Tantric Communities in Context
Sacred Secrets and Public Rituals

participants and abstracts

General Topic

Starting with the middle of the first millennium, South Asia saw the emergence and rise of Tantrism within all major religious traditions, a development that resulted in the production of a rich textual corpus expounding the ritual and philosophical systems of Śaivism, the Vaiṣṇava Pāñcarātra, the Buddhist Mantrayāna, and Jaina Tantra. Propagating innovative ritual techniques based on the usage of powerful mantras revealed in sacred scriptures, these teachings were only accessible to those who underwent initiation into a Tantric lineage. While such initiatory communities appear to have initially constituted a marginal phenomenon, major scholarly advances in the past decades - notably the works of Alexis Sanderson - have shown on the basis of textual and epigraphical sources how these groups quickly extended their reach towards the wider public and in some cases even succeeded in forging close ties with the ruling elite during the early medieval period. As a result Tantric traditions grew to become an integral part of the religious landscape of early medieval South, South-East, and East Asia, which makes the very issue of how to define the range of what constitutes a "Tantric community" - from an etic as well as emic point of view - problematic. This is further made difficult by the fact that the surviving Tantric textual sources are prescriptive in nature and rarely intentionally address questions of social relevance so that the social reality of how initiatory groups were organized on the ground and concretely connected with the wider community of non-initiates or with competing traditions during this period is still little understood.

This symposium aims to address these issues, bringing together international specialists in the field of early Tantra and inviting them to explore the surviving textual sources, including Tantric scriptures, ritual manuals and commentaries as well as non-Tantric sources that contain representations of Tantric communities. The general aim is to identify and explore topics that will help recover aspects of the socio-religious environment within which various branches of the Tantric tradition negotiated their position in society and conceptualised their visions of community.