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The Roots of Tantra

Edited by Katherine Anne Harper & Robert L. Brown

SUNY, 2002, 270pp


This book is a collection of scholarly papers examining various aspects of Tantric studies. In the opening essay, André Padoux poses the question "What do we mean by Tantrism?" He discusses the point that 'Tantrism' itself is a western-defined category of discourse, and goes on to elucidate how the various attempts to define what 'tantrism' has proved to be difficult, given that many of the 'distinguishing features' of tantrism appear in decidedly non-tantric contexts.

David N. Lorenzen's contribution, Early evidence for Tantric religion reviews the historical evidence for the appearence of Tantrism. Lorenzen uses a broad definition of Tantra - one that includes both the texts/practices of the Sanskritised elites, and those of more popular magical beliiefs and traditions. Lorenzen identifies four major components of (broadly-defined) Tantrism:

  1. sources relating to shamanic and yogic beliefs/practices
  2. Sakta worship - particularly worship of the matrikas and fierce goddesses
  3. sources relating to the particular schools of tantra
  4. 'Tantric' texts themselves

After reviewing the earliest evidence for these components, Lorenzen concludes that Tantrism - in a recognisabe form, is first document in the fifth century C.E. Lorenzen also notes that although Tantrism lost most of its popular and intellectual support during the 19th century ... many of its beliefs and practices are now well-integrated within more mainstream Hinduism and Buddhism.

M.C. Joshi's Historical and Iconographic aspects of Sakta Tantrism proposes that the roots of the Tantric concept of Sakti has its roots in prehistoric fertile mother goddesses - dated to the Upper Paleolithic era - and traces goddess-worship in India from this era onwards. This essay paints a picture of a gradual shift towards Sakta Tantrrism. For example, Joshi draws our attention to a hymn in the Rg Veda, in which the goddess Vac refers to herself as the female energy which is the supreme power. Joshi points out that it is the Vedic Vac representative of infinite energy as sound - is important to the development of Saktism.

Auspicious Wisdom: The roots of Srividya Sakta Tantrism in South India by Douglas Renfrew Brooks, takes a rather different approach - in contrast to Joshi's broad historical sweep, Brooks focuses on the 7th century Tamil text, the Tirumantiram of Tirumular. Brooks demonstrates that Tirumular - Saivaite - was aware of the SriVidya system, and incorporated elements of it into the Tirumantiram (a text comprising of three thousand verses. Brooks sees this as evidence for a 'pan-Indian' Sakta Tantrism in early medieval India, and also suggests that elements of Sakta Tantrism may have been transmitted orally at least two centuries prior to them appearing as Sanskrit texts.

Thomas B. Coburn's essay, The Structural Interplay of Tantra, Vedanta and Bhakti: Nondualist commentary on the Goddess begins with the 'problem' of how to determine the status of Tantrism and its relationship to other forms of Hindu religiosity. Coburn selects a passage from the 6th century Devi-Mahatmya and analyses how it is interpreted by two commentators - a SriVidya tantric, and a Vedantin. Whilst both commentators are Nondualists, their conclusions are different. For the Vedantin, the passage concerned affirms an ontological monism, but also at the same time an epistological dualism, in which the Goddess is relegated to the realm of "less-than-ultimate" knowledge. The SriVidya commentary, in contrast, inclines towards a private and ritualised experience of the nondual, which does not ascribe a secondary status to the physical world of the senses.

The Spinal Serpent,by Thomas McEvilley, presents a rather intriguing comparison of Indian Kundalini doctrine and Plato's Timaeus. In order to present an account of the similarities between the two, McEvilley proposes firstly that elements of Tantric physiology may have entered Greece after circa 540 BCE. He also presents a second hypothesis, that the doctrine may have passed into both the Greek and the Indian traditions from the proto-Indo-European era.

Katherine Anne Harper's essay - The Warring Saktis: A Paradigm for Gupta Conquests examines the growth of influence of the Seven Mothers in the political use of Tantrism. She examines how the Saptamatrikas were granted orthodox sanction due to their relationship to royalty - in particular, granting royalty their favour in battle. Harper cites inscriptional & textual evidence that suggests that royal advisers who were tantrins devised rituals to strengthen the King's power, and that this ultimately led to the 7 Mothers gaining a central position in the Hindu pantheon.

Dennis Hudson's contribution, Early Evidence of the Pancarata Agama, uses art, inscriptions & texts to present the view that the Bhagavata (i.e. Krishna) tradition attained a coherence from the 1st century BCE or even earlier. Hudson uses an analysis of the Vaikuntha Perumal temple at Kanchipuran to demonstrate how the Temple reveals both esoteric and exoteric elements of the Bhagavata Purana.

Teun Goudriaan's Imagery of the Self from Veda to Tantra surveys the imagery by which the self is depicted in both Vedic and Tantric sources. In doing so, he demonstrates that Tantrism relied on concepts & presentations of self from the Vedas and the Upanishads, which were reinterpreted within a Tantric context, so that the idea of an autonomous Atman became the "supreme self, which they experienced as inseperable from the Supreme Godhead worshipped by their school or sect.".

Richard K Payne's Tongues of Fire looks at the continuity between Vedic & Tantric traditions in terms of the homa fire rituals of the Shingon Tantric Buddhism of Japan. Payne examines the similarities between Buddhist & Tantric rituals and those of the Vedas, and concludes that this form of Tantric ritual is more rooted in the Vedic tradition than is usually suggested.

Becoming Bhairava by Paul Muller-Ortega, examines through the analysis of Abhinavagupta's texts, how the image of Bhairava - the wrathful form of Shiva, is reinterpreted from being the wrathful Lord of the cremation ground, to the all-encompassing blissful light of consciousness with which the practitioner identifies. This essay provides a useful hermeneutic perspective on the tantric ritual identification with a deity and the siddhas which arise from that process.

The final essay - Lina Gupta's Tantric Incantation in the Devi Purana explores a mantra-form - the Padamala Mantra Vidya of the Devi Purana. Gupta also examines the use of skulls in Tantric ritual, and the 32 names by which the Goddess Camunda is invoked in the Padamala Mantra Vidya.

Overall, this book is an excellent collection, offering many thought-provoking insights into the 'roots' and development of Tantrism. - Phil Hine