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The Siddha Quest for Immortality

by Kamil V. Zvelebil, Mandrake of Oxford 1996, 190pp, p/bk. £9.99

The Magical traditions and teachings of the Indian Subcontinent has been subject to a great deal of cursory attention. A great deal of books have been published about Tantra for example, the majority of which do comparatively little to add to the general domain of useful knowledge about the subject. One tends to find that popular misconceptions are recycled alongside the commentaries of various western ‘experts’ such as Jung. There is relatively little information which explores the indigenous magical, alchemical or medical systems in any depth. Hence people tend to equate tantrism for example, with sex-magic, rather than alchemy, sorcery or with an Indic bardic tradition, as it is not generally known that Tantrism involved such elements or traditions.

Imagine my delight then, in reviewing The Siddha Quest For Immortality. This fascinating book by a world-renowned expert in South Indian languages examines the various practices (sexual, alchemical and medical) of the Tamil Siddhas. The word ‘siddha’ is related to the Sankrit ‘siddhi’ - which is usually translated as referring to attainment, accomplishment, or achievement - particularly in the context of magical or spiritual abilities. This work deals with key elements of the Siddha tradition - the medical and alchemical system, yoga, Siddha doctrines, their concern with longevity and immortality, attitudes to sexuality, and Siddha poetry. In covering these areas, Professor Zvelebil highlights the variety of ideas which generally characterise Indic philosophy and esoterics and which can coexist within any one school of thought. For example, he cites Siddha poets who make their utter revulsion of sexual behaviour and women very clear, whilst the book opens with a luscious description of how to perform ‘tantric’ cunnilingus.

One important point which distinguishes this book from many others of its genre is that the author was able to find contemporary Siddha practitioners who were willing to help him in his quest to study the Siddha school. This gives the book a whole different flavour than the often dry philosophising of purely academic writing.

Overall, this is a brilliant book which I would unreservedly recommend to anyone who has an interest in Tantrism, Immortality, alternative medicine or Indian History. - Phil Hine