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Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion

Hugh B. Urban
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 388
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    Book Description:

    A complex body of religious practices that spread throughout the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions; a form of spirituality that seemingly combines sexuality, sensual pleasure, and the full range of physical experience with the religious life—Tantra has held a central yet conflicted role within the Western imagination ever since the first "discovery" of Indian religions by European scholars. Always radical, always extremely Other, Tantra has proven a key factor in the imagining of India. This book offers a critical account of how the phenomenon has come to be. Tracing the complex genealogy of Tantra as a category within the history of religions, Hugh B. Urban reveals how it has been formed through the interplay of popular and scholarly imaginations. Tantra emerges as a product of mirroring and misrepresentation at work between East and West--a dialectical category born out of the ongoing play between Western and Indian minds. Combining historical detail, textual analysis, popular cultural phenomena, and critical theory, this book shows Tantra as a shifting amalgam of fantasies, fears, and wish-fulfillment, at once native and Other, that strikes at the very heart of our constructions of the exotic Orient and the contemporary West.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93689-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction: Diagnosing the “Disease” of Tantra
    (pp. 1-43)

    The category “Tantra” is a basic and familiar one today in the vocabulary of most scholars of religions and generally considered one of the most important and controversial forms of Asian religion. In academic discourse, Tantra usually refers to a specific brand of religious practice common to the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions since at least the seventh century; above all, it is identified as a particularly radical and dangerous practice that involves activities normally prohibited in mainstream society, such as sexual intercourse with lower-class partners and consumption of meat and wine. Not surprisingly, given the rather racy nature of...

  7. CHAPTER 1 The Golden Age of the Vedas and the Dark Age of Kālī: Tantrism, Orientalism, and the Bengal Renaissance
    (pp. 44-72)

    The origins of “Tantra” or “Tantrism” as a scholarly category are ultimately inseparable from the unique historical encounter between Western and Indian imaginations that took place during the colonial era. Tantra as we know it is to a large degree a complex creation of what Mary Louise Pratt calls the “contact zone,” that is, “the space of colonial encounters . . . in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other . . . involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and conflict.”¹ To reiterate, however: this is surelynotto say that Tantra is simply a...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Sacrificing White Goats to the Goddess: Tantra and Political Violence in Colonial India
    (pp. 73-105)

    Imagined as the most radical, dangerous, and transgressive of spiritual paths, in explicit violation of accepted ethical boundaries, Tantra was soon to be associated in both the Western and Indian imaginations with the possibility of political violence. If Orientalist authors began to shift from “Indophilia” to a more critical “Indophobia” in the years after 1833, this suspicious attitude was even more pronounced in the years following 1857, during the “crisis of the raj” in the wake of the Indian Mutiny. And it reached its peak in the tumultuous years of the early twentieth century, in the face of a growing,...

  9. CHAPTER 3 India’s Darkest Heart: Tantra in the Literary Imagination
    (pp. 106-133)

    Much of our richest and most colorful material for the imagining of Tantra comes not from scholarly sources, but from the realm of drama and the novel. In both India and Europe, the morbid, sexual tales of Tantra quickly sparked the imaginations of many creative authors, serving as the vehicle for the expression of intense fears, fantasies, and repressed desires. In a wide array of Victorian British and Indian fiction, we find virtually all the themes discussed so far in this book, brought together in the most vivid and entertaining way: the fears of social degeneracy, the threat of sexual...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Deodorized Tantra: Sex, Scandal, Secrecy, and Censorship in the Works of John Woodroffe and Swami Vivekananda
    (pp. 134-164)

    By the dawn of the twentieth century, Tantra had come to represent a troubling, sometimes threatening, and often quite embarrassing problem for Indian and Western authors. Already widely regarded as representing the most primitive, idolatrous, and immoral side of the Indian mind, it had also become increasingly associated with religious fanaticism, terrorist violence, and the failure of the revolutionary nationalist movement. It is not surprising therefore to see various efforts on both the Indian and colonial sides to suppress, control, or eliminate the dangerous practices of thetantras. What is more surprising, however, is that we also find an attempt...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Religion for the Age of Darkness: Tantra and the History of Religions in the Twentieth Century
    (pp. 165-202)

    Following in the wake of John Woodroffe’s heroic defense of Tantra, a new wave of scholars began to take an active interest in, and often a strange preoccupation with, the teachings of the Tantras. Many of the greatest European Indologists and scholars of comparative religion, such as Mircea Eliade, Agehananda Bharati, and even C. G. Jung, were extremely interested in Tantra and in some cases saw it as the very essence of Eastern spirituality.¹ At the same time, a new generation of Indian scholars also began to take an interest in Tantra, which they saw as one of the most...

  12. CHAPTER 6 The Cult of Ecstasy: Meldings of East and West in a New Age of Tantra
    (pp. 203-263)

    Inspired by the new valorizations of Tantra by Eliade, Zimmer, and more popular authors like Joseph Campbell, Tantra began to enter in full force into the Western popular imagination of the twentieth century. Already in the early 1900s we find the foundation of the first “Tantrik Order in America”—an extremely scandalous, controversial affair, much sensationalized by the American media—and by the 1960s and 1970s, Tantra had become a chic fashion for Western pop stars, as Jimi Hendrix began displayingyantrason his guitar and Mick Jagger produced a psychedelic film,Tantra,depicting the five M’s. Taking Eliade’s positive...

  13. Conclusion: Reimagining Tantra in Contemporary Discourse
    (pp. 264-282)

    At this point, I need to try to tie together the many loose ends and dangling strands that constitute my own genealogy of the tangled threads of Tantra. Obviously, this book cannot claim to be comprehensive or complete. Concerned primarily with the imagining of “Tantra” as a modern category, I have not tried to undertake the far more difficult task of narrating the actual historical development of those particular texts, traditions, practices, and peoples who would later be identified as Tantric. Moreover, as I quickly realized when I began to delve into the contemporary popular literature on Tantra, this is...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 283-336)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 337-366)
  16. Index
    (pp. 367-372)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 373-373)