The Brahmayamala Tantra or Picumata, Volume I

Chapter 1-2, 39-40, and 83

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Shaman Hatley
  • Pondicherry, India: 
    French School for Asian Studies/Institut Francais De Pondicher
    , April
     2018.
     709 pages.
     $81.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9788184702262.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It is a pleasure to read intellectually ambitious scholarship, and Shaman Hatley’s work is nothing if not ambitious—and judiciously so. Just this is required even to begin to engage the subject matter at hand, because the Sanskrit-language text elected for detailed study is prolix, historically obscured, and, prior to the publication of parts of the text in the Early Tantra Series, hardly understood beyond a bare-bones appreciation of the general contents of the work and its rough place in the history of Śaiva literature. And yet, its place in that history is significant, for the famed Brahmayāmalatantra, a.k.a. the Picumata (among other names), is a pivotal and fascinating work of enduring influence in the history of Hindu traditions. The present book stands as the first in a series that promises to contain multiple volumes—indeed, the second one, by Csaba Kiss, is already in print—all with the aim of bringing to light this fascinating and massive Śaiva tantric text of some twelve-thousand verses.

The Brahmayāmala/Picumata came into existence at a relatively early stage in the history of esoteric Śaivism and of tantrism more generally. To illustrate when and how it emerged, Hatley was required to spend considerable time determining as best as possible the dating of the text. The evidence for this, such as it is, is various and maddeningly indeterminate, but on the basis of internal and external textual evidence and by locating the tantra in a relative chronology of Śaiva and Buddhist esoteric works, Hatley reasonably if somewhat tentatively concludes that it was composed in “approximately 650–750 C.E., without ruling out later additions [to the tantra] into the early ninth century” (141).

The reasons for adducing as much appear in the massive first chapter of the first part of the book, entitled “Introduction and Studies.” After introducing the volume, describing the paucity of extant scholarship on the text he studies, and outlining his editorial policies for the same, in chapter 1 Hatley surveys the five compositions carrying the name Bramayāmala; describes the internal division of the work into two halves or ṣaṭkas; explains that the second, historically later half of the text (with which the name Picumata is most commonly associated) contains two sections that appear once to have been distinct tantras themselves (titled respectively the Uttaratantra and Uttaraottaratantra); situates the text in relation to other tantric works; and, finally, weighs the internal evidence for placing the text historically on the basis of the Brahmayāmala’s mantra, ritual forms, cosmology, and the geographic and social horizons identifiable in the work. None of this is straightforward work, and despite a heavily and admirably annotated study of great length that in addition to all the relevant extant scholarship draws on published and unpublished Sanskrit-language textual sources, Hatley’s conclusions are appropriately tentative and carefully circumscribed.

The subsequent chapters of part 1 offer discrete studies of the contents and contexts of the chapters of the Brahmayāmala­ that are critically edited and translated in part 2—the paṭalas 1, 2, 39, 40, and 83 of the Brahmayāmala announced in the book’s title. These include an interesting account of the names and epithets ascribed to the text (part 1, chapter 2); an examination of an early tantric sexual practice, the “sword’s (or razor’s) edge observance” (asidhārāvrata) with attention paid to its possible roots in a similar if more chastened rite of the same name witnessed in orthodox, Brahminical sources (part 1, chapter 3); a study of the origins of the skull and skull-staff associated with the mortuary asceticism of the Brahmayāmala (part 1, chapter 4); an examination of the adaptation of the Brahmayāmala into the (more popular and currently better-known) Devīpurāṇa (part 1, chapter 5); and, finally, a critical account of the process for measuring and making the renunciant’s skull-staff or khaṭvāṅga (part 1, chapter 6). Thirteen beautiful color plates illustrate in sculpture and painting the practice of carrying the skull-staff and include a diagrammatic reconstruction of the same, identifying the ontological levels and divine creatures and persons the 83rd paṭala of the Brahmayāmala says it holds.

It is Hatley’s copious notes to the translations that illustrate the biggest obstacle to understanding the Brahmayāmala. They describe the complex textual ambiguities and outright puzzles and difficulties presented by the laconic manuscript tradition that preserves this heretofore unpublished scriptural work. Many explain the ways in which the redactor(s) of the Brahmayāmala deployed Middle-Indic elements or Aiśa (or Śaiva tantric scriptural) linguistic forms, all in a syntax that flatly challenges the normative rules of classical Sanskrit. It’s simply beyond most specialists and even Śaiva tantric subspecialists to read this text without great difficulty. That Hatley made sense of it at all is testament to the significance of the present volume.

What we are left with is a fascinating if fragmentary picture of a tradition that likely drew on precedent Śaiva traditions to encourage antinomian practices—in particular sexual union without completing the sex-act, and the “great vow” (mahāvrata) of carrying the skull-staff and begging bowl—but also practices one has come to associate not only with tantra in all its forms but also with Indian religions generally, in particular the use of mantras in deity worship.

A frustration comes with the fact that only five of slightly more than one hundred chapters of the Brahmayāmala are delivered in this volume; and while it is true, as Hatley suggests, that a logic of introducing the tantra dictates the inclusion of the ones selected for study—chapters 1, 39, and 83 “set forth narratives of origin” (19) of the tantra; chapter 2 rounds out the introduction to the text begun in chapter 1; and chapter 40 outlines the “razor’s edge vow,” what exemplifies a type of “tantric sex” that puts the lie to stereotyped and simplistic views of the same—we are nevertheless left with an extremely fragmented view of this massive textual source. Much more needs to be done to interpret the work and its influences and legacies.

For example, it seems to me that despite its obviously “rustic” feel, with its non-standard Sanskrit and lack of depiction of a sophisticated court life, several elements of the work suggest it sought legitimacy in Brahminical eyes, for example its repeated mention of the classical formulation of the three guṇas, sattva, rajas, and tamas, so too its frequent mention of Brahmins who are said to have engaged the text (see 131–33). But whatever else scholars might choose to say of this work and whatever else they might do to examine the many other unpublished portions thereof, they will inevitably have to rely upon Hatley’s groundbreaking and exemplary contribution. His work has opened the door for further research, and intellectual ambition pays its reward with dividends.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Nemec is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
January 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

 Shaman Hatley is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His research concerns Tantric Śaivism, yoga, and goddess cults in early medieval India. 

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