Living Mantra

Mantra, Deity, and Visionary Experience Today

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Mani Rao
Contemporary Anthropology of Religion
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     2018.
     215 pages.
     $89.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783319963907.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mani Rao’s Living Mantra is described as an “anthropology of mantra-experience among Hindu-tantric practitioners” and represents the culmination of the author’s doctoral research. Already an accomplished poet, writer and translator, Rao’s first academic monograph remains sober and academic in tone, while benefitting from her personal insight and, at times, even poetic devotion.

Rao’s work is unique in the sense that it masterfully navigates the often-thorny position of the  ‘scholar-practitioner’ to give voice to experience, both her own and primarily the voice of mantra practitioners, masters, and modern-day seers or ṛṣis (a term she deliberately uses over the guru to emphasize the visionary aspect of their experience).

The book is divided into three main sections: Preparation, Fieldwork, and Conclusions. The first part introduces the project along with three additional chapters that offer an overview of scholarship on mantra, the methodology used, the question of who is a “ṛṣi” and whether this figure can be found today. In part 2 of the book, Rao argues convincingly that these modern ṛṣis are indeed active recipients of mantra. At the same time, she demonstrates that there are numerous ways in which the deity, the practitioner, and the mantra interact, both at visual and auditory levels, as well as theorizing how personal intention and imagination/creativity may play a role in these processes. It is here that Living Mantra shifts our attention away from established mantra traditions to the question of how new traditions arise. The author investigates the processes that precede systematization and canon-formation and how authority based on personal experience and revelation is negotiated among the communities she studied.

Rao’s fieldwork  is focused on three main sites: Sahasrakshi Meru Temple in Devipuram, the Svayam Siddha Kali Peetham in Guntur, and the Ashram called Nachiketa Tapovan in Kodga—all three located in the Andhra-Telangana states. The three sites have a common association with tantric Śāktism (i.e. traditions in which the worship of different forms of the Goddess is at the center of their theology and practice). Insight and perception of mantras and their corresponding deities are here deeply connected to a prolonged and intense engagement in mantra-sādhanā, or spiritual practice, and can thus, according to Rao, only be truly understood via an embodied cognition. The last part of the book revisits the many ambitious questions raised around mantra and attempts at re-theorizing mantra from her findings among contemporary tantric masters and their disciples.

While Living Mantra aims to be an anthropology of mantra-experience, one should not expect an anthropology of communities of practice in the conventional sense of the word. Rao questions how her informants (and herself) experience and understand mantra, rather than the socio-cultural background and the specific historical contexts in which such an experience is even possible. A perhaps more pertinent characterization of her research methodology perhaps would be to call it a “phenomenology of mantra-experience” or perhaps even more precisely to locate it within the realm of “existential anthropology.” Rao’s approach self-consciously relies methodologically on the work of the poet and anthropologist Michael Jackson. In chapter 3 she explains her methodological stance, which “insists that individual experience is continually shifting, and unique” (44) and ought to be taken seriously. Positioning herself as a successor to the aforementioned Jackson and Albert Piette, she sets out to “theorize mantra via practitioners” (45).

Rao’s re-theorization of mantra is clearly coloured by her own particular encounters with contemporary forms of Hinduism and Śākta forms of practice and experience. However, in her conclusions, she transposes these findings into a universal theorization devoid of context and valid for mantra across denominations, and even beyond the boundaries of time or the geographical area of India. This decontextualized archetypical reframing of mantra seems problematic to the reviewer as mantra practice and experience may indeed look very different in other communities of practice, or maṇḍalas as she would call them. Would an orthodox Brahmin assembly, a vaidika sammelana, be open to accept such contemporary revelations as those received by these new ṛṣis as śruti, as the Veda? Would the new mantras created by Karunamaya be accepted by other maṇḍalas as legitimate, or are the questions of authenticity and efficacy resolved only within particular communities of practice? Would other Hindu religious authorities, even if not particularly orthodox, accept the vision of “Arabic” letters and sounds received by Amritananda as mantra? These and other questions remain open.

Occasionally, Rao’s book lacks the formalities of academic rigor (inconsistent and often faulty use of diacritics, historical imprecisions, anachronistic use of technical terms, or the lumping of distinct traditions into a single concept); nevertheless, these surface flaws should not distract the reader from the fantastic accomplishment of her research: namely that she steers our attention towards the present practices of mantra which continue to thrive in creative and often unexpected ways.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Borayin Larios is an Assistant Professor in the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mani Rao is a poet and independent scholar. She has nine poetry books and two books in translation from Sanskrit including The Bhagavad Gita and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader. See manirao.com for links and updates

Keywords: 

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