Research Notes from the Field, 2022 – Dr. Hugh Urban

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.

Kamakhya Temple, Assam

Kamakhya Temple, Assam (Fig. 1)

Lajja Gauri, the Goddess giving birth, outer wall of Kamakhya Temple

Lajja Gauri, the Goddess giving birth, outer wall of Kamakhya Temple (Fig. 2)

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.”

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Assam state politicians.

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Assam state politicians. (Fig. 3)

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela

Billboard for Ambuvaci Mela (Fig. 4)

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.

Goat sacrifice, Kamakhya Temple

Goat sacrifice, Kamakhya Temple (Fig. 6)

Poster from the Mayong Museum

Poster from the Mayong Museum (Fig. 7)

Prabin Saikiya, a local bej (healer) and practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong

Prabin Saikiya, a local bej (healer) and practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong (Fig 9)

Tilok Hazarika, a practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong

Tilok Hazarika, a practitioner of tantra-mantra in Mayong (Fig. 9)

Birubala Rabha, a female activist who fights against witch-hunting in Assam

Birubala Rabha, a female activist who fights against witch-hunting in Assam (Fig. 10)

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:

tantra diagram

Greetings from our Interim Director!

by Hannibal Hamlin

Warmest greetings to all in the CSR Community!

Though I know many of you who are Ohio State faculty, let me introduce myself to everyone as the Interim Director of the Center for Studies in Religion. First, though, thanks to Hugh Urban for his terrific job directing the Center over the past years! He also made my transition so much easier. Most importantly, we’re still reaping the benefits of the grant the Center received, under Hugh’s leadership, for the two-year-long “Living Well/Dying Well” program (about which more shortly). My own field is not religion per se, but English Literature. I specialize in the Renaissance period, and most of my work focuses on literature and religion, especially the English Bible and its literary/cultural influence. I am, you might say, one of those among us who studies religion, though not someone in Religious Studies.

My family is Unitarian, my wife’s is Mennonite, but I grew up in the Anglican Church of Canada, where I was a choirboy and later an adult singer, though as I moved into professional music-making I also sang in Catholic and United churches (the latter a Methodist-Presbyterian blend), as well as a synagogue and loads of concert halls. A vast amount of the vocal music repertoire is sacred or biblical, and decades of singing lodged passages deep in my head, which proved useful when I eventually arrived at graduate school and studied the Bible and religious history more seriously. The Bible is an inexhaustible collection of mesmerizing writing, and the history of its interpretation would take lifetimes to master. Nothing has had a greater influence on Western literature, and as I tell my students, vastly more copies of the Bible have been printed and disseminated than any other book in the history of the world. The historian Christopher Hill, who as a Communist had no vested interest in Christianity, wrote that if you read one book to understand seventeenth-century England it should be the Bible. But more than all this, the study of religion—whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other—draws me because it gets to what people hold most dear: good and evil, human nature, love and family, law and politics, temptation and sin, the meaning of life, which we all seek in one way or another.

Enough about me and my interests (though if you want more, I’m available for lunch or coffee anytime!). I’m delighted to announce that the Center for Studies in Religion has a year of terrific events and activities. This Fall, David Brakke will be giving a community lecture, “The Gnostic Jesus: The Divine Savior in The Gospel of Judas and Other Early Christian Writings,” based on his new translation and definitive commentary, coming out this spring. We’ll also be having at least one of our regular “No More Than a Page” discussions, letting us all explore the compelling work so many in the CSR community are doing. In the spring, the main event will be our two-day conference, The End of Life and What Comes Next: Perspectives from Healthcare, History, Anthropology, and Religion, March 29-April 1, featuring a keynote lecture by Thomas Laqueur, author of the brilliant The Work of the Dead, and a talk by Thomas Lynch, poet, best-selling author of The Undertaking: Life Studies in the Dismal Trade, and former funeral director. Other speakers will address topics including burial practices and the current migration crisis, healthcare and end of life issues, and death, burial, and the beyond in Southeast Asia, ancient China, and among African Americans.

CSR is also very happy to be co-sponsoring several lectures with other OSU centers (GO CENTERS!). In January, CSR and the Center for Folklore Studies are presenting Solimar Otero (Indiana University), author of Archives of Conjure: Stories of the Dead in Afrolatinx Cultures. On February 25, CSR and the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies are presenting Amy Appleford (Boston University), author of Learning to Die in London, 1380-1530. Finally, on April 14, CSR, American Indian Studies, and the Newark Earthworks Center are presenting Chadwick Allen, Co-Director of the University of Washington’s Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, and author of the forthcoming Earthworks Rising: Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts. We also hope to arrange a visit to the Earthworks in conjunction with the lecture.

Even if you can attend only one of these events, I look forward to seeing you, but if you’re like me you’ll want to attend them all!