Sir John George Woodroffe (1865–1936), also known by his pseudonym Arthur Avalon, was a British Orientalist whose work helped to unleash in the West a deep and wide interest in Hindu philosophy and Yogic practices.
Sir John George Woodroffe was the eldest son of James Tisdall Woodroffe, Advocate-General of Bengal and sometime Legal Member of the Government of India, J. P., Kt. of St. Gregory, by his wife Florence, daughter of James Hume. He was born on 15 December 1865 and was educated at Woburn Park School and University College, Oxford, where he took second classes in jurisprudence and the B.C.L. (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 the Calcutta University and appointed Tagore Law Professor. He collaborated with the late Mr. 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 two years later was raised to the High Court Bench. He served thereon with competence for eighteen years and in 1915 officiated as Chief Justice. After retiring to England he was for seven years from 1923, Reader in Indian Law to the University of Oxford. He died on 18 January 1936.
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."
Urban (2003: p. 135) identifies Woodroffe as an apologist to a prudish society for the tantras he translated into English:
"While maintaining his public profile as a judge and scholar of British Indian law, Woodroffe was also a private student of the tantras, who published a huge body of texts and translations and thus pioneered the modern academic study of Tantra in the West. Yet Woodroffe was also an apologist, seeming to have bent over backward to defend the Tantras against their many critics and to prove that they represent a noble, pure, and ethical philosophical system in basic accord with the Vedas and Vedānta."
Woodroffe's The Serpent Power – The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic 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 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 the 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... [t]his 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 (2001: p. 148), Woodroffe chose the name from the noted incomplete magnum opus, the painting 'Arthur's Sleep in Avalon' by Burne-Jones. Moreover, Taylor (2001: p. 148) conveys the salience of this magical literary identity and contextualises 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.
His writings (published under his own name, as well as Arthur Avalon) include:
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