"Sir John Woodroffe, Tantra & Bengal" by Kathleen Taylor

Taylor, Kathleen; Sir John Woodroffe, Tantra and Bengal -- "An Indian Soul in a European Body?"; Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey, 2001.
ISBN: 070071345X

Review by Colin Robinson

How a judge worked with adepts to defend Tantra


Sir John Woodroffe (1865 - 1936) is remembered as a writer and speaker on Tantra, and as the chief editor of a series of tantric texts in English and Sanskrit. The texts are presented not as the expressions of by-gone historical epochs, but as elements in a living mystical culture -- there are constant references to the way they are understood and applied by the tantric sadhakas of Woodroffe’s own time.

The name “Arthur Avalon” appears on many of the books, and is usually said to be Woodroffe’s pen-name. Woodroffe’s own explanation of the name is a little more complex: he says it is used “to denote that they have been written with the direct cooperation of others and in particular with the assistance of one of my friends who will not permit me to mention his name.” Thus, he accepted responsibility for the Avalon writings, but not, as he put it, “sole credit for what is as much their work as mine”. 1

Woodroffe’s publications do give the names of a number of the people who worked with him: for instance, Siva Candra Vidyarnava, writer of the Tantra-tattva, Jñanendralal Majumdar who prepared the first draft of its English version, Principles of Tantra 2; Vimalananda Svami, who explains and introduces the Karpuradi Stotra, a major tantric hymn to Kali.3

Sir John Woodroffe was not heavily into self-disclosure, though. His publications provide little information about the life of their author/editor, and less about the friends who assisted him.

Kathleen Taylor’s book is for people who want to know more about Woodroffe and his co-workers. Taylor’s sources include surviving letters by Woodroffe and to Woodroffe, and the recollections of relatives of Woodroffe and his associates, as well as publications, in English, French and Bengali, in which Woodroffe is mentioned.

Readers are provided with precious information about different facets of an enigmatic life. We learn of Woodroffe’s family background, and of his education in a Catholic school of unusually liberal principles; his legal career, and role as a judge in the High Court of British-ruled India. We are told about his initiation by two tantric gurus: Siva Candra Vidyarnava, and a woman adept named Jayakali Devi.

There is information about his wife Ellen, a piano player, and their children. There is a statement by a European lady, who apparently knew Ellen, that Sir John used to ceremonially worship his wife as his Goddess before making love. We learn of Sir John’s final years, after he and his family had returned to England and were living as Catholics. In this period the husband was remembered as morose, and the wife as temperamental, while one of the children succumbed to anorexia. We learn how the followers of Siva Candra Vidyarnava glorified Sir John Woodroffe after news of his death reached India.

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The most thought-provoking topic of the biography is the working relationship between Sir John Woodroffe and the Indian tantric scholar Atal Bihari Ghose (1864 - 1936), a disciple of Siva Candra. Taylor argues that Ghose was the person whose particular assistance Woodroffe mentions in his explanation of the name “Arthur Avalon”. She presents evidence that the mastery of the Sanskrit literature of Tantra, which is evident in the Arthur Avalon books, is actually due to the expertise of Ghose, not of Woodroffe; that although Woodroffe studied Sanskrit, he couldn’t actually read the language fluently.

Taylor develops a picture of Woodroffe as an upper class amateur whose was familiar with earlier (often hostile) writings in English about Tantra; and who was able to play the role of a scholar due to the under-acknowledged work of Ghose and other Indian associates.

After I read this criticism, the thought came to me that this is exactly the opposite of a charge levelled against such esoteric writers as Helena Blavatsky, Gerald Gardner and Carlos Castaneda. Each of these writers has been charged with dressing up his or her own concepts as the doctrine of a mysterious teacher or secret community. Sir John Woodroffe, by contrast, stands accused of letting a secret (or semi secret) community do nearly all the work.

If we accept the accusation, does it detract from the value of the books themselves? Or does it, rather, confirm their status as the authentic expressions of a mystical tradition?

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The working relationship between Woodroffe and Ghose was apparently a very stable one. As Kathleen Taylor notes, it lasted for several decades, and they continued to correspond until the end of their lives. Woodroffe was always well regarded by the tantric community Ghose belonged to. How could this be the case, if he was simply exploiting their work to build up his own reputation?

The Arthur Avalon books appeared at a time when Tantra faced vigorous attack. To British observers the tradition seemed superstitious and barbaric, a natural enemy of morality and civilization in general, and of the Empire in particular. To Hindu reformers it was a medieval corruption of the older and nobler religion of the Vedas, an obstacle to India’s spiritual rebirth. In this climate, Sir John Woodroffe, the High Court judge, lent his good name and his powers of debate to the tantric cause.

Kathleen Taylor is aware that this is historical context of Woodroffe’s writing and editing, but seems unsure what to make of it.

I would suggest that perhaps Woodroffe’s legal career provides an appropriate metaphor for his literary collaboration with Atal Bihari Ghose and others in the tantric community. Woodroffe’s role was like that of an eminent lawyer acting (without pay) in defence of a client facing serious charges.

In such a relationship, it is hardly strange if the client knows far more than the lawyer about the background to the case; and it is in the client’s own interest to share knowledge with the lawyer. The lawyer has to examine carefully the case against the client (the hostile English writings about Tantra), and needs to listen patiently to what the client can produce in rebuttal. It is the lawyer who organizes the client’s knowledge into a form designed to convince people that the charges against the client are unfounded, or at least excessive.

If the case is well presented, the lawyer’s reputation may of course be enhanced. Be that as it may, the client will naturally be pleased.


1 Preface to the First Edition of Sakti and Sakta, 1918. Avalon, A.; Shakti and Shakta; Dover, NY, 1978; p xv.
2 Majumdar’s role is stated in Woodroffe, J. (ed); Principles of Tantra; Ganesh, Madras, 1986; Part I p 32 and Part II p vii.
3 This text is included in the 1973 edition of Woodroffe, J.; Hymns to the Goddess; Ganesh, Madras.


Review first published August 2002 in the journal Ferment
Revised for the Web.
Review © Colin Robinson 2002.
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1999, 2007.


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