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Food, Flowers and Perfume
Through mantra, mudra, nyasa, yantra, and all the other numerous elements of Tantric ritual, the initiates carve a sacred niche for themselves out of ordinary reality – Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, Georg Feuerstein
The intricate forms of worship (puja) described on some of these pages often require the use of ritual accessories (upacharas), such as specific types of food, flowers and fragrances. For the way in which these are used in a daily rite, refer to the translation of Subhagodaya found on this site.
Some tantrik texts prescribe a whole range of different substances for occasional or optional rites which may include different scents, flowers, edible food and liquids to perform the pujas.
There are plenty of traps for the unwary. While these accessories can relate to external worship (bahiryaga), they may also be used as symbols for internal worship (antaryaga), and so can take a range of forms from the very simple to the very complex. For example, in the Kaulajnananirnaya, the flowers to be offered represent qualities to be cultivated.
“The first flower is non-harmfulness, the second [is] sense restraint, the third generosity, the fourth [is] right disposition, the fifth compassion and the sixth freedom from cruelty. The seventh flower is meditation and the eighth flower is knowledge. Knowing these rules relating to flowers, one should worship this mental lingam.” (op.cit III, 25-26).
These flowers are related in this text to different chakras (wheels) or padmas (lotuses) in the human body.
The simplest accessories relate to the five elements of tantrika, and so, by extension, to the five senses. See, for example, the Shani puja, where scent is linked with the bija Lam and earth, flowers to aether with the bija Ham, incense with air and the bija mantra Yam, flame with fire and the bija mantra Ram, and water to liquid and the bija letter Vam.
This inner practice demonstrates two very important yogic elements of puja. The first is that the deva or devi, through meditation (dhyana), whether gross, subtle or supreme, is considered to be one with the worshipper. The second is that by offering the sense impressions to that devata, it encourages the perception that the person performing the rite is not wholly identified with her or his impressions.
These, along with the instruments of the impressions, the five senses, pull the inner self this way and that, and, as can be seen from the prayoga or practical application of the Bhavana Upanishad, are considered to be shaktis or attendants of Paramashakti, the supreme goddess herself. In this connection, it is also worth looking at this page, which describes the physical and metaphysical apparatus of a human being, as an embodiment of Shiva Shakti.
This underlies what some tantriks have described as the ulta sadhana, a reversal of the ordinary condition of the human being, who tends to wholly identify with one, two or several of the lesser shaktis, and so forgets her or his true nature.
The practice of daily puja and the use of these ritual accessories is, then, recommended in the initial stages of sadhana as a way of reminding an individual of the unity of knower, knowledge and known – or worshipper, worship and worshipped.
Food and Liquids
Bearing these important considerations above in mind, we can turn to the elements used in puja. In the English introduction to the Gandharva Tantra on this site, chapters 16 and 17 allude to the ritual accessories (upacharas) which may be employed when worshipping Shri Shri Tripurasundari (Lalita).
Food offered to a devata becomes holy (prasad) but that doesn’t mean it’s put to waste and it can be eaten afterwards by a sadhaka.
It doesn’t have to be vegetarian food. While most Hindus in modern-day India are vegetarians, some scholars consider this to be a consequence of the rise of the Vaishnavi movements. Bali (animal sacrifice) is viewed as an essential in many of the tantrik texts themselves, although even this has an inner meaning. The bipeds and quadrupeds to be sacrificed must be male.
“O dark one, wondrous and excelling in every way, becomes the accomplishment of those worshippers who living in this world freely make offering to Thee in worship of the greatly satisfying flesh, together with hair and bones, of cats, camels, sheep, buffaloes, goats and men.” Karpuradistotra v.19, Woodroffe’s translation
According to the Kaula commentary on this verse, the animals represent six enemies to sadhana, the goat standing for lust, the buffalo anger, the cat greed, the sheep delusion, the camel envy, and man pride and arrogance. This is all very well, but animal sacrifice is still practised today in nominally Shakta areas.
As recently as 1980, a goat was sacrificed to Kali at her temple at Amber fort in Rajasthan, a practice banned by the government, which does not, however, seem to have taken similar steps against Pizza Hut or MacDonalds in India. (Sacrifices of quadrupeds to the multinationals seems to be OK, just as long as no religious element is involved.)
In practice, it seems that many tantriks are happy to use substitutes for real animals, such as cucumbers, brinjals and the like.
The Gandharva Tantra classifies food into four types, including liquids, and because it is to be offered to the goddess Tripurasundari, must be of the best quality and also served suitably, depending on the abilities of the practitioner. Fruit, sweetmeats, rice and other dishes are offered to the Devi while reciting a mantra.
The liquids used for worship range from pure water right up to wine, with the Gandharva even including recipes for the alcoholic substance. While wine is an integral part of the panchatattvas, in the chapters on the secret sadhana found in the Devirahasya, mantras and rituals must be performed in order to remove curses on the liquid uttered by Brahma and Shukra. Wine, in this latter tantra, has its own divinity, Suradevi, and she has her own dhyanas and mantras.
Wine, being the Devi herself in liquid form, can be understood as a symbol for the bliss arising from the realisation from work on oneself. A number of tantras caution against taking the text to advocate wholesale drunkenness (Kularnavatantra). When a pot of wine is seen, one should bow to it, as if to the Goddess herself (Kulachudamani, Brihadnilatantra). The Kularnava pours scorn on those who take tantrik texts literally, pointing out that if merely drinking wine, copulating and eating flesh and fish produced liberation, then many humans would already have achieved the state. This last passage refers to the rite known as panchatattva, the five things – often referred to as the panchamakara. These are the five elements starting with the letter “m” are madya (wine), mamsha (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (grain) and maithuna (sexual intercourse). There is a great deal of discussion in various tantrik schools about the significance of these elements in Virasadhana, but most agree that it is a special method prescribed only for heroes and heroines (vira), and unsuitable for the common herd (pashu).
Aside from being a swipe at Brahmin orthodoxy, which views some of these elements with deep abhorrence, some important tantras, including the Kularnava, give them a metaphysical meaning. Some tantras vary the substances depending on the varna (Brahmin, Kshatriya etc). The Yoginitantra and other important texts also give the makaras a symbolic meaning.
There is no agreed view on these matters. It is hard to take some verses of the Yonitantra or the Brihadnilatantra metaphorically, while the commentary on the Karpuradistotra, referred to above, specifically advocates the consumption of semen after ritual sexual intercourse. The Chandamaharoshana Tantra (see Bibliography), a text of the Vajrayana which is, however, spoken of as a source in the Kaulavalinirnaya, is as explicit as you can get about these matters. Woodroffe says in his introduction: “The text goes on to say that there are people who regard semen and menstrual fluid with disgust (Vicharayet), but they forget that the body by .which they hope to attain Liberation is composed of these two forms of matter, that the narrow, bone and. tendons have come from the father and the skin, flesh and blood from the mother. It further says that there is no reason for man’s disgust for excreta or urine, for these are nothing but food or drink which has undergone some change and contains living creatures and the Brahman substance is not absent therefrom. The purity that man ought to cultivate is that of the mind. All things are pure. It is one’s mentality (Vasana) which is evil.”
There is a variety of other, somewhat less contentious, liquids often referred to in tantrik texts which require some explanation. The panchagavya are the five products of the cow, including dung and urine. These are often consumed, although some texts also ascribe an inner meaning to these substances, related to Shakti.
The Gandharva describes padya (water for washing the feet), achamana (water for sipping), madhuparka (a sweet mixture of water, ghee, honey and other substances), and arghya (an offering to the Sun, poured over the head).
Flowers, Scents, Perfumes and Incenses
There is a huge variety described in the literature, which almost merits a book of its own.
Incense (dhupa) is frequently employed in the daily puja, and this may and often is accompanied with various unguents (anjana), sweet smelling powders, oils (such as sandal oil) and other substances.
Most of the tantrik texts available give pride of place to five fragrances, which, according to lists in Rai’s Encyclopedia of Yoga, are for Shakti or Devi agaru (aquilaria agallocha), karpura (camphor), kumkuma (crocus sativus), rochana (convolvulus turpentium) and jatamamshi (asparagus racemosa).
Sandalwood (chandana) and other pleasant fragrances often find themselves on the lists.
Flowers for the worship of Shakti, should normally be red, although this may vary depending on the type of rite, with other colours, including white and orange, often being employed.
As by now we’ve come to expect, the vamachara tantras interpret flowers and scents in a way all of their own. Flowers (pushpa) has a similar meaning in Sanskrit to English, and are taken by some texts – for example the Matrikabheda Tantra, the Mahakalasamhita and other texts, to refer to menstrual blood. These are classified in different ways, depending on age and the qualifications of a Shakti.
Some of these may have the same name as other fragrances and scents – a trap for the unwary, who in this, as in all other matters, is to be guided by the guru. The Matrikabheda describes the use of menstrual fluids in a somewhat mysterious alchemical process – similar passages are to be found in the alchemical chapter in the Brihadnilatantra.
Artwork is © Jan Bailey, 1975-2021. Translations are © Mike Magee 1975-2021.Questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org