ASIA 278
Tantra Spring 2025
Division II
Cross-listed REL 278

Class Details

Tantra–a term shrouded in mystique and controversy–often finds itself fetishized in the Euro-American imagination, conjuring images of transgressive sex, illicit substances, antinomian violence, and the spiritualization of the erotic, the terrifying, and the sublime. This course aims to demystify Tantra and–by locating it in various political, economic, religious, aesthetic, and philosophical contexts–explore its rich, complex history and practices beyond the sensationalist stereotypes. First and foremost, we also devote significant attention to understanding Tantra’s intricate connection to what is referred to as “Esoteric” Buddhism. Our exploration will also ask, what did Tantra look like in practice? How have tantric traditions related to Hindu, Buddhist, and Occult movements? What philosophical assumptions does Tantra rest on? What ethical issues does it evoke? How has Tantra been connected to transgressive notions of gender and desire? How has Tantra been related to the body? What were its connection to ideals of sovereignty? What has been the relationship between Tantra and magic? By tracing the evolution and adaptation of Tantra and Esoteric Buddhism across different cultures and time periods, this course takes a global historical approach, focusing on three key geographies: South Asia, where Tantra has deep roots and complex entanglements; medieval Japan, where Esoteric Buddhism developed unique forms and practices; and modern international Occult movements, where Tantra has been reimagined and integrated into new spiritual contexts. By critically engaging with primary and secondary sources, and by diving deeply into the philosophical and ethical dimensions of Tantra, this course will challenge students to engage critically with the foundational beliefs and moral dilemmas intrinsic to tantric practices in different cultural and historical contexts. We will scrutinize the philosophical underpinnings that sustain various tantric philosophical systems, including approaches to dualism, the nature of reality and embodiment, the function of language, and the pursuit of enlightenment. Ethical considerations are paramount, as we explore how tantric traditions have navigated the boundaries of societal norms through transgressive practices, raising questions about consent, power dynamics, and the redefinition of purity and impurity. The course will also examine radical tantric notions of gender and desire, challenges to conventional morality, and their potential to subvert established hierarchies and notions of sovereignty. Lastly, we will continuously strive to subvert simplistic ideas of authenticity.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 15
Expected: 15
Class#: 3837
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Readings, weekly critical responses, 10-12 page research paper.
Prerequisites: none.
Enrollment Preferences: Religion majors and Asian Studies concentrators.
Distributions: Division II
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
REL 278 Division II ASIA 278 Division II

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