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The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century Kindle Edition
|Length: 434 pages|
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Top Customer Reviews
I liked that the author was honest about where there are big gaps in the history due to ambiguous dating/authorship. Many major works, such as the early Vedas, cannot be dated with any precision at all. What I did not like about the book was its overly academic style. It was a dense read. A little bit of narration would have pieced the text together more enjoyably. I would definitely not recommend this book to someone who hasn't previously read a little bit about Buddhist/Hindu philosophy and history. Many terms in the book are simply not defined by Samuels, which was frustrating for me: e.g. Ajivikas, the role of the Pali language, Samkhya. A simple glossary at the end of the book would have been helpful.
My greatest takeaway from the book is that the lines dividing the history of Buddhism and Hinduism (and Jainism) are quite ambiguous. All three religious borrowed immensely from each other.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Samuel writes very well, and is very much the modern scholar: comfortable with ambiguity and conjecture, and comfortable with limits to knowledge and evidence. His approach is very pragmatic; he follows the stream of developments rather than trying to create a structure the evidence cannot support. He states clearly that his conjectures about Tantric origins are not to be confused with the full flowering of Tantric traditions over the course of centuries, nor is it to be confused with the actual Tantric experience.
For anyone who has wondered how a stunningly transcendent insight such as Tantra can be associated with so much shamanic and philosophical cultural baggage, this is the book to read!
Samuel traces the evolution of the two dominant idioms of contemplative practice in India from their origins in the mid-first millennium BCE to around 1200 CE. He traces the evolution of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain meditation practice over that span of time, contextualizing them in terms of their social idioms.
The reader will come away with a strong account of the evolution of solitary meditation schools out of the preceding Vedic culture, the bifurcation of spiritual practice into counter-posed communities of households and monastic communities, and the relationship between various schools of practice to social elites and the general population at large.
I benefited most from the terrific second half of the book which focuses on the history of tantra. Having reviewed an enormous literature on the subject, Samuel provides the first coherent and systematic account that I've seen of the entire phenomenon in all of its principle forms. He gives particular attention to the Saivite and Buddhist forms, but I came away with a deeply-enriched understanding of the whole picture, from the early days of cremation-ground practices and wild goddesses of the Deccan to the elaborate ritual forms encoded in the Kalachakra Tantra.
Anyone who has made a serious attempt to come to terms with the bewildering diversity of beliefs amalgamated under the label of tantra will find an invaluable guide in this wonderful book, which performs a feat that I might have previously judged impossible, giving a coherent account for how such radically disparate practices fell together.
The focus of Samuel's book is historical and social, not philosophical or soteriological, but I would urge anyone with an active personal interest in the material to read this book, because there are key aspects of tantra that literally cannot be understood without looking at the evolution of the body of beliefs.
What do mandala visualizations have to do with sexual yoga? What is the difference between tantric and non-tantric scriptures such as the Buddhist sutras, and why is there so much overlap between then? How do the Saivite and Visnavite tantric forms relate to Buddhist and Jain tantras? Who are all these gods anyway, and how do they relate to one another? How did a set of antinomian and transgressive practices take root and flourish, not only in palaces and households, but in celibate contemplative communities as well?
These are the kinds of questions that can only be meaningfully addressed by consideration of the social history of tantra, and that is what the book provides. It's a stiff, academic read, and presupposes some familiarity with the subject, but for serious students of the material I can't recommend it highly enough.
A couple minor observations: Samuel analyzes the interplay between India and China at some length, but I would have preferred significantly greater consideration of the possible dialog between India and lands to its west, especially Greece and Mesopotamia. We have compelling evidence for important exchanges there, and if the book truly aspires to help forge a common basis of understanding between the traditions of India and the West, as the book maintains, that's an important place to look.
Additionally, I note that nearly every one of the author's sources are secondary texts written in English. Not being trained in Asian languages, I conject, he had to rely on translators and interpreters. Given the vast body of material he consulted, I don't particularly regard this as a fault, but it's worth noting.
It must be said that this book is a scholarly account, drawing from scholarly sources. That might draw the ire of modern day Hindus who prefer to see their religious traditions as unchanging, eternal, supernaturally revealed doctrines exempt from historical analysis.
If you are looking for a more revisionist work on "Hinduism", you would be better off going with Swami Bhaskarananda or David Frawley. Or you could go to India itself. While I was there I learned many dubious "facts" treated as axiomatic Truth, such as the "fact" that the ancient Hindus had rocket ships and nuclear weapons, all languages evolved from Sanskrit and thus all languages and cultures came from India, etc etc etc.
However, if you are looking for an intelligent, informed review of Indic religions based on actual evidence, this is your book. from the "beginning" to the end of the "Medieval era", this book is a must. After having read it entirely once and specific sections multiple times, I use it as a sourcebook for further readings. While the previous cautions to Hindus might imply this book solely concerns the various and inter-related traditions comprising "Hinduism", it is also a great resource for Buddhist and Jain histories as well.
This book starts off with a discussion of the usual assumed starting point of "Indian Religions", the Indus valley civilization. Samuel takes a very careful, fair approach to the scholarship on the subject, and is very circumspect about how much we can actually learn about them, and how much of what we assume we "know" is actually us retrojecting later traditions into the past. This kind of careful evaluation of our own assumptions as Religious Studies scholars and human beings is critical of any piece of great scholarship, and Samuel doesn't disappoint.
Following that, Samuel gives an overview of Vedic-Brahmanism, early Buddhism and Jainism, Yoga, early "Hinduism", and Tantra with the same cautious, circumspect approach throughout. Not only Samuel provide the usual consensus opinions, but also gives some very intriguing alternative scholarship at hand in a very balanced way. These sorts of things just add to the book's immense value as a resource and starting off point for a vast array of subjects. He also always qualifies his statements with "this is what I believe based on this evidence", etc etc.
While Samuel does explicitly state that the phenomenon of "neo-Tantra" falls somewhat outside the scope of his book and only gives a cursory overview in the last chapter, he doesn't outright dismiss the subject like so many scholars do these days.
I cannot say that I agree with all of Samuel's assertions in this book, but that doesn't detract from its value. Scholarship is a field of argument and dissension, and Samuel has provided a very important resource for students, fellow scholars, and the informed lay-person. A small thing in the book that I enjoy is his inclusion of footnotes as opposed to endnotes; that's a small detail that made looking up references (of which there are many) that much easier and more enjoyable.
I cannot recommend this book enough! Buy it!
Caveat, this is a pretty dense text, not necessarily popular reading. Good intro to what early Aryan/vedic societies believed. Not 100% clear what "tantra" means - although that was also part of the point of the work - that the term "tantra" is not clearly defined. Here is means primarily "transgressive" attitudes, although I did not completely understand all of what goes in to it - the using of different symbols and gods to represent a central god. Maybe on the second reading I will understand more.
I really appreciate the author's humility in front of the difficulties of understanding how people thousands of years ago thought, as well in personal terms as a researcher.
Example: On the content of the sramana teachings (p. 133):
"I have no real confidence of coming up with anything more secure or final than my predecessors, many of them scholars with competences far greater than mine in relation to the textual material. Nor does what follows have any real claim to originality. Something, however, does need to be said at this point in the book."
In comparison with other scholarly works - at least he goes on to describe it, rather than forcing you to look for some other book!
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