The Ethnography of Tantra

Textures and Contexts of Living Tantric Traditions

Edited by Carola E. Lorea & Rohit Singh

Subjects: Tantra, Ethnography, Anthropology Of Religion, India And South Asian Studies
Hardcover : 9781438494838, 380 pages, October 2023
Paperback : 9781438494845, 380 pages, April 2024

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Rethinking Tantra through Ethnography
Carola E. Lorea and Rohit Singh

Part I: On Materiality and Mediation: Lived Practices of Texts, Objects, and Media

1. An Ethnography of Tantra in the Western Himalayas: The Material Substance of Practical Rituals
William S. Sax

2. Observing Participation, Transgressing Hermeneutics: Bali’s Tantric Script Practices and the Limits of Participant Observation
Annette Hornbacher

3. The Conch as a Tantric Artifact: Metaphysics of a Number and the Twirled Lives of Text and Practice
Sukanya Sarbadhikary

4. WhatsApp Bagalāmukhī! Social Life and Experiences of a Tantric Goddess
Sravana Borkataky-Varma

Part II: Embodiment, Identity, and Experience: Conversations with Tantric Livelihoods

5. Folk Tantra and Healing: An Ethnography of Traditional Healers in the Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim
Jarrod Hyam

6. Songs for Siddhi: An Ethnographic Analysis of Bāul Fakiri Sādhanā
Keith Edward Cantú

7. Serving the Divine Element in Humans: Everyday (Tantric) Vaiṣṇavism and What Begging Means to Bāuls
Kristin Hanssen

Part III: Institutions and Individuals in the Making of Tantric Traditions: To Be or Become Tantric

8. The Cremation Ground, the Battlefield, and the Path of Compassion; or, What Makes the Fabric of an Individual’s Tantric Encounter?
Nike-Ann Schröder

9. The Spectrum of Eclecticism and Conservatism within Kerala’s Tantric Traditions: A Case Study of Meppaṭ Sampradāya
Maciej Karasinski

10. Tantric Lives in Bengal and Bali: Toward a Comparative Ethnography
June McDaniel

Geoffrey Samuel
List of Contributors

Presents Tantra from an ethnographic vantage point, through a series of case studies grounded in diverse settings across contemporary Asia.


This is the first collection of essays to approach the topic of Tantric Studies from the vantage point of ethnography and lived religion, moving beyond the centrality of written texts and giving voice to the everyday life and livelihoods of a multitude of Tantric actors. Bringing together a team of international scholars whose contributions range across diverse communities and traditions in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayan region, the book connects distant shores of Tantric scholarship and lived Tantric practices. The contributors unpack Tantra’s relationship to the body, ritual performance, sexuality, secrecy, power hierarchies, death, magic, and healing, while doing so with vigilant sensitivity to decolonization and the ethics of fieldwork. Through diverse ethnographies of Tantra and attention to lived experiences and life stories, the book challenges normative definitions of Tantra and maps the variety of Tantric traditions, providing comparative perspectives on Tantric societies across regions and religious backgrounds. The accessible tone of the ethnographic case studies makes this an ideal book for undergraduate or graduate audiences working on the topic of Tantra.

Carola E. Lorea is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Faculty of Humanities at the University of Tubingen in Germany. She is the author of Folklore, Religion, and the Songs of a Bengali Madman: A Journey Between Performance and the Politics of Cultural Representation. Rohit Singh is Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Greensboro.


"This is a superb and truly refreshing contribution to the study of Tantra and religion more broadly. As the volume makes clear, Tantric studies have tended to focus on texts, history, and esoteric practices without contextualizing these in everyday life. By focusing on ethnography, this volume is an excellent intervention to those more abstract, textual, historical, idealized, exotified, and often problematic depictions of Tantra." — Lisa I. Knight, author of Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh