Tantra in India. Paulson Lectures in the Study of Religion

In cooperation with the University of Tartu the Estonian Society for the Study of Religions is organizing the first Ivar Paulson lectures in the study of religion. This year the lectures will be held by the well-known scholar of Indian Tantra, Paolo E. Rosati. He is a distinguished scholar of Indian Tantra, in particular of its historical development in the wider social, cultural and religious context.


Dates and location:

02.11.2022 – 16:15-17:45 at Ülikooli 18-139: Tantra and Beyond

03.11.2022 – 16:15-17:45 at Ülikooli 18-139: The Cult of the Goddess Kāmākhyā (Assam)

04.11.2022 – 14:15-15:45 at Ülikooli 18-139: Blood, Sex, and Magic: The Power of the Yonipīṭha at Kāmākhyā


Detailed descriptions of the lectures can be found below:

Tantra and Beyond

02.11.2022 – 16:15-17:45 at Ülikooli 18-139

This lecture is a short introduction to Tantra as a religious phenomenon related not only to the Sanskritic élite and its textual production (such as, e.g., the highly philosophical Kashmiri Śivaism and its non-dualistic view of the universe) but also to the cross-cultural dialectic between Brahmanism and non-mainstream religions, such as tribal and folk traditions. After an analysis of the proposed definitions of Tantra in the history of the studies, the characteristics of Tantra will be point out in order to explain the problematic identification of Tantra as an univocal category because the extreme fluidity of its elements. Hence, also a differentiation between left-hand and right-hand or soft-core and hard-core Tantra emerges as a flawed attempt of classification. Finally, the controversial issue regarding the ‘birth’ of Tantra will be discussed highlighting the possibility of a multiple origin of what we call Tantra.


The Cult of the Goddess Kāmākhyā (Assam)

03.11.2022 – 16:15-17:45 at Ülikooli 18-139

The mythology of the goddess Kāmākhyā was introduced in the early medieval Kālikāpurāṇa (ninth–eleventh century CE), a Śākta text that linked the yoni of Satī to the Assamese goddess Kāmākhyā. This lecture will analyse the medieval and pre-modern Purāṇas and Tantras compiled in northeastern India—focusing on their mythological accounts of the cosmogony of the yoni-pīṭha—in order to outline the intersection of Kaula-Tantra and Purāṇic elements in the formation of the Goddess’s cult at Kāmākhyā.


Blood, Sex, and Magic: The Power of the Yonipīṭha at Kāmākhyā

04.11.2022 – 14:15-15:45 at Ülikooli 18-139

This lecture explores the connection between Tantra and the magic tradition of Nīlācala in Assam in order to explain the encounter between Brahmanism and magic. First, the doctrinal, ritual, and mythical background of the cult of the Goddess Kāmākhyā, whose roots go back to the esoteric sexual path of Kaula Tantra praxis will be discussed. Having traced the history to this path, which around the 10th century switched from blood sacrifice to a mystic-erotic ritual centred on the yoni-pūjā (worship of the vulva), homologizing blood offerings and erotic rituals focusing on the human body as a source of sexual fluids necessary to obtain such supernatural accomplishments (siddhis), this lecture then examines the concept of siddhi as a ‘magical power’ that can be acquired only by those belonging to the kula (clan), the only ones who know the yoni’s secret (the restricted transmission of siddhis over kula’s generations being a complement to the ideology of blood sacrifice). Finally, it considers the intersection of indigenous traditions and Brahmanical ritual praxis in Assam as the source of the peculiar cult of the yoni of Kāmākhyā. From this discussion, Assamese Tantra emerges as a religious phenomenon that crosses socio-cultural boundaries and encompasses apparently irreconcilable categories


Paolo E. Rosati is an independent scholar based in Rome (Italy). He obtained a PhD in ‘Asian and African Studies’ (South Asian Section) from Sapienza University of Rome (2017). Since 2016 he has regularly published articles on the yoni cult at Kāmākhyā in peer-reviewed journals and collective volumes. His publications include a double special issue on Tantra for Religions of South Asia (vol. 14, nos. 1–2) and a volume (coedited with Andrea Acri) entitled, Tantra, Magic, and Vernacular Religions in Monsoon Asia: Texts, Practices, and Practitioners from the Margins (Routledge Studies in Tantric Traditions). Actually, he is editing an upcoming volume Magic, the Supernatural, and Danger across Pre-Modern and Modern Monsoon Asia. Paolo’s main field of research is the medieval and pre-modern development of Assamese Tantra, although nowadays his research’s focus is expanding to the intersection of Tantra, magic, gender, and memory in the modern period.


Ivar Paulson lectures focus on the most noteworthy topics, issues and new developments in the contemporary study of religion. Ivar Paulson (1922-1966) was known for the wide range of peoples, religious beliefs and practices he was interested in and which he studied by combining a number of different research approaches. Similarly, Paulson lectures aim to highlight and bring together some of the more significant developments from various approaches and perspectives in the contemporary study of religion.