In the Tea-Light of Tantra: an Ethnographic Study of Kuṇḍalinī Rising in Women’s Bodies
Kripal, Jeffery J.; Parsons, William B.; Shehabuddin, Elora; Urban, Hugh B.
Doctor of Philosophy
The meta-objective of this dissertation is to examine the status of women in the world of Hindu Śākta Tantra. Rooted in ethnography, this dissertation mines a set of female voices and experiences for a new look at the tradition that has generally been studied by male scholars focusing on male practitioners. To accomplish this, I began by closely observing the living traditions around kuṇḍalinī yoga in Assam and West Bengal, two northeastern states in India. Before discussing kuṇḍalinī practices, in chapter one, we will first be oriented to a brief religious-political history of these two states. In doing so, we will look at how these two states succeeded in preserving a sense of unique religious and cultural identity. This religious terrain is woven with a personal narrative in order to provide insights into my relationships with the sacred space. We will also briefly explore the etymology and philosophies of two key terms: Tantra and Śākta. Chapter two presents a summary of kuṇḍalinī as understood by a thirteenth century Marathi poet-saint Jnandev, the mid-tenth to early eleventh century theologian Abhinavagupta, as well as representations of kuṇḍalinī in the fifteenth century texts. Chapter three continues with the focus on kuṇḍalinī. We will look closely at how the consensus view of kuṇḍalinī in the counterculture and contemporary yoga scene became “evolutionary.” This will be achieved by looking at three major figures who in many ways crystallized the contemporary understanding of kuṇḍalinī: Sir John Woodroffe, Aurobindo Ghose, and Gopi Krishna. Here I will also engage and interpret the original communications between Gopi Krishna and Sri Aurobindo. Chapter four traces my footsteps in the field in Assam and West Bengal. It focuses on Tantra teachers—whom I refer to as “Tantric adepts”—and their disciples— whom I call “ardent practitioner” of these adepts. I interviewed five female and two male Tantric adepts, the wives of two Tantric adepts, and two ardent lay followers. I must caution the reader: what I encountered in the field and present in this chapter is sometimes very graphic, sensitive, and enormously troubling. In conclusion, I argue that in order to assess the status of women in Śākta Tantra, we must look at several groups separately: (1) women as ritual incarnations of the goddess, (2) women as consorts for sexual rituals, (3) women as wives of Tantric adepts, (4) female gurus who are married, and (5) pre-pubescent girls in the service of the Tantric adepts. In a nutshell, I argue that while there are small groups of Hindu śākta women Tantric adepts who have successfully navigated and challenged their social norms, the majority of women experience deep exploitation and receive utilitarian treatment. Many women continue to be donated to temples, to work for priests, and to be part of the rituals. As an insider of the tradition, a woman, and a scholar with an outsider lens, when I look at the larger group of women, I see that these groups of women miss the “mokṣa-boat.”
Hindu ŚāktaTantra, Kuṇḍalinī, Assam