Historical Criticism and Tantra

I approach the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra as a living text, a song that is always singing in our hearts. I am interested in the techniques themselves, and how they resonate in modern American and European bodies.

In doing my translations, I benefit immensely from the work of the Tantric scholars, who are engaged in a related but very different discipline, that of historical criticism and analysis.

Wikipedia entry on historical criticism:
“Historical criticism, higher criticism, or the historical-critical method is a branch of literary analysis that investigates the origins of a text. As applied in biblical studies it investigates the books of the Bible and compares them to other texts written at the same time, before, or recently after the text in question. In Classical studies, the new higher criticism of the nineteenth century set aside "efforts to fill ancient religion with direct meaning and relevance and devoted itself instead to the critical collection and chronological ordering of the source material."[1] Thus higher criticism, whether biblical, classical, Byzantine or medieval, focuses on the sources of a document to determine who wrote it, when it was written, and where. For example, higher criticism deals with the synoptic problem--the question of how Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate to each other. In some cases, such as with several Pauline epistles, higher criticism confirms the traditional understanding of authorship. In other cases, higher criticism contradicts church tradition (as with the gospels) or even the words of the Bible itself (as with 2 Peter).
The Dutch scholar
Desiderius Erasmus (1466? - 1536) is usually credited as the first to study the Bible in this way[2]. When applied to the Bible, the historical-critical method is distinct from the traditional, devotional approach.[3] In particular, while devotional readers concern themselves with the overall message of the Bible, historians examine the distinct messages of each book in the Bible.[3] Guided by the devotional approach, for example, Christians often combine accounts from different gospels into single accounts, whereas historians attempt to discern what is unique about each gospel, including how they are different.[3]
The historical-critical method to studying the Bible is taught nearly universally in Western nations, including in most seminaries.
[3] Conservative, evangelical schools, however, often reject this approach, teaching instead that the Bible is inerrant and that it reflects explicit divine inspiration.[3]
The phrase
higher criticism is used in contrast with lower criticism (or textual criticism), the endeavour to determine what a text originally said before it was altered (through error or intent).”

I used to have a distinction in my mind, that there were academic researchers investigating Tantra, and that there were practitioners of Tantra who are experts.

I no longer make that distinction – I consider that the scholars who practice rigorous historical analysis are doing a type of yoga, an intellectual yoga, and their discipline is very strict – they set out to find out what can be known, and to admit what they do not know. When they use a word, or translate a word, they make it as clear as possible the assumptions they made and the historical footnotes to every step. In other words, they are honest: “This is what we know. This is how I got here.”

Eminent among the Tantric scholars is Alexis Sanderson. Dr. Sanderson has generously posted a PDF of one of his papers on Swami Lakshman Joo here. And here is the paper, embedded:

Swami Lakshman Joo and His Place in the Kashmirian Saiva Tradition - Sanderson Alexis

Biography of Alexis Sanderson from the Centre for Tantric Studies:

Alexis G. J. S. Sanderson (b.1948) is a renowned expert on the history of Śaivism and on tantric traditions. After taking undergraduate degrees in Classics and Sanskrit at Balliol College, Oxford, he spent six years in Kashmir studying with the celebrated scholar and Śaiva guru Swami Lakshman Joo. From 1977 to 1992 he was Lecturer in Sanskrit in the University of Oxford, and Fellow of Wolfson College. Since 1992 he has held the Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics in the University of Oxford, and is a Fellow of All Souls College.
Ongoing Research in Tantric Studies
  • Critical edition of Niśvāsatattvasamhitā texts (with Dominic Goodall)
  • Critical edition and annotated translation of the Jayākhyasamhitā
Official Site
alexissanderson.com (with extended list of publications)
Selected Publications in Tantric Studies
“The Śaiva Age — The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period.” In: Shingo Einoo, ed., Genesis and Development of Tantrism, Tokyo: University of Tokyo, Institute of Oriental Culture, March 2009, pp.41–349. [PDF]
“Atharvavedins in Tantric Territory: The
Āngirasakalpa Texts of the Oriya Paippalādins and their Connection with the Trika and the Kālīkula, with critical editions of the Parājapavidhi, the Parāmantravidhi, and the *Bhadrakālī-mantravidhiprakarana.” In: The Atharvaveda and its Paippalāda Śākhā: Historical and Philological Papers on a Vedic Tradition, edited by Arlo Griffiths and Annette Schmiedchen. Aachen: Shaker Verlag, 2007. Geisteskultur Indiens: Texte und Studien, 11, Indologica Halensis, pp. 195-311. [PDF]
“The Śaiva Exegesis of Kashmir.” In:
Mélanges tantriques à la mémoire d’Hélène Brunner / Tantric Studies in Memory of Hélène Brunner, edited by Dominic Goodall and André Padoux, Pondicherry: Institut français d’Indologie / École française d’Extrême-Orient, 2007. Collection Indologie 106, pp. 231–442 and (bibliography) pp. 551–582.
“Swami Lakshman Joo and His Place in the Kashmirian Śaiva Tradition.” In:
Samvidullāsah, edited by Bettina Bäumer and Sarla Kumar, New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2007, pp. 93–126. [PDF]
“The Lākulas: New evidence of a system intermediate between Pāñcārthika Pāśupatism and Āgamic Śaivism.” Ramalinga Reddy Memorial Lectures, 1997. In:
The Indian Philosophical Annual 24 (2006), pp. 143-217. [PDF]
“Religion and the State: Śaiva Officiants in the Territory of the Brahmanical Royal Chaplain (with an appendix on the provenance and date of the
Netratantra).” In: Indo-Iranian Journal 47 (2004), pp. 229-300. [PDF]
“A Commentary on the Opening Verses of the Tantrasāra of Abhinavagupta.” In
Sāmarasya: Studies in Indian Arts, Philosophy, and Interreligious Dialogue in Honour of Bettina Bäumer, ed. Sadananda Das and Ernst Fürlinger. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (2005), pp.89-148. [PDF]
“The Śaiva Religion Among the Khmers, Part I.” In:
Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 90-91 (2003-2004), pp. 349-463. [PDF]
“Remarks on the Text of the
Kubjikāmatatantra.” In: Indo-Iranian Journal 45, (2002), pp. 1-24. [PDF]
“History through Textual Criticism in the study of Śaivism, the Pañcarātra and the Buddhist Yoginītantras.” In:
Les Sources et le temps. Sources and Time: A Colloquium, Pondicherry, 11-13 January 1997, edited by François Grimal. Publications du département d’Indologie 91. Pondicherry: Institut Français de Pondichéry/École Française d’Extrême-Orient (2001), pp. 1-47. [PDF]
“Meaning in Tantric Ritual.” In
Essais sur le Rituel III: Colloque du Centenaire de la Section des Sciences religieuses de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, edited by A.-M. Blondeau and K. Schipper. Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études, Sciences Religieuses, Volume CII. Louvain-Paris: Peeters (1995), pp. 15-95. [PDF]
“Vajrayāna: Origin and Function.” In:
Buddhism into the Year 2000. International Conference Proceedings, Bangkok and Los Angeles: Dhammakāya Foundation (1995), pp. 89-102. [PDF]
“The Doctrine of the Mālinīvijayottaratantra.” In
Ritual and Speculation in Early Tantrism. Studies in Honour of André Padoux, ed. T. Goudriaan. Albany: State University of New York Press (1992), pp. 281-312. [PDF]
“The Visualization of the Deities of the Trika.” In
L’Image Divine: Culte et Méditation dans l’Hindouisme, edited by A. Padoux. Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (1990), pp. 31-88. [PDF]
“Śaivism and the Tantric Traditions.” In
The World’s Religions, edited by S. Sutherland, L. Houlden, P. Clarke and F. Hardy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (1988), pp. 660-704. Reprinted in The World’s Religions: The Religions of Asia, edited by F. Hardy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (1990), pp. 128-72. [PDF]
“Mandala and Āgamic Identity in the Trika of Kashmir.” In
Mantras et Diagrammes Rituelles dans l’Hindouisme, ed. Andre Padoux. Équipe no. 249 ‘L’hindouisme: textes, doctrines, pratiques.’ Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (1986), pp. 169-214. [PDF]
“Purity and Power among the Brāhmans of Kashmir.” In
The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History, eds. M. Carrithers, S. Collins and S. Lukes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1985), pp. 190-216. [PDF]