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Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out

In this interview on ‘Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out’, Douglas R Brooks allows the listener an insight into his own personal and academic development, and an account of how various factors led him to the study of South Indian Shrividya Shakta Tantrism. There are many interesting elements to consider therein, but for me, the interview first and foremost appeals to one of the core debates within Religious Studies: the insider/outsider debate. Due to the interview’s largely autobiographical focus, I find it most useful when viewed as an elaboration on this discussion, and I hope, in this short response, to highlight elements of the ongoing debate. Specifically, I wish to highlight the shifting nature of the categories of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’; emphasise the position of the ‘other’ in judging the status of the researcher; and to consider how the researcher may work to position themselves in this dynamic.

One of the RSP’s earliest interviews with George Chryssides covers the insider/outsider debate, and raises several questions in relation to it – as does Katie Aston’s response, in which she explores the question of whether it is best for the scholar (or more specifically, the anthropologist) of religion to have any belief in order to relate to the individuals that they research.   Most would agree that being an insider or outsider to the group that one studies will always be on some sort of spectrum, with few clear or stable boundaries. The researcher’s position in this spectrum will alter according to various identity markers, including whether or not they are already an accepted member of the community being researched, or indeed if they are a ‘believer’ in any capacity; but also according to markers such as nationality, ethnicity, native language, age, and gender.  Each of the researcher’s identity markers will be perceived differently by the individuals they encounter, and this will define the extent to which one is perceived as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ by each individual.  This sets a broad background for the interview with Brooks, a scholar renowned for his research on (and deep involvement) in Shakta Tantra in South India.  Several of the aforementioned ideas arise particularly prominently in this interview.

Starting with a more general consideration of being an insider or outsider to a typically Christian, North American background, Brooks discusses his experience of being brought up in a non-religious household, using the somewhat revealing phrase that he ‘didn’t have to undo a great deal’.  By casting his non-religious upbringing as an advantage, Brooks consciously positions himself outside of the sphere of traditional religion in the North American context. Despite appearing to be grateful for this lack of religious influence in his early life, he also describes how this later led to him being somewhat of an outsider on his University course, which assumed that students of comparative religion would come from a Judeao-Christian background, and would have some form of committed belief. Brooks clearly felt that he did not fit this mould.

However, to avoid reiterating previous discussions about the effects of a (non)religious background, I prefer to focus on one theme that emerges particularly strongly in this interview: that of language, and the great effect that it can have on the status of the researcher. Brooks clearly places great value on his own command of Sanskrit and Tamil, and indeed, his knowledge of these languages has afforded him a unique understanding of South Indian Tantric and Goddess traditions that few scholars can match.  The importance placed on language also leads him to refer to a past lecturer on Hinduism and Buddhism as ‘a well-meaning amateur’ due to his lack of first-hand knowledge of Sanskrit, which thus denied him direct access to the literature (here, Brooks perhaps overemphasises the role of texts).  Clearly, Brooks’ skill in this area can afford him increased access to not only the literature of his field, but to individuals and communities in South India today – contributing toward his efforts to become an insider.  On a more practical level, advanced linguistic ability also avoids the complexities of employing a translator in the fieldwork setting – an arrangement which risks a loss of nuance, and reinforces the researcher’s position as an outsider through the translator’s necessary presence and involvement.

As well as aiding in his research in South India, this linguistic ability also gives Brooks social and cultural capital for the groups that he speaks with during his public engagement events: one attendee and blogger writes, ‘It blew my mind when he lead puja on the last day.  He busted out mantras as if he were born a Brahmin. Dude can read Sanskrit!’. Through his use and knowledge of languages, Brooks can thus be perceived by America yoga students as more of an ‘authentic’ insider to those South Indian traditions which he studies.  This in turn can afford him the status of an insider to the yoga community, which places high value on these relatively rare skills.

This also raises the question of Brooks’ status to those involved in the North American yoga community, in which he lectures extensively on Tantric philosophy and appears to be considered a yoga teacher.  However, unlike the vast majority of yoga teachers, he does not teach asana (as far as I can tell).  Thus Brooks straddles the spheres of the academy and the yoga world, finding a place in both but not as a ‘typical’ member.  This straddling echoes that done by Brooks’ own mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy.  It seems that for Brooks, Sundaramoorthy represented an ideal insider to the both the academic world and the world of South Indian Tantrism, as he studied Shakta Tantrism academically, was skilled in languages, and was born to an orthodox Brahmin family.

Finally, we can take a more removed perspective and consider Brooks’ positioning of himself to the audience, and the language used therein – already touched upon in his comment on not having to ‘undo’ the effects of a religious upbringing.  Although it is important not to hypothesise too imaginatively on the interviewee’s choice of words or topics to cover, we can at least consider the effect they might have on the audience.  For example, Brooks explicitly places himself outside the ‘hippy movement’ of the Beatles’ era, as well as emphasising his removal from the modern postural yoga movement exemplified by figures such as K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. What does the interviewee convey to the audience by doing so?  To me, Brooks seems to emphasise his commitment to studying South Indian traditions in their more classical or traditional forms. However, by doing so, he could perhaps be casting himself as a more ‘authentic’ researcher and insider of Indian traditions by maintaining some distance between himself and the New Age movement, often subject to accusations of cultural appropriation, a lack of historical understanding, and being more ‘lightweight’.   As well as looking at what is said in this interview, we can also consider what is not said. Brooks’ own involvement in the North American yoga world is downplayed as his ‘weekend job’ of public engagement, which partially obscures the fact that this isn’t done in an entirely academic capacity, but also in the capacity of a devoted teacher of the Rajanaka Yoga philosophy.  The listener wonders whether Brooks’ downplaying of his involvement with the North American yoga world could perhaps be an appeal to greater academic credibility, and to the academy’s preference for highly objective empirical accounts of religious phenomena.

I find autobiographical interviews such as this valuable for the themes that emerge throughout the narrative, such as that of the researcher’s status as an insider or outsider.  I hope that this short response has highlighted the complexity of relationships between Brooks (as the researcher) and the other social actors he encounters including, but not limited to: the individuals and communities he studies; his mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy; the North American yoga world; the academy; and the listeners of this podcast – all of whom, I suspect, will judge him as an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ to wildly varying degrees.

 

 

 

Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Shakti

Shakti

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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Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

You can 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.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, yoga mats, tantric guides, and more.

On the Outside Looking In: Western Appropriations of Eastern “Subtle Body” Discourse

I find Jay Johnston’s endeavor to integrate what she acknowledges as Eastern concepts of the “subtle body” into Western conversations on subjectivity, ethics, perception, interpersonal relations, and healing to be both valid and interesting. While her on-line interview left many questions unanswered for me, her contributions to the 2013 volume she co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, entitled Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West (hereafter RSB) addressed many of those issues. My response, which is based on both my own expertise in Indic religious traditions and my own work on comparison, is to both the interview and the 2013 volume.

To begin, the term “subtle body” is a problematic one. This is noted in the introduction to RSB (2-3), in which it is noted that this term, a translation of the Sanskrit suksma sarira, was first popularized in the West by the Theosophists, and that as such, its Western usage has been, since its inception, freighted with a number of Western scientistic presuppositions. However, the introduction and Johnston’s interview neglect to address the specific use of “subtle body” in the Hindu tradition in which it originated. In fact, the original and perennial meaning of the Sanskrit term suksma sarira is “transmigrational body.” That is, when a person dies, his or her soul inhabits a transmigrational body during the liminal period (which endures for six generations) between death and rebirth in another body. To my knowledge, prior to the nineteenth century, suksma sarira was never applied to the body of a living human being. In India’s yogic and tantric literature, this has simply been called “the body,” although it is the case that an early Hindu tantric description of that body, found in the circa 825 CE Netra Tantra, calls meditation on that body “subtle meditation” (suksma dhyana). This notwithstanding, I and several other scholars of Hindu yoga and Tantra have preferred to use the term “yogic body” to denote what others, including Johnston, have referred to as the “subtle body.”

Another issue that Johnston and her collaborators do not address is also worth noting for its value in comparative, cross-disciplinary conversation. Here I am speaking of the relationship between the flesh-and-blood body (often referred to as the “gross body”) to the subtle/yogic body and the soul. In the mainstream theology of Hindu devotion (bhakti), the relationship of God’s subtle/yogic body to

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle (Bhagavad Gita 11.5-24)

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle

His (or Her) “gross body” is the opposite of that experienced by humans. That is, while the subtle/yogic bodies of humans are enclosed, for the most part, by their gross bodies, God’s “gross body” is enclosed by His/Her subtle body. This has been described by Dennis Hudson in the following way:

In the case of humans, the mapping places the gross body on the outside with the subtle body and soul enclosed by it and [God] controlling from the center as the Self of all selves . . . In the case of God, however, the organization of the three bodies is reversed . . . A difference between God and humans, then, is this: As a microcosm, the human is a conscious soul looking outward through its encompassing subtle body and, by means of that subtle body, through its encompassing gross human body. [God], by contrast as the macrocosm, is pure being and consciousness looking “inward” to the subtle body that he encloses and by means of that subtle body, “into” the gross body enclosed within his subtle body. God, one might say, gazes inward at his own center.[i]

In a theological tradition in which God is the sole true subject in the universe, such an insight will have implications for any discussion of intersubjectivity, which was one of the areas in which Johnston saw possibilities for an East-West subtle body-based conversation.

One area, not addressed by Johnston in her interview but which is the topic of one of the chapters in RSB (149-67), is the notion of something like the “subtle body” as found in Neoplatonism. While it is possible that Plotinus, the first-century CE founder of Neoplatonism, may have been influenced by Indian “subtle body” concepts carried west along the Silk Road, Neoplatonism’s foundations lie, as its name indicates, in Platonic philosophy. The ancient Greeks conceived of visual perception as occurring when a ray of light, projected by the eye, fell upon an object. This notion of “projective perception” is also found in early Hindu philosophy, which defines perception as the contact between a ray and an object. When perception is projective, the contours of the human subject extend as far as he or she can see. One can do a great deal with such an idea, as the theologian Tertullian did in his account of the immaculate conception, an idea appropriated by many a Renaissance artist:

 God made this universe by his word and reason and power . . . This Word, we have learnt, was produced (prolatum) from God and was generated by being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from the unity of substance with God. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole son; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light . . . This ray of God . . . glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.[ii]

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

This common conceptualization, a fruitful basis for cross-cultural conversation, is also intriguing to any historian of philosophy who would seek to find its source. Was this an idea that traveled down the Silk Road in the Hellenistic period? If so, in which direction did it travel? Or is it an artifact of an Indo-European tradition reaching back several millennia? Or was this simply the case of independent innovation?

In sum, while I agree with Johnston that the “subtle body” of Eastern religions may be used as a heuristic in a broader East-West conversation about philosophy, ethics and so forth, I have certain reservations about how that heuristic may be applied, given the amount of unaddressed Eastern baggage that the term has carried in India. In other words, we have to know what we are agreeing about before we begin building bridges based on that agreement.

[i]Dennis Hudson, “Vasudeva Krsna in Theology and Architecture: A Background to Srivaisnavism.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 2:1 (Winter 1993), pp. 139-70.

[ii]Tertullian, “Incarnation of the Logos,” (Apologia xxi), translated in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 34.

Podcasts

Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out

In this interview on ‘Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out’, Douglas R Brooks allows the listener an insight into his own personal and academic development, and an account of how various factors led him to the study of South Indian Shrividya Shakta Tantrism. There are many interesting elements to consider therein, but for me, the interview first and foremost appeals to one of the core debates within Religious Studies: the insider/outsider debate. Due to the interview’s largely autobiographical focus, I find it most useful when viewed as an elaboration on this discussion, and I hope, in this short response, to highlight elements of the ongoing debate. Specifically, I wish to highlight the shifting nature of the categories of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’; emphasise the position of the ‘other’ in judging the status of the researcher; and to consider how the researcher may work to position themselves in this dynamic.

One of the RSP’s earliest interviews with George Chryssides covers the insider/outsider debate, and raises several questions in relation to it – as does Katie Aston’s response, in which she explores the question of whether it is best for the scholar (or more specifically, the anthropologist) of religion to have any belief in order to relate to the individuals that they research.   Most would agree that being an insider or outsider to the group that one studies will always be on some sort of spectrum, with few clear or stable boundaries. The researcher’s position in this spectrum will alter according to various identity markers, including whether or not they are already an accepted member of the community being researched, or indeed if they are a ‘believer’ in any capacity; but also according to markers such as nationality, ethnicity, native language, age, and gender.  Each of the researcher’s identity markers will be perceived differently by the individuals they encounter, and this will define the extent to which one is perceived as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ by each individual.  This sets a broad background for the interview with Brooks, a scholar renowned for his research on (and deep involvement) in Shakta Tantra in South India.  Several of the aforementioned ideas arise particularly prominently in this interview.

Starting with a more general consideration of being an insider or outsider to a typically Christian, North American background, Brooks discusses his experience of being brought up in a non-religious household, using the somewhat revealing phrase that he ‘didn’t have to undo a great deal’.  By casting his non-religious upbringing as an advantage, Brooks consciously positions himself outside of the sphere of traditional religion in the North American context. Despite appearing to be grateful for this lack of religious influence in his early life, he also describes how this later led to him being somewhat of an outsider on his University course, which assumed that students of comparative religion would come from a Judeao-Christian background, and would have some form of committed belief. Brooks clearly felt that he did not fit this mould.

However, to avoid reiterating previous discussions about the effects of a (non)religious background, I prefer to focus on one theme that emerges particularly strongly in this interview: that of language, and the great effect that it can have on the status of the researcher. Brooks clearly places great value on his own command of Sanskrit and Tamil, and indeed, his knowledge of these languages has afforded him a unique understanding of South Indian Tantric and Goddess traditions that few scholars can match.  The importance placed on language also leads him to refer to a past lecturer on Hinduism and Buddhism as ‘a well-meaning amateur’ due to his lack of first-hand knowledge of Sanskrit, which thus denied him direct access to the literature (here, Brooks perhaps overemphasises the role of texts).  Clearly, Brooks’ skill in this area can afford him increased access to not only the literature of his field, but to individuals and communities in South India today – contributing toward his efforts to become an insider.  On a more practical level, advanced linguistic ability also avoids the complexities of employing a translator in the fieldwork setting – an arrangement which risks a loss of nuance, and reinforces the researcher’s position as an outsider through the translator’s necessary presence and involvement.

As well as aiding in his research in South India, this linguistic ability also gives Brooks social and cultural capital for the groups that he speaks with during his public engagement events: one attendee and blogger writes, ‘It blew my mind when he lead puja on the last day.  He busted out mantras as if he were born a Brahmin. Dude can read Sanskrit!’. Through his use and knowledge of languages, Brooks can thus be perceived by America yoga students as more of an ‘authentic’ insider to those South Indian traditions which he studies.  This in turn can afford him the status of an insider to the yoga community, which places high value on these relatively rare skills.

This also raises the question of Brooks’ status to those involved in the North American yoga community, in which he lectures extensively on Tantric philosophy and appears to be considered a yoga teacher.  However, unlike the vast majority of yoga teachers, he does not teach asana (as far as I can tell).  Thus Brooks straddles the spheres of the academy and the yoga world, finding a place in both but not as a ‘typical’ member.  This straddling echoes that done by Brooks’ own mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy.  It seems that for Brooks, Sundaramoorthy represented an ideal insider to the both the academic world and the world of South Indian Tantrism, as he studied Shakta Tantrism academically, was skilled in languages, and was born to an orthodox Brahmin family.

Finally, we can take a more removed perspective and consider Brooks’ positioning of himself to the audience, and the language used therein – already touched upon in his comment on not having to ‘undo’ the effects of a religious upbringing.  Although it is important not to hypothesise too imaginatively on the interviewee’s choice of words or topics to cover, we can at least consider the effect they might have on the audience.  For example, Brooks explicitly places himself outside the ‘hippy movement’ of the Beatles’ era, as well as emphasising his removal from the modern postural yoga movement exemplified by figures such as K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. What does the interviewee convey to the audience by doing so?  To me, Brooks seems to emphasise his commitment to studying South Indian traditions in their more classical or traditional forms. However, by doing so, he could perhaps be casting himself as a more ‘authentic’ researcher and insider of Indian traditions by maintaining some distance between himself and the New Age movement, often subject to accusations of cultural appropriation, a lack of historical understanding, and being more ‘lightweight’.   As well as looking at what is said in this interview, we can also consider what is not said. Brooks’ own involvement in the North American yoga world is downplayed as his ‘weekend job’ of public engagement, which partially obscures the fact that this isn’t done in an entirely academic capacity, but also in the capacity of a devoted teacher of the Rajanaka Yoga philosophy.  The listener wonders whether Brooks’ downplaying of his involvement with the North American yoga world could perhaps be an appeal to greater academic credibility, and to the academy’s preference for highly objective empirical accounts of religious phenomena.

I find autobiographical interviews such as this valuable for the themes that emerge throughout the narrative, such as that of the researcher’s status as an insider or outsider.  I hope that this short response has highlighted the complexity of relationships between Brooks (as the researcher) and the other social actors he encounters including, but not limited to: the individuals and communities he studies; his mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy; the North American yoga world; the academy; and the listeners of this podcast – all of whom, I suspect, will judge him as an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ to wildly varying degrees.

 

 

 

Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Shakti

Shakti

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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Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

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On the Outside Looking In: Western Appropriations of Eastern “Subtle Body” Discourse

I find Jay Johnston’s endeavor to integrate what she acknowledges as Eastern concepts of the “subtle body” into Western conversations on subjectivity, ethics, perception, interpersonal relations, and healing to be both valid and interesting. While her on-line interview left many questions unanswered for me, her contributions to the 2013 volume she co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, entitled Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West (hereafter RSB) addressed many of those issues. My response, which is based on both my own expertise in Indic religious traditions and my own work on comparison, is to both the interview and the 2013 volume.

To begin, the term “subtle body” is a problematic one. This is noted in the introduction to RSB (2-3), in which it is noted that this term, a translation of the Sanskrit suksma sarira, was first popularized in the West by the Theosophists, and that as such, its Western usage has been, since its inception, freighted with a number of Western scientistic presuppositions. However, the introduction and Johnston’s interview neglect to address the specific use of “subtle body” in the Hindu tradition in which it originated. In fact, the original and perennial meaning of the Sanskrit term suksma sarira is “transmigrational body.” That is, when a person dies, his or her soul inhabits a transmigrational body during the liminal period (which endures for six generations) between death and rebirth in another body. To my knowledge, prior to the nineteenth century, suksma sarira was never applied to the body of a living human being. In India’s yogic and tantric literature, this has simply been called “the body,” although it is the case that an early Hindu tantric description of that body, found in the circa 825 CE Netra Tantra, calls meditation on that body “subtle meditation” (suksma dhyana). This notwithstanding, I and several other scholars of Hindu yoga and Tantra have preferred to use the term “yogic body” to denote what others, including Johnston, have referred to as the “subtle body.”

Another issue that Johnston and her collaborators do not address is also worth noting for its value in comparative, cross-disciplinary conversation. Here I am speaking of the relationship between the flesh-and-blood body (often referred to as the “gross body”) to the subtle/yogic body and the soul. In the mainstream theology of Hindu devotion (bhakti), the relationship of God’s subtle/yogic body to

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle (Bhagavad Gita 11.5-24)

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle

His (or Her) “gross body” is the opposite of that experienced by humans. That is, while the subtle/yogic bodies of humans are enclosed, for the most part, by their gross bodies, God’s “gross body” is enclosed by His/Her subtle body. This has been described by Dennis Hudson in the following way:

In the case of humans, the mapping places the gross body on the outside with the subtle body and soul enclosed by it and [God] controlling from the center as the Self of all selves . . . In the case of God, however, the organization of the three bodies is reversed . . . A difference between God and humans, then, is this: As a microcosm, the human is a conscious soul looking outward through its encompassing subtle body and, by means of that subtle body, through its encompassing gross human body. [God], by contrast as the macrocosm, is pure being and consciousness looking “inward” to the subtle body that he encloses and by means of that subtle body, “into” the gross body enclosed within his subtle body. God, one might say, gazes inward at his own center.[i]

In a theological tradition in which God is the sole true subject in the universe, such an insight will have implications for any discussion of intersubjectivity, which was one of the areas in which Johnston saw possibilities for an East-West subtle body-based conversation.

One area, not addressed by Johnston in her interview but which is the topic of one of the chapters in RSB (149-67), is the notion of something like the “subtle body” as found in Neoplatonism. While it is possible that Plotinus, the first-century CE founder of Neoplatonism, may have been influenced by Indian “subtle body” concepts carried west along the Silk Road, Neoplatonism’s foundations lie, as its name indicates, in Platonic philosophy. The ancient Greeks conceived of visual perception as occurring when a ray of light, projected by the eye, fell upon an object. This notion of “projective perception” is also found in early Hindu philosophy, which defines perception as the contact between a ray and an object. When perception is projective, the contours of the human subject extend as far as he or she can see. One can do a great deal with such an idea, as the theologian Tertullian did in his account of the immaculate conception, an idea appropriated by many a Renaissance artist:

 God made this universe by his word and reason and power . . . This Word, we have learnt, was produced (prolatum) from God and was generated by being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from the unity of substance with God. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole son; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light . . . This ray of God . . . glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.[ii]

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

This common conceptualization, a fruitful basis for cross-cultural conversation, is also intriguing to any historian of philosophy who would seek to find its source. Was this an idea that traveled down the Silk Road in the Hellenistic period? If so, in which direction did it travel? Or is it an artifact of an Indo-European tradition reaching back several millennia? Or was this simply the case of independent innovation?

In sum, while I agree with Johnston that the “subtle body” of Eastern religions may be used as a heuristic in a broader East-West conversation about philosophy, ethics and so forth, I have certain reservations about how that heuristic may be applied, given the amount of unaddressed Eastern baggage that the term has carried in India. In other words, we have to know what we are agreeing about before we begin building bridges based on that agreement.

[i]Dennis Hudson, “Vasudeva Krsna in Theology and Architecture: A Background to Srivaisnavism.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 2:1 (Winter 1993), pp. 139-70.

[ii]Tertullian, “Incarnation of the Logos,” (Apologia xxi), translated in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 34.