Sunday, January 04, 2009

David Gordon White - Kiss of the Yogini. "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts

In a tale of Tantric sorcery, the hero comes to a cremation ground in the dead of night, where he secretly beholds a wandering mendicant seated upon a corpse and uttering mantras:

Suddenly, the corpse beneath the mendicant began making a 'put-put' noise, as flames belched from its mouth and mustard seeds shot out of its navel. Thereupon the mendicant, taking those mustard seeds and standing up, slapped the corpse with the palm of his hand. The corpse, which was inhabited by a gigantic [vampire spirit], rose up, and the mendicant then climbed up on it's shoulder. Thus mounted, the [vampire] began to move quickly away. ... [Then, having completed some bussiness in a Durga temple], the mendicant went out, and again striking him with his hand, caused the [vampire] to rise up with the sound of 'put-put'. And climbing up on the shoulder of him whose mouth was spewing flames of fire, he flew up, and went across the sky.
David Gordon White's book on medieval Tantra, 'Kiss of the Yogini. "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts' contains many such fascinating tales. More importantly, it is a book on South Asian Tantra which is free from insipid New Age idealism.

Using textual, sculptural, archeological and ethnographic evidence, White examines that element which distinguishes Tantra from other religious traditions: a form of eroticized ritual practice that emerged in India in the eighth century CE. In this ritual practice, Yoginis where worshiped: avi-cephalic or zoo-cephalic flying goddesses, at once divine and demonic, at once benign and dangerous. To these female divinities, sacrifices were made of meat, of alcohol, but most of all of semen. These oblations would be reciprocated by the Yoginis, who allowed the worshiper to drink their sexual fluids and menstrual blood. Drinking this 'flow of liquid gnosis' made the worshiper part of a clan family (kula), whose lines extend from the god Bhairava down to the human initiate. What is more, drinking the Yogini's sexual fluids and menstrual blood transformed the very being of the worshiper, and conferred supernatural powers, most particularly the power of flight and bodily immortality.

Between the tenth and the twelfth century CE, this medieval Tantric practice was gradually gentrified, in order to make it acceptable to Hindu "mainstream". This gentrification involved the subordination of the female goddesses to the male Tantric practitioner. Furthermore, Tantric practice became less and less corporeal, knowledge taking precedence over eroticized praxis and ritual taking precedence over sacrifice. In this process, the Yoginis came to be regarded not as sctual goddesses but as (symbols of) chakras, wheels of energy which were believed to exist in subtle bodies of man: the fierce goddesses were rendered powerless by internalizing and semanticizing them.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that practitioners of corporeal tantric rites continued to observe the heterodox rites in semi-secrecy, dissimulating their nocturnal identities. Dissimulating gave medieval South Asian elites an opportunity to experiment with a multiple religious identity.

White's book is magnificent, assembling a wealth of scholarly knowledge into a coherent - and to this reader, convincing - whole.

Nevertheless, I feel that White's book would have been even for interesting for the general reader if he had taken care to explicitly relate his empirical findings to theoretical concerns. The exchange of fluids between the Yoginis and their consorts could have been connected to Durkheimian and Maussian themes such as sacrifice, gift exchange and the idea of 'the sacred as the social'. As is, I feel White's reading of medieval Tantra must implicitly be informed by these themes, but the book would have gained in strength if they had been made explicit. Furthermore, the analysis of the strategies of dissimulation could have become stronger if they had been connected to ethnographic thought on secrecy and the social; I'm thinking of some of the essays in Michael Taussig's 2006 book Walter Benjamin's Grave.

I sympathize with White's disdain for New Age Tantra: 'New Age Tantra is to medieval Tantra what finger painting is to fine art, a remarkably unimaginative "series of yogic exercises applied to the sexual act ... a coitus reservatus par excellence ... a sad attempt to mechanize the mysteries of sexual love."' However, in some of his derogatory remarks I felt that he was loathing the right thing for the wrong reasons: the problem with New Age Tantra is not that it is inauthentic, Americanized. I'll quote Michel Leiris once more: “As far as I am concerned, I love everything that presents this dimension of mixing, everything mixed blood, from sarcophagi dating from Roman times with faces of splendidly made-up women painted in the most realistic way to Fuegeans wearing European pants found in shipwrecks, not forgetting Alexandrine philosophy and the unmatchable elegance of Harlem negroes along the way.” The problem with New Age Tantra shows reluctance before excesses of joy, lacks audacity, asks for deliverance and salvation, is anaemic and impoverished. New Age Tantra - like Hindu elites between the tenth and the twelfth century CE - domesticates the wild Yoginis.

Notwithstanding these minor points, I can recommend White's fascinating book to all who are interested in Tantra, in the history of religions and in the anthropology of the body.

Post scriptum

These are some of the words from White's book which I (not being a native speaker of the English language) had to look up in the dictionary:
  • soteriology- the theological doctrine of salvation
  • hypaethral - partly or entirely open to the sky
  • melopoeia - the art of forming melody
  • theriomorphic - thought of as having the form of a beast. Used of a deity.
  • antinomian - opposed to or denying the fixed meaning or universal applicability of moral law


Sigivald said...

Take comfort, Valter - almost any native English speaker who isn't also a speaker of Greek or a lover of Grecophone vocabulary would have had to look all of those up, what with them all being basically if not literally Greek words, rather than Anglo-Saxon/Norman.

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