Tantra - Hedonism in Indian Culture, by Prem Saran

Saran, Prem; Tantra: Hedonism in Indian Culture; D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, 1994, 1998.
ISBN 81-246-0097-X and ISBN 8124600120

Review by Colin Robinson

An Indian initiate affirms the worth of pleasure

An articulate defence of Tantrism as a tradition which affirms the worth of pleasure, including sexual pleasure; and a critique of the puritanism which dominates the culture of India today. Prem Saran, himself an Indian tantric initiate, wrote it while doing postgraduate research in anthropology at the University of California. The book is dedicated to the late Swami Agehananda Bharati, the Austrian-born sadhaka and scholar, whom Prem Saran describes as his mentor. Saran also mentions his debt to Kulada Sarma, the guru who gave him initiation into tantric practice.

The word “Tantrism” actually covers a great range of practices and schools, all associated in some way with the writings called Tantras. For Saran, the central feature of Tantrism, setting it apart from Hinduism in general, is the performance (either literally or mentally) of the pañcamakara ritual which involves worship of woman by man with sexual intercourse. “Tantrism” is sometimes supposed to be a tradition distinct from “Shaktism” (worship of Shakti, the feminine power), but Saran is inclined to identify them one with the other.

The “hedonism” Saran defends involves an appreciation of erotic tenderness and of art. He contrasts the “blasé, dehumanizing efforts” of western pornographers with the “sublime” erotic sculptures of India’s Khajuraho temples. (p 7 of 1998 edition) (The exact relation between these sculptures and Tantrism is the topic of one chapter of the book.)

Saran does not see Hindu religion as a unitary and timeless teaching, but rather as a historical debate, one of the issues in which is renunciation versus enjoyment. His observations on the history of Tantrism, and its relation with the Bengali vaishnava (Krishna) tradition are subtle and interesting. He sees the tantric tradition both as an expression of, and an influence upon, the more general culture of particular regions of India, such as Kerala, Bengal, and Assam. (He himself is from Kerala, and his wife is Assamese.) Tantrism remains a living cultural reality, but it has been marginalized in the last century or so by a culture of puritanism that has developed throughout India, due largely to the influence of the British Empire.

While he defends Tantrism energetically, Prem Saran also notices inconsistencies and limitations in attitudes even this tradition has taken to women and to sexuality.

Tantrism and Goddess Kali

What does the Tantrism that Saran writes about have to do with worship of the Goddess? As Saran notes, the tradition considers Devi (i.e. the Goddess) to be “the paramount deity” (p xvi), and “proclaims woman to be the manifestation of the Great Goddess”. (p 5) However, he refers more often to “goddesses” than to “the Goddess”, and is more interested in the practice of ritual woman-worship than in the concept of the Mahadevi as such. Nonetheless, for those of us who are interested in the religion of the Great Goddess, his book provides important clues as to its history and its cultural meaning.

According to Saran, Assam has been, and remains today, the particular stronghold of Tantrism, and also happens to be a place where women enjoy greater honour and freedom than in any other part of India. This is a most interesting point for readers interested in Kali worship, since Assam is an old and important site of Kali-centred rituals.

Saran (on pages 53 - 53) also mentions the
Kalika Purana, and draws our attention to a passage in that text about the Shabarotsava, a popular festival with erotic songs and miming.

Review first published May 2000 in the journal Ferment
Revised for the Web.
Review © Colin Robinson 2000.
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1999, 2007.

Message from Prem Saran

February 3, 2010

Dear Colin,

I hope this finds you well....

I thought I would let you know that my new book on Tantra ["Yoga, Bhoga and Ardhanariswara: Individuality, Wellbeing and Gender in Tantra"] was published by Routledge in Novemeber 2008.

Its foreword is by Prof. Jeff Kripal, who has kindly termed it an "iconic" work. Also, you can find a detailed review of it by Steve Gravely on my Amazon webpage.

So perhaps you would even find it worth reviewing yourself!



(Dr. Prem Saran)

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