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AAR Annual Meeting
Denver, CO
November 17-20, 2018

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Tantric Studies Unit

Statement of Purpose: 

This Unit brings together scholars who utilize a range of methodological and theoretical perspectives in their studies of the complex religious, social, and cultural phenomena known collectively as tantra. “Tantra” refers to a range of esoteric religious traditions that developed in India and were disseminated throughout Asia during the first millennium CE. These diverse traditions have used mental and bodily disciplines, devotional and ritual practices, and gendered cosmologies, and have created elaborate artistic as well as sociopolitical systems. The collective study of tantra has led to several important conclusions:

• The demonstrated diversity of tantric practices and ideologies demands a plurality of methods, theories, and interpretative strategies by scholars
• These richly varied tantric traditions became, by the twelfth century CE, central to many Asian religious and sociopolitical systems, including those of India, Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, Cambodia, Japan, and China
• Various traditional Asian forms of tantra have been brought to the Western world since the early twentieth century and are undergoing a vital process of reinterpretation and appropriation

Our goal is to provide a venue for scholars of different areas of tantric studies to collaborate across traditional boundaries of religious traditions (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism), present-day nation-states, geography (e.g., India, Tibet, China, Japan), and academic disciplines (e.g., history of religions, anthropology, art history, linguistics, sociology). We seek to be a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary enterprise. Tantra as a set of practices — a religious technology — and as a set of doctrines explaining, justifying, and rationalizing those practices, in fact, exists across religious, national, and geographical boundaries. For example, an adequate understanding of Japanese Tantric Buddhist practice and doctrine requires not only locating it in an East Asian Buddhist context but also in an Indian and South Asian context where the juxtaposition of Buddhist and Hindu tantras can fruitfully reveal aspects that might otherwise remain obscured. Similarly, by setting Buddhist materials in relation to Hindu traditions — both of which might otherwise be seen either as uniquely Hindu or Buddhist — will be highlighted as part of a broader, shared tantric discourse. This Unit will also allow scholars to present new methodologies for the study of tantra and help to bridge more traditional academic approaches, such as textual-based and fieldwork-based studies. We seek to further the study of tantra as a global, transnational phenomena and as an important new religious movement. Finally, the Unit will also explore new perspectives for studies of gender, power, identity, and sexuality that are so germane to modern religious scholarship.

Call for Papers: 

We invite papers on the following topics:

• Bengali and Assamese Tantra in Colonial and Contemporary Contexts
Keith E. Cantu, UCSB (

• Tantra and Popular Culture
Scott Brown, CU-Boulder (

• Jain Tantra
Michael Slouber, Western Washington University (

• Comparative Tantra and Longevity Practices and the Body
Shaman Hatley, UMass-Boston (

• Chakra Systems and Mantra Systems
Patricia Sauthoff, SOAS (

• Theory and Practice of Yoga and Bodily Disciplines in India and China
We are taking the term “yoga” in a broad sense, to include bodily disciplines, hygienic regimens, inner alchemy, breathing techniques, body maps, pursuit of physical immortality, etc. Approaches can be historical, descriptive, theoretical, etc. The goal is to begin an informed exchanged of information between scholars working on Indian yoga traditions and those working on comparable practices in China. Comparative proposals are welcome, as are proposals focusing on a single work, lineage, set of techniques, etc. from either India or China. Co-sponsored session with Indian and Chinese Religions Compared Unit, the Daoist Studies Unit, the Tantric Studies Unit, and the Yogacara Studies Unit.
Dan Lusthaus, Harvard University (
Michael Allen, Univ. of Virginia (

• Tantric Doxographies: How Tantra-inflected Philosophers Distinguish between Traditions
Co-sponsored with the Buddhist Philosophy Unit and the Tantric Studies Unit.
(Daniel McNamara,

Proposer names are visible to chairs but anonymous to steering committee members
ChairSteering Committee