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John Woodroffe

John Woodroffe
Born (1865-12-15)15 December 1865
Died 18 January 1936(1936-01-18) (aged 70)
Nationality British
Other names Arthur Avalon
Ethnicity Caucasian
Citizenship United Kingdom
Alma mater University College, Oxford
Occupation Lawyer; Orientalist
Known for The Serpent Power
Religion Hindu
Parent(s) James Tisdall Woodroffe, Florence Woodroffe

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.


  • Life 1
  • Sanskrit Studies 2
  • The Serpent Power and The Garland of Letters 3
  • Mahānirvāṇatantraṃ 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


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.

Sanskrit Studies

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."[1]

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."[2]

The Serpent Power and The Garland of Letters

Symbolic depiction of the Ajna chakra, from Woodroffe's The Serpent Power, 1918

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.[3]

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."[4]


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.[5] 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."[5]

Unfortunately, the most important point is not made by Taylor (2001: p. 148) and that is of the Eternal return (of "The Once and Future King") a narrative, motif and archetype that pervades the two traditions of entwined esotericism, East and West.[5][6]

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.[7]


His writings (published under his own name, as well as Arthur Avalon) include:

  • 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).
  • Principles of 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.

See also


  1. ^ T.M.P. Mahadevan, foreword to; Arthur Avalon, Garland of Letters, Ganesh and Company Madras, 6th ed. 1974 p iii.
  2. ^ 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: [4] (accessed: Tuesday May 4, 2010)
  3. ^ Sir John Woodroffe. The Serets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga. Dover Publications NY 1974. p 313
  4. ^ Sir John Woodroffe. The Garland of Letters. Studies in the Mantra-Sastra Ganesh and Company 6th ed Madras 1974 pp12-13.
  5. ^ a b c 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: [5] (accessed: Monday 3 May 2010), p.148
  6. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1971). The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  7. ^ Woodroffe, Sir John (2007). Mahanirvana Tantra. NuVision Publications. ISBN 1-59547-911-2, ISBN 978-1-59547-911-2. Source: [6] (accessed: Monday 3 May 2010), p.175

Further reading

  • 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, Published by Forgotten Books.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.

External links

  • Sir John Woodroffe's representations of Hindu Tantra Colorado University.
  • Woodroffe
  • Works of sir John Woodroffe Sacredtexts
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