Join scholar-practitioner Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma (Harvard Divinity School), and a global cohort of students, for this unique opportunity to study and explore the subject of Women and Gender in Hindu Tantra.
This course examines the status of women and the category of gender within in the contemporary world of Hindu Śākta Tantra (esoteric goddess traditions). We will challenge normative assumptions and categories of female practitioners and teachers by examining temple wives, guru mothers, and superwomen gurus. We will look at and discuss the complex nature of practice, ritual space, agency, community, social status, and more.
Special attention in this course will be given to an examination of a third gender—colloquially known as hijṛā in South Asia. Scholarship examining the status of women in this tradition often characterizes adherents using a simple binary of “empowered” and “exploited.” Little has been written on the hijṛās. Collectively we will examine how an overtly simplified lens of empowerment and exploitation is not an accurate representation of the varied and complex roles women and hijṛās perform in the larger world of Hindu Śākta Tantra.
Each Module also includes: recommended weekly readings and a quiz.
The first module introduces the term hijṛā, also known today as kinnar. Since 2019 hijṛās, specifically, as an organized group under the banner of Kinnar Akhāṛā, a monastic group, (although akhāṛā can also mean a wrestling arena), are rapidly taking center stage in certain Hindu ritual spaces. They are coming from the fringes to becoming mainstream ritual specialists; in this shift, they are claiming—I would argue reclaiming—their space, especially in fertility rituals.
These are temple women who are "married women"— but legally unmarried — who play a pivotal role in the training of the male gurus and are required for the successful completion of certain esoteric rituals. Simply put, these women are highly trained in ritualized sex. For example, they provide instructions on how not to release bodily fluids with the help of controlled breathing. They embody and negotiate a complex social and religious space. Their agency, status, and reputation are different within the temple setting and outside the temple walls.
They are the Tantric daughters and Tantric sisters, as understood in the biological-genealogical terms, who eventually become Tantric wives. From an early age, the girls receive extensive training on how to perform pūjās, learn mantras, fast on certain days, follow segregation during menstruation because they are believed to become impure for three days, and remain chaste until they get married. They serve dual roles in the ritual space: To their husbands' they provide their body and bodily fluids for the advancement of their husband's practice. The question here is if that is a matter of choice. And what is the level of female agency?
Women gurus are the most powerful group of women in the world of Hindu Śākta Tantra. Power and authority in this space as in most organized religion is characterized by two countervailing forces. One of the forces seeks to preserve the definitiveness of the foundational religious experience using external authoritative mechanisms of centralized control, which has largely been men in the context of Hindu Śākta Tantra. The other attempts to preserve the living relationship of the core religious encounter through an internal radical dispersion of religious power. Woman gurus seem to successfully relate to both here. By doing so they also collectively challenge the phallocentric nature of Tantra.
Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma
Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma is a historian, educator, and social entrepreneur. As a historian, she studies Indian religions focusing on esoteric rituals and gender, particularly in Hinduism (Goddess Tantra). As an educator, she is currently a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. She is on leave from her parent organization, the University of Houston where she is the Instructional Assistant Professor. In the past she has taught at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, the University of Montana, Rice University, and Dalian Neusoft University, China.
There are five forthcoming book projects that Sravana is simultaneously working on: A monograph titled Divinized Divas: Superwomen, Wives, Hijṛās in Hindu Śākta Tantra, a co-written book titled The Serpent's Tale: Kuṇḍalinī and the History of an Experience, two co-edited volumes titled Living Folk Religions and Religious Responses to the Pandemic & Crises: Isolation, Survival, and #Covidchaos, and a co-edited special issue journal Digital Tantra. Her published articles can be found on sravana.me
As a social entrepreneur, she is the co-founder of a nonprofit, Lumen Tree Portal. Sravana invests in building communities with individuals from various faith backgrounds who believe in kindness, compassion, and fulfillment.
Save 20% off the course tuition, now through Friday, May 20th at 2pm Pacific.
This course is set up for self-study. Sign up today to begin moving through the modules at your own pace.
• Lifetime access to YS 120
TWO MONTHLY PAYMENTS
• Lifetime access to YS 120
• Access to YS 120
• Access to all YS courses—including future offerings.
"Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma is an engaging professor. She has a deep appreciation for the subject matter and handles difficult questions about practice and the moral/ethical issues that arise from the witnessing of Sakta Tantra practices, very human. She clearly loves teaching, getting feedback and creating a safe community for all. "
"Dr. Borkataky-Varma is an exceptional teacher and human being. Her willingness to share and teach from a heart-felt place is truly a gift."