In Western esotericism the terms Left-Hand Path and Right-Hand Path refer to a dichotomy between two opposing approaches to magic. This terminology is used in various groups involved in the occult and ceremonial magic.
In some definitions, the Left-Hand Path is equated with malicious black magic and the Right-Hand Path with benevolent white magic. Other occultists have criticized this definition, believing that the Left–Right dichotomy refers merely to different kinds of working and does not necessarily connote good or bad magical actions.
In more recent definitions, which base themselves on the terms' origins in Indian Tantra, the Right-Hand Path, or RHP, is seen as a definition for those magical groups that follow specific ethical codes and adopt social convention, while the Left-Hand Path adopts the opposite attitude, espousing the breaking of taboo and the abandoning of set morality.
Some contemporary occultists have stressed that both paths can be followed by a magical practitioner, as essentially they have the same goals.
The Right-Hand Path is commonly thought to refer to magical or religious groups which adhere to a certain set of characteristics:
- They divide the concepts of mind, body and spirit into three separate, albeit interrelated, entities.
- They adhere to a specific moral code and a belief in some form of judgement, such as karma or the Threefold Law.
The occultists Dion Fortune and William G. Gray consider non-magical Abrahamic religions to be RHP.
The historian Dave Evans studied self-professed followers of the Left-Hand Path in the early 21st century, making several observations about their practices:
- They often reject societal convention and the status quo, which some suggest is in a search for spiritual freedom. As a part of this, LHP followers embrace magical techniques that would traditionally be viewed as taboo, for instance using sex magic or embracing Satanic imagery. As Mogg Morgan wrote, the "breaking of taboos makes magic more potent and can lead to reintegration and liberation, [for example] the eating of meat in a vegetarian community can have the same liberating effect as anal intercourse in a sexually inhibited straight society."
- They often question religious or moral dogma, instead adhering to forms of personal anarchism.
- They often embrace sexuality and incorporate it into magical ritual.
Criticism of both terms has come from various occultists. The Magister of the Cultus Sabbati, Andrew D. Chumbley, stated that they were simply "theoretical constructs" that were "without definitive objectivity", and that nonetheless, both forms could be employed by the magician. He used the analogy of a person having two hands, a right and a left, both of which served the same master. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Wiccan High Priest John Belham-Payne, who stated that "For me, magic is magic."
Vāmācāra is a Sanskrit term meaning "left-handed attainment" and is synonymous with Left-Hand Path or Left-path. It is used to describe a particular mode of worship or spiritual practice (Sanskrit: sadhana) that is not only heterodox (Sanskrit: Nāstika) to standard Vedic injunction, but extreme in comparison to prevailing cultural norms. These practices are often generally considered to be Tantric in orientation. The converse term to Vamacara is Dakshinachara (glossed "Right-Hand Path") which is used to refer not only to orthodox (Āstika) sects but to modes of spirituality that engage in spiritual practices that not only accord with Vedic injunction but are generally agreeable to prevailing cultural norms. That said, left-handed and right-handed modes of practice may be evident in both orthodox and heterodox schools of Dharmic religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism and are a matter of taste, culture, proclivity, initiation, sadhana and dharmic lineage (parampara).
Tantra and Madame Blavatsky
The occidental use of the terms Left-Hand Path and Right Hand-Path originated with Madame Blavatsky, a 19th-century occultist who founded the Theosophical Society. She had travelled across parts of southern Asia and claimed to have met with many mystics and magical practitioners in India and Tibet. She developed the term Left-Hand Path as a translation of the term Vamachara, an Indian Tantric practice that emphasised the breaking of Hindu societal taboos by having sexual intercourse in ritual, drinking alcohol, eating meat and assembling in graveyards, as a part of the spiritual practice. The term Vamachara literally meant "the left-hand way" in Sanskrit, and it was from this that Blavatsky first coined the term.
Returning to Europe, Blavatsky began using the term. It was relatively easy for her to associate left with evil in many European countries, where it already had an association with many negative things; as the historian Dave Evans noted, homosexuals were referred to as "left-handed" while in Protestant nations, Roman Catholics were called "left-footers". This association with negative aspects of society can be traced back to the Bible, in which it states:
And he shall separate them one from another,
as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.
And he shall set the sheep on his right,
but the goats on his left.
— Matthew 25: 32-33
Adoption into the western esoteric tradition
In New York, Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society with several other people in 1875. She set about writing several books, including Isis Unveiled (1877) in which she introduced the terms Left-Hand Path and Right-Hand Path, firmly stating that she herself followed the RHP, and that followers of the LHP were practitioners of Black Magic who were a threat to society. The occult community soon picked up on her newly introduced duality, which, according to historian Dave Evans, "had not been known before" in the Western Esoteric Tradition. For instance, Dion Fortune, the founder of an esoteric magical group (the Society of the Inner Light) also took the side of the RHP, making the claim that "black magicians", or followers of the LHP, were homosexuals and that Indian servants might use malicious magical rites devoted to the goddess Kali against their European masters.
Another of those figures that Fortune considered to be a follower of the LHP was Arthur Edward Waite, who did not recognise these terms, and acknowledged that they were newly introduced and that in any case he believed the terms LHP and RHP to be distinct from black and white magic. However, despite Waite's attempts to distinguish the two, the equation of the LHP with Black Magic was propagated more widely in the fiction of Dennis Wheatley; Wheatley also conflated the two with Satanism and also the political ideology of communism, which he viewed as a threat to traditional British society. In one of his novels, Strange Conflict (1941), he stated that:
The Order of the Left-Hand Path... has its adepts... the Way of Darkness is perpetuated in the horrible Voodoo cult which had its origins in Madagascar and has held Africa, the Dark Continent, in its grip for centuries.
Later 20th and 21st centuries
In the latter half of the 20th century various groups arose that self-professedly described themselves as LHP, but did not consider themselves as following Black Magic. In 1975, Kenneth Grant, a student of Aleister Crowley, explained in Cults of the Shadow that he and his group, the Typhonian Order, practiced the LHP. Grant's usage takes meaning from its roots in eastern Tantra; Grant states that it is about challenging taboos, but that it should be used in conjunction with the RHP to achieve balance.
When Anton Szandor LaVey was developing his form of LaVeyan Satanism during the 1960s, he emphasised the rejection of traditional Christian morality and as such labelled his new philosophy to be a form of the Left-Hand Path. In his The Satanic Bible, he wrote that "Satanism is not a white light religion; it is a religion of the flesh, the mundane, the carnal—all of which are ruled by Satan, the personification of the Left Hand Path."
In Russia there is a tradition of Left Hand Path practices within the Rodnover community under the influence of Volhv Veleslav, and within the Odinist community with Askr Svarte, and in England with Nikarev Leshy. Veleslav has also written numerous books on Tantra and the Left Hand Path.
Stephen E. Flowers, Ph.D. of the Temple of Set states in his book Lords of the Left Hand Path: A History of Spiritual Dissent there are two criteria to be considered a true Lord of the Left Hand Path and they are Self-Deification and Antinomianism.
Usage in Tantra
Tantra is a set of esoteric Indian traditions with roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. Tantra is often divided by its practitioners into two different paths: dakshinachara and vamachara, translated as Right-Hand Path and Left-Hand Path respectively. Dakshinachara consists of traditional Hindu practices such as asceticism and meditation, while vamachara also includes ritual practices that conflict with mainstream Hinduism, such as sexual rituals, consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants, animal sacrifice, and flesh-eating. The two paths are viewed by Tantrists as equally valid approaches to enlightenment. Vamachara, however, is often considered to be the faster and more dangerous of the two paths, and is not suitable for all practitioners. The usage of the terms Left-Hand Path and Right-Hand Path is still current in modern Indian and Buddhist Tantra.
Left-Hand Path relation to Tantra in Hinduism
The difference between the right hand path and the left hand path is eloquently explained by Julius Evola in the book The Yoga of Power:
"There is a significant difference between the two Tantric paths, that of the right hand and that of the left hand (which both are under Shiva's aegis). In the former, the adept always experiences 'someone above him', even at the highest level of realization. In the latter, 'he becomes the ultimate Sovereign' (chakravartin = worldruler)."
Left-Hand Path relation to Tantra in Buddhism
Robert Beér's Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs clarifies widespread taboos and deprecation that associate the left hand as dark, female, inferior and 'not right':
|Padmasambhava in Yab-Yum|
"In Buddhist tantra, the right hand symbolises the male aspect of compassion or skilful means, and the left hand represents the female aspect of wisdom or emptiness. Ritual hand-held attributes, such as the vajra and bell, vajra and lotus, damaru and bell, damaru and khatvanga, arrow and bow, curved knife and skull-cup, sword and shield, hook and rope snare, etc., placed in the right and left hands respectively, symbolise the union of the active male aspect of skilful means with the contemplative female aspect of wisdom.
In both Hinduism and Buddhism the goddess is always placed on the left side of the male deity, where she 'sits on his left thigh, while her lord places his left arm over her left shoulder and dallies with her left breast'.
In representations of the Buddha image, the right hand often makes an active mudra of skilful means—the earth-touching, protection, fearlessness, wish-granting or teaching mudra; while the left hand often remains in the passive mudra of meditative equipoise, resting in the lap and symbolising meditation on emptiness or wisdom."
Beér's preceding explanations correspond to Yab-Yum (father-mother) symbolism and contemplation on or practice of sexual rituals associated with Vajrayogini and Anuttarayoga Tantra. Yab-yum is generally understood to represent the primordial (or mystical) union of wisdom and compassion. The metaphorical union of bliss and emptiness is commonly represented within Thangka paintings of the Cakrasaṃvara Tantra depicting the sexual union of the deity Saṃvara and his consort Dorje Pakmo.