Research Focus

Tantric Communities

Buddhist Tantric Communities in the Context of Early Medieval India

Recent research by A. Sanderson and R. Davidson has made it increasingly clear that the rise of Indian Buddhist esoterism (otherwise known as tantrism) is to be interpreted against the historical background of early post-Gupta India (from ca. 550 AD), a period of political fragmentation and recomposition characterized, e.g., by new religio-political needs, new patterns of patronage, and the rise of Śaivism to religious predominance. In a context of increasing interconfessional rivalry (reflected in Hindu as well as Buddhist apocalyptic prophecies), the Buddhists of the great learning and ritual institutions of northern India developed new modalities of self-diction and polemical interaction, viz. tantrism on the ritual, symbolic and soteriological level, and “logico-epistemological” discourse on the philosophical and apologetic level. These reformed discursive identities were meant to provide Buddhism with new tools for eliciting political patronage and challenging outward criticism. Dr. Vincent Eltschinger’s research in the framework of VISCOM focuses on the structural analogies between the ritualistic and the philosophical self-legitimation strategies of early medieval Indian Buddhism (ca. 550-1000 AD).

Researcher: Vincent Eltschinger


Tantric Communities in Context

This project focuses on the socio-religious history of Tantric communities in the early medieval period. Starting with the middle of the first millenium, South Asia saw the emergence and rise of Tantrism within all major religious traditions, including Śaivism, the Vaiṣṇava Pāñcarātra, the Buddhist Mantrayāna, and Jaina Tantra. While such initiatory communities appear to have initially constituted a marginal phenomenon, major scholarly advances in the past decades have shown on the basis of textual and epigraphical sources that these groups quickly extended their reach towards the wider public and in some cases even succeeded in forging close ties with the ruling elite. Despite the fact that Tantric traditions grew to become such an integral part of the religious landscape, the social reality of how these initiatory groups were organized on the ground and concretely interfaced with the wider community of non-initiates or with competing traditions during this period is still little understood, partly due to the fact that the surviving Tantric textual sources are prescriptive in nature and rarely intentionally address question of social relevance. In order to address this gap, Nina Mirnig has organized a three-day conference entitled Tantric Communities in Context: Sacred Secrets and Public Rituals (5-7 February 2015), with the aim to recover the socio-religious context within which these Tantric groups negotiated their position in society and conceptualized their visions of community. Based on the outcome of this conference, she is currently preparing a collected volume, entitled Tantric Communities in Context, co-edited with Marion Rastelli and Vincent Eltschinger.

In the framework of VISCOM, she is also preparing her book manuscript based on her doctoral thesis "Liberating the Liberated: A History of the Development of Cremation and Ancestor Worship in the Early Śaiva Siddhānta", which features critical editions of key Tantric texts and traces the emergence and development of Hindu Śaiva Tantric death rites during the early medieval period. By identifying processes of transformation, innovation and adaption in Tantric ritual during this formative period, the book investigates how these practices contributed to the widening of Tantric communities to include the mainstream of brahmanical householders into their fold.

Researcher: Nina Mirnig

Last Update: 22.09.16