According to popular belief, the celebration of Durga Puja in Bengal, as the great festival of Bengalis, started roughly from the late medieval period onwards. This paper shows that the celebration of the great festival of goddesses in autumn had been prevalent in the region for more than fifteen hundred centuries, and that the practice itself was pluralistic. It looks into four Upapuranas of early medieval Bengal and delineates the politics of the appropriation of local goddesses by brahmanism. The paper argues that the process of emergence of Durga as the brahmanical Great goddess of the region was essentially linked with the loss of the local goddess matrix, and the meanings and symbolisms related to it. Brahmanical patriarchy in early medieval Bengal retained the local goddesses as the primary symbol of the Ultimate, but played down their earlier subjectivities and the cultural ethos which had sustained them. The paper focuses on four brahmanical strategies through which the making of Durga was achieved: ‘identification’, ‘hyphenated- disjuncture’, ‘disembodiment’, and ‘circumscription of the goddesses within family relationships’. It explores traits and trails of other local goddesses that were either wiped off or modified in the process and locates various levels of changes in the mythic and ritual content of the goddesses in the Upapuranas.
Lectures on Sakta
To Be or Not-To-Be: The Rise of Durga in Bengal
Keynote: The Rise of Goddess Worship in Early Medieval India
Alexis G. J. S. Sanderson is Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, All Souls College, University of Oxford. He is a renowned expert on the history of Saivism and on tantric traditions. After taking undergraduate degrees in Classics and Sanskrit at Balliol College, Oxford, he spent six years in Kashmir studying with the celebrated scholar and Saiva guru Swami Lakshman Joo. From 1977 to 1992 he was Lecturer in Sanskrit in the University of Oxford, and Fellow of Wolfson College. Since 1992 he has held the Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics in the University of Oxford, and is a Fellow of All Souls College.
On Goddesses and the Category Śakti in Early Tantric Śaivism: the case of the Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā
This presentation explores the nature and historical development of goddesses and the category of Śiva’s “power(s)” (śakti) in the archaic Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā. It is observed that while female deities have limited cultic importance, their significance increases in the later strata of the text, especially the Guhyasūtra. A shift from apotheoses of feminine-gendered cosmological categories to embodied goddesses appears evident, as are early developments in characteristic Śaiva doctrines concerning the roles of śakti in cosmogony and grace. The presentation also highlights some of the ways in which ritual forms and concerns of the Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā presage those of early śākta-oriented tantric systems.
The (un)dreadful goddess: Aghorī in early śākta tantras
This paper proposes to examine the figure and role of the goddess Aghorī (lit. ‘undreadful’) in early śākta tantras from about the seventh to ninth centuries CE, particularly in the Brahmayāmala and the Siddhayogeśvarīmata. In addition to being Bhairava’s consort (and identical with Bhairavī, the Frightening One), Aghorī appears in various sets of eight goddesses, who may represent the eight Mother goddesses (mātṛ). She is also said to be at the origin of all yoginīs. First, I shall try to explore the relation between Aghorī and her vedic counterpart, Aghora, and then to see how she attains the status of the supreme goddess in some contexts. The question of her presence or absence on different maṇḍalas will also be raised, and the consequences such details of the cult may entail will be analysed. Finally, I shall discuss her role in the creation of a specifically śākta pantheon.
The Śākta Co-option of Haṭhayoga
Text-critical study of the earliest texts to teach haṭhayoga (c.11th-13th centuries) shows that in its first formulations it was closely associated with traditional ascetic practice and that the aim of its techniques, which were physical, was to boost the beneficial effects of celibacy (or, at least, continence). Śākta traditions dating to a similar period had developed a system of yoga in which the yogin visualised the rising of Kuṇḍalinī from the base of the spine up through a series of cakras. This Kuṇḍalinī yoga, together with some other techniques developed in a Śākta milieu, was overlaid onto the techniques of haṭhayoga in texts such as the Vivekamārtaṇḍa, Gorakṣaśataka and Haṭhapradīpikā. The haṭhayoga taught in the latter text in particular became definitive and since its composition (c. 1450) Kuṇḍalinī-based haṭhayoga has been the dominant form of haṭhayoga, and indeed yoga more broadly conceived. The co-option of haṭhayoga by a Śākta tradition is representative of both the development within Śāktism of a less exclusive, more universal yoga and of the formation of the Nāth saṃpradāya. The first gurus associated with the Nāth order, Matsyendra and Gorakṣa, were part of a non-celibate Śākta tradition which developed in the Deccan. Out of this tradition there developed the celibate order of Nāth ascetics whose influence ranged, and ranges, over all but the southeast of the subcontinent.
Varieties of melaka in the Jayadrathayāmala
The encounters with yoginīs, called melaka or melāpa, constitute the core of the post-initiation tantric practice in the Vidyāpīṭha texts, and priya- and haṭha- varieties were well known to the pre-Abhinavagupta śaiva tantric literature. This presentation will explore the nature of the haṭhamelaka as it is described in the Jayadrathayāmala, including its relation to the practice of provoked possession (āveśa), as well as of some other rare varieties of melaka that can be found in this text only.
The Śakti of the Caṇḍālī
The 11th century Tantric text, the Yonitantra, evokes a Yantra representing the Yoni in which the central divinity is presented as Caṇḍālī, a woman belonging to what Dumont has labelled “the old prototype of the Untouchable”. Other Tantric texts ascribe the same significance to the Caṇḍāla woman or to women belonging to other low castes, most prominently the Ḍombī, the washer woman. What are the reasons behind this antinomian tribute to the lowest of low-caste women in Tantric texts? An answer to this question can be approached by a study of the representations of these castes in other literary genres. This paper will present an analysis of these literary images and on that basis address their use in Tantric texts.
Yoginīyoga/Yogin as Yoginī: On the sādhana of female deities in Indian tantric Buddhism of the tenth to twelfth century
Harunaga Isaacson was born in Kuma, Japan, in 1965. He studied philosophy and Indology at the University of Groningen (MA 1990), and was awarded a PhD in Sanskrit by the University of Leiden (1995). From Fall 1995 to Summer 2000 he was a post-doctoral research fellow at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University. After holding teaching positions at Hamburg University and the University of Pennsylvania, he was appointed Professor of Classical Indology in the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Asien-Afrika-Institut, Hamburg University, in April 2006. His main research areas are: tantric traditions in pre-13th century South Asia, especially Vajrayāna Buddhism; classical Sanskrit poetry; classical Indian philosophy; and Purāṇic literature. Prof. Isaacson is a member of the board of Indo-Iranian Journal (since 2003) and the Governing Committee of the INDOLOGY Discussion Forum. He is also presently Director of the Nepal Research Centre and General Director of the Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project (both positions held since April 2006), funded by the Deutsche Forschungs Gemeinschaft.
Four Goddesses and a Liṅga: The So-called Śaktiliṅgas and Similar Sculptures
The paper will discuss types of liṅgas featuring four goddesses facing outward. These include a complex Tantric sculpture from Nepal (17th century) and its possible prototypes, the so-called śakti- or devīlingas found in Bengal, dating from the 9th to 13th centuries. A major problem is the identity of the four goddesses and the significance of these sculptures. The paper will also address the more general phenomenon of feminine liṅgas, namely liṅgas serving as a focus of goddess cult worship.
Devī worship as point of departure for a comparative project
In the history of religion especially in the comparative study of religion goddess worship is a very underestimated and under prioritized exploratory field. General books on the history of religion either mentions goddesses in the periphery as the spouse of a god or as seen in a evolutionary scheme, where goddess worship is either placed as part of the archaic state of religion, as a part of a primitive fertility cult or maybe mentioned in relation to small isolated non patriarchal societies. And some scholars even tries to explain the nowadays veneration of goddesses as for example the Virgin Mary in Christianity as weak survivals of these earlier stages.
Snakebite Goddesses in the Śākta Traditions: Roots and Incorporations of Tvaritā, Kurukullā, and Bheruṇḍā
Goddesses associated with snakes and healing snakebite are well known to anthropologists of modern Śākta traditions; Manasā in the Northeast and Nāgāttammaṉ in the South come immediately to mind. In Jainism we have Padmāvatī, and in Buddhism various goddesses like Jāṅgulī, Kurukullā, and Mahāmāyūrī specialize in curing snakebite. The origins of many of these goddesses remain obscure, but my research into the largely unedited Śaiva Gāruḍa Tantras suggests that some of them were popularized by this early corpus. In this paper I focus on those snakebite goddesses of the Gāruḍa Tantras who were incorporated into the wider and increasingly influential Śākta traditions of the ninth–twelfth centuries: Bheruṇḍā, Tvaritā, and Kurukullā. What do we know about their early identities and how did incorporation as nityās transform them? The latter two were also incorporated in Jain and Buddhist Tantra respectively, and are still worshipped today. My paper also presents evidence that Purāṇic chapters on these goddesses are directly borrowed from Tantric sources.
Śākta Influence in the Goddess Cults of Malabar
This paper will attempt a synthetic overview of textual, ethnographic, and historical sources in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit related to the cultural historical role and adaptation of Sakta worship in the temple cults of prominent goddesses in northern Kerala. Based ethnographically in the formerly royal shrines and temples of this region, where special Sakta priests conduct daily rites of worship with blood sacrifice and alcohol, and preside annually over festivals of spirit possessed incarnations of the goddess, I will cast a textual eye back over the Indological and literary record in a survey of the cultural history that eventuated in today's ritual configuration. This region seems to have preserved important evidence for the amalgamation of a Sakta cult, with its hybrid priestly officiants, into the worship of local war goddesses under specifically royal patronage. My survey intends to highlight the nature of this evidence in its inter-relations as pointing the way forward to further Indological and ethnographic research.