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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 156-159

Reviewed by
Charles D. Orzech
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion. By Hugh B. Urban. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. 388. $60.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

Of the many books on tantra flooding booksellers, this is the one that should be read first. Urban's study is superbly written and well researched, and it represents a sophisticated understanding of the political and religious dynamics of cultural encounter. It goes well beyond the often facile Saidian and postcolonial narratives of the encounter of India with the "West" to present a nuanced exploration of the cultural and religious dialectics that produced "Tantrism." The book takes us from ancient texts to, and historians will find here doors to rooms previously unimagined.

Readers with little background in South Asian studies will likely find the introduction the most difficult part of the book. It is here that Urban documents the various uses of the term tantra in premodern South Asian religions. It helps to keep in mind a singular fact when beginning this book. Before the nineteenth century we find texts called Tantras and practitioners called tāntrikas (though they are usually called this by others). Nonetheless, Tantrism or tantra as a generic category designating a self-consciously constructed religious tradition does not exist before the colonial encounter. Tantrism comes into being as an imagined category (like the category Hinduism), a category produced in the dialectical encounter between Indians and Europeans (27).

Although substantial, Urban's Tantra is nonetheless a sketch, for the territory it covers is vast. It is history in the mold of Michel Foucault as it seeks to "unravel the complex genealogy" of Tantrism (xiii). It is also a history of the history of religions as a discipline, for, as Urban argues, the encounter that produced Tantrism could also be said to have produced the discipline of the history of religions. Like other high order categories in the history of religions such as the Primitive or Shamanism,

Tantra is a . . . product of the mirroring and misrepresentation at work between both East and West. It is a dialectical category—similar to what Walter Benjamin has called a dialecticalimage—born out of the mirroring and mimesis that goes on between Western and Indian minds. Neither simply the result of an indigenous evolution nor a mere Orientalist fabrication, Tantra is a shifting amalgam of fantasies, fears, and wish fulfillments, at once native and Other.

(3) [End Page 156]

The book, like its object, proceeds "in a dialectical fashion, tacking back and forth between Western and Indian imaginations." Each of its chapters is "structured around the reciprocal exchanges . . . between East and West, as they have been played out in a series of key historical encounters" (19). This approach is unusual, as it grants full recognition to the colonized as powerful agents in their own right.

Beyond the introduction the book has six chapters and a conclusion and picks up the story of Tantrism (now in the generic sense) at its birth in the "Bengal Renaissance" of the nineteenth century. Chapter 2 looks at the role played by Tantrism in the rise of nationalist movements in India. Chapter 3 examines Tantrism in British and Indian literary imagination in the works of Steel, Catterjee, and others. The high court judge and prominent advocate for Tantrism, Sir John Woodruff (a.k.a. Arthur Avalon) and the zealous anti-tantra Vedāntic missionary Swami Vivekananda form the dialectical poles of the fourth chapter. Chapter 5 offers us a look at Tantrism's role in the workshop of the history of religions. Five scholars figure prominently here. For the West Urban profiles the romantic Heinrich Zimmer, the fascist Julius Evola, and the paradoxically antihistorical historian of religion Mircea Eliade. For India Urban examines the works of the widely read eschatological Tantric mystic Gopinath Kaviraj and those of the materialist Narendra...


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