Paolo E. Rosati
PhD in Indology, Independent scholar
POWER AND MEMORY AT KĀMĀKHYĀ
The aim of this article is to shed light on the intersection of memory and power at Kamakhya – the most eminent among the śakti-pīṭhas, because there the Goddess is worshipped in her non-anthropomorphic form of a yoni-stone. According to the Kaula-Tantra of mediaeval Assam, the yoni was an inestimable source of power, worshipped through extreme sexual rites. Today, instead, public worship of the yoni has been distorted and normalised. In fact, eroticism fell into the oblivion of religious amnesia, although traces of it are still implicitly present in ritual and festivals.
All photos belonging to this article are taken by the author
Hinduism: A synthesis of memory and power
The history of the Indian subcontinent is far more complex than a Cartesian binary and parallel division between mainstream and marginal traditions. On the contrary, as a number of sociological studies have pointed out, mainstream and marginal cultures have intertwined and interacted throughout Indian history, thus originating what is commonly defined as Hinduism. Indeed, there was no one-way Brahmanic influence over the marginal traditions of South Asia, shaping it under the blows of Sanskritbased culture (i.e. Hinduisation). The marginal cultures were not passive and did not renounce their socio-cultural identity completely, although they sometimes appropriated elements perceived as symbols of high status. On the other hand, what is called paro-chialisation played a fundamental role in the shaping of Hinduism throughout south Asia.
People at the margins, indeed, were able to transform what they appropriated and to reject whatever clashed with their former tradition. Hence, during the twentieth century, sociolog-ical, anthropological and historical studies evidenced the necessity to rethink South Asian religions through the lenses of trans and cross-cultural processes. The idea of India as a battlefield where Sanskritbased traditions and oral-based ones, pure and impure, orthodox and heterodox, etc., entered into conflict without any mutual influence was swept aside. The socio-cultural dynamics that stands at the origin of what is called Hinduism is far more complex than an oversimplified image of two that became one.
This oversimplified position was often linked to the theory of jāti (caste) as a closed system. Instead, it was and still is an extremely fluid system, which depends on the flow of power. In the same way, the formation of Hinduism was influenced by politics and power relations. According to Michel Foucault’s theory of power 1, power is neither an agency nor a structure but may be described as a regime of truth that pervades society. Power cannot be represented as a pyramid, its summit pervaded by the highest degree of power, while a constant decrease of power is found climbing down to its base. On the contrary, power circulates and is everywhere. This flow of power in the Indian sub-continent underlines the very important role of the marginal, non-orthodox and, even, tribal world in the definition of Hinduism as a religious phenomenon that includes a number of variegated traditions. Hinduism has consequently been shaped in different ways throughout its complex history, in order to systematise the trans- and cross-cultural dialectics that stands at its multifarious origins.
Kāmākhyā was a new Hindu Goddess who incorporated the traits of a number of local goddesses, whose worship was centred on the fertilisation and the dead cult
Hence, any idea of a dichotomisation of purity versus impurity in the Brahmanic context is an old-fashion colonial approach to the study of Hinduism. There is, indeed, no Hindu tradition based on purely Brahmanic theology. In fact, even the Vedic texts throughout their verses show a number of elements that are probably the result of cross-cultural interaction with non-Brahmanic people, with whom the early Vedic groups entered in contact during their migrations in the Indian sub-continent2. In the Ṛgveda, the origin of the caste system is associated with the myth of dismemberment of the puruṣa (cosmic man), while the primordial incest of the father (the Sky) with the daughter (Aurora) turns the wheel of creation as a sexual act3. Both myths mark the inconsistency of any Vedic-Brahmanic cultural pattern of purity against impurity. Eroticism (incest too) and blood offerings were therefore not taboo tout court, and find justification within the Vedic past.
Fig. 1 Menstruating Goddess, Temple of Kāmākhyā (2016).
Since the disintegration of the Gupta Empire in the sixth century, Hinduism has flourished as a trans-cultural system, as the multiplication of regional and sectarian Puranic and Tantric literature testifies. On the one hand, such texts sought legitimation from the Vedas, which were recognised as sacred traditions, while on the other hand, regional purāṇas and tantras were raised to the rank of canonical scripture, whose norms and values should be followed by devotees in order to reach religious goals, such as gnosis, siddhis (supernatural powers), and mokṣa (liberation). Since Hinduism manifested a profound capacity for an active and passive adaptation of and to otherness, it has adopted alien uses and customs in some regional contexts, while rejecting them in others. When Hinduism clashed with marginal religions, it either shaped them (i.e. through Hinduisation) or was shaped by them (i.e. tribalisation4, or deshification), indissolubly stratifying cross-and transcultural elements. This shape-shifting quality was the crucial element in the formation process of the Hinduised mediaeval states of India5. In fact, the Hindu rājas often raised non-Brahmanic deities to the rank of iṣṭadevatā (chosen deity), underpinning a relevant role of what were described fallaciously as minor south Asian traditions.
Since early mediaeval times therefore, Hin-duism has emerged as a blend of traditions. It stratified old Vedic theology with marginal and, even, tribal beliefs, often creating newer regional theologies based on canonical Sanskrit scriptures. On the one hand, these newer scriptures traced their roots back to Vedic sacredness while, on the other, they showed great skill in blending ancient myths, rituals and symbols with uses and customs of marginal, and often oral, traditions. Hinduism has been extremely versatile in accepting, modifying and adapting what Brahmanism perceived as alien, influencing the further development of Hindu-Tantra. Tantra, indeed, in myths, rituals and festivals, usually reinterpreted, reversed and subverted Vedic theology in the light of marginal ideologies6.
The yoni of Kāmākhyā: Origin and development of a stratified Tantric symbol
The first step of Tantra within the Hindu context was the rise of the śakti-pīṭhas (seats of power) during early mediaeval times, as a Tantric network where the Goddess was worshipped in one or other of her multifarious forms through explicit (left-hand Tantra) or implicit (right-hand Tantra) blood sacrifices and sexual rites. The sacred geography of the God-dess, however, has been susceptible to change and her ‘thrones’ in the Sanskrit tradition vary from four to 110. Today, numbering the God-dess’s cult centres is unrealistic, although those that base their tradition on the Puranic mythology of Satī’s death are among the most emi-nent. Satī, Śiva’s first wife, sacrificed her body by performing tapas (heat) to protest against her and her husband’s exclusion from the great sacrifice (yajña) arranged by her father Dakṣa. While in the very early Matsyapurāṇa (13.1–64) and in other relevant Puranic texts, such as the Lingapurāṇa (1.99–100), and the Śivapurāṇa (2.2.26–27), the suicide of the God-dess was not followed by the dismemberment of her corpse, this pivotal episode caused the rise of the Goddess’s pīṭhas, each of which preserves a particular limb of Satī. The first text that narrates the dismemberment of Satī in detail is the Kālikāpurāṇa—a Sanskrit source compiled in north-eastern India, whose actual recension is no later than the eleventh century. It recounts that from the sacrifice of the God-dess, seven pīṭhas emerged7, in opposition to the often-supported theory that originåally the seats of the Goddess (adī-pīṭhas) were four (catuṣpīṭhas)8. The Kālikāpurāṇa (62.75–76) attested Kāmākhyā (Kāmarūpa)9 as the most eminent of the śakti-pīṭhas10, because it was there that Satī’s yoni (vulva) fell and was pre-served11, her most powerful body part12.
After the yoni of Satī fell there, indeed, Śiva accompanied her wife in the form of a liṅga (phallus) in every pīṭha. Kāmākhyā is not only the yoni-pīṭha, but also the Goddess who presides over a hillock in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam, renowned as the blue mountain (nīlācala) and the mountain of love-making (kāmagiri). This is therefore one of countless aspects that the Goddess has assumed in south Asia. Kāmākhyā inhabits the yoni-stone, the main cultic object concealed inside the gar-bhagṛha (i.e. sanctum) of her shrine on top of Nilachal. Nevertheless, although there is no liṅga idol inside her sanctum, the Puranic myth narrates that the mountain itself represents Śiva’s sexual organ. The macrocosmic symbolism of Śiva-Śakti is thus enhanced at the shrine of Kāmākhyā, permeated by the powerful as well as dangerous śakti (energy) of the yoni.
Among countless Hindu traditions, the Śākta-Tantra cult of the goddess Kāmākhyā emerged in Assam during the early mediaeval period. The cult of a Goddess of Nilachal is at-tested in epigraphic records since the middle of the fourth century CE. Kāmākhyā was a new Hindu Goddess, incorporating the traits of a number of local goddesses, whose worship centred on fertilisation and the cult of the dead. It is speculated that her cult became the official religion of the royal family around the middle of the ninth century when the Śālastambhas were reigning over Kāmarūpa. The Śālastamb-ha dynasty was described in later inscriptions by the Pālas of Kāmarūpa as a mleccha dynasty– an adjective that traced their roots back to the peripheral world of forests and mountains.
The dismemberment of the lifeless body of Satī thus stands at the origin of the abode of Kāmākhyā. More specifically, her yoni became the central icon of worship at the shrine after it fell on Nilachal at the mythical time of Satī’s death. This main Śākta myth reflects an ‘apocalyptic act’ within the Brahmanic universe; its narrative ‘twists’ and ‘reverses’ the original sacrifice of the puruṣa13. Furthermore, this myth wove alien Śākta elements into the Brahmanic patriarchal view. Nilachal consequently maintained its ancient association with the funerary imaginary through its close link to the death of Satī, assuming status as one of her earthly tombs. Furthermore, the mountain became the symbol of the indissoluble Śiva-Śakti union, the most secret place where the gods made love.
Today, the shrine of Kāmākhyā is part of a larger temple complex on top of Nilachal. As well as a substantial number of minor Hindu shrines, it comprises the temples of the ten Mahāvidyās, a group of Tantric goddesses linked to death and sexual imaginary. Kāmākhyā was included in the late mediaeval period as the leader of the Mahāvidyās, when this cluster of deities supplanted another group of terrifying goddesses, the yoginīs of the Kaula tradition14. Among the Mahāvidyās, Kālī, Tārā, Bhu-vaneśvarī, Chinnamastā, Bhairavī, Dhūmāvatī and Bagalāmukhī have their private shrines on the hill, whereas Kāmākhyā is worshipped together Mātaṅgī and Kamalā inside the garb-hagṛha of the Kāmākhyā temple. None of the Mahāvidyās is represented in anthropomorphic form inside her gabhagṛha – an iconographic trait that also connects these deities to the marginal goddesses of India.
Fig. 2 Heads of sacrificed goats Sacrificial hall, Temple of Kāmākhyā (2016).
The yoni of Kāmākhyā is linked deeply with the Kaula past and its living memory is thus implicitly mirrored in the daily yonipūjā (worship of the yoni). For the Kaulas, indeed, the yoni was the source and essence of their doctrine – the “mouth of the yoginīs”.
Another peculiarity of the shrine of Kāmākhyā is the lack of any phallic Śaiva emblem in its garbhagṛha, making the yoni the supreme cultic object covered permanently by a stream oozing from the rocks inside her subterranean sanctum. The goddess Kāmākhyā resides inside the yoni15, and also pervades the water16, the implicit symbol of her sexual fluids. Her garbhagṛha is a subterranean chamber, reached after the devotees have climbed down a number of steps. It is extremely dark and claustrophobic and clearly symbolises the female womb. The sexual union, however, of male and female energies is implicitly symbolised by the mountain that supports the yoni placed at its top.
Hindu shrines usually house anthropomorphic mūrtis (images) of deities; Hindu-Tantric ones however seldom shelter an anthropomorphic image of the presiding deity inside the gabhagṛha. On the contrary, they house symbols, such as yantras (diagrams), or natural elements, such as stones. This has suggested the oversimplified idea that Tantra inherited this trait from its ancestral tribal roots, since the shrines of tribal, low-caste, popular and folk traditions (the marginal traditions of India) usually house non-anthropomorphic mūrtis within their gabhagṛhas. There is, however, no general rule; indeed, it is possible to stumble upon both Brahmanic shrines with no central image of the deity and marginal shrines with an anthropomorphic or humanised mūrti. The style of representation of the central icons i-side the temples, indeed, does not reflect any obvious cultural association, but a deep dialectic between mainstream and marginal traditions.
The main mūrti of Kāmākhyā is the yoni-stone, indissolubly linked to the water that flows over it. This sacred aggregate palpably recalls the female and her erotic aspect. Devotees cannot see the divine mūrti because is covered by water, but experience the darśana (seeing) by touching it.17 This ritual act traces back a link to the Middle Ages, when Nilachal was an early Yoginī Kaula centre. The Yoginī Kaula school was founded by Matsyedranātha in the ninth–tenth century in Kāmarūpa. Indeed, he was initiated there by a circle of yoginīs into Kaula gnosis18. The Tantric sect centred on the cult of sixty-four yoginīs, which has its roots ‘outside the orthodox Brahmanic traditions’19. Its systematisation within the Kaula fold was also influenced by other traditions already accepted within Hinduism, such as the cult of the seven or eight matṛs (mothers)20.
The yoni of Kāmākhyā is linked deeply with the Kaula past and its living memory is thus implicitly mirrored in the daily yonipūjā (worship of the yoni). For the Kaulas, indeed, the yoni was the source and essence of their doctrine – the ‘mouth of the yoginīs’ 21. Its worship and the consumption of its secretions was a funda-mental Kaula ritual involving male and female practitioners – the latter homologated as yoginīs, becoming humanised goddesses and central elements in the ritual praxis 22. The sexual rite was very secret and powerful; it was reserved for initiates who, through the yonipūjā, aspired to obtain siddhis (accomplishments). The main siddhis, for example, include the power to control one’s own and others’ body and mind, or the power to paralyse – thus outlining a very narrow boundary between white and black magic 23.
Today, the daily worship of the yoni is the most important ritual performed in the temple of Kāmākhyā, although animal sacrifices to honour the Goddess, performed in a sacrificial open hall attached to the main temple, also play a relevant part in the daily ritual praxis. Every day dozens of hegoats are slaughtered to empower Kāmākhyā through their blood, a substitute for human sacrifices that used to glorify the Goddess up to the 1950s. Today, worshippers of the goddess Kāmākhyā practise blood offerings and the yonipūjā to obtain supernatural powers. Most of the pilgrims arrive at the Kāmākhyā shrine to ask for boons from the Mother Goddess of Assam, such as health for their children, protection for a coming marriage, etc. Unfortunately, whether some Śākta devotees also look for black magic powers nowadays cannot so far be determined 24. Nevertheless, the memory of the mediaeval Kaula ritual is still metaphorically alive at Kāmākhyā.
Memory and power in the Tantric tradition of Kāmākhyā
Among the Hindu religions, Tantra emerged as a multifarious phenomenon that preserves, in distinct stages, a hidden past with a distorted memory, from a deep and centuries-long trans- and cross-cultural dialectic. At Kāmākhyāpīṭha, memory of the mediaeval Yoginī Kaula tradition of the yonipūjā as the fundamental initiation rite to obtain both siddhis and religious gnosis is preserved in a distorted public ritual open to devotees of different sectarian strands. Thus, the mediaeval erotic ritual was ‘sweetened’ and ‘exotericized’ over the centuries xxv, and is nowadays a desexualised ritual act; notwithstanding this, it preserves a distorted memory of its left-hand Tantra roots.
Memory of the cult’s eroticism has been distorted through centuries of cultural dialectic involving both the religious and the secular com-munities. Why has the yonipūjā been affected by distortion? It is suggested that it depends on socio-cultural changes between the mediaeval and the colonial period, when left-hand Tantra was first ostracised. Indeed, when socio-cultural frameworks change or vanish, oblivion prevails over memory, and a distorted memory is transmitted as tradition xxvi. Eroticism fell into a religious amnesia, although traces of a doctrine of desire can be traced, albeit only in ritual and festivals, where eroticism is still implicitly present.
In the Middle Ages, the sexual element was believed to be an inestimable though dangerous source of power, which only Tantric kings or their appointed Tantric specialists could harness and use to strengthen their kingship. Indeed, most of the magic powers released through worship of the yoni were needed by kings to defeat and subjugate their external enemies and domestic opponents. In the history of Assam, the resurgence of Vaiṣṇavism in the sixteenth century and British colonial dominion in the nineteenth–twentieth centuries marked two periods when left-hand Tantra was subject to ritual sanitisation and exotericisation. The end of the mediaeval Indian states and the change in the political context over the last five hundred years has thus deeply influenced the local collective memory. The community of Kāmākhyā has been unable to preserve the eroticism of the cult, although their shared memory does not forget the Puranic myth of Satī’s death and mutilation, daily repeated both in the public hegoat sacrifices and the exotericised worship of the yoni.
- Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 3–31; Foucault, History of Sexuality, 92–98.
- I partially investigated the non-Brahmanic traits within the episode of the conflict between Dakṣa and Śiva, tracing their history back to the Vedic texts in Rosati, “The Yoni Cult”, 281–83.
Ṛgveda 10.90; 10.61.1–9.
- See Rosati, “The Goddess Kāmākhyā”, 140.
- Kulke, “Tribal Deities”, 56-78.
- Marginal cultures too during their history have incorporated Brahmanic deities and praxis within their own pantheon and rituals. This process has been insufficiently studied, and should be interpreted while considering south Asian vernacular religious literature.
- The dakṣayajña as the episode that stands at the origin of the śakti-pīṭha network has been analysed in detail in Sircar, The Śakti-Pīṭhas. In my article, “The Yoni Cult”, I focused on the origin of this mythology, which since the Vedic mythologem has shown deep cross-cultural dialectic.
- The catuṣpīṭhas’ theory is founded, indeed, on an esoteric early-mediaeval Buddhist text, the Hevajratantra (1.7).
- The kingdom of Kāmarūpa, at its largest extent, covered approximately the actual states of Assam, Meghalaya, parts of Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Bhutan.
- See also the Kaulajñānanirṇaya (8.20).
- According to the Kālikāpurāṇa (18.41–43), Satī’s navel also fell on Kāmagiri (the abode of the goddess Kāmākhyā), while Eastern Kāmarūpa preserves the head of the Goddess. Her feet are preserved at Devīkūṭa (Bengal), her arms along with her neck fell on Pūrṇagiri (supposed to be in Karnataka), while her breasts are preserved in Jālandhara (Himachal Pradesh).
- The Kālikāpurāṇa influenced the later north-east-ern purāṇas, which are the only ones to narrate the dismemberment of the Goddess, a topic that other regional Puranic traditions skipped.
- Urban, “The Path of Power”, 788
- See Shin, “Yoni, Yoginīs and Mahāvidyās”.
- See Kālikāpurāṇa 62.75; Kāmākhyātantra 1.4.
- Yoginītantra 1.11.37a.
- See Lussana, “Fluid Mother Goddess,” 77–78.
- Kaulajñānanirṇaya 16.21–22; 18.22b; see also White, “Kiss of the Yoginīs”, 106.
- Dehejia, Yoginī Cult and Temples, 1–2, 68.
- On the evolution of the mātṛs (mothers) through the Sanskrit Epic to the Puranic and Tantric tradi-tion, see Shin, “From Mātṛgaṇas to Saptamātṛkās”.
- Tantrāloka 29.122a–26a; 127b–28b.
- The women’s role in this ritual has been debated deeply through the lens of gender studies, to un-derstand if the woman was a mere ritual object or a deity; see Biernacki, The Renowned Goddess.
- I thoroughly debated this topic in a recent presentation at the annual conference of the British Association for South Asian Studies, entitled, “Woman and Magic in the Yoginī Kaula: The Yoni as Source of Power” (the University of Durham, UK, 3 April 2019).
- On the relationship between Tantra and black magic in Assam, see Majo-Garigliano “Narratives about Assam”, 75n26.
- See Urban, Power of Tantra, 167–72.
- Halbwachs, Mémoire, 279.
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