Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions
Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism fundamentally rethinks the nature of the transgressive theories and practices of the Buddhist Tantric traditions, challenging the notion that the Tantras were “marginal” or primitive and situating them instead—both ideologically and institutionally—within larger trends in mainstream Buddhist and Indian culture.
Critically surveying prior scholarship, Wedemeyer exposes the fallacies of attributing Tantric transgression to either the passions of lusty monks, primitive tribal rites, or slavish imitation of Saiva traditions. Through comparative analysis of modern historical narratives—that depict Tantrism as a degenerate form of Buddhism, a primal religious undercurrent, or medieval ritualism—he likewise demonstrates these to be stock patterns in the European historical imagination.
Through close analysis of primary sources, Wedemeyer reveals the lived world of Tantric Buddhism as largely continuous with the Indian religious mainstream and deploys contemporary methods of semiotic and structural analysis to make sense of its seemingly repellent and immoral injunctions. Innovative, semiological readings of the influential Guhyasamaja Tantra underscore the text’s overriding concern with purity, pollution, and transcendent insight—issues shared by all Indic religions—and a large-scale, quantitative study of Tantric literature shows its radical antinomianism to be a highly managed ritual observance restricted to a sacerdotal elite. These insights into Tantric scripture and ritual clarify the continuities between South Asian Tantrism and broader currents in Indian religion, illustrating how thoroughly these “radical” communities were integrated into the intellectual, institutional, and social structures of South Asian Buddhism.
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Preface and Acknowledgments
List of Abbreviations
Making Sense in and of the Human Sciences
No Two Ways About It
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Abhidharma antinomian ascetical Barthes Bhattacharyya bodhisattvas Bsod Buddha Buddhist communities Buddhist literature Buddhist Tantras Buddhist traditions Cakrasamvara Candrakīrti century chapter claims commentary conceptual connotative semiotics considered context cultural dang davidson dharma dhist discourses divine dualistic enlightened evidence example fact first-millennium gnosis guhyasamāja Hevajra historiography human India Indian Buddhism Indian Esoteric Buddhism insofar instance interpretation later likewise literal Mahāyāna Mahāyoga mainstream maṇḍala means meats and ambrosias medieval mode modern monastic monks Nāgārjuna narrative nondual nondualist noted observance origins pa'i polluting practice practitioner primitive purity reading reference religion religious revealed Rgyud rhetoric rite ritual Ronald davidson Śaiva Śaivism Śākyamuni samādhi Sanderson Sanskrit scholarly scholars scriptures Sde dge semiology semiosis sense siddha signified Śiva social sources Śrāvaka structure suggest Sūtra Tantric Buddhism Tantric traditions Tantrism taught teaching term of art texts Tibetan translation tion Töh transcendent lords transgressive tribal usage vajradhara vajrayāna vrata yoga Yoginī Tantras