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Tantra’s metahistory -I

One of the many ways in which Tantra fascinates me is the way that it is represented, be it by practitioners, scholars, historians, occultists or any combination thereof – and how those representations change over time. It was my interest in how tantra (and other forms of South Asian religious practice) is represented in popular occult discourse which led me to become interested in both Orientalism and the influence on contemporary occultism of the Theosophical Society. So with a nod in the direction of Hayden White, this is the first of a series of posts examining the way in which Tantra’s history has been, and continues to be represented, particularly in occult texts. This opening shot is concerned with origin theories of Tantra which relate to the so-called Aryan Invasion Theory.

Basically, the Aryan Invasion Theory holds that India was originally populated by a rather passive, ‘effeminate’ goddess-worshipping people known as the Dravidians, who were displaced and conquered by the Aryans, who were in all respects noble, vigorous, warlike and generally not too dissimilar to modern Europeans. Needless to say, this theory emerged from the writings of orientalists such as William Jones, Freidrich von Schlegel, and most notably, Professor F. Max Müller (1823 – 1900). Müller is probably best-remembered for his translations of the Rg Veda and Upanisads, and as one of the founders of the academic disciplines of comparative religion and comparative mythology. Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that the British colonisation of India was a benevolent rule which benefited both the coloniser and the colonised. It was generally assumed by Orientalists that India was a ‘primitive’ culture and all the achievements of ancient India were due to the influence of the descendants of the Aryans, who were described in terms of them being ‘noble, virile, aggressive, patriarchal, and rational’, whereas the Dravidians were described as ‘passive, effeminate, weak, and dominated by idolatory’. Thus anything of ‘value’ in India came originally from outside it. Moreover, by creating this notion of a common kinship between Indian-Aryans and European-Aryans, the colonisation of India became effectively – a ‘rescue mission’ whereby a ‘healthy’ Aryan civilisation — one which was was still strong, virile, and forceful (i.e. the British) could reform an India which, due to the progressive contamination of Dravidian paganism (and Muslim influences) had become ‘corrupt’ and ‘effeminate’. So the Aryan Invasion Theory, as an orientalist narrative, provided a justification for British rule in India, in much the same way that the doctrine of Manifest Destiny provided a ‘moral’ justification for American incursions into Mexico.

Now the notion that Tantra was a survival of India’s Dravidian past became popular in the late nineteenth century as part of an ‘explanation’ of the corruption of Aryan values and the spread of idol worship, effeminacy, temple prostitution and anything else which gave the British cause for concern:

“…the purity of the race was soiled by marriage with native women … and the creed with foul Dravidian worships of Shiva and Kali, and the worship of the lingam.
Isaac Taylor, Origin of the Aryans, 1889

Related to this explanation was the notion that the original meaning of texts such as the Vedas had been lost. Müller for example, believed that his translations could be used to educate Hindus in order to recover the ‘lost purity’ of their past from its corrupted present and its “grovelling worship of cows and monkeys”:

…this edition of mine and the translation of the Vedas, will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It (the Rg Veda) is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I am sure, the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years.
Life and letters of Max Müller, 1902, p. 328

Müller was critical of temple and image worship, and asserted that the cure for such practices was European influence – he believed that Hinduism should be reformed along the lines of Christianity and that this was an evolutionary step for Hindus.

Obviously there’s a link also between tantra’s supposed ‘sacred sexuality’ and the orientalist gendering of India as feminine, but I’ll save that for another time. But for now let’s keep to this image of tantra as evidence of cultural degeneration. What interests me in particular is how this “origin” theory for tantra has remained fairly popular in occult texts but that it has become ‘inverted’ so that the patriarchal, warlike Aryans are now effectively the “bad guys” as opposed to the goddess-worshipping, peaceful Dravidians. Evidence to support this proposition is generally thin. Proofs frequently mention the well-known ‘Pashupati Seal’ found at Harrappa which depicts a horned, ithyphallic figure, surrounded by animals, and, according to some authors, sitting in a yogic asana (and hence indicating that tantric practices were known to the Harrappans). The Pashupati Seal is often taken as ‘evidence’ that Shiva (and by extension, much of that which is now associated with Shiva) is of Dravidian origin and therefore a non-Vedic deity. There are, of course, many problems with this theory, such as the term Shiva (‘auspicious one’) appearing several times in the Rg Veda, as an epithet of Indra. But I don’t want to dwell on the various arguments themselves here, but to highlight the way in which the theory gets deployed as an origin story. What’s again interesting here is that, as with the orientalist view of tantra – as a degenerate corruption of noble Aryan culture, in the occult/new age version, Tantra is still seen as being apart from other forms of South Asian religious practice, whereas the Aryans are now seen as being responsible for the origins of Brahminic religion, the caste system, and indeed any aspect of contemporary Indian culture that’s seen as repressive or conservative, is often put down to the influence of Aryan culture. So whereas European colonisers identified with their ancient kin – the noble Aryans, we now have some occultists and new agers (sometimes it’s hard to make a distinction between the two) using the same theory, but this time, identifying with the peaceful, goddess-worshipping, sexually liberated and generally just-like-us’ Dravidians.

Variations on the Aryan theme turn up in a variety of nineteenth and twentieth century occult texts – Madame Blavatsky’s voluminous writings on race and sub-races; being one example, and the occult writings of fascist idealist Julius Evola another.

For anyone who wants to get into this further, I’d recommend the following texts as starting points:

  • Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective Sharada Sugirtharajah, Routledge, 2003
  • India: What can it teach us? Max Müller, The Book Tree, 1999
  • Indian Mythology Devdutt Pattanaik, Inner Traditions, 2003
  • Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion Hugh Urban, University of California Press, 2003
  • Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate Koenraad Elst, 1999


  1. Steve Davies
    Posted December 29th 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks Phil- interesting stuff- I was chatting to a friend the other day who is a liberal catholic bishop and the moment I mentioned tantra he froze! He then started muttering about the “left-hand path” in that classicaly theosophical way that sees the LHP as being synonomous with all that is evil!

    Do you see the theosophical impulse with its brahminical obsession with purity and denial of the flesh as being Aryan in nature? Interesting, if as you say current new age fluffyness has its roots in a reappropriation of the dravidian utopia- perhaps they’ve been watching Avatar!

    • Phil Hine
      Posted December 29th 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      That whole concept of the “left-hand path” and how its used within occult discourses needs some examination, methinks.

      As to Theosophy – well I wouldn’t say Theosophical concerns with “purity and denial of the flesh” were necessarily ‘Brahminical’. Many theosophists in both the UK and USA were members of various ‘social purity’ movements, for instance, and the explicit link made between say, celibacy and spiritual advancement isn’t just limited to Theosophists. I think its useful to approach the TS in relation to wider cultural trends in the period. As for Brahminical notions of purity – well caste is a massive subject in itself and not one to approach lightly, but European notions of caste do owe more to dodgy race theories and attempts to “scientifically” manage India than actually being an accurate portrayal of Indian culture.

      • Steve Davies
        Posted December 29th 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Phil- I think that my use of Brahminical was a tad lazy and has become my own short hand for priestly preoccupation with rites vs. a more visceral shamanic type experience- I blame Herman Hesse!!

        My own experience of the TS has been through the lens of co-masonry, within which there was a definite sense that a movement “up” the chakras was a journey away from desire and anything as sordid as sex. In contrast to this I find the idea of circularity whereby any “ascended” experience then informs our experience of sex, food, art etc as being innately more helpful and doable (at least for me).