You need to learn tantra

Help from my uncle was my only hope for winning the hand of my beloved Suhki—but he only wanted to talk about sorcery, spies, wars, and witches.

Kila (phurba)

Kila (phurba)

Each time my uncle arrived in our village, everything changed for the duration.

He immediately took command, and everyone deferred to him. Even the village headman, the brahmin; although my uncle always addressed him courteously. This seemed the natural order of things when I was a child; it was only when I lost Sukhi that I started to wonder about it.

My uncle’s dress was outlandish. He wore silk trousers, one leg blood-red and one black, belted with an emerald sash. His pointed boots, embroidered with peculiar symbols, were in the style of the northern barbarians, the horse lords. He kept a coil of matted hair mounded beneath a broad-brimmed black hat. Its high peak had staring blood-shot eyes embroidered on it. He wore hoop earrings, as big as my palm, made from the crowns of human skulls. His massive chest was bare apart from a broad leather strap that ran diagonally from shoulder to waist.

A series of pouches attached to that harness. As a child, I begged to see what was in them. He was reluctant at first, but eventually I won him over.

They were tools of a sorcerer. A two-sided drum made from a pair of babies’ skulls. Bells of various sizes and shapes, with sounds sweet and harsh. A trumpet made from a human thigh-bone. The sawed-off end of a buffalo’s horn, sealed with a metal stopper.

He would not let me open that.

“What is in it?” I asked.

“Hell,” he answered.

“Oh… What is the bone trumpet for?”

“Summoning demons.”

Two triple-edged stakes hid beneath his sash. One was wood, shaped just like the ones you thrust in the earth and tie goats to. The other was black metal, and its pommel was in the shape of a hideous grinning demon.

“What are those?” I asked.

“The wooden kila paralyzes; the metal kila kills.”

“Why does it have that face on it?” I asked. It scared me.

“Sometimes you have to use demons to slay demons.”

“Is it a good demon?” I asked.

“It is a Buddhist demon,” he said.

My uncle’s dress inspired fear and curiosity; his stature and strength demanded respect; his booming laugh and friendly words negated the fear, for some, and put them at ease; his liberality with silver made him welcome in any case. He visited once a year. He brought money for my foster-mother, and spent two days talking with me.

damaru (skull drum) separator

That year, to my huge relief, my uncle arrived just two weeks after my second meeting with Sukhi. As soon as we were alone, I started to tell him about her. But he started talking instead about “training.” He didn’t seem to understand how important Sukhi was.

I was sure that if I could get him to listen, he would pay attention—but not if he was going to launch into a long lecture. Within a minute, we were yelling at each other. My uncle was terrifying when he was angry, but I was not going to be shut up.

He pulled the wooden kila out of his sash and pointed it at me. He held it above his head with his little finger and index finger extended, the middle fingers curled around its shaft. In an instant, I could not breathe, much less argue. He kept his hand high, glowering at me, as the pain in my chest grew and I got desperate for breath. Then he lowered it and I could take a long shuddering gulp of air.

“Now,” he said, “you are going to listen to me, without interrupting. There are things it is long past time for you to know. Matters of life and death. And then when I have finished, I promise I will listen to you tell me about this girl. Understand?”

I nodded, still struggling for breath.

“You will soon be a man. It is long past time your education began.”

“What, do you want me to be a monk, too?” My foster-mother thought monks knew everything. The ones I had met, I thought fools, though.

“No!” he said. “The time of monasteries is over. They have no place in the modern world. Their money came from emperors and bankers. The last emperor died before your father’s father’s father was born. The banks were seized by warlords when the empire collapsed and the wars began. Our king gives token support to Nalanda University, but even that is is a fading relic. It was once the greatest monastery in the world. Now all that’s left is a few old men quarreling about whether the nonexistence of pots is the same or different from the nonexistence of rabbit horns.”

“What!” I said.

“The point is,” he said, “what you need to learn is the new Buddhism. You need to learn tantra.”


My father was a tantrika—a sorcerer—but he died before I was born. My uncle was a tantrika too, but I saw him only once a year; and before this demonstration with the wooden kila, I had never seen him perform his art. I knew about sorcerers only from stories, in which they were usually evil and came to bad ends. I was a village boy; I had never seriously considered such a thing.

“Tantra is the transformation of the dark emotions—greed, hate, lust, paranoia, delusion—into power. Power, and sometimes wisdom. Power is what kings pay for nowadays, though.”

“What is wisdom?”

“Power can be used for good or ill. Often it is hard to see which is which. Wisdom tells you. They say.” He frowned.

“Now,” he continued, “you are not cut out to be a farmer, either. You will soon grow too big for village life—weeding the same damn field year after year.”

A month ago, I would have agreed fervently. Now, I wanted nothing but Sukhi. Living in the village would be paradise if she were with me.

“Your father and I left for the city when I was your age. If you marry some village girl, you are going to be stuck here forever.”

“Sukhi is not ‘some village girl’! She’s special!”

My uncle put his hand on the kila again. I shut up.

“You need to be trained. Now, I had always planned to train you myself. Each year, I thought: next year, I will begin my brother’s son’s training. And each year it has been impossible. I cannot be away from Rajagriha for long, and it would be too dangerous to bring you there.”

“Dangerous? Why?”

“I have enemies; the king has enemies; Magadha has enemies. If they knew I had family, they would use you against me.”

I thought that through for a minute. Now I understood why my uncle had left me in a remote village. And then another thought: if there was a danger of my being taken hostage, Sukhi would be in danger too. And expendable.

“Now, perhaps, with training, you are getting old enough to take care of yourself. And so, I thought, this year, it would be time to take the risk and bring you to the capital. But that is not to be.

“The greatest threat is Kannauj, the kingdom to the west. The king of Kannauj is ambitious and ruthless. And he hates Buddhists, and he hates Magadha. Magadha is still too strong for him, but he is conquering south. He has taken Gwalior, and is gathering wealth and mercenary armies. In time, he will strike east, at Magadha. But when? Would it be better for us to invade now, perhaps to take his seat by surprise while he is off campaigning? Or to build our own strength against him?

“Our king has sent me to Kannauj to find out. In secrecy. Of the spies he has sent before, none have reported back. The head of the last was returned by courier, with the king of Kannauj’s compliments, and without its tongue.”

I had been waiting impatiently for the end of the politics lecture, but this regained my attention.

“Any one spy may be detected by ordinary means; but only by magic could he uncover all of them. His chief sorcerer must be powerful. I need to find out how powerful. I must test his strength, without showing my own.

“For that encounter, I cannot disguise the fact that I am a magician; but I shall play the clown. I mean to be taken for some conjurer of cheap tricks.

“If I am exposed, I shall probably die. If my mission is successful, I will take you to Rajagriha next year, and we will begin your training.

“You know that tantra comes from the dakinis.” (I didn’t know. No one would tell me anything about either of them.) “Only the dakinis can initiate you; only they can grant you the greater powers. Yet they are witches, and to be feared.” (My mother was a dakini; I wasn’t afraid of her.) “They are not Buddhists. They have their own gods and their own dark purposes.

“When I collect you in a year—if I survive—I will take you to them. You will live with them for a time. The dakinis here in Magadha are not as dangerous as those of the East. Some speak our language. But still you must learn their secret signs, and approach them in the right way.

“If you do not see me in a year, you will be on your own. I wish I had been able to introduce you to the dakinis, or at least to teach you the hand-signs. But you were too young, and now there is no time.

“Now, about this girl. You understand that if you marry, training with dakinis would be extremely difficult. I know that you think you are hot as hell for her now, but that won’t last. What’s important in the long run is your training.”

I didn’t understand. And I didn’t care. I would love Sukhi forever, and nothing else mattered.

Related resources

The page “Love in a time of war” explains some of the historical background to this episode of The Vetali’s Gift.

My page on dakinis explains who these witches were, and why—at least for the purpose of the novel.