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Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion

by Hugh B. Urban

University of Chicago Press, 2003, 372pp


This highly accessible and readable book presents a metahistory of Tantra. In the Introduction, Urban points out that:

"Tantra is a highly variable and shifting category, whose meaning may differ depending on the particular historical moment, cultural milieu and political context."

Although Urban acknowledges that the abstract concept of Tantra is a relatively recent creation, he asserts that it is overly simplistic to take the view that Tantra is solely a Western imaginary (either scholarly or popular). Urban takes the position that Tantra is a "complex hybrid" arising out of both Eastern and Western scholarly and popular discourses, and notions of what Tantra is, for Urban, emerge from what he characterises as "a game of cultural Ping-Pong."

Tantra examines various contexts in which Tantra emerges, beginning with the imaginings of early Orientalists, and moving through to the contemporary era. On the way, Urban examines the influence of a number of colourful individuals who have been influential in shaping notions of Tantra - among them Arthur Avalon, Vivekananda, Julius Evola, Mircea Eliade, Aleister Crowley, Osho, and Chogyam Trungpa.

Urban proposes that examining the development of popular Western imaginings of Tantra can provide researchers with useful insights into the way in which 'traditional religions' are incorporated, transmuted and exploited in the world of late capitalism. He also discusses some of the issues around cultural borrowings, andnotes how the niave viewpoint which argues that cultural borrowings enhance cultural understandings and diversity often ignores an underlying neocolonialism and cultural exploitation.

In his conclusion, Urban argues for the need to forge what he terms as an embodied approach to Tantra:

"We need to look at the peoples and traditions that we wish to identify as "Tantric" in their most material, corporeal forms, placing them firmly within their lived, social, political and economic contexts."

By embodied, Urban is referring not only to the reality of the body, but also:

"the embodiedness of actual human agents and their struggles in the messy world of history, politics, economics and social change."
Urban is arguing for an approach to Tantra which acknowledges its complexities and contradictions, and places it within particular social contexts. This, he believes, is a neccesary antitode to both the popular approach of seating "sex" as the central focus of Tantra, and the academic tendency to treat Tantra as an abstract philosophical and intellectual system.

Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion is a fascinating book, providing a much-needed overview of the tangled geneology of the development of the concept of Tantra. There is much food for thought here, and Urban manages to present a complex argument in a manner that is both stylish and engaging. Highly reccomended! - Phil Hine