The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 8, 2003

Quest in the realm of tantra
Krishan Malhotra

Mahayana Tantra: An Introduction
by Shri Dharamakirti, Penguin, New Delhi. Rs 200.

Mahayana Tantra: An IntroductionTHIS book may be called as ‘Experiments with Truth’ because it not only offers an exposition of Mahayana Tantra but it records the personal experiences of the author in the realm of spirituality. The author is a disciple of His Holiness The Fourteenth Dalai Lama. He was born in a Sikh family at Shimla, in the Himalayan mountains. He studied bio-chemistry in college, and later worked as an advertising executive and computer programmer. After encountering the Prasangika Madhyamika system of Arya Nagarjuna, he left home when he was 27 and became the disciple of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. During the six years he spent at the feet of his Guru in Dharamsala, he received the initiations and was inducted into the lineage of Lama Tsongkhapa. He now lives in the Kulu Valley, and occasionally teaches. This book seems like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The author himself says."... this book is not only an account of my explorations into the ‘body of reality’ but also, in an immediate and intimate sense, an exploration into the heart of Mother India.’

The writer is aware that many persons have not only misgivings about tantra, but they look down upon it with cynicism. Quite a few modern educated Indians regard the mere mention of the word tantra with suspicion. It evokes images of shady sadhus and yogis stalking the corridors of power in Delhi and of fake godmen, conning the gullible with mumbo-jumbo. They associate tantra with weird rituals to propitiate bloodthirsty goddesses and gods, animal and human sacrifice and with black magic. But the author wishes to dispel such wrong notion when he says, "Buddhist Tantra, which has been absent from the Indian mainstream for over a thousand years, is far removed from such shamanism". Perhaps what goes by the name of tantra today is the degenerated version of an ‘original’ Buddhist tantrik culture which flourished prior to the eighth century in various regions spanning from Khotan and Bamiyan to Kashmir and the Swat Valley (in Pakistan); from Dhaka and Angkor to Andhra Pradesh. And these regions were devastated by the sword of Islam.


The only region that escaped unscathed was Tibet where the renowned Indian Buddhist gurus began transplanting the crucial lineages of tantra, starting in the eighth century with great guru Padmasambhava who travelled from India to Tibet, to the eleventh century when Dipankara Shri Gyan Atisha, who was also known as the last great ‘Lion of Dharma’, went to Tibet, worked and died there. The writer finds a close cultural relationship between Indian and Tibet and asserts, "It is my belief that many Indian practitioners and disciples of these gurus followed their masters to Tibet after dying in India and being reborn in Tibet, as Tibetans."

Eulogising the role of the practitioner of Mahayana Buddhist Tantra, the author calls him a marvellous being — a spiritual warrior par excellence. Unbidden, such a person takes on the responsibility of delivering all sentient beings from Samsara, the recurrent cycle of birth-death and rebirth. The tantrik Bodhisattava dons the armour of moral discipline and patience and acquires the laser sharp intellectual sword of madhyamic reasoning that penetrates to the heart of reality." After using the metaphor of warrior for such a person he delineates his task on the battle-field of life. But his tools are of a rare and peculiar nature for fulfilling his task. He carries with him the impenetrable ‘shield of universal compassion.’ The author defines his task when he says, ‘Riding on the two-winged white steed of Bodhichitta, such a one proceeds to seek out and decapitate the two greatest enemies of those aspiring to the spiritual path — ‘self grasping’ and ‘self-cherishing’." Tantrik Bodhisattava uses that gem to attain the highest possible state of existence —Buddhahood — a union of the omniscient mind and immortal form. He then proceeds to work ceaselessly, in countless bodies, to deliver all sentient beings over the endless continuum of their lives, stretching over vast periods of time.

The most convincing thing about the book is tenacity of the author who bases his exposition on his personal experience. This empiricism of the author can have an impact on any agnostic in modern times. The author asserts, "This is not an allegory or a myth but a realistic undertaking. An example of this was Buddha himself who started out as an un-omniscient mortal like the rest of us. Having achieved Enlightenment, he taught others how to achieve this state."