Kali Kaula: A Manual of Tantric Magic by Jan Fries (2010, Avalonia Books)
Kali Kaula: A Manual of Tantric Magic by Jan Fries may be the best book on the tantras written in English. It is an overview of the many different Tantric writings, which have come down to us over the past two thousand years from India. It shows their importance to the development of Western and Eastern spirituality and their relevance today. Long distorted as “Sacred Sex”, Fries shows that these writings are all-encompassing and show another side of Hinduism than the one we usually see in the West. He lists countless writings and sources every one, whether or not it is in Sanskrit or English. Fortunate for the modern reader, a lot more Tantric writings became available in English over the past twenty years than the generations before it. We’ve come a long way from those Dover Books editions of Tantric translations by Arthur Avalon (“Sir John Wodroffe”). Kali Kaula is illustrated by detailed and inspired drawings of Hindu deities and archaeological finds.
The book starts with the beginnings of Tantric writing at the dawn of Indian civilization. The word “Tantra” can mean several things, but it traditionally translated as the shuttlecock used in weaving. The written Tantras comprise a huge amount of manuscripts, but most of them are lost to history. Tantras are writings and practices that fall outside the mainstream Hindu belief. We don’t know a lot about the early Tantrikas since none of their writings survive. All that remains from the early Tantra practitioners are negative descriptions of them in contemporary Hindu writings.
Fries begins the book with a whimsical story of the gods and goddesses of India and how their family issues destroyed the universe several times over. It’s an important story, which contains the essence of the Tantra way of life, and he refers to it several repeatedly. The Tantrikas follow the deities of India as devotees in several categories: Pasu (layperson), Vira (heroic worshipper) and Divya (the most dedicated).
Practicing Tantrikas live outside the normal dictates of Hindu society. With its emphasis on caste and class, India may seem strange to Westerners, but many things can come down to spiritual pollution. Thus, a chauffeur who is of a higher spiritual caste cannot accept a glass of water from a cook who is of a lower one. The most supreme spiritual caste is the Brahmins priestly ones, who are often cooks since anyone can accept food from them. The lowest are the Dalit untouchables who do the foulest work imaginable. According to Hindu thought, if you are a good person in this life, you will be reincarnated as a higher caste in the next. Conversely, if you are bad person and do not follow the dictates of your caste, your next incarnation will be much lower, perhaps a pig in the streets eating trash.
Tantra followers go outside these norms by venerating the deities of India in ways orthodox Hindu’s find abominable. Like Pentecostal Christian preachers or Hassidic Hebrews, the Tantrikas emphasize direct and practical union with the God. Tantrikas justify their beliefs by a series of ancient divinely written scriptures, which are written in the form of dialogues between Hindu deities. The Tantrikas open their practices to everyone. Some of them, the vamachara or left-hand path, emphasizes heroic deeds of worship. This can involve coating their bodies with ash from cremation grounds and disposing of personal property to follow the deities. Since touching a dead body is a great act of pollution by Hindu standards, this is a form of debasement similar to a medieval monk scourging himself or Martin Luther mixing sawdust in his food. There are many varieties of Tantrikas, just as there are many Tantra writings. Fries points out that Tantra usually seek to unite pleasure and liberation.
The term “Kaula” means movement, which comes from “Kaua” or member of a group. The Tantrikas of ancient India were often known as the Kaulas.
Much of the book is devoted to the worship of the ten Mahavidyas, great goddesses, of Tantra. Principal of these is Mother Kali, who has many forms, some fierce, some beneficial. Many people have seen the black-skinned fierce Kali with her six arms and red tongue. There is also Chinnmasta who dances on the copulating of lust and desire as she drinks the blood that flows from her own severed head. There is much discussion on the various deities of India, but it would be a disservice to go into them all in this short review.
Fries lists many mantras, which can be repeated, practices that can be followed, and hand gestures used in the worship rites. He discussed with role of the five good things, the five M’s and how they figure into Tantric practice.
I should point out that many of the tantric rites are complicated. He breaks down a particular tantric ritual that seems to employ sexual congress to honor Kali, but it consists of eighty separate steps. How the worshipper was able to do this in the days before cheap printed manuals begs the question. He feels much what has been written about Tantric practices needs to be viewed metaphorically. He discusses Kundalini methods of yoga and the chakras (energy centers) that the ancient Tantric writers felt existed it the human body.
The book concludes with the Hindu practices of the Indian people who live in Guyana. Brought in as indentured servants, they were from many parts of India and were forced to come up with their own rites to replace the ones from their homelands. Even the main river in their community became a stand-in for the Ganges. In some ways, he suggests Hindu Tantra thought can adapt itself to the west.
This is easily the best book I have every read on Tantra. My only complaint is that his paragraph structure tends to be packed. You get the feeling that Fries kept going back and adding things to the manuscript. Some of the paragraphs need to be trimmed for clarity, but this in no way diminishes the value of the book. Do read it if you are the least bit interested in the subject.