Philology and the Comparative Study of Myths

The use of source languages for the academic study of religion has had a long-standing presence in scholarly production. Especially useful in the comparative study of myth, philology has contributed in shedding light on the meaning of old texts and other written records of ancient civilizations, as well as finding linguistic convergences and contrasts among them.
In this week’s podcasts, Dr. Paola Corrente gives us insights in how the use of the philological approach can be beneficial for, not only providing a common and solid framework for comparative research but also, for providing more suitable ways of classification according to linguistic criteria. Her work on the “dying gods” –i.e. gods that die but come back to life– of Ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, which draws on the concept formulated by James George Frazer, provides a case for this exercise.
On the last segment of the interview, she opens a debate on how scholars of religion tend to reject classifications when studying religion comparatively. In this regard, she appeals tacitly to what another likeminded author has identified as “religiocentrism” (Diez de Velasco 2005), that is, the methodological bias that a researcher could have when studying other forms of religiosity or spirituality.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Philology and the Comparative Study of Myths

Podcast with Paola Corrente (3 June 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Corrente_-_Philology_and_the_Comparative_Study_of_Myths_1.1.


Sidney Castillo (SC): Paola Corrente is Professor at Universidad del Pacífico, in the Department of Humanities, and also a researcher for this university. She has a doctorate in Religious Sciences and master’s in Anthropology both from the Universitad Complutense in Madrid, in Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in Classic Philology from the Università di Salerno, Italy. Professor Corrente conducts research on several subjects regarding mythology, religion and literature – especially creation myths and the imaginary Beyond – other comparative studies of the ancient Mediterranean world, and collaborates with renowned scholars of ancient religions and Assyriology. Welcome, Professor Corrente, to the Religious Studies Project.

Paola Corrente (PC): Thank you.

SC: For starters – we know that your work is in philology, so I think that that’s an obvious question: how philology can contribute to the study of religion.

PC: Well, the obvious answer is the text. So you know that we have different kinds of religion in the world. Some of the major religions have texts. So not all the religions of the world use texts. But for the religions that have texts, philology helps us with interpretation of these texts and this gives us a big help in interpreting and understanding of religion. Because we have, like, solid information from people who are living in these times, and understand things that they were writing about. So, for me, it’s a big help in interpretation.

SC: Now, with regard to this approach, what are the methodological challenges when doing research in comparative mythology with a philological approach?

PC: Well, I like the word challenge because, you know, comparison can be complex. Because you need to know several languages, several different cultures and traditions. You have to know a lot of things. And it’s very unusual that one scholar can know all these things. So you need to collaborate. And collaboration, for me, it’s a big thing. So you have to collaborate with different specialists in different fields of study – which is what I do, and what I did for my dissertation. So, for the philology, I will tell you about a case. . . . I study comparative mythology and religion from ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. I know Latin and Greek, so I can translate texts from Latin and Greek. But I didn’t study Akkadian or Sumerian, so I need help with the texts – so collaboration: I need someone to work with. In this case it’s one of the supervisors for my dissertation. So we are in constant contact, because I need him to guide me through the translation. And I think this is a very good thing. Now not all people like this. I do. I do like collaborating with other scholars because you learn a lot of things. And you can change your way of thinking about things, because you discover things that you didn’t know before. So it’s a big thing. And I like it. I do it constantly.

SC: As for the translation work, for example, I know that that’s a big deal. And when it’s translating for a philological approach, how do you manage to try to read from the sources and translate the words from one language to another?

PC: Well that’s complicated, because when you translate a text – especially, again, with the case of languages from Mesopotamia – sometimes the translation is very complicated, because Sumerian, especially, is a complicated language. So scholars disagree on the translation of things, for example (5:00). So that is a big problem. Because you don’t know, sometimes, which is the correct translation of a text. So these change your interpretation, of course. So this is a big problem that I have, for example, with Mesopotamian myths, especially with the Sumerian version of these myths. Because Sumerian is a very complicated language. And translating it is very, very complicated. With Latin and Greek we don’t have the same problem because we have . . . I mean classical philology was a very ancient tradition. We have a lot of texts. And our knowledge of Latin and Greek grammar is very, very solid. So it’s very strange if you find a text that you don’t know exactly how to translate. But the case with Mesopotamian sources is different. And this is, again, a challenge, no? Because you have to . . . in this case, you use of a lot of imagination, based on what you know about this culture and this myth that you are studying, to help with the correct translation. And comparison is very important, because sometimes you have the same or a similar myth in other traditions, and so you know exactly how to translate it in these others cultures. And so maybe this can help you choosing the correct word or verb that you need in that text. It’s not always a certain translation, but it’s a way of solving the problem.

SC: Of course.

PC: So you can use what you know of other situations, similar situations, and apply it to this particular myth that you don’t know how to translate. I have some of them in my dissertation very famous myths whose translation is not certain. So you have to use your imagination. I like it.

SC: (Laughs). So regarding that point, your doctoral thesis revolves around the concept of dying god, right? And the presence of gods with this feature in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilisations. Could you share with us some of your major findings?

PC: Well, I think the most important is that the dying god does exist! Because, as you know, this category is very controversial. So now the position is that it was a wrong idea that the dying God does not exist – that it was a misunderstanding. And things like this. But studying, especially some texts – again, from Mesopotamia and from near Eastern tradition, and texts from Greece too, about Dionysus – so studying these texts and these myths I found out that the dying god exists, actually. And it is very curious that these three gods from Mesopotamia, Ugarit and Greece – or say from Mesopotamia, from Near East and from Greece – which are, like, the most certain examples of a god who dies and comes back, are ignored usually. So they are the gods who are usually not studied and not brought into the category. And they’re the only ones with whom we have certain proofs that there is the death of the god involved. So I would say that this is the major finding: the existence of this figure.

SC: Yes. But this way of classification of classifying as to certain gods with this particular feature – where does it come from?

PC: Well, the category of dying god was in . . . well it existed before, but it’s famous thanks to Frazer and his book, The Golden Bough, which is a beautiful – well, there are several books about magic and religion. And so he introduces this category. And he was studying especially three gods, and some others (10:00). And he was trying to find this kind of divine figure in other cultures. So there was a lot of criticism against this category. And some of this criticism is real – there are some problems with what he was saying about the dying god. But in my opinion, what he said in general was correct. Now what I’m doing is . . . I think it’s useless to just keep criticising him, which is what people do usually. I think there is no point in doing this. So I was trying. . . . It was very fascinating for me, these books and this category. So I started to investigate about it. And I found out that the first thing to do is to reorganise the category, which is not totally wrong. We just need to do a difference between the different deities who are involved in the process. And so, again, Frazer talked about the gods that I studied: Baal, Dionysus – but he didn’t treat Inanna, which is the Mesopotamian goddess, because he . . . . In part, he talked about these myths, but he couldn’t have the texts that we have now. So I think Inanna is the most important of these gods. And so my dissertation focusses basically on her and Baal. So I focus on them because no-one pays attention to the text about them. Which I think highly interesting. Because they clearly talk about death and resurrection or coming back from death of these gods. So there is no way of denying the death or resurrection of gods if you read the Ugaritic text about Baal, or the Sumerian and Akkadian texts abut Inanna. Dionysus is in the same, although the case with Dionysus is more complex. I think that the category is working. We have just . . . we need to reorganise it. And that’s what I was trying to do with my dissertation. I think we have to make a difference between the different ways these gods die. Because sometimes they don’t die – they just disappear or they sleep. And, instead of denying the entire category, I think it’s more clever just to reorganise it.

SC: OK. In regard to the last thing you said, and you wrote in your thesis as well, about the multiple modalities that a dying god goes through in their respective myths to be considered as such. There is the physical death, the absence, fettering, sleep, katabasis or alternation. How were these different processes understood by their own civilisations?

PC: I think that, in general, the perception was the same. I understand that the death, the absence, the sleep, etc., was the way they had to point at the non-activity of the gods. So it’s easy – when someone is absent he can’t do his work for example. When we are sleeping, we don’t work. We don’t do what we normally do during the day. So it was the same, for me, with gods: when the gods were absent they just couldn’t do what they had to for work, for nature, for man. They were just . . . you couldn’t ask for what you wanted because the god, in that moment, was not working. So I think that the meaning of all these things is the same: the inactivity of the gods. There was just a different way of expressing the inactivity. You can express it in different ways. Because a myth is basically a story. So you have an author who is writing about this story, and we have to consider the fantasy, the imagination, of this author – who invents things, or changes things that he knew from other stories that he was hearing. And so he would introduce some changes (15:00). So instead of the absence he would talk of the journey to the underworld – just to make a different . . . to give a different accent to his way of telling the story. I think the death, the real death, is a different thing. It’s about the activity of the gods, but from what I discovered during my investigation, I think that the background is different. So I put the death of the gods and the resurrection in their specific context. And this is the new part of this issue, this ancient question of the dying gods. For example given that, in general, these different ways of dying are expressing the same things, we can understand better the words found in the ancient texts. For example, the common metaphor for death is sleep, of course, No? We know it is something that we can observe. Someone who is sleeping, we can think that he’s dead. Because he doesn’t do anything: he doesn’t move, he doesn’t talk, he doesn’t walk. So we can think he’s dying or he’s dead. So in the text, in many of the texts about the gods I have studied, we find the first metaphor for death which is sleep. And so we find it for the resurrection, they use the same word that indicates standing. For example, in Greek, the word which indicates resurrection is the verb anistemi, which basically means “standing”. When you sleep in your bed and then you stand from your bed – that is the meaning of the verb. And then it was used for the resurrection, so about Jesus, for example. In the Greek text about the resurrection of Jesus, we find this verb. Then it was translated into Latin, which is from where we take our resurrection, the word. And it’s curious that in the text, in the Sumerian text – which is the most ancient that we have – we find the same word to indicate the resurrection of Inanna the goddess. To say that she lives again, they use the Sumerian verb to say “to stand”. So it’s very interesting these similarities, even in the use of language, in the words.

SC: Is this a common feature, understanding the same exercise, the same action but with different words and how they are perceived by other civilisations? Like the case you just mentioned with resurrection?

PC: Well it’s . . . I don’t know if it’s all the civilisations that would use the same word. Because I’m talking of cultures who are related . . . between them. So they have relations, several cultural relations between them. So I wouldn’t be surprised to find the same language, the same words in Greek or in Sumerian, or in Ugaritic or in Akkadian because we are talking of a similar cultural context. And we know that maybe even in this case it’s not proved yet. But it’s possible. But we know that in other things, Greeks received myths and stories from the Near East. So maybe this would be one of these cases. So the fact that we have the same words can be a normal reaction because again, as I was saying before, the most common metaphor for death is sleep. So maybe you can find this all over the world? I don’t know, because I didn’t see all the traditions of the world. But maybe we will find the same things because it’s a normal thing (20:00). The first thing when you think about, when you are talking about death is sleep. So maybe you would find the same things all over the world, I don’t know. But in the case of the culture I’m studying it can be either a common reaction that sleep . . . . So when I want to point to the resurrection I use the verb which means standing from the bed. Because it’s the normal thing. Or the other option is that there was an influence from the Near East in Greece, which is possible. I started to do this kind of investigation of whether there is a direct influence from the Near East or there are two independent things that just develop in the same way, because they respond to the same thing. They are the only two possibilities, but I can’t say, now, if this idea was born in one culture and then it goes to other cultures, or just it was a natural development with the different cultures. It can be both things.

SC: Now given all that you have shared with us so far, what would you recommend for achieving proper classifications in the study of comparative myths and religion?

PC: That’s complex. A complicated one. Well, first of all – which is what we were commenting on in the beginning – to do a proper classification we should know properly myths and religions of different cultures, and we should know how to do classification properly. And this is complicated because there is not a set-out way to do it. And there are a lot of prejudices in the study of myth and religion. And many people just don’t like comparison. So it’s complicated. But I think we just have to have a good knowledge of cultures, the different cultures that we are studying – which is a big thing, because you have to know a lot of things. You have to know language, and society, and art, and literature and philosophy. It’s a lot of things. But you can do it. And then . . . so to do the comparison, you have to know at least two cultures. So it’s a lot of previous planning to reach such a level of knowledge. And then you have, I think you have to have your mind open to the possibility of doing this classification. And sometimes, especially in certain fields of study, scholars don’t like theories for classification. And the case with dying gods was a very good example because they just deny it and say, “No. It’s not good doing generalisation or categories.” Why not? I mean if we study something, we want to understand what we are studying. And in order to do that we have to theorise and categorise about things. But it’s not something that all people, all scholars, like.

SC: And so regarding that, you mentioned Jesus earlier. And you were talking about resurrection and dying gods. Do you think that this was some sort of a problem with trying to achieve these classifications?

PC: Yes. I think it was a problem. It is a problem because when we think about the resurrection our first thought goes to Jesus of course – it’s normal. But it doesn’t mean that before Jesus . . . I mean we have . . . there is no proof that before Jesus, gods couldn’t resurrect. Why not? The problem is that we are using the resurrection the way we know it in Christianity, and resurrection in Christianity has certain features. And we are using what we know about Christian resurrection to cultures who are more ancient (25:00). We can do that. We have to understand what these ancient civilisations would understand from resurrection, or would express with resurrection, and we have to see if we can apply the same word to them. But I am not a fan of this fashion, now, of re-thinking about words “Was that not correct? Do we have to change the word?” No I think that we use the word resurrection. We know the word resurrection, right, in the case of Jesus? And we can use this word, we can apply this word to other gods. And we just explain what this word means for the other gods. And what these other civilisations understand for resurrection. I don’t see the need of changing the word. We are used to it, so it’s part of our tradition. We can use it, we just make the differences between the resurrection in the case of Jesus and the resurrection in the case of our gods. And that’s it. There is no confusion, because we can understand the differences, so we just say it. But in this case, I studied the word resurrection in different traditions and again I see that it’s the same word. So the fact that they will use the same word means something, right? Otherwise they would have used another one? I guess that they . . . at the beginning they – let’s say Judaism and Christianity – they would perceive the resurrection of Jesus in the way that was very similar – not the same, similar – to resurrection of the other gods. But then, of course, there is . . . I mean, Jesus is such an important and particular figure that everything concerned with him is so special for him that we can’t use it with other things. But it does not mean that resurrection of death didn’t exist before. What did not exist in, at least in the Near East, at least from what we know, it was the association of the resurrection of the gods with the resurrection of human beings. This aspect was absent from . . . at least from the Mesopotamian sources and Ugaritic sources. But not totally absent from Greek tradition, for example. So yes, there is a difference of course. But I think the important thing is to explain things, not just to deny them. There is no point of doing this. Just say the things in the clearest way, so people understand, and that’s it.

SC: Of course. Well it has certainly been really stimulating to hear about these kind of things and some of the major things that we can obtain from philology. Are there any other thoughts that you would like to say?

PC: Well I would say that . . . well, of course, studying languages is basic. And, for us, it’s a big help in interpretation. So I would like that especially in certain cultural situation like Latin America, it would be easier to study ancient cultures. Because in Europe it’s still possible. We don’t know for how long, because, you know, they are trying to eliminate Latin and Greek from school. And we know that these are eras of technology. So people think that Latin and Greek and philosophy and history is useless – this is what people think. So the possibility of studying ancient cultures in general would be an important thing. And I love especially, I love philology, but I love mythology and I always study it with a comparative approach. So I think the comparison . . . many people are afraid of comparing things. Because they think that at the end we want to say: “This is better. This is the worst.” So, this culture’s better. And then all the consequences that can come from that (30:00). I don’t see comparison in this optic. I think it’s a great thing because we can see how human beings react to things. That’s why I use comparison. I like to see how a Greek man would deal with something – in this case the death of god. And then I like to see if, in China, they have similar things, why they have similar things, and how do they react to these similar things? And then I go to America and I see if there is something like this. I don’t judge. You know: “This is ok.” “This is not ok.” “They are stupid.” or “They didn’t know what they were doing.” No. I just want to study and to see, because I am interested in human beings. And for me, mythology and religion is a way to understand people. And so I try to see, to study, to read several cultures because I try to understand men. We have men all over the world, and I want to know how they do things all over the world. So, for me, comparison is very, very important. Because it’s the understanding of a specific myth, a specific action, or everything you are studying. So I would call for comparison, and the comparative approach to mythology, or religion, or literature – or these big disciplines in the history of humankind.

SC: That’s a very good way to wrap it up. Professor Corrente it has been a pleasure to hear this. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

PC: Thank you.

SC: And we hope to see you again, here at the Religious Studies Project.

Citation Info: Corrente, Paola and Sidney Castillo. 2019. “Philology and the Comparative Study of Myths”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 3 June 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 28 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/philology-and-the-comparative-study-of-myths/

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Studying Tantra from Within and Without



Douglas R. Brooks, Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester, discusses how he became involved in the academic study of Hinduism, specifically Tantra and goddess-centered traditions. He begins with his training in Sanskrit and Tamil at Middlebury College, where he found that little English work had been done on Hindu traditions for some years. Living intermittently in India during the 1970s–80s, Brooks found a lack of secular studies of Hinduism, as opposed to religious devotional studies. Given these challenges, Brooks has had to study Tantric Hinduism from within and without the traditions. On the one hand, his friendship with Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy introduced him to the lived practice as well as venerable philosophical traditions of Tantra and tantric yoga. Working with Sundaramoorthy, Brooks was “within” a vibrant Hindu tradition. As he refined his work at Harvard Divinity School, however, Brooks articulated a critical, non-religiously invested perspective on Hinduism — in short, observing Tantra from “without,” treating the religion like any other secular subject worthy of study. This approach caused Brooks to clash with older scholars at HDS, who assumed that Judeo-Christian terms and concepts were universally applicable to all religions. Later in the interview, Brooks discusses his interpretation of Tantric yoga, giving particular attention to the philosophy’s doctrine of application to daily problems. This kind of yoga is distinct from the New Age, exercise-based style of yoga that B.K.S. Iyengar and others popularized in the West. In recent years, Brooks has attended many popular yoga workshops with the goal of educating the general public about genuine Tantric philosophy from India. He concludes with some reflections on public service as an academic and his plans for a new book on Tamil pilgrimages.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Podcast with Douglas R. Brooks

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Audio and transcript available at: Brooks – Studying Tantra from Within and Without 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG): Professor Brooks, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Douglas Brooks (DB): Thanks for having me.

DG: Could you tell us, briefly, what drew you to the study of Hindu, in particular, Sanskrit literature? Because you went to Middlebury College – a place that you could be trained in any of many languages, and you chose one of the oldest and deadest!

DB: I didn’t so much choose Sanskrit as Sanskrit chose me. And the same quickly followed up in the study of Tamil and other Indian languages. So, I suppose it traces back to my interest in history and the ancient world, and specifically in religion. I wasn’t raised in a religious family, but I think that’s always been an advantage to me: I didn’t have to undo a great deal. But I made myself religious, as a child, of my own accord, so I suppose that’s a kind of peculiar character feature. I mean, what kind of a kid asks to go to church, when his parents are not church-goers at all? Anyway, I got over that, that being itself it’s own story. And when I got to Mid, I was just interested in History, and the Classics and particularly philosophy and political science – and religion. Religion always struck me as still the subject that let you study all other subjects. So I suppose that was the real hook for me. You could be interested in language, politics, art, music, linguistics. . . . Everything in the study of religion just lets you study culture, lets you study history, all of the subjects. And I still think that as an undergraduate teacher. I think this is the department of the Humanities. And I think that that’s a fair assessment. So, India provided a perfect example if only because everything about the Hindus is. . . creates a history and a literature, and a politics and the rest of it. So what really happened was, I took a class that introduced Hinduism and Buddhism, from a really wonderful man who, as I look back on now, I see as a very thorough scholar for a fellow who didn’t have the languages, who – by my own standards today – would be a well-meaning amateur, in the sense of not having direct access. But he did an excellent job and I got hooked reading early Buddhism and then, particularly, the eclectic prose and verse Upanishads. And the literature just captivated me for its beauty, and for its insight, and for its cultural complexity, and its depth. And I said to myself at eighteen years old, “If this is interesting in these wooden unreadable translations, how much better would it be if you could go after the real thing?”

DG: I suppose I’m curious about access, because I’m thinking of the University of Chicago’s publication, now, of the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata in English. They’re still not done with it! So how much material was available when you were. . . ?

DB: That’s because nobody wants to do it!

DG: So how much was available in the 1970s, before computers?

DB: (5:00) Well, you know, there was this amazing emergence of Indology at the end of the 19th-century. And there are astonishing scholars of that era, whose work we continue to rely on. I mean, Maurice Bloomfield, Wilhelm Kalend . The material available in German and French and the early English scholarship – astonishing degrees of erudition! I just don’t even know how these guys learned that much about everything. They had their own issues of colonialism, and sexism and their own parochialisms that came out of the era in which they first emerged. But the 19th-century provided an enormous well-spring of philology, and scholarship, and commitment: very serious people. That carried on in the period between the wars in Europe, which was also the period when American scholarship in Indology and the History of Religions, really took off. And because the History of Religions as a kind of German phenomenon – you know Religionsgeschecte, Wissenschaft, that kind of “subject” invented in Europe – translated well here because we’re pluralists and because we’re almost by nature compelled to study religion, as a subject – which is still a rare subject in a European University. You find Philology, and you find History departments, and you find other ways in which the subject is divvied up, but you don’t really find Religion departments. And that, too, was available at Middlebury. So there was a fair amount of – as I said – old, wooden, 19th -century translation material. There was the material that was created in the space between the wars, and then there really was a long hiatus until the ‘50s and ‘60s, when another generation came along and took up the work of that generation that was, in fact, trained before World War Two. So, my principal Sanskrit Professor at Harvard, Daniel Engels, was a code-breaker during World War Two. He was a Harvard undergraduate in the ’30s, and  I was studying with him in the ’70s and ’80s. ‘80s, I suppose, was our real time together: ’79-’86. He retired in ’84. So he came from a different era. He came from a whole different world. And then, what happened in the ’60s and ’70s kind of reshaped me. Because I came out of that rebellious world of looking for alternative voices, and subversive models, and other kinds of “How do you discover yourself?” questions – which were very much still not part of my History of Religions programme. Let me say one more thing about that. When I entered the doctoral programme at Harvard . . . . I guess that was ’81 after my first master’s. I graduated at the Divinity Schools and you had to reapply and then get into the Doctoral programme. There, the expectation was that we were Christians, or that we were Jewish and that we were studying theses “other” religions. The Comparative Study of Religion meant that you were a committed religious person of your own Western persuasion, and that these were the subjects you studied. It hadn’t occurred to the directors of that programme that any of us had, what they would call, “gone native”, or that we weren’t particularly avowed or created by our own Western religions. We weren’t using that as our home base, or our focal point for the study of religion, and yet that was still very much the model. You know, my secondary field in the Comparative Study of Religion, when I passed my general exams at Harvard, was Christianity – which had long since passed being of any personal connection to me.

DG: And that brings me to Dr Sundaramoorthy, if I’m saying his name correctly.

DB: Yes, you said it perfectly. So I arrived in India in 1977, on the University of Wisconsin’s College Year programme, looking for “the wonder that was India”. (10:00) Romantically, still very much a seeker, I didn’t know that I was seeking Hinduism, but I was seeking those sources and those ideas and commitments. And before I met Dr Sundaramoorthy I’d tumbled down that flight of stairs that makes you realise that you missed everything: that this was over, that the “wonder” that I had romanticised, and created this ancient India, and I had worked through this vision of what I thought it would be, or could be. . . . And I arrived there and  it was 1977. And from the standpoint of that romanticised vision, that party was over. Now, I was blessed because I came late enough into the “East comes West” story to miss the Beatles. Does that make sense?

DG: Yes.

DB: I didn’t really get the Hare Krishna Beatles bug. I didn’t get caught up in one of the Swamis coming West – any Maharishi, Mukundananda – that wasn’t my gig. I was too young for that. I wasn’t going that way. None of that ever seemed to be the real thing that I was looking for. So, when I went to India looking for the real thing, rather than some distilled version of hippy culture – I wasn’t averse to that, it just wasn’t what I wanted for myself – I got to India and it didn’t seem to be there any more. It seemed to be long gone. India was definitely on its own mission of economic development, but it had culturally decided not to do that, go in that direction. Every kid I knew or met, was studying medicine or engineering. They were headed into our world. They were headed into First World global consumerist sience and medicine. And you can still see that in diaspora Indian communities. That’s where the energy still is in education. So there wasn’t this rich, deep, academic culture of the study of India in India. That’s not what you found. And then, out in the temples, or out in the liturgical worlds, or in the practitional worlds, or in peoples’ religious lives you didn’t really find that level of scholarship, or that level of deep erudite commitment, that I had kind of romanticised and hoped for. And then, at my wits end with really very little other recourse, I was introduced to Dr Sundaramoorthy, who was a Reader and Chair of the Sanskrit department at Madurai University. He was eventually elevated to Professor. And he actually was that character I was looking for. Because he had this serious academic training that traversed through Indian Universities and Oxford and other places where his work had been reviewed and he had learned his subject. He was a linguist and a comparativist. His English was elevated – immaculate, really. But he had also been raised in an ultra-orthodox Brahmin family. So his heritage was the stewardship of a tradition of Sanskrit erudition and Tamil culture. He was just as magnificent in Tamil as he was in Sanskrit. And yet he also had the capacities and the training of Western scholarship. So meeting him was, again, just pretty much serendipity. Like, I walked in and met the right guy at the right time. He had just, in fact, returned from a long stint in Malaysia and Singapore working at the university in Kuala Lumpor. If I had come a year earlier, he wouldn’t have been there. So I just got lucky, I mean. And then, as those years moved on – I was supposed to spend nine months, I spent two years – and as our studies moved on, he was the one who encouraged me to go to Harvard and to continue my doctoral work and my more advanced work here, and then to go back and study with him. (15:00) Which is what I did. And when I won the Fulbright, in ’84, that’s technically my Fulbright year . . . . I wrote a PhD proposal for the grant that I won before the professorial committee approved my proposal. So I had the Fulbright to write my PhD before the professorial committee had given me approval, and I applied and actually won the grant before I passed my general exams for the PhD! And the grant essentially landed on Dr Sundaramoorthy’s desk, so I was paid to go home! And then, I had leveraged the situation so that: what were they going to do, say, “Oh no we’re not going to approve your PhD proposal, even though you already have the grant”? So I had the Fulbright fellowship and got to go back to Madurai to live in my teacher’s house, to become a Fellow of the Department of Sanskrit, at the University where he was the Chair of the department.

DG: How did that introduce you to the study of yoga, though?

DB: Well, the study of yoga is the study of India, as far as I can tell.

DG: It’s what most of your books are about.

DB: Well, most of my books are about the intersections of the medieval traditions of the rise of esoteric yoga, the Tantric traditions, especially the goddess traditions: those particular, peculiar formulations that involve the Brahmins in South India and other ways in which it anthropologically took hold. What living in Sundaramoorthy’s house did, and spending all those years in India did is, it gave me immersion in language and culture. I got, essentially, the training of an anthropologist, both in a kind of formal fieldwork sense but also the company of a gifted comparative linguist and philologist. So I got a classical education and a fieldwork education at the same time. When you spend that much time in India, you see that correlation between sources and texts and history and living traditions. And I was particularly interested in the kind of historical tradition that you couldn’t understand without a living tradition. There’s no penetrating Tantric lore, and text, and prescription, and liturgy, and philosophy and what they call “yoga”, without meeting someone who can tell you what the books are saying and finding out what it looks like. You don’t study Tantric liturgies of complex yogic rituals without learning it from someone who can do those rituals. It’s impossible. That was always my ace in the hole, was that: the book says this, but I know what that looks like, I’ve seen that performed in more than one place, by more than one person, in more than one way.

DG: But when you said performed, we’re not just talking about the exercise aspect of yoga. . . ?

DB: No, no, no you mean what we call yoga today in the West?

DG: There’s much more to it than that.

DB: Oh no, no, no. I don’t even refer. . . . Let’s talk about that for a second. What we call yoga today in the West is now a meme, it has a life of its own, it’s a phenomena of gyms and yoga studios, and morning TV exercise shows. That is a whole separate history from the history that I would have considered yoga until 20 years ago. Those characters that brought/ invented/ co-opted the word yoga to mean postures and exercise and the somatic engagement that happens on mats or in asana in posture, that’s, in fact, not really my subject at all. I don’t really know much about that. I didn’t really follow that transmission of that material to the West. I had to learn that much, much later in my career. Who were these guys? What’s the history of what we call yoga today, like yoga asana? There are people who write about that, who’ve taken that up as their academic subject. That’s just something that happened while I was there. Characters like Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar who’s a famous name in all of that. (20:00) Those guys were largely still in Pune or in Madras when I was studying in India, then they kind of brought their stuff to the West.

DG: And then you get people like John Friend. . .

DB: John Friend and Rodney Yee and Francois Raoult – these were all people who studied with Iyengar in Pune. They’re in Pune doing Hatha Yoga with Iyengar when I was in Madurai studying Tantra and learning Sanskrit and speaking Tamil. We had nothing to do. . . .That world had nothing to do with my world.

DG: So, in your world, what is yoga?

DB: Yoga was the practical esoteric methodology of applied religion. I mean, if yoga meant engagement it meant application, it meant method. And, in that sense, it meant the study of how to take ideas, values, insights, claims, and apply them somatically, cognitively emotionally: how to put them into action, or into your life. That would apply to ritual, to study, to mythology, to esoteric practices. That’s what yoga was. Yoga was the application of this visionary, philosophical religiously encoded symbolic world into practice. And the practice would be somatic and cognitive and ethical and practical, in terms of living your life. And most of that was learned textually, contemplatively and ritually.

DG: And there is, you mentioned earlier, pluralism. What you’re describing to me were different ways of living. There is a pluralistic component there.

DB: Well, because yoga means application, there were Buddhist yogas and Hindu yogas and Jain yogas and Sikh yogas – everybody’s using the word. And they’re all, in effect, using the word to mean: “This is what we do and this is how we do it.” And the “it” on the other end of that, is: what we think; what we believe; what we conjure to be possible in bodies; and what are our cognitive, spiritual and intellectual goals; how do we organise our lives? What’s the practical implications of . . . . If we have these stories and rituals and practices, how does that change our everyday lives? How do we live? How we go about our ordinary lives, our moral lives, our intellectual lives? That was what. . . . So yoga applied in every religion in India, it was just the word people used for method, application, how we do what we do, how we engage, how we connect.

DG: And you’ve spent a significant amount of time, now, doing public engagement with people who may not know the scholarly issues you and I have been discussing.

DB: Oh no, none of it! The vast majority of people, who are sort-of my weekend job, are people who got introduced to yoga simply as asana. Now that’s changing too, because over the last fifteen years of that, I would say. . . .Twenty years ago, yoga was nowhere near the sort of simple, mainstream place it factors into our contemporary society. I mean I call it “Aisle 11a” now. When you go to the Wegmans grocery store in Rochester, yoga is in Aisle 11a. It’s like “outdoor goods”, “Seasonal”, “yoga”. So, how much more mainstream can you get? It’s not even in the gym, it’s in the grocery store! So, most of the people I meet who do yoga came in through that way. They came in through a yoga studio or a gym, practicing asana. What happened fifteen or twenty years ago is that that same nascent crew, which was far from the mainstream, was still interested in things Indian. They were still interested in that old sense of all the meanings of the word yoga. Now, they had no clue of what that was about, and that’s how I got involved. They were just curious. “We do yoga. What’s that?” Well, Niagara Falls! That’s just going to come tumbling over in volumes of history and curiosities expressed in texts and sources and ideas. And somehow there’s still some small segment of that population that still asks me that question. And their rooms are full- such as it is- with people for whom yoga is just their asana practice. (25:00) And that asana practice creates this surrogate community that often substitutes – in our fragmented, secularised, less religious, less institutional world – for the kinds of communities that even my parent’s generation associated with the church, or the rotary club, or the Boy Scouts, or the Book of the Month club. People go to yoga studios and they have. . . . And since we don’t have those other kinds of institutional, pre-created structures for us – you know, you went to the church or your father was a Mason or something – you go there, now. And so, yoga studios and these sorts of environments are not only places where they get their asana practice – which they’re still principally interested in – it’s where they meet their friends, where they meet like-minded people. And then they all say, “Well, what’s yoga?” And then some bright light says, “Well, we could have an event, we could ask somebody who knows about that.”

DG: Professor Brooks we’re basically out of time, but if you could say briefly – you’ve mentioned your public work but what is your new scholarly project, if you have one?

DB: Oh yes. So I parley the two together because I’ve always thought that the vanity and self-perpetuation of scholarship, at a certain level, is just more and more of itself. It really does very little good for the world, in a certain way. And I came from an environment where we wanted to do something in the world, we wanted to build schools, we wanted to help people, we wanted to give people in India a chance to study their culture, or to have a good life, or to get an education: very simple kinds of things. So I took this out of the university environment of learning and parleyed that into opportunities to take people to India and then two pieces happened The first is, they get a great experience and we do things like build schools and send children to school, and take care of folks. That’s the simple way of putting it. But also, that means that I get to spend a great deal of time on the ground in India. So, my new projects have to do with an extension of the goddess traditions that I was working on in the ’80s. And now I’m focussed on the furtherance of that mythology as it takes place in pilgrimage in South India. So there are these whole seasons of tens of thousands of people on the road – especially in Tamil Nadu – who are going to Shiva temples and Ganesha temples and Muraga temples and then to this character named Ayyappa. And I’m following all of those pilgrim paths and tracing history, language, sources, philosophy and literature into the anthropology of the practices of pilgrimage.

DG: Professor Brooks thank you for your time. And pleasant voyages.

DB: Thanks a lot.

Citation Info: Brooks, Douglas R. 2017. “Studying Tantra from Within and Without”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 3 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/studying-tantra-from-within-and-without/

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The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk,Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, ritual paraphernalia, model airplanes, and more.

Claude Lévi-Strauss


Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) was the founder of structural anthropology, and is widely considered to be a foundational figure for modern anthropology. In books including Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949, The Elementary Structures of Kinship), Tristes Tropiques (1955) and La Pensée sauvage (1962, The Savage Mind, 1966), Levi-Strauss laid out the argument that the structures underlying both “civilised” and “primitive” societies are identical. However, his work has not been appreciated by Religious Studies scholars as much as it has by anthropologists.

Tremlett, Levi-Strauss on Religiontremlett

Here, David Robertson talks to Paul-Francois Tremlett of the Open University about Levi-Strauss’ legacy for the study of religion. As well as introducing a structuralism inherited from linguistics to the field, Tremlett argues that he also anticipates contemporary cognitive approaches. We discuss his notion of bricolage and how it affected Levi-Strauss’ analyses of mythology.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc.

This is the second episode on a series on early 20th century theorists of religion. The first featured Robert Segal on C. G. Jung; next week features Ivan Strenski on Durkheim.