The Conservative Character of Tantra: Secrecy, Sacrifice and This-Worldly Power in Bengali Śākta Tantra
- I. Brāhmaṇism, Tantra and the Double-Norm: Kṛṣṇānanda and the Context of 16th Century Bengal
- II. Harnessing the Goddess: The Codification of Śākta Iconography and Ritual
- III. The Power of the Impure: Sacrificial Violence and Sexual Transgression
- IV. The Worldly Side of Power: Sorcery, Malign Magic and the attainment of Supernatural Powers
- Conclusions and Comparative Comments
Kṛṣṇānanda Āgamavāgīśa, Bṛhat-Tantrasāra(BTS 722)1
Since their first discovery of the diverse body of texts and traditions known as the tantras, Western scholars have consistently portrayed this as a fundamentally subversive, rebellious, anti-social tradition, inherently at odds with mainstream religion or conventional social hierarchies. On one side, early European Orientalists had long disparaged Tantra as the very worst example of all the licentiousness, polytheism and idolatry that had corrupted Hinduism in modern times ("superstition of the worst and most silly kind," as Sir Monier-Williams put it, or "the authorities for all that is abominable in the present state of Hindu religion," in the words of H.H. Wilson).2 Commonly associated with black magic, orgiastic sexuality and even revolutionary violence, the tantras represented, to the Orientalist and colonial gaze, a dangerous anti-social and immoral force.3 On the other side, many contemporary Western authors have celebrated Tantra as a kind of liberation from an oppressive social hierarchy and a glorification of the body, sexuality and femininity.4 The Tantric schools of Bengal, for example, have been hailed as a "spirit of protest and criticism" against the caste system, which "provided a refuge for antinomians of various types as well as a tradition...for those who, because of caste or sex, could not participate in the Brāhmaṇical system."5 One of the most popular examples of this positive revaluation of Tantra is Miranda Shaw's recent study of Tantric Buddhism; the Tantras, Shaw argues, offered women a new source of freedom and authority, with a sense of "mastery and spiritual power."6
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