The word siddhi is a Sanskrit noun which means attainment, accomplishment, perfection, power, realization, or success, in the sense of liberation or attaining magical powers. Siddhis are the magical powers or paranormal abilities attained through rigorous spiritual practice. In the Hindu sect of Shaivism they define siddhis as the “Extraordinary powers of the soul, developed through consistent meditation and often uncomfortable and grueling tapas, or awakened naturally through spiritual maturity and yogic sadhana.” (Tapas in Sanskrit means asceticism and sadhana in Sanskrit means spiritual exertion towards an intended goal).
The modern day students of yoga and spirituality often dismiss siddhis and are naturally skeptical when it comes to this magical dimension. And I would say it is healthy to show some skepticism because there are many charlatans and fake gurus and yogis who depend on people believing they have paranormal abilities. But even though it is sane to be skeptical of such people, I am going to give the subject of siddhis an honest an open hearing based on the knowledge available. And, between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, there is a ton of information and texts about siddhis going back thousands of years. We also need to remember that the founder of classical yoga Patanjali dedicated a whole chapter to siddhis in the Yoga Sutras.
This strong siddhi component in India and other parts of Asia originates from the archaic tradition of asceticism (tapas) and also Tantra, especially the hatha yoga element of Tantra. For thousands of years we’ve heard of world-renouncing yogins and sadhus who have attained access to this magical dimension. But keep in mind, Tantrism is concerned with siddhis both in the sense of ultimate liberation and also magical powers. Tantra affirms the phenomenal world and has a positive relationship with cultivating the innate psychospiritual potential within the body-mind system. Vedanta, on the other hand, dismisses siddhis for their own reasons which I will discuss shortly.
Tantra regards siddhis as an advantage which allows us to reach our spiritual goals more fully. But, as with most things, there are two sides to each coin. For example, many practitioners of Tantra (tantrikas) will use these powers for less noble goals. Actually, there are whole texts composed to deal with these unsavory practices. And you still find tantrikas following this less noble path in India today. This less noble path is referred to as “lower Tantrism.” While, on the other hand, higher Tantrism is motivated by spiritual liberation and the spiritual upliftment of all beings, not just humans but also nonhuman beings. In the end, Tantric scriptures are focused on the higher element of liberation.
Yoga and Tantra scriptures often mention siddhis as part of an accomplished adepts arsenal of skills. The relatively unknown text called the Yoga Bija states: “The yogin is endowed with unthinkable powers. He who has conquered the senses can, by his own will, assume various shapes and make them vanish.” The Yogashikha Upanishad also explains that siddhis are the mark of a true yoga adept. As a result, siddhis, according to the Yogashikha Upanishad, are encountered in the course of one’s own spiritual practice in the same way that a pilgrim passes by sacred spots on the way to the sacred city of Varanasi in India.
The Yogashikha Upanishad also distinguishes two fundamental types of siddhis. First, the artificial which is called kalpita in Sanskrit. The second type is the nonartifical which is called akalpita in Sanskrit and means spontaneously arising. The artificial siddhis are produced by means of herbal concoctions, magic, mantra recitations, rituals, and alchemical elixirs. While the nonartificial spontaneous abilities spring from self-reliance. This natural spontaneous ability is thought to be pleasing to Ishvara. (Ishvara can mean God, the lord, a personal god, or the ultimate reality which is equal to the concept Brahman.) It is believed that these nonartificial spontaneous siddhis manifest in those who are free from desire.
In the third chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali explains a long list of siddhis. This chapter is called the Vibhuti Pada. Vibhuti means manifestation or incarnation of powers and it probably stems from the Bhagavad Gita because it mentions Krishna’s far-flung powers. It is believed that a fully realized adept has access to these divine powers. She or he is known as a mahasiddha, which means great adept. These great adepts enjoy what is known as the mahasiddhis, which means great powers. In the Yoga Bhashya it refers to these great powers, commonly known in Hinduism as the Astha Siddhi, the eight great perfections.
There are actually nine great powers mentioned among various schools of thought. The first is Anima, which means miniaturization. This is the ability to reduce one’s size to the size of an atom. The second great power is Mahima, which means magnification. This is the ability to expand to an infinitely large size. It is believed you can become as large as a mountain, city, continent, and so on. But in the Mani Prabha text it defines Mahima as “pervasiveness.” This means it is not the physical body that expands but rather the subtle body or mind.
The third great siddhi is known as Garima, which means becoming infinitely heavy. The fourth great power is Laghima, which means weightlessness or levitation. We are all familiar with the famous idea of levitating yogins. The fifth great power is Prapti, which means extension. This is the ability to be anywhere anytime according to your will. It is the ability to bridge great distances. This could be related to teleportation. The Yoga Bhashya seriously suggests a great adept can touch the moon with their fingertips if they have access to this power. The sixth great power is Prakamya, which means irresistible will. This is the ability to use your will as freely as you like. You can apparently realize whatever you desire. The Yoga Bhashya explains that we can dive into the solid earth as if it were liquid.
The seventh great power is Vashitva, which means mastery. This is the complete mastery over the material elements and their products. You essentially have control of the natural forces of life. The eighth great siddhi is Ishitva, which means lordship or supremacy over nature. This great power is the ability to have perfect mastery over the subtle energies of the material world. This brings a great adept on par with Brahma the creator. The ninth siddhi which is sometimes included in the great eight siddhis is known as Kama-avasayita. This means the fulfillment of all desires or complete satisfaction. This is the unobstructed ability to will whatever into manifestation. But this ability cannot go against the will of Ishvara.
Contrary to these great powers, which vary from school to school, we have the black magical aspect of lower Tantrism. In Tantrism these are recognized as the six magical actions or Shat karma. The first magical action is shanti, meaning peace. But don’t confuse this with how you’re used to hearing shanti as peaceful. In this context of magical action, it is the ability to pacify anyone by magical means through the use of mantras, yantras, and visualization. The second magical action is Vashikarana, which means subjugation. This is the ability to bring people under complete control making them as subservient as slaves. The third magical power is Stambhana, which means stoppage. This is the ability immobilize another being or make a situation ineffective.
The fourth magical action is Uccatana, which means eradication. This is the ability to destroy someone from a distance, where you don’t even have to see them for this to happen. This is used to influence emotions between two people. The fifth magical action is Vidveshana, which means causing dissension. This is the ability to create discord among groups of people. With this ability you’d be great at instigating a riot. And the sixth and last magical action is Marana, which means causing death. This is the ability to kill someone from a distance. A useful ability for assassins or anyone at war. As interesting as these six magical actions may sound, they definitely fall short of the high Tantric ideal of liberation through knowledge and spiritual upliftment. These six magical actions in no way reflect the ideals of Tantrism, which is first and foremost, a path to liberation encompassed by high moral values.
This misguided use of siddhis is why many traditions believe we should avoid them at all costs. Vedanta is especially critical of the attraction to magical powers. This is also the view held in Buddhism and Taoism. Why these traditions are super critical is because siddhis are useless on their own. They are just more ways for us to posture and show off, which in the end strengthens our ego and this defeats the purpose of the spiritual process. If the spiritual processes purpose of refining the ego is not met by people who possess siddhis, then all this does is lead one to peacock consciousness, where people want to use siddhis to showcase how they are somehow special. We discover this peacock temperament especially in hatha yoga and the Taoist arts.
Peacock consciousness implies that the ego is still strong within you and it also implies that you are not ready for the deeper mystical states of consciousness. Trying to externalize your spirituality is one of the most ego-driven things you could do and this goes for those trying to showcase their magical powers. We must remain sensitive to the distinction between magical powers and the great work of real spiritual transformation, which in the end goes beyond siddhis.
The goal of authentic spirituality has nothing to do with attaining magical powers, but instead it is about self-realization or God-realization, meaning you have transcended your ego construct to merge with the ultimate reality (Brahman). The Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati text, attributed to Gorakhnath, has an interesting insight into the matter of transcending siddhis. In the fifth chapter it states that when the yogin has renounced all siddhis they begin to merge with Shiva, in this case Shiva as the ultimate reality (Brahman). This insight in the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati agrees with the concerns of Vedanta because they recognize that siddhis can be the last obstacle before true liberation.
In conclusion, liberation is not dependent on siddhis. Though from the perspective of Tantra, they can benefit our liberation and benefit the spiritual upliftment of others and the world if we understand them correctly. In the end, the question you have to ask yourself is, Do you believe in siddhis or not?