PAPERS Resources

AAR Annual Meeting
San Diego, CA
November 23-26, 2019

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Western Esotericism Unit
Theme: Authority and Feminine Leadership in Esoteric Groups
Brigid Burke, Montclair State University, Presiding
Saturday - 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Aqua E (Third Level)

This session aims at encouraging a broader look at issues of feminine authority in relation to esotericism. How is authority negotiated for women in esoteric groups? How is gender positioning affected by the occult practices of women and how does occult practice affect self representation in individual cases? Papers in this session look at female leaders in the period of the occult revival Dion Fortune, Mina Crandon and Leah Hirsig and the relation between occultism, leadership, and self representation in each case.

Elizabeth Lowry, Arizona State University
Mina “Margery” Crandon: Gynecology and (Im)Purity in the Jazz Age Séance

Competing narratives with respect to spirit medium Mina Crandon’s practice was exacerbated by blurred discursive boundaries that would otherwise have separated ritual constructions of purity and pollution. Drawing on the scholarship of Marina Warner and Cathy Gutierrez, I examine how discourses of bodily abjection, birthing and gynecology emerge in Crandon’s seances. Further, I consider Mary Douglas’s theories of purity and pollution with respect to the séance genre and how allusions to obstetrics reflect 1920s-era social panic regarding the pathologizing (and subsequent institutionalization) of childbirth, assumptions about bodily contamination, and a preoccupation with both literal and metaphorical dismemberment. Crandon negotiated her authority through her sexuality and, by expelling ectoplasm from her vagina, Crandon performed femininity in a manner that exploited discourses framing the female body as a site of abjection.

Manon Hedenborg White, Södertörn University
Manon Hedenborg White, Södertörn University
Leah Hirsig, Scarlet Woman: Proximal Authority and Gender in Aleister Crowley's Thelema

This paper analyzes the role of the Swiss-American music teacher Leah Hirsig in Aleister Crowley’s religion Thelema. In 1920, Crowley appointed Hirsig his Scarlet Woman; a title he conferred on his most important female lovers and disciples, designating her as an avatar of the goddess Babalon. As Scarlet Woman, Hirsig’s position in the Thelemic movement was simultaneously central and tenuous, shifting radically when Crowley chose a new woman for this office. The paper proposes a supplement to Max Weber’s tripartite typology of authority: proximal authority, defined as authority ascribed to, and enacted by, a person based on their relational proximity to a religious leader. Comparing Hirsig’s case to notions of the Scarlet Woman role among contemporary esotericists, the paper utilizes the concept of proximal authority to analyze intersections of relationality and religious authority, highlighting how gendered positionalities have both enabled and restricted feminine authority in 20th-century esotericism.

Georgia van Raalte, University of Surrey
The Authority of Dion Fortune: Performance, Polarity and Mediumship

Dion Fortune (1890-1946) was an writer, medium and leader of the occult group The Society of the Inner Light, which was founded in the 1920s as the Christian Mystic Lodge of the Theosophical Society, and which continues to train seekers via a modified version of Fortune’s Correspondence Course, and to put out a quarterly journal, to this day.

This paper will explore Fortune’s life-long project of performance and positioning in order to establish herself as as an ambivalent, liminal figure within her respectable, middle-class background. Fortune’s life was marked by gender play and queerness, even while she explicitly rejected homosexuality. This paper will explore her oft-repeated anecdotes of being accused of being a man, and consider the way Fortune used this gender queering to create and maintain authority. It will contrast Fortune’s literary self-presentation with the hyper-femininity attributes to the heroines of her occult novels in order to consider the dissonance between public performance and inner development within Fortune’s life. It will consider what this tells us about the ways Fortune maintained authority as a leader, and how she felt about her own leadership.

This paper will explore the relationship between mediumship, leadership and authority during the Occult revival, considering Fortune alongside Blavatsky and Mathers. It will consider the conflicts that wracked The Society of the Inner Light in the years that followed Fortune’s death, and explore what these reveal about the way Fortune maintained authority within her group.

Business Meeting:
Claire Fanger, Rice University
Western Esotericism Unit
Theme: Esoteric Exchanges: Indigenous and Latin Cultures in the Americas
Manon Hedenborg White, Södertörn University, Presiding
Saturday - 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Aqua A (Third Level)

This session explores exchanges between Esotericism and the Latin American and American indigenous cultures. In general the esoteric dimensions of Latin and indigenous cultures in their relation with colonizing powers is underexplored and understudied; yet it relates strongly to the way non-Western cultural practices (from Tibetan Buddhism to Ayahuasca ceremonies) are borrowed and reconfigured in the synthetic project of constructing new esoteric ideas and traditions. Latin America in general finds itself in the shadow of the notion of "Western" esotericism as a predominantly European-(North-)American and white phenomenon. This panel discusses aspects of Latin American and indigenous esotericisms broadly conceived.

Rudy V. Busto, University of California, Santa Barbara
Mexico’s Esoteric Virgin: Miguel Sánchez’s Imagen de la Virgen María, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe

The Virgin of Guadalupe’s origin in sixteenth century Mexico is an essential narrative in the religious history of the Americas. While Mexico’s mariophany follows the general pattern of European Roman Catholic virgin apparitions, an alternate reading of Miguel Sanchez’s 1648 Imagen de la Virgen María, Madre de Dios de Guadalupeexamines how under the encrustations of biblical allusion and fawning Catholic devotion esoteric ideas and tropes are embedded. A close reading of Sanchez’ text reveals his familiarity with Ficino, Kabbalistic numerology and various strands of western esotericism. Placed within the context of ongoing scholarly debates about the Guadalupe narratives and their accuracy, the paper offers an alternative to the opposing Catholic orthodox vs. indigenous readings of the narrative. The goal of this paper is to affirm colonial Mexico’s idiosyncratic place in the archaeological salvaging of esotericism in otherwise established and conventionally interpreted materials; in this case the central narrative of Mexican identity itself.

Lisa Poirier, DePaul University
Secrecy, Identity, and the Ghost Dance of 1890

An exploration of the operations of secrecy in the Ghost Dance of 1890, with attention to the transparency and opacity of the Messiah Letters. Attention is given to the construction and consolidation of supratribal identities, the demarcation of social and religious boundaries, and the epistemological power of Native self-definition.

Stefan Sanchez, Rice University
Losing the Soul: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Susto and Her Metaphysics of Pain

Susto, the condition of the soul being frightened out of the body, is typically understood as a diagnosis of supernatural attack. Chicana activist, philosopher, and practitioner of chamanismo Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s writing formulates susto as an inevitable injury to the self, and in doing so, collapses the realms of the supernatural, the social, and the ecological in on each other. Far from a simple description of a folk illness, Anzaldúa’s conception of susto unfolds into a metaphysics of interaction and pain. Under this metaphysics, the individual’s identity is fuzzy, constantly trading components with nature, and subject to constant injury. This paper will explore the unique qualities of this particular conception of susto as it relates to Anzaldúa’s shamanic and esoteric influences and practices.

Cognitive Science and Religion Unit and Mysticism Unit
Theme: Cognitive Science of Mysticism
Travis Chilcott, Iowa State University, Presiding
Sunday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Convention Center-24C (Upper Level East)

Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) is a relatively new and burgeoning area of research in religious studies, while mysticism is perhaps one of its oldest subfields. What, if anything, can these areas of research contribute to each other? This session explores the nexus of contemporary scientific approaches to the study of the mind and brain, and experiences that scholars may identify as “mystical.” These experiences demonstrate surprising similarities, despite differences, that suggest certain cognitive predispositions of and intuitive presuppositions about the human mind. The papers on this panel suggest that cognitive and neuroscientific approaches to mental phenomena offer promising avenues of inquiry that may help account, at least in part, for the phenomena of mystical experiences in diverse contemporary and historical contexts.

Abdulla Galadari, Khalifa University
Mysticism and Low Latent Inhibition: A Neuropsychological Approach to Mystics’ Fascination in Esoteric Knowledge

Many mystics from various religious traditions appear to have some fascination with esoteric knowledge and esoteric interpretation of their respective scriptures and holy texts. This paper identifies the role of Low Latent Inhibition (LLI) in understanding mystical experiences. It allows us to approach mystics’ cognition through a neuropsychological approach to unravel how their brain processes stimuli. LLI is associated with proneness to psychosis, which might also explain the feeling of oneness that some mystics experience. LLI’s strong correlation with schizophrenia may also explain the similar approach between mystics and schizophrenics in their search for hidden meanings and messages in the stimuli around them. It is not proposed that mystics are schizophrenic, but its association with LLI may elucidate on some common cognitive approach. After all, LLI is positively correlated with creativity in high functioning individuals.

Jed Forman, University of California, Santa Barbara
Out of Sight: Yogic Perception and Extramission

While our language allows for “piercing gazes” or “penetrative stares,” reflection reveals that such phrases imply perception is a type of extramissive force that penetrates its object, running counter to our learned understanding of sight as the passive reception of light. By exploring Indian debates on yogic perception, this paper uses cognitive science theory and data to suggest that such understandings of perception as projective rather than receptive may constitute our most basic intuitive understanding of how sight operates. Yogis are said to have extra powerful extramissive light rays that lend them not just the ability to apprehend distant objects but penetrate spiritual truths. Buddhists, by contrast, reject that the senses are extramissive, yet retain similar descriptions of consciousness in relation to mystical experience, where the mind’s light extends forever, unobstructed. This Buddhist's simultaneous rejection and retention of extramission corroborates theories that suggest the mind contains contradictory intuitive and learned structures.

Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
Mystics and the Mind: The Cognitive Science behind Psychosis, Psychedelics, and Traditional Mystical Experiences

Those who have intense spiritual experiences akin to traditional mystical experiences yet derived from recognized psychosis or psychedelics have often been marginalized in the study of mysticism. This paper seeks to marry three sets of data within the cognitive science of religion: the neurological mapping of “traditional” mystical experiences compared with scientific research on the brains of those who claim similar spiritual experience due to psychosis and psychedelics. By examining patterns of difference and similarity across the complex and multi-valiant studies of the brain in these three subfields, my hope is that the debate regarding the legitimacy of marginalized spiritual actors will move beyond the longstanding normative judgements within philosophy, theology, and psychology.

Western Esotericism Unit and SBL Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity Unit
Theme: Modern Use of Ancient Texts and Artifacts
Grant Adamson, University of Arizona, Presiding
Sunday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Hilton Bayfront-Aqua 305 (Third Level)

This session explores the reuse of ancient texts in the western reception history of mysticism, esotericism, and gnosticism from the Greco-Roman world. It will emphasize adaptation, not just transmission, in the antique, medieval, and modern periods.

April D. DeConick, Rice University
Artifact Migration and the Transfer of Ancient Knowledge into Modernity

This paper is a small part of a larger book project on the sociology of Gnostic spirituality that I am working on called The Gnostic Awakening: How an Ancient Countercultural Spirituality Migrated to America. Within this context, the process of what I call artifact migration is central. Artifact migration occurs when artifacts like texts or art objects that have been produced in another time and place and are unknown in a particular culture are transported into that culture. Two examples of artifact migration in modernity include the rediscovery of ancient religious texts that were lost and dropped from everyday use and erased from social memory, and the encounter of global religious texts by a culture unfamiliar with them. The question then is how the artifact’s new knowledge is transported into a foreign context and impacts religion in that cultural location. This paper theorizes the dynamics of artifact migration and the transfer of knowledge from antiquity.

Anne Kreps, University of Oregon
The Adaptation of 1 Enoch in the American Religious Imagination

Well before the Dead Sea Scroll discovery, 1 Enoch attracted interest from esoteric circles: In the Renaissance, Christian Kabbalists "recovered" lost books of Enoch and thereby produced new Kabbalistic commentary. Millenarian groups studied 1 Enoch for details about the end of times. The inclusion of Enoch in the Corpus Hermeticum solidified Enoch's status as an authoritative visionary. These same strategies of adaptation--rewriting, interpretation, and canonization--appear in today's religious landscape. This paper examines three New Religious Movements, unrelated to one another, who all claim to resurrect the ancient sect of the Essenes. One church has composed its own version of Enoch to describe their future role in healing the world after the ecological apocalypse. A second community completed a highly interpretive translation of 1 Enoch, to give scriptural support for their annual survivalist training retreat. A third, emerging from a Mormon context, recreated 1 Enoch’s solar calendar.

Marla Segol, State University of New York, Buffalo
Medical Embryologies Reborn: Mystical Narratives of Childbirth in Kabbalah, Jewish Prayer, and Contemporary Pregnancy Manuals

Childbirth is the ultimate threshold experience; it crosses physical, social, and existential boundaries as an occasion of utmost joy and suffering, and as such it is elaborately narrated and ritualized in religious traditions. This paper attends to the changing roles of Greek and Babylonian medical embryologies, retold in late antique Hebrew prayers, Jewish mystical texts, and ultimately in early modern women’s prayer books and contemporary pregnancy manuals. As these narratives are retold, their cosmological significance is expanded as they ritualized in prayer and other effective practices. In kabbalistic literature they come to stand in for the workings of the cosmos as a whole. In the early modern period, these kabbalistic inflected embryologies begin to appear in early modern Jewish women’s prayers called tkhines, and from there they are incorporated into women’s prayers and rituals for childbirth in contemporary Jewish psalm books and pregnancy manuals. There is now a growing canon of ‘spiritual pregnancy’ books, written mainly by and for women, which frame the experience as a mystical journey. All of these authors mythologize and ritualize pregnancy to frame it as a spiritual journey, and in this process they adapt old religious models to new ends. Surprisingly, both old and new sources synthesize both sacred and scientific narrative in the creation of new esoteric mythologies. And both old and new sources ritualize them as well. While historians of science have studied the development of embryological narratives, their use in religious discourse and ritual has been largely neglected, and their rich significance in religious life has yet to be understood. This paper begins the process of theorizing the function of esotericized medical embryologies in Jewish women’s prayer.

Stanislav Panin, Rice University
Transmission of Gnostic Ideas in Twentieth Century Russian Esotericism

Throughout the twentieth century, Gnostic ideas played an important role in Russian esotericism. This paper examines the transfer and adaptation of Gnostic ideas in the Soviet esoteric milieu. It begins with analysis of works of Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900), an Orthodox Christian philosopher and a scholarly writer whose publications were influential in development of interest to Gnosticism among Russian audience. The second part of the paper outlines an impact of Gnosticism during the Soviet period with an emphasis on ideas of Vasily Nalimov (1910–1997), a prominent figure of Soviet esotericism, and Gnostic legends that served as initiatory texts in Soviet esoteric communities of mystical anarchists. This analysis demonstrates that interest to Gnosticism was closely related to an attempt to find a new worldview that would provide a sense of meaning in a changing social environment and allow to construct a new social ideal.

Shannon Grimes, Meredith College
Zosimos & Theosebia: An Erotics of Alchemical Pedagogy

Zosimos of Panopolis, who flourished around 275 CE, is one of the best known writers in the Greco-Egyptian alchemical corpus. Many of his writings are addressed to his female colleague, Theosebia, though very little information about Theosebia or the nature of their relationship can be gleaned from the Greek literature. In medieval Arabic alchemical texts, however, the two of them appear as characters engaged in dialogue, and one manuscript, the Mushaf as-suwar, features numerous illustrations of Zosimos and Theosebia crowned with the sun and moon, representing various alchemical processes. This paper examines the relationship between these historical figures and argues that their relationship becomes dramatized in Arabic alchemical literature as an erotics of pedagogy, rooted in Ancient Near Eastern wisdom traditions and Platonic understandings of eros as an anagogical spiritual force.

Tantric Studies Unit
Theme: Keeping It in the Family: Negotiating Boundaries in Kaula Tantrism
Gudrun Bühnemann, University of Wisconsin, Presiding
Sunday - 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Sapphire L (Fourth Level)

This collection of papers examines previously understudied living communities in South Asia, analyzing their ritual practices and textual sources to reframe a number of vital developments in the history and contemporary life of Śākta Tantric traditions. The panel interrogates permeable boundaries between a related group of Goddess-oriented traditions, which historically identified themselves as Kaula, i.e., influenced by the emergence of the path of the Goddess Clans (Kulamārga). Taken together these papers represent a complementary and in-depth inquiry into how Tantric practitioners negotiate the relationship between tradition and innovation, ritual, devotion, and exegesis, worldly benefits and liberation, and sexuality and transcendence. Featuring a variety of methodologies, including ethnography, critical textual and historical analysis, and ritual theory, this panel aims to expand our understanding of the origins, transformations, and continuities in ritual, interpretation, and devotion, as well traditions’ adaptability and efforts to creatively sustain religious identity and practice.

Meera Kachroo, Saint Thomas More College
Situating Śrīvidyā: Three Contemporary Tantric Maṇḍalīs

Most academic studies of contemporary Śrīvidyā have focused on significant changes in circulation of the śrīcakra into the marketplace of ecumenical Hindu religiosity and the emergence of charismatic gurus who have authored marked transformations in access, ritual practices, and theological interpretation. In this paper, I highlight a more conservative side of the contemporary tradition, where traditional contours are more faithfully preserved. In this case study of three Chennai maṇḍalīs (initiation-based ritual circles), I illustrate their very active recent publication histories, including initiates’ modest forays into re-interpretation and modernization of their form of tantric religiosity. My ethnographic research includes interviews and documentation of home-based sites of ritual practice, specifically those of the Guhānanda, Cidānanda, and Vimarśānanda maṇḍalīs. In these contexts, Śrīvidyā initiates affirm, promote, and revitalize their traditions within and from their homes, reproducing the Smārta base with minor adaptations, while simultaneously contributing to the publicization of traditional literary sources.

Ben Williams, Naropa University
The Trans-Ritual Liturgy of the Cidvilāsastava

A fourteenth-century liturgical hymn based in the Śākta tradition centered on the Goddess Tripurasundarī, the Cidvilāsastava of Amṛtānanda is wholly dedicated to reinterpreting outer ritual forms as distinct modes of non-dual awareness. The Cidvilāsastava’s elevation of knowledge over ritual performance is in harmony with the transritual orientation of Śākta traditions that are Kaula, i.e. influenced by the emergence of the path of the Goddess Clans (Kulamārga). Although the recoding of ritual can be contextualized by looking at earlier Kaula scriptural sources, this paper also reads Amṛtānanda’s hymn in light of a ritual manual of Śivānanda, and his subsequent interpretation of the inner meaning of each rite. Taking this context into account, as well as the Cidvilāsastava’s unique literary features, this praise poem of Amṛtānanda can be understood as creatively envisioning a transritual liturgy that educates its audience on how to infuse outward ritual worship with direct insight.

Anna A. Golovkova, Bowdoin College
Conceptions of Liberation in the Early Tantras of the Cult of Tripurasundarī

This paper diachronically charts soteriologies articulated in the earliest scriptures of the cult of Tripurasundarī, a popular trans-regional Śākta tradition, which was promulgated in south India as Śrīvidyā. First, I analyze contexts, beginning in the tenth century CE, in which liberation is discussed in the unpublished tantras of the antecedent Nityā cult and the Vāmakeśvarīmata, a foundational text of the cult of Tripurasundarī. Although these early texts eulogize the transcendent aspect of the Goddess, they exhibit little interest in salvific practices. In contrast, the later Yoginīhṛdaya emphasize soteriology while embracing internalized, meditative practices dedicated to the realization of liberation-while-living (jīvanmukti), associated with non-dual Śaivism. I argue that these developments in soteriology and exegesis built on the existing ritual and mantra system and did not render it obsolete, a key factor in the continued resilience and longevity of this ritual tradition.

E. Sundari Johansen Hurwitt, California Institute of Integral Studies
The Bud That Contains the Seed of the Kula: Virgin Worship and the Influence of Śrīvidyā on the Kālīkula of Bengal

Widely accepted among scholars of Hindu Tantrism is the idea that the Śākta Tantric traditions of Bengal and the Northeast may be solidly categorized as Kālīkula. Worship in this region largely revolves around the ferocious goddesses Kālī, Tārā, and Durgā. However, new critical analysis and careful ritual reconstruction of kumārī worship in key sixteenth to seventeenth century Kālīkula texts of this region, including Kaulāvalī Nirṇāya, Bṛhannīla Tantra, Nīla Tantra, and Rudrayāmala reveals that these and other texts drew heavily on mantras and rituals associated with the Śrīkula, known for worship of Tripurasundarī or Lalitā, as well as appropriated elements from Śrīvidyā, Trika, and Kubjikā traditions. Findings suggest that the Tantric traditions of Bengal were—and are—much more diverse in nature than commonly assumed. More importantly, this research suggests that the oft-overlooked kumārī may be one of the most powerful, liberatory, universalizing, and lasting symbols of Tantric identity in India.

Unregistered Participant
  • Books under Discussion
Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity Unit and SBL Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity Unit
Theme: Esoteric Religious Groups in Antiquity
April D. DeConick, Rice University, Presiding
Monday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Hilton Bayfront-Sapphire 400B (Fourth Level)

A session that includes book review panels as well as papers.

Michael E. Stone, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Kelley Coblentz Bautch, Saint Edward's University
James Davila, University of Saint Andrews
Christian H. Bull, University of Oslo
Tuomas Rasimus, University of Helsinki, Universite Laval
Charles Haberl, Rutgers University
James McGrath, Butler University
Jorunn J. Buckley, Bowdoin College
Edmondo Lupieri, Loyola University, Chicago
Western Esotericism Unit
Theme: Never the Twain Shall Meet? Orientalism and Western Esotericism Revisited
Patton Burchett, College of William and Mary, Presiding
Monday - 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Sapphire A (Fourth Level)

This panel offers a varied yet cohesive set of presentations on the flow of people, perspectives, and practices between Western Esoteric and Tantric/Yogic traditions. Its four presentations explore European occultism and tantric philosophy in Integral Yoga; tangled Indic and Hellenic conceptions of the subtle body in Hatha Yoga and Delsarteism at the turn of the twentieth century; commonalities between Western and Tibetan tulpas; and rewritten Buddhist tantric rituals in contemporary Thelema. These papers blend history, ethnography, and theory to map transmissions and transformations of particular rituals, ideas, and attitudes, paying special attention to the craft and underlying logics of cultural blending and mediation within the contexts of internal community politics, hagiographic tropes, and evidentiary standards; affective and embodied experience; universalist theological commitments; and increasingly globalized networks of communication.

Nika Kuchuk, University of Toronto
Battling the Asuras & Bestowing Grace: Tantra, Magic, and Spiritual Evolution in Integral Yoga

Amid modern Vedantic movements, Integral Yoga stands out as a system at once cosmopolitan and embedded in a matrix of local Indian traditions, the fruit of a close spiritual collaboration between an Indian yogi and a French esotericist—though few remember Mirra Alfassa, better known as the Mother, for her involvement in European occult circles. Indeed, it is entirely possible to write about Integral Yoga without ever dipping into its interlinear layer of (Western) esoteric and occult significations, or, by the same token, without attending to the tantric matrix underlying Aurobindo’s philosophy. Yet, what if one is to take seriously the movement’s claim that Aurobindo and the Mother arrived at the same vision of yoga via separate paths? In this paper I explore Alfassa’s parabolic use of her early experiences in her subsequent role as the Mother as a form of idiomatic translation, and begin to map out some of its theoretical implications for conceptualizing universalist, transnational movements.

Anya Foxen, California Polytechnic State University
Just How to Wake the Solar Plexus: Subtle Bodies and Pseudo-Yoga

This paper employs a focus on something we might clumsily call the exoteric forms of Western Esotericism to accomplish two things: first, to push back against our tendency to read Indian categories like yoga and tantra into early modern Western sources; and second, to push back against a parallel tendency to subsequently view such sources as nothing but shallow bastardizations of Indian practices. To illustrate this point, it pulls in examples from the globally popular yoga manuals of Yogi Ramacharaka as well as the work of female teachers of American Delsarteism and modern dance, who are only occasionally linked to yoga. The analysis concludes with a brief examination by how these concepts look different when employed by contemporary transnational Indian yogis such as the Swamis Vivekananda and Abhedananda.

Unregistered Participant
Feral Phantoms: Finding Common-Ground between Tibetan and Non-Tibetan Tulpas

Tulpa, a term used by occultists since the 1930s to describe semi-autonomous entities produced through focused thought, has made increasing appearances in pop culture over the last twenty years. While tulpa is a Tibetan word linked with specifically tantric Buddhist cosmologies and ontologies, recent scholarship has shown that tulpas and tulpa-makers as popularly understood owe as much if not more to Western esoteric influences than Tibetan ones. Rather than merely disambiguating Tibetan tantric Buddhist, Western esoteric, and pop culture tulpas, however, I propose there is value in considering what Tibetan and non-Tibetan tulpas have in common. Tracking tulpas in controversies surrounding the Dalai Lama’s succession, popular entertainment over time, and ritual magicians’ cross-cultural experiments I argue that a comparative analysis of tulpas can contribute to research on the popularizing and secularizing of esoteric knowledge, mass mediation and virality, and the policing of collective affect and the ‘imaginary’.

Joel Bordeaux, Stony Brook University
The Continuing Story of Buddha and The Beast: Vajrayana and Comparative Religion in Contemporary Thelema

This paper considers reinterpretation of Tantric Buddhist practices in Thelema, a new religious movement founded in the first decades of the twentieth century by British ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley. Treating the process of ritual composition as vehicle for comparative religion within this tradition, it compares ritual scripts by two authors, Gregory Peters and Sam Webster, who transparently adapt Buddhist tantric rituals for use in their own [separate] magical orders, highlighting how practitioners of this influential form of ceremonial magic understand Tantra and Buddhism, the Western Esoteric tradition in relation to these, and the relationship between form and content in ritual.

Hugh B. Urban, Ohio State University
  • Books under Discussion
  • Presidential Theme: Scholarly Workers in Public Spaces
Buddhism Unit and Law, Religion, and Culture Unit, and Yoga in Theory and Practice Unit
Theme: Author-Meets-Critics: Panel Discussion of Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? by Candy Gunther Brown
Richard K. Payne, Graduate Theological Union, Presiding
Monday - 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Convention Center-20A (Upper Level East)

The 2019 publication of Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? by Candy Gunther Brown (University of North Carolina Press), the conference theme Scholarly Workers in Public Spaces, and our location in San Diego constitute a remarkable convergence. In the 2013 court case Sedlock v. Baird, parents sued San Diego’s Encinitas Union School District for indoctrinating children in Hinduism and Buddhism by teaching Ashtanga yoga and mindfulness. Both parties enlisted religious studies scholars, among them Brown, as expert witnesses. Brown draws on experience in Sedlock and three additional legal challenges to assess ethical and legal implications, foregrounding values of respect for cultural and religious diversity, informed consent, transparency, and voluntarism. This author-meets-critics panel facilitates conversation among scholars who have been involved and/or analyzed the stakes when yoga and mindfulness are practiced and debated in public spaces. It seeks to model civic discourse across difference.

Andrea Jain, Indiana University - Purdue University, Indianapolis
David McMahan, Franklin and Marshall College
Ronald Purser, San Francisco State University
Steven Green, Willamette University
Candy Gunther Brown, Indiana University