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The “Mysteries of Woman” in East & West, Part 2

apsara [1]2,963 words

Part 1 of 2

Translation anonymous, edited by Greg Johnson

Editor’s Note:

The following essay was originally published in English in East and West, vol. 9, no. 4 (1958): 349–55. This is chapter 15 of Julius Evola, East and West: Comparative Studies in Pursuit of Tradition, ed. Greg Johnson, forthcoming from Counter-Currents in the summer of 2013.

Some have thought that, in addition to the Gnostic influences (the notion of Sophia, the female hypostases of Wisdom and of the Holy Spirit, etc.), the Fedeli d’Amore must have been influenced by some aspects of Islamic Sufism. Indeed, a literature did grow up on the margin of Sufism stressing the theme of love, of women, and of ecstasy, but with reference to mystic and spiritual experiences. However, it remains to be seen in what measure many of the expressions used by those poets were also of a positive and not only of a symbolic and mystic nature, with no real relation to sex.

To find Oriental themes and experiences which can best be compared to those with which we have been dealing, we must turn to India. Indeed, in this as in other fields, the Orient offers, in more complete and fully developed forms, that which in the West has often survived only in dim and fragmentary shape.

Already in the traditional texts that trace back directly to the Shruti, the union between man and woman had frequently been considered as a true sacrificial rite, as an equivalent to the sacrifice of the fire (homa), the woman or her body being assimilated to the fire.[1] In this context the Satapatha brahmana (1, 8–9) puts the following words in the mouth of the woman: “If thou wilt make use of me at the sacrifice, then whatever blessing thou shalt invoke through me shall be granted.” But the more interesting forms are those found in the Tantras, both Hindu (Agama) and Buddhist (Vajrayana and Sahajiya).

The fundamental background of the Tantras is generally considered to be derived from obscure and orgiastic cults proper to the lower aboriginal pre-Aryan strata of Hindu civilization. From those are derived some dark forms of sexual magic, which, however, if considered in their main structural lines, have features that differ but little from the higher and more elaborate forms. We are thinking of the rites by which it was believed that special powers could be acquired by summoning up female entities—“yaksini, dakhini, apsara”—to enter the body of a woman, and then subduing them by forcing and possessing this woman in such wild places as forests or cemeteries.[2] Developments on a higher level than this are found among the Shaktas owing to their introduction of a particular kind of metaphysics. The Shaktas believe that a female being, the Shakti, is the supreme principle of the Universe, and they see in every woman the incarnation of this divinity. The goddess, Mahadevi, is present in all female beings, “Women are goddesses, women are life itself—“striyo devah, siriyan pranah”—is written in a Tantric text. This gives rise, first of all, to the cult of women and of virgins (kumari). In operative Tantrik, women often take the name of the goddess herself and are called shakti or prakriti, which in the Samkhya system is the corresponding cosmic principle. From this it is but a short step to consider woman and union with her as a means of participating to the sacrum. Indeed, in the Tantrik the part of an initiator, of a guru, is also attributed to woman. This should not be understood in an intellectual sense, as meaning that the woman transmits the teaching (as is the case in the branch of the Tantra known as Nigama, in which it is the Goddess who instructs the God in the doctrine). Rather it should be understood as meaning that a special sort of woman can transmit to the man a certain kind of influence whose effects may be spiritual enlightenment and awakening. The general principle of Tantra is the idea of overcoming the antithesis between liberation (mukthi) and enjoyment (bhoga), the attainment of both at one and the same time, differing in this from the ascetic forms of Yoga. This leads to rites in which both women and intoxicating beverages are used, not for the purposes which might interest the profane, and the carnal-minded and “bound” man (pasu), but to favor ecstasy, contact and union with the goddess, which is the principle of liberation. This is the loftiest sense of the secret ritual known as pancatattva of the Hindu Tantrik of the Left Hand (vamacara).[3] This is also the meaning of some forms of the Vajrayana in which a strange type of Buddha is presented to us, who vanquishes Mara, the god of death, and obtains enlightenment and special powers by uniting sexually with women. Agreement with the aims of the purely intellectual yoga can be noted in such expressions as the following: “Having meditated in this way, the sadhaka should worship the Devi (the Goddess) as his own atma, thinking: I am Brahman” (Kali tantra, IX, 16), and “A sadhaka should meditate on his own self as one and the same with her (the Goddess, Shakti) “taya sahi tam atmanam ekabhutam vicintayet” (Kubjka-tantra, II, 3). The “power of liberating the essence of the Ego” is ascribed to the Tantric woman, to the shaktis or yoginis.[4] From more than one point of view, the effects of sex-initiation are thought of as equal to those of the awakening of the kundalini, of which the Hatha Yoga speaks. Indeed, in this mysterious and dangerous power, the awakening of which produces liberation even in this life (jivanmukti), is seen the Goddess as she is present in the human being, the “inner woman.” The rite of the awakening (bodhana) in the traditional ceremony of the Durga-Puja (the cult of Durga, one of the forms of the Goddess) is also explained esoterically as a suggestion of awakening, or attaining consciousness, of kundalini. On the other hand the relation of kundalini to sex and to woman, and to the power of which woman is mainly the embodiment, is shown by the fact that kundalini is evoked and seen in the woman by the eye of the mind in the proceedings of some popular sexual spells.[5]

Let us consider some other details of the Tantra to illustrate other points in which it is comparable to the Western forms of the “Mysteries of Woman.”

In these Western forms, the woman, as has been said, was also related to Sophia, to the Gnosis, the transcendent intelligence. In India the Goddess offers also these aspects. In a hymn to the Mahadevi [Great Goddess] contained in the fifth matamya of the Chandi, it is said that the Goddess in each being is known as intelligence, that she resides in every being under the form of buddhi. In a hymn to Durga in the Visvasana-tantra, she is addressed as buddhida, i.e. “the dispenser of buddhi.”[6] Now, buddhi is the equivalent of the transcendent intellect of which the Fedeli d’Amore spoke. The women used in the tantric practices contain potentially this principle, if one of the names by which they are known is, in addition to shakti and mudra, also vidya which means knowledge, wisdom, and not in an intellectualistic and abstract sense, but as a power of enlightenment. In the buddhist Tantras, woman is related to prajna, which has the same meaning. The union of the man with the woman has here the value of an initiation, it realizes or announces the Great Liberation which, according to the Mahayana doctrine, arises from the union of prajna with upaya; these principles being contained in woman and in man.[7]

There were circles in Bengal which developed a theology or rather a scholasticism about love and desire in terms analogous to those of the Courts of Love of the West. Broadly speaking, Tantrik also knows Platonic love. We meet with it not only in the aforesaid terms of a cult of woman as the incarnation of the Devi, but also in the operative field, for the rituals of the Left Hand Tantrik also have two phases: the phase in which the woman is only “adored” precedes that in which she is possessed. On this subject a text states a long and complicated procedure. The man must live with the woman and serve her for long months, sharing her room and even her bed, but avoiding all physical contacts, limiting himself to adoring her and vehemently desiring her. It is only after this apprenticeship of Platonic love, which must last not less than nine months, that sexual union is allowed to the disciple.[8] But this union is of a special kind, for there must be no issue of seminal fluid.[9] The feature that differentiates the Tantric experiences from those which can be glimpsed in the writings of the Fedeli d’Amore is that a form of rapture, like that of Platonic love, is required and cultivated in various ways, a rapture which, however, continues in the act of physical love without losing its specific characteristics. In other words, while in the Western forms to which we have just referred, the final aim is a kind of occult union with the female principle on a hyperphysical plane, the Tantrik holds that it is possible to realize and intensify this union through the possession of the woman as yogini, shakti, or vidya.

Another point to be noted. The ancient Hindu tradition had already associated the principle of ebriety with the Great Goddess. It has been observed that one of her forms is Varunani, an entity on whom the name of Sura and also of Varuni was later bestowed. But in pali, Varuni designates an intoxicating beverage, as well as a woman who is intoxicated. There can be no doubt of the connection between Varuni and inebriating drinks, indeed in some texts “to drink devi varuni” means to drink such beverages.[10] Even in the hymns of the austere Shankara, the Goddess is associated with inebriating beverages; she either holds the cup or is inebriated.[11] Thus in this divine archetype is stressed the aspect of the feminine principle as a source of rapture and ebriety. This conception is also reflected by the association of the use of the woman with that of intoxicating drinks in the secret ritual of the Left Hand Tantrik. In one of the texts of that branch of the Tantra, wine is called the “Goddess as Savior in liquid form—Tara dravamayi” (Mahanirvana-tantra XI, 105– 107). Here we have a return of the idea that she is the source both of enjoyment and liberation; so the reference is more or less to the sacred effects that were ascribed to inebriety by the ancient Thracian cult of Dionysus.[12] The important thing in all this is, however, that inebriety must undergo a transformation, a change in its nature, for which the technical expression used is aropa. The same holds good also, and above all, for the sexual climax. These practices, therefore, are not suited to all and their dangers have been clearly recognized. Initiation is required of those who, being true Kaulas, wish to make use of intoxicants (Mahanirvana-tantra, X, 112). Certain ascetic qualities are also presupposed for the Yogic rites with the woman, with the shakti. That women as the bearers of the Goddess also embody the principle of rapture, is made clear by yet another tantric designation currently applied to them: rati = the principle of rasa, a word which means rapture, intense emotion, and also orgasm. In the myth, Rati is the bride of Kama, the god of love. The Sahajiya school has worked out a whole scholastic classification of the type of the ratis which must be selected for efficient experience. The type best suited is that of the vishesa-rati, the “exceptional woman,” in whom we may recognize a parallel of the “Lady of the Miracle” of whom the Fedeli d’Amore wrote.[13]

In the Sahajiya school we meet with the expression cc death in love,” and it is said that only through that death can one cc really live.”[14] This matches precisely a recurrent theme in the literature of the Fedeli d’Amore of the West, and also in some of the Islamic Sufis (Gelaluddin Rumi, for instance). In this literature we also meet with the motif of a deadly wound and of a kind of fulmination produced by the love or by the apparition of the Lady. Likewise, in a hymn of the Tantrasara it is said of the Goddess: “Thou dost ascend like a streak of lightening.”[15] In the buddhist Tantra, the chief effect of sexual Yoga is the awakening of the bodhicitta, i.e., of the “thought-enlightment,” like a flash ascending from the trunk of the body towards the brain.[16] If, it is said, the semen be arrested at the “identity of enjoyment” manas is killed: “the mind dies and the breath of life is also extinguished”—these are the words of the Saraha-pada.[17] We have here the equivalent of the ecstasy and excessus mentis of the Fedeli d’Amore. When the Goddess evoked in the woman has the dreadful and destructive aspects of Kali and Durga, it was probably this effect of initiatic death that was considered from an esoteric standpoint. The Western parallel is to be found in “Diana invulnerable and deadly”; perhaps a similar experience is referred in the Hermetism by the saying “to see Diana entirely naked.” In its positive aspect it is the realization of sahaja—the “un-born,” the “unconditioned” through mahasukha, the supreme ecstacy of bliss in which samarasa, the emotional fusion of male and female in the sexual climax is transformed.

We can stop at this point in our parallels between the Western and Oriental forms of the “Mysteries of Woman.” Apart from India, the practices of Chinese Taoism also make use of sex for the purposes of initiation. But it cannot be said for certain that such practices can be classified with those of the Woman Mysteries, as they would seem to be quite lacking in the idea of woman as the incarnation of a divinity and the dispenser of a vivifying and enlightening power. Woman embodies only the yin principle, just as man embodies the yang principle, which is that to which preeminence and a celestial character are attributed in the Far Eastern tradition. It would seem that in the Taoist rites, woman served only as a means, and some texts even advise that she should not know that man in mating with her has in view initiation. Other texts give reason to suspect, that in some cases the purpose served is even a form of masculine vampirism.[18]

It would seem that in the West the practice of the Woman Mysteries has been prolonged down to modern times. On this matter mention may be made in the first place of the work by P. B. Randolph, Magia sexualis (Paris, 1952), in which reference is made to the practices of an organization known as the Eulis Brotherhood, which engaged in its activities towards the close of last century. In the second place we would mention the “Law of Thelema,” announced by Aleister Crowley, in which sexual rites play an important part, with intentionally blasphemous and satanic tones, which may have been only partially in keeping with the real facts, being due for the rest to Crowley’s irresistible desire to épater le bourgeois, and defy the anger of Anglo-Saxon puritanism.[19]


[1] See the quotations collected by R. L. Mukherji in J. Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta (Madras-London, 1929), pp. 97 ff.

[2] L. De La Vallée Poussin, Bouddhisme, Etudes et materiaux (Paris, 1898), p. 138. See Prapancasara-tantra, IX, 23–24.

[3] See J. Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta, cit., passim.

[4] H. von Glasenapp, Buddhistische Mysterien (Stuttgart, 1950), p. 56.

[5] See R. Schmidt, Indische Erotik (Berlin, 1910), pp. 676–77.

[6] A. and E. Avalon, Hymns to the Goddess (London, 1913), pp. 128–30, 139.

[7] See S. Das Gupta, Obscure religious cults (Calcutta, 1946), xxxvii; see chapter 5, pp. 33–37.

[8] See An Introduction to the Study of the post-chaitanya Sahajiya Cult, pp. 77–78 (quoted by M. Eliade, Yoga, liberté et immortalité [Paris, 1954], pp. 266–7). Other details on this ritual are found in the Nayika-sadhana-Tika (= a commentary on dealings with women). When transferred on the hyperphysical plane the erotic union “has no end” (cf. M. Eliade, p. 267).

[9] See M. Eliade, pp. 260 ff.; G. Tucci, Tibetan painted scrolls (Rome, 1949), vol. I, p. 242; J. Evola, Lo Yoga della potenza: Studio sui Tantra, (Milan, 1948), pp. 250 ff.

[10] J. Przyluski, La Grande Déesse (Paris, 1950), p. 139.

[11] In Avalon, Hymns to the Goddess, pp. 26–8, 58–9.

[12] Mahanirvana-tantra (XI, 105–7) expresses itself in the following terms on the intoxicating drinks used by the Kaulas: “Wine is Tara herself in liquid form, who is the savior of beings, the giver of enjoyment and liberation, who destroys danger and diseases, burns up the heaps of sins. . . . O Adya! She (wine) is ever taken by those who have attained final liberation, by those who are desirous of attaining final liberation, by those that have become and those striving to be adepts.” (XI, 108): “Mortals who drink wine with their mind well under control and according to the injunctions are verily immortals on earth.”

[13] Das Gupta, Obscure religious cults, pp. 162–63.

[14] Ibid., p. 160.

[15] Hymns to the Goddess, p. 35.

[16] Das Gupta, pp. 29–30; Tucci., vol. I, p. 242.

[17] Das Gupta, p. 93; Eliade, Yoga, p. 268; N. Shahidullah, Les chants mystiques des Kanha et des Doha kosha (Paris, 1928).

[18] The best accounts of Taoist sexual practices are found in the lengthy essay by H. Maspero, “Les procédés de nourrir l’esprit vital dans la religion taoïste ancienne,” in Journal Asiatique, vol. 229, 1937 (April–June, July–September).

[19] Some information can be gathered from J. Symonds, The Great Beast: The Life of Aleister Crowley (London, 1952).