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Tantra and the Tantric Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism  

David B. Gray

The term tantra and the tantric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism have been subjected to a great deal of misunderstanding in both India and the West. There is a diverse range of attitudes toward the tantric traditions, ranging from their emic understandings as paths to liberation to the relatively widespread associations of the tantric traditions with sorcery and libertine sexuality. Likewise, tantric traditions are also extremely diverse, which has made it difficult to develop a definition broad enough to cover the various tantric traditions without being overly broad. There have also been many attempts to discern the origins of the tantric traditions. While there is very little evidence supporting the hypothesis that any of the tantric traditions existed before the 5th century ce, there have been attempts to trace back these traditions much earlier, to the time of the Buddha or the ancient Hindu sages, or even back to the Indus Valley civilization. In overviewing various attempts to date these traditions, it appears that the first tantric traditions to emerge in a distinct form almost certainly first emerged in a Hindu context around the mid-first millennium ce. An overview of the history of tantric traditions, then, should begin with a survey the development of the Hindu tantric traditions, from the mid-first millennium ce up to the colonial period, when tantric traditions in South Asia generally entered a period of decline, followed by a renaissance in the 20th century. The historical appearance of Buddhist tantric traditions occurs a few centuries later, during the 7th century. Buddhist tantric traditions were strongly influenced at their inception by preexisting Śaiva Hindu traditions, but they also drew on a growing body of ritual and magical practices that had been developing for several centuries, since at least the 5th century ce, in Mahāyāna Buddhist circles. The spread of tantric traditions quickly followed their development in India. They were disseminated to Nepal; Central, East, and Southeast Asia; and also, much later, to the West. Tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions were also a significant influence on a number of other religious traditions, including Jainism, Sikhism, the Bön tradition of Tibet, Daoism, and the Shintō tradition of Japan.

Article

Maritime Buddhism  

Andrea Acri

The spread of Buddhism across Asia has been studied mainly from a perspective focusing on the transmission through the overland routes popularly known as “Silk Roads” and emphasizing Central Asia as an important transit corridor and contact zone between South and East Asia. However, recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the significant role played by the sea routes or maritime “Silk Roads” in shaping premodern intra-Asian connectivity. This has paved the way for an appreciation of the important contribution of the southern rim of Asia—especially South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia—to the genesis, transformation, and circulation of various forms of Buddhism. Evidence of the long-distance transfer of Buddhism from its northeastern Indian cradle to the outlying regions of South India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and China via the maritime routes goes back to the early centuries of the Current Era. From the 5th century onward, written and material vestiges from the southern rim of Asia became more substantial, testifying to an efflorescence of long-distance maritime contacts that were to last several centuries. As is shown by textual, epigraphic, and art historical materials—including icons, ritual accoutrements, dhāraṇīs, manuscripts, and monuments—Buddhist cults, imaginaries, and ritual technologies flourished across the vast swathe of littoral, island, and hinterland territory that can be conceptualized as the sociospatial grouping of “Maritime Asia.” Buddhist vestiges recovered from the Indian Subcontinent littorals, Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, peninsular and coastal mainland Southeast Asia, and what are now called the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine islands, speak in favor of the existence of pervasive and sustained multidirectional Buddhist exchanges among interconnected nodes linking South Asia and the Western Indian Ocean to China, Korea, and Japan through the maritime routes. A polycentric, geographically wide, and maritime-based approach is necessary to fully appreciate how religious, mercantile, and diplomatic networks acted as catalysts for transmission of Buddhism far and wide across Asia over nearly two millennia.

Article

Imaging the Buddha in South Asia  

Claudine Bautze-Picron

The image of the Buddha appeared in the north of the South Asian subcontinent around the 1st century ce, following a period when no actual representation had been produced. Detailed considerations on how to represent this human being who had reached the highest spiritual plane are clearly illustrated in the highly elaborate portrayal in the literary sources and led to the visual formulation of an image based on strict iconographic rules, texts and art being both sides of the same issue. The texts include lengthy lists of either thirty-two or eighty marks that characterize the body of the Buddha, some being actually seen in the visual depiction, such as the tuft of hair between the eyebrows, the protuberance on the head, and the webbed hands, all of which contribute to the manifestation of a metamorphosed body that can become a powerful source of magic. This image does not stand on its own but is 1ed in a set of motifs—the throne, the nimbus, the aura, the lotusseat—that bring out the supramundane nature of the Buddha; further additions were to be the crown and the necklace, transforming the simple monk into a king. The various gestures that the Buddha displays reflect different aspects of his personality, as protector, as paradigm of generosity, as the ultimate teacher. Elements such as the monachal robe or hair style showed up in various forms in the early phase; however, the stylistic evolution progressively led to a uniformized figure that appeared in the 4th–5th century and became standardized in South Asia before finding its way to faraway regions. This figure was also used to represent the Buddhas of the past or the Tathāgathas and became the visual element unifying all Buddhist schools.

Article

Race and Religion in U.S. Public Life  

Khyati Y. Joshi

Religion is front and center in the early 21st century. The United States not only has experienced an explosion of religious diversity on its own shores in the past five decades, but also is functioning in a world where the 20th century’s duel of political theories has given way to political and social movements driven by or making use of expressly religious identities and themes. All the while, the United States is trying the perfect the experiment in religious pluralism started by the framers of the US Constitution more than two centuries ago. Today, most people would say we have “freedom of religion,” guaranteed by the First Amendment. In reality, religious freedom and religious pluralism are something we have been struggling with since the inception of this country for a variety of reasons, including the presence of white and Christian normativity that is enshrined in our laws and policies and extends religious liberties haltingly, belatedly, and incompletely. The experiences of three immigrant cohorts that are both racial and religious minorities in the United States (South Asian American Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus) illustrate the dynamic nature of religion in public life, and the unfulfilled promise of complete equality. By illustrating the complexities of how racial status and religious background have impacted the perception and reception of these immigrant communities, it offers untold stories and discusses the lessons they offer for those who aspire to a genuinely equal and pluralistic America.

Article

Islam in Mughal India  

Michael H. Fisher

The history of the Mughal Empire (1526–1858) reveals much of the diversity among Muslims and the complexity of Islam as variously envisioned and as practiced in India. The empire’s ruling Timurid dynasty was patrilineally Sunni; many of its original core supporters were also Sunni immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Central Asia, especially Turks and Mongols. But Mughal emperors married women from families who were Shiʿites or who either converted to Islam in India or remained Hindus; similarly, the imperial army and administration also broadened its composition to include such families. Each individual emperor developed his own religious ideology, including Sunni, Sufistic, strongly influenced by Shiʿism, and eclectically drawing upon diverse Islamic and non-Islamic Indic traditions (i.e., Hindu devotional bhakti, Zoroastrianism, Jainism). Roughly a quarter of the Mughal dynasty’s subjects were Muslim, but these also followed an array of diverse Islamic ideologies and social and religious practices (many functioning much like “castes”). Conversely, many non-Muslim officials and subjects of the dynasty adapted its Persianate patterns of culture and belief. Over the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughal dynasty conquered most of the Indian subcontinent (except the southern tip of the peninsula), but then its empire fragmented over the 18th and early 19th centuries. Evidence for the variety of Islamic expressions within the Mughal Empire comes from many types of sources. Imperial officials, accountants, and scribes compiled Persian-language records in detail, extent, and preservation that exceeded previous states in India. Emperors, courtiers, and authors whom they patronized created sophisticated works of history and literature that described events, rituals, and values, using Persian and also Sanskrit and regional Indian languages. Additionally, various types of material evidence have survived—including architecture, paintings, coins, weapons, and clothing—that display the dynasty’s religious expressions, values, and technologies. Muslim and Christian visitors from Central and Western Asia and Europe also wrote down their observations and assessments while traveling to the imperial court or through the Empire’s provinces. The relationships between Islamic beliefs and practices and the Mughal Empire that travelers, commentators, and historians noted and evaluated varied over time.