Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in Its South Asian Contexts / Edition 1

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Overview


For those who wonder what relation actual Tantric practices bear to the "Tantric sex" currently being marketed so successfully in the West, David Gordon White has a simple answer: there is none. Sweeping away centuries of misunderstandings and misrepresentations, White returns to original texts, images, and ritual practices to reconstruct the history of South Asian Tantra from the medieval period to the present day.

Kiss of the Yogini focuses on what White identifies as the sole truly distinctive feature of South Asian Tantra: sexualized ritual practices, especially as expressed in the medieval Kaula rites. Such practices centered on the exchange of powerful, transformative sexual fluids between male practitioners and wild female bird and animal spirits known as Yoginis. It was only by "drinking" the sexual fluids of the Yoginis that men could enter the family of the supreme godhead and thereby obtain supernatural powers and transform themselves into gods. By focusing on sexual rituals, White resituates South Asian Tantra, in its precolonial form, at the center of religious, social, and political life, arguing that Tantra was the mainstream, and that in many ways it continues to influence contemporary Hinduism, even if reformist misunderstandings relegate it to a marginal position.

Kiss of the Yogini contains White's own translations from over a dozen Tantras that have never before been translated into any European language. It will prove to be the definitive work for persons seeking to understand Tantra and the crucial role it has played in South Asian history, society, culture, and religion.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement

"There are many good, dull books about Tantra and many that are bad but interesting. This is true of many areas of knowledge, but Tantra is particularly susceptible both to juicy sensationalism and to an overcompensating academic desiccation. Kiss of the Yogini is one of the few good, interesting books about Tantra, a passionately argued work that transforms scholarly understanding of its subject. . . . By reconstructing the medieval South Asian Kaula and Tantric traditions that involved sexual practices, David White hopes to restore the dignity and autonomy of the people who invented them and continue to practise them. This monumental scholarly work does precisely that."

— Wendy Doniger

Anthropological Quarterly

“A masterfully researched, eloquently written, and compelling scholarly work. From her hazy Indo-European roots to contemporary Nike ads, White brings us a rich interdisciplinary study of the Hindu Yogini. . . . A valuable contribution to disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, and a much-needed and timely response to the rampant commodification of Tantra.”

— Andrea Custodi

Journal of Religion

“White’s significant new work sheds welcome light on the topic of Hindu Tantric sex. . . . The main strategic procedure White employs is, radically enough, to read Tantric language . . . literally. The result is a revelation of the internal logic of Tantric ritual and a new perspective on a wide range of old confusions,”

— Jonathan C. Gold

Contemporary South Asia

“White argues that the truly perennial tradition within Indian religion, the predominant religious paradigm, has always been Tantric. Unfortunately, this Tantric tradition has been, to a larger extent, ignored by serious scholarship. White makes a valiant effort to remedy this omission.”

— Apratim Barua

History of Religions

"A welcome and much-needed critical study of the role of sex in Indian Tantric texts, ritual, and iconography. Not only does this book force us to rethink the role of sex in Indian Tantra, but it also forces us to reevaluate the landscape of South Asian religions as a whole. . . . This is an important, powerful, provocative, and in many ways brilliant book that does reorient our understanding of Tantra and South Asian religion. As such it should be of serious interest not only to South Asianists, but to scholars of comparative religion, art historians, and anyone working in sexuality studies."

— Hugh B. Urban

Times Literary Supplement - Wendy Doniger

"There are many good, dull books about Tantra and many that are bad but interesting. This is true of many areas of knowledge, but Tantra is particularly susceptible both to juicy sensationalism and to an overcompensating academic desiccation. Kiss of the Yogini is one of the few good, interesting books about Tantra, a passionately argued work that transforms scholarly understanding of its subject. . . . By reconstructing the medieval South Asian Kaula and Tantric traditions that involved sexual practices, David White hopes to restore the dignity and autonomy of the people who invented them and continue to practise them. This monumental scholarly work does precisely that."
Anthropological Quarterly - Andrea Custodi

“A masterfully researched, eloquently written, and compelling scholarly work. From her hazy Indo-European roots to contemporary Nike ads, White brings us a rich interdisciplinary study of the Hindu Yogini. . . . A valuable contribution to disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, and a much-needed and timely response to the rampant commodification of Tantra.”

Journal of Religion - Jonathan C. Gold

“White’s significant new work sheds welcome light on the topic of Hindu Tantric sex. . . . The main strategic procedure White employs is, radically enough, to read Tantric language . . . literally. The result is a revelation of the internal logic of Tantric ritual and a new perspective on a wide range of old confusions,”

Contemporary South Asia - Apratim Barua

“White argues that the truly perennial tradition within Indian religion, the predominant religious paradigm, has always been Tantric. Unfortunately, this Tantric tradition has been, to a larger extent, ignored by serious scholarship. White makes a valiant effort to remedy this omission.”

History of Religions - Hugh B. Urban

"A welcome and much-needed critical study of the role of sex in Indian Tantric texts, ritual, and iconography. Not only does this book force us to rethink the role of sex in Indian Tantra, but it also forces us to reevaluate the landscape of South Asian religions as a whole. . . . This is an important, powerful, provocative, and in many ways brilliant book that does reorient our understanding of Tantra and South Asian religion. As such it should be of serious interest not only to South Asianists, but to scholars of comparative religion, art historians, and anyone working in sexuality studies."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226894836
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2003
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 391
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


David Gordon White is a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Myths of the Dog-Man and The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, both published by the University of Chicago Press, and the editor of Tantra in Practice.
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Read an Excerpt

Kiss of the Yogini
"TANTRIC SEX" IN ITS SOUTH ASIAN CONTEXTS
By David Gordon White
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2003 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-89483-6



Chapter One
TANTRA IN ITS SOUTH ASIAN CONTEXTS

Je ne suis pas seul dans ma peau-Ma famille est immense. -Henri Michaux

Curiously, the most balanced overview of Tantra in South Asia written to date is the work of a Sinologist. This is Michel Strickmann's posthumous Mantras et mandarins: Le Bouddhisme tantrique en Chine, which, in giving an account of the origins of Tantra in East Asia, brings together textual, art historical, and ethnographic data to sketch out the broad lines of South Asian Tantra. The present volume will continue Strickmann's project, within a strictly South Asian focus, bringing together text-based Tantric theory and exegesis (that has been the subject of work by scholars like Woodroffe, Silburn, Padoux, Gnoli, Goudriaan, Gupta, Sanderson, Dyczkowski, Muller-Ortega, Brooks, and others), Tantric imagery (the stuff of the pop art books by Rawson, Mookerjee, and others, but also of serious scholarship by Dehejia, Desai, Donaldson, Mallmann, and Slusser), and Tantric practice (the subject of a growing number of studies in ethno-psychology by Kakar, Obeyesekere, Caldwell, Nabokov, etc.). While each of these approaches has its merits, and while many of the studies published by various scholars in these fields have been nothing short of brilliant, the nearly total lack of attention to complementary disciplines (of art history and ethnography for the textualists, for example) has generated three very different and truncated-if not skewed-types of scholarly analysis of one and the same phenomenon. The life of Tantric practitioners has never been limited to textual exegesis alone; nor has it been solely concerned with the fabrication of worship images or the ritual propitiation of the Tantric pantheon. Yet such is the impression one receives when one reads one or another of the types of scholarly literature on the subject.

Here, by paralleling these three types of data, as well as attending to accounts of Tantric practice and practitioners found in the medieval secular literature, I intend to reconstruct a history as well, perhaps, as a religious anthropology, a sociology, and a political economy of (mainly Hindu) Tantra, from the medieval period down to the present day. In so doing, I will also lend serious attention to human agency in the history of Tantra in South Asia. Most of the South Asian temples upon which Tantric practices are depicted in sculpture were constructed by kings-kings whose involvement in Tantric ritual life is irrefutable. When the king is a Tantric practitioner and his religious advisers are Tantric "power brokers," how does this impact the religious and political life of his kingdom? What is the relationship between "popular" practice and "elite" exegesis in the Tantric context? What has been the relationship between "pragmatic" and "transcendental" religious practice in South Asia? These are questions whose answers may be found in texts and in stone, in medieval precept as well as modern-day practice. This book will grapple with these questions, and in so doing resituate South Asian Tantra, in its precolonial forms at least, at the center of the religious, social, and political life of India and Nepal. For a wide swath of central India in the precolonial period, Tantra would have been the "mainstream," and in many ways it continues to impact the mainstream, even if emic misappreciations of Tantra tend to relegate it to a marginal position. In present-day Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet, Tantra remains the mainstream form of religious practice.

1. Revisioning the "Mainstream" of Indian Religion

Viewed through the lens of present-day reformed Hindu sensibilities as spread through the printed word and other mass media, "classical Hinduism" evolved directly out of the speculative hymns of the Rg Veda and the Upanisads and down through the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita into the predominantly Vaisnava forms of devotionalism that predominate in north India today. Most Indian and Western scholars of the past century have consciously or unconsciously adopted this reformist agenda, devoting their interpretive efforts to Hindu religious texts in the Sanskrit medium or to living vernacular traditions that partake of bhakti religiosity and neo-Vedantic philosophy. In so doing, they have succeeded in mapping, often in great detail, a thin sliver of the history of South Asian religions, which they have generally mistaken for a comprehensive history of the same.

However, this selective chronology bears no resemblance to what may be termed the truly "perennial" Indian religion, which has generally remained constant since at least the time of the Atharva Veda, as evidenced in over three thousand years of sacred and secular literature as well as medieval iconography and modern ethnography. For what reformist Hindus and the scholars who have followed their revisionist history of South Asian religion have in fact done has been to project-backward onto over two millennia of religious history, and outward onto the entire population of South Asia-the ideals, concerns, and categories of a relatively small cadre of Hindu religious specialists, literati, and their mainly urban clientele. While it is the case that those same elites-the brahmin intelligentsia, a certain Indian aristocracy, and the merchant classes-have been the historical bearers of much of Indian religious civilization, their texts and temples have had limited impact on the religious culture of the vast majority of South Asians. "Classical" bhakti in some way corresponds to the religious productions of post-Gupta period elites-what royal chaplains and their royal clients displayed as public religion-as well as the religion of what Harald Tambs-Lyche has termed "urban society" in South Asia.

The distorting effect of the hegemonic voices of these elites on the ways that twentieth- and now twenty-first-century India has imagined its past has been the subject of no small number of scholarly works, if not movements, over the past twenty-five years. The critical (or postcolonialist, or subalternist) approach to Indian historiography has been quite successful in deconstructing colonial categories. Where it has markedly failed-postmodernisme oblige?-has been in generating other nonelite, noncolonial (i.e., subaltern) categories through which to interpret the history of Indian culture. Yet such a category exists and is possessed of a cultural history that may be-and in many cases has been-retrieved through literary, art historical, and ethnographic research. That category, that cultural phenomenon, is Tantra, the occulted face of India's religious history. In many ways the antitype of bhakti-the religion of Indian civilization that has come to be embraced by nineteenth- to twenty-first-century reformed Hinduism as normative for all of Indian religious history-Tantra has been the predominant religious paradigm, for over a millennium, of the great majority of the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. It has been the background against which Indian religious civilization has evolved.

A preponderance of evidence supports this conclusion. In ancient times as in the present, village India has had its own local or regional deities that it has worshiped in its own ways and in its own contexts. These deities, which are multiple rather than singular, often form a part of the geographical as well as human landscapes of their various localities: trees, forests, mountains, bodies of water; but also the malevolent and heroic dead, male and female ancestors, and ghosts, ghouls, and rascally imps of every sort. As will be shown in detail in the next chapter, these multiple (and often feminine) deities are, before all else, angry and hungry, and very often angry because hungry. Their cultus consists of feeding them in order that they be pacified.

As far back as the time of Panini, Brahmanic sources have qualified these as laukika devatas (popular deities), while Jain and Buddhist authors have termed them vyantara devatas (intermediate deities, as opposed to enlightened jinas and tirthamkaras), and devas (unenlightened deities, as opposed to enlightened Buddhas and bodhisattvas), respectively. Yet when one looks at the devotional cults of the gods of so-called classical Hinduism, the gods of the Hindu elites, one finds remarkable connections-historical, iconographic, ritual, and regional-between these high gods and the deities of the preterite masses. Whereas the gods Visnu, Siva (Mahesvara, Sankara, Mahakala), and Skanda (Karttikeya) likely have their South Asian origins in local or regional Yaksa cults, and Krsna-Gopala and Ganesa were likely first worshiped in the form of mountains, the great Goddess is a theological abstraction of the multiple tree, forest, and water goddesses of popular Indian religion, as well as of the complex image of the multiple Mothers of earlier traditions. Nearly every one of the avataras of Visnu has its own regional and historical antecedents, which have little or nothing to do with the great god Visnu per se, with whom they are later identified in Sanskritic traditions. The earliest Krsna traditions portray him and his brother Balarama as tributary to the great Goddess Ekanamsa: this "Vrsni triad," rather than the much-vaunted trimurti of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva, was the original Hindu "trinity." Prior to the eleventh century, there were no temples to Rama, who theretofore had been revered more as an exemplary human king than as a god.

Devotional vernacular poetry and literature, the strongest evidence we have for the flourishing of bhakti as a regional phenomenon, emerged slowly, and in an uneven and discontinuous way. The earliest bhakti poems, the sixth-century works of the Vaisnava Alvars and Saiva Nayanmars in the Tamil medium-and whose content and tenor would be barely recognizable to a present-day devotee of one of the great Hindu gods-date from the sixth century C.E. Bhakti poems in the Kannada medium appear in the same century; in Marathi in the eleventh century; Gujarati in the twelfth century; Kashmiri, Bengali, Assamese, and Maithili in the fourteenth century; and Oriya in the fifteenth century. It is not until the sixteenth century that the bhakti poetry considered to be definitive for the cults of Krsna and Rama, in the Braj and Avadhi dialects, first appears.

So much for the great gods of bhakti. What then of Tantra? As William Pinch has demonstrated, brahmin pandits themselves categorized the religion of the Indian masses well into the nineteenth century as "Tantra," in the sense of rustic mumbo-jumbo. (Most orthodox Hindus continue to qualify tantra-mantra in this way: we will return to this point in the final chapter of this book.) Throughout north India, the nineteenth- to twentieth-century social uplift of the same masses took place through the mechanism of religious "conversion" to an especially Ramaite form of Vaisnavism based on the Ram Carit Manas of Tulsidas. This is the basis for what is termed sanatana dharma, an "old-time religion" that never existed prior to the nineteenth century, as evidenced in the ethnographic surveys undertaken by Bengali pandits on the behalf of the British civil servant Francis Buchanan in the early 1800s. In a typical district of Bihar, these pandits reported that one-fourth of the population's religion was "unworthy of the note of any sage"-that is, they consisted of cults of (predominantly female) village deities whose worship was often conducted by the socially and culturally marginalized, in other words, Tantric cults. Of those "worthy of note"-that is, the remaining 75 percent of the population, one-fourth were Sakta (devotees of the Goddess as Sakti); one-eighth Saiva; one-eighth Vaisnava; three-sixteenths "adher[ing] to the sect of Nanak"; and one-sixteenth Kabirpanthis or followers of the doctrine of Sivanarayan. In other words, less than one hundred years prior to the "Rama-fication" of this part of the "Hindu heartland," less than 10 percent of the total population, and one-eighth of the middle- and upper-middle-class religiosity reflected in Buchanan's survey, considered itself to be Vaisnava, while over 40 percent were either Tantric or Sakta. Buchanan further observed that most of the pandits in the Bihar and Patna Districts worshiped Sakti as their chosen deity and were "Tantriks." As he moved northwest toward Ayodhya, he recorded increasing numbers of brahmins serving as Vaisnava gurus. The same has been the case farther to the north, where, in spite of the implantation of Krishnaism as the court religion in recent centuries, "bhakti seems to have always been marginal in the [Kathmandu] valley of Nepal ... it could never rival Tantra, which dominated the religious scene."

In south India the "new orthodoxy"-what Fred Clothey has termed "neo-bhakti"-has tended to be either Saiva or related to the Saivized cult of Murukan; but it, too, is a very recent overlay of far more ancient Tantric traditions involving spirit possession by the dead, demons, and female deities. On the one hand, as scholars like Gananath Obeyesekere, Sarah Caldwell, Jackie Assayag, and others have demonstrated in their ethnographies, the goddess cults that have predominated in traditional South Indian societies have only recently become masculinized, "Saivized." On the other hand, as Douglas Brooks has shown, even the most orthodox (and orthoprax) Saivas of South India, the Smarta brahmins, continue their Sakta Tantric devotion to the Goddess, covertly. (Here, it is also important to note that "Sakta" is a relatively late technical term applied to those cults, scriptures, or persons associated with the worship of the Goddess as Sakti: prior to the eleventh century, the operative term for the same was simply "Kula" or "Kaula": the term "clan" being applied implicitly and exclusively to female lineages. I will, however, continue to use the term "Sakta" in its broadly accepted sense.)

Well into the nineteenth century, the mainstream Vaisnava and Saiva religious orders themselves termed their own practice "Tantric": in the words of Sanjukta Gupta and Richard Gombrich, "[The Vedic] stratum of ritual has never become wholly obsolete, but throughout Hinduism it has long been overlaid by the ritual of the monotheistic sects, ritual which is accurately known as tantrika." Sir John Woodroffe makes much the same observation:

"Medieval Hinduism" ... was, as its successor, modern orthodoxy, is, largely Tantric. The Tantra was then, as it is now, the great Mantra and Sadhana Sastra (Scripture), and the main, where not the sole, source of some of the most fundamental concepts still prevalent as regards worship, images, initiation, yoga, the supremacy of the guru, and so forth.

Fifty years before Woodroffe, in about 1865, a leader of the Ramanandi monastery of Galta-the Vaisnava center most intimately linked to the Kachvaha dynasty of Jaipur from its foundation down to its dramatic ouster in the middle of the nineteenth century-described his own "Vaisnava Dharma" in the following terms:

The Vaisnava Dharma with the mantras of Narayana, Rama and Krsna, the adoration (upasana) of the chosen deity (ista-devata), the vertical mark (urdhva-pundra), the white clay tilaka, the basil and lotus seed necklace ... the nine forms of bhakti, and the Tantric rites (anusthana): all of these things have always existed....

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Kiss of the Yogini by David Gordon White Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
Preface
Note on Transliteration
Abbreviations of Titles of Sanskrit Works
1. Tantra in Its South Asian Contexts
2. The Origins of the Yogini: Bird, Animal and Tree Goddesses and Demonesses in South Asia
3. The Blood of the Yogini: Vital and Sexual Fluids in South Asian Thought and Practice
4. The Mouth of the Yogini: Sexual Transactions in Tantric Ritual
5. The Power of the Yogini: Tantric Actors in South Asia
6. The Consort of the Yogini: South Asian Siddha Cults and Traditions
7. The Flight of the Yogini: Fueling the Flight of Tantric Witches
8. The Sublimation of the Yogini: The Subordination of the Feminine in High Hindu Tantra
9. Tantra New Millennium
Notes
Bibliography
Index
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