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Much ado about Yoginis

There’s an easily observed phenomena on the contemporary occult scene – the recuperation of new scholarship into existing knowledge discourses. A new book comes out – and gradually it seems, its presentation shifts from “this is new stuff” to “we’ve always known this to be the case” – and eventually (thinking of my earlier post this month) – “this isn’t just out of a book, I’ve experienced it directly.” .A good example of what I mean is the work of Owen Davis’ (and others) work on Cunning Folk – prior to which you tended not to hear people either talking overmuch about the term, referring to themselves as “cunning folk” or asserting that they are part of a “cunning folk” tradition – whatever that may be. In “tantric” circles, David Gordon White’s 2003 book, Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts (see review) has been primarily responsible for making the subject of Yoginis a popular subject of interest amongst modern tantra practitioners – but its often presented as “stuff we always knew about” – but have only now – curiously – following the publication of White’s book, started to talk about – and usually in a way that mirrors White’s scholarship whilst not actually acknowledging it as a primary source. What will happen, I wonder, when White’s presentation of Yoginis and his other themes gets critiqued – will there be a hurried backpedalling of those who’ve seemingly embraced his presentation as entirely representational of their own practices?

Whilst I do think Kiss… is an important book, and probably deserves a much lengthier analysis than I have time for at the present, there is one theme in White’s presentation I do take issue with – if only due (again) to how its been received by some occultists I’ve encountered. White, fairly early on in the book, after demolishing “new age tantra” with both barrels of his rhetorical shotgun, then proceeds to make a distinction between a “soft core” and a “hard core” tantric practice. “Soft core” White says, “more or less corresponds to accounts that most present-day practitioners … give of their practice. That is, their emic perspective.” “Hard core” on the other hand, is the sexualized ritual practice which is one of the main themes of Kiss… and which White asserts is the sole truly distinctive feature of South Asian Tantric traditions.” Later, White more-or-less equates the “hard core” stuff with Kaula practices. White makes another distinction – between the “Tantric mainstream” and between the later “high Hindu” tantric mysticism of Ksemaraja and Ahbinavagupta. It’s easy to come away with the impression that the “real” tantra, is the early, Yogini-oriented Kaula practice, and that anything later, such as the Trika or SriVidya streams, can effectively, be ignored or dismissed. After all, occultists generally like to think of themselves as “hard core” practitioners. It probably wasn’t White’s intention, but I’d say he’s provided more ammo for those who want to make claims that approaches to tantra which focus on sexual practice are the genuine article, whereas the more “mystical” approaches (i’ll come on to my thoughts on the general poverty of the magical-mystical divide at some point in the future) are for “softies.”