The Hindu Tantric World

Sofia Sundstrom

André Padoux has managed to compress a wealth of knowledge on Tantra into less than 200 pages, which is no small feat in itself. The Hindu Tantric World is a survey on Tantra, its influence and its place in modern society.

The Tantric world is heavily enmeshed with both Hinduism and Buddhism, and has been so for centuries. A form of Tantra has been present in India since the fifth century CE and began spreading through the Indian subcontinent in the eighth and ninth centuries. Its main period in India lasted from the eighth to the fourteenth century CE. Today, we see Tantra in the ritual worship of Hindu deities. While some of these deities are Tantric, these rituals are also used for non-Tantric deities.

While not a book for the uninitiated reader, it is suitable for anyone with a background in Indian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Tantric studies. What is particularly enticing about this book, apart from its breadth of knowledge, are the nuggets of personal opinions from Padoux. As any good scholar, he remains neutral for the most part, but when he adds an opinion, the reader’s interest is further piqued. A good example is his references to Tantra in the modern Western world, where it has degenerated: ‘When one logs onto Tantra websites that proliferate on the Internet, one soon realizes how worthless, misleading, and teeming with errors most of them are’ (p. 169).

He manages to cover wide topics, such as Tantric traditions, rituals, literature, and mantras. Padoux also spends a chapter clarifying that sex is not a main aspect of Tantra, thereby disagreeing with David White, who claimed that the sexual rituals were the main distinctive feature of Tantric traditions.[i] Ritual sex as an element of Tantra is in part transgressive and are only a part of certain rites. It is a method for connecting with the worshipped god and not simply a pursuit of pleasure.

The Tantric world is also a part of Buddhism. We find its texts and images in other parts of Asia, such as East Asia. Max Nahomi wrote that the study of Tantric Buddhism would benefit from an examination of the material found outside of India, specifically Southeast Asia.[ii] However, Padoux’s focus on the Hindu Tantric World is not on Buddhism, but rather on the Tantric aspects of Hinduism, specifically the worship of the Goddess and the Tantric aspects of Śiva. The texts he refers to are primarily Indian, and are covered in Chapter 3.

In the case of Śiva, there are both Tantric and non-Tantric forms of the deity. He is non-Tantric in the manner in which he is described in the Purāṇas. However, his bisexual form, Ardhanarīśvara, and Bhairava (a fierce manifestation of Śiva) are Tantric. The god Kṛṣṇa (an incarnation of Viśnu), on the other hand, is not a Tantric deity, but is at times worshipped as such. Thus, when determining whether a deity is Tantric or not, texts and the form of worship need to be taken into consideration. This exemplifies how Tantra has become a part of Indian culture and worship.

There is, of course a difference between the academic study of Tantra and its role in modern Indian society. In general, Tantra is considered a base form of worship, but is entwined with Hinduism. In the United States, variants of Tantra have found favour in the new-age movement. Yet, according to Padoux, the genuine Tantra cannot be found in the West. ‘The reality, the real nature and life of Tantra, is not in the outside world. It is in India, in the past as well as today. It is a vast and fascinating universe of doctrinal constructions, of visions, and ritual practises – a universe to be grasped and understood as a whole’ (p. 175).

While it would be beneficial for any reader to take on the whole book, it is also possible to dip into specific chapters depending on the reader’s interest. The glossary helps the reader follow the assorted topics. However, an extended glossary would have been beneficial for readers new to the topic of Tantra. Padoux did not set an easy task for himself in attempting to create a text that encompasses his wealth of knowledge, amassed over a long career. Yet, an overview of Tantra is important as it continues to be a part of Indian culture and Tantric texts are still being used.

[i] David Gordon White, Kiss of the Yoginī: ‘Tantric sex’ in its South Asian Context, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, 13.
[ii] Max Nihom, Studies in Indian and Indo-Indonesian Tantrism, Vienna: Institut für Indologie der Universität Wien, 1994, 13.