David Gordon White (ed.), 2000, Tantra In Practice, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press, 640 p.



      Tantra is drawing a lot of attention, in recent years, in Western scholarly circles. Though John Woodroffe was a pioneer in Tantra studies in the seventies, it is only in the eighties and specially in the nineties that Tantra has come into its own in the West. This book on Tantra by David White is indeed a welcome addition to the growing Tantra scholarship in the West. White has brought together in this edited volume, for the first time, a new approach to the study of Tantra practice, not as localized in one place or one country, but covering many countries that practice Tantra in one form or another, based on a textual source. The methodology followed is exegetical and thirty-nine Tantra scholars have come together to discuss the form of Tantra in the respective land they study, which is based on a key textual source. The text chosen by the individual scholar is situated in a religio/philosophical context and each author provides a translation of the work chosen.

      This book is an anthology of Tantra where we get a good idea of how canonical texts are used in “ performance ”. This is an ambitious enterprise and a daunting one as well. The author has connected this wide array of Tantra chapters by choosing a thematic, rather than a regional organization. Thus the themes addressed in the seven chapters of the book are “ Gurus and Adepts ”, “ Kings and Priests ”, “ Devotees and Deities ”, “ Traditions and Transition and Conflict ”, “ Tantric Paths ”, “ Rites and Techniques ” and “ Yoga and Meditation ”. The last three sections of the seventh theme are further devoted to the “ broad general practice of an entire tradition or region of the Tantric world ” (p. 3), while different types of Tantra practice, “ both external and their internal correlates ”, are investigated in the last two sections of the seventh chapter.

      Tantra ideology in its ontology, religious polity and soteriology has changed into many forms by adapting, and adjusting to the realities of the different regions in the world where Tantra was introduced. Nevertheless, it is White’s conviction that there still is “ something called Tantra ” (p. 5) in all these metamorphoses that happened in different regions and countries. To tease out this “ something called Tantra ”, which is Indian in origin, and surviving in most countries to which Tantra travelled, taking on new incarnations, White defines Tantra in Padoux’s words as being “ an attempt to place kama, desire…in the service of liberation […] not to sacrifice this world for liberation’s sake […] ”(p. 8).

      Hinduism can be viewed from two perspectives : the Vedic one embodied in the Vedas and developed further in the Upanishads, the Epics and the Puranas. This is the worldview of minimizing the importance of the body which is itself considered an entrapment. Liberation in this worldview is through development of virtues like detachment and withdrawal from active involvement in the material world. Tantra, on the other hand, while having the same goal of liberation as its ultimate value, evolved as a system that serviced the human body, with its attendant desires, to achieve that goal. Since women represent the object of desire — in a maximal sense — in the material world, the two systems also had differing viewpoints vis-à-vis the female body, the Vedic one denigrating it as a hindrance in the path to moksa, while Tantra elevated it as a means of sublimation and for achieving the highest goal of union with Siva. While it might appear to be a dichotomy of approaches to the same end, that is only a surface picture. The micro/macro analogue that is very much in evidence in the Vedic view is the “ energy-grid ” represented as a mandala in Tantric practice ( p. 9) ; that, combined with a holistic mind-set, which again relates to the Rta concept of the Vedic worldview, informs the philosophical world of Tantra. All beings located at various energy levels of this “ mandala-grid ” “ participate in the outward flow of the godhead ” (p. 9) who is situated at the apex. They can be viewed as “ emanations and hypostases of the deity himself (or herself) ” (p. 9) and therefore the attempt in Hindu Tantra is towards a liberation that can realize the identity between oneself and the supreme godhead. In Buddhist Tantra, similarly, the general approach is based on the truth of “ buddhahood ” being within all creatures (p. 10). Thus, for both Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, tantric practice, whether through external religious rites or through internal yogic practice, is to realize the identity with Siva or Buddha-nature, for which the body is indispensable (p. 10). It is in the choice of the means and the mechanics of achieving this ultimate purpose that one form of Tantra differentiates itself from another, as is manifest in the different traditions and regions described in this book. Not only are the schools of Tantra dealt with religion-wise here, i.e. Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Islam, but Tantra in the different regions is also treated as such in China, India, Japan, Nepal and Tibet.

      One is overwhelmed with the enormous data covered in this book. It is not easy to trace the growth of Tantra both in the different religions and in the different geographical areas that this book sets itself to do. White’s introduction (p. 3-36) is fairly exhaustive and covers a lot of ground as background material. He situates the origins of Tantra in India but he is well aware of the many strands, both elite and non-elite, that shaped Tantra in its growth in India itself. While it is not easy to separate the elite from the non-elite strands, we can agree with White that, in general, the non-elites would constitute the practical side of Tantra, while the elites would probably include “ professional priests of emerging temples of Tantric deities ; royal chaplains […] court astrologers, physicians and magicians […] siddhas and their female consorts or saktis […] and the leaders of important monastic orders ” (p. 18).

      And when Tantra travelled to other lands like China, Japan or Tibet, they carried the memory of their Indian origin at the time of migration to these foreign lands, so much so that, “ for any lineage based Tantric body of practice (sadhana) to be legitimate ” in these traditions, its “ translated root text must be traceable back to a Sanskrit original ” (p. 20). What is remarkable, according to White, is that very often it is possible to trace the time-frame of introduction of Tantra to these parts, based on the texts they consider revelatory in the tradition. He cites the case of Japanese Shingon, founded by Kukai (774-835 C.E.), who was instructed in China by the disciple of Amoghavajra, based on the Mahayana texts Mahavairocana-sutra and the Tattvasamgraha-sutra brought into China between the seventh and eighth centuries C. E. (p. 21).

      In pages 28-36, White ably covers the flip side of Tantra with its involvement in the world of politics and power. In this case, the apex/center of the mandala is the king, who rules by keeping out hostile forces, in which task he is ably assisted by his Tantric priests. Tantra in Japan and Nepal, discussed in Chapters 8 and 11, can be read profitably with this understanding in mind (p. 146-164 ; p. 195-205). Another facet of Tantra is its use by different sectarian groups in the struggle for supremacy and victory in public debate. Chapter 13 (p. 231-238) deals with such a debate between the Jaina Kharatara Gaccha and the yoginis of Ujjain and how they were defeated through the six acts (satkarmani) of Tantra. The six acts, common to all Tantra practice, are “ […] a form of black magic, […] calming inimical spirits, bringing others under one’s control, sowing dissension among one’s enemies, causing psychological turmoil in an individual […] and killing ” (p. 235). Each one of the chapters gives a wealth of information and opens one’s eyes to the multifaceted world of Tantra. There are however two or three chapters that especially held my attention, for one reason or another. The vast landscape that Tantra covered in India during the medieval period is revealed in chapter 16, “Tantra and Islam in South Asia” (p. 285-295). Chapter 3, “ Interviews with a Tantric Kali Priest ” is important in the context of the generally accepted belief that Tantra, as a practice, is very much a thing of the past. This chapter reveals that there are some survivals of the old practices in unexpected places. The chapter entitled “ A Trance Healing Session with Mataji ” brings into focus the dynamics of transformation of Tantric practice to fit the modern age (p. 97-115). Chapter 15, “ The Anonymous Agama Prakasa : Preface to a Nineteenth-Century Gujarati Polemic ”, is a fascinating essay on a unique document published in 1874, in Ahmedabad, which is one of the few earlier texts that denigrate left-handed Tantric practice. (p. 266-284)

      Tantra In Practice is an anthology and like all anthologies the chapters in the book are not evenly balanced in length nor in style, nor in contents. The introduction raises hope about the presence of Tantra in countries like Bali, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia and Korea (p. 8), however the only regions covered are those of China, India, Japan, Nepal and Tibet. “ The question as to whether Tantra represents a complete and autonomous system that replaces […] all that has come before, or whether Tantra is a supplement appended to a traditional path ” (p. 523) can never find an answer, and there is no attempt to answer it either. But it is possible to say that this book, which deals with the “ history-of-religions ”, brings into focus how Vedic ideas got transformed and fitted into a tantric mode, first in India and then how the Indic ideas, when transported to foreign lands, adjusted to the new landscapes.

      Throughout the book, the words Tantra and Tantric are used with a capittal “ T ”. The reason for that, especially in the use of Tantric, is not made clear by the editor. It is possible to understand that Tantra, with a capital “ T ”, is generally used to distinguish texts on Tantra from “ tantra ” as religious phenomenon. David White himself uses this distinction in his earlier work on Tantra (The Alchemical Body, 1996). It seems to me that there is a tacit understanding that “ tantra ”, as a religious phenomenon with tantric practices, is more or less dead and only survives in the texts of Tantra and Tantric ideas. Perhaps that is the significance of the use of the capital “ T ” in both Tantra and Tantric in this book which deals mainly with texts.

      In conclusion, I would like to state that the book is valuable as it helps the reader to distinguish what constitutes genuine Tantra from the “ dubious product called Tantric sex ” (p. 4), which parades as real Tantra in popular western understanding. Thus David White has done yeoman service in clearing the Tantra landscape by linking the various strands of Tantra practice and ritual to a central connecting Tantra tradition.


T. S. Rukmani

Concordia University