O! O glorious Goddess of the Wet Cloth (ārdrapaeśvarī), O She Who is Garbed in Green and Blue, O Dark One, O Salivator, O Fierce One, Howler, Skull-Bearer, Flaming Mouth, Seven Tongues of Flame, the Thousand-eyed One, approach! Approach so-and-so! I offer you an animal! Cut off the life of so-and-so! Approach! Approach! You Who Steal Away Lives! Hu pha bhur bhuva sva pha! You that devours cloth soaked in blood, cleave my enemies! Cleave! Drink the blood! Drink! hu pha svāhā.

— Uddisatantra

The heterodox nature of Hinduism has fascinated me for years. The shadow aspects of the religion that most urban Indians dismiss as mumbo jumbo, I find intriguing. Recently a friend who is familiar with my interests sent me a corpus of obscure texts dealing with magic rituals, including the Uḍḍīśatantra, Uḍḍāmeśvaratantra and Uḍḍāmaratantra.

Uḍḍ-corpus texts are framed as a dialogue between Śiva and Rāvaṇa, the demonic ruler of Lanka who abducted Rama’s wife Sita and spirited her away to his palace. Rāvaṇa’s primacy is what distinguishes Udd-corpus from more conventional Tantras in which Siva and his consort Sakti or Parvati are interlocutors. In fact, the Uḍḍīśatantra is an important text in contemporary Sri Lanka, though its contents are not known to many.

Dr Aaron Michael Ullrey, an expert in magic rituals in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, wrote his dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on South Asian magic rituals. It was titled Grim Grimoires: Pragmatic Rituals in the Magic Tantras.

“I became interested in magic because I read about magic rituals performed by priests in the Mahabharata, and those actions overlapped with lore in these unstudied but easily accessible magic tantras,” Ullrey told me, referring to the Udd-corpus. He found it difficult to understand the archive using existing theory on South Asian religions, which eventually led him to study pragmatic rituals in the Hellenistic world. Then it all started to make sense. “While they are not connected, discrete pragmatic rituals that cause specific worldly changes are common throughout the world,” he said. “People can have the same ideas all over the world without talking to each other. At the same time, I was speaking with Thelemite and Kitchen Witch and Hoodoo practitioners, and they all expressed a turning away from high magic to what they call low magic.”

Magic, across cultures, has always been deemed illegal, or at least illicit, and Hinduism bears this out. Magic rituals – sorcery (abhicāra), malicious conjuring (kytā) and root-magic (mūlakarma) – are proscribed under the predominant Hindu legal code Manusmti. This could be because magic rituals challenge conventional methods of interacting with gods, subverting individual will and using forbidden substances. Deities are coldly manipulated or coerced via physical actions and transactions without reverence or devotion. Those adhering to brāhmaa ideals would be horrified, but even those others who are not restricted from ingesting sexual fluids and intoxicants would be shocked by the disgusting nature of many substances used in magic rituals.

“Magic rituals are not stage magic, prestidigitation, nor legerdemain, whether the theatrical illusionist or street side jādugar,” Ullrey explained. “Stage magic harnesses illusion and drama to suggest a surreal and temporary change; neither performance nor results are real. Magic ritual, by contrast, does not challenge reality, rather the operations aim to change reality. The world is altered in an expected manner, as declared in the operation; it is rules-based, not out of the ordinary. Direct cause and effect are subverted, but indirect cause and effect by invisible forces are considered natural, not paranormal.”

Magic rituals in Hinduism consist of rites that produce black magic, sorcery and the “six results” (akarman) as well as fantastic feats and enchanted items. Also included in the corpus are methods of conjuring supernatural entities (yakinī/yoginī sādhana), usually female, who grant supernatural and earthly boons, and worldly power to the right aspirant. This tradition does not show any interest in the higher Vedic goals of exalted god consciousness or spiritual liberation. Its stated intentions are far more pragmatic and goal-oriented.

Most South Asians tend to use the English term “black magic” to describe tantra-mantra and magic rituals. For them, these practices induce feelings of condescension mixed with fear, anxiety and at times indifference. They are accustomed to seeing the magical arts being largely relegated to cheap publications sold at railway stalls and alleyways, and dubious tantrics promising miracle cures. However, to its scholars, magic is unendingly fascinating.

Satkarman: The Six Results

The “six results” (akarman) in Hindu magic rituals are śānti (tranquilizing), vaśīkaraa (subjugating), stambhana (immobilising), mohana (bewildering), vidveana (dissent), uccāana (eradicating), attracting (ākaraa), and murder (mārana). The context of each of these is explained, along with commentaries, in the three primary texts comprising the Udd-corpus edited by Shyamsundarlal Tripathi, Shivadatta Mishra and CM Shrivastava.

For instance, santi can mean to quiet, calm and pacify, but also to silence, remove or kill. The connotations here are strictly pragmatic in the sense of crushing obstacles and hindrances, not attaining sublime states of consciousness.

The next category, vasikarana (subjugation), comes with elaborate and fascinating herbal formulations for erotic purposes. To make sure a woman never looks at another man, Tripathi instructs men to grind rock salt, liquor and pigeon poop. They are then to smear it upon the penis before making love to a woman. She will never be attracted to another man, even mentally, after that. Conversely, women are told to employ subjugating oils such as kulattha pods, wood-apple leaves, orpiment, and red arsenic in equal parts, mixed in a copper bowl and fermented for seven nights. Then oil is heated in the bowl along with the mixture. After smearing her vulva with the infused oil, she amorously approaches her husband and initiates intercourse. At the culmination of intercourse, her husband has no choice but to become her lifelong slave.

Immobilisation or Stambhana rituals are designed to halt or freeze an individual, a mob or an army. It can also affect herds of cattle; non-humans, such as vehicles; and even natural bodies, such as streams and oceans. Immobilisation also renders something impotent, halting effectiveness: waters cannot drown, nor clouds storm, fires burn, weapons harm, fists strike.

Bewilderment (mohana) rituals are used for exactly that: to madden, agitate or confuse one’s rival to the point of stupefaction. While mohana can also mean infatuation or love, here it is used to psychologically and emotionally disorient an opponent to the point of madness.

The Sanskrit term dveaa is derived from the root √dve, meaning “to hate, show hatred, or become a rival or enemy”. Rituals in this category create strife among lovers and friends or mutiny among the ranks of an armed force.

Eradication (uccatana) rituals drive a victim from his home, village, kingdom, and country, in the process, driving them mad. Attraction (akarsana) rituals are physical and psychological, mostly targeting humans, though also animal victims such as cattle and, surprisingly, snakes. And finally, Mārana – derived from the root √m meaning “to kill or slay” – is the Indo-European cognate to the English word murder. There is no noble interpretation, no killing to preserve Dharma, to prevent generating bad karma, or to stop the wicked (Buddhist texts often interpret murder rites in this way).

Fantastic Feats And Enchanted Objects

Some operations are not categorised under the six-results rubric. They confer pragmatic results via rituals. These fall into two categories (1) fantastic feats in which the operator is able to perform powerful, supermundane actions, including invisibility or resurrection, and (2) enchanted objects that enable advantageous results, i.e. goggles to see under the earth, lamps to detect treasure, seven-league striding boots, and so forth.

Tripathi speaks of magic boots to roam the air, to fly, though other magic boots enable the user to stride vast distances or walk atop water. “O! Reverence to the Lord who dwells atop the Moon! To him atop the crest of the moon, the top of the mountain, the tip of the spear! Reverence to the wide-ranging, swift-footed Lord! Hu Pha Svāhā!” The spell is perfected by 3,000 repetitions. He asks users to combine ingredients from a myna, crow and dog with camel milk and smear the mixture on their feet while making reverence to Śiva (using the above mantra). They can now roam the skies like Siva, he says.

The ultimate power to bring the dead back to life is common in final chapters of magic tantras. Rites range from simple mantras to complicated preparations, though this most powerful and striking of results is presented with no greater fanfare than any other rite.

By side-lining the moralistic aspects of religion, scholars engage in a dialogue with magic ritual sources across and outside South Asia. This has a two-pronged effect: it breaks away from the exclusivist tendencies of our culture today, and compels advocates of strict materialism to embrace a more inclusive view of the human experience, one that contains a multitude of realities, both seen and unseen.