I recently visited the British Museum’s exhibition on Tantra — subtitled ‘Enlightenment to Revolution’. It sparked some thoughts on how revolution is typically presented in culture, and how these meanings could be expanded.
Tantra is revolutionary — that much is clear. It comes from early medieval India, where insight grew into the energetic and vibrational generativity of the universe. This creative energy came to be seen metaphorically as feminine (Devi or Shakti), and then refracted through a multiplicity of goddesses, with abundant names, forms and aspects.
Devi’s forms are traditionally organised into two main categories — the raudra (fierce, radical, violent) and the saumya (sweet, beautiful, playful). What struck me about the British Museum’s exhibition was that it was all raudra, and no saumya.
Why? My hunch is that it’s something to do with the way we see revolution — and the exhibition was intended to be about this theme. Revolution from modernity onwards is about transgression, chaos, and explosive, emancipatory energy. So the frenzied energy of Kali was rocket fuel to the anti-colonial movement in Bengal. And again, later in the 20th century, to Western feminism and other counter-cultural movements seeking liberation from oppressive systems and conventions.
The saumya aspects of the Goddess possibly seemd a bit too sweet and unchallenging for the Museum to really explore — given it wanted to talk ‘revolution’. So the exhibition gave a lot of space to the fierce aspects of Devi — self-decapitating Chinnamasta, tusked, boar-headed Varahi, and of course bloodied, skull-bearing Kali herself.
But is this too narrow an understanding? Today, we’re not fighting systems and structures. We’re suffering from chaos, disorganisation and imbalance. In this context, the sweetness and harmony of Devi’s saumya forms come to assume a new revolutionary potential.
Take Lakshmi. She is traditionally seen as delighting in good household management: balancing the budget, keeping the home sparkling-clean and shining with auspicious energy. I’m not surprised the British Museum didn’t really want to talk about her — she doesn’t sound very revolutionary or feminist, according to the paradigm the exhibition was working with.
But on a planetary level, aren’t these qualities exactly the revolution we need? We haven’t balanced the budget, nurtured our resources, or kept our home clean . We haven’t adored beauty, pursued harmony or tended what we have.
So this could be precisely the time to recognise that stewardship, nurturing, balancing and tending can also be revolutionary qualities. Enough has been burnt up in a frenzy of destruction. This no longer signifies revolution — it signifies what we need a revolution against.
I wish there could have been a room devoted to saumya at the British Museum’s exhibition — a room beautifully lit and fragranced, with shining yantras and glowing murtis, pervaded with the breathtaking, mind-blowing beauty of the goddess in her sweet forms. Beauty and care, balance and symmetry, can be revolutionary too — especially now.
Thank you to Sally Kempton for teaching the current value of a devotion to Lakshmi amidst planetary destruction. As she spoke on Zoom from her home in California, she described how she could see smoke from forest fires coming into view – so this was no abstract or academic teaching.