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American Academy of Religion

Kiss of the Yogin: "Tantric Sex" in Its South Asian Contexts by David Gordon White
Review by: Stuart Ray Sarbacker
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 74, No. 2, Religion and Secrecy (Jun.,
2006), pp. 543-546
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4094059 .
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Book Reviews 543
view of the
options
and
disingenuous
in its use of the
facts,
it will
satisfy very
few
on the Left or the
Right
who want a balanced discussion of the
religious
or ethi-
cal issues involved.
doi:
10.1093/jaarel/1fj074
Kevin Schilbrack
Advance Access
publication April
12,
2006
Wesleyan College
Kiss
of
the
Yogini:
"Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts.
By
David
Gordon White.
University
of
Chicago
Press,
2003. 391
pages.
$43.00.
David Gordon White has established himself as one of the foremost authori-
ties on the
practices
of
yoga
and tantra in South
Asia,
and his most recent
work,
Kiss
of
the
Yogini:
"Tantric Sex" in its South Asian
Contexts,
only
further solidifies
his stature in the field. It
might
be
argued
more
broadly
that White's
scholarship
on
yoga
and tantra in this work and in his
previous
work The Alchemical
Body:
Siddha Traditions in Medieval India demonstrates the
continuing viability
and
utility
of the
History
of
Religions approach
to the
study
of
religion
in South Asia.
Kiss
of
the
Yogini
is a treasure trove of
historical, textual,
and
interpretive argu-
ments that is
dizzying
in its
depth
and
scope.
The
compelling
central
argument
of the text-that tantric
sexuality
in its
origins
is a
complex
ritual
system
of
exchange
of
"power
substances"
(sexual fluids)
and is
quite
distinct from more
recent Hindu
modernist, Orientalist,
and New
Age appropriations-is only
one
among
a number of
groundbreaking insights
into the nature of tantrism offered
in the work. It serves well what White
perceives
as an
overarching goal
of his aca-
demic
work,
demonstrating
how tantra is a
dominant,
but often
misrepresented,
cultural force in the formation of Hindu
religious practice
and
identity.
He
sup-
ports
this assertion
through
incisive historical
study
and a
brilliantly systematic
examination of
key
textual traditions within the
scope
of tantra in a manner that
might
be
favorably compared
to the use of thick
description
in
anthropology,
while
simultaneously negotiating
the often
murky
waters of
postcolonial thought.
The foundation of White's
argument
is the assertion that
prior
to nineteenth-
and
twentieth-century
modernist movements in
Hinduism,
the
predominant
foundation for
popular
Hinduism was ritualism
(tantra),
as
opposed
to devo-
tionalism
(bhakti),
which has become the hallmark of Hindu modernism
(Brahmanical
traditions focused on the
worship
of male
divinities).
White
argues
that
"postreformation"
mainstream Hindu
exponents
are
"possessed
of...
selective amnesia
concerning
both their own
past
and the
multiplicity
of
prac-
tices that
currently
surround them"
(7),
echoing
in some
respects Agehananda
Bharati's earlier assertions that Hindu modernism is
"puritanical"
in
nature,
dis-
avowing
its own not-so
puritanical past. Important
as well in White's
argument
is the notion that tantric ritualism itself has been
interpreted
in a number of
divergent ways,
both within and outside of Indian tradition. Of
particular
import throughout
the work is the
argument
that the
metaphorical interpreta-
tion of tantric actions of a
transgressive
nature obscures the
original
intentions
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544
Journal
of
the American
Academy of Religion
of their formulators. In this
respect,
White
argues, analogies
can be drawn
between the
high-caste "repackaging"
of tantric ritualism in
Abhinavagupta
and
the manner in which
proponents
of New
Age
tantra in
Europe
and America have
appropriated
its nomenclature and advertised it to a
wealthy
clientele
(xii).
The
basic
logic
of Kaula tantric
sexuality,
in
contrast,
is the
"feeding"
of
hungry
clan
(kula) deities,
notably
a class of fearsome female
goddesses
termed
"Yoginis,"
sexual fluids in
exchange
for
worldly powers
(siddhi), bodily immortality
(fivan-
mukti),
and
enjoyment
of those conditions
(bhukti) (10).
A
key point
that is
made
by
White in this
respect
is the fact that the attainment of
power
and
bodily
perfection
is not
necessarily conjoined
with ideas of liberation from
worldly
existence
(samnsdra).
Instead,
White
rightly places
the
emphasis
on what I would
refer to as the "numinous"
power acquired through
the ritual
process,
a "deifica-
tion" that is
exemplified by obtaining
the
power
of
yogic flight
(khecara) (199-
201).
The
processes
and
practices underlying
this
exchange
are made
thoroughly
evident
by
White in
chapters dealing
with the
origins
of the
Yogini
cult,
the
Indian roots of
"power
substances,"
the
logic
of the use of the
yantra
and
mandala
(symbolic
abodes of
deities),
and the influence and
authority
of tantric
agents
within Indian and
Nepalese society.
White's examination of the
morphology
of
Yogini mythology
is an excellent
counterpart
and extension to
Vidya Dehejia's
earlier
study, Yogini
Cult and
Temples, connecting
the
Yogini
traditions with
those of the
Apsaras (nymphs),
Grahanis (seizers), Yaksinis
(female
dryads),
ID~kinis
(flyers),
Mdtrs
(mothers),
and other
conceptions
of the female divine
(29). Likewise,
his
analysis
of the
importance
of sexual fluids in the tantra and
yoga
traditions and the often-misunderstood
terminology
used to refer to their
manipulation
(rdjayoga,
for
example,
as the
consumption
of such
fluids)
shed
significant light
on the
physiology,
if not
alchemy,
behind Kaula tantric
practice
(sidhana)
and its
accomplishments
(siddhi).
The
meticulously supported
over-
arching argument
is that Kaula tantra
exemplifies
the
ideology
of Hindu
tantra,
that of
gaining worldly
success and fortune
through feeding frightful
and
hungry
beings
with
dangerous
but
powerful offerings, especially
those
offerings per-
ceived as the roots of human
physiological
existence.
Though
a more extensive
discussion of the human
analogs
of the
Yoginis--especially
female
yoga
and
tantra
practitioners-would
have been
welcomed,
White does assert
that,
in his
opinion,
"the
prime
tantric actors in South Asia have
always
been
male,
and the
historical record of Tantric
practice,
in
literature, architecture,
and the
arts,
has
always
been
through
the
eyes
of a male
protagonist,
who
sought
or claimed for
himself the status of Virile Hero or Perfected
Being"
(160).
In the latter
part
of the
text,
White
argues
that Kaula and other sectarian
tantric
practices involving
ritual
sexuality
are at the roots of the
development
within tantrism of the
concept
of the subtle
body
(silksma
sarira)
and one of the
most
frequently adopted concepts
of
tantra,
the feminine
power
within the
body
referred to as
kundalini.
Kunidalini
and the
tutelary goddesses
within the subtle
body represent
a sublimation of the tantric
processes
of Kaula
yoga,
in which
one offers one's essential fluids to a series of
goddesses
in an ascensional scheme
through
the vertical medium of the subtle
body
(228).
In concert with this
discussion,
White
proceeds
to deconstruct the monolithic
presentation
of the
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Book Reviews 545
system
of the seven vertical cakras or "wheels" within the subtle
body,
demon-
strating
that this "standard"
system
is one variation
among many (including
four, six,
and
eleven)
that
emerged
in the latter half of the first millennium CE
(224).
One notable elision in his
presentation
is a discussion of
conceptions
of
the subtle
body
in the
Yogasitra,
a text which White views as
largely insignificant
with
respect
to the discussion of cakras or
nJddis
(channels)
within the
practices
of
yoga
and tantrism
(220). However,
it can be
pointed
out that in
Yogasitra
111.27-34,
Patafijali
does in fact refer to meditative
mastery
(sarmyama)
on the
navel cakra
(ndbhicakra),
the throat
cavity (kanthakupa),
the tortoise channel
(kirmanddi),
light
of the head
(miirdhajyotih,
identified with the brahma-
randhra or
fontanel),
and the heart
(hrdaya), suggesting
some foundational con-
ception
of a subtle
body.
These terms
appear
in a number of the sources
quoted
by
White
(250)
and
arguably
document an
important
connection between the
yoga
darsana and later
conceptions
of the subtle
body.
White
does, however,
emphasize
the often
disregarded
fact that the
Yogasitra
demonstrates a
high
degree
of interest in the attainment of
yogic powers
(siddhi
or
vibhiti)
within
pre-tantric thought,
as
approximately
one-fourth of the text is devoted to the
description
of and means of
obtaining
such
powers
(220). Furthermore,
White
brings
into his discussion of the subtle
body
the
important
connection between
the subtle
body
and
cosmology, using
the human-cosmos
homology
of
Jainism
as a basis for his
analysis
(176).
In
my opinion,
this human-cosmos
homology
exemplified
in
Jainism
is also an
underlying
motif in the
Yogasfitra passage
men-
tioned
above,
where
cosmological
and
physiological knowledge
is
equated
within the field of
yogic mastery
(satmyama).
White's
range
of observations in
these areas can be said to contribute
significantly
to the
understanding
of the
genesis
and
history
of Indian
conceptions
of the
cakras,
the subtle
body
(sikksma
sarira),
the latent feminine force in the
body (kundalini),
and the
understanding
of the
pan-Indian
traditions or "tradition texts" of
yoga
found in
Hinduism,
Buddhism,
and
Jainism.
Kiss
of
the
Yogini
is a work of
great depth
and
complexity.
One has the
impression
that it would take numerous cautious
readings
of the text to
fully
distill the
range
of
insights
offered in the text. The author's continuous refer-
ences to the
scriptural
sources that are woven into the narrative of his book
pro-
vide a vivid
transparency
to his
arguments, giving
the
impression
that one could
retrace his
steps through
the texts
meticulously
if one so desired
(and
possessed
the
requisite philological
skill to do
so).
This
transparency may
have also been
furthered
by
the use of footnotes instead of
endnotes,
which would further indi-
cate the breadth of White's
scholarship
on both the
primary
and
secondary
lev-
els. This
may
have, however,
slowed the
pace
of the narrative as a result. One of
the true virtues of White's
scholarship
is that he is
willing
to cross
disciplinary
boundaries when
appropriate,
and this is most
strongly
demonstrated
by
his
considerable work across the Hindu-Buddhist
boundary
in Kiss
of
the
Yogini.
Scholars of Buddhist
Studies,
especially
of
Vajraydna
Buddhism,
will find this
work a
great
resource as a
result,
as will scholars of tantric studies in
general,
in
terms of both
methodology
and content. Due to the
complexity
of the material
presented,
this work is
probably
best suited to
graduate
level courses and as a
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546
Journal
of
the American
Academy of Religion
resource for
specialists
in the
religions
of South
Asia,
though undergraduates
with a
significant background
in the area
may
well find it of valuable use. The
excellent index and
comprehensive bibliography
make it
eminently
useful as a
tool for further research.
doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfj075
Stuart
Ray
Sarbacker
Advance Access
publication April
21,
2006 Northwestern
University
Lying:
An
Augustinian Theology of Duplicity. By
Paul
J.
Griffiths. Brazos
Press,
2004. 254
pages.
$18.99.
Even for
theologians
of his
time,
Augustine's exceptionless
ban on
lying
was
one of his most controversial
positions.
Paul
J.
Griffiths
acknowledges
that
Augustine's
view has never been
accepted by many
Christians or non-
Christians and is
particularly
at odds with
contemporary
culture.
Against
this
historical
backdrop,
Griffiths'
comparative philosophical study
seeks to reclaim
the
"peculiarly
Christian" boldness of
Augustine's
universal ban and to
place
it
at the heart of an
Augustinian grammar
of
sin, confession,
and
grace.
Both the
book's structure and the rhetoric
present Augustine's
work in stark
clarity.
This
is
helpful
in
illuminating
certain texts that do not
garner
much attention
among present-day theologians.
The author's
overriding
aim for
systematic
lucidity,
however,
sometimes muscles
Augustine's thought
into an artificial
coherence,
leaving
the reader with a one-dimensional
figure,
who is not ade-
quately questioned
about
possible
inconsistencies or
significant
shifts in his
perspective
over time. Readers should also be aware that Griffiths
provides
an
unremittingly
charitable
reading.
Indeed,
Griffiths is less critical of
Augustine
than
Augustine
is of himself.
Still,
there is much to learn from his
analysis.
As
long
as readers
keep
in mind the author's lack of critical
distance,
they
can
benefit from his
interpretation
of
particular Augustinian
and
non-Augustinian
texts.
The first half of the book weaves into a
larger ontological
whole
Augustine's
proscription against lying,
which he voices in two
compact
ethical treatises. The
second half offers nine
"Augustinian readings"
of thinkers who
present
moral dis-
tinctions that differentiate various acts of
lying, according
to
circumstances, ends,
and intentions. Griffiths draws on
opposing
views to hone his
commentary
on
Augustine. Setting Augustine sharply apart
from other
leading theologians
and
philosophers,
he
presses
these differences to reassert his claims about the
necessary
connection between Christian
presuppositions
and an absolute
prohibition
against lying.
At the center of
Griffiths'
analysis
is the
pure gift
of
speech.
After nar-
rowing
his definition of
lying
to verbal acts of
duplicity
that
intentionally
contra-
dict the
speaker's
mind,
he examines it as an
inevitably
selfish
appropriation
of
what is not ours to command.
"Speech
is a
gift given,
and a condition of its use is
that it is received as such. But the lie is a use of
speech
that
rejects precisely
this
condition
by attempting, incoherently,
to own
speech
as if it had been created
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