Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Towards a SriVidya Bibliography – I

“To be a knower of Sri Vidya one should be grounded in the Trika; to be a knower of the Trika one should be immersed in the Saiva Siddhanta; to understand Saiva Siddhanta one should be rooted in Samkhya.”

A friend asked me recently if I would provide her with a select bibliography for the SriVidya tradition. Approaching tantric traditions such as SriVidya as an “outsider” can be a daunting challenge, particularly if you don’t have access to practitioner communities or networks. But trying to organise even a basic “reading list” can be equally daunting, if only because SriVidya, as with most other South Asian religious currents, is heavily influenced by other traditions (tantric and otherwise). The epigraph above illustrates this, albeit tersely – that Sri Vidya, in its development, drew on many themes and concepts from the Trika traditions of Kashmir (a.k.a Kashmir Shaivism) and these in turn, require some understanding of the wider Saiva Siddhanta tradition – which was, in turn, heavily influenced by Samkhya philosophy.

This is one of the difficulties of getting to grips with tantra – there has been tendency has been to treat it as something entirely abstracted and seperate from the broader Indian cultural landscape rather than, as contemporary scholarship tends to view it – as the “esoteric wing” of wider Indian traditions (be they Buddhist, Jaina, Śaiva, Śhakta, Viṣṇu, etc.). Tantra also builds on historically earlier traditions (such as Classical Samkhya) but re-interprets them in novel ways.

So here’s a starting point – it is not intended to be comprehensive, and I’ll try and return to it periodically with updates. For the moment, I’m going to focus on scholarly works in English.

A primary web source I’d reccomend is Mike Magee’s wonderful shiva shakti mandalam – in particular, the essays & translations in the sections headings: “Shrikula- Lalita Tradition” and “Tantrik Ritual – Puja”.

Scholarly Works
As to scholarly works focusing on SriVidya – there we hit on another problem. There are relatively few books dealing wholly with SriVidya – and some of the most recent work is published either in specialist Journals (which require institutional access, subscription or individual paper purchase) or in anthologies (which can be expensive).

Probably the most well-known books on SriVidya (in English) are Douglas Renfrew Brooks’ The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Sakta Tantrism (University of Chicago Press 1990) and Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India (State University of New York, 1992). Although Secret of the Three Cities is subtitled as an “Introduction to Hindu Sakta Tantrism” the book focuses almost entirely on the goddess Tripurā and SriVidya (including a translation/commentary on the Tripurā Upaniṣad) So it’s worth bearing in mind that Secret of the Three Cities does not encompass the whole of Sakta tantrism. Brooks’ Ph.D thesis The Srividya School of Sakta Tantrism: A Study of the Texts and Contexts of the Living Traditions in South India (Harvard 1987) – from which the two books are drawn – is available from Proquest in pdf format.

Lalita-Tripurā often appears within the cluster of goddesses known as the daśamahāvidyās, so you can usually find some information on the devi in texts dealing with them. One of the most well-known studies of this group of goddesses is David Kinsley’s Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas (University of California Press, 1997).

It’s always worth bearing in mind (especially when reading scholarly texts) that SriVidya is a living tradition, rather than just a “historical” subject.
A book currently on my “to review” list is Corrine Dempsey’s The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York: Breaking Convention and Making Home at a North American Hindu Temple (Oxford University Press, 2006). This is a detailed ethnographic study of a SriVidya temple in Rush, New York and how its founder, Sri Caitanyananda (known affectionally as “Aiya” to his followers) negotiates various boundaries – on the one upholding the standards adhered to by his guru lineage, but on the other – making SriVidya ritual procedures available through books and tapes. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of ethnographies relating to contemporary SriVidya practitioners (although Douglas R. Brooks interviewed several Tamil adepts), so this book is definitely worth a look.
I reviewed another of Corrine Dempsey’s books – Bringing the Sacred Down to Earth – which also has a chapter drawing on her New York SriVidya study in 2012.

Annette Wilke, professor for the study of religion at the University of Muenster (Germany) has also written some extremely detailed and fascinating papers on SriVidya, but they are scattered across several anthologies. For example, her essay Re-coding the Natural and Animating the Imaginary: Kaula body practices in the Parasurama-Kalpasutra, ritual transfers and the politics of representation can be found in Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond edited by István Keul, and available from De Grutyer. This paper deals with the Parasurama-Kalpasutra – a SriVidya ritual handbook dating from around the 16th century. She has also published Mental Journeys, Cosmic Geography, and Intermediary Space: Shrichakra and Shrichakrapujā, which appears in Sacred Geography of Goddesses in South Asia: Essays in memory of David Kinsley (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010).

Another scholar who’s work is worth watching out for is Jeffrey S. Lidke. His Ph.D thesis – The Goddess within and beyond the Three Cities: Śakta Tantra and the Paradox of Power in Nepāla-Maṇḍala – is available from Proquest. It’s a detailed analysis of SriVidya in Nepal, it’s relationship to Nepalese royal lineages, sadhana, sacred space, and much more. He has translated some chapters of the Nityāṣoḍaśikārṇava Tantra – another important SriVidya text.
His paper The Resounding Field of Visualised Self-Awareness: The Generation of Synesthetic Consciousness in the Śrī Yantra Rituals of Nityāṣoḍaśikārṇava Tantra appeared in the Oxford Journal of Hindu Studies (2011). I bought that edition of the journal just so’s I could read it – it’s a fascinating exploration of sensory synesthaesia and how Sripuja could possibly produce those kind of sensory interminglings within ritual space.

Text Translations
Whilst the majority of texts & ritual manuals relating to SriVidya have yet to be translated into English (much less studied) here’s a brief selection, in no particular order. One of the first SriVidya-specific texts to be translated into English was the Kāmakalāvilāsa – translated by Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe) and published by Ganesh & Co. in 1922. This text concerns (mainly) the ritual use of the SriYantra. A very recent release (Oxford University Press 2013) is André Padoux & Roger Orphé Jeanty’s Heart of the Yogini – a translation of the Yoginīhṛdaya. This is a key SriVidya text, again concerning ritual worship of the SriYantra – the goddess in her yantra-form. Mike Magee has published The Mysteries of the Red Goddess (reviewed here) which is a translation of the Vamakesvara Tantra. There are other translations of this work available, but I have say I prefer Mike’s rendering, as it is very accessible.

There are several English translations of Saundaryalahari available. I tend to favour the translation by Francis X. Clooney in his Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2005) but there are plenty of others, although, so far I have been unable to obtain a full english translation of Laksmidhara’s commentary. Meera Kachroo’s 2005 MA Thesis – The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (also available from Proquest) is well worth a read too.

Similarly, the Lalitā Sahasranāma (thousand names of the goddess) is widely available in English, but it’s worth finding one which has Bhaskararaya’s commentary on the verses. Lalitā Sahasranāma is often recited on a daily basis by devotees of the goddess all over the world.

That’s probably enough to be going on with, so I’ll hold it there (for now).