Shaktism and Ethnography: Some Major Styles of Worship and Belief among Practitioners (HT22)

Location: OCHS YouTube Channel
Speaker: Professor June McDaniel
Date: February 16, 2022
Time: 2.00pm – 3.00pm (GMT)

Abstract: The study of Shaktism is a relatively new field, and its primary methodologies have been historical and textual study. In this lecture, we shall examine some modern approaches to Shaktism, from the perspectives of practitioners and devotees. The regional focus will be West Bengal, India. Among practitioners today, there tend to be three strands or styles of Shakta understanding and practice. The first is the folk or tribal strand, which involves possession trance, dream commands and animism; its focus is a goddess immanent within nature. The second approach is the tantric or yogic strand, which involves meditation and spiritual disciplines. The goddess is understood as highest wisdom, brahmajnana; she is encountered in initiations, visualizations, spiritual travel and practice of the three Shakta bhavas. The third type is the devotional or bhakti strand, which involves the intense love of a particular form of the goddess. Shakti/Devi is willing to descend from her paradise to bless her human devotees, and her presence can be felt in religious worship. These types are often found in combined form, like strands of a rope braided together. However, there are tensions which exist within and between these strands. The folk/tribal strand often emphasizes regionalism and competition between local forms of the goddess. The tantric/ yogic strand opposes those goddesses who represent infinite consciousness with those magical goddesses who move through inner worlds and grant supernatural powers. The devotional strand has tensions between goddesses understood as individual living deities and goddesses who exist as symbols of universal principles. We shall also briefly note how traditional Shakta ideas have been incorporated into nationalism by politicians, and into hedonism by modern entrepreneurs.

Prof. June McDaniel: is Professor Emerita in History of Religions in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston.  Her PhD was from the University of Chicago, and her MTS was from Emory University.  Her research areas include Mysticism, Religions of India, Psychology of Religion, Women and Religion, and Ritual Studies.  She did several years of field research in West Bengal, funded by Fulbright and the American Institute of Indian Studies, which focused on religious experience and modern Shaktism.  Her books include: Lost Ecstasy:  Its Decline and Transformation in Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2004), Making Virtuous Daughters and Wives:  An Introduction to the Brata Rituals of Bengal (State University of New York Press, 2003), and The Madness of the Saints:  Ecstatic Religion in Bengal (University of Chicago Press, 1989). Edited volumes include: Religious Experience in the Hindu TraditionReligions (journal, Routledge 2019), and Perceiving the Divine through the Human Body:  Mystical Sensuality, edited by Thomas Cattoi and June McDaniel. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Her current work draws comparisons between Bengali and Balinese Hinduism, and examines religious emotion in different traditions.