A Global History of Tantra: An Interview with Julian Strube

By Guest Contributor Mou Banerjee

By Mou Banerjee

Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Julian Strube is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at the University of Vienna. He works from a global historical perspective about the relationship between religion and politics, as well as debates about the meaning of religion, science, and philosophy since the eighteenth century. His current research concentrates on how the meaning of religion and its role in society has been negotiated among Bengali intellectuals in exchange with non-Indian interlocutors, especially regarding reform, tradition, and modernity. He has co-edited Theosophy across Boundaries with Hans-Martin Krämer (SUNY 2020), followed by New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism (open access, Brill 2021), co-edited with Egil Asprem. He also co-edited an open-access special issue on “Global Religious History” with Giovanni Maltese for Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. In his first monograph (Vril, Brill 2013), he investigated the relationship between alternative religious movements, National Socialism, völkisch movements, and present-day far-right extremism. His PhD thesis on Socialism, Catholicism, and Occultism in Nineteenth-Century France was published with De Gruyter in 2016.

Mou Banerjee spoke to him about his most recent monograph, Global Tantra: Religion, Science, and Nationalism in Colonial Modernity, published in 2022 with Oxford University Press.

Mou Banerjee: Julian, congratulations on a field changing contribution to global religious history! Your book is absolutely brilliant and has been so inspiring and thought-provoking for my own work, my analytical frameworks and methodologies. Your book will provoke conversations in this field for many years to come! So, how did you get interested in this particular topic? What was your thinking process while conceptualizing the project? What was your Eureka moment – when you knew you were going to focus on Indian intellectual interlocutors and their networks rather than on Western reception and theorization of what Tantra meant? 

Julian Strube: My previous work revolved around political-religious movements in Europe, with a specific focus on what might be subsumed under the rubric of esotericism. In my earlier monographs, I have kind of traversed the political spectrum from early French socialists to (neo-)Nazism, so I became quite familiar with nineteenth-century debates about the meaning of religion and its contested role in “modern” society. The intertwined subjects of orientalist studies, racial theories, colonialism, and orientalism were a constant and prominent factor in the contexts I was researching, and I found it increasingly unsatisfying to deal with them only as a historical backdrop. From an early point on, I wanted to understand how notions such as “Aryan” developed in such wildly different and significant ways—for instance, in the emergence of my discipline, religious studies, or as an integral part of the alleged interdependence of religion, language, and nation.

It was clear to me that I had to move beyond Europe and North America in order to understand these historical debates about religion and politics, and it was especially clear to me that I had to move beyond sources written in European languages, familiarize myself with additional regional histories, and the scholarship that has been done on them. I was fortunate enough to profit from the wonderful intellectual atmosphere and the institutional quality in Heidelberg. Without the religious studies department, the Cluster “Asia and Europe in a Global Context,” and the South Asia Institute, this new adventure would have been impossible for me. In the end, I was equipped with the philological tools of Bangla and some rudimentary Sanskrit, on the one hand, and a collaborative framework that I was lucky enough to be part of, global religious history. These tools and the great people I was working with enabled my perspective on how I wanted to do this new book.

My hope had been that I would succeed in unravelling the network behind Arthur Avalon and shine light, not only on the local context but also on the global connections that shaped it. I was really excited to find that the same group of people had been active before John Woodroffe had even arrived in Bengal, and that their first efforts to revise the image on Tantra had taken place on a truly global stage, in the journal The Theosophist. This was just a fantastic starting point for me, I really couldn’t imagine a more impressive and instructive example of how global perspectives may help us to do some solid historiography.

MB: I am absolutely fascinated by your methodology – you talk of a global religious history beyond movement of people, goods, ideas and knowledge. What is global in your theorization? How do you theorize a history of the colony beyond the metropole?

JS: People may use the term “global” in quite disparate ways, so it’s important to make clear that I’m not employing it in the sense of planetary or universal. My intention was not to write a history of planet Earth (perhaps I’m somewhat crazy, but not that much). Rather, I’m convinced that the history of notions such as religion and modernity is not determined by a unilateral flow of ideas from Europe to the rest of the world, but by entanglements that come with a lot of ambiguity arising from the colonial context. To begin with, there was no homogenous European understanding of religion that could have been exported to the colonies and elsewhere. If I knew anything from my previous research, it’s that “religion”—and “modernity,” for that matter—was hotly contested and never had a fixed meaning. It’s precisely the constant attempts to fix and (re-)negotiate meaning that interest me, and those were inherently intertwined with other parts of the world and the people inhabiting them. Those people were not passive recipients of knowledge but agents in their own right, with their local histories and debates. It was not only since the eighteenth century that such local contexts were entangled with other distant locales, but through the modern colonial context (the period I have been focusing on, for now), the very conceptualization of religion and its relationship to science, national identity, and so forth, was inexorably linked to developments in India, with respect to my particular example.

We need, by consequence, a decentered historiography that avoids both Eurocentrism and the opposite trap of an isolated focus on “indigenous” frameworks, with their more or less implicit assumptions about cultural purity. At the same time, the talk of “global connections” is not to suggest a romanticized process of harmony and equality—colonial oppression and violence were very real. But it is all too easy to maintain a focus on the European who stood behind it, thus again eclipsing the agency of those in the colonies. I think the Tantra example is a very powerful one to illustrate this complex situation and the historiographical challenges resulting from it. As you point out, Mou, this also applies to the constellation between the metropolis and the supposed periphery. We need to look beyond a place like Calcutta to understand what was going on, not least because we should explore diachronic developments that predate the heyday of British colonialism. On one hand, this is important in order to look beyond the bhadralok intelligentsia, which by no means was solely responsible for Bengali thought. On the other, we must look to places like Nadiya because they were complex cultural centers in their own right, shaped by the wonderful richness of Bengali culture that fascinates me so much. Dichotomies of tradition and modernity, orthodoxy/revival and reform don’t help us much to understand the debates I have been looking at, and neither do homogenized ideas about East and West, center and periphery. People like clear borders and binaries, but we must mix up our historiographies because of the sheer messiness of reality!

MB: Why was this new Indo-British conception of Tantra so compatible with the religious philosophy of Theosophy? You write that this network of Tantra-experts chose to publish their work in the mouthpiece of the Theosophical Society – The Theosophist journal. Could you tell us a little bit about why they chose to do so? Who were their intended audience?

JS: Founded in New York in 1875, the Theosophical Society relocated to India in 1879 and quickly began to play a very prominent role, not only in Indian culture and politics, but also in global exchanges. In the decades around 1900, its relevance for the transmission of ideas and practices across the globe can hardly be overestimated. One central reason for the Theosophical interest in India was its supposed status as the origin of “Aryan civilization,” which immediately links it to the context of orientalist studies, racial theories, and so forth, which I have addressed earlier. Theosophy stood at the heart of contemporary debates about religion, science, and race. Its flagship journal, The Theosophist, was distributed on all continents and immensely influential. Since it was explicitly sympathetic to subjects such as occultism and magic—in contrast to most orientalists, missionaries, and other European observers—, it was an ideal forum for our Bengali Tantrics to propagate their ideas. There are many ambiguities about the relationship between “Western” and “non-Western” Theosophists and the notion of Aryanism and race more broadly, which I try to unravel a bit in my book. But there is no question about the openness of Theosophical platforms such as the Theosophist to Indian voices, and the perhaps unprecedented reach it offered to them.

MB: Tell us more about Arthur Avalon and the Avalon Project – your analysis focuses deeply on local developments and local scholarship and yet you root these ideas within a global matrix of the exchange of information. And in doing so, I think you radically destabilize the age-old debate of interlocution between the British civilian intellectuals and their indigenous collaborators. If we’re to follow your example, and I think many of us will be deeply inspired and challenged by your methodological and analytical innovations – how do you see the field of global religious history developing in the next few years? What kinds of work do you hope to see emerging from your interventions?

JS: I see myself part of a collaborative effort, not only among those who explicitly subscribe to the approach of global religious history (about which you can learn a bit more here), but also within the broader fields of religious studies, global history, and South Asian studies. There is widespread agreement about the importance of global and postcolonial perspectives, as well as fruitful discussions about their pitfalls and limitations. We can observe the emergence of new programs and projects that revolve around the “global.” That’s a great development, which, with regard to religious studies, is still quite in its infancy. We need more conversations about theory and method, about notions such as the global, connections, entanglement, agency—sometimes there is a lot of buzzwording and namedropping going on, with people using the same vocabulary while talking about different things. This requires systematic and cooperative discussions, not with the aim of theoretical and methodological homogeneity, but in order to clarify and sharpen our scholarly toolset. Moreover, there are many significant challenges, such as the diachronic dimension beyond the nineteenth century. Considering the difficult question of what “religion” is and if this term might be reasonably applied to different geographical, chronological, and linguistic contexts, we need more collaboration between diverse experts—the main challenge being that such collaborations require a shared framework so that we are not talking past each other. I attempted to offer a practical application of global religious history that yields concrete results and makes concrete proposals. It’s for others to decide if that worked out, but perhaps I may succeed in sparking one or the other conversation.

MB: If the “global” in your formulation is to be seen as decentered historiography, how much of this depends on the kinds of sources and intellectual networks that might be available to the researcher? Following on from that, what kinds of sources do you use in the book? What areas would you have liked to write more about, that you couldn’t do as much as you would have liked because of Covid? What are the lacunae you see in your own work now that the book is published?

JS: The question of the archive is so very difficult. As historians, we are limited to working with the sources that survive, and those tend to have been written by certain, usually privileged people. By consequence, our access to networks beyond groups such as the bhadralok, higher-status men, and white Europeans is frustratingly limited. This applies even to Europe, when I think of the many socialist and reformist journals I have worked with in my previous books. If we’re lucky, we get some glimpses through periodicals such as Bangamahila, preserved correspondences, or grey literature that fortunately escaped mold and insects. But even then, the vast majority of people remain beyond our historiographical reach. I tried to get my hands on as many “small” publications as possible, but some were simply lost. Because of the pandemic, I also couldn’t realize an extensive trip to the countryside, where I had at least two locations in mind that could have provided me with relevant material. Something for later articles, I guess! In the end, I worked mainly with sources that, like their authors, had a certain status, and this is a very real limitation of what I could tell about Tantra in modern Bengal.

While I think that I can offer some relevant insights, I have by no means written an exhaustive history, which, for example, would have to include the ideas and practices of many more people which were in no position to author and print books, booklets, and periodicals. This history would have to include people from all social strata, and it would have to discuss the role of women in much more detail. I see a lot of potential in material history beyond texts, for instance, to allow for some insights in that regard. Not least, Islam forms a big lacuna in my work, which I wish to fill in the future. There are so many important aspects that I had to leave out, but I hope that the result will still be of use to some readers. Perhaps it will even inspire someone to tackle those lacunae. Or reach out to do that together.

I really appreciate your kind words and your interest in the book, Mou! I thank you for providing me with this forum.

Mou Banerjee received her Ph.D. from the Dept. of History at Harvard in 2018 and is Assistant Professor of modern South Asia at UW-Madison. Her first book, “The Disinherited: Christianity and Conversion in Colonial India, 1813-1907” is forthcoming from Harvard University Press. Banerjee’s research analyses the relationship between religion, politics and the evolving discourse on the othering of minority communities of faith in India. Her research has been funded by the SSRC-IDRF dissertation research fellowship, the UW-Madison WARF Fellowships, and the IRH Resident Faculty Fellowship at UW-Madison, among others. Her second book, under contract with Juggernaut Press, India, is an intellectual history of the life and times of the pioneering Indian social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy. Prior to her appointment at UW-Madison, she was College Fellow at the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard in 2018 and Assistant Professor of History at Clemson University in 2018-19.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Sarvamangala Temple, Howrah, West Bengal, India. Courtesy of Julian Strube.

Leave a Reply