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The Power of the Impure: Transgression, Violence and Secrecy in Bengali Śākta Tantra and Modern Western Magic

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Since their first encounter with the complex body of texts and traditions called "Tantras," Western scholars have been simultaneously repulsed and horrified, yet also tantalized and titillated by the deliberate use of normally impure and defiling substances in Tantric practice. Yet, with a few exceptions, they have made little headway in interpreting the deeper religious and social role of impurity, either in Tantric ritual or in the history of religions generally. This paper compares the role of ritual impurity and transgression in two very different traditions, widely separated both historically and geographically: the Śākta school of Tantra in Bengal (focusing on the 16th century brāhman, Kr⊡nānanda Āgamavāgīśa) and modern Western magic (focusing on Aleister Crowley and the Ordo Templi Orientis). Specifically, I look closely at the manipulation of impure bodily substances—such as blood, semen and vaginal fluids—in sexual rituals and animal sacrifice. By playing off of these two examples in a kind of metaphoric juxtaposition, I hope to shed some new light on the role of impurity, transgression and secrecy in both cases and also in the comparative study of religion as a whole. Adapting some insights from Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault, I argue that the ritual use of impurity has much larger social and political implications, as a means of harnessing the tremendous power that flows through the physical universe, the human body and the social body alike.

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/content/journals/10.1163/156852703322192419
2003-07-01
2016-12-09

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