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by François Pannier

December 30, 2004

This article appeared in number 4 of KAOS - PARCOURS DES MONDES, 2004
translated by David Hunter from the French.

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(click on small images for large images with captions)

This Tibetan offertory cover is a rare and exceptional object which has until now only been described briefly (figs. 1-4, below) (0). It is a head, skinned rather than stripped of flesh, in gilt iron with traces of colour - red for the mouth and blue for the hair; it is 36 cm in height, 19 cm in diameter at the ears and 16 cm at the base. The information indicating that Giuseppe Tucci wrote an article on the subject has not yet been verified, his archives being sealed. However, using the information obtained in his research, we will try to support the hypothesis of the object’s function in rituals, and this will lead us to India, Gandhara and Tibet.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

In certain plates of the secret visions of the fifth Dalai-Lama (pl. 3, 18) (1), a skull is used to contain the burnt parts of the lingam, the modelled or paper figure accused of evil, which is ritually burnt, and the skull hidden in the ground. According to the tradition told by the inheritors of the ancient owners of this object – those who made reference to studies by Tucci - it was used to cover the offerings of soma in Tantric ceremonies involving a mandala, various offerings, torma (sacrificial cakes) and ritual objects.

Soma itself is a sacred drink, which sometimes becomes the god Soma. Its composition has given rise to many interpretations. It is sometimes sarcostemma viminale or asclepias acida, and can lead to divine exhilaration, perhaps with added hallucinogenic substances such as hemp. The composition varies according to the type and place of the ritual. Some rituals require plants to be ground up during the ceremony, indicating that they were collected locally.

Fig. 6

Certain Siva traditions consider sperm as soma. A fair number of hymn texts describe Siva or Indra ejaculating into the mouth of Agni, the god of fire. Representations of this episode are to be found, notably, on bas relief of the 8th century at the temple of Bhubanesvar in Orissa (fig. 6, left). In hymn no. VI of the Rig Veda, section eight, are the lines:

"O Agni, the holocaust has been hurled into your mouth, as the ghrita is poured into the spoon and the soma into the sacred vase. Give us great and glorious opulence, to assure us of abundance, renown and power." (2)

More explicit still, in the Siva-Svarupa: "In the sacrifice of Soma, the liquid soma is drunk by the priests.” This is just the exoteric rite corresponding to the interior rite in which the chalice of divine liqueur is itself the body of the man, and the elixir of life is absorbed to become the potion of immortality. The senses are the cups in which the divine potion can be drunk. The essence of the procreative energy is produced in the nether regions, in the south, where the ancestors live. The purified seed rises gradually to the head and is received in a centre called [in the Tantra-s] the mujavan. From there, it flows to the nerve centres. And so the Soma becomes the god of the north (of the head).

The head is like an inverted cup. The re-absorption of the semen is presented as the absorption of the potion of immortality. This process demands absolute mental control and can only be accomplished by the perfect practice of yoga techniques. Only the yogi drinks the ambrosia that the ordinary man dissipates. Siva is represented as being constantly intoxicated by this potion, of which the cup, shaped like a crescent moon, shines by his forehead. In the symbolism of the physical body, the vital energy (prana) is represented as a snake (naga) and the king of the birds, Garuda, eater of snakes, is the sperm. Only the gods, divinities of the senses, are capable of appropriating it. The soma makes them impotent, this elixir of life, shining around Indra, the celestial king, who is the essential self, the atman.

Sperm is the substance of desire, on it depends man’s energy, his power to know and to act. By using this substance he destroys himself or becomes immortal. So, the seed, which is a poison for the proud, brings peace and light to the man who knows how to control his passions. Misused by those who are anti-gods, the potion becomes toxic, making them uncoordinated, and shortening their lives. Siva drinks the poisoned part of this energy and calms its flames so that the gods can drink the ambrosia. Siva is the yogi who penetrated the five vital energy centres which bar the path to reintegration. Only after passing through the five centres can the yogi master his desire and acquire the power to drink the poison and to purify the ambrosia. (3)

Despite the recurring sexual aspect, these rituals are diverse, and linked. Copulation is referred to in obscure and symbolic terms. The passages concerning ejaculation are the most obscure of all. What is clear is that the face of the shakti is the most important of the shakras and that man ejaculates in the mouth of woman. The many quotations produced by Jayaratha prove that a very complex and serious literature existed on this subject, and is unfortunately lost today. In a commentary on the difficult stanza on page 91, verse 128, Jayaratha explains that the sperm should pass first into the woman’s mouth and then into the man’s, to be finally collected in a sacred recipient. Several stanzas from agamas are quoted to support this idea. Abhinavagupta himself discusses several different forms of ejaculation, all corroborated by the authority of the ancients. (4)

Tucci analyses the text of Tantraloka of Abhinavagupta, the 11th-century Hindu author who discusses Kundagolaka, an offering consisting of sperm and shonita - the feminine secretion - collected in a sacred vessel and consumed by the officiant. "Certain practices of advanced initiation of the rNin ma pa of Tibet also confirm that such a substance could have been consumed. These practices indicate the great influence of Sivaistic Tantric literature. The reason is that kundagolaka is the counterpart to cit or citta, the ab initio conscience present in all people, though imprisoned in time and space. The ceremonial (…) reproduces the process of creation (visarga) and re-absorption, of reintegration of the only reality: primordial conscience, Siva, as a pure and unshakeable potential." (5)

Other texts relate the consumption by a disciple of concoctions containing the sperm of their guru or the sperm of elders being consumed by novices. Giuseppe Tucci refers to an object originating in Gandhara that he studied and which would seem to be connected to this tradition. It is a three-faced pedestal representing three sculpted images, one of which is a person masturbating. On the top was a rectangular hollow, apparently used to receive the kundagolaka. Mircea Eliade took Tucci’s discovery as an indication of the connection between this object and the metaphysical concept of the rites of the Akula Tantric school. Tucci’s translations of the terms connected to the school [Kula means Cakti, akula is Siva; akulavira is a solitary hero; he is all things, "he is neither Siva nor Cakti, he is beyond them, one"] brings us back to the very old Sivaistic traditions of secret sexual practices dating back to the first century AD which already took place in rituals of which references can be found in later texts. Hiung-tsang had noticed this during his journey in India in the first half of the 7th century, as well as a considerable decline in Buddhism, particularly in Uddiyana, and an increase in Tantric practices. (6)

Eliade notes that the region of Gandhara was an important centre of Sivaism, a decadent philosophy belonging to the Siva cult, and that a certain number of currents resulting from it developed in Swat, the home area of Padmasambhava, who introduced Tantric forms to Tibet. At this period Matsyendranatha and Goraksanatha appeared in Uddiyana. They were apostles of Sivaistic Tantrism, creators of the Goraksanathi sect, itself derived from Kapalika. Adepts of Kapalika (" carriers of a human skull (as ornament)") are described offering sacrifices of human flesh to the fire, becoming drunk, drinking from skulls, "dealers in base pleasures " and magicians. (6)

In the Rasaratnasamuccaya treatise, which is attributed to Nagarjuna, it is said: " Only those who love the truth, have vanquished temptation, worshipped the gods, are in complete self-control and are used to fasting and following a proper diet - they alone can take part in alchemy." P.C. Ray explains that the “laboratory” had to be set up in the forest, far from any impure presence, that the disciple had to respect his master and venerate Siva, for alchemy was revealed by the god Siva himself; he also had to erect a mercurial phallus to Siva and participate in certain erotic rituals... (7) Ray concludes by saying that this illustrates quite clearly the symbiosis between alchemy and Tantrism.

Certain texts recommend the use of an occiput (7) as a recipient for transformation, the skull being the recipient of thought and intellect; the combination skull-iron to cover a sperm-feminine secretion offering could transform the offertory cover into an athanor and transmute the offering into magic elixir.

Padmasambhava may well have been a disciple of Goraksana tha and practised initiation, or at the very least spent time in a region and a culture where these rituals were current, and could not have been unaware of them, probably actually being involved in them himself. He is thought to be the founder of the rNin ma pa from whom the secret visions of the fifth Dalai-Lama were derived. It is logical that the Tantric rites should have influenced Buddhism and have been present in this Buddhist school and in its rites. The offertory cover can thus be seen as an integral part of the magic spirit of the rNin ma pa.

If the nature of the offering that the object covered was imbued with magic, the very metal of which it was made would accentuate certain aspects and probably reinforce the virtues. The magical-religious aspects of iron have been noted in many cultures, particularly in Asia. Already in 1907, J. Goldziher had a thick file on the qualities of iron in combating demons. (8)

This function of iron pertains to a very archaic shamanist tradition. In Siberia, shamans have costumes decorated with figurines made of iron in the shape or with the function of bones, so that the shaman appeared like, or was seen to represent, a skeleton. Some of these observations are considerably beyond our geographical area, the Himalayas, but the connections between these shamanist rituals and certain Tibetan rituals and traditions are so numerous that they must be taken into consideration.

Fig. 5

In some cases, during his initiation the shaman sees himself torn apart by demons armed with iron hooks who, after cleaning the bones and scraping the flesh, put the skeleton together again with pieces of iron. This dismemberment can also be carried out by a bird of prey with beak, claws, and feathers of iron. Finally, accounts recount the entry of the future shaman into a cave-matrix where he meets a blacksmith who tears up and boils the skeleton, then puts it back together with iron while re-forging the head and ornaments of his future costume. (9)

These accounts are fairly similar to those in which Tibetan novices make their way in the night to charnel-houses, with horns made of human femurs, to call up and confront terrible divinities in the tcheud ritual described, notably by Alexandra David-Néel. (10) These macabre rituals could also finish with a ritual dismemberment of the officiant by the daïkinis or other terrifying beings.

All these Shamanist traditions can be compared to Vedic traditions concerning the vajva, or diamond-lightning, a weapon of Indra. When the sage Dadhici died, all the Asouras (demonic beings in whom he inspired panic) recovered their power and invaded the earth, holding Indra in check. The god Indra started looking for Saint Richi Dadhici, unaware of the latter’s death. He received the news at the same time as the information according to which his bones had the power of thunder against the Asouras. His skull was found in Lake Saryavar and forged by Tvashtri, the artisan of the sky, in the shape of vajra, or diamond-lightning, which is found in Tantric rituals, to dominate the demoniac forces. This vajra also allowed Indra to free the water that the ophidian monster Vtra had dammed up. It was in smashing Vrtra’s skull that this water was freed. In the myth of Indra’s dismemberment, the chronicles tell that the body of the god, intoxicated by an excess of soma, began to flow away, " giving birth to all kinds of creatures, plants and metals." With Indra being the master of thunder, the vajra are often said to be made of the iron from meteorites, which is certainly not always the case, but tradition often takes precedence over reality. We do not know if the offertory cover was made of this celestial iron. Nathalie Bazin of the Guimet museum (8), said that the analyses carried out so far had not been able to confirm the truth of this tradition.

The perfection of the offertory cover allows the supposition that it could originate from Derdge, in eastern Tibet. When it was exhibited at Madrid, it was said to be from the 17th/18th century. Understanding the difficulty of dating such an atypical piece, we would nevertheless attribute it to the 16th century, a period when iron-working reached its apogee.

It may seem surprising, in dealing with an object of Tantric Buddhism, to have recourse to references of Hindu texts. There seem to be more texts and traces of Indian, rather than Tibetan, origin. In the Tibetan context, this ritual is limited to the rNin ma pa who, despite having had a definite influence at the highest religious levels, did not occupy the most important positions. The 2002 exhibition at the Guimet museum showed this. What is more, this ritual was heretical enough for its existence not to be divulged. It was perhaps transmitted directly from master to disciple, and the existing texts are probably impenetrable to the non-initiated. The names of the monks in these lineages are quoted and their personality invoked to give the ceremony a radiance and to benefit the ritual. Certain of these lineages go back to Indian adepts, from whom the tradition linked to the offertory cover would seem to originate.

It does not seem that all the rituals connected to sex and to the ingestion of human flesh (also found in certain Tantric traditions) were exposed to public view. Even Western Tibetologists have, particularly in the past, been embarrassed by certain aspects of these practices. The dGe-lugs-pa certainly softened the texts thought to be too heretical and contrary to the rules of original Buddhism. The deviant forms of Buddhism were rejected, the old rules of monastic discipline re-established and texts thought to be too compromising were often attributed to the Bon-po.

For all these reasons, the rituals and the currents of thought which could have been attached to this Tantric movement of Indian Sivaistic origin have remained secret. We know very little about the survival of these practices even if the indications are that some of them continue. It would seem that the esoteric element and the lack of known elements must have been obstacles to the study and knowledge of these doctrines and traditions.

all text and images © Francois Pannier


(0) Exhibition Monasterios y Lamas del Tibet, Fundacion la Caixa, Madrid, Nov. 2000 (in catalogue, n° 39).

(1) - Rituels Tibétains - Visions secrètes du Ve Dalaï Lama Catalogue de l'exposition au Musée Guimet du 5 novembre 2002 au 24 février 2003 Œuvre collective sous la direction de Nathalie Bazin Commissaire de l'exposition Co-production RMN et Editions Findakly Paris 2003. Page 88 et 89

(2) –Rig-Véda ou livre des Hymnes - Traduit du sanscrit par A. Langlois
- membre de l'Institut: Deuxième édition, revue, corrigée et augmentée d'un index analytique par Ph-Ed Foucaux: Paris - Jean Maisonneuve - Editeur 1984
Page 572

(3) - Traduction abrégée du Shiva-svarûpa, par Vâsudeva Sharana Agravâla, Kalyâna, Shiva anka p 497 - 498 cité par A. Danielou Mythes et Dieux de l'Inde - Le polythéisme Hindou: Editions du Rocher 1992 page 126 à 128

(4) J.L. Masson et M.V. Patwardhan, Santarasa and Abhinavagupta's Philosophy of Aesthetics, Repris par Mircea Eliade dans Occultisme, sorcellerie et modes culturelles - Les Essais CCVI NRF GALLIMARD P. 138

(5) - Cité par Tucci "Oriental Notes : III. A Peculiar Image from Gandhara" repris par Mircea Eliade -dans Occultisme, sorcellerie et modes culturelles - Les Essais CCVI NRF GALLIMARD P. 139

(6) – L'Inde Classique - Manuel des Etudes Indiennes par Louis Renou - Membre de l'Institut et Jean Filliozat - Directeur d'études à l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes; Tome premier - Edition J. Maisonneuve - Paris 1985; Tome second - Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient - Paris 1996; § 2230 - 2231 - 2232 - 1286 et 1287

(7) - Forgerons et Alchimistes de Mircea Eliade: Idées et Recherches - Champs Flammarion Editeur Paris 1977 ; Citation page 112 d'un texte de Praphula Chandra RAY, A History of Hindu Chemistry, II page 115 - 116 - 2éme Edition - Calcutta 1903

(8) – Forgerons et Alchimistes de Mircea Eliade: Idées et Recherches - Champs Flammarion Editeur Paris 1977; Citation page 22 de I. Goldziher " Eisen als Schutz gegen Dämonen" (Archiv für Religonswissenchaft, 10 - 1907 pages 41 à 46)

(9) – Le Chamanisme et les Techniques Archaïques de l'extase de Mircea Eliade: Payot Editeur - Paris 1951; Page 215 et suivantes

(10) – Mystiques et magiciens du Tibet par Alexandra David-Néel; Edition Plon - Paris 1973; Page 144 et suivantes | articles