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The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century Paperback – 27 Mar 2008

3.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 434 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (27 Mar. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521695341
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521695343
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.5 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 912,611 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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' … a masterful book that I am very grateful to have read …' Yoga and Tantra

Book Description

Yoga and tantra are practised in modernized forms throughout the world today, but most introductions to Hinduism or Buddhism tell only part of the story of how they developed. This book seeks to understand their origins within the wider picture of the evolution of religion and society in South Asia.

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Overall, it's a brilliant book. Samuels is a social anthropologist, so his focus is less on the philosophy/theology behind the early development of Hinduism and Buddhism (and to a lesser extent Jainism) than on the evolution of the techniques of enlightenment found in these traditions and how they operated within the social and political context. Consequently, Samuels does not spend too much discussing the intellectual history of the traditions (he certainly does address them though) but prefers to look at who in society practiced what (e.g. the relationship between renunciate traditions and political rulers). He relies on the concept of elective affinity - where spiritual techniques emerge because they are amenable to the social/political context, which in turn provides new opportunities for the evolution of the techniques.

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.
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Full of detail but,dry
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program)

Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars 6 reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Major Contribution to the Field 21 Sept. 2012
By Gendun - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Rarely has a book so admirably met so compelling a need. Samuel provides a sweeping survey analyzing an incredible diversity of religious traditions, beliefs and practices over a great swath of time, and in so doing has produced the first inclusive general history of yogic and tantric traditions of India that I have yet seen, and I've been looking for a very long time.

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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent on the early development of Indic religions 26 Mar. 2015
By jonnos - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Samuel's book is not what the title says; at least it's not about the origin of yoga. Rather, it's about the early development of Indic religions in general and especially how the various ascetic and tantric practices developed. This is a huge subject and Samuel includes a vast amount of reference material. The first and for me the most interesting part of the book focuses on how Brahmanism on the one hand and Buddhism, Jainism etc. on the other hand both influenced each other, and also about how popular beliefs in myths and various types of deities interacted with the ascetic and philosophic strains to produce the "classic" versions of these religions. Much food for thought if you are interested in the early history of Indic religions. The only thing missing is a discussion of the development of the rich meditation practices especially in Buddhism, and how this relates to the other subjects just mentioned. But this is admittedly a difficult and huge subject in itself.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant reading of the origins of Tantra... 13 Mar. 2010
By Paul Squassoni - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Geoffrey Samuel's scholarly, reflective, ambitious work does an extraordinary job of relating tantric traditions to the flow of Indic history. The emphasis in some Tantric traditions on auspicious magic, deities and ritual makes much more sense when considered as a complement to the otherworldly concerns of the Vedic Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions.

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!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book but not popular reading 13 May 2011
By SonnetL - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed and learned a lot from this book, I found the writing engaging, and appreciate the author's attention to detail. Unfortunately, the answer to many of my questions about the history of yoga turns out to be "no one knows." Still, I really appreciate the author's honesty in saying that instead of just leaving it out or spinning some story.

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!
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 27 July 2016
By dheepa sundaram - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
great book on the history and development of Yoga from a readable but academic perspective.
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