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Book Review: Sir John Woodroffe, Tantra and Bengal: ‘An Indian Soul in a European Body?’

Sir John Woodroffe (1865-1936) is sometimes called the “father” of modern tantric studies. As Hugh Urban comments in his 2003 book, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy Politics and Power in the Study of Religion Woodroffe “surely stands out as one of the most remarkable and enigmatic figures in the entire history of British India. 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.”

'An Indian Soul in a European Body?' Kathleen Taylor’s Sir John Woodroffe, Tantra and Bengal: ‘An Indian Soul in a European Body?’ (Routledge Curzon 2001, 336pp, h/bk., Kindle, to be available in paperback, December 2013) is an immensely readable and engaging biography of Woodroffe and his influence on modern interpretations of Tantra. An Indian Soul covers Woodroffe’s early life, examining his family background, his time at the public school Woburn Park and at University College Oxford (1884-88) and his career at the Calcutta High Court from 1890; his promotion to the Indian judiciary in 1904, and his knighthood in 1915. She examines Woodroffe’s lives through five roles – “four public and one half-secret”: the High Court Judge; the patron of Indian art; the defender of Hinduism; the “orientalist scholar”, Arthur Avalon; and the “secret” Tantric. The first part of the book explores these various roles in depth, whilst the second part examines Woodroffe’s contributions to Tantra studies and the composite character “Arthur Avalon”.

Kathleen Taylor presents Woodroffe as an energetic, adventurous, character – he and his wife Ellen once attempted to enter Tibet (they were intercepted and sent back). The Woodroffes appear to have been well-integrated into Anglo-Indian Society in Calcutta and they were friendly with Annie Besant, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Alexandra David-Neel, and the Tagore family – particularly Abindranath and Gaganendranath. Ellen Woodroffe, a concert pianist, seems to have shared her husband’s interests. She is credited (as “Ellen Avalon”) as a co-author of Hymns to the Goddess (1913) and there are stories that the Woodroffes were initiated together into tantra. Together with Abindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, E.B. Havell and Ananda Coomaraswamy, Woodroffe formed the Indian Society of Oriental Art in 1907, which promoted Indian arts and contested the views of orientalist art critics and historians who had declared Indian art to be inferior against the norms of classical European standards. He was president, for a time, of Calcutta’s Vivekananda Society, and presented a series of lectures to the Society which later formed the basis of Shakti and Shakta, and helped set up the Āgamānusandhana Samiti – the publishing company set up to print and distribute his tantric texts.

Woodroffe seems to have highly respected in his role as High Court Judge, and – apart from one difficult case which dented his popularity for a while – had a reputation for being sympathetic to Indian traditions and culture. His popularity was in no small measure enhanced by the books he published under his own name: Bharata Shakti (1917), Is India Civilized (1919) and The Seeds of Race (1919) which showed that Woodroffe was highly sympathetic to Indian nationalism and culture. In Bharata Shakti for example, Woodroffe is critical of government control of Indian education, and argued that Indians should “shape themselves as such by the study of the literature, art, philosophy, and religion of their ancestors.” (quoted from Taylor, p79). His defence of Indian tradition was made from an ideology that equated race and culture – and he saw the influence of European missionaries, politicians and orientalists in terms of their threat to the “racial soul” of India. He wrote Is India Civilized (1919) as a direct response to William Archer, whose India and the Future was based entirely on a three-week visit and who characterised India as “barbarous”. Taylor points out that Woodroffe, much as he was opposed to the over-simplifications of western critics of India, tended to write as though “all power and agency resided with the West” (p90) and although some of the ideas he expressed were similar to those of reform groups such as the Brahmo Samaj, he tended to disregard the moves made towards reform and modernization made by Indians themselves.

the “secret” tantrika
Woodroffe tended to represent himself as an “impartial observer” of tantra, but as Taylor shows, there is much evidence that Woodroffe and his wife had taken initiation (diksha) and were, at least to some degree, practitioners of tantra sadhana. His involvement seems to have been something of an “open secret” among various of Woodroffe’s friends in the Society of Oriental Art (although not all approved) and Taylor draws on accounts of disciples of Sivacandra Vidyarnava and Alexandra David-Neel.

Woodroffe is particularly associated with Sivacandra Vidyarnava, a Sakta tantrika who founded the Sarvamangala Sabha – an organisation aimed at uniting Bengali Saktas, and to build bridges between Saktas and both the Bengali Vaishnava and Baul communities. Woodroffe (as Arthur Avalon) translated Sivacandra’s Tantratattva (Principles of Tantra) – a work which sought to defend Sakta Tantrism from the criticisms of Advaitins, Vaishnava sectarians, and reformers such as the Brahmo Samaj. Sivacandra argues in favour of ritual, the multiplicity of divine forms, and that siddhis and liberation are one and the same goals. The accounts of Woodroffe’s first encounter with Sivacandra differ, but point to Woodroffe meeting Sivacandra around 1906-7. There is also a story of Woodroffe receiving a second initiation from a bhairavi – Jayakali Devi.

“Tantric Texts”
In discussing Woodroffe’s books on Tantra, Taylor opens with a review of European orientalist attitudes to Tantra – which were overwhelmingly negative and condemnatory – and those of Indian scholars who wrote in English – who shared much of the orientalist attitudes – but made less of it. In contrast, Woodroffe, under his pseudonym “Arthur Avalon” (more of which later) presented the tantras as central -rather than marginal – to mainstream Hindu culture and that they did not conflict with Vedic truths; argued emphatically that tantra could be regarded as rational and scientific, and that as such, it rested on an experiential, rather than a doctrinal, core. Taylor suggests that Woodroffe’s emphasis on ritual and other forms of sadhana may have led later scholars to ignore the philosophy (or theology) associated with tantra.

Most of the Avalon/Woodroffe Tantric works were published between 1913-1923; in 1913 there appeared his translation of the Mahanirvana Tantra, Hymns to the Goddess and the first two volumes of the series called Tantric Textstantrabidhana and sat-cakra-nirupana. By 1922, the Tantric Texts series had grown to eleven volumes, each edited by named Indian scholars together with introductions and summaries in English, under the general editorship of Arthur Avalon. Avalon’s name also appeared on translations of the Karpuradi-stotram (Hymn to Kali) and the Kama-kala-visala – a short Sri Vidya text. In 1918, Shakti and Shakta was released under the name of Sir John Woodroffe, to be followed by a translation of the sat-cakra-nirupana – published under the title of The Serpent Power. The Serpent Power itself is one of the major works which introduced the notion of Kundalini Yoga to the West, and, together with Charles Webster Leadbeater’s 1927 book The Chakras, largely responsible for the popularisation of the seven-chakra schema into New Age and occult discourse.

The response to Woodroffe’s texts was in general, highly favourable. Prior to the translation of Mahanirvana Tantra (Tantra of the Great Liberation) there had been no complete translations of a tantric text in its entirety, still less any favourable scholarly writing on tantric philosophy. Woodroffe’s scholarship and erudition was praised in both India and Europe, and Taylor shows that some European orientalists, albeit grudgingly, came to accept Woodroffe’s scholarship on Tantra as valid. In 1915, Woodroffe publicly “outed” himself by giving a lecture on “Creation as explained in the Tantra” to which several prominent people – including the Governor of Bengal and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Calcutta – attended. Nicholas Beatson Bell (later, Governor of Assam) commented that “Mr. Justice Woodroffe” had caused him to change his impressions of tantra and that he had gained an interest in the tantras and their “deepest philosophical point of view”.

“Arthur Avalon”
Why did Woodroffe take on the pseudonym “Arthur Avalon” – a name associated with western esotericism? Although, as Taylor notes, Woodroffe’s wife Ellen was a member of the Theosophical Society, and both the Woodroffes were friendly with Annie Besant, she points out that Woodroffe’s books are almost entirely free of references to Theosophical or Western esoteric ideas – and that several pages of The Serpent Power are devoted to correcting theosophical interpretations and appropriations of the chakras. Woodroffe does seem to be familiar with the American New Thought movement (see this post for some related discussion) and in Shakti and Shakta likens it to a form of mantravidya. It seems that Woodroffe took the name of “Arthur Avalon” from one of his favourite paintings – Burne-Jones’ Arthur’s Sleep in Avalon; but this name helped to promote the “legend” that Arthur Avalon was A “Western Adept” who had access to secret, oriental knowledge. In the prefaces to the first and second editions of Shakti and Shakta, Woodroffe himself declares he published his previous works under the name “Arthur Avalon”

“to denote that they had been written with the direct cooperation of others and in particular with the assistance of one of my friends who will not permit me to mention his name. I do not desire sole credit for what is as much their work as mine.
(quoted from Taylor, p150)

According to Taylor, Woodroffe’s unnamed friend and chief collaborator was Atal Bihari Ghose (1864-1936). Ghose was a disciple of both Sivacandra Vidyarnava and Jayakali Devi, and practised as a lawyer in Calcutta. Ghose translated many of the texts published or planned in the name of “Arthur Avalon”, and Taylor finds – based on examination of the correspondence between Ghose and Woodroffe, that it was Ghose who provided the expertise on Sanskrit translations, but that Woodroffe considered himself to be the senior partner in the collaboration. Taylor raises the thorny issue of just how good Woodroffe’s knowledge of Sanskrit was – and shows that in addition to drawing on the expertise of Ghose and other Pandits, he made skilful use of secondary sources and other informants. She comments: “It was a paradox: Arthur Avalon was meant to be a western scholar, but what he presented to his Indian readers was their own interpretations of their own religious culture, to which he acted as a mirror and mediator” (p230). Taylor contends that whilst Ghose was a “gifted teacher” and “could present ideas in a more easily accessible form than Woodroffe could”, it was Woodroffe who had an instinct for public relations and could – at times – write in a style which was inspiring and capable of winning over public sympathy through his tolerance and willingness to interpret Tantric ideas favourably.

Contemporary tantric scholars, although acknowledging their debt to Woodroffe, are sometimes critical of his work. A common criticism is that his writing is at times, overly verbose, and the lack of annotations make it difficult to distinguish between his own observations and the ideas that he is presenting. Also, as Hugh Urban (2003) points out, in order to press his presentation of the tantras as both rational, scientific and in accordance with Vedic principles, Woodroffe sometimes went to great lengths to ignore or explain away the more notorious elements of tantra sadhana such as sorcery or sexual rites. Urban comments: “While defending the philosophical and intellectual side of the tradition, Woodroffe also submits it to a significant form of deodorization, censoring those practices that might be offensive to a Western audience” (p146). Woodroffe tended to edge around those aspects of tantra practice which involved wine and women, and in Shakti and Shakta claimed that such rites were disappearing and were only of historical interest.

Yet for all his faults, there is much of merit in Woodroffe’s works. His cautions on the difficulties and dangers of translating Sanskrit terminology into English for example; and his warning about reading texts over-literally still hold true. And while, even after nearly thirty years of reading his books, I still find the experience to be like wading through treacle, I still find myself going back to them time and time again.

Overall, An Indian Soul is an excellent and thoroughly engaging biography which I’d highly recommend to anyone with an interest in the tangled history of tantra, or anyone who’s read any of Woodroffe/Avalon’s books and wondered how a seeming pillar of the establishment – a High Court Judge, could be a secret tantric scholar.