16 June 2012

Book Review: Kiss of the Yogini

David Gordon White is an American professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written extensively on Hindu religious traditions, particularly in the medieval period.

Since the Buddhism I was raised in is called Tantric Buddhism, I have always had an abiding interest in religious studies that deal with the history of Tantra and comparative Tantric studies. This book deals with this and while it does not squarely deal with homosexuality, it does deal with sexuality in general and deviation and variation from the approved sexual behaviors of medieval India.

What we consider to be mainstream Hindu religious traditions were significantly reformed by a compact between the higher ups in Indian society in the eighteenth century and the British colonial officials (civilian, religious, military). Hindus religious reform did not start with British imperialism, but was much advanced by it. In the same ways that modern Buddhism in Asia and elsewhere has been modified by its encounter with the West, so has Hinduism.

Tantra is and was a common form of religious practice in Indian life that has focused on the sexual and sensual and the feminine where movements to reform it and suppress it have been spiritual, ideal and masculine. The complexification of Tantra from its humble mother goddess beginnings involve a dialectical evolution of just this. In short, Tantra was the normative religious practice in India nad it involved male practitioners exchanging powerful, symbolic and transformative sexual fluids with wild and dangerous female spirits.

Tantra had both royal sponsorship and was also used subversively by those in the periphery of political power for their own ends. For my level of interest and understanding, White's overwhelming textual evidence to prove this is just that overwhelming and at some point it was too much. However, the important part is that the religious tradition used symbols of sexuality as the central aspects of religious practice (and in many instances, literalized/concretized those symbols into sexual practices). Even in Tantric Buddhism where all of this is supposedly symbolic and these literalizations did or did not occur, the main point was a symbolic sexual union with the dark powers of destruction, anger, etc., to bring liberation from this world -- in Tantric Buddhism, sometimes the male practitioner is on the receiving end of a power wrathful male deities fluids, sometimes the other way around.

Both the modern reformed Hindu religious traditions and the New Age schools of sex both represent different aspects of human culture which are intimately wrapped up in modifications, due in part, to British colonialism. While I would ramble on about this book which is really a highly obscure, specialized volume is the underlying point that I think is important to think about, the purity -- or lack thereof -- of modern understandings of sexuality in relationship to hundreds of years of colonial contact and oppression which helped shape those modern understandings -- even when a claim to indigeneity seems fully appropriate. In this case, indigenous religious movements were able to appropriate colonial forces to reshape and suppress various improper, unvalued and potentially threatening religious practices (involving sexuality).

And more deeply, how do we integrate the light and the dark in our spiritual practice and how do we integrate sexuality and spirituality in an organic way -- a question made more important by the adoption and syncretizing of Christianity in our country.

The version I read was a 391 page paperback published by University of Chicago Press (August 15, 2006), ISBN-13: 978-0226894843. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at amazon.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment