra, that is the real union. The seat of Shakti is in mooladhara. The seat of Shiva is in sahasrara. Shiva is in eternal yoga nidra there, inactive, unconcerned nameless and formless. He has nothing to do with destruction or creation. His consciousness is homogeneous and total. There is no vibration in sahasrara. Shakti is in mooladhara, and by the practices of yoga, you awaken her. She becomes aroused and makes headway through sushumna up to ajna. When Shakti reaches ajna chakra, union takes place.

Dance of Shiva

This union occurs when the two poles of energy come together. When you put on the switch, there is light, because the wires of the switch are uniting. In the same way, in ajna chakra, when union takes place, the explosion also simultaneously occurs. Then the energy created in ajna chakra moves up to sahasrara chakra. There Shiva and Shakti unite with each other, and when they unite, Shiva begins to dance. Perhaps you have seen a photo of Nataraja. That is the symbolic expression of the awakened Shiva.

When Shiva wakes up from his profound yoga nidra, then he begins to dance. I am not talking about a man, but a force. The awakening of that force in man is symbolised by the dance of Shiva in the form of Nataraja. Then Shakti and Shiva descend together through the same path to mooladhara. Both come down together to the mundane level, the gross plane. That is the path of the saints who come down and reach us from time to time. If you happen to read the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, you will understand about the awakening of energy and its union with Shiva, both of them dancing together and then coming down to our plane of existence. That is why in kriya yoga we have ascending and descending passages - arohan and awarohan.

Now, the role of women in the tantric tradition has been defined, but the position of women in the modern cultures is far from this. People all over the world are fighting with their own guilt and sin. If you wish to resurrect the pristine position of women today, then the whole attitude will have to be changed. In fact, our social structure will have to be based on a new concept of religious realities, in which the role of woman in mankind's spiritual evolution is fully understood and accepted. This is absolutely necessary for the emergence of a new society. And you will have to realise this very clearly, so that what you practise and teach is not a consequence of your own religious conflicts within.