Netratantra

Gavin Flood, Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen and Rajan Khatiwoda
Consultant: Diwakar Acharya

The Netratantra (NT), the ‘Tantra of the Eye’, is an important text in Kashmir and Nepal, dating from around the early ninth century, and widely disseminated during the eleventh and probably tenth centuries. The text takes its name from Śiva as Netranātha or ‘Lord of the Eye’. It was commented on by the Pratyabhijñā philosopher Kṣemarāja (c. 1000-1050) in his extant Netratantroddyota, that itself bears witness to its importance in his desire to bring the text into the orbit of his non-dualist metaphysics. The project will edit, translate, and describe its traditions as borne witness to in the Nepalese recension of the text. Alexis Sanderson has shown how the Netratantra was connected with royalty and used in the courts by Śaiva officiants in the role of royal priest or rājapurohita. That Śaiva and Mahāyāna gurus performed ‘apatropaic, restorative and aggressive Mantra rituals’ for the protection of king and kingdom is well attested in the kingdoms of south and south-east Asia from the ninth to eleventh century and the Netratantra is a text that bears witness to Śaiva gurus in the service of kings.[1] The principle use of the text would have been the protection of the king and his family through the propagation of its ritual procedures and particularly the recitation of the netra mantra (OṂ JUṂ SAḤ in the short version). Thus, the text is a ‘universal’ (sarvasāmānya-) tantra, which ‘overrides the distinctions between the various branches of the Mantramārga […] and that between the Mantramārga and the Kulamārga by propagating a form of worship for use by royal officiants that can be inflected as required to take on the character of any of these divisions and indeed of others outside Śaivism.’[2]

The text was first brought to our attention by Hélène Brunner who describes each chapter in some detail in her 1974 paper;[3] an extremely useful source for not only the contents of the text, but for her comments on its structure and relation to other texts, and has been researched by André Padoux in his studies of the correspondences between cosmos, sound, and body[3] and of the way the netramantra is formed. Somadeva Vasudeva has done research on yoga in the text, particularly the subtle visualization and subtle body of chapter seven,[5] as has James Mallinson.[6]

It is probable that the Netratantra was composed over a long period of time and the redactor is bringing together diverse elements into a whole. There are parallels between the Netra and the Svacchandatantra although more work on the parallels and influence of the Svacchanda needs to be done.[7] David White argues that the oldest or original section of the work is the material concerned with possession and exorcism[8] and this systematic treatment of possession is indeed a notable feature of it, akin to similar treatment in the Īśānaśivagurudevapaddhati Mantrapāda chapter 42.

The central deity of the Netratantra is Amṛteśvara, called Amṛtīśa in the Nepalese recension, also known as Amṛteśabhairava, Mṛtyunjit, and Mṛtyuñjaya, whose consort is Lakṣmī/Śrī called Amṛtalakṣmī in ritual manuals based on the text.[9] After an initial chapter in which Amṛteśvara, referred to as Bhairava, responds to the questions of the Goddess by extolling the virtues and powers of Śiva’s eye, the text presents a number of visualisations of a number of deities, catholic in its range, not only from the systems of the Mantramārga but from Vaiṣṇava traditions as well.[10] Furthermore, a strong Śākta influence is evident in the text with its many references to deities and practices characteristic of the Kulamārga (e.g. chapter 7 on the subtle visualising meditation and chapter 20 on yoginīs).

The project to study the text will especially focus on the theme of models of the person or self that the text entails. Based on close philological reading, we hope to account for different understandings of the person implicit in the text. Chapters on ritual and meditation reflect the understandings of the person in the wider community of which the text is an index. In particular, three chapters, six, seven, and eight, that the text calls the mundane or gross meditation (sthūladhyānam), the subtle meditation (sūkṣmadhyānam), and the supreme meditation (para­dhyānam), correspond to three types or levels of the body, gross, subtle and supreme.[11] It seems that this threefold hierarchical structure is an attempt to order a range of practices that the Netra is incorporating and it does so with some coherence. The lowest level of meditation practice is concerned with magical protection (primarily of the king [6.35] and his family) from demonic beings. This involves the practitioner, the Sādhaka or Mantrin, constructing diagrams within which the name of the person to be protected is written along with other rites of appeasement (śāntiḥ) and prosperity (puṣṭiḥ). The subtle level concerns the visualisation of the body and the powers moving within it. The subtle meditation is especially interesting because it presents two different systems of visualisation, one in which subtle energy rises up through the body, piercing the levels to the location of Śiva at the crown of the head and a second in which that same power rising through the body releases nectar at the crown of the head that then floods the body.[12] In his commentary Kṣemarāja calls these the tantra-prakrīyā and the kula-prakrīyā respectively, the latter being an index of the Śākta kulamārga. Finally, the supreme meditation is principally a reinterpretation of the ‘limbs’ of classical yoga from the perspective of supreme reality, the level of Śiva.[13] All of these entail distinct understandings of what a person is (e.g. a permeable self in ch. 6 and 19, a processual self in ch. 7 and a gnostic self in ch. 8).

There are two major recensions of the text, one in Kashmir (where four manuscripts exist to our knowledge) and one in Nepal where again there are four manuscripts (to be described presently). These have been preserved by the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project (NGMCP). The Nepalese manuscripts probably represent an older recension of the text, a judgement based on its slightly less polished language, which the Kashmiris have amended at times in the interests of producing a better text although Sanderson argues for the Kashmir origin of the text between 700 and 850 AD.[14] Of the four Nepalese witnesses, the oldest is a palm leaf manuscript (N1) of which there is a much more recent (19th century?) devanāgarī apograph (N2). N1 is dated to February or March 1200, the copying being done by Pandit Kīrttidhara, commissioned by the author of a ritual manual Viśveśvara, and completed during Caitra in saṃvat 320 (= 1200 AD).[15] Often the Kashmir reading is better semantically and grammatically, but we intend to preserve the text as it stands while noting the Kashmir variants.

Project output:
A full annotated translation of the Netratantra with an introduction in two volumes in the Routledge Studies in Tantric Traditions series.

[1] Alexis Sanderson, ‘Religion and the State: Śaiva Officiants in the Territory of the King’s brahmanical Chaplain,’ p. 238, Indo-Iranian Journal vol. 47, 2004, pp. 229-300. This is corroborated by texts such as the Amṛteśadīkṣāvidhi that prescribe initiation and ritual for the royal family (p. 241).
[2] Alexis Sanderson, ‘The Śaiva Literature,’ p. 30, Journal of Indological Studies, Nos. 24 & 25 (2012–2013), pp. 1-113.
[3] Hélène Brunner, ‘Un Tantra du Nord: le Netra Tantra’, Bulletin l’École Français d’Extreme Orient, vol. 61, 1974, pp. 125-97.
[4] André Padoux, Vāc: A Study of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras, trans. J. Gontier (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991). Also, his useful and lucid paper ‘Corps et cosmos: l’image du corps du yogin tantrique,’ in V. Boullier and Gilles Tarabout (eds.), Images du corps dans le monde hindou (Paris: CNRS, 2002), pp. 163-87. See also Gavin Flood, ‘Body, Breath, and Representation in Śaiva Tantrism,’ in Axel Michaels and Christoph Wulf (eds.), Images of the Body in India (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 70-83.
[5] Somadeva Vasudeva, ‘The Śaiva Yogas and their Relation to Other Systems of Yoga,’ pp. 7-8, RINDAS Series of Working Papers, Traditional Indian Thought 26, 2017, pp. 1-16.
[6] James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, The Roots of Yoga (London: Penguin, 2017), ch 5.
[7] André Padoux, Tantric Mantras (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 90. 95.
[8] David White, ‘Netra Tantra at the Crossroads of the Demonological Cosmopolis,’ Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 5, 2012, pp. 145-71.
[9] Sanderson, ‘Religion and the State,’ p. 239, n. 18.
[10] For example, it describes Viṣṇu as a sixteen-year old, ityphallic youth seated on a ram (13.10-13b), as well as visualisations of Tumburu and his sisters (chapter 11).
[11] Padoux (2002, p. 172) cites Kṣemarāja’s commentary on the Śivasūtra 3.4 where a triple body is related to the cosmic hierarchy.
[12] Bjarne Wenicke-Olesen has referred to the latter as being a ‘Śākta anthropology’ that can be contrasted with the earlier idea of the retention of semen (bindu) in the head. In an article with Silje Lyngar Einarsen he writes: ‘Es zeigt sich, daß eine ursprüngliche oder frühe Binduyoga-Anthropologie, die auf das Zurückhalten des Samens (bindhudhāraṇa) ausgerichtet war, von einem mit dem Kuṇḍalinī-System verknüpften Śākta-Anthropologie ersetzt wird, die auf die Überströmung des Körpers mit Unsterblichkeitselexir (amṛtaplavana) ausgerichtet ist’ (Wernicke-Olesen, B. and S. L. Einarsen. 2018. ’Übungswissen in Yoga, Tantra und Asketismus des frühen indischen Mittelalters’, in A.-B. Renger and A. Stellmacher (eds), Übungswissen in Religion und Philosophie: Produktion, Weitergabe, Wandel, pp. 241-257. Berlin: LIT Verlag). Also see James Mallinson, ‘Śāktism and Haṭha Yoga’ in B. Wernicke-Olesen (ed.), Goddess Traditions in Tantric Hinduism: History, Practice and Doctrine (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 109-40.
[13] Vasudeva has written on the six ancillaries of yoga. Concerning those in the Netratantra he observes that ‘it may actually be more appropriate to compare the eight ancillaries of the Netratantra with the formulaic dhāraṇās taught in the Vijñānabhairava, which show an even greater tendency towards the transcendence of the inherited complex of ritual and yogic procedures’ (Vasudeva 2004, p. 382).
[14] Sanderson, ‘Religion and the State,’ p. 242.
[15] N1 folio 49. Amṛteśatantra, NAK MS 1-285, NGMPP Reel No. B 25/5. Palm Leaf; Nepalese variant of proto-Bengali script, 1200 AD (= Saṃvat 320). NAK 5-4866, NGMPP Reel No. A 171/12.