The goddess Tara, Buddhism, and ‘Chinese’ ritual in Hindu tantra
An online interactive lecture by Joel Bordeaux, IIAS Research Fellow with a fellowship from the J. Gonda Foundation of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).
How did Hindu devotees come to worship an Indian goddess in the ‘Chinese Way?’ What was allegedly Chinese about these rituals and how is this related to the goddess’s Buddhist origins? When did Hindus start to think of China, rather than India, as the homeland of Buddhism?
This talk draws on Sanskrit tantric literature, Bengali pilgrimage texts, and the author’s own ethnographic fieldwork to explore these questions. Starting with a narrative trope in which the Hindu sage Vasishta must travel to ‘Greater China’ to learn from the Buddha how to worship the goddess Tara, the presentation first examines the idea of Buddhist ‘China’ in medieval Sanskrit tantras. Next, it considers how later ritual manuals adapt and re-localize the Hindu Tara in Eastern India, and further development of the tradition as the cremation ground/temple at Tarapith became a major pilgrimage site in the Indian state of West Bengal. Finally, since contemporary devotees increasingly identify the ‘Greater China’ of the tantras with Tibet, the presentation contextualizes the conversation with the globalization of Tibetan Buddhism.
Joel Bordeaux is a specialist in South Asian religions focused primarily on goddess traditions of Bengal and a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies at Leiden University. He received a BA (2003) from Georgia State University; and MA (2005), MPhil (2008); and PhD (2015) from Columbia University, after which he taught in the Religion department at Colgate University and conducted research at the Mattoo Center for India Studies at Stony Brook University. He has published work on intra-Hindu sectarianism and Tibetan Buddhism in popular culture, with forthcoming articles on early modern Hindu statecraft and contemporary caste politics. In addition to his research on the goddess Tara, he is preparing a monograph exploring the accretion of legends around an eighteenth-century Bengali aristocrat named Krishnacandra Ray, famed as a great patron of Hindu culture and the alleged architect of a conspiracy that birthed the British Raj.