Saturday, September 8, 2018

Too positive?

Georg Feuerstein's "Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy" is a book on Hindu Tantra written by a scholar and practitioner. The book is intended as a popular introduction, but is probably too heavy and dry for the general audience. But then, Tantrism *is* a complex system of thought, and Feuerstein attempts to cover as many aspects as possible, including the meaning of various ritual signs and symbols.

Tantrism is often associated with various erratic and bizarre actions: ritual sex with prostitutes, cross-dressing, desecration of corpses, etc. In the West, most people associate Tantrism with techniques to enhance sexual pleasure, but this is a modern (and Western) phenomenon Feuerstein has chosen to call Neo-Tantrism. Feuerstein describes the antinomian behavior of "left-hand" Tantrikas with remarkable scholarly restraint and even some sympathy. But then, Feuerstein was a Tantrika himself, so who knows what he might have been up to? Personally, I read his descriptions of the secret Tantric rituals with increased surprise - the followers of the "path of ecstasy" are, frankly, crazier than I imagined!

In fact, I found the author's positive take on Tantra to be the major weakness of the book - or at least of the author himself. Thus, he acknowledges that Tantrist groups have sometimes degenerated, both in India and various Western contexts, but never connects this to the guru-worship of this tradition, which even gives the guru the right to behave in manipulative and violent ways towards his disciples. That's just "crazy wisdom", it seems. To an outside observer with no apologetic interest in defending Tantra, the connection between elevating the guru to divine status within an antinomian context, and the constant abuses of such gurus, is pretty obvious. Call it "human nature" or "original sin", if you like.

Feuerstein deplores the fact that black magic has become an integral part of much Tantra, but it's difficult to see how he can do this - the Tantrist idea that everything in the world is divine implies that evil, too, must be divine. So on what basis does Feuerstein protest against *evil* antinomianism? Everything is just the play of Shiva, is it not?

Personally, I also take issue with Feuerstein's (absurd) claim that the Indo-Aryan invasions of India were a myth, and that the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) was Vedic. In reality, the IVC was a peaceful, egalitarian culture quite unlike the martial, hierarchic and patriarchal Vedic culture. Feuerstein's main source for his claim is a book co-written by himself! As far as I understand, the idea that the IVC was Aryan is a popular notion among "Hindutva" nationalists, not the kind of people you would like to hang out with.

That being said, I suppose everyone interested in Hindu Tantra must nevertheless read "Tantra: Path of Ecstasy". It's probably best suited for middle-level students of comparative religion, who have a working knowledge of Hinduism and other Indic religion, and want to learn more about the specifically Tantric current. For such people, I think Feuerstein's book could serve as a useful introduction.

But please don't join Adidam or the Andrew Cohen Community after reading it...

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