Glen Alexander Hayes

in Hinduism

ISBN: 9780195399318
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:


There has been a lively scholarly debate on the nature and origins of Hindu (and Buddhist) tantra since these diverse texts and traditions first came to the attention of colonial administrators and academics. Although the very category and definition of “tantra” have thus been thoroughly contested, the basic term refers to a range of South Asian ritual and philosophical traditions that date to at least the middle of the 1st millennium ce. What is now regarded as “tantra” (derived from a Sanskrit term meaning “weaving” and, hence, “exposition”) can involve any number of distinctive characteristics, including, but not limited to: a gendered cosmogony and cosmology, the necessity of initiation by a guru, special uses of mantras, divinization of the body, ritual sexual intercourse, visualization practices, elaborate pantheons, and transgressive antinomian practices. At the current time, the debate continues as to whether Buddhist or Hindu tantra came first. The earliest European scholarship, as discussed in Urban 2003 (cited underGeneral Overviews), tended to look askance at tantra as “degraded” forms of Buddhism and Hinduism due to the selective uses of sexual and transgressive practices. Thus, late Victorian scholars such as Sir John Woodroffe (see Other Studies of Tantra) tended to “deodorize” and “sanitize” tantra (to use Hugh B. Urban’s terms) to suit their own views of tantra as a “safe” and pure philosophy. It is only in the past few decades that scholars from around the world have begun to translate a wider range of tantric texts and conduct fieldwork among tantric communities, thus showing the incredible diversity of tantric traditions. Some, indeed, like the Saiva Kaula have been quite transgressive and used sexual fluids in their rituals. Others, such as the Śrīvidyā, have reinterpreted the transgressive practices as internal visualizations only, making tantra “safe” for the domestic householder of orthoprax Hinduism. But tantra was also to be discovered as part of the Western “countercultural” and “New Age” traditions of the 20th century, leading to entirely new, decontextualized (and, typically, oversexualized) forms of tantra, which were alluring to the Western consumer of spirituality. In contrast to these “pop culture” representations of tantra, scholars of art history and cognitive science have found that historical tantra provides a rich trove of useful materials for their own research. Finally, thanks to the Internet, there is an astonishing range of “online tantra,” much of it essentially pornographic. However, the Internet has also enabled the creation of many fine scholarly websites and databases for the study of tantra.

Article.  22486 words. 

Subjects: Hinduism

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