This book is an attempt to explain to an English knowing reader an undoubtedly difficult subject. It is natural that, given the difficulty and the mystery which surrounds the subjects that strangers to India have failed to understand Mantra. They jumped to the conclusion that it is meaningless superstition. This is the familiar argument of the lower mind which says what I cannot understand can have no sense at all. Mantra is, it is true, meaningless to those who do not know its meaning. But there are others who do, and to them it is not superstition.
The Mantra-Sastra is worthy of a close study which, when undertaken, will disclose elements of value to minds free from superstition, of metaphysical bent and subtle-seeing (Suksmadarsin). A profound doctrine, ingeniously though guardedly set forth, is contained in the Tantras of Mantra-Sastra or Agama.
This book is, as the sub-title states, a Collection of Studies in, or Essays upon, particular subjects in the Mantra-Sastra, a term which is commonly applied to the Tantra-Sastra. It is practically composed of two parts. After Chapter 1, which deals with the Word, Chapters 2-9 treat of the Principles of the general doctrine of Sabda. Chapters 10-21 are elucidations of some subjects in the Tantra-Sastra which adopt the Mimamsa doctrine of Sabda with some modifications to meet its doctrine of Sakti. Chapters 12, 28 and 29 deal with the Mantras Om and the Gayatri.
Sir John George Woodroffe (15 December 1865 – 16 January 1936), also known by his pseudonym Arthur Avalon, was a British Orientalist whose extensive and complex published works on the Tantras, and other Hindu traditions, stimulated a wide-ranging interest in Hindu philosophy and yoga.
Woodroffe was the eldest son of James Tisdall Woodroffe and his wife Florence, daughter of James Hume. James Woodroffe was Advocate-General of Bengal and Legal Member of the Government of India, a Justice of the Peace, and a Knight of St. Gregory. John was educated at Woburn Park School and the University College, Oxford, where he took second classes in jurisprudence and the Bachelor of Civil Law examinations. He was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1889, and in the following year was enrolled as an advocate of the Calcutta High Court. He was soon made a Fellow of Calcutta University and appointed Tagore Law Professor. He collaborated with Ameer Ali in a widely used textbook, Civil Procedure in British India. He was appointed Standing Counsel to the Government of India in 1902, and in 1904 was raised to the High Court Bench. He served there for eighteen years, becoming Chief Justice in 1915. After retiring to England he served as Reader in Indian Law at the University of Oxford. He died on 18 January 1936 in France.
Alongside his judicial duties, he studied Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy and was especially interested in Hindu Tantra. He translated some twenty original Sanskrit texts and, under his pseudonym Arthur Avalon, published and lectured prolifically on Indian philosophy and a wide range of Yoga and Tantra topics. T.M.P. Mahadevan wrote: "By editing the original Sanskrit texts, as also by publishing essays on the different aspects of Shaktism, he showed that the religion and worship had a profound philosophy behind it and that there was nothing irrational or obscurantist about the technique of worship it recommends."
- Woodroffe's The Serpent Power – The Secrets of Tantric and Shakti Yoga, is a source for many modern Western adaptations of Kundalini yoga practice. It is a philosophically sophisticated commentary on, and translation of, the Satcakra-nirupana ("Description of and Investigation into the Six Bodily Centres") of Purnananda (dated c.AD 1550) and the Paduka-Pancaka ("Five-fold Footstool of the Guru"). The term "Serpent Power" refers to the kundalini, an energy said to be released within an individual by meditation techniques.
- Woodroffe's Garland of Letters expounds on the "non-dual" (advaita) philosophy of Shaktism from a different starting point, the evolution of the universe from the supreme consciousness. It is a distillation of Woodroffe's understanding of the ancient Tantric texts and philosophy. He writes: "Creation commences by an initial movement or vibration (spandana) in the Cosmic Stuff, as some Western writers call it, and which in Indian parlance is Saspanda Prakriti-Sakti. Just as the nature of Cit or the Siva aspect of Brahman [Supreme Consciousness] is rest, quiescence, so that of Prakrti [matter] is movement. Prior however to manifestation, that is during dissolution (Pralaya) of the Universe Prakrti exists in a state of equilibrated energy.... It then moves... this is the first cosmic vibration (Spandana) in which the equilibrated energy is released. The approximate sound of this movement is the mantra Om."
Woodroffe translated the Mahānirvāṇatantraṃ from the original Sanskrit into English under his nom-de-plume of Arthur Avalon: a play on the magical realm of Avalon and the young later-to-be, King Arthur, within the story-cycle of tales known generally as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; specifically according to Taylor, Woodroffe chose the name from the noted incomplete magnum opus, the painting 'Arthur's Sleep in Avalon' by Burne-Jones. Moreover, Taylor conveys the salience of this magical literary identity and contextualises it by making reference to western esotericism, Holy grail, quest, occult secrets, initiations and the Theosophists:
"This is quite important to know, for here we have a writer on an Indian esoteric system taking a name imbued with western esotericism. The name at any rate seems to hint at initiations and the possession of occult secrets. The Arthurian legends are bound up with the story of the Holy Grail and its quest. This was a symbol of esoteric wisdom, especially to Theosophists who appropriated the legend. Anyone who named himself after King Arthur or the mystic isle of Avalon would be thought to be identifying himself with occultism, in Theosophists' eyes."
The Mahānirvāṇatantraṃ is an example of a nondual tantra and the translation of this work had a profound impact on the Indologists of the early to mid 20th century. The work is notable for many reasons and importantly mentions four kinds of Avadhuta.