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  1. Strange Adventures in Tantra

    Having just read Phil’s excellent overview of some of the key challenges in seeking to engage with the broad array of traditions and practices that might be described as being “Tantric”, I started to reflect more on my own personal engagement with some of this material.

    If it’s so problematic to dialogue with these traditions without risking either Modernist over-simplification or cultural appropriation, what motivates a self-identified Chaos Magician to attempt such an undertaking? What follows are some personal reflections on the lived phenomena of what I found myself doing, the arising of these urges often deeply challenging my existing self-concept and assumed identities. Continue reading »

  2. Jottings: on defining tantra

    “Not knowing that the truth is situated within one’s Self, the deluded is confused by looking for it in treatises. One whose judgement is so poor is like the shepherd who sees his goat in a well when it is actually already within the flock.”
    Kulanarva Tantra, 1.96

    “the Tantras are generally mere manuals of mysticism, magic, and superstition of the worst and most silly kind.”
    Monier Monier-Williams

    Sometimes, when I do public lectures on tantra, or just natter on to people in the pub or round a campfire, I’m asked to give a “definition” of tantra. This is something that I’m generally reluctant to do, as tantra is such a wide-ranging field, that it’s well-nigh to sum it up in a one-size-fits-all definition. So for this post, I’m going to explore some of the ways that contemporary scholars have attempted to get to grips with the problem of defining tantra. I’d argue that it’s useful to acquaint oneself with these issues, particularly, if, one is drawing on contemporary scholarship on tantra for inspiration and guidance. Continue reading »

  3. Book review: Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth

    I’m generally wary of the comparative approach to the study of religion (and myth), if only as, as an approach it has tended to supress or conceal differences between cultures, giving rise to the illusion of homogeneity by reducing the expressions of other cultures to the concepts being deployed by the person doing the comparison. Comparative approaches, so often uncritically map the religious features of other cultures onto European classifications, and thereby work as a form of cultural imperialism. Comparative models have also been used to support the flawed notion that magical/religious techniques can be easily “lifted” from their cultural context. Continue reading »

  4. Lecture Notes: On William Ward

    “The Tuntrus are fabulously attributed by the Hindoos to Shiva and Doorga; and are said to have been compiled from conversations between these two deities; the words of Shiva being called Agumu, and those of Doorga, Nigumu. Narudu is said to have communicated these conversations to the sages. Through the inability of men to obtain abstraction of mind in religious austerities, yogu, &c. the ceremonies enjoined in the veda could not be performed; in compassion to the people, therefore, say the learned Hindoos, the Tuntras were written, which prescribe an easier way to heaven, viz by incantations, repeating the names of the gods, ceremonial worship, &c. &c.
    At present a few of the original tuntrus, as well as compilations from them, are read in Bengal. Those who study them are called tantriku pundits.”
    William Ward, A view of the history, literature, and mythology of the Hindoos

    For this post I’m going to examine the work of the Reverend William Ward (1769-1823), who provided one of the earliest European accounts of tantric beliefs and practices, and was one of the most widely-read and influential observers of Indian life and religion throughout the nineteenth century. Continue reading »

  5. 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. Continue reading »

  6. Book review: A Queer and Pleasant DANGER

    I think it’s pretty important to say from the outset, that with regards Kate Borstein’s books I’m a bit of a fanboi. Two of her earlier works – Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook are generally viewed as seminal for those of us whose gender expression fails to fall neatly into binary tick boxes. Bornstein in person is feisty and unapologetic about where she feels she has had to travel in order to become more herself. Continue reading »

  7. Lecture Notes: On Edward Sellon – I

    When I’m researching material for lectures, I often find myself poking into a variety of fascinating areas and characters, which unfortunately time often precludes me from doing anything more than briefly summarising their relationship to the main topic at hand. So a lot of material ends up on “the cutting room floor” as it were. What follows is the first of two posts (expanded from the preparation for my forthcoming Treadwells lecture) focusing on Edward Sellon (1816-66). Sellon is noteworthy as his his writings can be located as emerging out of the blurred zone between “serious scholarship” and erotica (sometimes referred to as “ethnopornography”). Sellon wrote both pornographic books and more sober, scholarly works, both of which provide a window into the period’s attitudes to India, sexuality, and Tantra. This first post will look at Sellon’s pornographic writing in the context of the nineteenth-century demand for pornography and Imperial attitudes to India & sexuality, and I will follow up with an examination of his “scholarly” works – the papers he delivered to the Anthropological Society of London and his book Annotation to the Sacred Writings of the Hindus. Continue reading »

  8. Upcoming Treadwells Lecture: Tantra and Sex

    On Tuesday 10th of July I will be giving a lecture at Treadwells Bookshop entitled “Tantra, Sex and the Orientalist Imagination”.

    Say Tantra and most people think sex. Whether it’s sacred sexuality, sexual magic or ‘tantric massages’, the word evokes an exotic or liberating sexual experience – but how did this idea come about? In this lecture, I’ll be rummaging through the works of a wide variety of authors – ranging from Orientalist scholars, Christian missionaries, to travel writers and pornographers, and exploring the relationship between between sex and empire. I’ll be taking a look at the influence of the Kama Sutra and its publication by Richard Burton, then onwards through to the psychedelic sixties and Omar Garrison’s Tantra: The Yoga of Sex. I’ll discuss how, almost as soon as the notion of “tantra” emerged it became associated with dark deeds, night-time orgies and sexual depravity, and examine how the various representations of tantra reflected wider cultural trends and anxieties throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.

    Directions & Contact Details for Treadwells.

  9. Book review: Yogi Heroes and Poets: Histories and Legends of the Naths

    I first heard about the Nath Sampradaya in 1986, through an initial meeting (and later practicing with) members of AMOOKOS, the West-East tantric magical “order” founded in 1978 at the behest of Shri Gurudev Mahendranath (Dadaji) – a.k.a Anton Miles, a “white sadhu” who had (or so I was told) been initiated into a branch of the Natha Sampradaya in the early 1950s (See here for some further discussion of AMOOKOS and its contested and convoluted history as a “western Natha Siddha Transmission”). Dadaji/Anton Miles certainly deserves more attention. Quite apart from his status as a sadhu, he is known to have fought in the International Brigade against Franco’s fascists in the 1930s, was arrested in Brighton for demonstrating for Unemployment benefit reform (an event which was briefly mentioned in the New York Post), and claimed an association with Gerald Gardner’s Bricket Wood Coven as well as a meeting with Aleister Crowley. The Naths though, were presented as “hardcore” tantric practitioners, as having “founded” hatha yoga, and as being an “outsider” tradition with little contact with mainstream culture, and moreover, that they were “dying out” as India modernised and became less amenable to tantric practices. In those days, there was not much in the way of scholarly work available on the Naths, apart from George Weston Briggs’ 1938 book, Goraknath and the Kanphata Yogis. Continue reading »

  10. Reading the Saundarya Lahari – III-2

    Continuing right on from the previous post in this series, I will now examine verse 8 of Anandalahari. Continue reading »