Magic between Europe and India: On Mantras, Coercion of Gods, and the Limits of Current Debates
1. Introduction: How to Understand Mantras?
2. Are Indians Adoring Their Gods or Manipulating Them?
May those generous women who spun and wound the thread, and who wove the warp and weft of this cloth, generously clothe thee to old age: long-lived woman! Put on this raiment. Clothe her; invest her with apparel; prolong her life to great age. Mayest thou live a hundred years. As long as thou livest, amiable woman! Revere beauty and wealth.
It is likewise to be observed, although mantras of the Védas are ordinarily significant, that the chants of the Sámavéda are unmeaning. They consist of a few syllables, as irá áyirá, or girá gáyirá, repeated again and again, as required by the tune or rhythm.
…the Hindoos … some of their idols are actually personifications of vice; and the formularies used before the images, so far from conveying any moral sentiment, have the greatest possible tendency to corrupt the mind with love of riches and pleasure.
The Mantrin was determined to have his Mantras highly regarded and so he creates a theory according to which no power will be too great to attribute to them. Not that the idea originated with the Tantrics. Speech is a goddess of the Rig Veda and the power of brahman or the ‘holy word’ was recognized from earliest times. The Tantras are in this matter but a degenerate offspring of an honored parentage. The Brahmana with his brahman is the grandfather of the Mantrin with his Mantra. The one is sacerdotalism with a strong inclination to sorcery; the other is sacerdotalism immersed in an ocean of sorcery.(Ewing 1902, p. 70; emphasis ours)
(Tantrism) recognizes and expounds mundane aims beside spiritual emancipation of final release as a lawful goal for a practiser. ‘Realization’ indeed implies both aims which are hardly separable in the texts. ‘Domination’ is an essential aspect of ‘deification’. This again implies that Tantric methods are considered applicable for various sorts of practical attainments including astrology, medicine and magic. In practice, many written sources of Tantrism are pre-occupied with the description of supernatural abilities (siddhi-, ‘attainments’ or the magical satkarmani ‘six acts’). There remains, however, always a connecting thread between the popular and the individual or esoterical; between the magical and the spiritual.
At first the Buddhists, like all the other inhabitants of India at the time, expected from magical formulae protection from danger, and furtherance of their worldly interests. The use of spells for such purposes was widespread among all nations in the pre-industrial period of human history. It implied at least two assumptions, i.e., that diseases and many other misfortunes are due to the influence of some demonic power, and, that words have power to deal effectively with the demon, by either driving him out, or driving him away, or by mobilizing some greater benevolent magical power against him.
As in the days of the Brahmanas, it was thought that these deities should be compelled rather than persuaded. The textbooks outlining the means (sadhana) of doing this were called Tantras, and hence the new cult is often referred to as tantric. By pronouncing the right formula (mantra) in the correct manner, or by drawing the correct magical symbol (yantra), one might force the gods to bestow magical power on the worshipper and lead him to the highest bliss.(Basham 2004, pp. 282–83; emphases ours)
As is well known, the Indians had, from the beginning, a strong inclination to reflect over the invisible and intangible reality behind the phenomena … they tried to control these potencies … the quest for knowledge of the mutual connections of all that has a name … in their opinion, a potency A would doubtless be known and controlled, if only its identity with a potency B … could be established.
It hardly needs to be reiterated that in Vedic ritual in general the human microcosm is manipulated in order to produce results in the divine macrocosm through various types of sophisticated sympathetic magic, both physical and verbal. It seems reasonable to extend this principle to the mythological sphere by assuming that, to the Vedic mind, parallel experience between a human and a god would make that human especially qualified to act in the divine realm, to manipulate the god whose experience matches his own. The efficacy of sympathetic magic depends on homologies: only by exploiting such often mystical or cryptic similarities can man use his weak means to control forces far more powerful than his.(Jamison 1991, p. 243; emphasis ours)
The sacramental force of a mantra is apparent from its use as an initiatory formula, for instance at the ceremony of receiving a new member in a religious order. Generally speaking the guru (religious teacher or spiritual mentor), initiates the adept into the mysteries of the sacred words. Mastery over spells (mantravidyá) came therefore to be considered as a creditable qualification of teachers and spiritual guides.
3. Intermezzo: Does Magic Exist?
Since then [the times of Edward Tylor and James Frazer, M.F. and P. H.] much ink flowed in the river of scholarship, and the propositions of the two were altered, making room for new theories. These, however, often leave the reader with the frustrating feeling that the question of definitions remains open. It is now clear that ‘magic’ in the context of a pre-industrial African tribe (a term that replaced Taylor’s ‘savages’) does not have the same meaning as it does in a Graeco-Roman context. It seems that the attempt to establish universal definitions proved unsuccessful, and the present approach is to examine the term independently for each culture and period.
Some authors (e.g., Smith 1989, p. 36) object against the use of the word magic, claiming that this term indicates utter foreignness and difference of the activities concerned, that it distinguishes them from proper religion, that it emphasizes their problematic nature, etc. None of this is here intended. No claim is here made that there is such a thing as magic, or that the term has been, or can be meaningfully used.(Bronkhorst 2001, p. 176; emphasis ours)
To sum up: pervasive modern discussions about the concept of ‘magic’ in the study of classical antiquity as they are, they yet failed to establish a thorough theoretical and methodological perspective as far as their central concept is concerned. The majority of studies continue to perceive ‘magic’ as an adequate category capable of classifying ancient sources. Nowadays, definitions are usually rejected; terminological alternatives—to counteract the conceptual vacuum—have rarely been proposed.
Magic does not exist, nor does religion. What do exist are our definitions of these concepts.
…magic, as a definable and consistent category of human experience, simply does not exist.
The magician also tries to produce miracles with his magic, but here the difference is fundamentally one of tone and sentiment. When one prays to a god, one asks for something which depends on his will and which can be graciously conceded; when a magic rite is performed, one demands of the power invoked that it acts in a certain manner. Religion, moreover, is much more than the act of prayer and supplication, since it touches on all the fundamental aspects of human life; magic, in contrast, deals with specific issues and tries to satisfy the magician’s, or his client’s, specific desires. A peculiar egoism, which manifests itself clearly in the request made, is characteristic of magic spells.
4. Coercion and This-Worldly Goals of Life: What is wrong with These Characterizations?
A concept with a definite meaning … illuminates … a significant concern of Western peoples. For example, the supplication/manipulation dichotomy does not apply to non-Western peoples, but it does reveal a great deal about how Westerners conceptualize their religion and their morality.
Mantras certainly seem to have been placed in this category of ‘downgraded alternatives’ to modern Western views of language and religion. Conceived as ‘spells’ and ‘magical formulas’, as they are so often translated, mantras are by implication irrational attempts to manipulate the Divine, in contrast to the supplicative prayers of authentic ‘religion’.
I explained how churchmen of every denomination used the term to brand as implicitly diabolical all unauthorized attempts to manipulate the supernatural, including many folk practices previously regarded by their adherents as godly (pp. 192, 256, 265–67); and how Protestants applied the same description to cover any claims to manipulation made by the Church itself. The dividing line between ‘magic’ and ‘religion’ was hardened by the parallel attempts of Protestant and Catholic Reformers to eliminate all popular rites of unauthorized and ambiguous status.
Instead of the practice of trafficking with demons, a distinctive mode of thinking now allegedly characterized the mental world of ‘primitive (pagan) men’. That is, the invisible spirits no longer counted as a genuine connection between rites and spells, on the one hand, and events and objects in the world, on the other. Rather, pre-modern humans lived under the delusion that such causal forces operate in the world because of their magical and pre-scientific thinking.
4.1. The Supernatural in Debates about Magic: God, Gods, and Demons
4.2. From Clear Theological Explanation to Current Conceptual Mess
If the doctrines of the Véda, and even those of the Puránas, be closely examined, the Hindu theology will be found consistent with monotheism, though it contains the seeds of polytheism and idolatry.
The vague, multiform character of the spirit powers with which magicians have to deal is also a feature of magic as a whole. At first sight, the facts we have collected together may seem very disparate. Some tend to merge magic with technology and science, while others assimilate it to religion. In fact, it should be placed somewhere between the two, but it cannot be defined by its aims, processes, or its ideas. Up to the present, our studies have shown that the subject is even more ambiguous, more indeterminate than ever.
Magic shares with religion the following characteristic: it assumes the consciousness of a link with the supernatural powers. However, the spiritual stance of magic is fundamentally different from that of religion. Because while the religious man strives hard to uplift himself through the dependence upon the sovereign God’s Will, in personal and emotional contact, the Magical man knows only an abstract, impersonal tie established through a magical rule, that he strives to find out and to make a servant of his goals. In this way, the cult becomes a mechanical technique, and every act through which the tie would be lost, an exemplary failure of the general rule.
A mantra is a ‘symbol’ in the archaic sense of the term—it is simultaneously the symbolized ‘reality’ and the symbolizing ‘sign’. There is an occult correspondence between the mantra’s mystical letters and syllables (…) and the subtle organs of human body on the one hand, and, on the other, between those organs and the divine forces asleep or manifested in the cosmos. By working on the ‘symbol’, one awakens all the forces that correspond to it, on all levels of being. Between the mantrayana and tantric iconography, for example, there is perfect correspondence; for each plane and each degree of sanctity has its corresponding image, color, and letter. By meditating on the color or the mystical sound that represents it, the disciple enters into a particular modality of being, absorbs or incorporate a yogic state, a god, etc.
5. Conclusions: Before Pursuing New Routes for Understanding Mantras
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Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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Both degeneration and evolutionary theories of religion are mentioned specifically as explanations of mantras in Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, where they are characterized either as ‘spells’ or ‘prayers’ (theories describe the change from prayers to spells or the other way round; see Hastings 1910, pp. 441–42). This is in the entry ‘Charms and Amulets (Indian)’; use of ‘spells’ of Atharvaveda is described in a separate section ‘Charms and Amulets (Vedic)’ (Hastings 1910, pp. 468–72).
According to more recent sources, mantras are used “in prayer, meditation, or worship” (Eliade and Adams 1987, p. 66); they are described as “verses or phrases believed to have magical or religious efficacy” in the 10th edition of Basham’s Cultural History of India (Basham 1996, p. 556) or as ‘magico-religious speech’ (Zysk in Alper 1989, pp. 123–43).
Range of works holding this position is vast, and if one scholarly volume should be considered as starting the new chapter in research of magic, it is a work of Thorndike (1923). Primitive cultures were discussed in seminal works of Lévy-Bruhl (1926) and Malinowski (1935). General overviews span from introductory books (Cavendish 1987) to specialized volumes (Behringer 2004). Some scholars specialized on periods in the long history of magic, such as the Early modern period overview written by Alt et al. (2015), Butler (2011) in terms of magic in Victorian Britain, and Strube (2016) in the French context. More up-to-date examples include studies into modern left-hand path magic (Granholm 2014) or modern Paganism (Luhrmann 1989). A comprehensive historical survey of magic from antiquity to nowadays was provided by Otto (2011), for discussion of modern and contemporary movements see, e.g., Bogdan (2012).
Our student could be encouraged by the work of several scholars to make this decision. In India studies, it would be S. N. Balagangadhara’s examination of problems with diverse phenomena described as religion (Balagangadhara 1994); in classical studies, Marvin Mayer suggested that scholars had spent a lot of time trying to ‘repair’ their definitions of magic but had failed to make any progress towards explaining phenomena that are described by the term (see Johnston 2003, p. 50). Earlier, Skorupski remarked that ‘it is a mistake to think that a theory of magic, or of religion, must begin with the definition’ (Skorupski 1976, pp. 154–55).
The two authors offer only brief remarks, such as the one about ‘Protestant legacy harking back to monotheistic ideas of early Judaism’ (Tambiah 1990, p. 19).
Whereas the distinction between biblical God and His fallen servants is crucial for differentiating between (true) religion and magic (that is, false religion), there is good evidence the ancients did not make such distinctions between their gods and demons (Lloyd 1979; Martin 2010). However, it is not important for our concerns here, as well as many other related topics: that Church Fathers disputed the nature of demons (whether they are fallen angels or their progeny (Reed 2005; Bradnick 2017, pp. 18–53)), the extent to which demons lost their power after the coming of Christ, etc. Nor is our goal here to summarize debates about how exactly Christian thought appropriated Jewish ideas of magical practices (Smith 1996; Klutz 2003), or to check recent objections to the dominant picture of the ancient world as full of magical practices (Meggitt 2013). These debates, in other contexts very important and interesting, would easily divert attention from the crucial subject we are discussing here: the structure of ideas that shaped characterizations of prayers and spells.
A well-known instance is 1 Cor 10:20, where Paul declared that whatever pagans sacrificed to their idols, they sacrificed it to demons, not to God. Augustine stressed that “all the arrangements made by men for the making and worshipping of idols are superstitious, pertaining as they do either to the worship of what is created or of some part of it as God” (Augustine 1892, p. 56).
The characterization of magic in The New International Dictionary of the Bible is a good example (Douglas and Tenney 1987, p. 613).
This tendency typically took the form of distancing the personal beliefs of the scholar from the explanations he pursued in research, but this ‘professional distance’, or ‘bracketing’, of personal beliefs did not guarantee that the structures of Christian ideas would not shape their theorizing as such.
See also today almost forgotten work of Jevons, who speculated about beliefs of primitive people in “supernatural spirits”. According to this author, primitive man thought he could “constrain the gods to work his will” by means of magical practices (Jevons 1896, pp. 15–34).
All quotes from Schayer’s work are M.F’s translations from the original German text.
Compare Schayer’s ideas with the explanation of magic and the use of mantras in the chapter ‘Die Religion der Primitiven’ of H. v. Glasenapp’s book Brahma und Buddha (Glasenapp 1926, pp. 15–32), or with G. Gilmore’s understanding of “the Tantric doctrine of God” and its connection to mantras (Gilmore 1919). On discussions of the ‘primitive mind’, its alleged patterns and how it should have been engaged in magical thinking, it is interesting to consult other half-forgotten texts (for example Clemen 1921; Ellwood 1927; or Goode 1955).
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Fárek, M.; Horák, P. Magic between Europe and India: On Mantras, Coercion of Gods, and the Limits of Current Debates. Religions 2021, 12, 87. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020087
Fárek M, Horák P. Magic between Europe and India: On Mantras, Coercion of Gods, and the Limits of Current Debates. Religions. 2021; 12(2):87. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020087Chicago/Turabian Style
Fárek, Martin, and Pavel Horák. 2021. "Magic between Europe and India: On Mantras, Coercion of Gods, and the Limits of Current Debates" Religions 12, no. 2: 87. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020087