How research into tantrism helped me find my mojo

“How much of the tantrism mentioned in this book is true?” a woman asked me at an event. She referred to my fantasy thriller series, Anantya Tantrist Mysteries, which has a tantric detective who fights supernatural crimes and is based in a world where tantric organisations run the supernatural world and liaison with the Indian government.

I opted for that cryptic babu reply: “It’s fiction but it reflects what’s real.”

Frankly, I was rather flattered. Here was a lady who had been in the spiritual business of things, attended congregations in ashrams across the country, was exposed to tantrics of all manners and she wondered aloud if the story, a book that calls itself fantasy fiction mind you, was based on true events or not. A whole year of in-depth research into the world of tantrism had paid off. Kaboom.

When Anantya Tantrist first came into my mind, as an urban fantasy series, I knew the 23-year-old was a tantric detective. After all, if you want to base a story in the Indian occult, the first image that comes to you is of a black choga-wearing villain who have an evil laugh, wears skulls while doing badly choreographed jigs and rituals that involve blood. Tantrics, in other words.

“Be careful,” advised my mother, upon hearing my new topic, “Tantrics can do jaadutona.” Continue reading “How research into tantrism helped me find my mojo”

The possibilities of the occult in fiction

How does one research into occult? In the climax of Cult of Chaos, the first novel of my tantric fantasy series ‘Anantya Tantrist Mystery’, the protagonist Anantya and her teacher, Dhuma, an aghori who lives in a cemetery, embark on a complex tantric ritual to call upon a charnel goddess, Shamshana Kalika, to the human plane.
The ritual called Shava Sadhana requires Anantya to sit on top of a corpse on a full moon night. I first came across this dramatic ritual in The Calcutta Review Volume XXIV written in 1855. In true Victorian Gothic style, the text explained that the sadhak, or the one who meditates, sits on top of a dead body, preferably a corpse of a chandala who has died a violent death, on a full moon’s night, so as to gain command over impure spirits like danavas, betalas, bhutas, pretas and other paranormal goblins.
While researching this scene, I sat on top of a corpse, all night, in suffocating darkness with Anantya. We touched the cold, clammy flesh of the swollen corpse and we felt blood pounding in our veins and hearts. Sitting on that corpse, waiting to connect with powers beyond the human consciousness, made me realise the ultimate truth of all human lives:
That the day shakti (alternatively meaning energy, prana, life, or soul) stops coursing through our bodies, we will cease to exist and maggots will consume the bodies we call our home. This relationship with death and life, expressed in such a dramatic, dreadfully mesmerising way, stays with me even three years after I wrote it.

Rituals like these are the reason perhaps why tantrism is misunderstood by outsiders.

According to Georg Feuerstein in Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, the verbal root in ‘tantra’, tan, means ‘to expand’, tantu means a thread or a cord. Tantra then is a web, a system, a ritual, a doctrine or compendium that expands jnana or knowledge and wisdom.

In early Vedic times, everything was called a tantra, be it actual sciences like agriculture, cattle-breeding, distillation, iron-smelting or experimental ones like alchemy, medicine, embryology, and physiology. Tantrism was an individual’s quest for science, spirituality and the supernatural. The aim was to attain siddhi, a spiritual quest for liberation, enlightenment, or, in a worldlier sense, a search for extraordinary powers or paranormal abilities.

The power of tantrism lay in its democratisation of knowledge. Anyone, be it lower caste, tribals or women, could become adept at it. This soon led to a conflict with the Vedic philosophy which preferred structure, the varna and patriarchal systems. So tantrism began to form around the other, the subaltern, the negation, the non-Vedic, the one outside social mores.

In a way, this push to the edges of the society freed tantrism as a science of its moral and ethical shackles.

Tantric practitioners, in their quest to understand and be one with prakriti, or nature, pushed the acceptable boundaries using methods that were considered sinful, immoral, shocking, or abnormal by conventional Vedic society. The idea was to shock the human consciousness out of imbibed social behaviours and morals and achieve a state of infancy.

Ritualised sexual intercourse, aphrodisiacs, alcohol and meat, as well as necromantic rituals, eating excreta and drinking urine and blood were included—all symbolising freedom from social habits.

This idea is perhaps best exemplified in the iconography of tantric goddess Chinnamasta, who holds her own severed head in one hand and a scimitar in the other, as she stands on top of a divine copulating couple. Jets of blood spurt from her bleeding neck and are drunk by her severed head and two attendants. In tantrism, blood is a symbol of life. The image, though shocking, implies the goddess nourishing her devotees with her shakti. 

Unable to understand this symbolic, outrageous aspect of tantrism, mainstream society further vilified tantrics, shunning their rites, looking at them with disgust.

Centuries of storytellers, imaginations and half-truths build upon this, till what remained in anyone’s mind when the word ‘tantric’ was whispered was jaadu-tona, black magic, or people who were power hungry, ruthless and inherently evil.

Like the Chinnamasta symbol, actor Amrish Puri exemplifies this modern image of a tantric in movies like Naagin and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. From a scientist or a philosopher, the tantric had turned into a black-choga, rudraksh-wearing black magician, an enemy of society, who hollered and danced in front of a larger-than-life sculpture of goddess Kali, did disgusting blood magic, sacrificed humans and animals and inhabited dark spaces like caves or burial grounds.

Both this occult image and the philosophy that preceded it inspired the ruthless fantasy world that Anantya Tantrist lives in. While the popular imaginations of tantrism provided me with the world of ambitious tantric clans, fighting each other for power, the tantric philosophy of shakti wove itself into the magic-principles of the world.

Everything runs on shakti and tantrism is the science of harvesting that shakti, as Anantya explains, be it through sacrifice, mantras, or through ritualised sex. Fantasy world-building would be empty without supernatural creatures, which I found in the epics, folklores and oral stories of our myth-rich lands. From rakshasas who have the power to turn invisible and move through planes, to dasyus, bat-like creatures who live in caves and yalis who are part lion, part elephant and part something else.

While building the world of my books, I consciously tried to make tantrics part of the mainstream.

Instead of living in secret cults and shadows, tantrics have been announced to the world. They run an efficient system controlling the supernatural population in tandem with the Indian Government and have their own council, police and justice systems.

Because tantrics have all the power, the supernaturals are the new tribals, the subalterns (who are ousted from forests and pushed into underground city ghettos, to live their lives in poverty, and are forced to buy expensive maya potions from tantrics) who hide themselves from humans. The Matsya Curse, the just-released second book of ‘Anantya Tantrist Mystery’, sees a supernatural tribe, the Nishadas, being used to provide immorality to the few rich socialites in Delhi. The supernaturals in the world are the new downtrodden. Them and the women.

The other day, someone messaged me on Facebook, wondering why the protagonist of a tantric fantasy series was a woman.

According to him, tantrics are all males; women can only be channels of shakti for the male. He wasn’t incorrect. Tantric texts, without exception, speak to men urging them to worship women, approach them with reverence, purity and devotion so they can raise themselves to the standard of the female. Some like Sahajiyas even believe that the man should transform himself into a woman. Becoming a woman or one with the supreme woman, Shakti herself, is the ultimate goal for a male tantric. But even though the shakti, the energy or magic, belonged to women, there is no mention of women themselves using it in any of the tantric texts.

In the History of the Tantric Religion, a seminal book written by scholar NN Bhattacharyya, I found an answer which was to tell me more about Anantya and the philosophy she symbolises. ‘Though in modern times, Tantra has become male-dominated, there is reason to believe that once it belonged to the females,’ writes Bhattacharyya. Quoting ancient texts, he redefined the ‘vama’ in ‘vamachara’ to mean not ‘left’, but ‘woman’. From there, much like my detective, I looked out for references and found that every text circumstantially mentioned yoginis, variously named tantra-yoginis, or sadhikas, female shamans or even witches. They stood in the shadows, as spectators to an elaborate tantric ritual, as goddesses being worshipped, as sex-aides to males in their quest for power.

Soon a parallel philosophy emerged, run by powerful educated women, who used tantrism and the shakti within them to aim for higher spiritual quests.

I had found my subaltern, the new tantric, considered an outcaste by even the original outcastes themselves. It was exactly here that my protagonist, Anantya emerged. She is born in Banaras in a conventional tantric ashram, trained in ritualised sex to aide male tantrics attain shakti. She suffers abuse, fights and leaves this limited life choosing to travel into the shadows, embracing the art of occult herself, tapping into the shakti troves within her female body.

In Anantya’s world, as in ours, she’s a threat, an illegal entity, an abnormality. It’s a new conflict, not between Vedic and Tantric philosophy, but an eternal one between prakriti and purush, female and male, yoginis and tantrics that is played out in the third book of the series which I’m currently working on.

A tantric image of Kali sits on my study table, as I write this. In it, Kali, prakriti or nature herself, stands fierce, naked, full breasted, full of life, astride the prostrate dead body of her eternal partner Shiva, the purusha , with ashen skin and an erect penis, infusing the half-dead body with her life or devouring its life, however you wish to see it. The image, which I bought in Kamakhya Devi Temple in Guwahati, reminds me every day of yoginis, female power, deified and suppressed, forgotten by a history written by men, though the dark echo of their presence remains like a smear on human memory.

Somewhat like the forgotten ruin of the Chausath Yogini Temple sitting on top of a hill in Madhya Pradesh which is shaped in the form of a yoni, or vagina. Not much is known about who were the women who worshipped there; the sculptures have been rooted out, replaced by Shivlings. But the temple is said to have inspired the unique circular architecture of the Indian Parliament, the seat of power of men.

 


This column was first published in Open magazine. 

Event: Occult quiz and book discussion in British Council, Chennai

I’m finally heading to Chennai with the occult quiz. It’s been a couple of years since friends, fans and quiz enthusiasts are asking me to bring the creepy occult quiz to them. So i’m so so excited to announce this.

It’s tomorrow, 5-6pm at the British Council, Chennai. You can RSVP to Susan: susan.chettri@britishcouncil.org or on the Facebook event page. Needless to say, come over peeps. It’s going to be super fun.

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The Matsya Curse is out for pre-order. Yay!

It’s called The Matsya Curse. And it’s here.

Am superbly thrilled to share the cover of my latest book with you all. Anantya Tantrist is back. And so is this adventure, which is crazier than the last one.  The cover’s been done by the wonderful, wonderful George Mathen. (Read about how I convinced him to do it here). And well, it’s out, it’s coming and I’m going gaga and have lost the art of writing a bit. On preorder now.

Tantrik detective Anantya Tantrist is back, smart-ass comments, dark mantras and all

In Banaras, Bhairava, a black tantrik, sets out to win control of life through mass murder, aided by an army of pretas. In Delhi, a tribal supernatural melts to death in a five-star hotel on the same night that an ancient demonologist is murdered. All this while, the government and the Central Association of Tantriks choose to look the other way and gods, demi-gods, immortals and rakshasas all join Bhairava’s army.

All that stands between the murdering bosses and the hapless masses is unofficial detective Anantya Tantrist, armed with a boneblade, a tote of mandalas and a cocky attitude. Just as she begins to see a pattern between a goddess selling art, a miracle-producing minister, an undead mob attacking a rock concert and her immortal friend throwing a tantrum, Anantya faces her most personal hell: her ex-boyfriend Neel has come back from the dead and is trying to kill her. He’s not the only one, of course. A powerful rakshasi wants her head, a pair of demi-gods wants her blood and the trolls are trying to squash her to pulp.

She cannot even sleep off the exhaustion, because each time she drops off, Bhairava invades her mind, trying to consume it. Join Anantya as she faces her most formidable enemy yet in the ultimate battle for her mind and her city.

“A remarkable tale,” says Anand Neelakanthan, author of Asura and Bahubali.  Please to pre-order and read.

How creating Anantya helped me find my freedom

The plotlines of most action flicks, are all about the hero. The hero rocks the roads, chases goons, tots guns, fights for justice, sows wild oats with white girls, and then heads back to home, to his heroine. All this while, this heroine, the girl, pines away back at home or sits pretty in a café (usually alongside a swimming pool for some reason), waiting for her hero. The only time she’s outdoors, she’s either surrounded by other girls, or is with the hero, or is getting raped or attacked by the goons. The message is loud and clear: The streets are unsafe for an Indian woman: If you’re out there alone, you will be slaughtered, you little lamb.

As a girl who grew up in Delhi, I was fed this message by family, society, school, college and onwards. Every time I walked on the streets of the capital city, as a teenager, as a working woman in her 20s, I had to constantly fight butt slaps, boob pinches, stares and hoots and whistles from strangers. Every time a violent act happened, I was told to not walk alone on streets, to wear looser clothes, not stare back and scream, not confront, not act, but be passive. For that’s how a woman should behave. Wait for someone else, a hero, a guy, the government or the police to react to the aggression that happens to her, to save her. An Indian woman is supposed to be passive, silently take on violence if given by her husband or in-laws, or ask for help from the boyfriend or police or government when faced from an aggressive stranger. Most of all, a woman is supposed to protect herself from all of it, to keep indoors, to make friends carefully in case they turn out to be rapists.

With Anantya Tantrist, the tantrik detective of my latest novel, Cult of Chaos, I decided to take all of these years of imbibed and heard and oft-repeated Indian values of passivity, decorum, rules and ethics meant for women and flip them, turn them on their head. Just to see what happens to the society in the world if I do. For speculative fiction gives you that freedom, to extrapolate, to try and do things differently, make new rules and new societies, explore gender roles and beliefs about gender. And I took it.

Anantya as a result, became a complete opposite to the restrictive idea of an ideal Indian woman.

First of all, she is always in the middle of action, she speaks her mind, there’s no passivity when it comes to her, in fact passivity bores her. She is boisterous, angry, spews gaali, smokes beedi, drinks hard stuff like a fish, hangs out on the streets with all kinds of things and species, doesn’t come home till wee hours, has crud in her kitchen, can’t cook to save her life, but can wield a boneblade to save another’s. She has unapologetic one night stands with all kinds of supernatural species, wears chappals and goes to parties and doesn’t know what a ‘date’ is. Continue reading “How creating Anantya helped me find my freedom”

Tantric Tales: A documentary, real life stories and an occult quiz

The occult quiz is back by popular demand! This time, it’s the kind people at The Beehive who’ve owned up everything tantrism and will be hosting it at The Humming Tree, probably the coolest place in the city to hang out at. We will talk about Cult of Chaos, do an occult quiz (with prizes), a documentary on witch hunting in India and finally, the thing I’m most looking forward to: Everyone who comes there, the audience, the barman, the friends and family, will all sit in a circle and tell a real life story they’ve heard about paranormal, supernatural and tantrism.

VENUE: The Humming Tree, Indiranagar, Bangalore
DATE: 26 April, 2015
TIME: 4-8pm

So come, listen to occult stories! It’s going to be fun. Here’s the fabulous invite made by Aakanksha.

Chillli lemon Beehive final

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THE BEEHIVE
presents
TANTRIC TALES
Exploring the supernatural with Shweta Taneja
author of ‘Cult of Chaos’
In this session of The Beehive, we will explore some secrets of dark magic, tantrism and cults that exist at the fringes of our society with a documentary on witch hunting, a quiz and trivia session and a discussion on tantrism with author Shweta Taneja whose new book, Cult of Chaos has been published by Harper Collins India.
4.00 pm – Documentary
5.00 pm – Trivia and Quiz
6.00 pm – Discussion on Tantrism and Cult of Chaos by Shweta Taneja
6.30 pm – Book Reading by Shweta Taneja
7.00 pm – Story Sharing Circle
We invite all of you to be a part of this and share with us your own personal experiences or stories that you’ve heard from your mother about what happened to your aunt’s daughter’s brother-in law when he was travelling through the Western Ghats on a full moon night.. or the one about the neighbour who took a swim in the village pond and was possessed by the spirits living in the old peepal tree, where she hung her clothes. The best story will get a signed copy by the author!
———————————————
VENUE : THE HUMMING TREE
———————————————The Humming Tree is a concept Live Music and Arts Venue (operating as a bar/café as well) opened in June, 2013 and located in Bangalore, India.———————————————
ORGANISERS : THE BEEHIVE
———————————————

The Beehive is a participatory gathering of all the wonderful pool of talents, dreams, hopes, skills and innovations. We all share, we all learn, we all love. Every month, ‘The Beehive’, at The Humming Tree brings something new.

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See you all there this Sunday!

Anantya goes in Femina

Ten years ago, I was working full time in Femina. Ten years later, someone from Femina did an interview about me. It’s a moment of a kind. Femina has shaped the earlier me. I worked three years there, three years full of travel and meeting the most fabulous people I could imagine. So, I’m a bit stumped. And wowed. Here’s a okay photo that someone sent me of the interview.

Femina April 2015

Isn’t this simply the most jiggle-worthy thing? Here’s the original interview, in case you’re the reading type.

Continue reading “Anantya goes in Femina”

Witches and vamps attack Delhi this Saturday

Oh. So much excitement.

It was an experiment to launch Cult of Chaos, an Anantya Tantrist mystery, with an occult quiz in Bangalore. The format worked so well, that my publishers, HarperCollins wanted to do it in Delhi too. So I’m super excited to announce Anantya Tantrist is heading to Oxford Bookstore, Delhi this Saturday to entertain you.

There will be a quiz on everything paranormal and supernatural. There will be freebies like blade-shaped bookmarks and giveaways and book prizes and snacks and laughter during the event. I confidently promise it’s going to be a blast. As much as the book is. So just come over!

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Oxford Bookstore and HarperCollins 
present
WITCHES AND VAMPS
A QUIZ ON PARANORMAL CRIME
to celebrate Shweta Taneja’s
CULT OF CHAOS
an Anantya Tantrist mystery
 
Think you know your supernatural sleuths? 
To celebrate the launch of Cult of Chaos, the first book in the Anantya Tantrist detective series, author Shweta Taneja takes you on a dark mission through detective thrillers, supernatural mysteries and investigators who dabble with devilish crime. So brush up on popular occult shows, comics and books and get ready to stun her with your psychic best. The duel is on!
For all ages.
DAY: 28th March
TIME: 3pm – 5pm
VENUE: Oxford bookstore, Connaught Place, Delhi
A quiz so scary, we had to have it in broad daylight
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To see photos and updates, connect with the event on Facebook or Google+ 
Here’s the invite if you want to download it.
witches and vamps 2
Leaving you with a gallery of photos from the Bangalore event.

Winners and importance of gifting books

As part of spreading the word around about Cult of Chaos and Anantya Tantrist, I’ve been hosting giveaways of the book at various spaces, online and offline. As a result of buying copies of my own book to giveaway to a few people I know or do not know, I’ve realised how important it is to gift books. Till now, I didn’t gift many books as I always thought of books as a personal choice, much more personal than the crockery in your cupboard or even the spectacles you wear. It’s something that each person or kid should pick up on their own (except for me and my brother who always gift each other books on rakhi, the only time we exchange gifts). So I ended up giving something banal, like chocolates. However, gifting is actually a lovely way to explore new authors and adventures that you would never have started on if you hadn’t got a copy. And it also encourages the industry. So from now on, if you call me on a birthday or a party, expect a book. No more flowers/chocolates.

And now for a bit of announcements on winners of various contests.

Over at HarperCollins webpage

These are the two questions we asked. (Answers at the end of the post)

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Winners:

Krishna B, Coimbatore

Aastha Jain, Delhi

Over at author Kiran Manral’s website

Kiran was superbly helpful and did a detailed interview and then a contest. (details)

Aditya Anand, Jaipur

At  The MJ Show

The amazing Mihir Joshi had a Twitter chat and then declared winners in his Youtube show which covers fabulous inde-musicians

Abhishek Prusty, Cuttack

So glad that Anantya will be shipped to all these lovely people and cities. Congratulations all of you! Hope you enjoy the book 🙂

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Didn’t participate? It’s not to late. One contest and one giveaway is still on!

Contest on superstitions

At author Sharath Komarraju’s website.

Giveaway at Goodreads

And if you’re too lazy to write, just apply for this giveaway at Goodreads. And hope you’ll win the copy!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Cult of Chaos by Shweta Taneja

Cult of Chaos

by Shweta Taneja

Giveaway ends March 10, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

(Answers to Harper Collins contest: Answer 1: True Detective. Answer 2: Ouija board. Could you guess?)

 

 

Reviews that made me blush

Reviews of Cult of Chaos are pouring in on Facebook, over at Twitter, Goodreads, in blogs and media. So many places to find little cuddles of happiness for Anantya. These few in particular made me blush with happiness. Some are from friends who have no reason to be nasty or nice for that matter. And some are from strangers.

REVIEW 1: From a kind stranger

Read the complete review here.

If I could only use three alphabets to describe this book, they would be OMG. Oh My God!!! is the only exclamation that comes remotely close to describing my feeling after reading this book. While I have heard of writers having fantastic imaginations and amazing story telling skills, it is very rare that one comes across a writer having both of these, and trust me when I say this Shweta Taneja has both of these in abundance, and Cult of Chaos is surely proof of that.

I could gush on and on about how good the book is, and how wonderfully well it is paced and how it promises to be the start of an exciting new series of Anantya Tantrist mysteries, if she decides to write a sequel and many more books, but I would simply not be able to do any justice to the book itself, and all you readers of this review also would not understand or appreciate the same unless you read the book itself….

…To take a character like Anantya Tantrist and go ahead and put her in a chaotic dystopian future where tantriks, magic, rituals and humans co-exist in a somewhat fragile relationship was a masterstroke by the author. The richness of the author’s imagination clearly shines through in her description of the goings-on without having to resort to time-tried and tested tropes such as providing vivid descriptions of the environment, the cities, the people etc….

There’s more. Read the complete review on the kind fellow’s blog here.

REVIEW 2: From a friend who’s honest

Kalika read the book in a day, came over for tea and even gifted me a beautiful, beautiful bag. Just like that. And here’s what she said at GoodreadsContinue reading “Reviews that made me blush”