If you want to be spiritual, ask uncomfortable questions,’ Goddess News, Spiritual Blog, Divine Feminine,
Dr Joanna Kujawa
This blog is a continuation of my earlier blog on Tantra, Gnostic Jesus and Mary Magdalene, https://www.joannakujawa.com/tantra-esoteric-christianity-and-mary-magdalene/. For the sake of clarity I would also encourage interested readers to check my most recent blog, which makes a connection between the Gnostics and Esoteric Hinduism https://www.joannakujawa.com/the-gnostics-and-esoteric-hinduism-the-same-story-told-from-a-different-point-of-view/.
Now, after this serious and prescriptive introduction (simply for the sake of clarifying what I have written earlier on this topic), let’s throw ourselves into the fascinating possibility of Christian Tantra, as described in James Hughes Reho’s (PhD) book Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity.
In his book, Reho makes a very brave attempt at proving (or suggesting?) the possibility of Christian Tantra. As someone who has studied Esoteric Hinduism and Tantra for years, I can vouch for Reho’s deep knowledge and understanding of Tantric principles and practices and for his attempt to apply them to Christian practices and teachings.
To start with, the dance between Eastern and Western teachings is as ancient as the teachings themselves. I am a believer that spiritual traditions never develop in one particular cultural vacuum but have always informed each other for their mutual benefit. Also, I follow Joseph Campbell, in that the development of the human mythos is universal and only presents itself in different cultural disguises – but carries the same or a very similar message. By ‘mythos’ I mean here the primal individual and collective ‘knowledge’ of our place in the Universe which is somehow embedded in our Consciousness. From this standpoint, Reho’s research and attempt at unifying Tantric and Christian ideas makes perfect sense.
First of all, in Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity Reho looks for similarities between the Tantric teachings of Esoteric Hinduism and early Christianity. In this alone, he makes a big conceptual leap which one can only admire: he re-examines and re-defines the Christian understanding of Creation, and especially the Christian understanding of the human body.
Reho believes that our current understanding of the body in Christianity is radically different from that of the understanding of early Christians. The Christianity that we know now, he says, was negatively influenced by ‘ascetic Neoplatonists’ which was not intended by the early Gospels or Jesus Himself. He says that he prefers to adhere to the mystical Christianity that ‘thrived largely outside the official institution’ of the Church. Between the second and fourth centuries, the Romanisation of Jesus’ teachings had occurred and he had merged with the Roman Sol Invictus – an all-powerful but remote figure of the Roman God. Jesus became ‘Christ the Conqueror’, and now we are faced with the ‘dogmatic baggage’ of that transformation not only of Jesus Himself but of His teachings as well.
I have no argument with this part of the book, as it is historically true that the Roman Empire (Emperor Constantine especially, you can check my video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwESV8oskr) picked and chose from the early Christian tradition.
Also, Reho accurately points to the complete loss of the Feminine Principle in Christianity as a significant part of the process of dogmatisation. In brief, for those of us who are familiar with the Hindu principle of Shakti as the feminine aspect of the Divine, Christianity became de-Shaktified. But, Reho argues, it was not always like this. In fact, he believes that the canonical Gospels, especially the Gospels of Mark and John, tried to bring the feminine back.
The process of de-Shaktification (or the removal of the Feminine) from Western tradition, Reho says after Biblical scholar Margaret Barker, started as the ‘Deuteronomic Reform’, of King Josiah of Judah and the high priest Hilkiah around 623 BCE, when they supposedly unearthed a mysterious scroll of the Law of Yahweh written by Moses himself. Josiah destroyed all the ancient temples and removed any traces of the Feminine from the Judaic scriptures. The face of the Feminine aspects banned from Judaic scriptures was that of the ancient Asherah, known also as the consort of Yahweh, in the same way as Shakti was the consort of Shiva in Esoteric Hinduism.
Interestingly, Asherah was worshipped as the Queen of the Heavens – very much like the Sumerian Goddess Inanna or the Egyptian Goddess Isis. Indeed, in Egypt, the Jewish population worshipped Asherah (sometimes under the name of Anath) along with Yahweh. Asherah, like Shakti in Hinduism, was the active Power of God. Many representations of Asherah are very similar to representations of Inanna, and even those of the more ancient Ninmah, with poles, trees and serpents being used in relation to earlier interpretations of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge.
Like the Gnostic Sophia, she is often represented as a dove. Reho notes here the biblical significance of the presence of the dove during Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. In this interpretation, the dove represents Asherah/Sophia, which makes Jesus a child and beloved’ of the Goddess. Reho quotes from the Gospel of Mark where, during Jesus’ baptism, ‘a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am pleased”’. The interpretation here is that the dove is the Goddess (Asherah/Sophia) and that Jesus is initiated by Her, rather than by the all masculine and not a particularly friendly God. Since then, attempts to restore the traces of the Divine Feminine were made in Rabbinic Judaism, by ‘the re-emergence’ of the presence of Shekinah – the divine feminine dwelling in ‘the divine presence … as the feminine aspect of God’.
In his search for the Feminine Divine in the canonical Gospels, Reho also re-interprets the Prologue of the Gospel of John, translated as ‘In the beginning was the Word’. However, in Greek (the language of the Gospel of John), ‘Word’ is ‘Logos’ – meaning not simply a word but the ‘incarnate Word’ or ‘Wisdom Word’ reminiscent of the Gnostic Sophia (the Wisdom of God) or the creative presence of Shakti. It is worth noting that the same notion was brought up by a Jewish philosopher from the first century in Alexandria, Philo of Alexandria, who also defined ‘Logos’ as the ‘dynamic and creative power of God’ – the exact definition of Shakti in Hinduism. Also in the Gospel of John, the turning of water into wine, according to Reho, symbolises ‘a movement away’ from the ascetism of John the Baptist towards a more inclusive and Goddess-friendly tradition which has its roots in the ancient sacrifice of bread and wine to the Goddess Asherah.
In Reho’s book all of these attempts, and many more, are intended to point to the possibility of Christian Tantra. Tantra being the Union of the Feminine and Masculine – first needed the proof that there is some visceral presence of the Feminine in the West which is comparable to the Hindu Shakti. One of Reho’s most fascinating comparisons comes from his discussion on the Hindu Goddess Kali and Jesus’ crucifixion. Reho gives the crucifixion a completely new and mystic meaning. I admit that I never related to the gory descriptions of the crucifixion and the guilt-based absurd explanations of it that were given to me as a child brought up a Catholic. All I could see was the horror and institutional manipulation used to make us feel like natural-born sinners in need of the external redemption usually provided by the Church. All the mystical explanations that I knew seemed to me a forced attempt at making sense of the horror of the crucifixion and its manipulative connotations made by institutional religions.
But Reho, informed by his understanding of the Hindu representation of the Goddess Kali, dares to give the crucifixion another meaning. Even a Westerner not interested in Hinduism is familiar with the horrific images of Kali – that black or dark-blue Goddess with many arms, blood flowing from her tongue, with skulls around her neck – the Goddess Destroyer dancing on the aroused body of Shiva. Yet, despite this off-putting image, the Tantrikas understand the hidden symbolism of her hand ‘mudras’ (hand gestures of mystical meaning).
As Kali dances her mad dance on top of aroused Shiva, her right hand makes the ‘do not be afraid’ mudra while her left hand blesses the world. For Tantrikas Kali represents the erotic longing for the Divine. She both destroys the ego and the demons that feed the ego and liberates the worshipper from incorrect understanding and the bondage associated with this. Kali is the Goddess of the radical action of Liberation. You get in touch with Her through your heart chakra, your all-powerful longing, as nothing else will do. She is a representation of what Yogis call tapasya – an intense Yogic fire that destroys all delusion. ‘Do you dare to be radically free?’ Kali ask us. This is a serious question, as all Tantric sources say that this path is radical and not for everyone.
But back to Kali and Jesus’ crucifixion. Reho is adamant that the same symbolism that is present in the Goddess Kali is also present in Golgota (the place of the crucifixion). To start with, Golgota means the skull (like the skulls on Kali’s necklace). Like in the radical Tantric rituals devoted to Kali which took place at burial places, Golgota is also a burial (and killing) place. Thus, Christ, like Kali, transforms death into life eternal. Not, perhaps, as it is understood by mainstream Christianity as a literal bodily resurrection but, rather, as the death of ego and delusion. In the same way that the Gospel of Philip says, ‘Don’t be a Christian, be a Christ’. Be free from external delusion, be a Divine being.
For Reho, other symbolism in the crucifixion is the strong feminine presence (especially that of Mary Magdalene, but also that of Joanna, Mary (the mother of James) and Salome. The symbolism of Jesus’ head being wounded by the thorns signifies the removal of the ego – in the way that Kali decapitates heads. As Kali defies death through the experience of death, so does Christ by the act of resurrection after the horror of crucifixion. Thus, Reho writes, as Mother Kali gives us life by killing our ego, Jesus on the cross ‘blends death … with new life’. Furthermore, the image of Jesus lifted up to the cross symbolises the healing power of the serpent and the ‘pole’ of Asherah/Inanna/Ninmah.
Now I appreciate and see the symbolic similarities, and they are, for me, in agreement with my general premise in all my blogs that our mythical symbolism is universal and has only been appropriated by our culture and times. I also appreciate Reho’s own interpretation of the tragic misinterpretation of early Christian teachings by the Roman rulers and ignorant followers (sometimes mentioned in the Gnostic Gospels). The macabre aspect of Kali has not been my favourite part in Hinduism, in the same way as the horror of the imagery of the crucifixion will never be the focus of my understanding of the teachings.
As much as the correct understanding is important to liberation and our ability to see the truth, and as much as it is, at times, extremely intense, it does not necessarily represent Tantra – just one of the most macabre and bizarre branches of it. It is, perhaps, the dark mirror of the soul that is represented by Kali/the crucifixion – a shadow that should be acknowledged as Carl Jung would have done. At the same time, Kali is the shadow part of the Divine Feminine, the dark mirror of Virgin Mary or Tara. That is why, perhaps, in her fierce representations, she if often a favourite representation of the Feminine for young women tired of the docile depictions of a Goddess.
Kali dancing on the aroused body of Shiva also brings a different symbolism to my mind. The symbolism of the erotic used for the purpose of liberation. It reminds me of the work of another teacher from 20th century northern India from the Shakti tradition, Muktananda. In his book, The Play of Consciousness, Muktananda describes how, as a young man, he purified (or thought he purified) his body with austerities to purge himself of sexual desire and become a saint. As he was doing this, a beautiful, sensual woman came to him in meditation, arousing his body. Muktananda felt remorseful and filled with hatred for his body, despite the beautiful female apparition telling him not to be ashamed as She was the Goddess Shakti Herself that had come to visit him. That the body is a vehicle of transformation, not a victim of our hatred and shame. That sexual energy can be a fuel of great spiritual attainment and the body a conduit for the Goddess Kundalini Herself. That both can be good if used properly as vessels for the Union with the Divine.
Don’t be afraid.
This is Tantra for me.
In future blogs I will discuss Reho’s recommendations for the praxis of Christian Tantra and compare this with the practices of Hindu Tantra.
As always, I would love to know your thoughts through your comments.
Dr Joanna Kujawa
Goddess News, Spiritual Blog
If you have some time to spare, I’m also attaching my recent interview on Aeon Byte Live, episode 13, where I discuss the Divine Feminine in the East and West. Since I declined to discuss Kali much in this episode I have covered Her in this blog. To watch the interview please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gf2snNXGg60