Model this saliva exchange

One of the most blatant violations of the rules against touching saliva among other taboos is described by Dubois…in his [1906] account of one of the “disgusting religious orgies” he so meticulously depicts.  In these orgies, not only do men and women eat meat and drink alcoholic beverages, but they transgress the normal saliva prohibition.  I cannot possibly improve upon Dubois’ vivid word picture: “In this orgy called sakti-puja, the pujari, or sacrificer who is generally a Brahman, first of all tastes the various kinds of meats and liquors himself, then gives the others permission to devour the rest.  Men and women thereupon begin to eat greedily, the same piece of meat passing from mouth to mouth, each person taking a bite until it is finished.  Then they start afresh on another joint, which they gnaw in the same manner, tearing the meat out of each other’s mouths.  When all the meat has been consumed, intoxicating liquors are passed around, every one drinking without repugnance out of the same cup.

That is from the quite interesting Two Tales of Crow and Sparrow: A Freudian Folkloristic Essay on Caste and Untouchability, by Alan Dundes.


Due to CNN my standards in disgusting religious practices, often involving Indians, is much lower than it used to be. I expect many people are in the same boat. Thanks Reza Aslan!

I thought this was going in another direct though. Because at the start I assumed it was going to be a Roman description of the awful things Christians got up to.

Check out "Much Maligned Monsters : A History of European Reactions to Indian Art" from U. Chicago press, by Partha Mitter, for more cognitive misfires of the West, when faced with the HIndu puzzle.

One implication is that countries or regions where these practices are widespread are in fact great reserves of potential; but that that potential is held back by poor hygiene. Give them clean running water and they'll put a man on the moon.

So the Indians still did not invented hygiene, but will put a man onnthe moon...

Exploring the origins of various customs can help a society to break free of them. Bret Stephens explores the origins of a rather primitive custom here in America: I abhor the custom in America of shaking hands as a greeting. It's origin was to indicate the absence of malevolent intent: by showing and grasping hands, the greeters reveal they are not armed. Sadly, more people have likely died as the result of the custom (germs and all) than from malevolent intent.

Solution is to wash hands. But I agree in disliking the handshaking custom. Boxers hate it too, for obvious reasons. You can tell a boxer (in case it's not evident otherwise) by how he shakes hands: very gently. It's the occult wimps who wear brown suits and power ties who insist on the macho death grips.

How does washing hands help you when you're coming into direct mouth to saliva contact? It doesn't

OTOH, how dumb was this guy that he didn't know that "intoxicating liquors" meant "sterile"?

Of course, economics is at bottom the study of human behavior, including human behavior based on custom. Here's an interesting bit of recent information on consumption behavior: Starbucks has decided to discontinue on-line sales. Why would Starbucks do such a ridiculous thing? Because Starbucks likely concluded that total sales would fall if customers could buy coffee, etc. on-line rather than in the coffee shop. Starbucks is selling something besides a product. Custom, in this case wasting time in a coffee shop, can create a robust market for a product.

Did anyone explain to him how Kava was made?

I wonder if the Christian Eucharist is a sort of sublimated version of a ritual feast orgy?

Paleo-reaction against extant taboos, recognising the one-ness and indistinctness of all life.

This is the Vamachari or "Left-handed" Tantrism. It is not solely Hindu, the Buddhism of Tibet is of this type too. In fact the Dalai Lama officially believes in the same ideas though he rarely talks about them (Which is normal. Tantric rites are supposed to be kept secret and revealed to initiates only.)

The Abbe Dubois worked in South India (Pondicherry which was a French colony and the lands of the recently defeated Tipu Sultan.) in the early 19th century. The heartland of Vamachari Tantra is Bengal, Tibet and the Himalayan regions. Therefore it is very unlikely that Dubois actually witnessed the Shakti puja. No doubt one of his local informants told him about it and they probably never saw it either. It occupies the same place in the Indian imagination as Satanism does in the Western one. I mean look at the tone of the description. Doesn't it sound more like a Jack Chick tract than a sober anthropological account?

Tantra in general is about transgression. A tantrik hopes by upending the categories of social and physical reality to achieve a radical non-duality by emulating the Great Goddess known by many different names such as Kali, Durga, Tara etc in her "fierce" aspect in which she is not just the wife of a God but the active creative, generative, and destructive principal of the universe itself. The Vamacharis differ in actualizing the transgressions which are symbolic in other Tantric sects. This doesn't make them anymore "authentic" by the way. Both the "Left-handed" and "Right-handed" forms have an ancient history and the Left-handed ones have always been a minority except in the places mentioned above. There are also worshippers of the Goddess in her "peaceful" aspect which are more common yet. For instance, we Gujaratis recently celebrated the Navaratri festival which is dedicated to the Goddess Durga. The ritual of Navaratri is based on Tantras not the Vedas and the motif of the Goddess as flesh-devouring, blood-drinking, demon ass kicker is there but it would never occur to the participants to emulate it.

So I don't think Tantra actually tells you anything particularly interesting about caste ideology. (Patriarchy maybe if you want to go there.) Hindu Tantrics transgress in Hindu ways. Buddhist Tantrics in Buddhist ways. Lately Tantra has become popular in the West as a way for ex-Catholics to have sex without feeling guilty about it. Not long ago I offended a lady who was into that sort of thing by pointing out having sex, eating meat, drinking wine (or even swapping saliva) are hardly transgressive in Western society. A real Tantrik I said, would vote for Donald Trump. She didn't like that at all.

"ritual of Navaratri is based on Tantras not the Vedas "

I find the Vedas vs Tantra distinction a tad artificial. Sure, they are different traditions, but they have influenced each other a lot. A lot of Tantric tradition takes its inspiration from Atharva Veda (the fourth and the least revered of the four vedas).

Navaratri - The puja ritual may be tantric in origin, but the theology behind Navaratri comes from neither the Vedas nor Tantra. It stems from the two Itihaasas, particularly the Ramayana.

I have always believed that Indians overstate the importance of Vedas and understate the importance of the two Itihaasas and Puranas in day to day religion.

The central text in the Navaratri ritual, the Devi Mahatmya or Chandi Patha is from the Markandeya Purana. Not sure where you got Ramayana from though a lot of North Indians celebrate Vijaya Dashami which comes immediately after as the commemoration of Shri Rama's defeat of Ravana. But I'm speaking of Devi-centered traditions here. The puranas and itihasas present themselves as successors or augments to the Vedas (or even as a "fifth Veda") I agree that some especially the modern reformer types excessively ignore the puranas but we traditionalists do not. We follow the views of the 17th century scholar of the Shrividya school of Tantra, Shri Bhaskaraya who is also widely influential in South India. On the subject of Navaratri, he says its ritual comes from the Katyayani Tantra.

Bhaskararaya is interesting. He was a master of the Rgveda and a performer of Vedic sacrifices, undisputably orthodox by any standard but also a Tantrik practitioner. (Btw insofar as there is any real connection between the Vedas and Tantra, Bhaskararays situates it in the Rgveda not the Atharvaveda.) Shrividya has its origins in Kashmir though it is mainly to be found in the South now. It worships the "peaceful" Goddess Mahatripurasundari mainly in the form of the Shriyantra mandala. However Bhaskararaya aligns it philosophically with the Kaula system which is usually considered Vamachara even though Shrividya does not condone blood sacrifice, ritual intercourse or other literal enactments of the transgressive elements of Shakti puja. This was quite a controversial stand disliked both by those who wanted to deny any Vamachari influence at all and those who wanted to make it explicit.

So I can imagine some 19th century culture warrior using a gullible foreigner to take potshots at his ideological enemies. Why a 21st century author should fall for it I don't know.

Yep. Expected something better from Tyler.

The aspects of Tantra discussed here have been abhorred by orthodox hindus (including all brahmins) for a few centuries now. And I guess Tantrism of this sort was big mainly in eastern India, even historically.

Tantra in other parts of India takes the form of Agama - which is very benign temple ritual concerning Prana Pratishtana. Far more benign than even Vedic ritual. Agamas are big in southern India to this day.

But yes, I guess it helps to read about obsolete marginal Tantric practices while getting ready for a Hindu-bashing session with a Dalit interviewee.

"Not sure where you got Ramayana from though a lot of North Indians celebrate Vijaya Dashami which comes immediately after as the commemoration of Shri Rama’s defeat of Ravana."

The legend of Ramayana is the most strongly associated one with the Navaratri festival - not just in the north but in other parts of the country. Devi associations are strong, yes. But not pan Indian. And definitely not among Vaishnavites.

I am a Sri-Vaishnavite from the south, and I don't recall ever visiting a Durga temple, even. Though we have visited the odd Shiva / Parvati temple (if it happens to be adjacent to a Vishnu temple)

Ah that explains it. I'm a Smarta if you couldn't tell.

So they were passing around a joint.

When you advertise "disgusting religious orgies" I expect something more interesting than passing around food and drink. Tease!

Brahmins typically do not eat meat; they do not touch liquor. Brahmanic food purity laws are very similar to Jewish purity rules regarding food. Are there Brahmins who engage in this transgression by eating meat?

Some Brahmana castes in the North and East are not vegetarians. Coincidentally or not those are the areas where left-handed tantric traditions are more prevalent. (At many levels of society not just amongst the Brahmanas.) But yes the whole point is to transcend social and physical limits by antinomian behaviour.

There's a book by Robert Svoboda called "Aghora: at the Left Hand of God" about the authors encounter with a practitioner of one of the most radical tantric sects. (They got some new notoriety recently with Reza Aslans CNN documentary.) The titular Aghori claims to have learnt the practice of shava sadhana (meditation while seated upon a corpse which is horrifying to a mainstream Hindu.) from a Jain monk. The Jains are the staunchest vegetarians of them all.

Re Judaism: I submit to you the idea that the radical Kabbalistic thinking of Sabbatai Tzvi was Jewish Tantra.

Even the few northern and eastern brahmins who do eat meat (Eg : Bengali brahmins, Kashmiri pandits, and the Jhas of Bihar), do so in transgression of what is expected from them. There is no brahmin caste which embraces meat eating proudly. The ones that engage in it openly admit with a smile they are "fallen" brahmins of sorts.

Not true. One example: Vishvanath Tarkapanchanana Bhattacharya is the author of a widely read manual of logic. He was a Bengali by birth and a Vaishnava by creed who lived in Kashi (c. 15th or 16th century IIRC.) then as now the center of Sanskrit learning. There he got into an argument with certain "Dravida" (actually Marathi) Pandits over the issue of eating meat. He wrote a work called masatattvaviveka in which he not only defends the practice but accuses the Southerners of being "crypto-Buddhists" for insisting on vegetarianism. Bengali and Nepali Brahmanas I have known consider it quite normal to eat meat or fish. Some of them give it up as an additional spiritual discipline but it is normatively ok for them.

Interesting though this could be an exceptional person and not the norm.

I think the Gaudiya Vaishnavites of the east do insist on vegetarianism (the tradition to which modern day ISKCON belongs).

Also a slight penchant for old-style Vedic ritualism that de-emphasizes ahimsa (non violence) and glorifies the mimimsa ritual has always existed in pockets of Northern and Eastern India. But the fact is that these Vedic ritualists have been fighting a losing battle in Indian intellectual life for the past 1400 years or so. Vedanta has triumphed. And triumphed BIG.

And the Vedantic religion clearly does look askance at the old-style sacrificial religion and has strong signals favoring a Saatvik ("austere, pure") lifestyle (which includes vegetarianism among other things).

Maybe this Bhattacharya was one such Mimamsic eccentric.

And don't get me wrong. I am not saying bengali brahmins don't eat meat. Most of them do, I know. But I do think meat eating in this community was a LOT lower 4-5 generations ago. Atleast among women. The embrace of a meat eating lifestyle which one associates with Bengal and Kerala is a trend of the past 40-50 years - driven by the rampant secularization encouraged by Communist dispensations in both these states.

Gaudiya Vaishnavas prefered vegetarianism but didn't insist upon it. Or perhaps more accurately food habits depend on caste not creed. I don't know why you are being so insistent about this. The fact is that Bengalis etc. have been eating meat for a long time. (Before one of those types pops in, beef has been and is off limits to everyone.) They don't think there is anything wrong with it and they don't feel inferior to us about it.

Vishvanath Tarkapanchanana was a Navyanayayika not a Mimamsaka. Mimamsakas (and Vedic ritualists who are not Mimamsakas) are mostly found in South India today. (As I mentioned, Bhaskararaya was one.)

Yes Indians atleast amongst the intelligensia have become more squeamish about animal sacrifice over the centuries but it is not Vedanta that is the reason. The Brahmasutras specifically say ahimsa does not extend to the Vedic sacrifices (ashuddhamiti chenna shabdat.) Both Shankaracharya and Ramanuja interpret it that way in their commentaries.

Tantric sacrifices are probably inspired by Vedic antecedents but there is no direct connection. They certainly do not lack popularity today in the areas where they are part of the culture.

"The fact is that Bengalis etc. have been eating meat for a long time"

I was referring to bengali brahmins and not Bengalis per se. Sure, I grant that most bengali brahmins are glad to munch meat today. But traditionally they were mainly fish eaters and not that big on other forms of meat. Sure, I don't have evidence here. But this is anecdotal. Widows in Bengal used to be purely vegetarian traditionally. Which suggests that vegetarianism, though not practiced, was an ideal, even in Bengal.

"beef has been and is off limits to everyone"

I am probably much younger than you (am 33 years old) and I can tell you this is changing fast...real fast, among bengali and malayali youngsters. Sure, Beef is taboo in rest of the states to this day. But in these two states, youngsters have taken to beef in fairly sizeable numbers. And make no mistake about it....the political climate in these two states which has been explicitly anti-hindu and far-left for a few decades now, has contributed massively to this deracination.

"Yes Indians atleast amongst the intelligensia have become more squeamish about animal sacrifice over the centuries but it is not Vedanta that is the reason"

I would respectfully disagree here. I think the Prasthanatrayi scriptures explicitly express scepticism at the idea of ritual sacrifice. There is even a shloka in the Gita where Krishna mocks the sacrificial religion of the Vedic ritualists (remember "Yamimaam Pushpitam vacham..."?)

Vedanta, with its emphasis on spirituality, jnana (as opposed to mere vijnana), has definitely contributed to the squeamishness about animal sacrifice (and sacrifice in general). Sankara himself defends asceticism and monasticism against mere ritualism. His debates with Mandana Mishra were precisely on this.

Ofcourse Sankara and Ramanuja, fine intellectuals that they were, were faithful in interpreting Vedic texts as well as Brahmasutra. It's quite likely both were vegetarian, yet they didnt let their personal predilection bias their commentaries. Credit to them. But that doesn't mean they approved of meat eating. I don't think Vedantic traditions do. And Vaishnavite traditions are even more squeamish in this regard.

Regarding Navya Nyaya : Sure, that isn't mimamsa. But it isn't vedanta either.

An interesting little text I recommend is Vedanta Desika's "Aahara Niyamam" from the 13th century. Desika was a brilliant Sri-Vaishnavite stalwart, in Ramanuja's tradition, from Tamil Nadu. He lived barely a couple of hundred years after Ramanuja. His rules on food clearly are extremely strict on "Saatvic"ness and purity. Clearly an indication that meat eating was off limits for the early orthodox Vedantins. Sure, if you had asked them - would they be fine with animal sacrifice in the context of a Vedic Yajna? - they would've probably nodded in deference to the Vedas. But deep down they were not fans.

It is the influence of Vedanta because of which Hindus for the most part have moved away from Sacrifice and embraced the benign form of Agama worship today.

It's true that many Brahmin groups have been meat eaters for long. However, in general the movement has been towards vegetarianism ( leaving out last 100-150 years). There is no doubt that vegetarian ( Satvik, more precisely) food is considered ideal and preferable for all groups, not just Brahmins. Look at sects like Lingayats and Varkaris which were formed rather late in Indian history. They are strict vegetarians. As far as tantra goes, not all schools belonged to the Vaam Marga. Not all followers of Tantra can be assumed to be non vegetarians.

Is this the first time we've had Indians productively disagreeing with each other on this blog? AFAICR it is.

And interesting to someone like me who knows basically nothing about this

+1 , very interesting exchange. I think most (non Indian) Americans know the history and culture of India probably least of all the great civilizations.

Handwashing is solution to handshaking problem, not saliva problem, duh.

Comments for this post are closed