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The Tantrasara of Krishnananda
Tantric Kali worship in 16th century Bengal

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… कालिकां दक्षिणां दिव्यां मुण्डमालाविभूषिताम ॥

सद्यश्छिन्नशिरःखड्गवामाधोर्द्धकराम्बुजाम ।

अभयं वरदञ्चैव दक्षिणोर्द्धाधःपाणिकाम ॥

… महाकालेन च समं विपरीतरतातुराम …

एवं संचिन्तयेत कालीं सर्वकामसमृद्धिदाम ॥

...kālikāṃ dakṣiṇāṃ divyāṃ muṇḍamālāvibhūṣitām; sadyaśchinnaśiraḥkhaḍgavāmādhorddhakarāmbhujām,

abhayaṃ varadañcaiva dakṣiṇorddhādhaḥpāṇikām;

...mahākālena ca samaṃ viparītaratāturām...

evaṃ saṃcintayet kālīṃ sarvakāmasamṛddhidām.

Kālī Tantra, cited in the Tantrasāra 1

...divine Dakṣiṇa Kālikā, wearing a garland of severed heads;

a freshly cut head and a sword in her lotus-like lower and upper left hands,

dispelling fear and offering gifts with her upper and lower right hands;

...engaged in intercourse with Mahākāla, who lies beneath her...

This is the way one should mentally picture Kālī, who fulfils all desires.

The imagery and worship of Kālī is a major theme of the Tantrasāra of Śrī Kṛṣṇānanda Āgamavāgīśa of Bengal, who lived around the sixteenth century. There is a legend that Kṛṣṇānanda (or Krishnananda) was the first exponent of the worship of Dakṣiṇa Kālī, having received her image in a quasi-miraculous way.2 Actually, the word-pictures of Kālī in the Tantrasāra are quoted from earlier works.

In the journal Ferment I’ve often referred to the Kālikā Purāṇa (compiled perhaps one thousand years ago in Assam) and the songs of Śrī Rāmprasād (composed in Bengal in the eighteenth century). The Tantrasāra is connected with both. The Kālikā Purāṇa 3 is among the many works which the Tantrasāra quotes from. The Tantrasāra, in turn, is mentioned by name in one of the songs of Rāmprasād. 4

The Tantrasāra expresses the vision of Kālī in quite a different way to Rāmprasād’s songs. Kṛṣṇānanda wrote as a scholar, an organizer of texts about sacred images, rituals, and initiatory paths. He wrote in Sanskrit, the language of the scriptures. Rāmprasād sang as a devotee to whom texts were of secondary importance; and he sang in Bengali, the language of everyday speech.

Kṛṣṇānanda worked in a tradition where the methods of worship were considered secret; he wrote for the benefit of initiates, and ended his text by ritually apologizing for writing about these topics at all.5 Rāmprasād sang in the open, offering his words and music to anyone who wished to hear; he is even said to have sung of his Goddess to a Muslim potentate, the Nawab Siraj-ad-daulah.6

The Tantrasāra as a whole has not (as far as I know) been translated into English. However excerpts from the Sanskrit text accompanied by English paraphrases and commentary can be found in Hindu Religion and Iconology According to the Tantrasāra by Pratapaditya Pal. Kṛṣṇānanda’s significance among the tantric writers of Bengal is discussed in S.C. Banerji’s Brief History of Tantra Literature.

Where and when?

According to Pal, Kṛṣṇānanda lived in Bengal’s Navadvipa region, a stronghold of Hindu learning, north of Calcutta. Rāmprasād lived in the same general area, as did Śrī Caitanya, the sixteenth century prophet of Kṛṣṇa. Exactly when Kṛṣṇānanda lived is uncertain. Historians’ estimates range from the early sixteenth century to the seventeenth. Pal thinks he lived in the second half of the sixteenth century, and that he may have been born around 1533, the year Caitanya died. Banerji thinks Kṛṣṇānanda lives in the fifteenth to sixteenth century.

In his book Devoted to the Goddess, Malcolm McLean estimates that the Tantrasāra was put together around 1580.7 McLean also mentions an eighteenth century translation of the work from Sanskrit into Bengali. David Kinsley may perhaps be confusing this translation with the original Sanskrit work when he dismisses the Tantrasāra as “no earlier than the eighteenth century”. 8

Pal states that Kṛṣṇānanda cites over 150 texts in his Tantrasāra, and “displays a remarkable mastery over his sources”.9 Banerji writes: “In the domain of Bengal Tantra, Kṛṣṇānanda Āgamavāgīśa stands as a colossus.” Banerji in fact divides the tantric writers of Bengal into three categories: “pre-Kṛṣṇānanda writers”; “post-Kṛṣṇānanda writers”; and those who wrote in approximately the same period as Kṛṣṇānanda.10

Pal’s summary of Kṛṣṇānanda’s work shows that, like Rāmprasād, Kṛṣṇānanda honoured Kṛṣṇa as well as Kālī and Śiva. He acknowledged the validity of a range of worship practices, vedic (based on the Vedas) as well as tantric (based on the Tantras).

He accepted the traditional rule that vedic practice was open to high-caste males only. By contrast, tantric practice was open to men and women of all castes. But even in tantric ritual, there was an element of caste distinction: low-caste people could do things in the rituals (like offering and consuming meat and liquor) which would not be proper for people of higher caste.11

Like the Kālikā Purāṇa, the Tantrasāra recognizes sacrifice of animals and men as a means of worship, but specifies that humans cannot be sacrificed except by a ruler.12

Ritual secrecy: what did it mean?

The Tantrasāra stresses the secret character of tantric rites, warning that they should never be revealed to people who are not tantric initiates.

This sort of secrecy has led historians such as David Kinsley and Malcolm McLean to see the whole tantric tradition as alien from mainstream Hindu religion. McLean describes it as “a secret cult suffering the disapproval of ‘good society’, both religious and secular”.13 Kinsley also emphasizes the “esoteric” character of tantric worship, and sees “Tantrism” as “in many ways an antibrāhmanic system”.14

This enables them to suppose that despite the emphasis on Goddess Kālī in the Tantrasāra, Kālī wasn’t fully accepted into Hindu culture until the time of Rāmprasād. 15

Their interpretation of history is questionable, for there is evidence that both tantrik initiation and the worship of Kālī were part of the religious mainstream of sixteenth century Bengal.

S.C.Banerji states that tantric initiation was acknowledged as valid in the sixteenth century by Raghunandana, whom he describes as Bengal’s most eminent writer on smṛti (Hindu customary law) and as “a staunch follower and exponent of the traditional Brāhmaṇical religion”. He says that an earlier Bengali smṛti writer, Śūlapāṇi, also drew from the tantric tradition. 16

Kālī worship in sixteenth century Bengal had not only the support of Tantras and Purāṇas, and of a great living scholastic in Kṛṣṇānanda, it also had an established sacred place: Kālī-ghāṭ, which gets a mention in the Bengali-language poetry of Mukunda.17 Kālī-ghāṭ is in the area where the city of Calcutta has since grown up, and has remained a centre of Kālī worship to this day.

What, then, was the secrecy about?

It is worth remembering that in premodern India, it wasn’t only tantric religion that had secrets; vedic religion had them too.

The Vedas along with the associated Upaniṣads, were and are texts accepted as sacred by all Hindus; yet they were “esoteric” in the sense that they were accessible only to initiates (who had to be high-caste men). The very word upaniṣad, literally sitting near, implies a secret teaching imparted by a wisdom teacher to a close disciple. Even in the late nineteenth century, the śākta scholar Śiva Candra, who wrote freely about the Tantras, felt it would be improper to quote words which the Kena Upaniṣad ascribes to the wisdom goddess Umā Haimavatī.18

The “secret” character of a text or a ritual practice does not necessarily imply a low status, a lack of perceived legitimacy. It may imply (and may be intended to imply) the very opposite. The veil of secrecy establishes a dividing line between initiates and others, emphasizing the sense that initiates possess a treasure.


1 Pal, Pratipaditya; Hindu Religion and Iconology According to the Tantrasāra; Vichitra Press, Los Angeles, 1981; p 57. There are actually two different works with the title Kālī Tantra. See Banerji, S.C.; Brief History of Tantra Literature; Naya Prokash, Calcutta, 1988; pp 199 – 205.

2 Bhattacharyya, N.N.; History of the Tantric Religion; Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 1982; p 383.

3 Pal, p 1. Shastri, Biswanarayan (ed); Kālikāpurāṇe Mūrtivinirdeśa; Indira Gandhi Nat. Centre for the Arts with Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1994; p xxii.

4 The song beginning man ki kare tattva tāre... Amarendranāth Rāy (ed); Śākta Padāvalī; Calcutta University Press, 1989; song 238. Cf McLean, Malcolm; Devoted to the Goddess; State Uni. of NY Press, Albany, NY 1998; pp 92, 178 and 86.

5 Pal, p x and p 4.

6 McLean, p 157.

7 McLean p 92.

8 Kinsley, David; The Sword and the Flute; University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975; p 100.

9 Pal, p 1

10 Banerji, pp 458 and 460 – 466.

11 Pal p 16

12 Pal p 15

13 McLean, p 109.

14 Kinsley, pp 120 and 153.

15 McLean, pp 108 – 109, Kinsley p 115.

16 Banerji, S.C.; Brief History of Tantra Literature; pp 457, 458, 528.

17 Banerji, S.C.; Brief History of Tantra Literature; p 473.

18 Woodroffe, Sir John (ed); Principles of Tantra [English translation of the Tantratattva of Śiva Candra]; Volume One; Ganesh and Co, Madras, 1986; p 371.

Article first published in Ferment January 1999.
Revised for the Web 2010.
Article © Colin Robinson 1999, 2010


from Sunil K. Bhattacharjya

1 December 2017

Dear Colin,

I liked your well-written  article. I wish to add a couple of comments below and hope you will like it. 


Sunil K. Bhattacharjya

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