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Tantric Hinduism in Khmer Culture

November 18, 2003


Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains the universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.”

David Gordon White (1)

Tantric Hinduism already had a significant presence in India by the middle of the first millennium CE, when scriptural texts (tantras) began to be compiled. “Tantras (texts) clearly state that scripture is the necessary complement to the oral teachings one receives from the mouth of one’s guru.” (2) Much of this literature contains descriptions of deities in the form of precepts for meditation and complex mythologies that served as verbal models for artists. (3) The Tantrasara, compiled in Bengali by Krishnananda Agamavagisa, serves as a major source for much of our information about Tanrtric Hinduism today. (4)

A more rapid path to enlightenment may have been revealed through Tantric practices. (5) “One must rouse all the energies one can discover in his body, emotions and mind, and combine them into a vehicle which will carry him towards enlightenment. Enlightenment being that state of knowing the truth about the origin of things and men, and their meaning, as clearly as experiencing a street.” (6)

“As Tantra’s philosophy is never merely abstract, it states the philosophical prepositions in terms of human and erotic symbolism which keeps them directly in touch with human experience.” (7) One focus of Tantric Hinduism is the primal emphasis on the sexual union of man and woman as symbolic of the union of earthly beings with the divine, a kind of cosmic ecstasy. The tantrika (practitioner) uses every possible means to achieve this goal, including art and yoga, an extra dimension of which can involve sexual intercourse but, as Pal has stated, “it is a distortion of the truth to insist that sex remains a leitmotif of all tantras.” (8)

In the Khmer environment, there is an inherent minimization of the sexual in art, whether it is Tantric Buddhist or Hindu, and this kind of imagery seldom appears in the Khmer world. The lyrical phrases that caress alluring young girls in the erotic poetry of certain Indian Tantric texts would have had no audience in Khmer Cambodia.(9) Little has been written about Khmer Tantric Hinduism, although tantrikas (practitioners) were already present in Cambodia by the medieval period. (10) Unfortunately, no Khmer liturgical texts have survived to enlighten us as to what role Khmer Tantric Hindusim may have specifically played in the Khmer world, but a few tantalizing clues have resulted in surprising revelations.

Royal Initiation Rituals

The initiation rituals used to consecrate Khmer rulers derive from Tantric Hindu texts, and the recent identification of these texts has allowed Robert Brown to propose new ideas about the role of Tantric Hinduism in the Khmer setting. (11) “Scholars have generally supposed that Shivaite Tantric texts were used to inaugurate the king’s personal cult, the devaraja,” at Jayavarman II’s famous religious ceremony on Mount Mahendra (Kulen) in 802. (12) The Sdok Kak Thom stele inscription of 1052 records that new sacral rituals were used to consecrate a royal linga and proclaim Jayavarman II chakravartin (universal monarch) in this ceremony, traditionally considered to mark the beginning of the Angkor period. (13) Four Tantric texts (shastras) have been mentioned in connection with the 802 consecration, but their content was unknown.

The recent discovery by Teun Goudriaan of the key Tantric text used in the 802 ceremony brings considerable new evidence for the central role played by Tantric Hinduism in Khmer-royalty initiation rites and, in particular, a new understanding of the esoteric rituals surrounding the ceremony of 802. (14) Proclaiming a ruler as chakravartin (universal monarch) basically places him metaphorically at the center of his kingdom, creating a verbal mandala, a concept that goes back to Vedic days in India. (15)

Zhou Daquan’s thirteenth-century tale of the Khmer King’s nightly assignation with a nagi (serpent princess) in order to bring prosperity to the countryside has been considered by some scholars to reflect Tantric initiation ceremonies involving ritual consorts. (16) In other words, the Khmer appear to have combined a Tantric concept with their own local indigenous pre-Indic beliefs to produce initiation rituals meaningful in a Khmer context, in which nagi were an important component. Yashovarman I built the Yashodharatajaka lake to assure that his “glory” (yashas) would reach the underworld inhabited by nagas and other aquatic creatures. (17) This was perhaps an earlier reflection of a Tantric concept of divine kingship that ultimately spawned the ritual noted by Zhou Daquan in his thirteenth-century report.

The existence behind a wall of the Elephant Terraace at Angkor of a representation of the underworld featuring nagas among its inhabitants gives further credibility to the myth. (18) Robert Brown has ably demonstrated that the bas-reliefs at Angkor Vat give visual form to an oath administered by Suryavarman II. (19) In view of a possible Tantric nature of the 802 ceremony, it is more than possible that Suryavarman I’s loyalty oath in 1011 (20) and Suryavarman II’s oath reflect a continuation of a long-held Khmer tradition of royal Tantric Hindu initiation rituals, about which very little is known. Since Tantric practices were by their nature secret, it is not surprising that references to such rituals and rites are not found in stele inscriptions. It is interesting to note that one of the ascetic figures in the Angkor Vat relief identified as an acarya carries a bell with a vajra handle, a major ritual implement associated with Tantrism. (21)

Tantric Hindu images have been identified among the decorations of various Angkor Vat– and Bayon-style temple decorations, but very little has been written about Khmer Tantric Hindu sculpture. The two mandalas included in this volume are rare examples that are undeniably Hindu rather than Buddhist (nos. 1, 2). The earliest example dates to the Koh Ker period (928–944), and displays a standing image of Surya holding two lotus buds. Surya stands within a circle of eight lesser beings representing the Nine Devas. These are a distinctive Khmer group of deities formulated by the Khmer between the seventh and thirteenth centuries (fig. 1, above). (22) The identity of the mandala figures as belonging to the Nine Devas is confirmed by the presence of Rahu sitting on his cloudbank (no. 1b). Although perhaps influenced by the Indian navagraha group, the Khmer group is quite different, and includes planetary deities who are also dikpalas (directional deities) and are associated with the seven days of the week plus Rahu, the eclipse deity, and Ketu, the comet. (23) The other mandala is cast in the Angkor Vat style of the late-eleventh-to-early-twelfth century and displays a seated image of Chandra, the moon deity, holding two lotus-buds as its central focus (fig. 2, right).

A few Khmer images of Shiva suggest that the deity had a Tantric aspect for the Khmer, especially during the Angkor Vat period. A multi-armed Shiva image is shown in an exaggerated “dancing” ardhaparyanka pose (left), characteristic of numerous Tantric deities, such as Hevajra, when dancing on a corpse symbolizing ignorance. (24) The more common Tantric image of Shiva was Sadashiva, of which several examples apparently cast in the Phimai region were published by Coedès. (25) According to the Sdok Kak Thom inscription, Sadashiva, Shiva in his five-headed aspect with ten arms and ten hands making the teaching gesture, represents the four Tantric texts involved in Jayavarman’s 802 consecration, (26) though Sadashiva images were apparently not fashioned until the twelfth century.

Whether Tantrism was ever a complete and autonomous or a supplementary system has been the subject of much scholarly discussion, both today and in antiquity. (27) However Tantrism developed elsewhere in Asia, it appears to have been a supplementary system for the Khmer, not a cult separate from Vishnuism, Shivaism, and Mahayana Buddhism, and at times it was exclusively associated with royalty and the elite. With no surviving Khmer liturgical texts and the secrecy surrounding most Tantric rituals, it is has been extremely difficult to specify the role of Tantric Hinduism for the Khmer. The recent discovery of the specific Tantric texts used in the royal consecration rituals transforming the ruler into the central focus of a mandala that symbolizes the Khmer Empire begs for further scholarly consideration. (28)


A more extensive discussion will be included in 'Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art' by Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford, Bangkok and Chicago, 2004. Available from Paragon Book Gallery by February 2004.

I owe an enormous debt of thanks to Robert L. Brown for his generosity in sharing the unpublished manuscripts of his two forthcoming publications and allowing me to quote from his findings.

This article is offered to stimulate further research, and not as a definitive statement .

1. White 2000, p. 9. [back]
2. Ibid., p. 3. [back]
3. Pal 1986, p. 24. [back]
4. Pal 1981, p. vi. Krishnananda lived in the sixteenth century, and his work is a collection of innumerable earlier texts that he managed to accumulate during his lifetime. Nevertheless, it is difficult in many instances to identify precisely the many deities, “because the dhyanas were meant for mental rather than physical visualizations. In other words, the iconographic descriptions were meant for the priest rather than the artist.” [back]
5. Lopez 2000, p. 524. [back]
6. Rawson 1973, p. 9. [back]
7. Rawson 1973, p. 18. [back]
8. Pal 1981, p. 8. [back]
9. White 2000. [back]
10. Ibid,. p. 8. [back]
11. Brown 2003a and 2003b. [back]
12. Wolters 1982, p. 90; Khun Samen 2002, p. 20. [back]
13. Brown, 2003b. [back]
14. Goudriaan 1985. [back]
15. White 2000, p. 25. [back]
16. Wolters 1982, p. 91. [back]
17. Wolters 1982, p. 85. [back]
18. Ibid. quoting Quaritch Wales 1977. [back]
19. Brown 2003a. [back]
20. Higham 2001, p. 91. [back]
21. Le Bonheur 1995, p. 31. [back]
22. For the identity of this complex group, see Bhattacharya 1956, Malleret 1960, and Jessup et al. 1997, nos. 58 and 62. [back]
23. Mannikka 1996, pp. 185–86. [back]
24. Jessup et al. 1997, p. 316, no. 99. [back]
25. Coedès 1923, pl. XII. [back]
26. For a Sadashiva image and description, see Jessup et al. 1997, no. 111, pp. 328–29. [back]
27. Lopez op. cit., p. 523. [back]
28. Brown 2003a and 2003b. [back]

Bhattyacharya 1956
Bhattyacharya, K. "Notes d'Iconographie Khmere," in Arts Asiatiques, vol. 3.3, 1956, pp. 183-94.

Brown 2003a
Brown, Robert L. “Ritual and Art at Angkor Wat,” in Phyllis Granoff, ed. Images in Asian Religions. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003 (forthcoming).

Brown 2003b
Brown, Robert L. “A Magic Pill: The Protection of Cambodia by the Recitation of the Vinasikhatantra.” Udaya, 2003 (forthcoming).

Coedès 1923
Coedès, George. Bronzes Khmers (Ars Asiatica 5), Paris, 1923.

Goudriaan 1966
Goudriaan, Teun. The Vinasikhatantra: A Saiva Tantra of the Left Current. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1985

Higham 2001
Higham, Charles. The Civilization of Angkor, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001

Jessup and Zephir 1997
Jessup, Helen Ibbitson, and Thierry Zephir, eds. Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia. Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art 1997.

Khun 2002
Khun Samen. The New Guide to the National Museum, Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh: The Department of Museums, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, 2002.

Le Bonheur 1995
Le Bonheur. Albert. Of Gods, Kings, and Men: Bas-Reliefs of Angkor Wat and Bayon. London: Serindia Publications, 1995

Lopez 2000
Lopez, David S., Jr. “A Tantric Meditation on Emptiness,” in White ed. 2000, pp. 523–42.

Malleret 1960
Malleret, L. "Contributions a l'etude du theme des neuf divinities dans la sculpture du Cambodge et du Champa," in Arts Asiatiques, vol. 7.3, 1960, pp. 205-230.

Mannikka 1996
Mannikka, Eleanor. Angkor Wat. Time, Space, and Kingship. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

Pal 1981
Pal, Pratapaditya. Hindu Religion and Iconography. Los Angeles, 1981.

Pal 1986, 1988
Pal, Pratapaditya. Indian Sculpture. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, vol. 1, 1986, vol. 2, 1988.

Rawson 1973
Rawson, Philip S. Tantra. The Cult of Ecstasy. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.

Wales 1977
Wales, H. G. Quaritch, The Universe Around Them: Cosmology and Cosmic Renewal in the Indianized South-east Asia. London: Arthur Probsthain, 1977.

White 2000
White, David Gordon, ed. Tantra in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Wolters 1982
Wolters, O.W. History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 1982.