You wish Hogwarts were real? Well, in ways that cannot even be fantasized in a book or a movie, it is real. And it is no posh school, it’s a philosophy, a belief system, a way of life, an alternative to the orthodox, traditional and the often so mundane religious and political functioning. Tantra and Wicca are less understood, more sensationalised schools of thought that exist in variable versions across the globe.
And no, they aren’t fighting one noseless, cranky Voldemort, but revolutionizing the religious, political, social, and cultural worldview of magic and mysticism since time immemorial. Now, it’s intriguing to delve into what these belief systems are, how they are inter-connected, and how they have transformed or at least tried to transform the human perception of reality, art, cosmos, and living.
What is Tantra?
Tantra is a collective term used to denote Hindu and Buddhist esoteric traditions that emerged in India during the 1st Millennium CE. Under the Hindu sectarian line of Tantra, there are subdivisions of: Shaiva Tantra (Lord Shiva) , Shakta Tantra (Adiparashakti/Feminine Energy), and Vaishnava Tantra (Lord Vishnu/Krishna/Rama). Tantric practices include meditation, yoga, worship, rituals, mantras, sex, and eroticism. The Sanskrit word ‘Tantra’ is derived from the root ‘tan’ which means to ‘weave, compose, loom.’ The modern etymology ‘Tantrika’ refers to the commentary of Kulluka Bhatta (15-16th CE) that describes Tantra as contrast or contemporary to the Vedic Literature. Vedic and Tantric Paths were understood as parallel routes of perceiving the ultimate reality or the difference between the ‘Brahman’ and the Agama Texts. On the other hand, the term ‘Tantrism’ is the coinage of 19th Century Europeans. The most common Hindu Tantric deities are Bhairav and Kali, both considered counterparts or guardians of each other. Tantra’s fame dates back to the historical kingdoms of Guptas and Vakatakas. Tantra posed as an alternate religion to the orthodox versions of Hinduism and was free of castes and unnecessary divisions, which made it an attraction for the socially backward, especially women.
What is Wicca?
Wicca is a western and a rather contemporary pagan religion popularised in England and spread to Europe and the United States. Wiccans practise nature worship and witchcraft and view it as a religion based on Pre-Christian Traditions of Northern and Western Europe. Wiccans often form covens that carry out ancient practices. For the Wiccans, what unites them is an ethical code rather than a religion. The modern Wicca practice is traced back to the work of Margaret Murray (1920s) - a first-wave feminist, folklorist, anthropologist who believed in the Witch Cult. Calling themselves witches, Wiccans fall into the controversy of being associated with Devil Worship or Satanism, but they have continually denied those.
The Historical and Socio-Cultural Link between Tantra and Wicca
Tantra emerged as a philosophy and revolutionary thought in India and rose to fame in 600 AD. Tantra continued to tantalise rulers until the 18th Century AD from Hindu Rajput rulers to the Mughal Sultanate in 1526 during which ‘Hatha Yoga’ gained eminence. In 1757, when the British arrived, Tantra posed as an opportunity to manifest a global counter-culture. Calcutta, Bengal was the British Capital and also the hub for Tantric traditions and Kali Worship. The British perceived this as black magic and sexual depravity. The revolutionaries at the time used this colonial anxiety to their advantage and positioned Kali as the face of colonial resistance. Gerald Brousseau Gardner, a British Civil Servant, who spent most of his career in Asia, was deeply interested in the Indian/Asian Tantra, magic, and occult while also being influenced by a Western Occultist, Aleister Crowley. When he returned, he started a coven of his own and pioneered the new era of Wiccan traditions as a response to the anti-witchcraft laws. The modern Wicca spread to America quickly with the help of Sybil Leek. The inspiring influence of Tantra and Witchcraft on Gardner as a revolutionary political movement as well as a self-empowering belief shaped modern Wicca and this creates an unbreakable link between Eastern and Western Esotericism.
How Tantra and Wicca Helmed the Feminist Movement
“From a Tantric perspective, the inner masculine—Shiva—is the source of consciousness, awareness. But in order to act, to stir, he must take energy from the inner feminine.”
Call it Kali or simply Shakti, the basic Hindu philosophy surrounding the existence of a divine feminine energy states that without Shakti/Energy, no consciousness or awareness can be stirred, no creation can be created or sustained, no free will can be exercised, and no force of evolution can exist. Similarly, the Tantric Philosophy believes in the feminine energy, the power/the light that fuels both creation and destruction. This makes Goddess Worship almost synonymous with Tantra. Now, this Hindu and Tantric conception attached itself to the socio-economic, religious and cultural status of women back in time.
The Post-Vedic Age had downgraded the role of women in society and women weren’t allowed to rise up in religious ranks. In an ambience like this, Tantra promised women spiritual growth via religious ranks, self-empowerment and the dignity to manifest her true inner self. Heard of Kundalini Yoga? Well, Kundalini was the name of a Goddess. Heard of Kamakhya? Kamakhya is the worship of the uterus/yoni. Tantra has highlighted the prominence of women/feminine energy across the diaspora of existence through its rituals, beliefs, and history. Through the freedom struggle, the philosophy of Tantra opened up a worldview of ideologies that promoted Goddess/feminine supremacy and we see the manifestation of that in the use of Kali’s fierce image to shoo the colonialists in the Mother Tamil Revolution in the South where matriarchy has sustained itself. Even before the inception of the Feminist Movement in India, Tantra made the world look at itself through the feminist lens.
We’ve established the impact of Tantra on modern Wicca and so we know that this feminist influence boarded the ships that went back from Asia to Europe. Well, the story of women wasn’t very different in those parts of the world when it came to advancing through religious ranks, that obviously was a no-no. Thus, in the 1960s-1970s, when Gardner breathed new life in the Wiccan Movement, it soon spread to the rest of Europe and America, where people started accepting the view of environmentalism (nature worship) and feminism (Goddess worship) as a way of life. In all honesty, the female deity attracted many men and women that felt bogged down by the orthodox patriarchy and misogyny prevalent in religion. It was America where feminist witchcraft flourished into becoming a counter-culture. As mentioned earlier, the works of Margaret Murray and others like Doreen Valiente pioneered to develop Wicca as a feminist revolution and a new-founded path of living.
Having looked at the socio-cultural exchange of ideas and beliefs from the East to the West and the many other manifestations, it’s important to notice the distortion in the way these philosophies are perceived. Americans and Euro-Americans, both Hindus and Non-Hindus, depicted Tantra among others as only meditation or only sex, and this is called the 'Californication of Tantra'. Similarly, Wicca has been maligned to be aligned with Satanism and pop-culture of modern times which perceives it as ‘Witches hate children, eat children, and are evil.’
In reality, they denote ancient mysticism, the art of healing by magic, averting evil, and uniting with the female creative principle. It’s significant to understand that a power/energy can be used for positive and negative purposes, but energy in itself is neutral, untarnished, unbothered. With Tantra and Wicca, distortions and revolutions have taken place all along human history, but it’s best to view it as an alternative path to seeking reality and realization.