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
3 The Serpent Power and The Garland of Letters
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
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
Sanskrit texts and, under his pseudonym Arthur Avalon,
published and lectured prolifically on
Indian philosophy and a wide
Tantra topics. T.M.P. Mahadevan wrote: "By editing
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
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."
The Serpent Power and The Garland of Letters
Symbolic depiction of the Ajna chakra, from Woodroffe's The Serpent
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)
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,
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'
The Mahānirvāṇatantraṃ is an example of a nondual tantra and the
translation of this work had a profound impact on the
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)
Introduction to the
Tantra Śāstra, ISBN 81-85988-11-0 (1913).
Tantra of the Great Liberation (Mahānirvāna Tantra),
ISBN 0-89744-023-4 (1913).
Hymns to the Goddess (1913).
Shakti and Shâkta, ISBN 81-85988-03-X (1918).
The Serpent Power, ISBN 81-85988-05-6 (1919).
Hymn to Kali: Karpuradi-Stotra. Luzac & Co., London. 1922.
The World as Power, ISBN 1-4067-7706-4 (1922).
The Garland of Letters. ISBN 81-85988-12-9 (1922).
Tantra (2 vols) ISBN 81-85988-14-5.
Kamakalavilasa by Puṇyānanda.
Bharati Shakti: Essays and Addresses on Indian Culture.
India: Culture and Society.
Is India Civilized? Essays on Indian Culture.
^ T.M.P. Mahadevan, foreword to; Arthur Avalon, Garland of Letters,
Ganesh and Company Madras, 6th ed. 1974 p iii.
^ Urban, Hugh B. (2003). Tantra: sex, secrecy politics, and power in
the study of religions. Illustrated edition. University of California
Press. ISBN 0-520-23656-4, ISBN 978-0-520-23656-1. Source:
 (accessed: Tuesday May 4, 2010)
^ Sir John Woodroffe. The Serets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga. Dover
Publications NY 1974. p 313
^ Sir John Woodroffe. The Garland of Letters. Studies in the
Mantra-Sastra Ganesh and Company 6th ed Madras 1974 pp12-13.
^ a b Taylor, Kathleen (2001). Sir John Woodroffe,
Tantra and Bengal:
'an Indian soul in a European body?'. SOAS London studies on south
Asia. Illustrated edition. Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-1345-X,
9780700713455. Source:  (accessed: Monday 3 May 2010), p.148
^ Woodroffe, Sir John (2007). Mahanirvana Tantra. NuVision
Publications. ISBN 1-59547-911-2, ISBN 978-1-59547-911-2.
Source:  (accessed: Monday 3 May 2010), p.175
Shakti and Shakta, by John Woodroffe, Published by Forgotten Books,
1910. ISBN 1-60620-145-X.
Hymn to Kali:Karpuradi Stotra, by Sir John Woodroffe. Published by
Forgotten Books. 1922. ISBN 1-60620-147-6.
Hymns to the Goddess, Translated by John George Woodroffe, Ellen
Elizabeth (Grimson) Woodroffe, Published by Forgotten Books, 1952 (org
1913). ISBN 1-60620-146-8.
Mahanirvana Tantra, By Arthur Avalon, 1913,ISBN 1606201441.
Sir John Woodroffe,
Tantra And Bengal- An Indian Soul In A European
Body?, by Kathleen Taylor. Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0-7007-1345-X.
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