Join Dr. Ben Williams (Assistant Professor, Naropa University), and a global cohort of students, for this unique opportunity to study and explore the fascinating and lesser-known history, philosophy, and practice of Yoga within Śaiva Tantra.
The word “tantra” conjures many images in today’s popular culture, such as a scantily-clad couple eye-gazing in Ibiza or sexual energy healing in California. In this course we will briefly explore the process whereby tantra came to be so intimately associated with sacred sexuality, a revealing historical narrative filled with colorful gurus and cross-cultural projections. The genealogy of this modern form, which can be dubbed neo-tantra, will enable us to meaningfully distinguish and appreciate classical tantra, a collection of revelatory traditions that first emerged in India in the fifth century C.E. Most central to our exploration will be highly-influential tantric traditions that are “Śaiva,” that is to say, devoted to the deity Śiva and related pantheons of Goddesses.
One extraordinary feature of premodern tantric traditions is their comprehensive and little-known teachings on yoga. A preeminent scholar of Śaiva yoga, Dr. Somadeva Vasudeva, has noted that between the classical yoga of Patañjali and the earliest Sanskrit texts that can be classified as “haṭha yoga,” there is a six-hundred year period of yoga’s history that is either skipped over or scarcely treated. This uncharted gap witnessed a vibrant development of yogic practices and teachings. And yet critical and reliable studies on yoga in the tantric traditions can be counted on one hand. This is unfortunate, for in the tantric yoga developed in this period we find intricate meditative visualization, diverse disciplines of self-mastery, various forms of deity yoga, and subtle and sophisticated yogic practices that work with the breath and mantra. We also find the earliest development of what is often called the yogic or tantric body. Comprised of networks of channels (nāḍī), cakras, deities, spacious voids, well-springs of ambrosia and more, this is a body that is permeated with divine powers, most famously the coiled Goddess kuṇḍalinī.
This course, based on original Sanskrit scholarship and a coherent synthesis of the best existing scholarship on tantric traditions, provides a solid grounding in the origins, development, and essential features of classical tantra. This understanding will serve as a bedrock for learning about the most definitive forms of yoga revealed in tantric scriptures and transmitted by tantric masters.
Each Module also includes: recommended weekly readings, a PDF handout, and optional quiz.
We begin with an exploration of the genesis of modern conceptions of tantra, particularly its association with spiritual pleasure and ecstatic intimacy. This introduction to neo-tantra will clear the path for a journey into the origins and definitive features of classical tantra, including a survey of its diverse scriptural streams. These revelations teach potent mantras, rites of liberating initiation, methods of identifying with tantric Gods and Goddesses, and distinct modes of deity worship. In module 1 we bring to light a tantric view of the world as teeming with divine powers—energies and intelligences that a tantric adept endeavors to harness towards liberation and empowerment.
In this module we will explore the practice of yoga in early tantric scriptures, particularly its unique systems of “supports of yoga” (yogāṅga), which often tally to six (ṣaḍaṅga). We will also explore the way in which yogic techniques play an essential role in the performance of tantric rituals, such as liberating initiation and the regular propitiation of the supreme deity and their retinue. Finally, we broach one of the most distinctive forms of yoga in classical tantra, the “ascending articulation of mantras” (mantroccāra). This is a practice that requires a high definition awareness of the mantra’s resonance as it rises through the body, engendering increasingly subtle stages of awakening.
This module examines some of the way classical tantra envisioned the body and also charts the emergence of the Path of the Goddess Clans (kulamārga), which marked a move away from exacting ritual towards direct liberating insight. We will explore tantric texts that mapped upon the body divine wheels or lotuses (cakra), networks of luminous channels (nāḍī), subtle knots (granthi), sacred sites (pīṭha), elements and deities, seed mantras (bīja), and latent cosmic powers. We will then consider the ways this tantric body served as a platform the practice of yoga, and gesture towards the enduring influence of these practices in the subsequent history of yogic traditions.
We conclude with an exploration of tantric traditions that articulated an inclusive non-dual view of reality, and also some extraordinarily sophisticated tantric philosophies that worked to make this view rationally coherent. In non-dual tantric treatises we will study some sharp critiques of power-seeking and ascetic forms of yoga in favor of a liberating practices that are spontaneous, effortless, and which utilize the flow of cognition and the full panorama of sense experience.
Dr. Ben Williams is an intellectual historian focused on Indian religions and the history of Śaiva tantra. He has received extensive training in Indian philosophy, literature, and aesthetics in Sanskrit sources. Ben received a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Vermont, a Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and completed his PhD in the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Hinduism at Naropa University, where he has recently co-created a low-residency MA program in Yoga Studies that will launch in fall 2020. Ben also serves on the academic advisory council of the Muktabodha Indological Research Institute, which is dedicated to the preservation of scriptural and philosophical texts of classical India.
Ben’s doctoral thesis is on revelation and the figure of the tantric guru in the writings of Abhinavagupta, an eminent intellectual figure of medieval Kashmir. Building upon this study, one of his current research projects is charting the transmission of tantric traditions to South India that are indebted to non-dual Śaiva teachings and lineages that originally flourished in Kashmir.
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"I am truly amazed by the depth and authenticity of the lectures shared with us by Dr. Ben Williams. It was an extraordinary pleasure to learn from him, as he presented the topic (classical Tantra) in the wide perspective, including plenty of different teachings in a non-sectarian way, based on the Sanskrit root texts. What makes the learning process fun is that he enjoyed all kinds of questions and encouraged the students to participate in the discussion. I wish him all the best on his path and I hope to be able to learn more from him in the future."
"The depth and breadth of Ben’s knowledge and the thoughtful and generous manner in which he shares it is truly inspiring! This course is a gift! Thank you."
"I feel like I walked into a dark cave, with next to zero knowledge on the subject. Dr. Ben Williams has the ability to shine a torch on hidden corners and shadows, revealing that by no means is this a 4-walled room that fits the basic perception of structure. He illuminates a system that challenges classic views and long-held beliefs. My life has changed from the teachings in this course."
"I really enjoyed this course and Dr. Williams' approach: very clear, high level, competent and deep. It was what I was looking for. I highly recommend this course and I hope to take others from such a wonderful teacher. Thank you!"