Śākta Traditions Online Lecture Series

Project Conveners

Tanja L. Jakobsen
Lena Molin

Project Outline

It is widely recognised that Śāktism has a massive presence in India and Nepal, and that Hinduism cannot be understood without the Goddess (Devī/Śakti) and the goddess-oriented Śākta traditions. The Goddess pervades Hinduism at all levels, from aniconic village deities to high-caste pan-Hindu goddesses to esoteric, tantric goddesses. 

The Śākta Traditions Online Lecture Series Project aims to carve out space for Śāktism as an area of research in its own right. The project is a compilation of the most prominent research already done in the field of Śākta Traditions, which can serve as educational material as well as a point of departure for further research on the subject. 

The Śākta Traditions Online Lecture Series comprises three related online lecture series presented during the academic year of 2020/2021. The first is titled ‘Śākta Traditions Lecture Series: Work in progress’ and is presented in Michaelmas Term 2020. The second and third series are titled ‘Śākta Traditions Lecture Series: Contributions to a growing field of Śākta Studies’ and will be presented during Hilary Term 2021 and Trinity Term 2021.

The main goal of the project is to open up the academic field of Śākta Studies to a wider audience. In light of the covid-19 lockdown and the changes to the ways in which people now have to work and live the project consists of recorded lectures that are made widely available through the OCHS webpage, the Śākta webpage, and Youtube. Due to the online format of the lecture series, these contributions will be preserved and archived for the future and serve as an important resource for a budding field.  

Project Output

  • The project output is an online lecture series of four lectures in Michaelmas Term 2020 under the theme ’Śākta traditions: Work in Progress’, and four online lectures in Hilary Term 2021 and Trinity Term 2021 under the theme ‘Contributions to a growing field of Śākta Studies’.
  • The lecture series has the potential to continue or to expand to include other fields of studies as well.
  • We further aim towards a publication of the papers presented in the series. This could be through a special issue of the Journal of Hindu Studies or Routledge Tantric Studies Series.

Michaelmas Term 2020

Śākta Traditions Online Lecture Series: Work in Progress

Śāktism among the Śaivas

Prof. Alexis Sanderson
21 & 28 October 2020, 2.00-3.00 and 12 November 2020, 2.00-4.00

Abstract: In the first of these three lectures Professor Sanderson covers the history of Śaivism, setting out his view of its principal divisions, their historical development, and their interaction, and locating on this map the entry point of an influx of Śākta Śaiva forms of ecstatic religion into what had previously been a cluster of austere, highly ascetic traditions. In the second he narrows his focus to examine the history of Śaivism in Kashmir, concentrating on the nature of its Śākta Śaiva elements, notably the traditions of the Trika and Krama, but stressing the importance of seeing how these were embedded within, and interacted with, more exoteric forms of the religion. In the third lecture, he presents evidence that these Śākta Śaiva traditions developed and flourished outside Kashmir in most regions of the subcontinent and that, though much of their later highbrow literature was modelled on the learned exegesis of Abhinavagupta and Ksemarāja there are reasons to conclude that they had pre-Kashmirian histories.

The second and third lectures demonstrate incidentally the inappositeness of the widely used term ‘Kashmir Śaivism’ to refer to the Trika and related Śākta Śaiva systems, the second by showing that these systems co-existed in Kashmir with non-Śākta, Saiddhāntika Śaivism, and the third by refuting or casting doubt on the notion that the Śākta Śaiva systems that received such learned attention in Kashmir in the tenth century were Kashmirian in origin

Prof. Alexis Sanderson: after a training in Classics, began his Indological career as a student of Sanskrit at Balliol College, Oxford in 1969. After graduation he spent six years studying the Kashmirian Śaiva literature in Kashmir with the Śaiva scholar and guru Swami Lakshman Joo from 1971 to 1977 while holding research positions at Merton and Brasenose Colleges. From 1977 to 1992 he was Associate Professor (University Lecturer) of Sanskrit in the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Wolfson College. In 1992 he was elected to the Spalding Professorship of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford and thereby became a Fellow of All Souls College. He retired from that post in 2015. Since then he has been preparing a critical edition, with a translation and commentary, of the Tantrāloka, Abhinavagupta’s monumental exposition of the Śākta Śaivism of the Trika.

Link to handout for lecture 1 & 2: download
Link to handout for lecture 3: download

Theology and Social Change in Śākta Tradition

Prof. Gavin Flood
4 November 2020, 2.00-3.00
Abstract: Conversion to new tantric forms of Hinduism took place over a relatively short period within the history of Indic religions, the period from the eighth to early eleventh century. This period of about two hundred years is about eight generations. While it might not be appropriate to call this ‘sudden’ conversion, it nevertheless falls into the paradigm of conversion if by that we mean a process of realignment over time rather than a sudden event (Rambo 1993). In this lecture I wish to use the period of the development of the Tantras, with particular reference to the Netra, as a case study of relatively rapid change and religious innovation in which beliefs of many people altered and how this change impacted upon politics and society as a whole. Although the socio-economic paradigm has explanatory force, it is not the whole story and in specifying the constraints that led to the outcome of Śākta religion, we also need to take into account internal, theological concerns.
gavin floodProf. Gavin Flood: is Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion at Oxford University, Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, and Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall. His publications include Religion and the Philosophy of Life (2019), The Truth Within: A History of Inwardness in Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism (2013), The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in Our Strange World (2012), and The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory, and Tradition (2004). He is also the General Editor of the series ‘The Oxford History of Hinduism’ and is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Śāktism in Europe

Prof. Knut A. Jacobsen
18 November 2020, 2.00-3.00
Abstract: In this presentation I make some observations about the presence of Śākta traditions in contemporary Europe. The majority of Hindu traditions in Europe are Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava, but Śāktas and Śākta traditions are not absent. In the presentation I suggest some ways to identify them and the analysis focuses on the role of Śākta temples, the use of the text Devīmāhātmya, the presence of other forms of Hindu goddess worship, and finally female Hindu gurus in Europe being identified with the great goddess. The lecture argues that there is much creativity and freedom of expression involved in the Śākta worship in Europe. The foundation of Śākta temples are often based on the presence and revelations of the goddess at particular places in Europe with the goddess expressing the wish for being present in temples at these places. The goddess has also a living presence in Europe in the female gurus who are believed by the devotees to be the goddess or her avatāra. The recitation of the text Devīmāhātmya makes the goddess present, and she is celebrated all over Europe in festivals associated with the narratives of this text.
Prof. Knut Axel Jakobsen: is professor in the study of religions at the University of Bergen, Norway. Jacobsen’s main research fields are Hindu Studies, classical and contemporary Sāṃkhya and Yoga, South Asian pilgrimage traditions and ideas and rituals of space and time, and diasporas and the globalization of South Asia religions. He is the author of Prakṛti in Sāṃkhya-Yoga: Material Principle: Religious Experience, Ethical Implications (Peter Lang, 1999), Kapila: Founder of Sāṃkhya and Avatāra of Viṣṇu (Munshiram Manoharlal, 2008), Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: Salvific Space (Routledge, 2013) and Yoga in Modern Hinduism: Hariharānanda Āraṇya and Sāṃkhyayoga (Routledge, 2018). Other recent publications include the edited volumes Routledge Handbook of Contemporary India (Routledge, 2016). Jacobsen is the founding Editor-in-Chief of the six volumes Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Brill, 2009-2015) and the Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism Online, and editor of the two volumes Handbook of Hinduism in Europe (Brill, 2020).

Hinduism and the Goddess - Śāktism and Śākta traditions

Dr Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen
16 December 2020, 2.00-3.00
Abstract: Hinduism cannot be understood without the Goddess and the goddess-oriented Śākta traditions. Worship of the Goddess pervades Hinduism at all levels, from village deities to high-caste pan-Hindu goddesses to esoteric, tantric goddesses. Nevertheless, these highly influential forms of South Asian religion have only recently begun to draw a more broad scholarly attention. The Goddess and her network of Śākta traditions is often subsumed under the broad category of ‘Śāktism’, which is by many considered one of the major branches of Hinduism next to Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism. Śāktism is, however, less clearly defined than the other major branches and sometimes surprisingly difficult to discern from Śaivism in its tantric forms. These sometimes very complex and challenging forms of Śākta religion therefore provide a test case for our understanding of Hinduism and raise important theoretical questions with regard to the study of religious traditions in South Asia.
In this lecture I wish to go up from the particular and provide a brief overview of the state of research. I will address some of the problems and challenges we face in the study of Śākta traditions and propose a model for how we may meaningfully speak of Śāktism as a major Hindu tradition, relating textual details with broader theoretical questions and the longue durée of the history of Śākta traditions.
Dr Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen: is a Research Lecturer at the centre and tutor in Hinduism, Buddhism and Sanskrit at the Faculty of Theology and Religion. He teaches courses, seminars and tutorials in Sanskrit, Pāli and Indian religions as well as courses and seminars on manuscript reading and theory and method in the Study of Religion. He is currently leading and managing a research project on Śākta Traditions and a research programme on the Comparative Study of Religion together with Prof. Gavin Flood. He is the founder of the OCHS Kathmandu Office and also the founder and supervisor of a student exchange programme with Aarhus University.

Hilary Term 2021

Śākta Traditions Online Lecture Series: Contributions to a growing field of Śākta Studies

Before they were foxy ladies, they were lady foxes: Yoginīs and Ḍākinīs in Hindu and Buddhist Tantra

Prof. David G. White
27 January 2021, 2.00-3.00

Abstract: Before there was “tantric sex” there was “tantric violence,” which saw tantric yogis venturing alone into cremation grounds and other fearsome landscapes in the dead of night to offer their bodies up to Yoginīs and Ḍākinīs, noisy nocturnal hordes of flesh-eating female creatures that preyed on the living and the dead. The early tantric scriptural record, which relates the conditions under which males voluntarily offered themselves up for possession and consumption by these ferocious shape-shifters, offers a window onto the unique tantric appropriation of a pre-existing South Asian (if not pan-Eurasian) demonological substratum. In this lecture, I juxtapose scriptural and art historical data to demonstrate the persistence of this demonological paradigm across South, Inner and East Asian tantric traditions.

Prof. David G. White is the J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has been teaching since 1996. Prior to coming to Santa Barbara, he taught at the University of Virginia between 1986 and 1996. There, he founded the University of Virginia Study Abroad Program in Jodhpur, India in 1994. White is the sole foreign scholar to have ever been admitted to the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud in Paris, France, where he has been an active Research Fellow since 1992. His current research interest concerns contacts and exchanges in matters of demonology. Prof. White’s book publications include The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (Princeton University Press, 2014), Yoga in Practice (Princeton University Press, 2012), Sinister Yogis (University Press of Chicago, 2009), Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Context (University Press of Chicago, 2003), The Alchemy Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (University Press of Chicago, 1996).  

New Light on Śāktism and Haṭhayoga

Dr James Mallinson
10 February 2021, 2.00-3.00

Abstract: This lecture will build upon, and in many ways revise, ideas first presented in a lecture entitled Śāktism and Haṭhayoga which I gave at the OCHS Śākta Traditions conference held in Oxford in 2011. I shall present a more detailed analysis of the Śākta contributions to haṭhayoga as formalised in Sanskrit texts from the eleventh century onwards, focusing specifically on Buddhist, Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava tantric traditions. I shall argue that the distinctive techniques of haṭhayoga were innovations in Indian religious practice and show how the different Śākta traditions introduced different methods of physical yoga practice.

Dr James Mallinson: is Reader in Indology and Yoga Studies at SOAS University of London. He is Chair of SOAS’s Centre for Yoga Studies and the Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded Hatha Yoga Project, for which he is preparing five critical editions of Sanskrit texts on physical yoga and a monograph on its early history. Dr Mallinson is the author of several books and articles on yoga, and the co-author, with Dr. Mark Singleton, of Roots of Yoga (Penguin Classics 2017).

Assessing medieval Śākta history in the light of Indian inscriptions

Dr Bihani Sarkar
24 February 2021, 2.00-3.00

Abstract: In studies of religious history in early India, inscriptions have sometimes been overlooked as conveying ‘mundane’ information about secular aspects of religion considered unimportant. Religious texts, philosophical and liturgical, and practices, on the other hand, have received comparatively greater interest as vehicles of doctrine, mythology and tradition. In recent years, scholarship on Indian religions has begun to show the importance of inscriptional material for a more precise historical and conceptual understanding of Indian religious traditions from the ‘early medieval’ period, Śaivism, Vaiṣṇavism, Tantric Buddhism and Śāktism. Not only do these pieces of material history offer basic information needed for the construction of any historical argument, such as dates, names, and places, but they can reveal wider conceptual and political narratives. How were deities conceived and described? How did temples grow powerful? How did local deities grow powerful? Why were donors making grants? Who were the donors? What kinds of donations did they make? What rituals were performed for the recipient deities? Which were the important devotee-lineages? And much more.

This lecture focuses on the historical insights epigraphical evidence offers for our understanding of the development of the Goddess’s worship. Between the 7th and the 13th centuries CE, many epigraphs, etched on copper or stone slabs, on cave-temple entrances, or on the bases of statuary, were commissioned by subcontinental rulers and communities, which formalized grants to powerful forms of the Goddess and asserted devotion to them. These sources attesting Śākta piety plot the process of patronage of the Goddess cult, the consolidation of political authority through such patronage, strategies involved in the formation of kingdoms, who the worshippers of the Goddess were, modes of her worship and the chief geographical centres of her influence.
Dr Bihani Sarkar: is Lecturer (Hourly-Paid, fixed term) in Religious Studies: Hinduism and Buddhism (University of Winchester), Associate Faculty Member of the Oriental Institute (University of Oxford), and Research Member of Common Room, Wolfson College (University of Oxford). Bihani’s publications include Heroic Shāktism: The Cult of Durgā in Ancient Indian Kingship, (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Classical Sanskrit Tragedy: the concept of suffering and pathos in Medieval India (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2021).

Tantric Elements Embedded in a Purāṇic Context: the Example of the Māhātmyakhaṇḍa of the Tripurārahasya

Dr Silvia Schwarz Linder
10 March 2021, 2.00-3.00

Abstract: The Tripurārahasya (TR) is a Sanskrit work of South Indian origin, probably composed around the 15th-16th century CE, and associated with the Śākta tradition of Tripurā, later known as Śrīvidyā. This lecture focuses on some Tantric ritual elements embedded in the Purāṇic-like mythical narrative of the Māhātmyakhaṇḍa (mk), the first of the two extant sections of the work, which celebrates the deeds of Tripurā and of the goddesses who are regarded as her manifestations or shares. The topics discussed include: the initiation ceremony (dīkṣa), the mantra of Tripurā (Śrīvidyā) and the method of her worship (pūjā). A crucial component of this worship is the Śrīcakra, the yantra that is both the diagrammatic yet dynamic form of the Goddess, and the essential support for her meditation and ritual worship. In the mk of the TR the Śrīcakra is transposed into a narrative element, and becomes the centre of the abode of Tripurā in the Island of Jewels (maṇidvīpa), as well as the pattern according to which the stronghold of Lalitā is constructed. It will be shown how the maṇidvīpa and the Śrīcakra retain their Tantric character and meaning in the TR, even as they are incorporated into a mythical narrative.

Dr Silvia Schwarz Linder is Research Associate at the Institut für Indologie und Zentralasienwissenschaften of the University of Leipzig and Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, affiliated with the Śākta Traditions Programme. Her interests focus on the Tantric religious traditions of the Śrīvidyā and of the Pāñcarātra, specifically on the philosophical and theological doctrines expressed in the relevant South Indian Sanskrit textual traditions. Her publications include: The Philosophical and Theological Teachings of the Pādmasaṃhitā, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien 2014 and Goddess Traditions in India: Theological Poems and Philosophical Tales in the Tripurārahasya, Routledge Hindu Studies Series, forthcoming.