Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas by Muller

Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch, and Surendra Bahadur Shahi. Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas. Transl. by Annabel Lee. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2002. Large-size hardcover, x + 309 pages.

Shamanism and Tantra are popular subjects, and the present volume is clearly meant to cater to this growing market. It is something of a travel guide to the sacred places of Nepal and its unique Shamanic- Tantric-Buddhist-Hindu culture. The authors are clearly enthusiastic about their subject, and their emphasis on the experiential dimension of Nepalese spiritual culture will appeal to many readers.

The present work will make Shamanism and Tantra, as they are practiced in Nepal, come alive through both its lively text and its numerous color photographs. The authors begin their presentation by introducing the elephant-headed God Ganesha, remover of obstacles in life and on the spiritual path, who is here portrayed as the first shaman. This discussion sets the tone for the rest of the volume. The authors write from a committed perspective and, for the most part, are reliable spokespeople for, and champions of, the Nepalese traditions. Modestly and appropriately, they make no scholarly claims for their work

Their credo, which is stated up front, consists of four “truths”: (1) One must believe the unbelievable, (2) imagine the unimaginable, (3) think the unthinkable, and (4) expect the unexpected. Because Shamanism and Tantra are consciousness technologies, these four assumptions come in handy when studying the often extraordinary pathways taken by their practitioners. I must side with the authors when they take their shamans and Tantrics seriously as healers, exorcists, and “miracle” workers, and their attitude unquestionably has given their book its appealing flavor.

This luxuriously illustrated volume, which was first published in German in 2000, contains a great deal of information, which cannot be found elsewhere. At the same time, however, in their attempt to faithfully portray Nepalese Shamanism and Tantra, which are closely intertwined, the authors have on occasion been somewhat uncritical of the native oral tradition. This is most obvious in their acceptance of history, as told by the native practitioners themselves. Thus in a diagram on p. 31, they place “Guru Rinpoche” (i.e., Padmasambhava) under Shiva/ Rudra, who is followed by the Ban Jhankri—all preceding the Neolithic Revolution—an impossible chronology.

The present translation reads rather awkward in places, and this otherwise splendid book is also unfortunately marred by factual inaccuracies and inadequate proofreading. As for factual mistake, I will limit myself to the following three examples, which I happened to jot down. First, the Vedic soma plant can definitely not be identified with Amanita muscaria. Wasson and Ott were plain old wrong, since—for one—soma is always described in the Vedic literature as a creeper, which the mushroom is not.

Second, on p. 264, the authors first admit that the motif of the Wheel of Life stems from Buddhism (Tibetan Buddhism at that), but then go on to claim the Wheel of Life is held by the “mythical tortoise” Mara, which they regard as a shamanic concept that “flowed into Hinduism and later into Buddhism.” If not altogether wrong, this statement is at least confusing. The graphic depiction of the Wheel of Life shows the monstrous-looking God of Death ( Yama) holding up the wheel. On the thangka image of this well-known graphic found on p. 101, a tortoise-like creature does indeed seem to be superimposed on a monster’s claws, but this would suggest to me that the Yama image preceded that of the tortoise-like creature.

Third and less significant, the word shiva does not, as claimed on p. 86, mean “merciful.” The term has the connotation of “good, benign.”

To give just a few examples of distorting typos, on p. 30, the word “annihilation” is horribly misspelled as “ anhiation”; on p. 92 we find the inexplicable phrase “seethes into” presumably instead of “seeps into”; one of the captions on p. 81 has “souls of the feet” for “soles of the feet,” “ Shaktiism” on p. 186 is not a word; and on p. 108, we encounter the strange comment “Cobra poison . . . is a neurotoxin and nerve poison,” as if the two were not synonymous.

From what I have seen, the number of such errors in the book is atypical of Inner Tradition publications. One can only hope that they will be rectified for an eventual second addition.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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