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Death and Tantra

In the 1940's when Agehaananda Bharati left his native Austria and traveled to India in search of a monastic life, he was initiated into the Dasanami order in Varnasi via a ritual performed on the Manikarnika burning ghat near a glowing flame said to be lit eons before by Shiva himself. For the ceremony, he was surrounded there by three active pyres where cremation was underway. His list of works can be found here. Some of those who tend these fires are said to be Aghoris, tantric practitioners who eat from human skulls and perform rites seated on a fresh corpse. (You can read more about the Aghoris in this excellent book by Robert E. Svoboda.) Moreover, the revered mantra most closely associated with tantra is the Mahamrityunjaya which translates to “the Great Victory Over Death.”

What is this connection between tantra and death? It's often said that “tantra is about sex and death.” To some extent this is true – both are related to great transformations: sex both to birth and to the shattering experience of orgasm, and death to the ultimate orgasm, the escape from the confines of the physical body and the ultimate transformation. For the Aghora tantricas, death is a playground. They observe the departure of the spirit from the body and learn to play with the process – reputedly learning how to enter the body of a recently deceased and occupy it, reviving it even as they abandon their own less healthy one.

Whether or not you chose to believe that such a thing is possible, at least for some, tantra is clearly placed at the door of death and brings its characteristic curiosity and experimentation to bear in this oft feared and forbidden realm.

I personally like to define tantra as “the science of transformation,” and here I am not restricting the term science to its conventional mechanistic form. I am, rather, talking about the process – often internal – where data is gathered, hypotheses are framed, and further data confirms these hypotheses, or reveals their shortcomings, whereupon they are revised – all within the inner world.

Such a version of tantra can approach the dreaded matter of death with a fresh attitude, one of wonder, curiosity, and excitement. Exactly what is it that shifts at the time of the last breath? What changes in myself in my life parallel such a shift as that that death brings (only in a milder form – even a bit when I stop breathing)? Where in my own meditation do I begin to leave the ego world of myself and enter vaster and more exhilarating domains? How can I live so that I am dying daily in small ways, i.e., letting go the limited, the fearful, the self-ish? What do I learn in that way? If I do make a habit of daily mini deaths, at what point have I “died enough” so that there is no more need to discard the body??

Such an enquiry might lead us into a deeper understanding of what is meant by “the Great Victory Over Death,” the mahamrityunjaya mantra. Tantric wisdom would suggest that enquiry would be supported and furthered by the practice of the repetition of the mantra (which can be learned from many videos on YouTube, but this one has subtitles and English translation).

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