Vetalas: what you need to know
The Sanskrit word vetala is often translated “vampire” or “zombie,” but neither is perfectly accurate. Strictly, a vetala is an immaterial spirit that enters a corpse and animates it. The undead walking corpse is then also called a vetala; and this is the common meaning of the word.
There are “wild” and “created” vetalas. Bodiless vetala spirits hang around charnel grounds, hoping to find suitable corpses to inhabit. If a body is dumped without proper precautionary rituals, it is vulnerable. These “wild” vetalas prey on the living. The translation “vampire” is most appropriate for wild vetalas. Like Western vampires, they can fly in the form of huge bats. Like Western vampires, they may have courtly manners, and uncanny insight into human motivation.
A Buddhist necromancer can raise the dead by magically binding a disembodied spirit and forcing it into a vacant corpse. It is thereby subordinated to the necromancer’s will, and serves as a slave. For such “created” vetalas, the translation “zombie” is more accurate. In fact, the term “zombie” originally designates a strikingly similar practice in Haitian voodoo.
Vetalas were hugely important in the practice of early Buddhist Tantra in India. The Tantric scriptures contain extensive descriptions of the rites needed to raise vetalas, and the purposes to which they can be put. Slaves are useful; a supernatural slave is especially useful, particularly when you need to accomplish supernatural tasks. On the other hand, raising a vetala is always dangerous: if it escapes your control, it will kill you, and probably many other people, until someone more competent subdues it.
Vetalis: the Buddhist succubi
There is another reason vetalas were so important. Sexual practice (“karmamudra”) was central in Indian Tantra. It was said to be the swiftest and surest Tantric method, for those capable of it. A difficulty was finding someone willing to do engage in it with you—since the early forms of karmamudra were considered utterly disgusting. The usual approach, for men, was to hire a low-caste prostitute. Not everyone was able to do this, due to lack of funds or other practical problems. If you were a monk, there were also tiresome issues of vinaya—the monastic vows, which prohibit sex with women.
An alternative was to raise a vetali (female vetala). At a certain point, an official ruling was made that for a monk to practice karmamudra with a vetali was not a violation of vinaya. This made the practice extremely popular. Or, at any rate, there was considerable demand for information on how to raise vetalis.
Authentic sexual practice necessarily benefits both parties. You wouldn’t know that from reading some of the male-oriented literature on the topic; but any attempt to “use” a prostitute, slave, or corpse for karmamudra, in a one-sided way, is entirely self-defeating. Clueful Tantrikas understand this, and practice accordingly. Vetalas and vetalis are often malevolent—like humans—but can be transformed by Tantric practice—just as we can. All sentient beings have Buddha-nature; the undead are no exception. Mainly due to karmamudra, it seems that there were many highly-realized vetalis in India at the time of the Mahasiddhas. No doubt some were famed as teachers as well as consorts.
In fact, at the dawn of Tantra, at least one vetali became fully enlightened in this way. She is Vajra Vetali, Queen of the Vampires, who attained Buddhahood as the consort of Yamantaka. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote a hair-raising invocation of her that is regularly practiced in his Shambhala centers: “You enjoy drinking the blood of ego . . . As night falls, you cut the aortas of the perverters of the teachings.”
Rolangs: Buddhism and vampires today
The Tibetan word for a vetala is rolang, meaning a corpse (ro) that has gotten up (langs).
In the Himalayas, rolangs are currently regarded as a routine reality: both a common practical problem and a persistent serious danger. There is an enormous amount of folk-lore (in addition to scripture) concerning them.
There are many different methods for dealing with a “wild” rolang. Apparently, the process of reanimation is gradual, and can be aborted if caught early. The corpse first struggles to sit up, and starts muttering. Alexandra David-Neel wrote that, at this point, the thing to do is to hold it down and bite off its tongue. I can’t be sure this technique is reliable; but it makes more sense than most counter-measures I’ve read about. It’s certainly worth a try, if you find yourself in such a situation. Keep the tongue: they are all kinds of useful.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche once took a different approach. In 1992, he led a pilgrimage in Kashmir. It included a week-long high-mountain trek to a gompa located on the site of one of the Eight Great Charnel Grounds. His group encountered a party of Kashmiris, bearing a member who had died of altitude sickness on the trail. Because the two groups were walking in the same direction, they saw a lot of each other. At one point, the Kashmiris became increasingly agitated. They reported that the corpse was becoming restless—it was groaning and trying to sit up. Funeral rites had not yet been performed; possession by a rolang was imminent; and they began to panic. Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s students explained that he was a ngakpa, fully qualified to handle such a problem. The Kashmiris were dubious about a white Tantrika. They feared that the rolang would kill him, make him into another one, and then both would come after them. Nevertheless, Rinpoche sat with the body and performed phowa on behalf of the deceased. Watching him unafraid and unharmed, the Kashmiris eventually calmed down and concluded that the rolang had indeed been dispelled.