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Tantric Studies, The Flagstaff Meetings: Issues, Methods, and Scholarly Collaborations

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Glen A. Hayes*

Bloomfield College, Bloomfield, NJ, USA

Corresponding author:

Abstract: This is a continuation of the introduction to the two-volume selection of essays presented at the 2010 conference of the Society for Tantric Studies (STS), the first part having appeared in The Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Hayes 2011). In this brief continuation, we will consider the issues, methods, and scholarly collaborations related to the meetings of the STS in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1997, 2002, 2005, and 2010.

It will conclude with some comments on the four essays in this second volume.

The first part of the overview of the development of the Society for Tantric Studies (STS), including a survey of the many issues, methods, and collaborations that were expressed at the conferences beginning in 1987, was published in The Journal of Hindu Studies last year (Hayes 2011).

In this second part, I will make some observations concerning issues and themes related to Tantric Studies that were addressed at the last four conferences, held in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the autumns of 1997, 2002, 2005, and 2010. None of these conferences would have been possible without the hard work, kindness, and local guidance from Professor Bruce M. Sullivan (1997, 2002, 2005) and Professor Paul Donnelly (2010) of Northern Arizona University (NAU). We also received support from the Religious Studies and Asian Studies Programs at NAU. Both men opened their homes to dozens of hungry scholars for Saturday evening receptions, allowing us to share food as well as ideas.

As with the earlier conferences in the 1980s and 1990s, the STS was envisioned as a venue for scholars of a wide range of Tantric traditions (e.g. Hindu, Buddhist; East Asia, South Asia; the modern world) and from different disciplines (e.g. his­tory of religions, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and area studies) to come together, share their research, and collectively move the field and their own studies forward. These efforts have been very successful, as many of the papers and projects initially presented at STS were eventually published (I emphasise that only a few are pointed out in this brief overview), and many of the graduate

© The Author 2012. Oxford University Press and The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. All rights reserved. For permissions, please emailjournals.permissions@oup.comstudents who attended would themselves become credentialed scholars in the field. Two current graduate students have published essays in this current volume.

Although it now seems so long ago, and no program schedule survives, the first Flagstaff conference in the autumn of 1997 was notable for bringing together scholars of Hindu Tantra (such as Andre Padoux, who gave the keynote address on the study of Tantric language, and Douglas Brooks, who spoke on Srividya Sakta Tantrism), as well as scholars of Buddhist Tantra (such as James Sanford and Richard Payne, on Japanese Buddhist Tantra, and Charles Orzech, on Chinese Buddhist Tantra).

There was also a recognition that panels could be formed which focused on new methods for studying tantra (Glen Alexander Hayes on the application of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s contemporary theory, a ver­sion of which was published as Hayes 2003), and also on the distinctive features of ‘vernacularTantra (Jeffrey Kripal on Tantric aspects of the life of the Bengali godman Ramakrsna and Hugh Urban on the growth of the Kartabhaja Tantrics in colonial Bengal).

Kripal’s essay was presented during the controversy regarding Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (1st edn, 1995), and some insights at the conference were mentioned in the second edition of 1998. Urban’s essay formed a part of the then-forthcoming The Economics of Ecstasy: Tantra, Secrecy and Power in Colonial Bengal (2001a), and the accompanying volume of translations (2001b). Among others, David Gordon White presented an early version of what would become Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex’’ in its South Asian Contexts (2003). There were also important contributions to the issue of tantra and gender presented by Roxanne Kamayani Gupta, Sarah Caldwell, and Constantina Rhodes Bailly.

The setting of the conference was ideal for in-depth and collegial conversations regarding Tantric Studies, our translations, fieldwork, and methodologies. Over the course of a three-day weekend on the pine-forested slopes of the Little America Hotel, with a sweeping view of the massive San Francisco Peaks to the north, we had numerous post-panel opportunities to discuss and react to presentations, to suggest new ideas, and to critique hermeneutical stances. With an attendance of approximately 50 people, we also had the chance to continue those discussions over several days, in small groups or over a meal and drinks. This ‘model’ has proven to be a powerful and collegial one until the present day.

Since many of the scholars connected to the STS have also been members of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), where we have had an on-going series of seminars, consultations, and now a ‘group’ on Tantric Studies, the steering com­mittee of STS felt that having meetings every few years was sufficient. Thus, the second Flagstaff STS conference took place in the autumn of 2002.

Again, the setting proved to be ideal for discussions of Tantric Studies and the ‘state of the field’. As with the 1997 gathering, we drew scholars from outside of North America and from various disciplines and areas. However, by 2002, the steering committee tried to focus the ever-expanding range of subjects, at least for the conference, under the theme of ‘Construction and Deployments of Power’ in Tantra.

The panels began with the consideration of metaphors of power by Paul Muller-Ortega, Glen Alexander Hayes (later published as Hayes 2006), Charles D. Orzech, and James Sanford. The diversity of areas represented by this panel included Hindu Tantra in Kashmir and Bengal, Chinese Buddhist Tantra, and Chinese and Japanese Taoist Tantra. The second panel focused on Tantra in Nepal, with contributions by David Gordon White, Sthaneshwar Timalsina (later published as Timalsina 2006), and Jeffrey Lidke. Again, as with the 1997 meeting, most of the material presented at the conference would eventually be published as part of a book or as essays in journals and collected works.

The third panel explored the issue of ‘The Ethics of Tantric Transgression’, and included contri­butions from Jeffrey Kripal (on aspects on ‘modernTantra), Roxanne Kamayani Gupta (on goddess worship at Devipuram), Hugh B. Urban (on the power of the ‘impure’ in Tantra, eventually published as part of Urban 2003), and Sarah Caldwell (an anthropological view of transgression). A panel such as this drew together scholars from diverse backgrounds, allowing them to focus on a central topic in Tantric Studies, ‘transgression’, and allowed us to both deepen and advance the field. This theme of transgression and power continued with the fourth panel, which explored the issue in everyday life.

Participants on this panel included Constantina Rhodes Bailly (on the Hindu Mahavidyas), Paul Donnelly (on Tibetan Buddhist Tantra), David Gray (on the Cakrasamvara Tantra, eventually pub­lished as part of Gray 2007), and Loriliai Biernacki (on gender and transgression, part of which appeared as Biernacki 2007). The final panel explored the uses of Tantra for ‘domination’, and included presentations by David P. Lawrence (on the directional guardian Virupaksa and omnipotence), unaffiliated scholar Helen Crovetto (on post-colonial Tantric notions of cosmic war), Maria Reis Habito (on the yaksas in the Japanese Amoghapasa kalparaja sutra), and Jian Wu (on Chan Buddhist uses of Tantra for feeding hungry ghosts). As with the 1997 conference, everyone enjoyed the setting and the collegiality, allowing us to explore numerous issues, methods, and collaborations in Tantric Studies.

The 2005 STS conference in Flagstaff was notable in that it allowed the society to honour the scholarship and contributions of James Sanford, the co-founder of the STS along with Charles Orzech (as explained in the first part of this Introduction, Hayes 2011). Jim was set to retire the following year, and we wanted to acknow­ledge his many accomplishments in Tantric Studies. But it was also notable for the recognition of the growing importance of the study of Tantra in Kashmir, espe­cially the texts and traditions associated with Abhinavagupta.

This trend continues in North America, Europe, South Asia, East Asia, and elsewhere, with scholars such as Mark Dyzckowski and Alexis Sanderson and his students expanding the range of translated Hindu Tantric texts available for study. Also worthy of note has been the ongoing scholarship at STS meetings involving Buddhist Tantras and the Tantra of East Asia. Much of what was developed in these areas for the STS meetings over the years was eventually published as a comprehensive and massive work on Buddhist and East Asian Tantra (Orzech et al. 2010).

The first panel focused on ‘Abhinavagupta and Hermeneutics’, with contribu­tions by Sthaneshwar Timalsina (perspectives on texts and cultures, published later as part of Timalsina 2008), Loriliai Biernacki (on Abhinavagupta’s use of binaries), David P. Lawrence (on ‘overcoding’ in Abhinavagupta’s writings), and Kerry Skora (on ‘touch’ in Abhinavagupta’s teachings). The response by Jeffrey S. Lidke was expanded and later published as Lidke 2006.

The second panel focused on a pivotal Tantric deity, Bhairava, and showed how this protean figure appears in Kashmir (Paul Muller-Ortega), Nepal (Gregory Grieve, parts published later as Grieve 2005 and Grieve 2006), and China (Charles Orzech, published as Orzech 2006). Such a cross-area discussion, focused on Bhairava, was an example of the benefits provided by our meeting as scholars of Tantra. The third panel focused on the ‘goddesses of Tantra’, another central theme in Tantric Studies.

Presenters included Susan Landesman (Tara in Tibetan Buddhist Tantra), Malcolm McLean (Sakti in Bengal), Hillary Rodrigues (Durga in Bengal), and Helen Crovetto (modern Tantra). The fourth panel was a continuation of the 2002 panel on metaphors in Tantra, showing how the STS provides a venue for ongoing discussions that can and should span the years. Participants included Glen Alexander Hayes (types of metaphors in Bengali tantra), Bruce M. Sullivan (Tantric metaphors in early Indic literature, later published as Sullivan 2006), David B. Gray (transgressive meta­phors in the Yogini Tantra), and David Gardiner (metaphors of the dharmakaya in Japan). On Saturday evening, Robert Gimello of Harvard University offered a key­note address on the state of the field: ‘Still Vexed After All These Years: Persistent Problems and Issues in the Theory and Method of the Study of Tantra’.

As implied in the title, this respected scholar gave his opinion on issues central to the field, issues that still concern us today: textuality, material objects, ritual, transmission of Tantra, categories, and methodology. The final panel focused on yet another key issue in Tantric Studies: ritual practices. Participants included Istvan Keul (rituals at the Yogini temples in Hirapur, Orissa), Paul Donnelly (ritual practices in Tibetan Buddhism), and Richard Payne (fire rituals in Japanese Shingon Buddhism). In summary, the 2002 STS conference built upon, and extended, many of the issues, methodological explorations, and scholarly collaborations that began in earlier STS gatherings.

The 2010 STS conference did not have one central theme, shifting back to earlier conference models where we built the panels based upon the best proposals that were submitted. Thus, we had a fascinating range of panels, some of which con­tinued the ongoing concerns dating back to 1997 and even earlier. Once again, methodology was a central theme, with contributions by Glen Alexander Hayes (on ‘conceptual blending’ theory, published in this current issue of JHS), Sthaneshwar Timalsina (on the hermeneutics of visual imagery, part of which was published in JHS as Timalsina 2011, parts as Timalsina 2012), Jeffrey S. Lidke (on cognitive science and the yantra, published in JHS as Lidke 2011), Thomas Ellis (on socio-biology and ‘disgust’ in Tantra, published as Ellis 2011), and graduate student Brian Collins (on dogs, categories, and ‘impurity’ in Tantra). The keynote address, also published in this current issue of JHS, was David Gordon White’s exploration of the renowned Netra Tantra.

White has been an active member of STS since its early days, and it was rewarding to hear him provide valuable insights regarding this important text. The second panel addressed issues regarding the study of Buddhist Tantra, and ranged from graduate student Samuel Hopkins’ exploration of the Buddhist Siddhacarya traditions to unaffiliated scholar Jeffrey Sundberg’s study of Lu-xiang’s biography of Vajrabodhi to Douglas Osto’s consideration of ‘American Psychedelic Buddhism as (Neo-) Tantra’. The third panel explored the issue of eroticism and iconography, and included presentations by Hugh B. Urban (based on his fieldwork on Assamese Tantra, published in JHS as Urban 2011), graduate student Arya Hackney (on issues of human sacrifice in Tantric texts), graduate student E. Johansen Hurwit (on yoni worship in Assam), and Gudrun Biihnemann (on erotic aspects of Ganesa).

Our fourth panel explored the ever-growing area of ‘Tantra and the West’. Participants included Paul Donnelly (on the ‘left-hand path’ in modern esoteri­cism), graduate student Lisa Brooks (on Tantric aspects of alternative medicine), and graduate student Jacob Dirnberger (on Tantric aspects of Sri Aurobindo and poet Gary Snyder). As Hugh B. Urban (a scholar who has written extensively on the issues of ‘modern Tantra’) was in the audience, the post-panel discussions and questions were stimulating and informative. Moments like that are what make the STS such a special venue. The fifth panel returned to matters of Abhinavagupta and the Tantra of Kashmir, concerns which have been central to the STS since its beginnings. Participants included Loriliai Biernacki (on Abhinavagupta and non-dualism, published in JHS as Biernacki 2011), Gavin Flood (who literally, and heroically, flew overnight from the UK to speak on the Netra Tantra), and Somdev Vasudeva (on prasenas in early Saivism).

After the by-now-traditional Saturday evening reception (another wonderful occasion to discuss Tantric Studies and other matters), the final panel on Sunday morning focused on ‘Reading and Writing Tantric Texts’. Helen Crovetto, an unaffiliated scholar, spoke on imagery in contemporary Hindu Tantric poetry. This panel also included two graduate students, Jason Schwartz (on the changing concepts of bhakti in early Saiva Tantric communities) and Elaine Fisher (on the seventeenth-century Sakta intellectual community in South India). Both of these fine papers appear in this volume before you.

Of note here is the participation and attendance of graduate students and un­affiliated scholars. Since its inception in 1984 by Sanford and Orzech, the STS has striven to include not just established scholars, but also a number of interested graduate students and unaffiliated scholars. This rather ‘open’ attitude to confer­ence attendance has on occasion led to some eccentric and disruptive audience members and odd lines of discussion, but overall it has helped to encourage and promote the academic study of Tantra.

Both at the 2010 STS and the 2011 AAR Tantric Study Group meetings, one could sense that a ‘critical mass’ of scholars, students, and interested observers has been achieved, and with the publication of this second selection of essays from the 2010 conference, it is hoped that even more will become involved with Tantric Studies. On behalf of the entire steering committee of the STS, I would like to thank Gavin Flood for enduring a long flight to reach us, for his presentation, and for his invitation to me to serve as ‘guest editor’ for these two volumes of the JHS.

Our first essay is based on the keynote address by David Gordon White, ‘Netra Tantra at the Crossroads of the Demonological Cosmopolis’. Much of the nineteenth chapter of the Netra Tantra (NT), an early ninth-century Tantric scripture from Kashmir, is devoted to the subject of demonology. This is an important, if often overlooked, subject in much of South Asia Tantra. White argues that by juxtapos­ing the uses of the terms chaya-cchidra and krtyd-kharkhoda in this and other chap­ters of the NT with their usages in other Hindu and Buddhist sources from both the Indian subcontinent and the Kashmir-Bactria-Gandhara (KGB) region, we find that these elements of Tantric demonology originated not in India, but rather in KGB and the Iranian cultural area. This opens to question the ‘Indian’ origins of certain elements of Hindu Tantra.

The second essay, ‘Caught in the Net of Sastra: Devotion and its Limits in an Evolving Saiva Corpus’, is by Jason Schwartz, a graduate student at The University of California, Santa Barbara. Jason has been attending STS conferences since 2005, when he was an undergraduate, and shows how the venue provides a place of learning and opportunity for students of Tantric Studies. His essay examines the complex currents of intellectual thought in the emergent Saiva communities of the first millennium. Schwartz argues that texts and traditions aspire to acclimate themselves into the idiom of the sastric mainstream. He demonstrates that this is a process that almost inevitably involves acculturation to the interpretive prac­tices of the Purva Mimamsa school of ritual exegesis.

Along the way, in response to an encounter with Mimamsaka sensibilities, and at the expense of the devotional bhakti elements of the tradition, their understanding of what constitutes religious action and the character and role of the religious actor is fundamentally reima­gined. His article begins to reconstruct both the depth of the contribution of the Saiva traditions to the developing discourse on bhakti as well as the conditions of possibility that led to them being elided from our own historiographical record. This careful consideration of the interplay between Tantra and Bhakti is one that merits ongoing scholarly attention.

Elaine Fisher, a graduate student from Columbia University, also gives us a rich vignette into the intellectual life of Tantric communities, in this case that of Sakta intellectuals in seventeenth-century South India. In our third essay, ‘Just Like Kalidasa: The Sakta Intellectuals of Seventeenth-century South India’, Fisher shows how the Smarta intellectual community of South India entered into an unprecedented alliance with Sahkaracarya monastic institutions and their corres­ponding esoteric lineage, the Srividya school of Sakta Tantrism.

Through careful study of several previously unexamined texts, she argues that Srividya esotericism served as a vehicle through which Sanskrit intellectuals actively contested and transformed public modes of sectarian affiliation and socio-religious community integration in the South Indian Smarta community. Fisher shows that this intel­lectual community reinvented the legacy of two icons of Sanskrit cultural history— Sankaracarya and Kalidasa—whom they recast as paradigms of both Sanskritic aesthetic virtue and esoteric Sakta devotionalism.

The fourth and final essay in this volume is my own effort (in addition to serving as ‘guest editor’ and unofficial ‘historian’ of STS for the two volumes). In contrast to the preceding essays, which focus on the study of Tantric texts and (The first version of this essay was presented to a cosponsored session of the Tantric Studies Group and the Cognitive Science of Religion Consultation at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.) communities, this article is very much an excursion into methodology and possible new avenues for the study of Tantra. It examines recent insights from the growing field of the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), especially the modern conceptual metaphor theory developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) and ‘con­ceptual blending theory’, a more-recent method crafted by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2002).

We will apply their ideas such as ‘conceptual integration networks’, ‘cross-domain mapping’, ‘emergent structure’, and ‘blended worlds’ to the consideration of Hindu Tantric visualisation sequences, generation of the ‘yogic body’, and the ‘remembrance’ of one’s ‘forgotten’ cosmic essence as a type of anamnesis (‘reverse amnesia’). The material to be analysed includes the beliefs, practices, and texts from the Vaisnava Sahajiya Tantric traditions of sixteenth- to nineteenth- century greater Bengal. I argue that these new CSR methods can help us to illuminate the vivid and imaginative worlds and processes found in the highly esoteric Vaisnava Sahajiya traditions, and may be useful to the study of religion in general.

In closing, I would like to thank all of the many colleagues who have partici­pated in Tantric Studies over the decades, especially those who helped to form and to support the STS. Although we have come far since the first STS conference in 1987, there is much exciting work to do, methods to refine, texts to locate and translate, and fieldwork to conduct. I look forward to these and other future collaborations.


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