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Subject: Iconography of Tantra and Rites of Male-Submission
BY NAGASIVA YRONWODE, © 2000-2006
the following essay was written for a church whose interests focussed on integrating BDSM into a neo-Tantric context. its iconography and general protocol included male-submission to a dominant female goddess and priestess. it was my intent, with the contribution of the research contained below, to ground the rituals they described as those of 'expiation, sin, or atonement' in metaphysical and mystical framework which would avoid the problems of the BDSM culture and simultaneously yield potential for sincere neo-Tantrics.
popular pictures of Kali and Siva often depict the supine, sometimes aroused god surmounted by the goddess in Her full power and glory. Academics (such as Kinsley, Dimmit and Pandit) describe this iconography as a personal expansion on the metaphysic of samkhya-yoga, whose polar elements, prakriti and purusha, were identified as Sakti (Kali) and Siva respectively.
both the impersonal samkhya and personal saktic descriptions hold value in an analysis of BDSM with respect to Tantra. they range broadly in meaning, sometimes almost turned inward upon themselves and reversing roles, yet setting forth a clear support for the relation of dominance and submission.
the twin elements are comparable to pre-socratic (air/earth/fire/water) or chinese (wood/water/metal/earth/fire) systems of mystic taxonomy, or the inherited Judeochristian elements, prakriti is the feminine often described as composed of three qualities or attributes, (purity, energy, and lethargy), is often translated 'nature' or 'materiality', and is associated with power and the states of delusion.
purusha is the masculine, often described as composed of a single, sometimes indivisible, element or substance, is often translated as 'spirit' or 'essence', and is associated with consciousness and the state of liberation.
as the inherent tendency of prakriti is to specify and particularize, so is that of purusha to generalize and unify. as the former inspires the gross, concrete manifestation, so the latter creates the subtle, ephemeral potentiality. the dangers of prakriti include all that resembles containment or diffusion by an ever-burgeoning effusion of raw energy (Kinsley). those of purusha include all that resembles dissolution or destruction by an entropic reductionism, driving into a stark monism.
such descriptions are easily reconciled with the tendencies of many Indian graphics depicting Sakti and Siva in active and passive roles, respectively. imbued with and symbolizing their abstractions, the personal expansions not only reflect the character of the gods, but may also instruct the worshipper as to the role she is to assume in rites featuring this mythopoeic pattern.
the body is Sakti. the needs and joys of the body are those of Sakti. She is action in ascendance. Hers is the power of change, death, decay, birth and growth. By Her dance of entrancement are we enmeshed and released in Her net of appearance, that magical spell by which we come to know our separate and unique selves.
Sakti is the ultimate puissance. by Her will alone are things initiated, accomplished, and completed. through Her involvement matters change, become complex. She manifests to us as the natural world, the roiling physical maelstrom, unceasing in Her turgid flux, the very fact of time, process and transformation.
the Womb and Tomb of the World, Sakti plays a grand game of hide-and-go-seek; at one moment obfuscating, at another revealing. She is the Creatrix, Destructrix and Matrix of all known beings. Her most potent characteristics usually appear standing atop Her mate and consort.
as Tamomayi Sakti, She is the bearer of binding chains and the flail of expiation. Her constraint and initiation develops and rounds out one's personality. She provides the stability within which we may grow and the fire of our rarefaction.
Her priestesses are patient and wily, assessing their suffusion in Sakti, carefully seeing to the binding of the sacrifice and playfully teasing and ignoring Him as is Her wont and as Sakti inspires. Hers is Love on the Throne, the revealing and deceptive manipulation from a place of amusement and pleasure in the exercise of power. dealing out reward and punishment, the priestess of Tamomayi Sakti refines her capacity to dwell in the presence of the goddess as She guides and shapes the subtle consciousness of the sacrifice, preparing him for liberation. she becomes thoroughly familiar with the tensile and flagellatory effects of Her tools of power, studying them outside ritual with reflective and communicative assistance as both the wielder and recipient of their delicious application. she is studied in the esoteric disciplines or sufficiently intuitive so as to enable her to comprehend and act upon the supplicant(s) before her.
by far, however, the most important aspect of this initial period within the rite for the priestess is the invocation of and attention to herself as a manifestation of power. her role, while potentially liberative, is predominantly one of self-indulgence. if she is not experiencing the joy of dominion, the utter ecstasy fo being infused with Sakti, then she may patiently wait, or, eventually, call the rite to a halt. no obstacle is so great that it should serve as a distraction from this perfect course. if the sacrifice is displeasing, if her own troubles interpose, if there is insufficient respect for the work she engages in realizing Sakti amongst the company of those assembled, then she may find it necessary to rectify these problems or terminate the proceedings (and hers is the final authority in such matters).
to assist herself in this process, therefore, the responsible priestess becomes familiar with herself, the capacities and nuances of her inspiration, the typical rhythms and stages of her empowerment. She will develop the ability to discern with clarity the differences between her own projections and the resident consciousness of the sacrifice, between her own unreadiness and the insufficiency of the temple support.
provided that the priestess is prepared and the Rite proceeds in accordance with her puissant desire, then she is ready to invoke the most active of Sakti's characters, such as that of Kali.
as Kali, She is the vanquisher of obstacles and the garrilous extension of power to extremes dangerous and capable of great change. She wields the weapons of rulership and dominion. She demonstrates the process of liberation which She has the power to allow through severance from personal attachment and facade. She bequeaths Her knowledge of Truth and compassionate Grace through Her magical gestures and spells, as well as most directly through Her feet as She grinds the devotee into an encounter with the Real.
adorned with the skulls or heads of those She has liberated, and wearing a skirt of forearms symbolizing Her omnipotence, Kali's fierce or sublime gaze destroys the limitations of the ignorant and welcomes the sincere to erotic munificence. that She is mistress of this domain is often expressed by Her outstretched tongue, a blatant indication of indulgent and sensual delight.
at times She is shown passing a trident into the hand of Her consort. at others She squats to recieve his erection into the paradise of Her Yoni. most often when both are a part of the devotional act, She has at least one and sometimes two feet firmly planted upon the corpse or prone body of Her partner, who is alternatively substituted for a copulating couple being consumed by a pyre of passion rising from a gigantic lotus blossom.
the mind is Siva. He is resolved passivity. His is the condition of stasis, presence, timelessness, and being. with his feat of endurance is liberation achieved in ecstatic delight, that indulgent release by which the whole may be experienced.
Siva is the ultimate perpetuity. by His skill are all things sustained, extended, deepened. through His mediation is resolve inspired, are complications simplified. He becomes known to us as the personal world, the eternal spiritual monad, dwelling forever in His placid stability, the essential core of self, state, and substantiation.
the Soul and Conscience of the World, Siva engages the heroic challenge of purification, from complete delusion to perfect consciousness. He is the Knower, the Known and the Ignored of all manifestation; the Perfect Witness. His most diligent characterizations usually appear supine below His mate and consort.
Tamomayi Sakti provides for the integration and discipline He may derive from accepted limitation and circumstantial challenge.
His dedication and sincerety enable diligence and commitment such that our spirit may be tempered. He provides the enduring stability and the well of enthusiasm without which we would dissipate.
His sacrifices are of many characters, though always aspiring to self-perfection and to an ideal of complete surrender to Sakti and the moulding influence of Her priestess. His is Submission to the Mistress, the complete abandonment to direction and guidance, challenge and reward by she who becomes the manifestation of Sakti.
whereas the priestess perfects the sometimes ecstatic and excitatory experience of divine power, the skilled sacrifice learns to quiet his mind: to shift sensitively and flexibly in response to direction, patiently waiting on the priestess, and enduring to his limitation the tensile and flagellatory effects she may see fit to induce during ritual. he is studied in meditation, surrender and communication so as to assist the priestess in directing the interaction to both their benefit.
by far, however, the most important aspect of the initial period in ritual is his patience, since there may be some necessary transition time for the priestess between ordinary and ritual modes. he can use such time productively by entering into deeply suggestible trance, meditating upon the character of Siva in both erotic and ascetic modes, and generally calming any anxiety he may be experiencing at the outset through breathing and attention-focussing techniques.
while the priestess engages self-indulgent activity, it is the role of the sacrifice (or priest) to renounce or release the world, relaxing into a state of total dependence and transformative awe. He should be provided with some means of communicating his condition (verbally, manually, or merely by position of his body) to the priestess, into whose instruction he will have entered cautiously and with careful assessment of her ritual skill. being convinced of her trustworthiness, he will set about the surrender of his will to hers, a necessary requirement for the chance at liberation.
to assist himself in this process, therefore, the responsible sacrifice becomes familiar with himself, the capacities and endurance of his inspiration, the typical rhythms and nuances of his surrender. he will develop the ability to discern with clarity his internal resistance to Sakti's direction and from whence it arises (out of hesitation, rebellion, or a real need to protect some vulnerable part of himself).
he will come to understand that he is as much a plaything, an entertainment for the delight of the goddess and a symbol for the congregation which may be present as an individual whose maturation and development toward *internal* liberation are of value. he will accept and comprehend that the proper configuration of elements must coalesce in order for the rite to proceed -- that Sakti must be *pleased* with these elements lest the rite be terminated as ill-timed or of improper arrangement -- and that it is the *priestess'* role to monitor this configuration rather than his.
provided that the rite continues past the preparatory stages, the more intense challenge of encountering the most active of Sakti's manifestations, such as that of Kali, may begin. it is at this time that the communicative ability of the sacrifice may become the most imperative, since Kali's force and destructive potential are simultaneously promising (She makes possible the destruction of the very chains by which She has bound him) and frightening (especially if there is some concealment from Her or a lack of heart-felt devotion).
this unswerving loyalty and trust of the divine, this resolute self-abandonment in the face of horror is an important facet of Siva's character -- the basis of His identification as the Lord of both mysticism (union) and magic (art). it is for this reason that Siva is often shown, in classical Indian iconography, in a meditative posture and/or adorned with cobras, skins of ferocious animals, and the bones of the dead. His willfulness and devotion have been the ideals of Indian mystics for centuries, and His fondness for crude, untamed or horrific dwelling places often underscore these qualities.
the adept sacrifice, at least within rites of male-submission, becomes accustomed to the intense and unpredictable extremes of passion with which the Dark Goddess has come to be associated. this is balanced by a resolve to attain liberation (with the guidance of Sakti) from the internal constraints that provided the limitations to and directions for growth and maturation in his earlier life. it is for this latter reason that those who have lived full and deep lives will have the greatest potential for successful emancipation -- a prerequisite which forms the mystery of Sakti's instruction.
to some it may seem that the sacrifice has the enviable role in the rite, bereft as he is of decisive responsibility. yet this can easily be turned upon its head should the goddess inspire. the priestess may direct the sacrifice to request or even beg for that which he desires, feels will set him free, or fears, placing the additional responsibility of decision-making upon his shoulders (subject, of course, to the veto of the priestess). she may ignore him completely or deem him unworthy of sacrifice, unsuitable for her taste. he is completely at her disposal, and the most guileful and insightful priestesses will come to know what their sacrifices need in order to perfect their temperance and spontaneity.
given this, the mastery of the role of sacrifice involves as much the summoning of willpower as it does surrender. Sakti can only lead one so far along the road to freedom, and while some of Her actions may confuse us in their apparent disconnection from the beauty of awakening, She will not make the leap *for* him, instead assessing his readiness and directing him to fly from internal branches and soar with new wings when he is ready.
with the experience of countless rites behind him, the sacrifice may anticipate the style and will of the priestess, facilitating not only her direction of his development, but also, perhaps, her interaction with those assembled when he is tasked to this end.
in what has been called the 'West', the concept of moral failure (sin) has often been associated with the transgression of religious and cultural standards or taboos. aligned in its most condemnatory sense with crime or depravity, sin was as often railed against to dissuade as ridiculed on account of its repulsive character.
those who sought out the least critical and most compassionate significance for this term discovered in its origins a correlation with the act of firing an arrow with a bow, and this emphasis on *motivation and intent* rather than on strict action was of revelatory import. in this context, sin is an errancy of result, the *missing* of a target, rather than aiming at an entirely incorrect or improper target altogether.
what this implies is that sin has less to do with moral culpability and the depravity of the individual ("bad, bad, bad") and is instead associated with action taken in ignorance ("missed the target, try again"). the individual, intending a certain result, attempts to achieve it through means unsuited to the task, with a skill level unqualified to succeed, or with a timing or duration of effort improper to yield the desired result. note that this result may be defined by the individual hirself, by hir cult or culture.
where this is of relevance to tantra and male-submission is in the discussion of their aim (liberation or release) and the means to achieve it (personal disciplines and expiatory rites), the latter of which is the focus of this essay.
the expiation of sin is sometimes seen as a compensatory payment for wrongdoing (the sinner, being culpable for transgression, deserves punishment), and, when the individual who feels that they have sinned believes that this compensation will have a remediary effect, this may prove to be effective. however, in general, such dualistic and ultimately violent attitudes have their basis in the mistrust and, in many cases, hatred of the human condition.
a more compassionate and workable understanding of the expiation of sin is the rectification of conceptual or perceptual error, and this is achieved in a variety of ways both subtle and severe. this rectification may be obtained in relationship with a divinity, social authority, parent, partner, friend, child, acquaintance, stranger, or even an enemy. its context and the shaping nature of its influence on our consciousness depend greatly upon our readiness for its effect. we must be properly prepared before the expiation of our sin, before a 'repentance' from ignorant action, before a fundamental shift in the way we function in the world, may take place.
when the aim is liberation or release, then the first issue with which we ought deal is: 'what is it that is restraining us, from what are we to be liberated, from what may we be released?' traditional sources provide a variety of fantastic cosmologies, incorporating such features as multiple lifetimes, elsewhere-directed goals, and, especially, the escape from the present circumstance, as an ideal. they often prescribe a cache of peculiar activities, usually ascetic in character, which we may be expected to presume may provide the possibility of exalted purification, culminating in a transcendental experience whereby, with some great effort, our fantastic escape may be accomplished.
the methods to attain this type of release are disputed amongst the various religious authorities and mystical specialists, rivalry amongst the sects has ensued, and entire cultural systems have been constructed to preserve the integrity of a supposed means to an end that few, if any, are capable of observing, let alone reaching.
for the diligent, then, the task before us becomes more clear: to ascertain in gradually more detailed complexity the true nature of our circumstance -- that is, to become more aware, through best means we have available to us, of the forces affecting us and restricting us in the achievement of our goal.
the historical religious roots from which modern tantric beliefs and practices derive aim for the popular Saktist target of "moksha" (liberation/release, defined in a variety of ways). within this essay I have specifically focussed upon the process of 'atonement' or 'expiation of sin' which may be understood to be reflected in the iconography of the dominant goddess and supine god and projected from the theological paradigm of popular Christian mythos (e.g. Eden and the notion of an 'original sin' for which men must atone).
while it is of course our objective to work together in egalitarian ways to construct whatever religious rites of liberation we need, a common cultural taboo-reversal is the dominance of women and the restraint and sacrifice of men in ritual ceremonies. these rites may be valuable contexts within which the opportunity to *identify with divine consciousness* (cf. the supine Siva before the dominant Kali in many traditional graphics) may take place. this is of course merely a possibility, though each rite makes possible the identification in nonritual as well as in future ritual contexts.
within at least the common notions of traditional Saktist iconography, both sacrificer and sacrificed are divine. that is, the one who sacrifices, Sakti, is as much a divine consciousness as is Siva, the sacrifice. thus these rites afford an opportunity for liberation for all major participants (sacrificer, sacrificed) in the rite. too often we identify certain qualities with a sacrificial action or character -- that the sacrificed is somehow inferior or superior, that the sacrificer is the divinity whereas the sacrificed is not, etc.
the roles that may be taken in ritual are likely to be, in a great deal of BDSM-related tantric culture, rigidified along gender lines (the preponderance of fem-dom fantasy and icons depicting Kali dancing over the supine body of Siva is indicative of an important psychosocial symbol), and therefore it should be considered separately when exploring the linkage between liberative opportunity and ceremonial station. it is especially significant, for example, that within the confines of typical ritual dramas it is likely to be the male, the sacrifice, who is presumed to have sinned. this tells us right away that the sin and repentance aspect of the rite is predominantly a facet of the *male* in ritual, contained in the details of his sacrificial action. the liberative opportunity afforded the woman in the rite is that of completely identifying with Sakti in a direct manner unimpeded by her personal limitations.
ritual binding (with chains, ropes, etc.) of the sacrifice by the goddess and/or Her agents for the ostensible purpose of rectifying the sacrifice's sin (what I would call his conceptual or perceptual set, ripening or adjusting his consciousness such that a full identification with Siva may become possible), illustrates the complete control which Sakti is presumed by Her devotees to have over every individual, the Maya which hinders or binds us, appearing to disempower us in the world. it is to our benefit, therefore, to take from it the lessons of what barriers stand between us and our empowerment with divine consciousness.
relevant questions regarding the symbolism of the rite at this point include: 'does Sakti bind us because She enjoys our suffering and wants to initiate this? is the fact that She binds the body meaningful in that this places an emphasis on what remains unfettered (the mind)? if She may be presumed to want our liberation, then how is it that She is truly assisting us by providing these restraints?' these questions are as valuably asked by the sacrifice as by the priestess, who is presumably conversant with intentionally influencing mind-states toward the maturation of consciousness.
other questions to consider in any case include: do the fetters in the ritual symbolize our attachment to the things of the world? are they repulsions from certain activities or appearances? are they fears which hamper and hinder us? Are they glamorous features of roles or excitation by which we have become ensnared? are the chains valuable in some way in the construction of our present circumstance, without which we would never have come to be? What would it take to have them removed? who has the power to remove them? if this entity is not oneself, is there some way to manipulate or propitiate this entity such that they are removed? do we really *want* these bindings removed at all? these issues become very complex very quickly without some measure of introspection.
yet, given that moksha or liberation is our ultimate aim, that freeing ourselves from some binding influence is of primary importance within our rites, then this initial ceremonial element becomes of stupendous relevance to achieving our goal. the ritual drama includes the very goddess whom we acknowledge and revere as an awesome power initiating the problem which our rite may be helping us to transcend. in the drama, She does so in response to sin.
it is here that the diverse means of interpreting the word 'sin' come into play. if Sakti wants to punish as compensation for wrongdoing, then we must ask what type of goddess She really is. If it is not really a punishment, but a rectification which begins with surrender to Her and Her possible wrath, then the sacrifice may valuably begin a careful reflection on what it is that needs correction. is it possible that this dominating goddess is merely an inversion of the oppressive in a struggle *between* sex-based dominators, and therefore worthy of being cast off?
perhaps torture needn't be all that is included in the rite. Surely the two previous parts of this essay leave room for a variety of interactions amongst the participants (inclusive of indifference, teasing, sex, or whatever activity and level of interaction pleases Sakti). should She become indifferent, then the sacrifice may begin to understand that he is far less important in the grand scheme of things than he may initially presume, and he may make progress in determining and dissolving the real restraints that keep him from an identification with Siva.
the identification with divinity (in the case of the sacrifice and sinner, with Siva) is a transcendental event. it is the entire difference between the sacrificed human being and the sacrificed god. In the former, a male takes on the role of a god and is subjected to the whim of a woman who is a priestess of a goddess. in the latter, Siva rests either in wrapt fascination or calmly sleeping as Sakti plays, toys with Him, in Her various moods. in the former, the sacrifice might beg forgiveness (so as to be released from the wrath of Sakti), while in the latter He may snooze, laugh with delight, incite Her to a greater intensity of fury, take action or in the power who is Sakti.
an expiation or atonement is included in this ritual drama, but it seems very important not to lose the goal of the religious rite in the imagery and fictional scenario which comprises that rite. if the drama concerns expiation of sin, then the instruction provided by Sakti shapes the atonement. it is She who decides (through Her priestess) when the lesson is complete. if the religious rite is intended to facilitate release (in whatever sense we choose to interpret this word), then its actualization is of greater importance than whether the drama is entertaining, believable, or enjoyable for the other participants. it is possible that a certain quality of performance in the ritual drama will serve as an indicator of having achieved liberation, yet this seems to be a somewhat hazardous presumption (thespians might then be mistaken for those who have experienced the supreme result of the practice).
the main hazard in the consideration of sin and expiation as a scenario for male-submissive religious rites is that it will become just another 'BDSM scene' playing out the fantasies of its participants in the presence of an audience. it can quickly lose its religious character in the shadow of prurient fetishes, and completely dissolve the potentiality of moksha, liberation in the identification of the divine. for this reason it is preferrable only to include participants who are sincere devotees during the initial phase of a temple or the training of new priestesses, so that they will be aligned with the work of the whole.
within a 'Western' culture this is doubly true when integrating the concept of 'sin and expiation', lest the predominant theme become the punishment and forgiveness of an angry goddess (putting in a goddess for the role of the Old Testament's wrathful Jehovah) rather than surrendering to the tests, challenges and pleasures of Devi's instruction.
once the religious rites 'work', and liberated individuals are somehow confirmed, what should be their place in the cult of the goddess? if they stay in the main roles of the rituals, then this may displace the potential of others to taste the fruits of true freedom. if they become missionaries to other geographical regions, then their inspirational influence will surely be missed. perhaps it should become their role to do the most difficult work of the temple -- menial administrative duties which no one else wants outside their personal disciplines.
in summary, however we approach the subject of sin and expiation or atonement, it is important that we avoid reproducing the problems and oppression of the past in our attempts to shape the future. moral condemnation and an institution of guilt and redress are manipulation schemes that serve the dominant interests of an elite. given the over-arching egalitarian and utopian nature of tantra as I would see its culture develop, it would seem to be served by holistic, just ideals that empower and enhance our lives.
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