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

Hugh Urban

Publication Year: 2003

A complex body of religious practices that spread throughout the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions; a form of spirituality that seemingly combines sexuality, sensual pleasure, and the full range of physical experience with the religious life—Tantra has held a central yet conflicted role within the Western imagination ever since the first "discovery" of Indian religions by European scholars. Always radical, always extremely Other, Tantra has proven a key factor in the imagining of India. This book offers a critical account of how the phenomenon has come to be.

Tracing the complex genealogy of Tantra as a category within the history of religions, Hugh B. Urban reveals how it has been formed through the interplay of popular and scholarly imaginations. Tantra emerges as a product of mirroring and misrepresentation at work between East and West--a dialectical category born out of the ongoing play between Western and Indian minds. Combining historical detail, textual analysis, popular cultural phenomena, and critical theory, this book shows Tantra as a shifting amalgam of fantasies, fears, and wish-fulfillment, at once native and Other, that strikes at the very heart of our constructions of the exotic Orient and the contemporary West.

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9


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pp. ix-11

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Preface and Acknowledgments: The Extreme Orient and the Quest for Ecstasy

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pp. xi-xiv

This book was born in large part out of my own long and deeply ambivalent relationship to the phenomenon of “Tantra” or “Tantrism” and its role in the contemporary Western imagination.1 It is the product of my own fascination with this most tantalizing aspect of the “exotic Orient”—...


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pp. xv-xvi

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Introduction: Diagnosing the “Disease” of Tantra

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pp. 1-43

The category “Tantra” is a basic and familiar one today in the vocabulary of most scholars of religions and generally considered one of the most important and controversial forms of Asian religion. In academic discourse, Tantra usually refers to a specific brand of religious practice...

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1. The Golden Age of the Vedasand the Dark Age of Kàlí: Tantrism, Orientalism, and the Bengal Renaissance

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pp. 44-72

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...

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2. Sacrificing White Goats to the Goddess: Tantra and Political Violence in Colonial India

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pp. 73-105

Imagined as the most radical, dangerous, and transgressive of spiritual paths, in explicit violation of accepted ethical boundaries, Tantra was soon to be associated in both the Western and Indian imaginations with the possibility of political violence. If Orientalist authors began to shift...

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3. India’s Darkest Heart: Tantra in the Literary Imagination

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pp. 106-133

Much of our richest and most colorful material for the imagining of Tantra comes not from scholarly sources, but from the realm of drama and the novel. In both India and Europe, the morbid, sexual tales of Tantra quickly sparked the imaginations of many creative authors, serving as...

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4. Deodorized Tantra: Sex, Scandal, Secrecy, and Censorship in the Works of John Woodroffe and Swami Vivekananda

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pp. 134-164

By the dawn of the twentieth century, Tantra had come to represent a troubling, sometimes threatening, and often quite embarrassing problem for Indian and Western authors. Already widely regarded as representing the most primitive, idolatrous, and immoral side of the Indian...

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5. Religion for the Age of Darkness: Tantra and the History of Religions in the Twentieth Century

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pp. 165-202

Following in the wake of John Woodroffe’s heroic defense of Tantra, a new wave of scholars began to take an active interest in, and often a strange preoccupation with, the teachings of the Tantras. Many of the greatest European Indologists and scholars of comparative religion, such...

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6. The Cult of Ecstasy: Meldings of East and West in a New Age of Tantra

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pp. 203-263

Inspired by the new valorizations of Tantra by Eliade, Zimmer, and more popular authors like Joseph Campbell, Tantra began to enter in full force into the Western popular imagination of the twentieth century. Already in the early 1900s we find the foundation of the first “Tantrik Order in...

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Conclusion: Reimagining Tantra in Contemporary Discourse

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pp. 264-281

At this point, I need to try to tie together the many loose ends and dangling strands that constitute my own genealogy of the tangled threads of Tantra. Obviously, this book cannot claim to be comprehensive or complete. Concerned primarily with the imagining of “Tantra” as a...


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pp. 283-335


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pp. 337-366


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pp. 367-372

E-ISBN-13: 9780520936898
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520236561

Page Count: 388
Publication Year: 2003