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Book Reviews
Review by Swami Mahalingam

Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion
By Hugh Urban

University of California Press
October, 2003
Paperback, 365 pgs

In this lucid book, Urban provides an overview of the development of discourse about “Tantra” and “Tantrism” in India and the West from the 18th through the 20th century. He emphasizes the interplay of categories across cultural boundaries and in relation to political and economic change in the formation and development of the idea of Tantra. Although the book is informed by an awareness of post-colonial tactics of scholarship, it does not indulge in a simplistic narrative of imperial conquerors determining the identities of colonial subjects, but looks at more complex dialogues and dialectics.

The text includes studies of Tantra in religious, political, literary, scholarly, and commercial contexts. Figures treated include Sri Aurobindo, Arthur Avalon, Swami Vivekananda, Mircea Eliade, Julius Evloa, Oom the Omnipotent, Aleister Crowley, Osho, and others. Urban describes a trajectory “from a tradition associated with secrecy, danger, and occult power to one associated primarily with sexual liberation and physical pleasure.” (265) Unlike many other academics, he does not condemn or dismiss the more recent developments, but instead attempts to contextualize them with respect to a range of phenomena that have always been contested and subject to changes in valuation.

The book is divided into six principal chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, each of which is subdivided into a set of two-to-six-page essays, making it highly digestible. Each essay is headed with one or two epigraphs, which—while insightful and well-chosen—almost inevitably recur in the essays that they lead, often after prose intended to present the ideas that are then summed up by the quote. The overall effect of this process is to confront the reader with the same idea two or three times in succession, in basically the same manner, resulting in a halting sense of redundancy within many of the essays. Otherwise, the writing style is highly engaging.

In the chapter on “The Cult of Ecstasy” Urban observes the confluence of the traditions of European occultism and magic with 20th century neo-Tantra, pointing out incisively that “Tantra has increasingly been associated and hoplessly confused, not only with the Indian erotic arts like those of the Kama Sutra, but also with Western erotic-occult practices like those of Crowley and the OTO.” (228) But he himself contributes in some measure to the confusion when he writes, “Crowley’s practice is the clearest example of sexual magic combined (and perhaps hopelessly confused) with Indian Tantra.” (219) In fact, Crowley never identified any of his practices with Tantra. As Urban notes, Crowley referred in passing to “the follies of Vamacharya (debauchery)” in The Equinox. The claims of biographers Symonds and Sutin regarding Crowley’s supposed study of Tantra in Asia are unconvincing. “Tantra” and Tantric terminology are conspicuously absent from Crowley’s technical instructions for OTO initiates. That sort of synthesis had to wait for the “Creative Occultism” of Crowley’s student Kenneth Grant. Grant’s own interest in Tantra was probably to blame for the fact that Crowley actually got around to mentioning it in his last book-length work Aleister Explains Everything (published posthumously as Magick Without Tears). Even then, Crowley merely wrote vaguely of having studied “numerous writings on the Tantra,” among other sources of Indian lore. (MWT  232) Grant’s craving for Tantric instruction was finally satisfied by David Curwen, a full OTO initiate who had not received his Tantrism through OTO. This relation is documented in Grant’s correspondence memoir Remembering Aleister Crowley. (47-49) 

In a topic as ripe with controversy as the history of representations of Tantra, such points of dispute are sure to arise. Urban compellingly presents some of the reasons why Tantra is such a focus for contention, and how it deserves the continued attention of scholars in its popular and innovating manifestations as well as its elite and traditional ones.