What do Indira Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, and Ronald Reagan have in common? Answer: They all believed in astrology.
Do South Delhi aunties prefer going to gurus or places of worship? Answer: Gurus, overwhelmingly.
And when you have questions but no explanations? For that, there’s the occult.
Tantra, black magic, or vashikaran, call it what you will but the occult is still present in Indian society, from the small town of Mayong in Assam — known as the Land of Black Magic — to the affluent living rooms of Delhi’s Golf Links.
Parts of the occult have been lassoed into the wide ambit of new age spirituality, with astrology experiencing a resurgence and crystals and tarot cards becoming more popular globally. But the dark underbelly has gone nowhere: tantric practices often come hand-in-hand with fraud and exploitation. A quick Google search of “tantrik crime” will unearth hundreds of news reports about phoney tantriks caught cheating (or worse, physically exploiting) their clients.
And commonplace arguments about ‘education’ and ‘rationality’ being factors that could keep occult followers in check, no that doesn’t happen — it’s not just impressionable people who believe in tantra, the “educated” ones are equally drawn to it.
“If you want to harm somebody, then black magic. If it’s for your (own) benefit, then I do vashikaran,” said one tantrik, who goes by the name of Aghori Tantrik Baba Ji and has a website of his own. The “harm” has varying degrees of severity, depending on his client. “All kinds of people come to me — big and small, rich and poor. And they all ask for black magic.”
Nazar na lage: tantric spells and rituals
Long considered part of South Asian heritage, tantra is an umbrella term for ritualistic practices. However, the tantriks who practise black magic represent a more sinister side to tantra.
“While there are philosophical and learned traditions of tantra, the street-level tantra we see practised most often today is a hodge-podge of languages and nonsense words,” said Dr Projit Mukharji, a professor in the history and sociology of science department at the University of Pennsylvania. “What it shows is that it’s not always premised on any philosophical belief or faith, unlike religion,” he added.
Often, multiple languages are found in the same tantric spell. And spells invoke all kinds of minor gods, supernatural entities, and historical figures across religions — Mukharji has even come across a spell that invokes Mahmud of Ghazni. This kind of tantra also makes use of filthy and derogatory language: instead of making a request or praying to a deity, these spells involve blackmailing the deity into doing the tantrik’s bidding.
Sometimes the tantrik assigns homework to seal the spell: one common practice to prevent male infidelity involves using menstrual blood for rituals. Other rituals to “tame” the mind of a male partner include collecting the “dust of his left foot” without his knowledge and chanting a spell seven times to energise this dust, or chanting a different spell 108 times at midnight — while naked and facing north — for 15 days.
Another tantrik who spoke to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity said that he uses “Kamakhya vashikaran” for clients who face “love issues.” The figures he invokes aren’t from heaven, he told ThePrint.
While Kamakhya is a goddess (believed to be an incarnation of Parvati) and also a locality in Assam’s Guwahati popular for its tantric practices, Mukharji pointed out that most of the Kamakhya vashikaran spells invoke two figures — Lona Chamarin and Ismail Jogi. For a while, Mukharji has been trying to study who these figures are: Lona Chamarin is a mythical Dalit figure in North India, but how she came to be located in Kamakhya is still a mystery. These spells show the intangible, flexible, and culturally porous nature of tantra: it’s like water, says Mukharji, its nature and systems keep changing.
And the influence of tantra extends beyond spells into unavoidable superstitions, even among the more scientifically inclined. One example is the custom of blood sacrifice before construction: whether in Odisha, Bihar, Maharashtra, or Goa, construction workers and civil engineers believe that blood sacrifice is a necessary initiation before constructing a bridge or a building.
“Our scientists are given to a whole host of practices seen as ‘unscientific’ in the West,” reminds Mukharji, pointing to the custom of “Ayudha Puja,” in which instruments in scientific institutions — from ISRO to IISC — are worshipped and blessed.
Somewhere between science and superstition
But it’s not all about causing harm. A far more palatable form of the occult is astrology, which has a completely different historical tradition in India when compared to tantra. Astrology has always been more visible in the mainstream, and culturally tied to several practices like vaastu — it is more rooted in the realm of belief than tantric spells.
Just look at K.N. Rao. The former bureaucrat has served in two directorial positions: first as director general of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office, and then as the director of the Institute of Astrology at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. He’s proof that accounting and astrology can coexist successfully.
Rao, now over 90, lives in Bengaluru and does not seem to be consulting anymore. In a 2014 interview, he said that people in India consult astrologers in the same way people in the West might consult psychiatrists.
This seems to extend beyond the mind to the body, according to Dr Deipti Garg, who specialises in black magic removal along with vaastu and astrology. People with inexplicable physical symptoms come to her for help.
“I work with all kinds of clients, who are very much educated,” Garg said. “My clients spend lakhs of rupees on medical tests that come back stating nothing’s wrong. Often, someone close to them might suggest they’ve been cursed by black magic — then they come to us,” she said.
Garg’s website lists the signs and symptoms one might experience when they’ve been ‘cursed’. She said that her clients admit to her that the symptoms listed on her site resonate with them.
“We are healers, we only work with positive energy,” she emphasised. Other astrologers ThePrint spoke to are similarly averse to tantric practices, which they refer to as either “negative energy” or “harmful”.
So why do we believe in it?
Anthropologists have a favourite example for why people believe in the occult. When a granary collapsed in central Africa, Azande tribespeople were quick to accept that those crushed to death under the granary were victims of witchcraft — cursed by a witch.
It turned out that termites had greatly weakened the granary’s foundational structure — but the tribe was convinced the real reason was witchcraft. Why did it have to kill those specific people? What made them choose to sit near the granary when it collapsed? Would the granary have collapsed if they were not there?
British anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s detailed analysis of this belief system in his seminal 1937 book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande shaped the way anthropologists study the occult. But there’s a similar, unbearably familiar refrain that Azandes’ belief reminds us of: ‘why, of all people, me’?
“Even if there’s a known cause for why you’re ill, or why your car is breaking down, or any such similar situation — to have a misfortune-based explanation overlaid over that is often psychologically helpful. It’s multiple layers of causality,” said Mukharji.
Tantriks offer actionable rituals as answers, going beyond spells — like putting a drop of a wife’s menstrual blood to prevent her husband from cheating on her. But they almost always happen behind closed doors in private spaces.
Practitioners and academics alike say that tantra is very much a part of private culture, which also adds to the secrecy that shrouds tantric practices.
The secrecy also lends an exclusivity to tantra, says Dr Renny Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology and social anthropology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
“The belief in tantric traditions is very prevalent in urban cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Delhi, especially, has lots of new religious figures like gurujis because the elite follow them,” said Thomas. “It’s a class question — to set yourself apart from other people, you follow babajis and gurujis while others follow more non-elite, conventional gods.”
Thomas, who teaches a class on the anthropology of magic, science and religion, added that there’s a global appeal too. “When people travel from New Delhi to New York, they’ll find their fellow practitioners. So there’s an international elitism that’s produced there,” he said.
Tantra is keeping up with the ages
Celebrity astrologer Namita Vadehra, whose clients range from Bollywood actors to industrialists, said that women tend to be more open while men tend to hide their beliefs. While she’s aware of tantric practices, she herself does not take part. “I have had people from all over the world come to me for help,” she said. “They always get intrigued — astrology is the first step towards spirituality, and it can turn nonbelievers into believers.”
Thankfully, tantric spells are keeping up with modern life: the best example is that there are now tantric spells dedicated to helping people navigate court cases. Many tantriks offer spells for legal help, often tailored to the specific judicial system of your country.
Astrology has also been adapted to this cause, with astrologists reading the planets to offer advice on minute decisions like whether or not to go for an office meeting. Vadehra said her clients come to her with questions about when their gymkhana membership will come, when stock prices will go up, or whether it’s safe to take a flight. Even an atheist asked her whether her mother will be cured of Covid.
“From my vegetable vendor to global VIPs, people from all walks of life come to me,” she said. “Everybody wants to know.”
(Edited by Prashant)