“Through a long night of superstition and darkness, vile creatures like this Maharaj have been able to make their dens of vice and debauchery seem to their spell-bound followers to be the holy temples of God. But as soon as the morning light comes, the place is found in full corruption and uncleanness; magical spells lose all effect; and men of a better sort rise disgusted, and at any cost break loose from such a haunt.”
Times of India May 2, 1862
Some recent correspondence has reminded me that I had more to say about the Maharaja libel case. For this post, I’m going to examine some of the intersecting factors which allowed Gujurati social reformers to enter into a strategic alliance with Imperial law, with far-reaching effects. Continue reading »
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.” Continue reading »
“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 »
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 »
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.
One of the problems of engaging with tantra is that so many of the tropes used to construct contemporary popular representations of “tantra” – indeed, the very notion of “tantra” itself; that it is a singular, monolithic category which can be easily seperated from its South Asian roots and contexts – arise from colonial-era discourses. Postcolonialism has, since the 1970s been gaining increasing prominence as a broad-based approach to studying the interactions between (mostly) European nations and the societies they colonised. For a useful introduction to the range of issues which postcolonialism encompasses, see this Interview with Achille Mbembe. Continue reading »
“But the obvious forms and ceremonies of a religion are not always to be understood in their obvious sense; but are to be considered as symbolical representations of some hidden meaning, which may be extremely wise and just, though the symbols themselves, to those who know not their true significance may appear in the highest degree absurd and extravagant.”
Richard Payne Knight, A Discourse on the worship of Priapus
In the midst of Richard Payne Knight’s A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, and its connection with the mystic Theology of the Ancients (first published in 1786) there is an early European analysis of Ganesa: Continue reading »
The Tantrists do not seem to go higher than the six visible and known plexuses, with each of which they connect the tattvas; and the great stress they place on the chief of these, the Muladhara Chakra (the sacral plexus) shows the material and selfish bent of their efforts towards the acquisition of powers.The Mahatma Letters (Letter CXIV, p480)
In the last post I reviewed how the notion of the “left-hand path” and much of the themes which relate to it emerged out of nineteenth century Indology. I will now turn to how the concept of the left-hand path” was used by Madame Blavatsky and other early Theosophists. Continue reading »
In popular occult discourse, the concept of the “Left-hand Path” is often stated as originating within the tantric traditions, and sometimes, its popularisation within western occultism is laid at the door of Madame Blavatsky and other popular Theosophical pundits of the late nineteenth century – to the extent that the conceptualisation of the idea of the LHP in wholly negative terms (as can be seen in the writings of successive western occultists – Dion Fortune for example) is something that begins with Madame Blavatsky. However, although she may have been one of the first occultists to write extensively about the Left Hand Path, its identification with moral (and spiritual) degeneracy certainly did not begin with Blavatsky. Continue reading »