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The Sakta Traditions

Hinduism cannot be understood without the Goddess (Devī/Śakti) and the goddess-oriented Śākta traditions. The Goddess pervades Hinduism at all levels, from aniconic village deities to high-caste pan-Hindu goddesses to esoteric, tantric goddesses. Furthermore, tantric goddesses have played a significant role in the formation of tantric Buddhism, or what is sometimes referred to as 'Śākta Buddhism'. Nevertheless, these highly influential forms of South Asian religion have only recently begun to draw scholarly attention. Taken together, they form 'Śāktism', which is considered one of the major branches of Hinduism next to Śaivism, Vaiṣṇavism and Smārtism. Śāktism is, however, less clearly defined than the other major branches and sometimes surprisingly difficult to discern from Śaivism in its tantric forms.

These sometimes very complex and challenging forms of religion provide a test case for our understanding of Hinduism and raise important theoretical and methodological questions with regard to the study of religious traditions in South Asia as well as to the more general and comparative study of religion.

The project seeks to trace developments in the history of Goddess worship among the orthoprax brahmans, among the tantric traditions, and at village level. It aims at presenting an interdisciplinary survey of Śākta history, practice and doctrine in its diversity as well as to convey something of the Śākta religious world view and ritual practice that is distinctive and sets 'Śāktism' apart from other South Asian religious traditions. Any headway in this field will be of great value for the future study of religion in South Asia.

This international research project on Hindu and Buddhist Śākta traditions in South Asia is an outcome of a Memorandum of Understanding by and between the Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University, and the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS) aiming at research, publication, and interdisciplinary and comparative collaboration as well as student exchange. The Śākta project is done as a collaboration between the Section for the Study of Religion, AU, and OCHS.

Project leaders

Project Directors

Gavin Flood, Bjarne Wernicke Olesen

Project Manager

Bjarne Wernicke Olesen

Researchers

Gudrun Bühnemann (Wisconsin-Madison)

Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (Aarhus)

Silje Lyngar Einarsen (Aarhus)

Rich Freeman (Duke)

Mikael Aktor (Odense)

Jessica Frazier (Kent)

Sir (William) James Mallinson (Oxford)

Shaman Hatley (Concordia)

Uwe Skoda (Aarhus)

Project outline

Research in the Śaiva traditions have been quite extensively developed in recent years. Important work has been done on the Skanda Purāṇa, the Pāśupatas, the Śaiva Siddhānta, the non-dualistic Śaiva traditions, and their philosophical articulation in the Pratyabhijñā. But less work has been done on what might be called Śākta traditions, those traditions, tantric and non-tantric, focused on an independent Goddess (Devī) or on Śiva's power (Śakti). Research has been done on the Kubjikā tradition and on Śākta oriented Śaiva traditions but a sustained research programme that inquires into the history, doctrine and practices of what might be called 'Śāktism' is a desideratum.

The aim of this project is therefore to address fundamental questions such as the clarification of the distinction between Śaiva and Śākta traditions, questions about Śākta textual lineages and their interrelationship, the clarification of doctrines and practices of the different schools, questions about the relationship between the tantric and the purāṇic Goddess traditions, questions about the relationship between local Goddess traditions (such as the Teyyams in Kerala) and the pan-South Asian traditions, raising questions about the relationship between esoteric practices and the exoteric temple cults, asking what the delimitation of Śākta doctrine is, and what developments there are in contemporary Śākta worship.

The project will address these questions from a number of perspectives, i.e. a text-historical or philological perspective (this will be the main one as the texts of the tradition and its text- historical boundaries are hardly established), an anthropological perspective on contemporary practice, a doctrinal or theological perspective on theological reflection based on the textual material that has been established to date, an art-historical angle, as well as a perspective of the study of religion.

Project outputs

Project outputs are a number of international conferences and conference volumes published by Oxford University Press or Routledge as well as publications in the Journal of Hindu Studies (OUP). A research network will be established.

The first international Śākta conference took place in Oxford (Somerville College) on 10-11 September 2011 and was highly successful with over fifty participants and twelve specialist scholars. Keynote speaker was Prof. Alexis Sanderson, Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at All Souls College, Oxford, by many considered the world's foremost scholar on Sanskrit, Indology, and the Tantric traditions. The conference was hosted by Prof. Gavin Flood, Academic Director of OCHS and Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion at the Theology Faculty, University of Oxford. Conference manager was Bjarne Wernicke Olesen, PhD scholar at Aarhus University and Research Fellow at OCHS. The conference was kindly sponsored by the Nehru Centre, London.

Click here for more information on the 2011 conference

The second international Śākta conference is planned to take place in Aarhus in November 2013. The conference will be interdisciplinary with an emphasis on the perspective of Comparative Religion and Hindu Studies. One of its important aspects will be to address some of the more general theoretical and methodological problems and challenges we face in relation to the study of South Asian religious traditions, taking Śākta traditions as an example par excellence. Keynote speaker will be Prof. Gavin Flood.