Mahanirvana Tantra: Panchatattva

There are, as already stated, three classes of men – pashu, Vira, and Divya. The operation of the guna which produce these types affect, on the gross material plane, the animal tendencies, manifesting in the three chief physical functions – eating and drinking, whereby the annamayakosha is maintained; and sexual intercourse, by which it is reproduced. These functions are the subject of the panchatattva or panchamakara ("five m’s"), as they are vulgarly called – viz.:

  1. madya (wine)
  2. mangsa (meat)
  3. matsya (fish)
  4. mudra (parched grain)
  5. maithuna (coition).

In ordinary parlance, mudra means ritual gestures or positions of the body in worship and hathayoga, but as one of the five elements it is parched cereal, and is defined as Bhrishtadanyadikang yadyad chavyaniyam prachakshate, sa mudra kathita devi sarvveshang naganam-dini.

The Tantras speak of the five elements as pancha-tattva, kuladravya, kulatattva, and certain of the elements have esoteric names, such as Karanavari or tirtha-vari, for wine, the fifth element being usually called lata-sadhana (sadhana with woman, or shakti). The five elements, moreover have various meanings, according as they form part of the tamasika (pashvachara), rajasika (virachara), or divya or sattvika sadhanas respectively.

All the elements or their substitutes are purified and consecrated, and then, with the appropriate ritual, the first four are consumed, such consumption being followed by lata-sadhana or its symbolic equivalent. The Tantra prohibits indiscriminate use of the elements, which may be consumed or employed only after purification (sho-dhana) and during worship according to the Tantric ritual. Then, also, all excess is forbidden. The Shyama-rahasya says that intemperance leads to Hell, and this Tantra condemns it in Chapter V. A well-known saying in Tantra describes the true "hero" (vira) to be, not he who is of great physical strength and prowess, the great eater and drinker, or man of powerful sexual energy, but he who has controlled his senses, is a truth-seeker, ever engaged in worship, and who has sacrificed lust and all other passions. (Jitendriyah satyavadi nityanushthanatatparah kamadi-validanashcha sa vira iti giyate.)

The elements in their literal sense are not available in sadhana for all. The nature of the Pashu requires strict adherence to Vaidik rule in the matter of these physical functions even in worship. This rule prohibits the drinking of wine, a substance subject to the three curses of Brahma, Kacha, and Krishna, in the following terms: Madyamapeyamadeyamagrahyam ("Wine must not be drunk, given, or taken"). The drinking of wine in ordinary life for satisfaction of the sensual appetite is, in fact, a sin, involving prayaschiyta, and entailing, according to the Vishnu Purama, punishment in the same Hell as that to which a killer of a Brahmana goes.

As regards flesh and fish, the higher castes (outside Bengal) who submit to the orthodox Smarta discipline eat neither. Nor do high and strict Brahmanas even in that Province. But the bulk of the people there, both men and women, eat fish, and men consume the flesh of male goats which have been previously offered to the Deity.

The Vaidika dharmma is equally strict upon the subject of sexual intercourse. Maithuna other than with the householder’s own wife is condemned. And this is not only in its literal sense, but in that of which is known as Ashtanga (eight-fold) maithuna – viz.,

  1. smaranam (thinking upon it)
  2. kirttanam (talking of it)
  3. keli (play with women)
  4. prekshanam (looking upon women)
  5. guhyabhashanan (talk in private with women)
  6. sangkalpa (wish or resolve for maithuua)
  7. adhyavasaya (determination towards it)
  8. kriyanishpati (actual accomplishment of the sexual act).

In short, the pashu (and except for ritual purposes those who are not pashu) should, in the words of the Shaktakramya, avoid maithuna, conversation on the subject, and assemblies of women (maithunam tatkathalapang tadgoshthing parivarjjayet). Even in the case of the householder’s own wife marital continency is enjoined.

The divinity in woman, which the Tantra in particular proclaims, is also recognized in the ordinary Vaidik teaching, as must obviously be the case given the common foundation upon which all the Shastra rest. Woman is not to be regarded merely as an object of enjoyment, but as a house-goddess (grihadevata). According to the sublime notions of Shruti, the union of man and wife is a veritable sacrificial rite – a sacrifice in fire (homa), wherein she is both hearth (kunda) and flame – and he who knows this as homa attains liberation. Similarly the Tantrika Mantra for the Shivashakti Yoga runs: "This is the internal homa in which, by the path of sushumna, sacrifice is made of the functions of sense to the spirit as fire kindled with the ghee of merit and demerit taken from the mind as the ghee-pot Svaha." It is not only thus that wife and husband are associated, for the Vaidika dharmma (in this now neglected) prescribes that the householder should worship in company with his wife. Brahmacharya, or continency, is not as is sometimes supposed, a requisite of the student ashrama only, but is a rule which governs the married householder (grihastha) also. According to Vaidika injunctions, union of man and wife must take place once a month on the fifth day after the cessation of the menses, and then only. Hence it is that the Nitya Tantra, when giving the characteristics of a pashu, says that he is one who avoids sexual union except on the fifth day (ritukalangvina devi rama-nang parivarjjayet). In other words, the pashu is he who in this case, as in other matters, follows for all purposes, ritual or otherwise, the Vaidik injunctions which govern the ordinary life of all.

The above-mentioned rules govern the life of all men. The only exception which the Tantra makes is for purpose of sudhana in the case of those who are competent (adhikari) for virachara. It is held, indeed, that the exception is not strictly an exception to Vaidik teaching at all, and that it is an error to suppose that the Tantrika rahasya-puja is opposed to the Vedas. Thus, whilst the vaidik rule prohibits the use of wine in ordinary life, and for purpose of mere sensual gratification it prescribes the religious yajna with wine. This ritual use the Tantra also allows, provided that the sadhaka is competent for the sadhana, in which its consumption is part of its ritual and method.

The Tantra enforces the Vaidik rule in all cases, ritual or otherwise, for those who are governed by the vaidikachara. The Nitya Tantra says: "They (pashu) should never worship the Devi during the latter part of the day in the evening or at night" (ratrau naiva yajeddeving sandhyayang vaparanhake); for all such worship connotes maithuna prohibited to the pashu. In lieu of it, varying substitutes are prescribed, such as either an offering of flowers with the hands formed into the kachchchapa mudra, or union with the worshipper’s own wife. In the same way, in lieu of wine, the pashu should (if a Brahmana) take milk, (if a Kshattriya) ghee, (if a vaishya) honey, and (if a shudra) a liquor made from rice. Salt, ginger, sesamum, wheat, mashkalai (beans), and garlic are various substitutes for meat; and the white brinjal vegetable, red radish, masur (a kind of gram), red sesamum, and paniphala (an aquatic plant), take the place of fish. Paddy, rice, wheat, and gram geneally are mudra.

The vira, or rather he who is qualified (adhikari) for virachara – since the true vira is its finished product – commences sadhana with the rajasika panchatattva first stated, which are employed for the destruction of the sensual tendencies which they connote. For the worship of Shakti the panchatattva are declared to be essential. This Tantra declares that such worship without their use is but the practice of evil magic.

Upon this passage the commentator Jaganmohana Tarkalangkara observes as follows: "Let us consider what most contributes to the fall of a man, making him forget his duty, sink into sin, and die an early death. First among these are wine and women, fish, meat and mudra, and accessories. By these things men have lost their manhood. Shiva then desires to employ these very poisons in order to eradicate the poison in the human system. Poison is the antidote for poison. This is the right treatment for those who long for drink or lust for women. The physician must, however, be an experienced one. If there be a mistake as to the application, the patient is like to die. Shiva has said that the way of Kulachara is as difficult as it is to walk on the edge of a sword or to hold a wild tiger. There is a secret argument in favour of the panchatattva, and those tattva so understood should be followed by all. None, however, but the initiate can grasp this argument, and therefore Shiva has directed that it should not be revealed before anybody and everybody. An initiate, when he sees a woman, will worship her as his own mother or goddess (Ishtadevata), and bow before her. The Vishnu Purana says that by feeding your desires you cannot satisfy them. It is like pouring ghee on fire. Though this is true, an experienced spiritual teacher (guru) will know how, by the application of this poisonous medicine, to kill the poison of sangsara. Shiva has, however, prohibited the indiscriminate publication of this. The meaning of this passage would therefore appear to be this: "The object of Tantrika worship is brahmasayujya, or union with Brahman. If that is not attained, nothing is attained. And, with men’s propensities as they are, this can only be attained through the special treatment prescribed by the Tantras. If this is not followed, then the sensual propensities are not eradicated, and the work is for the desired end of Tantra as useless as magic which, worked by such a man, leads only to the injury of others."

The other secret argument here referred to is that by which it is shown that the particular may be raised to the universal life by the vehicle of those same passions, which, when flowing only in an outward and downward current, are the most powerful bonds to bind him to the former. The passage cited refers to the necessity for the spiritual direction of the Guru. To the want of such is accredited the abuses of the system. When the patient (sishya) and the disease are working together, there is poor hope for the former; but when the patient, the disease, and the physician (guru) are on one, and that the wrong, side, then nothing can save him from a descent on that downward path which it is the object of the sadhana to prevent. Verse 67 in Chapter I. of this Tantra is here in point.

Owing, however, to abuses, particularly as regards the tattva of madya and maithuna, this Tantra, according to the current version, prescribes in certain cases, limitations as regards their use. It prescribes that when the Kaliyuga is in full strength, and in the case of householders (grihastha) whose minds are engrossed with worldly affairs, the "three sweets" (madhuratraya) are to be substituted for wine. Those who are of virtuous temperament, and whose minds are turned towards the Brahman, are permitted to take five cups of wine.

So also as regards maithuna, this Tantra states that men in this Kali age are by their nature weak and disturbed by lust, and by reason of this do not recognize woman (shakti) to be the image of the Deity. It accordingly ordains that when the Kali yuga is in full sway, the fifth tattva shall only be accomplished with sviyashakti, or the worshipper’s own wife, and that union with a woman who is not married to the sadhaka in either Brahma or Shaiva form is forbidden.

In the case of other shakti (parakiya and sadharani) it prescribes, in lieu of maithuna, meditation by the worshipper upon the lotus feet of the Devi, together with japa of his ishtamantra. This rule, however, the Commentator says, is not of universal application. Shiva has, in this Tantra, prohibited sadhana with the last tattva, with parakiya, and sadharani shakti, in the case of men of ordinary weak intellect ruled by lust; but for those who have by sadhana conquered their passions and attained the state of a true vira, or siddha, there is no prohibition as to the mode of latasadhana. This Tantra appears to be, in fact, a protest against the misuse of the tattva, which had followed upon a relaxation of the original rules and conditions governing them.

Without the panchatattva in one form or another, the shaktipuja cannot be performed. The Mother of the Universe must be worshipped with these elements. By their use the universe (jagatbrahmanda) itself is used as the article of worship. Wine signifies the power (shakti) which produces all fiery elements; meat and fish all terrestrial and aquatic animals; mudra all vegetable life; and maithuna the will (ichchha) action (kriya) and knowledge (jnana) shakti of the Supreme Prakriti productive of that great pleasure which accompanies the process of creation. To the Mother is thus offered the restless life of Her universe.

The object of all sadhana is the stimulation of the sattvaguna. When by such sadhana this guna largely preponderates, the sattvika sadhana suitable for men of a high type of divyabhava is adopted. In this latter sadhana the names of the panchatattva are used symbolically for operations of a purely mental and spiritual character. Thus, the Kaivalya says that "wine" is that intoxicating knowledge acquired by yoga of the Parabrahman, which renders the worshipper senseless as regards the external world. Meat (mangsa) is not any fleshly thing, but the act whereby the sadhaka consigns all his acts to Me (Mam). Matsya (fish) is that sattvika knowledge by which through the sense of "mineness" the worshipper sympathizes with the pleasure and pain of all beings. Mudra is the act of relinquishing all association with evil which results in bondage, and maithuna is the union of the Shakti Kundalini with Shiva in the body of the worshipper. This, the Yogini Tantra says, is the best of all unions for those who have already controlled their passions (yati).

According to the Agamasara, wine is the somadhara, or lunar ambrosia, which drops from the brahmarandhra; Mangsa (meat) is the tongue (ma), of which its part (angsha) is speech. The sadhaka, in "eating" it, controls his speech. Matsya (fish) are those two which are constantly moving in the two rivers Ida and Pingala. He who controls his breath by pranayama (q.v.), "eats" them by kumbhaka. Mudra is the awakening of knowledge in the pericarp of the great sahasrara Lotus, where the Atma, like mercury, resplendent as ten million suns, and deliciously cool as ten million moons, is united with the Devi Kundalini . The esoteric meaning of maithuna is thus stated by the Agama: The ruddy-hued letter Ra is in the Kunda, and the letter Ma, in the shape of vindu, is in the mahayoni. When Makara (m), seated on the Hangsa in the form of Akara (a), unites with rakara (r), then the Brahmajnana, which is the source of supreme Bliss, is gained by the sadhaka, who is then called atmarama, for his enjoyment is in the Atma in the sahasrara. This is the union on the purely sattvika plane, which corresponds on the rajasika plane to the union of Shiva and Shakti in the persons of their worshippers.

The union of Shiva and Shakti is described as a true yoga, from which, as the Yamala says, arises that joy which is known as the Supreme Bliss.

Quoted from Mahanirvana Tantra, Tantra of the Great Liberation Translated by Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe) [1913]


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