Śākta Traditions Symposium III

Monday 17 June 2019
Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (10.00-13.00) and Campion Hall (14.30-18.00)
Convener: Dr Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen

Hinduism cannot be understood without the Goddess (Devī/Śakti) and the goddess-oriented Śākta traditions. The Goddess pervades Hinduism at all levels, from aniconic village deities to high-caste pan-Hindu goddesses to esoteric, tantric goddesses. Nevertheless, these highly influential forms of South Asian religion have only recently begun to draw a more broad scholarly attention. Taken together, they form ‘Śāktism’, which is by many considered one of the major branches of Hinduism next to Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism. Śāktism is, however, less clearly defined than the other major branches and sometimes surprisingly difficult to discern from Śaivism in its tantric forms. These sometimes very complex and challenging forms of South Asian religion provide a test case for our understanding of Hinduism and raise important theoretical and methodological questions with regard to the study of religious traditions in South Asia as well as to the more general and comparative study of religion.

This Śākta symposium is a contribution by leading scholars in the field as well as research students to the Śākta Traditions project and its endeavor in tracing developments in the history of goddess worship among the orthoprax brahmans, among the tantric traditions and at village level in South Asia. Thus, the symposium acts as a historical exploration of distinctive Indian ways of imagining God as Goddess (and goddesses) and aims at presenting an interdisciplinary state-of-the-art survey of Śākta history, practice and doctrine in its diversity as well as to convey something of the fascinating Śākta religious imaginaire and ritual practice that is distinctive and sets ‘Śāktism’ apart from other South Asian religious traditions. Any headway in this field will be of great value for the future study of religion in South Asia.


10-13.15 Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies  (13-15 Magdalen Street, Oxford)

10.00-10.15 Welcome by Professor Gavin Flood (Oxford)
10.15-10.45 Dr Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen (Oxford): On the State of the Art and Research Challenges in the Study of Hindu ‘Śāktism’

10.45-11.00 Tea and biscuits

11.00-12.00 Professor Mandakranta ­­­Bose (British Columbia): Correlating Divinity and Femininity in the Hindu Tradition
12.00-12.30 PhD Fellow Silje Lyngar Einarsen (Oslo and Aarhus): Navarātri in Benares: Narrative Structures and Social Realities
12.30-13.00 Prema Goet, MA (SOAS): The Path of Śakti (Exhibition)
13.00 Opening reception with short introduction by Professor Chris Dorsett (Oxford)

13.15-14.30 Lunch [on your own]

14.30-18.00 Campion Hall  (Brewer Street, Oxford)

14.30-14.45 Campion Hall small tour with Professor Gavin Flood
14.45-15.45 Dr Bihani Sarkar (Oxford): Taking over Skanda: Religious appropriation and political transformation in the worship of Durgā (c. 7th century CE).

15.45-16.00 Tea and biscuits

16.00-17.00 Dr Silvia Schwarz Linder (Leipzig): The Concept of jīvanmukti in the Non-Dualistic Śākta Perspective of the Tripurārahasya
17.00-18.00 PhD Fellow Janaki Nair (Northumbria): Intertwining Hands: Tāntric Mudrās and Kathākali Theatre

Exhibition at the OCHS:

The Path of Śakti

Photographic portraits by Prema Goet,
Documentary researcher and photographer,
Śākta Traditions, OCHS

           Week 8, 17 – 21 June 2019

Opening reception with a short introduction by Professor Chris Dorsett on 17 June 2019 13.00pm



Gavin Flood

Professor Gavin Flood, FBA is a Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion in the Theology and Religion Faculty and Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. Professor Flood read Religious Studies and Social Anthropology at Lancaster University and taught at the universities of Wales (Lampeter) and Stirling before coming to Oxford. He was elected to membership of the British Academy in 2014. He is the research director of the Śākta Traditions research programme together with Dr Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen. His  research interests are in medieval Hindu texts (especially from the traditions of Śiva), comparative religion, and phenomenology. Two recent books are The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in Our Strange World (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013) and The Truth Within: A History of Inwardness in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2014). Developing from the comparative interests of these books, he has just published a book on Religion and the Philosophy of Life (Oxford University Press, 2019) as well as developing closer textual work on a Sanskrit text called the Netratantra. He is general series editor of the Oxford History of Hinduism.


On the State of the Art and Research Challenges
in the Study of Hindu ‘Śāktism’

Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen

This paper will provide some opening remarks on the state of the art and some of the research challenges we face in the study of Śākta traditions or Hindu ‘Śāktism’. With research history and conceptual history as the point of departure an example will be given of what a working model of Śāktism might look like followed by a discussion of important research questions, desiderata and ways forward. These sometimes very complex and challenging forms of religion provide a test case for our understanding of Hinduism and raise important theoretical and methodological questions with regard to the study of religious traditions in South Asia as well as to the more general and comparative study of religion. It is believed that any headway in this field will be of great value for the future study of religion in South Asia.

Dr Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen is a Research Lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and tutor in Hinduism, Buddhism and Sanskrit at the Theology and Religion Faculty, University of Oxford. He is the research director and manager of the Śākta Traditions research programme together with Professor Gavin Flood and the founder of the OCHS Kathmandu Office. His approach is interdisciplinary, combining textual studies with fieldwork and the theory and method of the Study of Religion. His book publications include a translation of the Bhagavadgītā (2009), an introduction to Hinduism with a focus on Varanasi (2015) and a Danish introduction to Sanskrit in two volumes (2014). He is the editor of Goddess Traditions in Tantric Hinduism: History, Practice and Doctrine (2015) and currently working on a Danish translation of the Haṭhapradīpikā and an English translation and critical edition of the Netratantra. He has written a number of articles in Danish, German and English on goddess traditions, asceticism, yoga and meditation.


The Idea of Divinity and Femininity in Hindu Thought

Mandakranta Bose

The recognition of women as the source of life is at the centre of Hindu religious thought and encapsulated in the concept of a feminine divinity, the goddess, imagined in many forms, who is the active source of creation and its motive force. In principle all women represent her in varying degrees, but since they do so mainly in her protective and nurturing functions, women’s social worth is measured in terms of their self-effacing service to their families. This selective application of religious thought has confined women’s roles within the home and the family, leaving them bereft of action and authority in the larger world. In recent decades women in Hindu society have attempted to reverse this power imbalance by asserting the unity of femininity and powerful goddesses, especially Kālī and Durgā. In this presentation I will examine the idea of the divine feminine and trace how it has shaped the lives of women in Hindu society.

Professor Mandakranta Bose studied Sanskrit in Calcutta (Smṛti and Mīmāṃsā) and in Oxford, focusing her research on the Nāṭyaśāstras. She taught religion and gender studies in the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Among her many publications are: Classical Indian Dancing: A Glossary (1970), Movement and Mimesis: The Idea of Dance in the Sanskritic Tradition (1991), Nartananirṇaya: A Critical Edition (1991), Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India (2000), Speaking of Dance: The Indian Critique (2001), The Rāmāyaṇa Revisited (2004). Her most recent work, a critical edition, with translation, of Saṅgītanārāyaṇa, is in press. One of her recent research projects focuses on performances of the Rāmāyaṇa and she continues to work on editing Sanskrit Saṅgītaśāstra texts. Professor Bose is the former director of the Centre for India and South Asia Research at the University of British Columbia, and is an Emeritus Professor there. She is at present teaching as a Visiting Professor at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada.


Navarātri in Benares: Narrative Structures and Social Realities

Silje Lyngar Einarsen

This paper analyzes the dynamics of tradition and change in the recent historical developments and the current expression of the public Rāmlīlā and Durgāpūjā festivals in Benares. I discuss the extent to which these festivals may be understood as competitive means of forging power relations and contesting social structures through the creative appropriation of their narratives, and their forms of ritual and aesthetic presentations.
The important role of the Rāmlīlā in the Banārasi collective memory of a shared past stands in stark contrast to the paṇḍāl-based Durgāpūjā, which is considered modern, foreign (imported from Bengal), and provocative. The paṇḍāls are not only contrasted with the Rāmlīlās in terms of their modernity, but there is also a subversive element to them, as this paper will show. Yet, the Rāmlīlā tradition in Benares seems to be undergoing a slow decline, whereas the Durgāpūjā is growing rapidly in terms of costs, power, and prestige. The paṇḍāl celebration has exploded since the latter part of the twentieth century, and is now an undisputed part of the Navarātri scene in Benares. Thus, the annual Durgāpūjā and its role in the festival culture of Benares calls for our attention within the broader study of Hindu Śākta traditions.

Silje Lyngar Einarsen is an Assistant Professor at Oslo Metropolitan University and PhD fellow at the Department for the Study of Religion at Aarhus University. She is currently co-manager for the Śākta Traditions project. Her research is concerned with the relationship between Hindu scriptures and religious practice. She has conducted research on the role of Śākta texts and ritual performances during Navarātri in Benares, combining textual and ethnographic research methods. In this regard she has worked primarily on purāṇic textual material and ritual handbooks, being particularly concerned with the intersection of Brahmanic-Sanskritic and Tantric goddess traditions in these texts. Silje is also interested in medieval yoga traditions and has worked on the Netratantra, the Kubjikāmatatantra and the Haṭhapradīpikā with other members of the Śākta Traditions research project. She is co-author on a Danish standard introduction to Hinduism with a focus on Varanasi (Systime, 2015) and is currently working on a Danish translation of the Haṭhapradīpikā. She has also published articles on the Navarātri festival and the Devīmāhātmya.


Taking Over Skanda:  Religious appropriation and political transformation in the worship of Durgā (c. 7th century CE) 

Bihani Sarkar

This paper is an extract from my book Heroic Shāktism: the cult of Durgā in ancient Indian kingship (Oxford University Press, 2017). Within the story of ancient Indian kingship, the decline of the war-god Skanda as a military symbol overlapped with the rise of heroic Śāktism. The wane in popularity in North India of the older war god as martial deity coincided with a transference of the rhetoric of kingship once strongly linked with him to the cultural narratives of the goddess. This process consolidated her political imagery and broadened its cultural narratives of the goddess. This process consolidated her political imagery and broadened its cultural resonance like no other. Skanda was the symbol of north Indian empire in its heyday, which had lasted up to the time of the Kushanas. But from Gupta times, North Indian governance was confronted by the need for a more expansive political canvas encompassing upcoming aboriginal states and their symbols of faith. As empire declined and northern India became a crucible for rising polities forged by independent lineages, imperial symbolism began to transmute in a profoundly radical manner. Once the unchallenged metaphor for charismatic power, Skanda, a male war-god, became eclipsed by smaller goddesses with control over the āṭavika lands. They in turn were made into parts of a larger identity, Durgā, whose very nature was, like the transforming empire, patterned by difference and even contradiction.
This paper assesses how Durgā began to replace Skanda as a symbol of imperialism as she began to represent local goddesses thought to control land, something Skanda could not. Śaiva mythology employed narrative devices and concepts used to integrate Skanda into its fold to incorporate Durgā and to grant her a critical place within the Śaiva pantheon. This period coincided with the end of the Gupta empire, during which other lineages asserted themselves on the political map. The goddess, now a cohesive deity, began to appear as a political metaphor in their propaganda, replacing Skanda. The Cālukya emperors, for example, begin to prioritize her over their favoured lineage god, Skanda.

Dr Bihani Sarkar was a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Christ Church during the writing of the book. She began her academic career studying for a BA in English Language and Literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, before going on to do an M.Phil in Classical Indian Religions at Wolfson College. Following this, she studied for a D.Phil in Sanskrit at Wolfson College, after which she was awarded a Nachwuchsinitiative Postdoctoral Fellowship by Hamburg University, Germany. She was appointed to a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Oriental Institute at Oxford University in 2014, at which point she also became a member of Christ Church. As part of this Fellowship, she studied the localizations, ritual expressions and belief systems connected to the Indic cult of the warrior goddess Caṇḍikā, and looked into the impact of the cultic practices of goddess-worshipping political lineages on early medieval court culture in India. Her broader research interests include Śākta mythology and poetry, the cult of the Goddess in Indian kingship, Classical Sanskrit poetry and drama, and Aesthetics, and whilst at Christ Church she carried out undergraduate teaching in classical Sanskrit literature. She is now a Teaching Fellow in South Asian Religions at the University of Leeds.


The Concept of jīvanmukti in the Non-Dualistic Śākta Perspective
of the Tripurārahasya

Silvia Schwarz Linder

The lecture focuses on the soteriological teachings of the Tripurārahasya (TR) (“The Secret [Doctrine] of [the Goddess] Tripurā”), a Sanskrit work of South Indian origin, probably composed between the 12th and 15th century CE, and associated with the Tantric Śākta religious tradition of the Śrīvidyā.
The doctrine of jīvanmukti (liberation while still alive) of the TR highlights the syncretism and inclusiveness of this work. In fact, besides the evident influence of the terminology and tenets of the non-dualist Śaiva school of the Pratyabhijñā, one can detect the impact of certain characteristics and ideas derived from the Mokṣopāya/Yogavāsiṣṭha (MU/YV).
By examining some of the relevant passages from both the māhātmyakhaṇḍa (mk) and the jñānakhaṇḍa (jk) (the two extant sections of the work), it will be shown how, in expounding his/their original way of salvation, the author(s) of the TR incorporated ideas deriving from different sources, reformulating, harmonizing and subsuming these ideas into the Śākta perspective of his/their work.

Dr Silvia Schwarz Linder has lectured in the past at the Leopold-Franzens-Universität in Innsbruck and at the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice. Presently she is Research Associate at the Institut für Indologie und Zentralasienwissenschaften of the University of Leipzig, and is affiliated with the Śākta Traditions project at the OCHS led by Professor Gavin Flood and Dr Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen. Her interests focus on the Tantric religious traditions of the Śrīvidyā and of the Pāñcarātra, specifically on the philosophical and theological doctrines expressed in the relevant South Indian Sanskrit textual traditions. She has also translated into Italian texts from the Sanskrit narrative and devotional literature, for editions aimed at a general readership.


Intertwining Hands: Tantric Mudrās and Kathākali theatre

Janaki Nair

This documentary film explores the occurrence of symbolic hand gestures, or ‘mudrā’, in both Śākta tantric rituals and Kathākali theatre. These gestural practices are presented as an intertwining of the ritualistic and theatrical traditions of Kerala. My fieldwork in this part of India, which this film synthesises, has found that mudrā training methods, whether they embody spiritual transformations or have strictly performative functions, make a similar demand on the imagination, or inner consciousness, of practitioners. It is my ambition as a Kathākali performer and documentary filmmaker to reaffirm and re-integrate the threads of this ancient cultural tapestry in which body and mind intertwine through the symbolic actions of my hands.

Janaki Nair is a final year PhD fellow researching semiotics, Śākta tantric traditions and Indian dance. She is also a Kathākali dancer, actor and filmmaker, using practice-based research to offer new perspectives on the creative potential of a traditional art form within contemporary academic contexts.


Śākta-narratives in 19th-Century Nepalese Chronicles
[postponed until October 2019]

Rajan Khatiwoda

The oldest chronicle (vaṃśāvalī, literally ‘genealogy’) in Nepal goes back to the 14th century. The 19th century, however, saw a proliferation of vaṃśāvalīs, especially written in the Nepali language. These chronicles record narratives dealing with the deeds of kings and prominent historical figures as well as incidents and ritual activities relating to holy sites, temples or palaces. The divine powers—especially goddesses such as, Tulajā, Kumārī, Kaṅkeśvarī or Guhyeśvarī—choose new kings, legitimize them or give them insights for their governance. The royals, monastics, and ritual agencies serve them to secure the prosperity of human existence and for the betterment of their kingdoms. On the contrary, any failure to serve the divine actors results in misfortune for kings, kingdoms and subjects. The kings’ sovereignty over their kingdoms, thus, appears to be shared between humans and non-humans. The present paper will attempt to investigate the narratives relating to the Śākta tradition of the Kathmandu Valley as portrayed in the vaṃśāvalīs.  The centre focus of this paper shall be to look at the interchangeability of the role of śaktis represented in the Nepālīkabhūpavaṃśāvalī—a widely known 19th-century chronicle of Nepal compiled in the 1830s.

Dr Rajan Khatiwoda has a PhD in South Asian Studies (Heidelberg University) and MA in Classical Indology (Nepal Sanskrit University, Balmeeki Vidyapeeth). Dr Khatiwoda has been a Research Assistant and Cataloguer at the Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project (NGMCP) at the Nepal Research Centre (NRC) in Kathmandu for 10 years (2003-2013) and is affiliated with the Śākta Traditions project at the OCHS led by Professor Gavin Flood and Dr Bjarne Wernicke-Olesen. His interests span widely from Śaivism to Indian Philosophy, Buddhist Logic, Manuscriptology and Epigraphy with a focus on Ancient Nepalese History, law and Śākta literature.