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Volume Four - Issue Three

1 October 2011
Online ISSN 1756-4263 - Print ISSN 1756-4255


Tantric Studies: Issues, Methods, and Scholarly Collaborations

Glen A. Hayes*

This introduction will briefly consider some of the major themes and issues that have been central to Tantric Studies, as the formation of the Society for Tantric Studies (STS) has very much been a response to addressing these issues. It will then provide an overview of the development of the STS since 1984, and conclude with some comments on the four essays in this volume.

The Womb of Tantra: Goddesses, Tribals, and Kings in Assam

Hugh B. Urban

This article examines two central but controversial themes in the early development of Tantra in South Asia: the relationship between Tantra and kingship and the role of non-Hindu, indigenous traditions in Tantric practice. As its primary focus, the article will examine the relationship between goddess-worship, kingship, and tribal religions in Assam, which has long been regarded by both Sanskrit texts and Western scholars as the symbolic and/ or literal heartland of Tantra. Using Sanskrit texts from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries as well as vernacular histories and archeological evidence, the article will discuss the complex negotiations between Hindu brahmans and the non-Hindu tribal kings who adopted the worship of Kāmākhyā, Kālī, and other Śākta Tantric goddesses. Assamese Tantra, I suggest, represents a complex negotiation between Sanskritic brāhmaṇic traditions and local indigenous rituals, which we see most clearly in the offering of animal and human sacrifice.

The Resounding Field of Visualised Self-Awareness: The Generation of Synesthetic Consciousness in the Śrī Yantra Rituals of Nityāṣoḍaśikārṇava Tantra

Jeffrey S. Lidke

In this article, I utilise current scholarship on synesthetic experience as a lens for evaluating the multi-layered cognitive and artistic processes by which Śrī Vidyā practitioners construct, visualise, and embody the primary symbol of their clan, the Śrī Vidyā diagram. This diagram is simultaneously a multi-hued visual image and a resounding symphonic field of luminous, reverberating graphemes. By constructing externally and visualising internally a sound field that is not just heard but perceived, the sādhaka generates an embodied poly-sensualised consciousness that is the ritualised means for achieving the aim of his Śākta practice: the recognition of one's self as non-distinct from that supreme goddess, Mahātripurasundarī, she whose self-emanation as the resounding, luminous Śrī Yantra, is itself the emergent cosmos.

Towards a Tantric Nondualist Ethics through Abhinavagupta's Notion of Rasa†

Loriliai Biernacki

In a famous pronouncement on the defects of India's monistic traditions, the German scholar Paul Hacker declared that advaita, or nondualist, traditions could never achieve the ethical pre-eminence of Christianity since in the ultimate analysis, in a world where all is ultimately the 'absolute one', there is no room for the ethical engagement inspired by the Other. This article explores what I suggest is a highly nuanced and compelling understanding of the ethical relationship between a self and the other within the context of a nondualist Indian thinker. Specifically, I propose that the writing of the tenth century Tantric philosopher, Abhinavagupta, on aesthetics, offers a way into understanding how a nondualist philosophy might address the ethical complexity of human interrelations. I suggest that the link he makes between the emotional and subjective experience of art to a process of universalisation is especially compelling as the basis for ethical relations towards others.

Encountering the Other: Tantra in the Cross-cultural Context

Sthaneshwar Timalsina

This article focuses on the cultural appropriation of Tantra in India and the West. The term 'Tantra' evokes one sentiment in contemporary India, the birthplace of Tantra, and a widely divergent meaning in the West. In these contrasting understandings of Tantra as the black magic or as sex, the sacred of some has been turned into an object for appropriation and commodification for others. This shift relies on identifying Tantra as the 'other', in relation to what the mainstream culture defines itself as the 'self'. Due to secretive nature of Tantric tradition since the classical times, Tantra has never found its own voice, and with the mainstream culture claiming the power over truth, marginal voices repressed within the rubric of Tantra have never been heard. The emergence of religious consumerism has assisted in peeling off this secretive Tantric body, bringing the heart of sacred practices from India to the consumers in the West.

Book Reviews

Archana Venkatesan

The Truth, the Way, the Life: Christian Commentary on the Three Holy Mantras of the Śrīvaiṣṇava Hindus. By Francis X. Clooney.

The Truth, the Way, the Life: Christian Commentary on the Three Holy Mantras of the Śrīvaiṣṇava Hindus. By Francis X. Clooney. S. J. Leuven: Peeters, 2008. ISBN: 978-90-429-2047-7, pp. ix, 202. $56.00 (paper).

In The Truth, the Way, the Life, Francis Clooney delves deeply into the practice of commentary, with the expressed purpose of fostering interreligious dialogue through concentrated contemplation of text. While such careful 'seeing through texts' has long been a hallmark of Prof. Clooney's scholarship, the book under consideration here is equally concerned with the practical (spiritual) implications of such an effort. At the heart of the book—and the stated aims of the Peeters series—is to produce a Christian commentary for the three central mantras of the Śrīvaiṣṇava traditions: the tiru mantra, the dvaya mantra, and the carama śloka from the Bhagavad Gītā (18.66). As the author states clearly on numerous occasions, his commentary on the three mantras is indebted to the Śrīvaiṣṇava commentarial traditions, particularly the dense and thought-provoking Śrīmad Rahasyatrayasāra of the fourteenth-century Śrīvaiṣṇava philosopher, Vedānta Deśika. So although this book is sub-titled 'Christian Commentary on the Three Holy Mantras …' it is equally about the tradition's own reflection of the assertions at its heart. In a very real sense, this complex book is as much a meditation on the purpose and nature of commentary in general, as it is an exploration of what …

Nancy M. Martin

Śiva's Demon Devotee: Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. By Elaine Craddock.

Śiva's Demon Devotee: Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. By Elaine Craddock. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4384-3087-4, pp. xii, 193. $75.00 (cloth), $23.95 (paper).

This fascinating sixth-century woman Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār is likely the first to compose devotional songs among the Tamil Śaiva poets, and yet scholarship about her to date has been limited. Elaine Craddock addresses this lacuna with a multi-layered, nuanced portrait of the saint, providing an introduction to the Tamil religious, political, and literary landscapes of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār's time, followed by in-depth study of her poetry, her life-story, and the temple festivals held in her honour, as well as English translations of the 143 poems attributed to her. Written in a style that is accessible and concise, the volume serves both as an excellent introduction for the uninitiated and a rich resource for more advanced scholars, with extended footnotes and ethnographic detail. Craddock begins by outlining contexts essential to understanding Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār's devotion and poetry, traversing an immense body of scholarship as she traces the confluence of cultural and religious influences from the north and south that shaped the saint's world. She introduces the reader to the rich literary imagery of classical Tamil poetry of …

Kenneth R. Valpey

The Art of Loving Krishna: Ornamentation and Devotion. By Cynthia Packert.

The Art of Loving Krishna: Ornamentation and Devotion. By Cynthia Packert. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-253-35478-5 (cloth), 978-0-253-22198-8 (paperback), pp. xxiv + 228. $19.60 (paperback), $52.50 (hardback).

Scholars of various disciplines have in recent years shown growing interest in the current practices of Krishna worship in India and beyond. Particular attention has been turned to Krishna temples in Vrindavan, where the elaborate and rich traditions of Krishna-sevā have grown and flourished over more than four centuries. Cynthia Packert's lively study adds significantly to a small but varied corpus of valuable scholarship in this vein, taking as her focus of inquiry what is both most visible with respect to Krishna images—their dress, ornamentation, and display—and what is (for most outsiders to these traditions) least obvious—that what is visible in such display is readable and therefore meaningful in complex ways. On an important level, the daily presentation of Krishna's image in a new, artfully fashioned silken outfit with jewels, necklaces, crowns, and flowers, by male priests descendant from centuries-old families of temple custodianship is a display of religious imagination shaped both by tradition and individual inspiration; but it is also, Packert argues convincingly, the place 'where multiple discourses—about visuality, desire, aesthetics, devotion, emotion, history, ownership, practice, …

Steven P. Hopkins

The Secret Garland: Āntāl's Tiruppāvai and Nācciyār Tirumoḻi. Translated with Introduction and Commentary by Archana Venkatesan.

The Secret Garland: Āntāl's Tiruppāvai and Nācciyār Tirumoḻi. Translated with Introduction and Commentary by Archana Venkatesan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-19-539175-6, pp. ix + 262. GBP £65.00 USD $27.00.

Effective literary translation from South Asian literatures does not have a terribly long history. The folklorist, translator, and poet, A.K. Ramanujan, was the first to make Indian vernacular poetry come alive in contemporary English in the 1960s and 70s, and his example has been well followed in recent years by the work of fine scholar-poets like Hank Heifetz, Martha Selby, Vinay Dharwadker, and David Shulman. Archana Venkatesan, in this fine book of translations from one of the most strikingly original saint-poets in pre-modern Tamil literature, Kōtai, also known by her epithet Āṇṭāḷ ('the Lady who rules'), joins a small but distinguished group of scholar-translators who successfully carry the riches of a classical Indian language into vivid English verses. This volume thus not only contributes to on-going studies of Hindu religious devotion in South India—illuminating themes such as love and the religious use of the passions, gender, human particularity, and theological ascent, the tensions between poetry and scholastic commentary, or the …

Marina Carter

New Homelands Hindu Communities in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, South Africa, Fiji, and East Africa. By Paul Younger.

New Homelands Hindu Communities in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, South Africa, Fiji, and East Africa. By Paul Younger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-19-539164-0, pp. 296. $74.00 (hardback).

Refreshingly jargon-free, this book's readability renders it accessible to the legions of young people of diaspora Indian heritage keen to learn more about their 'roots' as well as to its presumed target audience in the academic fields of South Asian and religious studies. New Homelands will also be of interest to those studying issues relating to identity, diaspora, and labour migration more generally. The author has opted to discuss each of the six Hindu communities he has selected in a separate chapter. His summaries of the historical, social, and religious developments in the chosen territories are succinct, incisive, and intelligible which is in itself no mean feat. A particular delight is his illustrated 'tour' of selected Hindu temples in each country visited. As an introductory guide to the dynamic Hindu communities represented, the book has much to recommend it. The fact that the author has included the key importers of indentured Indian labour also makes the …