Modern Śākta Identities in a Global Context: Bengali Tāntrikas and John Woodroffe

Location: Campion Hall, Brewer St, Oxford, OX1 1QS
Speaker: Dr Julian Strube
Date: June 1, 2018
Time: 4:30pm to 5:30pm

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Indian pandits made different attempts to revive a tantric tradition that they regarded as corrupted by the influence of foreign domination and modernisation. Tantra had long been denounced as superstition, black magic, or sexual excesses by orientalists, missionaries, and colonial administrators; notions that were often adopted by Indian anglophile reformers. In contrast, learned tāntrikas argued that tantra was not only a noble philosophy, but that it formed the core of the true Hindu religion appropriate for the present age. Stressing its scientific and rational character, they presented tantra as a means, not only to confront the materialistic and sceptic degenerations of modernity, but to revive the śakti of India, thus making it a key element of Hindu nationalist discourse. In their defence of “orthodoxy” against the corrupting “reformation” by English education, their stress on science and nationhood arguably represented a thoroughly “modern” interpretation of tantra itself.

These modern Śāktas entered in close dialogue with originally Western movements such as the Theosophical Society, which proclaimed very similar ideas. This exchange laid the foundations for interpretations of tantra that are predominant among the public at large until the present day. As is well known, the writings of John Woodroffe/Arthur Avalon were instrumental in this process. Not only did they initiate the serious academic study of tantra, but they also formed the basis for Western esoteric, and later New Age, interpretations of śaktikuṇḍalinī, or cakras. They established concepts such as the “six plus one” cakra system as the most widely accepted ones in modern tantric and yogic cultures. In this lecture, it will be argued that Woodroffe’s/Avalon’s writings were a direct outcome of the aforementioned developments at the end of the nineteenth century, especially in a Bengali context. It will be shown that the emergence of these modern Śākta identities can only be comprehensively understood in the light of a complex global exchange that revolved around the contested meanings of religion, science, and national identity.

Dr Julian Strube focuses on the relationship between religion and politics, specifically in the context of esotericism. He has previously worked on the relationship between esotericism and socialist, National Socialist, and völkisch context in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His current project focuses on the role of Tantra in colonial Bengal, against the background of global debates about religion, science, and national identity.