Tantra: Digital Age Edition

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Within a few decades after their initial composition, early tantric traditions of text and practice were disseminated to East and Southeast Asia. This was facilitated by the active trade and diplomatic exchanges between India and China during the 7th and early 8th centuries, via overland trade routes via Central Asia and also maritime trade routes via South East Asia.

Tantric traditions were established in China during the Tang dynasty, and thence disseminated to Korea 76 and Japan. It appears that tantric Buddhist texts and practices were first disseminated to Tibet during the 8th century, shortly after their initial dissemination to East and Southeast Asia. Buddhists traditions view the 7th century as the time when Buddhism first reached Tibet, although there might have been gradual dissemination of Buddhism into the region earlier.

With the collapse of the Tibetan empire in ce and the consequent loss of imperial patronage, the transmission and translation of tantric works to Tibet appears to have slowed but did not cease altogether.

Advocates of the new Tibetan traditions based on these scriptures claimed that yogic practices involving the manipulation of the subtle body were requisites to complete awakening. Tibetan Buddhists would later play important roles in the dissemination of Buddhism and associated tantric traditions to China and Mongolia, and eventually throughout the world, with the diaspora of Tibetan lamas in the 20th century following the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet in Tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions influenced a number of other religious traditions, both within South Asia as well as in other areas of the world.

Because tantric traditions first emerged in South Asia, their impact there is naturally the most significant. The South Asian traditions that were influenced by the tantric traditions to some degree include Jainism, Islam, and Sikhism. Generally speaking, many Jains were interested in tantric practices, although given the Jain focus on nonviolence as well as strict celibacy for monks and nuns, Jain tantric texts did not advocate any of the transgressive ritual practices involving sex or violence.

The worship of these goddesses, however, was changed to suit Jain moral teachings.

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Jains, who worshipped their tantric goddesses with vegetarian offerings only, did not perform animal sacrifices. Probably the best known mode of tantric practice during the medieval period is the tantric form of yoga focusing on the subtle body and the movement of vital energy within it. The Sufi tantric yoga tradition borrowed the concept of the subtle body and Islamicized it, translating it into Islamic categories.

This development occurred rather late; none of the extant texts of this tradition predate the 16th century. Tantric yogic practice was also adopted by some Sikhs. One of the best known advocates of this practice was Harbhajan Singh Khalsa — , better known as Yogi Bhajan, who widely taught Kundalini Yoga in America and Europe. Yogi Bhajan claimed to be part of a practice lineage going back to Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

When tantric Buddhist traditions reached China at the beginning of the 8th century, there was already a long history of borrowing between Buddhist and Daoist communities. Many elements of tantric Buddhist practice were taken up by Daoist traditions. But tantric Buddhists, in turn, also borrowed the Daoist practice of venerating the Big Dipper constellation and developed distinctly tantric modes worshipping this divinity.

There are three primary approaches to the study of the history of tantric traditions: textual, archeological, and ethnographic. The first two are most important for the study of history of tantric traditions in general and indispensable for those traditions that are now defunct, which persist only in the textual and archeological record. But as numerous tantric traditions have survived in South, East, and Central Asia, ethnographic studies in these communities are an important additional source of information concerning them.

As all of the known tantric traditions have been the products of literate communities, the study of the voluminous texts composed and preserved by these traditions has been one of our largest sources of information concerning them. Many thousands of texts have been composed and preserved by tantric communities, the majority of which have not been edited, studied, or translated. This literature was often ignored by past generations of scholars, some of whom deemed tantric literature as unworthy of study.

Thousands of works of tantric literature have been preserved in South Asia, and several thousand, many for which the Sanskrit original is now lost, were also translated into Tibetan and Chinese and preserved by East and Central Asian communities. Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese authors have also composed many thousands of original tantric works, such as commentaries and ritual and meditative manuals.

Only a small fraction of these works have been critically edited, studied, or translated into Western languages. The study of these texts is an ongoing effort, which, as it proceeds, should deepen our understanding of the history of tantric traditions. However, textual study alone is insufficient. This is partly because exclusive focus on written records leads to a distorted understanding of the traditions that gave rise to them, since these records, arguably, reflect an elite perspective.

This includes epigraphic and numismatic inscriptions as well as the wide range of different types of religious art. Inscriptions indicating the donors who contributed to the construction or fabrication of a temple, monument, or work of art can provide important information regarding the communities who supported tantric institutions. Moreover, some facets of tantric history are only known via archeological evidence.

They represent an important aspect of South Asian history that can only be understood via archeological and art historical approaches, although continued research into the large amounts of unstudied or poorly studied texts may also shed light on these temples. Ethnographic study of contemporary tantric communities is an additional important source of information.

From such study we can gain more information about the texts and practices preserved by the communities. These include questions such as which texts and practices are actually employed by these communities and how the practices as described in the texts compare to those undertaken by contemporary communities. These are important questions, as the study of ritual and contemplative practices via texts alone is problematic at best, if not completely impossible.

It is possible that the study of texts alone can lead to an incomplete or distorted understanding of history, and sometimes observing living communities can serve as a corrective to these problems. Some of these texts appear to valorize these female partners; Miranda Shaw used this evidence to argue that Indian tantric communities often empowered women to serve as gurus or spiritual leaders.

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However, ethnographic studies of low-caste women who serve as sexual partners for male tantric practitioners have painted a much darker picture of what life is like for such women, suggesting that the textual passages that valorize these women should not be uncritically accepted at face value. It goes without saying that our study of tantric traditions should take into consideration all available evidence.

While this interdisciplinary approach is beyond the capacity of any individual scholar, the collective works of various scholars employing different methodologies will over time deepen our understanding of these traditions. Many have survived in India despite the climate that is generally not conducive to manuscript preservation. However, the vast majority of surviving tantric works have been preserved by the Newar community of the Kathmandu valley, who have preserved a wide range of tantric Hindu and Buddhist texts and traditions and have been aided by a climate that is far more amenable to text preservation.

Many of these surviving texts were originally preserved in monastery and temple libraries as well as private text collections. There are also several collections in Kathmandu that are open to the public, most notably the National Archives of Nepal, the Kaiser Library , and the Asha Archives.

Over 18, rare manuscripts, many of which are of Hindu and Buddhist tantric texts, were microfilmed by the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project, and these titles are now being cataloged by the successor project, the Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project. It is possible to request microfilm or digital scans of these manuscripts through this very important project. A smaller collection of scanned Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts is freely available online via the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon , a project sponsored by the University of the West in Los Angeles.

A number of tantric works are included in the works available on their website. Many tantric manuscripts from Nepal and India are also owned by university libraries and archives around the world. Lists of library collections containing these manuscripts have been prepared by Dominik Wujastyk and Audrey Truschke. There are a number of resources for those interested in studying the tantric Buddhist literature translated into or composed in the Tibet language. For those interested in studying Tibetan primary texts, one of the best resources is the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center.

Tantra and the Tantric Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism

Like the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project, the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center has sponsored the scanning of many thousands of Tibetan manuscripts, some of which are quite rare. Several organizations are working to translate Tibetan Buddhist works to make them accessible to those who do not read Tibetan or Sanskrit. The organization Translating the Words of the Buddha is sponsoring the English translation of the entire Tibetan Kanjur as well as the rNying-ma tantric canon, including translations of all of the canonical Buddhist tantras.

These translations, as they are completed, are published as digital texts freely available on their web site. The Tsadra Foundation is also sponsoring the translation of Tibetan works. They are producing digital publications as well apps for accessing these on various devices. Much but not all of this canon has been digitally published by the organization CBETA , and the tantric translations are included among the texts freely available on their website. It contains high-quality digital images, freely available for download, of religious art from the Himalayan region.

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Some of the images from their recent exhibition on yoga are available as well. The catalog for this exhibit, Yoga: The Art of Transformation , edited by Debra Diamond, contains numerous high-quality reproductions of stunning works of art, many of which originated in the South Asian tantric traditions. This includes a good number of tantric works. Several works provide good introductions to tantric traditions.


Flood, Gavin. London: I. Taurus, Find this resource:. Sanderson, Alexis. Urban, Hugh B. Berkeley: University of California Press, White, David Gordon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, New York: Columbia University Press, Davidson, Ronald M. Orzech, Charles D. Payne, eds. Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, Snellgrove, David L. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. London: Serindia, ; reprint, Boston: Shambhala, Biernacki, Loriliai. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Goodall, Dominic, ed. Turner, Mark.

Edited by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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