The most popular contemporary initiatory Hindu tantric (i.e., esoteric) tradition, Śrīvidyā (Tradition of the Auspicious Mantra), has significantly influenced institutional and devotional life in South Asia and the diaspora. In India, leaders of Śaṅkara maṭhas (major temple and monastic institutions) are Śrīvidyā gurus and initiates; hymns to its principal Goddess are chanted daily by millions of women; and the Śrīcakra, its distinctive ritual diagram, adorns the covers of numerous books. In December of 2018, a high-profile international conference on Śākta (i.e., Goddess) tantra “with Special Reference to Śrīvidyā Tradition” at the Sanchi University of Buddhist-Indic Studies in Madhya Pradesh was attended by hundreds of scholars from across the globe. The conference was a major event, recognized by India’s Prime Minister and attended by the Governor of Madhya Pradesh. And yet, despite the evident interest in Śrīvidyā among academics, practitioners, and even politicians, its history remains obscure.
My book manuscript, A Goddess for the Second Millennium, is the first comprehensive study of the early history of Śrīvidyā between the tenth and thirteenth centuries CE. I trace its development from Kaulism (the most transgressive among tantric traditions), its philosophical reinterpretation according to Śaiva non-dualism in Kashmir, and, finally, its emergence as a preeminent form of Vedicized tantric practice in south India. My book challenges existing narratives, which describe this medieval tantric tradition as ancient, Vedic in origin, and feminist. Far from being established in a complete form or arising sui generis, Śrīvidyā was developed by individual redactors and commentators in the early centuries of the second millennium. Uncovering Śrīvidyā’s Kaula origins and its subsequent Vedicization and exotericization, I demonstrate that south Indian tantric apologists scripted exegetical innovation as a recovery of the ancient meaning as early as the thirteenth century CE. My study calls into question the purported feminist character of Śrīvidyā and traces a gradual domestication of the principal Goddess, Tripurasundarī (the Beauty of the Three Cities) through analysis of her descriptions and iconography. While in the antecedent Nityā tradition the Goddess was a wild and intoxicated ascetic, in Śrīvidyā her iconography was reimagined along the line of exoteric Hindu goddesses dependent on their male consorts. An unkempt mane of hair was replaced with neat curls, and, in later representations, Tripurasundarī’s hair was barely visible beneath the crown: the power of the Goddess had been controlled and contained.
My work is unique in its interdisciplinary approach—which draws on religious studies, South Asian history, gender and sexuality studies, and art history—and in its broad chronological and geographical examination of lesser-known sources (texts and iconography). The tantras (scriptural texts) I consider are either unpublished or have received little scholarly attention, and are unknown to today’s adepts and academics alike. Furthermore, instead of treating commentaries merely as interpretive aids to understanding the scriptures, I study them as religio-historical documents in their own right. By giving voice to individual authors and reconstructing their milieus, my project recovers the early history of this tradition and contributes to a nuanced theorization of tradition formation.
In my second project, I uncover the central role Śrīvidyā came to play in conferring and consolidating state power in the Deccan. Here I analyze inscriptions, hagiographies, devotional poetry, iconography, and ritual manuals from sub-Nayaka courts in Kanchipuram, Rameswaram, and Shivaji’s second tantric coronation. I highlight mutual legitimation provided by tantric actors and early modern rulers, discuss how authors harmonized Śrīvidyā ritual with monistic Advaita Vedanta philosophy, and investigate later devotional compositions, attributed to some of the most venerated figures in Hindu thought. Among them is Śaṅkara, a Hindu philosopher par excellence, whose provenance in the eighth century CE predates the proliferation of Śrīvidyā across the subcontinent by approximately five centuries. Further analyzing Śrīvidyā’s expansion into new domains of literary production, I examine the worship of a Purāṇic form of Tripurasundarī, Lalitā (the Playful Goddess), which provided a common framework for the cults of local goddesses and developed into a widespread south-Indian bhakti (devotional) movement that continues to flourish to this day. Given the prevalence of Śrīvidyā in modern India and its significant rise in popularity in the twenty-first century, research concerning the tradition’s historical development is more germane than ever.