Cover image: Cakrasamvara, private collection Gunnar Haaland.
Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
The standard story of the development of Indic religions was developed in the mid to late nineteenth century, in a collaboration between Western scholars on the one side, and Hindu and Buddhist scholars and intellectuals on the other.
This story was essentially that of the development of a number of separate religions, principally Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, with Hinduism being seen as the earliest and Buddhism and Jainism as reactions against it.
Buddhist and Jain histories, after the initial break with Hinduism, were presented as largely separate stories.
Yet, as has been repeatedly pointed out by numerous scholars, most parts of this story are problematic, and the story as a whole is largely untenable.
The Origins of Yoga and Tantra is the sort of book that causes me to neglect the rest of my work. It’s cogent, mild-humored, exhaustively researched and minutely detailed on a subject – yoga and Tantra – that requires a disciplined, critical eye.
All I wanted for days was an extra hour, a series of cups of tea and a sharp pencil for notes in the margins.
Geoffey Samuel, Professorial Fellow at the School of Religious and Theological Studies at Cardiff University, and the author of the encyclopedic Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies is all that and a bag of joss sticks (agarbatti): coolly skeptical without being in the least disdainful, thoroughly articulate in the material, and a temperate advocate for recogntion of the human nature of human culture.
A religious tradition is not just a body of texts.
It is, above all, something that lives and is maintained through the lives of human beings… and has to make sense in terms of their lives and their understandings of their situation.
Caste, geography and iconography
The Origins of Yoga and Tantra is divided into two sections, the first on Meditation and Yoga, the second on Tantra. Samuel unfolds the development of these practices through illuminations of caste, geography, solar and lunar dynasties, and an iconography of female fertility, using these to bound a study of
the group of traditions of mental and physical cultivation that developed into what we now know as ‘yoga’, ‘Tantra’, and ‘meditation’.
The indigenous terms vary, and do not correspond neatly to modern Western uses of these terms, but practices involving mental and physical cultivation, mostly directed towards the achievement of some kind of liberating insight are found in all the major religions originating in the Indian sub-continent.
A thick chapter on the rise of renunciate orders is followed by a comparative chapter on the “Brahmanical Alternative,” tracing the development of a parallel, yet different asceticism that ultimately gives way to the classical synthesis.
Certainty eclipsed by new discoveries
Before engaging the reader in the history of yoga and Tantra, Samuel describes the state of South Asian studies in a remarkable prefatory essay, Stories and Sources that I recommend very highly on its own for anyone who wants to understand the current yoga brouhaha.
A striking feature of the last few decades of Indological research has been not only the growth of new knowledge, but also the gradual realisation that much of what scholars thought that they already knew was far less secure than had been assumed.
This is hardly a surprise, given the scanty evidence on which our chronological understandings were initially constructed, but certainly for someone approaching the field from the outside it is striking how unsure we are about the dating of many crucial events, people or texts.
An introduction gives a chronology of previously assured dating of key texts, then arrays the evidence which has recently eroded any serious acceptance of these time frames.
Additionally, questions of who (one person? a few? many?) wrote down previously oral transmissions, over what time frame (a few years or a few hundred years?) are compounded by the loss of necessary cultural context: for whom and for what purpose were the written versions intended?
Writing does not stand on its own outside its specific historical moment: the intended audience determines the language used, its tone and presentation; but the meaning and intention of those words may suffer distortion or injustice when read out of context.
Imposing heroic “authenticity”
Samuel lays bare the deep rooted problem of re enculturation by examining the projections of the very concepts of religion imposed by the Protestant Christian faith of the early Indologists.
Any “attempt at the historical understanding of the development of a particular set of techniques and practices within the Indic religions,” Samuel contends, is problematized.
“The difficulty is that the early evidence is far from unambiguous, and that it is almost always interpreted by reading later religious forms into it.”
Many of the problems here derive from the tendency of past Western scholars, whether or not themselves Protestant Christians, to see religion in terms of Protestant Christianity, a religion that identified itself against its rival in terms of a return to the “authentic” texts of the Bible.
The Protestant polemic against Catholicism was largely carried out in terms of accusations of deviation from the “original” teachings of Jesus as seen in the New Testament. These deviations consisted in the growth of magical and superstitious practices, unnecessary theological complexities, and a subordination of religion to political and economic purposes.
Religions in this model were founded by an inspired teacher who created a body of texts that were then systematically misinterpreted and distorted through succeeding generations.
There was little point in studying what people actually did, since it was only valid if it reflected the texts.
Compromises inherent in the study of text
The Origins of Yoga and Tantra argues early Indologists supplied a framework of which they were largely unaware: they saw the cultural life of the people they studied in their own Christian terms, a framework, according to Samuel, that was subsequently appropriated and adapted to indigenous use.
The Protestant model formed a template that was repeatedly applied to Western scholars to Asian religious traditions. At the same time it provided a model in terms of which nineteenth and twentieth century Hindu and Buddhist reformers, from the Brahmo and Arya Samaj down to the Mahabodhi Society, attempted to reshape their own religious traditions.
The Buddha became a kind of Christ figure reacting against a legalistic and caste-bound Brahmanical priesthood, the Hindu equivalent of the Sadducees and Pharisees of the New Testament account.
This also had the advantage that the Asian Buddhism actually being practiced by most Asian Buddhists (including most Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia) could be dismissed as a superstitious and degenerate development of the real teachings of the Buddha.
This left a scholarly elite as the true interpreters of the teachings of the Buddha.
Samuel exercises a command of the territory, one with which scholars of a purely “orthogenic” approach centered on using texts to construct a story of continuity cannot hope to compete.
Where the fabric of suggestion and extensions of logic wear thin in the friction of contention, the multiple sources woven together in The Origins of Yoga and Tantra give a gratifying dimensional documentary to this history. Whole civilizations, teeming palaces and towns appear in the dust of trade and the details of maps and artifacts that lend life to every page, while steadily shifting confidence away from previous narratives of continuity.
Many aspects of culture … are not transmitted textually. Social and cultural anthropology in particular [provide] approaches that emphasized actual cultural and ritual practices and their variations and transformations rather than elite textual models.
In the Indian context, this meant that a large body of material was progressively revealed with often only a remote relationship to the Vedic texts.
It is clear that large parts of later Indic religions do not derive in any simple way from the Rgveda or other early Vedic texts.
All the while, as Samuel constructs an intelligent rationale for the value of cultural artifacts other than texts to secure the basis of our understanding, he shows the limits of the narrow point of view that is privileged by text, the prejudicial aspect of relying on text to represent the actual culture and practices of thousands of years of history.
It is that intellectual, emotional, social and political context which is the real object of study of scholars of Indian religion. Ultimately, it is people and their specific life-worlds that we are attempting to understand.
We may publish any content, comments or ideas sent to us.
Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.