A Speculative Realist Review of ‘History of the Tantric Religion’

chinnamasta

Those who have followed this blog since its inception in late 2015/early 2016 know that while it is mostly an international relations, politics, and history blog it has also gradually become a place to explore my journey into the new philosophical school of speculative realism. I have been gradually working my way through constructing a geopolitical take on speculative realism. In so doing I have also been inspired to engage with philosophical positions that come from South and East Asia as I have seen some obvious parallels between some of those schools of thoughts and the rebirth of metaphysical materialism in some sectors of ‘western’ philosophy. Above all, the worldviews with a Tantric side seem to offer the most interesting overlap.

Tantra is not in fact what most westerners who hear the term believe it to be. According to the school of Californian Buddtology, Tantra is feeling all mystical about having sex in weird postures. While it is certainly true that contemporary Tantra has some optional sex practices as part of its ritual culture, I have a feeling your average Cilantro-Botoxian from the Hollywood Hills would find little in common with the philosophy behind the movement if they ever actually bothered to read about it.

As an atheist and hard materialist myself, I naturally wanted to read about Tantra from as secular and scholarly a source as I could find. Fortunately, I was able to locate the second revised edition of N.N. Bhattacharyya’s ‘History of the Tantric Religion.’ I am not interesting in converting, after all, but rather understanding more fully this school of thought that presaged speculative realism by thousands of years. And this book delivered.

It is both a history of the thought trend and also an exploration into its themes. Many of these themes have been diluted or merged with more mainstream thought over time, leading Tantra today to have the reputation of something that is more about technique rather than a distinct world view on its own.

In its beginning, Bhattacharyya shows us that Tantra was an anti-establishment impulse that came from women and the lower castes of society. In direct opposition to Brahmannical divorce from the real world to follow abstract ideology (insert joke about woke neoliberal overlords here) an organic take on Hinduism and Buddhism arose which centered not the abstract goals of a priestly caste but rather the physical, real, and material. This was most evident in the relationship between physical objects-especially that of the human body, the natural world, and substances both foul and delightful- what could be consumed (meat, alcohol, bodily fluids, etc). Many Tantra-aligned schools of thought dabbled in atheism, skepticism, and controlled ritualistic hedonism. The violation of preexisting social taboos was important to challenge complacent thinking and transcend the rote wisdom we are saddled with that stops us from seeing the flow of nature as it really is. All of these schools were interested in the natural world and how the human body and the gods reflected this material existence. When gods were used they were explicitly stated to be symbols of natural forces to which we are only separated from by the illusion of human difference.

Sadly, over time most of these traditions would end up weakening and merging with the greater normie culture of medieval and early modern India. Others, such as Vajrayana Buddhism (who longtime followers of this blog know I have an obsession with the aesthetic of) effectively came to rule entire regions in the Himalayas. But having become the establishment those too largely lost the contrarian and material nature of the original school of thought as they degenerated into Llamaist theocracy.

Still, several core elements of this rebellious and wonderfully base philosophy still survive in many various deity cults and practices in South and Himalayan Asia today. These could be summed up (my own take here, be warned) as ‘the only way out is through.’ In other words, the way for a human to recognize their place as part of an unfolding natural process is to de-emphasize socially constructed protocol (caste, class, moralism, absolute idealism) for confronting the base nature of everything head on. Afraid of death? Spend time meditating upon the charnel grounds. Afraid of becoming a slave to the passions? Indulge in all of the passions in a disciplined manner so that you eventually grow tired of excess and regulate them in a rational manner. Afraid of violence and strife? Adopt the iconography and terms of war and slaughter in the form of wrathful deities, whose fearsome aspect is then turned from something shocking potentially directed against you into something powerful that is now on your own side. The practice of focusing on ones personal selection of deities is often a major part of this, as the gods most associated with Tantric practice (such as Chinnamasta, pictured above) are often grotesque, their power overflowing in fountains of gore, limbs, bones worn as decorations, and yet dancing through it all. They show that the most terrifying things can be internalized into something powerful and helpful, and turning fear from something to avoid into something to co-opt into bravery and critical thinking.

When I think of people around the speculative realist movement who do this Graham Harman and Ray Brassier come to mind, if in different ways. Harman wants to rub the fact that you are an object, and therefore that ‘objectification’ is not only not a bad thing but an honest and true claim, in your face. Brassier wants to bring philosophical nihilism out from the edgy teenager/depressive persons territory and claim it as simply objective truth to be confronted directly as fact before moving on to anything else.

In a way we all do this to some level without realizing it. People enjoy horror movies for cathartic or thrill seeking reasons even if (and sometimes especially if) they are the kinds of people who shrink from conflict and danger. I professionally advocate for tearing down the perpetual war state for strategic reasons but love military history and war movies. I can also speak from personal experience that the most effective means I ever came across for confronting and managing my situational depression when it flares up was to indulge it critically. This meant  treating it more like an annoying acquaintance than an enemy, indulging it just enough to integrate myself with the experience before realizing it didn’t really matter because it was just systems responding irrationally. Interestingly, the most effective way of speeding up this process is very Tantric…I watch as many depressing movies and read as many depressing books as possible. Eventually, by charging directly through you end up punching right past being stuck. It becomes a challenge of a sorts, ‘oh you think that is bad? I’ll show you worse!’ By the end of it you sort of win the game or you get sick of playing. Either way, crisis averted because now you are thinking entirely differently from when you started. In the process you learn self-discipline so the potential for even gaining knowledge is there too.

In an era where shrinking violets control the discourse and seek to avoid uncomfortable topics is a moralizing version of anti-intellectualism, I can think of no better way of thought to counteract this Tipper Gore-ish trend than that of subversive Tantric methods of thinking.

Guess that explains my love of black metal. If there is one genre of music that could fit this topic, its surely that.