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The Golden Age of the Vedas and the Dark Age of Kali
Tantrism, Orientalism, and the Bengal Renaissance
The Tantras [exert] great influence in later days.... The worship assumes wild, extravagant forms, generally obscene, sometimes bloody. It is divided into two schools—that of the right and that of the left. The former runs into mysticism and magic in complicated observances, and the latter into the most appalling licentiousness.... We cannot go further into detail. It is saddening to think that such abominations are committed; it is still more saddening that they are performed as part of divine worship. Conscience, however, is so far alive that these detestable rites are practiced only in secret. J. Murray Mitchell and Sir William Muir, Two Old Faiths (1891)
Now look at the trickery of these stupid popes that whatever is considered to be highly sinful and opposed to the Veda is regarded as virtuous.... The use of meat, wine ... and copulation are considered as means of attaining salvation. Swami Dayananda Saraswati, The Light of Truth (1927)
The origins of "Tantra" or "Tantrism" as a scholarly category are ultimately inseparable from the unique historical encounter between Western and Indian imaginations that took place during the colonial era. Tantra as we know it is to a large degree a complex creation of what Mary Louise Pratt calls the "contact zone," that is, "the space of colonial encounters ... in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other ... involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and conflict." To reiterate, however: this is surely not to say that Tantra is simply a colonialist fabrication or Orientalist projection onto the colonized Other. Rather, it is to say that the colonial era witnessed a clear "trend toward conceiving of a new entity called Tantrism as a specific modality of Indian religious experience," as the diverse body of texts known as agamas, nigamas, samhitas, tantras, and so on, and the vast body of traditions known as Kapalika, Pañcaratra, Kula, Krama, Sakta, Srividya, and others, were gradually assimilated into a singular universal entity.
In this chapter I will examine the earliest discussions of Tantrism as a distinct entity, which appear in European missionary works, Orientalist scholarship, and the early Indian reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj. What we find here is a fairly consistent dichotomy between different conceptions of "Hinduism" and the "Indian mind": at one extreme, the ideal of an ancient, pure, and uncorrupted Golden Age, identified with the Vedas and Upanisads, and on the other extreme, the nightmare of a modern, perverse, and degenerate era, embodied in the licentious idolatry of the tantras.
Discourse about Tantra, as we will see, was thus bound up with the construction of Western cultural identity, and above all with the problem of sexuality and sexual deviance in modern Europe. As early as the romantic era, the "mystic Orient" has been imagined as the exotic world of forbidden sexuality and dark sensuality, in both its most positive and negative forms. However, this fetishization of the sexual, exotic Orient was only continued and intensified during the Victorian era in England. As Foucault has argued, nineteenth-century British men and women were by no means simply the repressed prudes we often imagine them to be; on the contrary, they were in many cases quite fascinated with sexuality, which they discussed in endless detail. Above all, this era witnessed a special fascination with sexuality in its most "deviant," antisocial forms: homosexuality, transvestism, nymphomania, and all manner of newly discovered psychosexual pathologies. The European fascination with Tantra, I will argue, was very much a part of this larger preoccupation with sexuality and its aberrations in the Western imagination. And just as the broader European discourse about sex, as Foucault has shown, was inseparable from larger issues of "biopolitics," population control, and national health, so the discourse about Tantra would become enmeshed in larger biopolitical issues of governance in Europe's colonies.
But at the same time, the discourse surrounding Tantra would also became a key part of the conceptualization of India and "Hinduism." When deployed by Indian elites and the leaders of the Bengal Renaissance, Tantra would also serve as a critical element in the reformation of Indian religious, cultural, and political identity in the nineteenth century. Indeed, discourse on Tantra became a central element in the narrative of Indian history: namely, the widely accepted narrative of the decline of medieval Hinduism, that it had become corrupted with Tantric immorality, a degeneration that had paved the way for the Muslim (and thereafter, British) conquest. Hence, one of the most necessary tasks in the reassertion of a strong and pure Hinduism would have to be the eradication of modern immorality, idolatry, and debilitating licentiousness, of which Tantra was the most notorious and embarrassing example.
HINDUISM AT ITS LAST AND WORST STAGE OF DEVELOPMENT: "TANTRISM" IN THE ORIENTALIST IMAGINATION
Tantrism or Saktism is Hinduism arrived at its last and worst stage of medieval development. Sir Monier Monier-Williams, Hinduism (1894)
The tenets of the Saktas open the way for gratification of all the sensual appetites; they hold out encouragement to drunkards, thieves and dacoits; they present the means of satisfying every lustful desire ... and lead men to commit abominations which place them on a level with the beasts. "The Saktas," Calcutta Review (1885)
It is probably no accident that the emergence of "Tantrism" as a distinct category of religion occurred at roughly the same time as the emergence of "Hinduism" itself in the Western imagination. Even as European scholars began to construct the abstract entity called Hinduism—itself largely "a Western inspired abstraction which until the nineteenth century bore little resemblance to the diversity of Indian religious belief and practice"—they began to imagine Tantrism as one of its primary, though least admirable, components. As Bernard Cohn suggests, the detailed study and categorization of Indian society was a critical part of the colonizing project. In order to be governed, India had first to be analyzed, statistically evaluated, and categorized: "The conquest of India was a conquest of knowledge.... The vast social world that was India had to be classified, categorized and bounded before it could be hierarchized."
Conceived as the quintessential Other of the West, as Ron Inden has persuasively argued, India came to be imagined as an essentially passionate, irrational, and erotic world—a land of "disorderly imagination" set in opposition to the progressive, rational, and scientific world of modern Europe. As the widely read ethnographer Herbert Risley put it, "the Indian intellect has always reveled in the subtleties of a logic which undertakes to reconcile the most manifestly contradictory propositions." At the same time, as Richard King argues, India was also typically imagined as the "mystic East" and the heartland of "mysticism"—the irrational, otherworldly and life-denying flight into transcendental bliss. Tantra formed a critical part of the broader project of imagining India, precisely because Tantra was regarded as the most extreme, irrational embodiment of the worst tendencies in the Indian mind. Above all, we might say that it came to embody "mysticism" in its most dangerous and deviant form—a kind of mysticism that was not simply irrational and otherworldly, but also polluted with sexual desire and thirst for this worldly power.
This Orientalist imagining of India, however, was neither monolithic nor static; rather, as Thomas Trautmann argues, the Orientalist vision of India underwent several important transformations. In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it gradually shifted from a benign, romantic vision of the kinship between India and Europe, as we find in early Orientalists like Sir William Jones, to an increasingly Indophobic view of barbarism and degeneracy, as we see in the work of James Mill. This was a shift that probably was related closely to a larger change in British attitudes toward Indian culture as a whole, which took place in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Up to the end of the eighteenth century, as Sumanta Banerjee observes, the British government had generally kept to a policy of nonintervention with regard to indigenous religious and cultural traditions; it was deemed more expedient, for the early leaders of the East India Company, to leave existing religious practices more or less alone and so avoid offending native sensibilities. During the period from 1790–1830, however, the British government began to turn from its original hands-off attitude. Under the influence of Evangelical and Utilitarian ideals in England, the British began active efforts at reform, at once religious, moral, and legal. Particularly in the years after 1813, when the Christian Evangelicals mounted a campaign to begin missionary work, we find growing exhortations to take strict measures against Indian social practices—above all, against infanticide, widow-burning, and "barbaric rituals" such as hook-swinging and animal sacrifice: "The conclusion was ... that the natives needed to be emancipated socially and culturally."
Tantra would become an important focus of these shifting attitudes toward Indian religions and was quickly singled out as one of the native customs most in need of reform. Both the early romantics and the later Indophobes agreed that the Tantras represented the worst and most decadent era in Indian history, the one furthest removed from the modern West. "The enduring legacy of Orientalism," as Kopf remarks, "is a contrasting set of images: the golden age, which is Indo-Aryan, classical brahminical and elitist versus a dark age which is medieval ... orgiastic and corrupt."
Yet the actual entry of "Tantrism" into Western discourse as a distinct category is surprisingly late. If we scan the various travelogues of the earliest Europeans to visit India or the first Jesuit missionary accounts, we find no mention of Tantra or anything even closely resembling it. It is true that as early as the eleventh century, Muslim travelers like Alberuni, and later European explorers like Marco Polo, had described various groups of yogis (ciugi, as Marco Polo calls them), as well as the alchemical art of rasayana, which aims at the goals of longevity and immortality. Yet this is nowhere described as "Tantra." Indeed, up to the end of the eighteenth century, as we see in the works of the earliest British authors in India, such as John Holwell, Alexander Dow, or Nathaniel Halhed, Tantrism had not yet emerged as a distinct category or a definable body of texts. Even James Mill's monument to imperialism, The History of British India, makes no mention of the Tantras. Though he does briefly mention the notorious phenomenon of the murderous brigands the "Thuggee," he does not link them to the nefarious practices of Tantrism, as would so many later authors.
The earliest Western references to a body of texts called tantras come from the great Orientalist and pioneer in the study of Indian language Sir William Jones. In his essay "On the Literature of the Hindus" (1790), Jones makes a brief reference to a corpus of literature called tantras, which are generally lumped together with "Mantra, Agama and Nigama Tastras," as an appendage to the Vedas, which consist "mainly of incantations." 16 In his essay on the gods of India, Greece, and Rome, Jones also briefly mentions the goddess "Cali" (Kali), though his vision of the goddess, whom he compares to the goddess Diana "in the splendid opera of Iphigenia," is hardly a very Tantric one.
H. T. Colebrooke—Jones's fellow pioneer Orientalist and Indo-Europeanist—appears to have had a somewhat greater familiarity with various texts called tantras, and cites the Rudrayamala Tantra, Kali Tantra, Nirvana Tantra, and Vira Tantra, among others. However, for Colebrooke the tantras are only worth mentioning as the antipode of the Vedas. Whereas the Vedas embody everything that is noble, pure, and admirable in the Hindu tradition, its pristine monotheistic past, the tantras embody all the polytheism and idolatry that has corrupted Hinduism in modern times: "Most of what is taught [in the Vedas] is now obsolete; and in its stead ... rituals founded in the Puranas and observances borrowed from a worse source, the Tantras, have ... [replaced] the Vedas."
Rather significantly, the first detailed discussions of the tantras come from Christian missionaries. One of the earliest and most influential of these was the widely read account of the French missionary Abbé Dubois, who worked for some thirty years in India following his ordination in 1792. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799, the Abbé was invited by Arthur Wellesley to come to Tipu's capital and reconvert the Christian community that had been swayed by Islam. Thereafter, he traveled across India, investigating Indian religious practices and recording them in his manuscript Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies (1807). Like many of his European contemporaries, the Abbé was immediately struck by the licentiousness and sexual explicitness of the Hindu religion; it seemed a lascivious religion aimed at stimulating the passions of an already overly passionate people: "The shameless stories about their deities ... the religious ceremonies in which the principal part is played by prostitutes ... all these things seem to be calculated to excite the lewd imagination of the inhabitants." The Abbé also makes it clear that his primary motivation in exposing these perversions is to highlight the grandeur of Christendom, in the hope that "a faithful picture of the wickedness ... of polytheism and idolatry would by its very ugliness ... offset the beauties and perfections of Christianity."
Nowhere was the Hindu's tendency toward the passionate and obscene more obvious than in the case of Sakti-puja or the secret worship of the Goddess as power. Interestingly enough, the Abbé does not identify this practice as "Tantra"; yet his vivid account of this nefarious rite would become a key part of most later European accounts and a key element in the early genealogy of "Tantrism":
Among the abominable rites practiced in India is one which is only too well known; it called sakti-puja.... The ceremony takes place at night with more or less secrecy. The least disgusting of these orgies are those where they confine themselves to eating and drinking everything that the custom of the country forbids and where men and women ... openly and shamelessly violate the commonest laws of decency.... When all the meat has been consumed, intoxicating liquors are passed round, everyone drinking without repugnance from the same cup.... When they are all completely intoxicated men and women ... pass the rest of the night together, giving themselves up to the grossest immorality.... [T]he meeting winds up with the most revolting orgy.
Indeed, one could imagine no greater contrast to the "perfection of Christianity" than this riotous orgy of drugs, liquor, gluttony, and sex.
Excerpted from Tantra by Hugh B. Urban. Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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