Religion and Beliefs
Why has ethnography so rarely engaged with Tantric traditions, and what are the repercussions on the academic knowledge produced on Tantra?
In Indian popular culture, wealthy politicians hire “Tantrics” to secure their success through black magic. In Indian horror movies, the “Tantric” is a recurrent figure. In the Netherlands, a group practicing “Tantric Dance” regularly organizes workshops and summer courses. In Europe and North America, excellent philologists and religion scholars have produced an impressive scholarship on Tantra primarily based on ancient texts and manuscripts.
Whereas in the Anglo-American world the term Tantra is often associated with spirituality, feminine/feminist energy and alternative constructions of sexuality, for Indian middle-classes the connotation of the term Tantric is spooky, ghoulish or even scandalous.
The exorbitant literature on Tantric textual traditions is in striking opposition to the scarcity of ethnographic accounts on Tantric people, lives and practices. Apart from a few exceptions, rarely scholars have overcome the challenge of secrecy to study contemporary manifestations of Tantra, both in and outside of its “original”, South Asian context.
While we often find interpretations of Tantra from the lenses of orientalism, cultural moralism, commodification and cultural appropriation, it is difficult to gain, through the existing scholarship, a local perspective on what people who define themselves as Tantric actually do and think about the Tantric discourse. Addressing the lack of ethnographic perspectives on Tantra, this panel aims to discuss what Tantric traditions are in practice, facing the difficulty of defining a singular Tantric category to include a variety of scattered, diverse and independent non-institutional communities and techniques in a transnational spectrum.
In the vast assortment of manuals, monographs, and encyclopaedia pages on Tantra produced in the last decades, contemporary lineages, living interpreters, and practitioners’ perspectives are seldom – or not at all – included. This panel seeks to give voice to living Tantric traditions, but also to recuperate and reflect upon existing ethnographic material, in order to discuss the positionality of the researchers, the ethical and epistemological challenges of studying esoteric traditions, and the possibility to decolonize Tantric Studies with the instruments offered by ethnographic field-work – in its traditional as well as digital forms.