De-spiritualising tantra-chapter 8-part 1

Go to Chapter 7

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

This chapter concerns a scholarly book, Kiss of the Yogini: Tantric Sex in its South Asian Context. Its author, Prof. David Gordon White, a protégé of Wendy Doniger, received his PhD in the History of Religion from the University of Chicago in 1988. In an online discussion with Professor Jeffrey Lidke (a former student of White), Malhotra identified the book’s purpose as an effort to undermine the deep roots of Tantra’s inherent spirituality. This chapter is based on that online discussion that took place in May 2004.

White had previously authored The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, a well-received book that helped him achieve the stature of a highly acclaimed scholar of Tantra and Hinduism Studies. His earlier book was based on original sources and his interpretations were broadly accepted by Tantric practitioners. This authenticity provided political and professional credibility for the author in the academy and the Hindu community. His new book caught many Indian scholars and practitioners of Tantra, and Hindus in general, by surprise. This is a good example of Malhotra’s U-Turn Theory, which describes how some Western scholars study Indic traditions respectfully, and then later repackage the subject to suit their own personal agendas or the needs of institutions, peer groups or the marketplace.

Malhotra’s review of the Kiss of the Yogini can be summarized as follows:

1. The book positions Tantra as a system of decadent South Asian sexuality. Furthermore, this decadence was seen as the result of the social suffering of Indian subaltern (lower caste) people in classical times.

2. Eminent Tantra scholars, such as Abhinavagupta, Kashmir Shaivism’s towering eleventh century figure, evidently did not know or did not want to know the ‘real’ Tantra the book purports to have uncovered. This is yet another example of how the natives, native scholars and actual practitioners are not trusted for their own interpretations, even including eminent thinkers whose works have been studied by Westerners and others, for centuries.

3. The bottom line, according to the Kiss of the Yogini, is that Tantra is not a legitimate spiritual process.

4. Doniger wrote a glowing review of the book, further extending its political import. She not only gives it the benefit of doubt without seriously challenging many of its presuppositions, but explicitly blames ‘Hindu chauvinists’ for repackaging Tantra as spirituality. She alleges that this was done to make Hinduism look good in the face of the British colonialists’ Victorian values. Hence, her thesis is designed to help postcolonial Indian scholars to undo colonialism by rejecting the spiritual purpose of Tantra.

5. Those who dare deny this thesis are assumed to be ‘Hindu nationalists’, ‘fascists’, ‘right-winger’ and so forth.

6. Doniger then cites Schweder’s popular new theory that native societies do not own their culture—a theory that Doniger asserts as true even though it is simply one point of view in an ongoing and controversial debate. Thus she accuses the Hindu diaspora and ‘Hindu right-wing chauvinists’ of claiming the right to interpret their culture and says that they have no such rights.

7. The implication is clear: No one can dare challenge the White-Wendy scholarship for fear of being branded a BJP chauvinist. And Indians have no special standing as insiders in their culture. What a tragedy for the academy that such a ploy works!

A long-time scholar of Kashmir Shaivism and a Tantra practitioner confided that he finds the book ‘disgusting’—in methodology, conclusion and its demeaning tone.

Ziauddin Sardar has attacked similar positions by illustrating how non-Western cultures are ‘for sale in the supermarket of postmodern nihilism’. Malhotra asserts that White is similarly introducing a ‘new product’ in the postmodern ‘bazaar of realities’. Doniger does a followup to reconfigure it into yet another derivative intellectual product:

Displaying her manipulative prowess, she claims that those who profess Tantra to be a spiritual process are somehow associated with a hardline right-wing political party in India. Thus the choice before Indians is between abandoning Tantra and facing disgrace as fascists—a pretty bleak either/or situation. The middle ground of spirituality without a political agenda is made unavailable as an option. Ironically, this apolitical middle ground has been the hallmark of Hinduism and is a distinguishing feature of considerable relevance in today’s world of exclusivist dogmas.

Doniger evades the implications of her political thesis when it’s applied to Tibetan Buddhism. The heart of Tibetan Buddhism is Tantra and there is a very intimate relationship and sharing of Tantra between Buddhism and Hinduism.

Using Credibility as Defense

Prof. Jeffrey S. Lidke, a former student of David White, and hence someone whom Doniger regards as a grandchild of her lineage, posted a response attempting to dismiss the critique by claiming that Malhotra ‘did not know the purva-paksha (i.e. opponent’s position)’, and that he had ‘misrepresented the White-Doniger position’. Lidke approached the debate as a knowledgeable scholar of Tantra who had spent several years reading White’s writings. Therefore, ‘with no small amount of confidence’ he could claim that the above synopsis of White’s thesis made two inaccurate claims: (For more on Lidke’s argument, please read page 76, chapter 8)

Lidke then resorted to a tired old comeback that RISA scholars often use, by claiming that criticism by outsiders is spurious because ‘obviously’ they didn’t read the book. The only defenses that Lidke offered were based on acclaim and association, not content and substance. Besides he claimed that White and Doniger had benign intentions even though their quotes may suggest otherwise. This line of argumentation denies the lay reader the same rights that the scholars themselves claim, i.e. freedom to interpret Indic texts according to contemporary sensibilities and theories, in whatever worlds of meaning they wish, and without reference to the author’s intent or vivaksha.

Analysis of White’s Position

Malhotra posted a three-part response online to argue that his assertions about White were well-founded. His posts are summarized below, followed by a brief criticism of White’s work by an Australia-based scholar of Tantra.

Tantra’s history, according to the White-Doniger thesis, went through two stages. In its early history, Tantra was a system of sexual magical acts that were not spiritual. Doniger explains, “In David Gordon White’s account, the distinguishing characteristic of South Asian Tantra in its earliest documented stage is a ritual in which bodily fluids—sexual or menstrual discharge—were swallowed as transformative ‘power substances’.” So Tantra was a system of practices to achieve magical powers by swallowing sexual fluids.

Then came stage two, according to White-Doniger, when, Abhinavagupta, the leading proponent of Tantra and Kashmir Shaivism, reconstructed Tantra into a spiritually contextualized system that was more suitable for Brahmin appropriation. Doniger says, “A significant reform took place in the eleventh century, when certain elite Brahmin Tantric practitioners, led by the great theologian Abhinavagupta in Kashmir, marginalized the ritual of fluid exchange and sublimated it into a wider body of ritual and meditative techniques.”

Doniger refers to Abhinavagupta’s system as ‘soft-core, or High Hindu’, whose purpose was to allow double-standards among Brahmins so that they could indulge in forbidden sexual acts and yet publicly not “threaten the purity regulations that were required for high-caste social constructions of the self in India”. Thus, Doniger maintains that hypocritical Brahmins allowed themselves to indulge in the ‘drinking of female menstrual discharge’ because they could depict it in philosophical language as ‘a programme of meditation mantras’.

Doniger explains that this ‘soft-core’ became a mask to cover up the ‘hard-core’ real Tantra which remained underground: “In this way the earlier, unreconstructed form of Tantra, the hard-core, persisted as a kind of underground river, flowing beneath the new, bowdlerized, dominant form”. Doniger’s and White’s terminology is meant to evoke a certain image which equates Tantra with current pathologies in America—hard core and soft core pornography that are a significant part of American society today. We find that Doniger and White equate esoteric techniques of Tantra with something familiar to most Americans in an anti-social sense. Thus it is not to be seen as a powerful and valid cultural and religious alternative to American norms, but something familiar, something dismissible as ‘been there, done that’, and, moreover, something that is ‘sexy, seedy and strange’.

White-Doniger claim that the transition from hard-core to softcore was a discontinuity—a ‘reform’ by ‘elite Brahmins’ that ‘sublimated’ the past practice of ‘sexual fluid exchange’. Obviously, this point-of-view is found not only in Doniger’s review and analysis, but it is the central thesis cited in White’s book:

In about the eleventh century, a scholasticizing trend in Kashmirian Hindu circles, led by the great systematic theologian Abhinavagupta, sought to aestheticize the sexual rituals of the Kaula. These theoreticians, whose intended audience was likely composed of conformist householder practitioners, sublimated the end and raison d’être of Kaula sexual practice—the production of powerful, transformative sexual fluids—into simple by-products of a higher goal: the cultivation of a divine state of higher consciousness . . . (p.xii.)

White claims that until the eleventh century the heart of Tantra practice had been the ‘oral consumption of sexual fluids as power substances’, and that it was never practiced for the spiritual expansion of consciousness. He alleges that Abhinavagupta re-packaged it as a ‘consumer  product’ for sale to Kashmiris whose ‘bobo profile’ could be compared to modern New Age seekers.

If such a thesis were true, there would be no spiritual legitimacy in the systems that flowed from Abhinavagupta onwards. Their origin would be merely the repackaging of superstition and sexual magic for a consumer market of ‘wily Brahmins’ who wanted to indulge secretly in wild sex while pretending it was a spiritual practice. This is quite a bombshell dropped on any serious spiritual practitioner of Kashmir Shaivism, Tantra and many other Hindu-Buddhist systems.

The following counter arguments by Malhotra challenge the primary thesis of White and Doniger:

1. Hinduism was never enforced by centralized institutional authorities—very different from the Abrahamic religions. There is no historical evidence of any such political movement across all of South Asia that dramatically imposed a ‘soft-core’ system upon the previous ‘hard-core’ system. The mere emergence of scholarly texts does not necessarily bring any social revolution in the case of Hinduism given the absence of a centralized and authoritarian Church in the mode of the Christian one.

2. Tantra was exported from India to other parts of Asia (such as Tibet) where it was seen by the receiving Asian cultures as a spiritual tradition. Therefore, the Indian Brahmins’ sociopolitical exploitation that White-Doniger allege would also have to be proven in the case of all other Asian societies that imported Tantra. Since the domicile of Tantra practice has extended well beyond the geography of India, and especially since it has extended into territories where Brahmin social influence was not operative—such as Tibet, among others—the thesis of White-Doniger remains unproven until they examine Tantra outside of India and outside
the scope of Hinduism.

3. Such scholarship arbitrarily classifies as ‘Hindu’ certain ‘secular’ practices and some obscure texts cited may even have never been practised (and certainly not ‘enforced’). There may also have been many entirely unrelated multiple spiritual traditions from which the scholar indulges in a cut-and-paste exercise to fit his thesis.

One of the readers of this online debate was Prof. Jayant Bapat, (incidentally, also a Tantra practitioner) at Monash University, Australia. He found White’s arguments both unconvincing and reductionist: (For more on Prof. Bapat’s views, please read page 79 and 80, chapter 8)

Malhotra cited four specific examples from Doniger’s School that could be seen as assault on a whole spiritual tradition:

1. Assault on mantras: Because the Tantrics were not elitist Brahmins and lacked access to complex Sanskrit mantras, Doniger notes that they “derived their mantras of nonsense syllables from the inarticulate moans that the Goddess made during intercourse . . .” (For more on this please read page 81, chapter 8)

2. Assault on bindi: White’s explanation of the meaning of the bindi (the sacred mark worn by most Hindu women today) is that “the image of a drop (bindu) that recurs, across the entire gamut of Tantric theory and practice” was originally referring to a physical drop of menstrual blood, but was later explained using the language of mantras and yantras so as to be seen as abstract symbolism about speech and divine consciousness.

3. Assault on mudra: Doniger explains the meaning of the word mudra in the texts: “White argues that mudra . . . refers to ‘the technique of urethral suction by means of which the Tantric yogin, having ejaculated into his partner, draws his semen together with her sexual emission back into his penis’ (the so-called fountain-pen effect)”. In this interpretation mudra signifies the practitioner’s/consort’s vulva, and, by extension, the fluids from the vulva.

4. Assault on Srividya: White culminates his arguments showing that many popular contemporary Hindu systems of symbolism emerged out of this ‘intellectual whitewash’ done by Abhinavagupta. The Srividya tradition as practised widely today was just that—whitewashed pornography and wild sex practices. It gave a spiritual gloss to hard-core practices by making them seem intellectual and spiritual.

Read chapter 8 part 1 from page 73 to 81

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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