Our faculty blog contains short posts from faculty members affiliated with the Center for the Study of Religion updating us on current events in Religious Studies and the progress of their research. Read on to learn more about Dr. Hugh Urban’s recent trip to India to continue his studies on the practice of Tantra.
Research Notes, 2022
Hugh B. Urban
Professor, Department of Comparative Studies
From January to February 2022, I traveled to northeast India to continue research on a project that I have been working on since around 2001. With the working title of “The Path of Desire: Living Tantra in Northeast India,” the project focuses on the lived, popular, and vernacular forms of Hindu Tantra in the state of Assam. Historically, Tantra is one of the most important forms of Asian religions, which spread throughout both Hindu and Buddhist traditions from roughly the sixth century CE onward. But it is also one of the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented. While most European Orientalist scholars and Christian missionaries of the nineteenth century dismissed Tantra as “black art of the crudest and filthiest kind,” modern American popular audiences have celebrated Tantra as a form of “spiritual sex” and a “cult of ecstasy” (as we see in books such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tantric Sex). My project looks instead at Tantra as it is practiced today in Assam, which is often identified as one of the oldest centers and perhaps original heartland of Tantra. Known in early sources as Kamarupa (the “place” or “form” [rupa] of “desire” [kama]), Assam is the seat of the mother goddess Kamakhya (the goddess of desire), whose temple is believed to be the locus of the goddess’ yoni (womb and/or sexual organ; see figures 1 and 2). The most important festival at the temple is Ambuvaci Mela, which celebrates the goddess’ annual menstruation and coincides with the coming of the monsoon in early summer.
In my project, I am not only interested in understanding this fascinating tradition and its historical development; more importantly, I am also grappling with the changing nature of this tradition in the twenty-first century, in the face of Hindu nationalism, globalization, neoliberal capitalism, tourism, and a rapidly developing Indian economy, all of which have radically transformed many traditional religious sites. For the sake of these brief research notes, I will highlight just two examples from my recent research.
Perhaps the most striking transformation concerns the goddess’ annual menstruation festival, Ambuvaci Mela. For the last five or six years, the festival has been aggressively promoted by conservative Hindu politicians, including India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and Assam’s Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma. Modi and others are explicitly trying to use goddess temples and pilgrimage sites as new symbols of Hindu nationalism and as a means of accelerating India’s economic growth, particularly in the northeast states. When I visited the festival in 2017, for example, I noted huge billboards featuring Prime Minister Modi himself, welcoming visitors to come “Come, seek the blessings of Maa Kamakhya” in the “Cradle of Tantra” (Figures 3 and 4). This promotion by the conservative BJP government is profoundly ironic, however. This is, after all, a Tantric festival based on the goddess’ menstruation, which involves practices that are typically condemned by conservative Hindus like Modi. Perhaps most controversial is the practice of animal sacrifice, which is considered to be essential to the goddess’ worship in Assam, where large numbers of goats, buffaloes, pigeons, fish, and sheep are sacrificed each year (Figure 5). In Assam and throughout India, conservative religious and political groups have attempted to ban the practice, which they see as barbaric, primitive, and fundamentally “un-Hindu.”
Another key focus in my project is the practice of magic in Assam, where it is usually referred to as tantra-mantra or jadu. From very early sources, Assam has been known as the “land of magic,” and still today it retains a reputation of a realm of enchantment and particularly of black magic or sorcery. Indeed, Assam has the dubious distinction of having the most witchcraft accusations and witch killings in South Asia; since 2010, over 100 suspected witches have been murdered in the region – most of them women. In this part of my project, I discuss the village of Mayong, Assam, which has a widespread reputation as the quintessential “land of black magic.” In recent years, the village has also been promoted as a tourist destination, with posters reading “Welcome to Mystic Mayong,” and numerous Youtube videos and social media sites advertising this as “India’s own Hogwarts” and as the center of Tantric magic in South Asia (Figures 6-7). For this part of the project, I interviewed three male practitioners of tantra-mantra in Mayong, as well as one female activist who is fighting against witch-hunting in Assam (Figures 8-10). I was basically trying to understand how these individuals navigate the complex terrain of Tantra, magic and witchcraft in the twenty-first century, particular in the context of globalization and social media in which they might become the subjects of a Youtube video or a Facebook post, or — conversely – the target of viral witchcraft accusations.
At least at this point in my research, I am concluding that Tantra today lies at the complex intersection or “node” between a great number of different social, political, and religious interests. To borrow Michel Foucault’s term, it is a kind of “linchpin” at the intersection of many tensions – tensions between religion and magic, between local identity and Hindu nationalism, between “tradition” and modernization, between spiritual practice and the inexorable forces of globalization, tourism, neoliberalism, and economic development. In fairly simplistic schematic terms, these tensions could perhaps be diagrammed as follows: