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Lecture Notes: On Edward Sellon – II

In the previous post on Edward Sellon I took a look at Sellon’s pornographic writings within the wider of context of nineteenth century attitudes to India & sexuality. For this post, I’m going to take a look at some of Sellon’s scholarly work, it’s reception, and its role in the representation of tantra.

Sellon contributed two papers to the Anthropological Society of London, On the Phallic Worship of India and Sacti Puja, the Worship of the Female Powers both of which aroused much discussion. In Phallic Worship Sellon says “It may, indeed, be affirmed, that there is scarcely a temple in India which has not its Lingam.” He asserted, confidently, that all religions of the ancient world were rooted in Phallic worship, and added (just to drive the point home) that “There would now also be good grounds for believing that the Ark of the Covenant, held so sacred by the Jews, contained neither more nor less than a Phallus, the Ark being the type of the Argha or yoni.” This notion, which the Ethnological Journal, in its review of the published Proceedings of the ASL pronounced to be “sweeping and rather extravagant” and for which there is not “the dimmest shade of evidence” was clearly borrowed from Richard Payne Knight, whose A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus just been republished (1865) by John Camden Hotten of Piccadily (although it is entirely possible that Sellon had come across copies of Priapus in the libraries of some of his fellow Cannibals). Sellon, appropriately enough, organised the Payne-Knight collection sequestered in the British Museum’s “Secret Cabinet” (Godwin, 1994).

Sellon was not alone in advancing the theory that all religions of antiquity were rooted in phallic worship. Charles Staniland Wake also read a paper at the ASL announcing that the practice of circumcision was originally, “a purely phallic rite” and that “the basis of Christianity is more purely ‘phallic’ than that of any other religion now existing”. Other phallic enthusiasts included George Witt, a former physician (and mayor of Beford), who made a fortune as a banker in Australia who collected hundreds of objects “symbolic of the early worship of humanity”. On his return from the Antipodes he took up residence in London, where he established a house near Hyde Park Corner where he displayed his collection of phallic objects (Sellon called it a “museum”) and gave lectures there. Witt believed that common to all pre-Christian cultures was the worship of fertility gods and goddesses, and in 1865, made a gift of his extensive collection of phallic objects, erotica, and scrapbooks, to the British Museum. Witt was, together with Thomas Wright and Sir James Tennet, one of the authors of On the Worship of the Generative Powers during the Middle Ages of western Europe which was published with Payne-Knight’s Priapus by Hotten.

In Sacti Puja, the Worship of the Female Powers Sellon writes: “The worshippers of Sacti, or power, who possess numerous books in Sanscrit verse, have been gaining ground in India for some years, but have lately sustained a check at Bombay, which may ultimately lead to their suppression”. This was a reference to the 1862 “tantric scandal” (see this post) recounted in the Hindu reformer Mulji Karsandas’ History of the Sect of Maharajas or Vallabhacharyas, in Western India published by Trubner & Co. in 1865. Mulji describes the “worship of Saktis or female energies” as having introduced a “moral plague into India, the ravages of which are both appaling and astounding.” As Hugh Urban (2003) points out, Hindu reform movements assimilated Orientalist representations of India – particularly the narrative of a progressive degeneration from a “Golden Age” of the Vedas to the present-day era of the tantras, and reformists such as Dayananda Saraswati (founder of the Arya Samaj) delivered scathing attacks on tantra as “obscene ritual and sensual indulgence” (Urban, p60) and Rammohun Roy saw the tantras as “a horrendous and debased form of religious expression” (Urban, p63).

Sellon refers to the books known as Tantras as “remarkable and recondite volumes” and explains that the Tantras prescribe the abolition of caste, the use of wine, flesh and fish with magical arts, diagrams and “the express adoration of the female sex”. He lists thirteen tantric texts, such as the Rudra Yamalam – “Conversations of Siva and his Spouse”; and the Yogini Hridayam – “The Heart of the Nun – also called Yoni Tantram”. He gives a lengthy account of Chacra Puja – which uses, he says, “reverent language but lewd gesticulations” and notes that the names of the “female slyphs” addressed in the worship of the Yogini (usually a beautiful young woman) are “not very delicate”, and, related these practices to both the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries and asserts that the Sakteya rites are possibly one of the most ancient forms of worship.

Sellon’s account of “Sacti worship” is quite mild if one considers the descriptions of “Chacra Puja” given by earlier chroniclers such as the Abbé Dubois, who in his (1807) Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies describes “sakty-poudja” as an excess of “of intemperence and debauchery” or William Ward’s infamous description of the “tuntras” as containing “a shocking mode of worship …. too abominable to enter the ears of man, and impossible to reveal to a Christian public” (A View of the History, Literature, and Mythology of the Hindoos 1817). (see this post for more on the link between tantra, sex and cultural degeneration).

Sellon’s most well-known contribution to scholarly works on India is Annotation to the Sacred Writings of the Hindus published in 1865 “for private circulation” by H. Weede. (Mike Magee has just published a reproduction of Annotations for the Kindle).

Annotations owes, I think, an obvious debt to Payne-Knight’s Priapus (he also cites both William Ward and Horace H. Wilson, for whom the tantras were “authorities for all that is abominable in the present state of Hindu religion.”) but it is notable that, at a time when many scholars were busy potraying tantra – and india in general, in wholly negative terms (particularly in the wake of the 1857 rebellion), Sellon, in Annotations is more restrained and positive, and there is little sign of the tone of moral disapproval adopted by many other writers of the period in respect to tantra.

Sellon writes:

“Although the adoration of the Sacti is authorized by some of the Puranas, the rites and formulae are more clearly set forth in a voluminous collection of books called Tantras. These writings convey their meaning in the similitude of dialogue between Uma (or Siva) and Pavati.

The followers of the Tantras profess to consider them as a fifth Vedh, and attribute to them equal antiquity and superior authority. The observances they prescribe have in Bengal almost superseded the original Ritual, but the question of their date is involved in considerable obscurity. From the practices described in some of the Puranas, particularly that of the Diksha, or rite of initiation, from the Agni Puran, from the specification of formulae, comprising the mystical monosyllables of the Tantras, in that and other similar compilations; and from the citation of some of them by name in different puranas, we must conclude that some of the Tantras are prior to those authorities. The Tantras are too numerous to specify them further, but the curious reader will find them under the heads of Syama Rahasya, Anandra, Rudra, Yamala, Mandra, Mahodahi, Sareda, Tilika, and Kalika-Tantras.”


“When the object of worship is to acquire an interview with, and control over, impure spirits, a dead body is necessary. The adept is also to be alone, at midnight, in a cemetery or place where bodies are burnt. Seated on the corpse, he is to perform the usual offerings, and if he do so without fear or disgust, the Dhutas, the Yoginis, and other male and female demons become his slaves. In this and many of the observances practised, solitude is enjoined, but all the principal ceremonies comprehend the worship of Sacti, or POWER, and require, for that purpose, the presence of a young and beautiful girl, as the living representative of the goddess. This worship is mostly celebrated in a mixed society; the men of which represent Bhairavas, or Viras, and the women, Bhairavis and Nayikas. The Sacti is personified by a naked girl, to whom meat and wine are offered, and then distributed among the assistants. Here follows the chanting of the Muntrus and sacred texts, and the performance of the Mudra, or gesticulations with the fingers. The whole terminates with orgies amongst the votaries of a very licentious description.”
(quoted from Magee, 2011)

In a response to one of his critics, Sellon claimed to have collaborated with a “learned Orientalist of the Madras Civil Service”. but that the “gentleman made it an express condition that his name should not appear” Sellon does provide some clues though, stating that he was a member of the Madras Civil Service for thirty years, a judge and a “man of letters, whose authority in all matters relating to the Hindus …. is, in the strictest sense, reliable.” Whoever this “learned Orientalist” was (if indeed he actually existed) is not clear. Several members of both the ASL and Cannibal Club had, like Burton and Sellon, served in India. It is not unusual for authors however, to lend weight to their work by drawing upon learned but anonymous witnesses or sources – thus giving the impression that the text was just more than one person’s opinion. Ward, throughout his influential, four-volume A View of the History, Literature, and Mythology of the Hindoos produced a number of anonymous “Hindoo” witnesses who testified to the correctness of his wholly negative portrayal of Indian culture and religions.

Sir John Woodroffe (aka “Arthur Avalon”) writing in Shakti and Shakta (1918) credits Sellon for arguing that Shakta worship was very ancient – “if not the most ancient, form of Mysticism in the whole world.” However, he strongly refutes the idea that tantra is equivalent to “pantheistic libertinism” – an inference he draws from one of Sellon’s Footnotes, which reads: “The Memoirs of Scipio di Ricci, of Pistoja, reveal some remarkable facts, plainly demonstrating that Sacteya ideas had found their way into the monasteries and convents of Italy in the latter part of the last century.” Woodroffe explains this footnote as a reference to De Potter’s Vie de Scipion de Ricci Eveque de Pistoie et Prafo (1825) a book compiled from the works of Scipio de Ricci, Bishop of Pistoia – a late eighteenth century Catholic reformer. It appeared in 1834 with the title Female Convents: Secrets on Nunneries Disclosed and was widely and gleefully circulated as evidence of the general immorality of the Roman Catholic Church (in particular, sexual misconduct within convents). This footnote, I suspect, is Sellon indulging in a little leg-pulling. Like many of his fellow Cannibals, he had little time for the conventional standards of morality, and seems to have enjoyed telling tall tales, leg-pulling and in-jokes as much as Burton did.

Sellon shot himself in a hotel in Piccadily in April 1866, two days after the death of his wife. His suicide note concluded with the epigram Vivat Lingam, Non Resurgam rendered by Francis King (1974) as “long live the penis, it shall not rise again”.

Some closing thoughts

“The imagining of Tantra … has been anything but a simple process or the result of a straightforward, linear narrative. Rather, it is the result of a tangled genealogy, as conflicted and contested has the history of encounters between India and the West over the past several hundred years. To trace this genealogy is not a matter of reconstructing a tidy historical progression, leading up to our own era, but rather of piecing together the fragmented, contradictory, and often quite erroneous tangle of discourses that have given birth to this strange hybrid construction.”
Hugh Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion

I find Sellon interesting as he is an author who’s writings crosses boundaries – the most obvious being that of the distinction between the scholarly and the popular, or more precisely, the anthropological and the erotic. As I noted above, nineteenth century representations of tantra tended to be condemnatory or at best dismissive, with a tendency to view tantra as an exemplar of India’s general immorality and degeneracy. This discourse is obviously underwritten by the othering of the colonial subject. But what particularly interests me is how this discourse shifted away from tantra as exemplifying cultural degeneration and sexual excess – towards tantra as signifying sexual liberation and freedom. I’m still mulling this over, but examining Sellon’s work has provided me with an opportunity to explore the intersection between the scholarly and the pornographic in the period – and the way both genres participated in reifying the same tropes and operated in similar ways. From the latter half of the nineteenth century onwards, the “science of sex” emerged in a variety of ways, allowing the frank discussion of subjects which would otherwise be taboo in middle-class circles. Both ethnography and sexology participated in the extensive classification of “native types” and “deviant practices” in the colonies, the past, and amongst the lower classes – all safely distant yet at the same time alluring objects of fascination. At the same time, the intensified concerns with educating “the masses” (both colonial subjects and the masses of Whistler’s “new class” – see last post) and the link between social hygiene and national vitality gave rise to increased calls for sex education, and allowed erotica to sneak under the radar of the censors by being presented as scientific and scholarly. Some texts, such as Richard Burton’s Kama Sutra owe at least part of their fame (or perhaps infamy) due to their being circulated in pirate editions by pornographic publishers throughout the early decades of the twentieth century.

Sellon is also of interest due to his role in the propogation of the “phallic” origin of religion – and was frequently cited by successive authors, such as Hargrave Jennings (see Godwin, 1994) and Lee Alexander Stone (1879-1955), a profilic American sex educator and advocate of urgent need to develop “sex consciousness”. Annotations and his two papers given at the ASL are often cited in works dealing with the sexual abberations of “primitive peoples” which became increasingly popular with the growth of sexology. Iwan Bloch (sometimes referred to as the “father” of sexology) for example, cites Annotations in his Anthropological Studies on the Strange Sexual Practices of All Races and All Ages (English edition, 1933) to support a discussion of Indian “temple prostitution” as part of his examination of the relationship between “sexual excesses” and religious feeling. We know that the phallic origin of religion was drawn on by both Freud and Jung, and was also frequently cited by twentieth-century pagan & occult authors (Dion Fortune, Crowley, Gerald Gardner, for example).

Francis King’s provocatively-titled Sexuality, Magic and Perversion (1974) was one of the first modern occult books to discuss Sellon’s writing in any depth, and King credits Sellon as being “the man responsible for introducing a Tantric strain into the occultism of the West.” This, I think, is something of an overstatement, although Sellon was certainly one of the first Europeans to write favourably (and approvingly) about tantra.

Anjali R. Arondekar, For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Duke University Press, 2009)
Jon R. Godsall The Tangled Web: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (Matador, 2008)
Joscelyn Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment (SUNY, 1994)
Mulji Karsandas History of the Sect of Maharajas or Vallabhacharyas, in Western India (Trubner & Co, 1865, Google Ebook)
Francis King Sexuality, Magic and Perversion (Citadel Press, 1974)
Deborah Lutz, Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011)
Andrew & Harriet Lyons, Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)
Allison Pease, Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity (University of Cambridge Press, 2000)
Edward Sellon Annotation to the Sacred Writings of the Hindus (Magee, Prakasha Publishing, 2011)
Hugh B. Urban Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (University of California Press, 2003)
Sir John Woodroffe Shakti and Shakta: Essays and Addresses on the Shakta Tantrashastra (Luzac & Co., 1918)

One comment

  1. steve davies
    Posted June 23rd 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    I love the idea of “the imagining of Tantra…”- the romantic lens of the past as a potent tool for channeling emerging or suppressed impulses.

    How do we balance the need to understand our present with reference to what past heroes and pioneers explored and at the same time allow our own Tantra to breathe-not being suffocated by the dust of the museum? A challenge indeed.