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The Economics of EcstasyTantra, Secrecy and Power in Colonial Bengal$

Hugh B. Urban

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780195139020

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/019513902X.001.0001

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Secrecy and Symbolic Power

(p.3) Introduction
The Economics of Ecstasy

Hugh B. Urban (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The phenomena of secrecy and esotericism remain among the most persistent and pervasive, yet poorly studied and misunderstood aspects of the history of religions. The field of South Asian studies is no exception to this trend, although it has generated a growing interest in the role of secrecy in Indian traditions, and specifically in the texts and rituals of Tantrism. However, Tantric studies have hardly made any inquiry into the real historical and social contexts in which Tantra is practised, have not looked at any of the broader comparative issues involved in the study of esoteric traditions, and have yielded little critical reflection on the historical construction of the category of Tantrism. This book aims to address these issues through the study of one specific esoteric and secret sect: that of the Kartābhajās or “Worshippers of the Master,” which spread throughout Calcutta (Bengal, India) in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and still has some living and practising representatives. The first half of this introduction provides a general background on the Kartābhajās and their importance for the scholarly imagining of Tantrism, and the study of esoteric traditions as a whole; the second half engages the larger theoretical snarls inevitably involved in the study of something that is supposed to be secret.

Keywords:   Bengal, cults, esotericism, India, Kartābhajās, religion, secrecy, sects, Tantrism

From secrecy, which shades all that is profound and significant, grows the error according to which everything mysterious is something important and essential. Before the unknown man's natural impulse is to idealize . . . to intensify the unknown through imagination. (Georg Simmel)

It is perhaps only fitting that the phenomena of “secrecy” and “esotericism” should remain among the most persistent and pervasive, and yet also poorly studied and misunderstood, aspects of the history of religions. Derived from the Greek term esoteros, esotericism refers to what is “inner” or hidden—what is known only to the initiated few and closed to the majority of mankind in the exoteric world.1 Despite the increasing preoccupation with the topic throughout the media, television series (e.g., the “X‐Files”), popular novels (e.g., Foucault's Pendulum), and even now on the Internet (where we can shop at “Esotericism.com” or attend the “Church of Tantra”on line), the subject of secrecy remains poorly understood and theoretically confused within the academic study of religions.2 Among historians of religions, such as Mircea Eliade and Kees Bolle, the study of secrecy has remained disappointingly general, universalistic, and largely divorced from all social and historical context. Even Antoine Faivre's extensive work on Western esotericism takes virtually no account of the very real social and political contexts in which esoteric traditions emerge and with which they are inextricably intertwined.3

The field of South Asian studies is no exception to this broader trend, which has generated a growing interest in the role of secrecy in Indian traditions, specifically in the texts and rituals of Tantrism. As Douglas Brooks has argued, just as the study of mystics such as Meister Eckhart has completely revised our traditional view of Christianity, and just as the recognition of the Kabbalah has transformed our understanding of Judaism, so, too, the recognition of the Tantras as a central and pervasive aspect of Indian religions has the potential to transform our understanding of Hinduism itself.4

Even amidst the growing body of Tantric studies, however, a number of profound lacunae in contemporary scholarship remain. First, as we see in the recent proliferation of scholarship on Kashmir Śaivism, much of the work has been almost entirely philosophical, extremely cerebral, and purely textual;with the exception of the more recent work of David White and Jeffrey Kripal, few scholars have made any inquiry into the real historical and social contexts in which Tantra is practiced, generally ignoring its complexity and messiness as a lived tradition.5 In short, most (p.4) scholars have ignored the basic fact that, as Simmel long ago pointed out, secrecy is always by definition a social phenomenon. It is deeply enmeshed in historical and political contexts, defining relations of power between those who know and those who do not.6 Second, most of the recent literature on Tantra has been extremely specialized in focus, with little interest in the broader comparative issues involved in the study of esoteric traditions. Thus far, there has been little effort to grapple with the wider methodological problems of esotericism, nor has there been any attempt to integrate the rich body of sociological and anthropological theories of secrecy.

And third, there has yet been little critical reflection on the historical construction of the category of “Tantrism”itself. It is true that India has long known the existence of a large, diverse, and heterogeneous body of texts called tantras; however, as André Padoux points out, the abstract category of “Tantrism,”used to refer to a distinct and coherent tradition, is “certainly a modern Western creation”—that is, largely the product of Orientalist scholars and colonial authorities of the nineteenth century.7 We need to ask, therefore, what was the specific cultural and historical milieu, what were the deeper social and political interests, that led European authors to classify a certain body of texts and traditions under the collective title of “Tantrism?” And why specifically those that were considered, by Victorian standards, not only bizarre but also repulsive, sexually licentious, and morally offensive?

In this volume, I suggest a new approach to the study of Tantra and to the topic of secrecy in general, by focusing on one specific esoteric tradition—the Kartābhajās or “Worshipers of the Master”—which spread throughout the Calcutta area during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Precisely because of the unique and rather volatile milieu in which they emerged, in the early decades of colonial rule, during the first stages of the penetration of European capitalism into Bengal, the Kartābhajās offer an especially poignant case for the study of a secret tradition within its concrete, living historical contexts. Indeed, they are a striking illustration of the power and the liability of secrecy—its role both as a source of status, honor, or prestige and as a source of danger, scandal, censorship, or suppression.

In the first half of this introduction, I provide a general background on the Kartābhajās and their importance for our scholarly imagining of “Tantrism” and for the study of esoteric traditions as a whole. Then, in the second half, I engage the larger theoretical snarls inevitably involved in the study of something that is supposed to be “secret.”

The Economics of Ecstasy: A Historical and Contextual Approach to the Study of Tantric Traditions

The Kartābhajās are a degenerate [bhaṅga] form of the Tantric religion. . . . In the Kali age, people are deluded by ignorance; therefore the desire for the five M's is the religion of this era. That's why the Katābhajā teaching has secretly become very powerful in this land. (Rāmacandra Datta, Tattvasāra)

(p.5) Founded by a semilegendary wandering madman named Āulcāṅd (d. 1779)—who was said to be Śrī Caitanya reincarnated in the form of a poor, crazy Fakir—the Kartābhajās stand out as perhaps the most important later branch of the Vaiṣṇava‐Sahajiyā tradition, and as one of the few to have survived in the changing context of colonial Bengal. Throughout the Bengali world, moreover, they have a long and controversial reputation because of their supposed engagement in secret, scandalous, and immoral activities. As the orthodox Muslim leader Muhammad Riāzuddin Āhmad wrote in 1903, “The class of Fakirs called the Kartābhajās.  . . is a group of necrophagous goblins [piśāca] who have spread their terrible poison throughout our community. . . . They are the refuse of our society.”8 Even today the dangerous power and lurid attraction of the Kartābhajās survive in the Bengali imagination; as we see in widely read novels such as KālakūṠa's Kothāy Se Jan Āche, the Kartābhajās are surrounded with a tantalizing aura of danger and allure—an allure made all the more intense because any commerce with this group was explicitly forbidden by his conservative Brahmin family:

My first trip [to the Kartābhajā festival in Ghoshpara] was not at all pleasant. . . . Even going to the gathering was forbidden. The instructions of my guardians were clear:That is a forbidden place. . . . In our family, as among many Brahmin families, it was forbidden because of its infamous reputation. But the very fact that something is “forbidden” also means there is always an urge to transgress that prohibition. For every veil, there is a desire to unveil. The more secrecy there is, the more one's curiosity grows.9

What I shall argue for in my discussion of the Kartābhajās is a profoundly contextual or embodied approach to Tantra, one deeply embedded in the concrete social, historical, and political circumstances in which these traditions emerge and with which they interact. Here I wish to follow the lead of Jeffrey Kripal and his work on the Calcutta mystic, Śrī RāmakṘṣṇa. As Kripal suggests, we need to acknowledge not only the “pure” form of Tantra as presented in Sanskrit texts or in highly cerebral philosophical speculation but also its deeper ambiguities in concrete human experience—“not its ideal state but in its lived compromises and contradictions.”10 In the case of the Kartābhajās, I hope to demonstrate the profound impact of the changing social, political—and, above all, the economic—context of colonial Bengal on a highly esoteric Tantric tradition. In other words, I wish to delve into its economics of ecstasy, or (to borrow a phrase of Lise McKean), its divine enterprise11—the very material circumstances and practical conditions of its secret mysteries and hidden truths.

The Kartābhajās, it would seem, present an ideal case for this kind of a project. First, as one of the few esoteric sects about which we have a large amount of concrete historical data, drawn from a wide range of sources, the Kartābhajās provide a rare opportunity to study a Tantric tradition within its concrete sociohistorical context. Using primary textual material, firsthand accounts by well‐known Bengali figures (RāmakṘṣṇa, Dāśarathī Rāy, and many others), contemporary newspaper reports, and missionary accounts, we can reconstruct the historical trajectory (p.6) and social composition of this group with a rare degree of accuracy. We know when and where the sect emerged, who participated in it, from which classes they came, how they interacted with the exoteric society around them, and how they changed in response to the changing social and economic circumstances of modern Bengal. Finally, we also have living representatives of the sect still practicing today, still publishing texts and converging at annual festivals in Ghoshpara, the sect's village center, north of Calcutta.12

Second, the Kartābhajās represent an especially clear example of an esoteric tradition. Not only did they develop a sophisticated system of secret discourse or sandhābhāṣā, called the Language of the Mint (ṭyāṅkśālī bol), which saturates their large corpus of mystical songs, but they also developed a strategy for cultivating a dual identity, maintaining at once the facade of an exoteric public identity (the vyāvahārik self), in conformity with exoteric social law while creating a secret, divinized identity (the paramārthik self).13At the same time, however, the Kartābhajās also provide an especially poignant example of what I shall call the inherent ambivalence and liability of secrecy—that is, the ways in which the very claim to secrecy often turns into a source of criticism, slander, and censorship from the surrounding exoteric society. Within the Kartābhajā tradition itself, in fact, we find repeated (though never successful) efforts at self‐censorship, in the attempt to purge the tradition of its more objectionable esoteric, particularly Tantric and sexual, elements.

Third, the Kartābhajās also open up some especially important insights into the problematic category of “Tantra” itself. Not only did they emerge in the same area—Bengal, specifically around Calcutta—in which many of the foremost Orientalist scholars and Christian missionaries were working,14 and in the same historical period—from the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries—during which they first began to identify a certain body of texts and traditions as “Tantrism,” but, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Kartābhajās were often singled out as the quintessence and most extreme example of the degenerate Tantric cult. In the words of the famous Bengali poet and satirist Dāśarathī Rāy, they are “the foremost of the Aghora‐panthīs.”15 Śrī RāmakṘṣṇa, for example, often simply says Kartābhajādi (the Kartābhajās, etc.), to refer to a wide range of disreputable Tantric cults in the Calcutta area.16

The Kartābhajās, however, also illustrate with striking clarity just how flawed and ambiguous a category Tantra is. For if it is true, as Padoux suggests, that Tantrism is largely a modern scholarly construction, can we still use this category in a productive way? And what do we do with cases like the Kartābhajās, whom most critics outside the tradition denounce as Tantric, while many apologists within the tradition ardently deny that they have anything to do with the scandal and smut of Tantra?

As Douglas Brooks has argued, Tantra is perhaps best understood not in terms of a singular, monothetic definition but, rather, as a product of the scholarly imagination, a heuristic device or useful tool, which we employ in order to organize and understand a given body of texts and traditions. As such, it demands a more (p.7) flexible and messier “polythetic” definition, which does not reify some single unifying essence but instead simply identifies a set of common characteristics and family resemblances. A given tradition therefore need not call itself “Tantric” but simply must share a significant number of these characteristics in order to be usefully classified as Tantric.17 If we accept this polythetic definition, then the Kartābhajās would clearly appear to share virtually all of the ten characteristics Brooks identifies. They do indeed claim an extra‐Vedic authority, beyond the traditional canon of Hindu scriptures18; they engage in special forms of bodily discipline, such as Kuṇḍalinīyoga19; they are at once theists and philosophical nondualists20; they employ the mystical power of sound and sacred formulae (mantras)21; they place extraordinary emphasis on the authority of the Guru (who is in fact identified as God incarnate); their theology and ritual center around the bipolar sexual symbolism of the male Deity and his Consort (KṘṣṇa and Rādhā); their practice is at once highly esoteric (gupta, rahasya), and considered the most expedient, most natural, or innate (Sahaja) path to liberation22; they engage in acts which explicitly transgress conventional social boundaries—such as communal meals which ignore social hierarchies and (in some cases) sexual intercourse in violation of caste23; and finally, they demand forms of initiation (dīkṣā), in which caste and gender are not the primary criteria for sādhanā.24

Alternatively, we might also employ the simpler, more general definition suggested by Madeleine Biardeau and André Padoux:Tantric traditions, they argue, are most fundamentally those which aim to “harness kāma—desire (in every sense of the word) . . . to the service of deliverance”; that is to say, they adapt and employ the powers of the human body, the physical senses, and even sexuality as the most expedient means to liberation.25 This is in fact the very basis of the Kartābhajā path, the end and goal of which are precisely to distill the nectar of desire, to transmute base physical lust (kāma) into pure, spiritual Love (prema). As two living Kartābhajā gurus explain, “The essential thing is that lust does not have to be abandoned; it has to be purified.”26 “The supreme essence is Sahaja; it cannot be attained through the repression of desire, but rather, in an innate, spontaneous, natural way. . . . The path to attaining the supreme essence. . . . is the method of Tantric yoga.”27

Therefore, I would agree with D. C. Sen that the Kartābhajās may be regarded as the largest, most powerful, and “primary community among Sahajiyās” which survived in the colonial period and thus as part of the more general class of “Tantric” traditions of Bengal.28 And yet, rather strikingly, the Kartābhajās themselves have always been deeply ambivalent about their relation to Tantrism—indeed, many members today vehemently deny that they bear any relation to things smacking of the scandal of Tantrism (which has become a kind of dirty word to most Bengalis).29 Hence, the Kartābhajās not only offer a poignant illustration of just how problematic a category this is but also help us to reimagine and redefine this category in a more fruitful way in contemporary discourse.

Finally—and perhaps most important for our attempt to reimagine the category of Tantra—the Kartābhajās also demonstrate how deeply rooted Tantric (p.8) traditions are within their specific social, political, or economic contexts. This tradition, I argue, cannot be understood apart from the very unique social and economic world in which it was born: the situation of Bengal under colonial rule, during the initial penetration of European capitalism into India. The sect emerged at a critical historical moment and at a pivotal geographic locus—the area around Calcutta, the imperial city, at the end of the eighteenth century. Much of its following was drawn from precisely those classes that had been most negatively affected by the changing socioeconomic changes in Calcutta and the surrounding countryside; they came from the “underworld of the imperial city,” from the poor urban laborers and the dislocated peasantry of Nadia district.30 This in turn had a formative impact both on the structure of the sect and on the symbolic language of its texts, which are filled with a remarkable amount of mercantile terms, such as “commodities,”“capital,” “brokers,” “traders,” “account books,”and so on. Indeed, not only do they borrow the mercantile imagery of contemporary Calcutta, but they also skillfully appropriate much of the discourse of the British East India Company itself. Throughout their highly metaphor and esoteric songs, the Kartābhajās often call themselves nothing less than a new Company, a “Poor Company” (gorib Kompānī), “Mad Company” (pāgal kompānī), or “Platoon of the Poor” (kāṅgāler palṭan) which had been founded because the “Old Company” of the mainstream Vaiṣṇava tradition was no longer relevant to a changing historical context. The Kartābhajās had come to reveal a host of “spiritual commodities” and a new form of “capital” for the poor low‐class people who comprised its following.31

But beyond the basic social context in which they emerge, the Kartābhajās also show us how dramatically Tantric traditions may change and transform themselves with the changing course of history. “The people of Bengal have always been Tantrics and Sahajiyās,” as one recent scholar put it, “In the Kartābhajā sect, this Tantric and Sahajiyā current has undergone many transformations and has been conceived in a new form.”32 Emerging during the critical period of early colonial rule, amidst the social and religious reforms of the Bengal Renaissance, the Kartābhajās clearly reflect the changing attitudes and anxieties about the very category of “Tantra” itself. As we see in each of the three parts of this volume, the Kartābhajās represent (at least) three fundamental transformations within the older Sahajiyā traditions, which emerged in response to the changing social and economic context of colonial Bengal. They might thus be called the following: (1) a kind of “popularized Tantra”—a more inclusive, less elitist tradition or “Religion of Man” (Mānuṣer Dharma), which made an explicit appeal to the poorer lower classes; (2) a “deodorized Tantra”—one that felt intense embarrassment about the more objectionable aspects of the Sahajiyā traditions (above all, the use of sexual practices) and made a deliberate effort to sanitize, censor, or at least better disguise anything smacking of “Tantra”; and (3) a “commercialized Tantra”—one that developed a complex economic hierarchy, which ironically allowed this originally poor, lower‐class sect to become perhaps the wealthiest and most successful of all the “obscure religious cults” of Bengal.

(p.9) Therefore, in addition to its broader comparative implications for the history of religions, a thorough study of the Kartābhajās would also offer a much‐needed contribution to the area of Bengal studies. As one of the few lower‐class religious sects about which we have a good deal of historical data, the Kartābhajās open a fascinating and revealing window onto the lives of the poor lower orders of nineteenth‐century Calcutta and the surrounding countryside—classes that were, as Sumanta Banerjee points out, otherwise largely invisible to Calcutta's upperclass bhadralok society, and long neglected by modern historiography.33 Appearing ubiquitously throughout nineteenth‐century Bengali literature, newspapers, and the writings of contemporary figures such as the disciples of RāmakṘṣṇa, the Kartābhajās are a sect that every Bengali scholar has heard of; yet, thus far, there is not a single comprehensive study of this group. In many respects, the Kartābhajās are a group much like the Bāuls (who were ignored until made famous by Rabindranath Tagore) or the Vaiṣṇava‐Sahajiyās (who were unknown until brought to our attention by Edward C. Dimock); in fact, until this century, the Kartābhajās were far more numerous and powerful than the Bāuls, the Sahajiyās, or any other of the so‐called obscure religious cults of Bengal.34 But, rather strangely, the Kartābhajās appear largely to have slipped through the cracks of modern scholarship. Apart from a few scattered articles by Geoffrey A. Oddie and Sumanta Banerjee, and Ramakanta Chakrabarty's brief chapter in his Vaiṣṇavism in Bengal, there is virtually nothing on this sect in the English language. Even in Bengali scholarship, there are only a few critical studies of this group. Indeed, no less an authority that Sukumār Sen himself reportedly stated that a thorough study of the Kartābhajās is among the most needed projects in the history of Bengali literature.35

The Enigma of the Kartābhajās: A History of Secrecy, Censorship, Scandal, Slander and a Gradual Decline into Obscurity

At the very utterance of this word “Kartābhajā” my family and neighbors would make mocking and disgusted remarks. . . . “Oh! such a disgraceful thing has never before occurred in this world!” (Kālakūṭa, Kathāy se Jan Āche)

This scholarly neglect of the Kartābhajās, it would seem, is due in large part to the highly controversial and often quite scandalous reputation they acquired during the nineteenth century, when they became increasingly suspected of sexual licentiousness, fraud, and criminal behavior. Although it began as one of many small esoteric cults stemming from the much older Sahajiyā traditions of medieval Bengal, the Kartābhajās had, by the mid‐nineteenth century, grown into a wealthy, powerful, and quite infamous tradition, which was widely discussed among the educated society of Calcutta. Initially a highly secretive obscure minor sect, the Kartābhajās also developed an important “exoteric” public dimension, which attracted a mass following and allowed its leadership to accumulate large amounts of land and revenue.

(p.10) Unfortunately, in large part because of their “esoteric” heritage, the Kartābhajās also came under increasing attack, slander, and ridicule from the more conservative upper‐class factions of nineteenth‐century Bengal—above all, for their alleged immorality and Tantric sexual practices. As RāmakṘṣṇa described them, for example, they were thought to be comprised mainly of “bitches” or “whores” (māgī), who engaged in sexual rituals, perverse relations with small boys, and other unspeakable acts.“Everybody shuddered at the name Kartābhajā. The vices which they imbibed from the Tantriks became most prominent. . . . Kartābhajā became a term of ridicule.”36 Even today, the Samsad Bengali Dictionary defines “Kartābhajā” as a sarcastic term of slander and insult. But, at the same time, ironically, the Kartābhajās were also praised by some of the most progressive reformers of the nineteenth century, such as Nabīncandra Sen, who admired their seemingly modern humanistic ideals. The semimythical founder, Āulcāṅd, has even been hailed by some as a kind of “folk Rāmmohun Roy.”37 Amidst all these conflicting accounts and scandalous accusations, the Kartābhajās have been largely ignored in modern scholarship. As the respected historian, Rameścandra Majumdār, put it, “up to the nineteenth century, many Sahajiyā sects such as the Kartābhajās. . . . became widespread throughout Bengal, but it is impossible to describe them without offending the judgments of good taste.”38

Correspondingly, we find two parallel currents within the later Kartābhajā tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth century: on one hand, among the more esoteric disciples, a move further “underground”, into the realm of increasing secrecy and silence; on the other hand, among the more “exoteric” and “orthodox” devotees, an attempt to clean up, sanitize, or deodorize the tradition, to purge all immoral or sexual elements—above all anything smacking of “Tantrism”—and to give the tradition a more “legitimate”Vaiṣṇava appearance. This attempt to legitimate and deodorize the tradition was never, however, successful. Increasingly throughout the twentieth century the Kartābhajās became the victim of severe ridicule, slander, and a gradual fall into obscurity. “Since the nineteenth century, this has been the most debated and most numerous of the folk sects,” Cakravartī comments, “Because of the ill‐repute and slander surrounding their Sahajiyā practices, they have now lost much respect.”39 Although many pockets of Kartābhajās still survive throughout Calcutta, rural West Bengal, and Bangladesh, and although one can still find many Kartābhajā subsects such as the Sāhebdhanīs, Bhagabāniyās, Gurusatyas, and Āuls, the current status of the tradition is a rather sad reflection of its impressive power and wealth at its height in the nineteenth century. Today, the Kartābhajās are typically remembered only for their large annual festival held in Ghoshpara at the time of Holi, which now survives largely as a kind of carnival event or popular entertainment (as well as the primary source of income for the current family of the Kartā). Ironically, this once profoundly “esoteric” Sahajiyā cult now survives as a relatively innocuous and “exoteric” devotional movement. “Many suppose that the Kartābhajās'Tantric bodily practices are the result of later external influence,” Ratan Kumār Nandī explains, “But this is not the case. Rather, under the impact of later history, these practices underwent a transformation, (p.11) and, in place of secret rituals [guhyācāra], a more devotional faith . . . became predominant.”40

Method and Argument: Putting Some History Back into the “History of Religions”

To penetrate a tradition as controversial and esoteric as the Kartābhajās, I submit, we must proceed by placing them within a broader cross‐cultural framework, employing the tools and strategies of a historian of religions. These strategies I understand to be, (1) comparison in the strong sense of the word, that is, not only comparison across cultures but also across historical and disciplinary boundaries41; (2) a dialectical strategy of tacking back and forth between broad cross‐cultural theory and specific historical detail; and (3) an attention to the historical transformations of the phenomenon and, above all, to the ways in which human agents appropriate and manipulate religious resources for specific historical interests. Here, I understand the task of the historian of religions to go far beyond a simple Eliadean quest for universal patterns and symbolic archetypes, or a search for the sui generis essence of religion as the product of homo religiosus. Rather, the historian of religions must also examine myths and symbols as the work of real, concretely situated, interested human beings, as products of homo faber, which are deeply enmeshed in real social, political, and historical contexts.42 As Bruce Lincoln points out, the discipline of the “history of religions” therefore bears a deep tension at its very heart. To practice the history of religions is to examine the temporal, human, and material aspects of phenomena which claim to be transcendent, suprahuman and eternal:

Religion . . . is that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal. History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.

History of religions is thus a discourse that resists and reverses the orientation of that discourse with which it concerns itself. To practice history of religions . . . is to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human and material dimensions of those discourses, practices and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual and divine.43

In sum, as a historian of religions, I will try to root the Kartābhajā tradition concretely within its greater social, economic, and historical context, examining the ways in which it interacted with, and was in turn historically transformed by, the cultural world around it. Hence I see my work as a complement and corrective to earlier works on the Vaiṣṇava Sahajiyā tradition like that of Edward C. Dimock, who provides an excellent analysis of the texts, theology, and practices of this tradition while largely ignoring the social and historical context in which it emerged. But simultaneously, as a historian of religions, I will also place this tradition (p.12) within the much broader comparative framework of secrecy and esotericism cross‐culturally, bringing to bear a wide range of anthropological and sociological theory, as well as comparative insights drawn from other non‐Indian religious traditions.

Using some insights from Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, I argue for a theoretical shift in our approach to the problem of secrecy as a comparative and cross‐cultural category. Instead of defining secrecy in terms of its content or substance, as most past scholars have done, I would suggest that it is far more fruitful to examine secrecy in terms of its form, or the ways in which secret information is exchanged.44 Secrecy, I suggest, is best understood as a strategy for concealing and revealing information. It is a tactic which functions to transform certain knowledge into a rare and valuable commodity, a scarce resource, which in turn enhances the status and prestige—in Bourdieu's terms the “symbolic capital”—of its possessor. Unlike most forms of symbolic capital, however, secret knowledge can be exchanged and accumulated only within a highly restricted, often “illegal” or unorthodox social field, such as esoteric ritual. Hence, it might be thought of as a kind of “black market symbolic capital.” Not unlike drugs or prostitution, it is a valuable but also dangerous and transgressive form of power which can only be exchanged outside the bounds of mainstream society, and which increases one's status only in an alternative, esoteric hierarchy.

Because this study concerns a sect that flowered during a situation of colonial rule, and because the texts of this group incorporate a large amount of capitalist language, in the course of my analysis I employ, criticize, and modify some of the insights of recent colonial and postcolonial studies.45 On one hand, I am deeply sympathetic to scholars such as Jean Comaroff, Marshall Sahlins, the members of the Subaltern Studies Collective, and others who have dealt with situations of colonial contact and native resistance. As the Comaroffs argue, colonized peoples are never just assimilated passively into colonial and capitalist structures; rather, as creative agents, they also subvert and deform them in manifold ways, often by appropriating the structures of colonialism themselves, giving them new or radically transformed meanings.46

On the other hand, I am more critical of the recent proliferation of literature on postcolonial theory that has followed in the wake of Fanon, Said, Bhabha, and their disciples. I am indeed sympathetic to their critique of Eurocentric notions of language and literature and their concern with the “strategies of subversion” in the writings of colonized peoples47; however, as critics such as Aijaz Ahmad, Anne McClintock, and Sara Suleri have pointed out, there are a number of troubling problems inherent in the discourse of postcolonialism.

First, it tends to oversimplify the colonial situation, portraying it as a simple binarism of colonizer and colonized, imperial oppressor and native victim. By overemphasizing the radical impact of Western power on the rest of the world, much postcolonial discourse tends to divide all global history into pre‐ and postimperial epochs. In so doing, it is in danger of lapsing into a more subtle form of imperialism, viewing all human history from the standpoint of European expansion (p.13) and the progress of modern capitalism.48 As we will see, this is especially problematic in the case of colonial India, which represents an extremely complex interaction between indigenous and European factions. As recent historians such as C. A. Bayly and David Washbrook have argued, India was by no means suddenly and radically transformed from a pre‐capitalist feudal society into a modern capitalist one. Not only were there many varieties of pre‐colonial Indian capitalism, but even after the arrival of the British East India Company, the British were but one of several players in a complex field of economic relations. Precolonial and colonial structures existed simultaneously, while many competing factions, both foreign and indigenous, struggled over material and symbolic resources.49

Second, in their celebration of resistance and struggle, postcolonial studies too often overlook the more subtle forms of collusion and cooperation between colonizer and colonized. By romanticizing the struggle of colonized peoples, portraying them as noble champions of freedom against the expansion of global capitalism, they overlook the many ways in which colonized peoples do not simply struggle against oppressive colonial structures, but also introduce new, in some cases equally oppressive, hierarchies of their own. As John Kelly suggests, we need a more complex understanding of the colonial situation, emphasizing the ambivalent mixture of both resistance and accommodation. What we find is often “not a story of victory for the colonized in resistance to colonial hegemony” but, rather, one in which “the heroes are flawed and their successes mixed with failures.”50

The Kartābhajās, I suggest, are a wonderful reflection of this deeper complexity of Bengal at the turn of the nineteenth century. According to the central metaphor of the main Kartābhajā text, the Bhāver Gīta, this world is one vast “bazaar”—a teeming marketplace, in which a host of merchants, both foreign and native, exchange the merchandise of their various religious and political beliefs.51 Within the Kartābhajā songs and rituals, we find a rich mixture of colonial and precolonial, indigenous, and foreign discourse. Mercantile terminology and the language of the “company” (kompānī) mingle with traditional economic hierarchies, such as the precolonial Zamindārī system of revenue. At the same time, this group is also a fascinating mixture of both resistance and accommodation to colonial structures. The Kartābhajās do indeed strategically appropriate many elements of colonial discourse, investing them with highly subversive meanings and turning them into a powerful source of liberation. Yet simultaneously, it would seem that its poor, lower‐class members are reinscribed into a new economic hierarchy, which serves primarily to benefit a small group of powerful gurus.

Structure and Plan of the Book: A Dialectical Argument

This volume proceeds by means of a dialectical movement, tacking back and forth between broad cross‐cultural comparative theory and narrow, concrete historical detail. In the second half of this introduction, I engage in a detailed theoretical and comparative discussion, focusing on the larger cross‐cultural problems of secrecy (p.14) and esoteric traditions. The body of the volume will then be divided into three parts, with a total of seven chapters. In part I, the “The Secret Marketplace,” I summarize the broader social and historical background of late‐eighteenth century Bengal and the basic religious and social ideals of the early Kartābhajā tradition. Part II, “The Power of Secrecy,” then engages the role of secrecy as a source of symbolic power, in both esoteric discourse and in physical practice. And in part III, “The Liability of Secrecy,” I examine the more problematic and negative side of secrecy as a potential source of scandal, slander, elitism, and exploitation.

Thus, although the overall focus of this volume is the role of secrecy as a strategy for acquiring symbolic capital, each of the seven chapters engages a specific substrategy or supporting tactic of secrecy. In chapter 1, “The Underworld of the Imperial City,” I examine the role of secrecy as a hermeneutic strategy, or a means of appropriating the legitimating authority of traditional scriptures and sacred meta‐narratives while submitting them to a deeper, esoteric interpretation that under‐cuts or subverts them. In chapter 2, “The Religion of Man,” I analyze the role of secrecy as a tactic of religious appropriation and bricolage: this is a method of borrowing elements from a variety of different “exoteric” traditions, while weaving them into a new esoteric synthesis that transcends them. At the same time, secrecy also operates as a social ideal, or a way of life, allowing the disciple to live a socially acceptable public life while cultivating an inner, autonomous esoteric identity.

In chapter 3, “The Language of the Mint,” I engage secrecy specifically as a discursive strategy, a means of creating scarce, highly valued resources of knowledge. In chapter 4, “The Poor Company,” I then look more closely at the specific metaphoric strategies and symbols employed in this Mint language—above all, the enigmatic use of mercantile imagery and the language of the “company.” Chapter 5, “Secret Bodies,” then shifts to the role of secrecy as a practical and ritual strategy, as a means of transforming the physical body and creating in its place an alternative spiritualized body.

In chapter 6, “The Stinking Fruit in the Garden of Love,” I engage the more problematic side of secrecy as a source of scandal and embarrassment—above all, with regard to Tantric sexual practices—and the corresponding “metastrategies” of self‐censorship, concealment, deodorization, and disguise which esoteric traditions must often employ in order to protect themselves. Finally, chapter 7, “The Economics of Ecstasy,” discusses the more problematic aspects of secrecy as a potential strategy of elitism and economic exploitation, with special attention to the infamous annual festival held in Ghoshpara. As we will see in chapter 8, “The Progressive Exotericization and Institutionalization of an Esoteric Tradition,” the esoteric elements of the Kartābhajā tradition would eventually become an increasing source of embarrassment, to be progressively marginalized as the later tradition evolved from a secretive obscure cult into a largely innocuous devotional faith.

The conclusion then zooms back out once again, to address the broader comparative issues of secrecy, particularly the changing shape of esoteric traditions under colonial rule.

(p.15) The Torment of Secrecy: Methodological Problems in the Study of Esoteric Traditions

If we cannot agree about the nature of the secret, we are nevertheless compelled to agree that secrecy exists, the source of the interpreter's pleasures, but also of his necessary disappointment. (Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy)

With their profoundly enigmatic language and deeply encoded ritual practices, the Kartābhajās lead us directly into one of the most tangled methodological snarls any historian of religions might have to face: the question of secrecy.52 Specifically, they raise two interrelated and deeply entangled problems—one epistemological and the other ethical—which are inevitably involved in the study of those traditions claiming to be “secret.”This “double bind” of secrecy—or what Tony Stewart has aptly dubbed the “Gordion Knot” of secrecy53—may be formulated as follows: First, how can one study and say anything intelligent at all about a religious tradition which practices active dissimulation (i.e., which deliberately obfuscates its teachings and intentionally conceals itself from outsiders). And, second, if one does learn something about an esoteric tradition—above all, if one goes so far as to become an “insider,” receiving initiation into secret teachings—how can one then say anything about this tradition to an uninitiated audience of “outsiders.” In short, if one “knows,” one cannot speak; and if one speaks, one must not really “know.”As various scholars have described their own frustrated attempts to penetrate the Kartābhajās:

There is no way of determining the numbers of this sect. . . . Because their practices are followed in secrecy, it is very difficult to study them.54

It is very difficult to discuss the Kartābhajās' religious philosophy and methods of practice; secrecy with regard to its practices is a special characteristic of this sect.55

In the course of my own fieldwork among Kartābhajā disciples in West Bengal and Bangladesh, I was forced to grapple with this sticky double bind head on. Between the years 1994 and 1997, I interviewed and worked closely with a variety of Kartābhajās—among them, a female miracle worker and charismatic leader of north Calcutta, a dancing folk singer of rural Nadiya, a variety of begging minstrels of Bangladesh, a self‐proclaimed wandering “madman” (pāgal), and two separate individuals who both claimed to be the Kartā (the supreme Incarnation of God in human form).56 I encountered several gurus who would tell me nothing at all—or else, would only speak to me using the most obscure metaphors and incomprehensible riddles. Still more problematically, I encountered some gurus who seemed willing to tell me virtually anything they thought I might want to hear—even when it was apparent that they did not really know what they were talking about. Indeed, it quickly became clear to me that some members of “esoteric traditions” have a vested interest in letting people know they have a secret—in advertising their secrets—particularly if the person happens to be a wealthy American scholar, (p.16) funded by a generous research grant. And it became equally apparent that, even if I did have access to a living oral tradition, or even if I were to undergo initiation, this would by no means resolve the epistemological and ethical double bind. If anything, it would only compound it a hundredfold.

In this sense, secrecy would appear to represent a particularly extreme example of the epistemological and ethical problems inherent in every attempt to understand another culture. It embodies the dilemma of all ethnography, which has become especially acute in the current “crisis of representation in the human sciences,” as George Marcus and Michael Fischer have called it.57 It is not only the question of whether one can ever accurately understand another culture; rather, does not the very presence of the scholar profoundly influence his or her data, that is, shape the ways in which his or her informants will act and speak? More important, can one represent another culture without distorting, exploiting, or otherwise violating it, without turning it into yet another colonial artifact or commodity to be consumed in the modern supermarket of cultures? As James Clifford suggests, the problem of secrecy is thus the most acute form of the basic problems inherent in every cross‐cultural encounter. Just as, for example, elders in an African secret society employ “complex techniques of revelation and secrecy” to transmit their sacred knowledge to their sons, so too, the scholar encounters a similar dialectic of dissimulation and partial revelation in the effort to understand the other: “The strategies of ellipsis, concealment and partial discourse determine ethnographers' relations as much as they do the transmission of stories between generations.”58

Entangled in the Double Bind: Approaches to the Double Bind of Secrecy in the History of Religions

He who publicizes these things, I know, is lost and will certainly go to hell. (NāyikāSādhanā ṭīkā of Rūpānugā Dāsa)

Despite the recent proliferation of interest in the topics of secrecy and esotericism, in both the popular and the scholarly imaginations, these categories still remain poorly understood and theoretically confused within the academic community.59 As Beryl Bellman has argued in his work on the African Poro secret societies, most past approaches to secrecy have been hampered by a persistent problem, namely, a tendency to neglect or confuse the key distinction between the form and the content of secrecy. Even as early as 1906, Georg Simmel's classic study had pointed out this crucial distinction: for secrecy is a “sociological form that stands in neutrality above the functions of its contents.”60 Nevertheless, Bellman argues, most studies of secrecy have ignored this distinction and instead defined secrecy primarily in terms of a “hidden content.” Much of the past literature, as we see in the work Norman MacKenzie, E. J. Hobsbawm, and Mak Lou Fong, has been limited to the creation of various different, often conflicting typological schemes based on the content of secrecy or the resultant forms of secret organization (e.g., religious, political, revolutionary, and criminal).61

(p.17) All these approaches to the “content” of the secret, however, run into a basic and troubling obstacle—namely, the double bind of epistemology and ethics, the question of how one can ever know with certainty the true substance of what is hidden, and then, supposing one can, should one reveal it publicly? As Tony Stewart asks, “is it professionally ethical to reveal that which was intentionally concealed? Is this not one more form of exploitation and the brutal wielding of power?”62 There is a real danger, it would seem, of doing violence to another culture, looting the cultural artifacts of another people and replicating the destructive practices of imperialism in a more subtle form. Among the first and clearest cases of this ethico‐epistemological dilemma, for example, can be found in the early work of Marcel Griaule among the Dogon. As Clifford has shown, Griaule consistently treated the secret knowledge of the Dogon as a kind of precious artifact which had to be wrested—often forcibly and underhandedly—from the hand of the native: “The ethnographer must keep up the pressure . . . in Sudanese societies, with their long process of initiation, one had to force the revelation of occult doctrines.”63 As Griaule himself comments in two rather astonishing passages:

We would make asses of the old hesitators, confound the traitors, abominate the silent. We were going to see mysteries leap like reptiles from the mouths of the neatly caught liars. We would play with the victim; we would rub his nose in his words. We'd make him spit up the truth, and we'd turn out of his pockets the last secret polished by the centuries, a secret to make him . . . blanch with fear.64

The role of the person sniffing out social facts is comparable to that of a detective or examining magistrate. The fact is the crime, the interlocutoer the guilty party, all of society's members are accomplices.65

But of course, native cultures do not always react passively to the attempts of Western scholars to penetrate their treasured knowledge and esoteric traditions. Lamont Lindstrom, for example, has shown the ways in which the peoples of the South Pacific have gone to even greater lengths than ever to conceal their secret knowledge, to resist the probing inquiries of the white man: “Our totalizing, textualizing mode of information with a discursive will to truth continues to penetrate and absorb resistant pockets of silence . . . islanders have blocked exotic knowledge and disengaged from external conversational conjunctions in order to protect local truths by burying Christian Bibles . . . and by silencing anthropologists.”66

Rather remarkably, few scholars have tried seriously to grapple with these problems,67 and even among those who have, the various approaches to the double bind have seldom proven satisfying. The first and most common approach, we might call the “textual” approach, the one that limits itself to historical texts and makes no effort to penetrate the esoteric tradition “from within.”68 In the field of Tantric studies, this is the method adopted by the majority of scholars, such as Giuseppe Tucci, André Padoux, Teun Goudriaan, and most recent authors. However, the more honest among them—for example Edward C. Dimock—will (p.18) frankly admit that their knowledge is always partial, and severely limited by the fact that they had never received initiation or oral instruction.69

Second, there is the “initiate's” approach, that is, the approach taken by those who insist that a merely textual understanding of an esoteric tradition is simply inadequate, and that the only way to really understand such a tradition is through direct, firsthand personal experience with its living “oral” form.70 In her work on women in Tantric Buddhism, for example, Miranda Shaw claims to have undergone extensive initiations among contemporary Tantric Buddhists and thereby to have gained access to an enormous body of hitherto unknown texts and commentarial traditions.71 Similarly, in his work on South Indian Tantra, Douglas Brooks has argued that the only way the scholar can gain access to esoteric knowledge is by tapping into the living representatives of the oral, commentarial tradition, as it has been handed down from guru to disciple over centuries:“Since Tantrics maintain a vigilant guard over the secret meanings of texts, the scholar's access to tradition is limited to those living Tantrics willing to discuss openly Tantric concepts and practices. . . . Tantric traditions are most thoroughly understood when both written and oral sources are taken into account.”72 Although I am sympathetic to Brooks's broader and more nuanced approach, I do not think he really solves the epistemological problem; if anything he has only rendered it even more complex. For how can one be sure that anything a contemporary practitioner says—particularly to a Western scholar—is any more accurate than what a text says? And how can one be sure that what a contemporary guru says about a tenth‐century text is anything like what a tenth‐century guru might have said? But perhaps most strikingly, even though Brooks himself spent much time living in close contact with Tantric pundits in South India, undergoing numerous initiations and instructions in esoteric doctrine, he never grapples with the more difficult epistemological problems, nor does he ever address the sticky moral issues involved in placing these teachings within the public domain.73

Third, there is what we might call (borrowing Eliade's phrase) the “Noah's ark” approach to esoteric traditions, namely, provided that he or she has the culture's permission, the scholar is in fact doing a service by preserving ancient traditions which are in many cases rapidly being lost in the face of the modern world. One of the few scholars who has attempted to grapple with the ethical questions raised by his research is Fredrik Barth, in his work on the Baktaman tribe of New Guinea. Barth himself received numerous esoteric initiations, going as far as the fifth of the seven degrees in the Baktaman system. However, Barth seems to have been far more aware than most scholars of the ethical issues involved, and he made a clear effort to be as open as possible about his intentions in learning the Baktaman secret traditions. “Publishing this monograph raises a vexing question, since much of its data are part of a cult secret . . . I was told these secrets in trust and never failed this trust while I was part of the Baktaman. I made it clear that in my distant home I would share their knowledge with others who had passed through all our initiations; and that was acceptable.”74 Moreover, Barth offers a persuasive rationale for his work: His intention is not to exploit and plunder the Baktaman (p.19) esoteric lore but, rather, to preserve a rich religious tradition which is rapidly being lost in the face of modernization: “I hope this text will repay them by salvaging some of what they value from the oblivion of imposed change which looms ahead.”75 Now, Barth's position may indeed be the most ethically responsible; however, it does not resolve the epistemological problem (and in fact only compounds it, as the scholar is only “preserving” what the tradition wants him or her to preserve). Moreover, it also does not tell us what, if anything, the scholar can do if he or she is not so fortunate to receive the permission of the esoteric tradition.

In view of these deep and fundamental obstacles to the study of secrecy, some authors have concluded that it is simply an insoluble and futile task. As Edward Conze flatly asserts in his discussion of Buddhist Tantra, the problem of secrecy presents an impassible barrier, and we can in fact say nothing intelligent at all about esoteric traditions like Tantra:

These doctrines are essentially esoteric, or secret (guhya), This means what it says. Esoteric knowledge can . . . under no circumstances be transmitted to an indiscriminate multitude. There are only two alternatives. Either the author has not been initiated . . . then what he says is not first hand knowledge. Or he has been initiated. Then if he were to divulge the secrets . . . he has broken the trust placed in him and is morally so depraved he is not worth listening to. . . . There is something both indecent and ridiculous about the public discussion of the esoteric in words that can be generally understood.76

Such is the impasse faced by the student of esoteric traditions, the one smitten by the syndrome of the secret: Either, it seems, we must leave these traditions alone altogether, letting them remain respectfully pure and untouched, or we must risk doing violence to ancient esoteric traditions to which we have no right. In what follows, I offer my own, admittedly tenuous and provisional alternative means of dealing with this impasse.

Secrecy and the “Black Market” Of Symbolic Capital

Among children, pride and bragging are often based on a child's being able to say to the other: I know something you don't know. . . . This jealousy of the knowledge about facts hidden to others is shown in all contexts from the smallest to the largest. . . . The secret gives one a position of exception . . . all superior persons . . . have something mysterious . . . From secrecy . . . grows the error according to which everything mysterious is something important and essential. (Georg Simmel)

For my own part, I do not believe there is any real “way out” of this double bind. But I do believe there are a few alternative strategies for dealing with it, which would still allow us to say something useful about the phenomenon of secrecy. Hence, I wish to suggest a new approach to the problem by employing some of the insights of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault. It is generally more fruitful, I (p.20) would argue, to turn the focus of our analysis away from the content of secrecy and instead toward the forms and the strategies through which secret information is concealed, revealed and exchanged. Here I wish to undertake a “theoretical shift” similar to the series of shifts undertaken by Foucault in his study of power and sexuality. As Foucault suggests, it is necessary to turn from the study of power as an oppressive, centralized force, imposed from the “top down “ in the political hierarchy, to a study of the strategies through which power is manifested.77 So too, I would suggest that we make a shift from the “secret” as simply a hidden content and instead investigate the strategies or “games of truth” through which the complex “effect” (to use Bruce Lincoln's phrase) of secrecy is constructed.78 That is, how is a given body of information endowed with the mystery, awe, and value of a “secret”? Under what circumstances, in what contexts, and through what relations of power is it exchanged? How does possession of that secret information affect the status of the “one who knows”? As Bellman suggests, “secrets cannot be characterized either by the contents of the concealed message or by the consequences . . . they are understood by the way concealed information is withheld, restricted . . . and exposed. Secrecy is . . . a sociological form . . . constituted by the very procedures whereby secrets are communicated.”79 This turn to the “strategies” or forms of secrecy does not, however, mean that the content is simply meaningless, worthless, or “semantically empty”—a kind of “McGuffin,” to use Hitchcock's metaphor.80 On the contrary, it is more often the case that secrets are semantically overdetermined (i.e., subject to an enormous variety of possible interpretations and meanings), depending on the specific social and historical context, which guru you ask, when you ask him, what stage of initiation you have attained, and so on. Nor does this mean that we can say nothing at all about the substance of secrecy; indeed, I have a great deal to say about the nature of Kartābhajā esoteric discourse and practice, as well as the many conflicting interpretations thereof. My point here is simply that, in most cases, the analysis of the strategies and forms of secrecy is both more fruitful (or at least less frustrating) and often more interesting than the search for the ever‐elusive hidden content.

As I wish to define it, secrecy is best understood as a strategy for accumulating “capital,” in Bourdieu's sense of the term. Extending Marx's definition of the term, Bourdieu defines capital as including not only economic wealth but also the non‐material resources of status, prestige, valued knowledge, and privileged relationships. It refers in short to “all goods, material and symbolic, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation.”81 Like economic capital, however, symbolic capital is not mere wealth which is hoarded and stockpiled; rather, it is a self‐reproducing form of wealth—a kind of “accumulated labor,” which gives its owner “credit,” or the ability to appropriate the labor and products of other agents. Bourdieu then distinguishes between several varieties of capital. Most important, in addition to economic capital, there is social capital (valued relations with significant others), cultural capital (valued information or educational qualifications), and symbolic capital (the other forms of capital when recognized as “legitimate,” in the form of prestige and honor).82

(p.21) Symbolic capital is itself the product of a kind of “social alchemy,” a process of misrecognition, through which material capital is transformed and “legitimated” in the form of status or distinction. This is the process at work, for example, in the purchase of an expensive work of art, which confers the mark of “taste” and “distinction” on its owner, or in the investment in a good education, which bestows “cultivation” and “cultural capital.”As such, the dynamics of the social field are determined largely by the strategies and maneuvers of agents in their ongoing competition for these symbolic resources:“Symbolic capital is the product of a struggle in which each agent is both a ruthless competitor and supreme judge. . . . This capital can only be defended by a permanent struggle to keep up with the group above . . . and distinguish oneself from the group below.”83

In the context of the esoteric organization, I believe, two processes are at work which serve to transform secret knowledge into a kind of capital. First, the strict guarding of information transforms knowledge into a scarce resource, a good that is “rare and worthy of being sought after.” To use Bourdieu's terms, secrecy involves an extreme form of the “censorship” imposed on all statements within the “market of symbolic goods”; for every individual modifies and censors his or her expressions in anticipation of their reception by the other members of the social field.84 Secrecy, however, is a deliberate and self‐imposed censorship, whose function is to maximize the scarcity, value and desirability of a given piece of knowledge.

Secrecy is about control. It is about the individual possession of knowledge that others do not have. . . . Secrecy elevates the value of the thing concealed. That which is hidden grows desirable and seems powerful.

All knowledge is a form of property in that it can be possessed. Knowledge can be given, acquired, sold . . . Secret knowledge evokes the sense of possession most clearly.85

As Lindstrom suggests in his work on the Tanna peoples of the South Pacific, secrecy is thus a central part of the “conversational economy” which constitutes every social order. Secrecy converts information into something that can be owned, exchanged, accumulated—“a commodity, something that can be bought and sold.”Thus, what is most important about secrets is not the hidden meanings they profess to contain but, rather, the “economy of exchanges” or resale value which secrets have as a commodity in a given information market: “Secrets turn knowledge into property that can be exchanged. People swap or sell their secrets for money and other goods. . . . By preserving patterns of ignorance in the information market, secrecy fuels talk between people who do not know and those who do.”86

Second, once it has been converted into this kind of valuable commodity, secret knowledge can serve as a source of “symbolic capital” in Bourdieu's sense, as a form of status and power accumulated by social actors and recognized as “legitimate” in a given social field. As Simmel himself long ago pointed out:“The secret gives one a position of exception . . . all superior persons have something mysterious.”87 Secret knowledge thereby functions both as a form of “cultural capital”—special (p.22) information or “legitimate knowledge”—and as a form of “social capital”—a sign of membership within a community and hierarchical relationships with significant others. Particularly when combined with a series of initiations or a hierarchy of grades, this is, like all capital, a self‐reproducing form of wealth, which grows increasingly powerful as one advances in the ranks of knowledge and ritual degrees.

However, in distinction to most of the forms of “capital” which Bourdieu discusses, the symbolic goods of the secret society can only be exchanged behind closed doors, in the esoteric realm of ritual. Secret knowledge is not exchanged publicly in mainstream society or in the “field” of exoteric relations but solely within the field of the esoteric society. Hence, we might even call it a kind of black market symbolic capital, a form of capital which is valued only in special circumstances outside of ordinary social transactions. Indeed, in some cases, this knowledge may even be considered dangerous, threatening, or illegal in the eyes of mainstream society. This danger, however, only makes it all the more powerful, valued, and desirable.

A Nonreductionist Economics of Ecstasy: “Economism” Turned on Its Head

Now, in response to some anticipated objections from my readers, I should note that this use of Bourdieu's notion of “capital” and the “market metaphor” of social action is by no means a matter of simple reductionism or “economic determinism.” On the contrary, Bourdieu proposed his own model largely as a reaction against rigid Marxism or “vulgar economism.” For Bourdieu, the economic realm is itself but one of many “fields” in the social order, alongside the political, religious, artistic, and so on, each of which has its own laws of exchange and forms of capital.88 Moreover, the use of the economic metaphor is not only justifiable but in fact quite appropriate in the case of eighteenth‐ and nineteenth‐century Bengal. As Sudipta Sen has shown, the image of the market or bazaar (bājār) was among the most common metaphors used throughout pre‐ and post‐colonial Bengali literature to describe the world as a whole—this mortal realm of constant exchange, buying and selling, haggling and swindling. This is nowhere more evident than in the Kartābhajā songs, which center around the image of the “bazaar of the world” and are saturated with mercantile terminology borrowed from the East India Company.89

Moreover, while making use of Bourdieu's economic model, I also hope to criticize and modify it in several important respects. Most significantly, as many critics have argued, Bourdieu consistently tends to belittle and deemphasize the role of agency, awareness, and intentionality in social practice. As Michel de Certeau, Jean Comaroff, Richard Jenkins, and others have argued, Bourdieu tends to reduce social actors to unconscious “dupes” within a rather static structural system, and hence to reduce social practice to a kind of “celebration of mindless conformity,” which merely reproduces the existing social order:“the role of consciousness (p.23) is almost totally eclipsed; his actors seem doomed to reproduce their world mindlessly without its contradictions leaving any mark on their awareness.”90 Hence, Bourdieu gives little attention to the possibilities for resistance, struggle, and subversion of the dominant social order. With his key emphasis on the importance of strategy—the agent's capacity for creative manipulation of the structures of the social order—Bourdieu's model should, at least implicitly, leave some room for the possibility of resistance.91 Unfortunately, Bourdieu's own remarks on the potential for resistance are oddly brief and undeveloped.92 Therefore, I suggest that we follow the lead of de Certeau, Comaroff, and others, by building on Bourdieu's notion of strategy and more fully developing the possibilities for struggle and subversion of the dominant social order. We need to ask, in short, How do lower‐class, marginalized, and oppressed members of society struggle to achieve “capital,” status, or prestige. How do the poor “make do” within a social field that is clearly dominated, within a market where all the prices are inflated and all the scales rigged? As de Certeau suggests (modifying Bourdieu's model), there are not only a variety of strategies at play in the social field (i.e., techniques by which elite and dominant classes struggle to accumulate power and capital) but also a wide array of tactics (i.e., the more “everyday” struggles and maneuvers on the part of the dominated classes, by which they appropriate, manipulate, and turn to their own advantage the structures of the dominant social order).93 These are what de Certeau calls the more subtle tactics of consumption among dominated classes, “the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong,” or the manifold ways in which social consumers “poach on the property of others.”94

In fact, far from a simple reductionist economic argument, which would explain religious ideas by reference to underlying material forces, what I am really arguing for here is a profoundly antireductionist approach to the Kartābhajās, and even a kind of economism turned on its head. That is, instead of reducing the Kartābhajās' mystical language to deeper economic causes, I show the many ingenious ways in which the Kartābhajās have appropriated and transformed economic, mercantile, and even European capitalist discourse, turning it to the advantage of a largely poor, lower‐class esoteric religious movement.

The practice of secrecy, we will see, may be employed by a variety of different social factions. Like all discourse, as Bruce Lincoln has noted, it may be used to reinforce existing sociopolitical hierarchies and to maximize the power of a small elite. But, at the same time, it may also be manipulated by oppressed or deviant factions in order to subvert and contest those same hierarchies.95 As Foucault keenly observes, “the very same strategy can be both repressive and liberating;” thus “silence and secrecy are a shelter for power, anchoring its prohibitions; but they also loosen its hold and provide for relatively obscure areas of tolerance.”96

On the one hand, esotericism often goes hand in hand with elitism, the power and privilege of the few over the many. Its aim is often “not to disrupt order and conformity, but reinforce it.”97 As a key source of distinction—of privilege, exclusivity, and the mystery of power—secrecy is often among the most powerful tools of ruling elites and powerful aristocracies. Simmel himself long ago pointed out (p.24) the following:“This significance of the secret society as the intensification of sociological exclusiveness is strikingly shown in political aristocracies. Secrecy has always been among the requirements of their regime. . . . By trying to conceal the numerical insignificance of the ruling class, aristocracies exploit the psychological fact that the unknown itself appears to be fearsome, mighty threatening.”98 As Ian Keen has argued in the case of the Yolngu people in the northeaster Arnhem land of Australia, secrecy, deliberate mystification, and systematic ambiguity are deployed in large part to reinforce the dominant social order. Through the “technologies of secrecy,” such as the control of space and the encoding of information in ambiguous forms, the Yolngu define relations of power and status. The careful control of access to sacred knowledge is a key mechanism reinforcing the authority of men over women, and of elders over youths:

Mystery was in the hands of the few, who deliberately used devices of obscurity and ambiguity in the control of religious ideology.

Yolngu religious secrecy was as much about the authority of older men in relation to younger men as men's exclusion and domination of women.99

For example, even secret traditions such as freemasonry—which had so long been accused of subversive activities or revolutionary politics—have been shown by more recent scholars to have been predominantly a highly conservative, largely aristocratic and elitist tradition: “Far from being suspect as a cabal of . . . libertines and subversives . . . Masonry was a prestigious and important organization. Joining masonry was the accepted thing to do.”100

Many of the more powerful schools of Hindu Tantrism, in fact, present clear examples of the “elitist” nature of esotericism. Whereas, in the popular imagination and in much past scholarship, Tantrism has been portrayed as a subversive and revolutionary countercultural phenomenon, more recent studies have shown that this is in many cases quite incorrect. As Brooks has argued in the case of the South Indian Śrīvidyā tradition, the most important Tantric authors such as Bhāskararāya were in fact conservative, highly orthodox Brahmans; their aim was not to undermine or subvert existing social hierarchies and the structures of brahminical religion but, on the contrary, to reinforce them precisely at a time when they were being threatened by the rise of various non‐Brahminical movements, such as bhakti or Advaita Vedānta: “Tantric ritual and ideology continues to provide a means by which Brahman society perpetuate the perception of itself as religiously privileged in the midst of radical social and economic changes that do not always privilege Brahmans.”101

By contrast, the tactic of secrecy is also among the most frequently used tactics of the disenfranchised, discontented, or simply disgruntled members of society. It is among the most important survival strategies deployed by marginal groups, such as homosexuals, who wish to conceal and protect their identity or behavior from the eyes of mainstream society, or by oppressed classes, slaves, or exploited peasantry, as we see, for example, among Haitian secret societies such as the Bizango and Sans (p.25) Poel. As Karen McCarthy Brown suggests, the need for secrecy in the case of Vodou not only persisted throughout the difficult history of slavery and colonialism but has even been carried over and continued with the immigration of Haitians to this country:“Secrecy has long been part of Vodou. A great deal of discretion was required during the days of slavery . . . Vodou was forced underground. In New York, where prejudice against Haitians and Vodou is rampant, these habits of secrecy are reinforced. Maintaining two discrete worlds side by side is a skill even children must learn.”102 In its most extreme forms, the tactic of secrecy may be deployed by subversive, dissident, and revolutionary groups—the Assassins, the Mau Mau, the Bavarian Illuminati, and, particularly in the case of Bengal, the revolutionary secret societies of the Nationalist Movement, such as the Jugantar society and the Dacca Anushilan.103

In this sense, I suggest, secrecy functions as an extreme form of what James C. Scott calls a “hidden transcript”—that is, a “discourse that takes place offstage, beyond direct observation,” which “consists of offstage speeches, gestures, and practices that confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript.”104 Hidden transcripts may be deployed by both the subordinate and the elite members of society. On one hand, as the realm of “concealed” and backstage discourse, the hidden transcript is the “privileged site of subversion and resistance,” the realm in which the subordinate deploy the various “weapons of the weak” such as back‐ biting, gossip, poaching, pilfering, and footdragging, in order to undermine dominant authority:“offstage, where subordinates may gather outside the intimidating gaze of power, a dissonant political culture is possible;” indeed, “the social location par excellence for the hidden transcript lies in the unauthorized and unmonitored secret assemblies of subordinates.” But on the other hand, Scott points out, dominant groups and elite factions themselves “often have much to conceal and they have the wherewithal to conceal what they wish”; hence, they also develop their own offstage discourses and “hidden transcripts.”105

In the Kartābhajā tradition, we find both of these strategies at work simultaneously—a process of both resistance to or subversion of the existing social structures and the construction of new, in some ways equally oppressive, hierarchies of power. If the secrecy of the Kartābhajās offered a new realm of freedom and apparent equality for women, peasants, and urban laborers of Calcutta, it also reinforced the wealth and status of a small group of powerful gurus in the upper echelons of the Kartābhajā hierarchy.

Secrecy and Censorship: The Ambivalence and the Liability of Secrecy

Where in social life can a similar misrepresentation be found? Only where two persons are concerned one of whom possesses a certain power while the other has to act with consideration on account of this power. The second person will then distort his psychic actions. . . . He will mask himself. . . . The political writer who has unpleasant truths to tell to those in power finds himself in a like position. If he (p.26) tells everything without reserve the Government will suppress them. . . . The writer stands in fear of censorship; he therefore . . . must conceal his statements in an innocent disguise. . . . The stricter the domination of the censorship, the more thorough becomes the disguise and . . . the more ingenious the means employed to put the reader on the track of actual meaning. (Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams)

As Bachelard so neatly put it, “there is no science but of the hidden.”The sociologist is better or worse equipped to discover what is hidden depending on . . . the degree of interest he has in uncovering what is censored and repressed in the social world. (Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology in Question)

Now, if it is true that secrecy can serve as a profound source of status, power, prestige, and symbolic capital for its owner, it is also a deeply ambivalent kind of power. As a kind of “black market capital,” secrecy is always highly dangerous and often a potential liability for its owner. For whatever is secret can always be accused of being immoral, scandalous, and politically or morally subversive. Hence, secrecy very often goes hand in hand with tactics of censorship—a censorship both on the part of critics, who want to eliminate or silence potentially threatening or subversive esoteric traditions, and on the part of initiates, who subject their own ideas and practices to a form of self‐censorship, masking, encoding, or concealing those elements which might be objectionable to outsiders.106

On one side, censorship is always among the most important instruments employed by those in power in order to reinforce their status and to suppress deviant or threatening members of society. Whether in the form of legal regulations, deliberate editing, or destruction of threatening publications, or forceful silencing of outspoken individuals, censorship is a key part of virtually every form of domination:“censorship is a form of surveillance: a mechanism . . . the powerful use to tighten control over people or ideas that threaten to disrupt established systems of order.”107 In this sense, censorship functions as what Susan Jansen appropriately calls (using the terms of Michel Foucault) “the knot that binds power and knowledge.” For, if knowledge is power—the power to define, categorize, and control society and our perception of the “way things are”—then those in power must also be able to supervise, control, and restrict access to that knowledge; they must be able to silence those who challenge the taken for granted interpretation of reality. As such, secret societies and esoteric organizations—particularly those believed to engage in immoral, transgressive, or illegal activities—are often quickly singled out as the most immediate targets of censorship: for they have the potential to threaten the very order of society itself: “Those who attract the attention of censors are a strategic category of outlaws. They are epistemological criminals, cosmological mess‐makers who dirty the discrete (sacred) presuppositions in which the prevailing order is secured.”108

On the other hand, however, the tactics of censorship and enforced silence are also just as frequently exercised by dominated groups themselves on their own texts and utterances, in the form of self‐censorship. Marginal or deviant groups in (p.27) all societies must censure themselves, not so much to make themselves appear more powerful or mysterious but simply to avoid persecution by the dominant order. As Scott suggests, this systematic editing of one's discourse is among the most common “arts of resistance” of the weapons of the weak. It can be a powerful tactical means of communicating potentially dangerous or subversive information, at the same time staying within the boundaries of official law:“Like prudent opposition newspaper editors under strict censorship, subordinate groups must find ways of getting their message across, while staying somehow within the law. This requires . . . a capacity to exploit all the loopholes, ambiguities and lapses. . . . It means carving out a tenuous life in a political order that . . . forbids such a life.”109

Self‐censorship is therefore not a simple matter of silencing; rather, it involves a complex and ingenious use of concealed, encrypted language, a veiled discourse designed to pass by the censors while still transmitting its message in covert form to its intended audience. As Leo Strauss has argued, heterodox individuals have always had to cultivate the subtle art of “writing between the lines,” of distinguishing between exoteric and esoteric teachings: those intended for all citizens (and censors) and those intended to be deciphered only by a carefully screened audience of sympathizers. For, “where there is censorship, there is usually clandestine activity,” and in fact, the tactics of “dissimulation, double‐entendre, and satiric irreverence have their genesis in persecution.”110 As Freud himself has put in his classic work on the dream process:“the stricter the censorship the more far reaching the disguise.”111

The problems of secrecy, censorship, and self‐censorship, it would seem, only become all the more intense in cases of colonial contact, in which esoteric traditions are confronted by different, often threatening, political and moral forces. Throughout the European colonial imagination of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the fear of violent, subversive political activities often went hand in hand with the fear of perverse, transgressive, or immoral practices among the natives under their rule. As we see in the cases of the Mau Mau in Kenya or in various native uprisings in South and North America, political rebellion was, in the colonial imagination, often associated with immorality, sexual transgression, perverse secret rituals, and the violation of social taboos. The rebellious colonial subject threatened, not only to subvert the colonial government but also to unravel the moral fabric of society itself.112 Nowhere was this more true than in the case of colonial India, as the British officials became increasingly nervous about, and increasingly severe in the repression of, subversive secret organizations—both real and imaginary (such as the Thuggee). As Sir George MacMunn put it in his widely read account The Underworld of India, “secrecy goes with savagery”; or as Valentine Chirol warned in Indian Unrest, there was believed to be a deep and intimate connection between the Tantric secret societies and revolutionary political organizations; sexual depravity and political subversion were believed to go hand in hand: “The unnatural depravity represented in the form of erotomania is certainly more common among Hindu political fanatics.”113

(p.28) Correspondingly, we also find that secret organizations under colonial rule often develop even more elaborate and sophisticated techniques of self‐censorship and disguise in order to elude and deceive their imperial masters.114 Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the Tantric traditions during the colonial period in Bengal: “Tantric traditions were being made more respectable through excisions, and at times suppressed altogether . . . as stricter ideas about gentility developed in the shadow of Victorian norms in the late nineteenth century.”115 On one hand, as we see in the case of texts such as the highly unusual and enigmatic Mahānirvāṇa Tantra (which was probably a product of the late eighteenth century) there was a clear effort to censor, sanitize and “deodorize” the Tantras, to make them less offensive and to purge them of their more objectionable elements. For Bengali mystics, such as ŚrīRāmakṘṣṇa, Tantra had become not only a thing of awesome power and erotic allure but also a source of intense ambivalence, of “shame, disgust and fear” and thus the object of extreme censorship among his disciples.116 On the other hand, as we see in the Sahajiyā traditions, there was also a movement further “underground,” ever deeper into the realms of secrecy, disguise and self‐obfuscation.“[T]he movement does not appear to have gone ‘underground’ until the nineteenth century, when the British exert full control over the delta,” as Stewart suggests, “with the growth of colonial power, the Sahajiyās began to feel pressure to become more invisible than ever.”117

The Kartābhajā tradition, as we see in the remainder of this book, stands out as among the most acute examples of this dialectic of secrecy and censorship. Regularly singled out as the most threatening, most dangerous, and potentially most subversive of the so‐called deviant sects of colonial Bengal, the Kartābhajās cultivated the skills of dissimulation in ever new and more ingenious ways. With the Kartābhajās, however, we find two different kinds of self‐imposed censorship at work—tactics of both deodorization and disguise. On one hand, many of the more conservative Kartābhajās of the twentieth century made a concerted effort to clean up and sanitize the tradition, to purge it of its Tantric elements, and to re‐form it as an essentially innocuous devotional movement, in line with the mainstream Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition. On the other hand, many Kartābhajās sought to employ the tactics of concealment in ever new and more creative ways, to continue their highly esoteric, in many cases transgressive, practices while presenting an outward show of social conformity. As we see throughout their highly cryptic songs, the Kartābhajās learned to become masters of the arts of coded discourse and disguise. According to one of the Kartābhajās' cryptic esoteric phrases or “Mint Sayings,” “The one who is secret is liberated; but the one who is open (outside the veil), is an adulteress” (STP 80; III.159). Or, as the Kartābhajās' primary text, the collection of mystical songs called the Bhāver Gīta (The Songs of Ecstasy), puts it:

  • Brother, I'm afraid to speak of such things,
  • lest whoever hears it be scared shitless!!118 (BG 159; II.89)


(1.) The term “esotericism” was first coined by Jacques Matter in 1828, Histoire critique du gnosticisme et de son influence (Paris: Levrault, 1828). See Antoine Faivre, “Introduction I,” in Modern Esoteric Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1992), and “Esotericism,” in Encylopedia of Religion, ed. M. Eliade (New York: Macmillan,1986), v. 5.

(2.) See section “The Torment of Secrecy.” See also Hugh Urban, “Elitism and Esotericism: Strategies of Secrecy and Power in South Indian Tantra and French Freemasonry,” Numen 44 (1997), and Urban, “The Torment of Secrecy: Ethical and Epistemological Problems in the Study of Esoteric Traditions,” History of Religions (1998): 209–48. For reviews of the academic study of secrecy, see Beryl Bellman, The Language of Secrecy: Symbols and Metaphors in Poro Ritual (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984); T. M. Luhrmann, “The Magic of Secrecy,” Ethos 17, no. 2 (1989); S. Tefft, ed., Secrecy: A Cross‐Cultural Perspective (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1980).

(3.) Mircea Eliade, Occultism, Witchcraft and Cultural Fashions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 47–50; Kees Bolle, ed., Secrecy in Religions (New York: Brill, 1987); Antoine Faivre and Karen‐Claire Voss, “Western Esotericism and the Science of Religions,” Numen 42 (1995): 48–77. More recently, some better work on secrecy has come forth, which pays more attention to its social and historical contexts; see essays in H. Kippenberg and G. Stroumsa, eds., Secrecy and Concealment: Studies in the History of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Religions (Leiden: Brill, 1995).

(4.) Douglas Brooks, The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Śākta Tantra (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), ix.

(5.) The volume of Sanjukta Gupta, Teun Goudriaan, and Dirk J. Hoens, Hindu Tantrism (Leiden: Brill, 1979), for example, limits itself solely to Sanskrit materials and makes only brief inquiry into the social and historical contexts of these traditions. The large body of literature on Kashmir Śaivism includes André Padoux, Vāc: The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras (Albany: SUNY, 1990); Paul Muller‐Ortega, The Triadic Heart of Shiva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non‐dual Shaivism of Kashmir (Albany: SUNY, 1989); Mark Dyczkowski, The Doctrine of Vibration: An Analysis of the Doctrines and Practices of Kashmir Shaivism (Albany: SUNY, 1987).

More promising approaches to the living contexts of Tantra include Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kālī's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago: University of Chicago Press); Douglas Brooks, “Encountering the Hindu ‘Other’: Tantrism and the Brahmans of South India,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 60, no. 3 (1992), 405–36; David Gordon White, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (p.220) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Sarah Caldwell, Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kālī (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), and most recently David Gordon White, ed., Tantra in Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

(6.) Georg Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. K. Wolff (Glencoe: Free Press, 1950), 345. For example, at both the 1995 and 1997 meetings of the American Academy of Religions, fine panels were held on the topic of secrecy in Tantric traditions, but among all the papers presented, there was virtually no mention either of the social and political contexts of secrecy or of the possible comparative implications of the topic. Jeffrey Kripal's paper at the 1997 meeting, which dealt with secrecy in the RāmaksṘsṣsṇa tradition and the various positive and hostile reactions to his work, is the only notable exception.

(7.) Padoux, Vāc, 31. “Not only do . . . theorists give different definitions of Tantrism, but its very existence has sometimes been denied. . . . But it so happened that it was in texts known as tantras that Western scholars first described practices different from those of classical Hinduism . . . so Western experts adopted the word Tantrism for that particular, and for them, repulsive aspect of Indian religion.”André Padoux, “Tantrism, an Overview,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. M. Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1986), v. 14, 271–72). John Woodroffe had also made this point long ago (Shakti and Shākta [New York: Dover, 1978]), 54. I have engaged the genealogy of Tantrism in Hugh Urban, “The Extreme Orient: The Construction of ‘Tantrism’ as a Category in the Orientalist Imagination,” Religion 29 (1999): 127–46.

(8.) Muhammed Riāzuddin Āhmad, editor of Islām Pracārak, January 1903, cited in Debendranāth De, Kartābhajā Dharmer ItivsṘtta (Calcutta: Jigasa Agencies, 1968), 88–89.

(9.) Samareś Basu (a.k.a. Kālakūsṭa), Kothāy Se Jan Āche (Calcutta: De's Publishing, 1983), 25 (emphasis added). Kālakūsṭa is a famous Bengali author who has written a number of novels about religious sects such as the Kartābhajās, Bāuls, and others.

(10.) Kripal, Kālī's Child, 29.

(11.) Lise McKean, Divine Enterprise: Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

(12.) For a discussion of the historical sources, see chapter 1, section titled “The Secret VsṘndāvana.”The primary text is the Bhāver Gīta, ed. Rameścandra Ghosṣe (Calcutta: Aurora Press, 1882); Here I use the recent edition of Śānti Rañjan Cakravartī (Calcutta: Indralekha Press, 1992). Other primary texts include Manulāl Miśra, Bhāver Gīta Vyākhyā Saha Sahajatattva Prakāśa Vā Sanātana Sahaja Satya Dharmer Ādi Itihāsa (Calcutta: Author, 1911), and Miśra, Kartābhajā Dharmer Ādi VsṘttānta Vā Sahajatattva Prakāśa (Calcutta: Author, 1925).

There are also two important personal accounts by Kartābhajā devotees: that of Babu Gopāl Krishna Pāl in J. H. E. Garrett, Bengal District Gazetteers, Nadia (Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Book Stall, 1910), and that of Krishna Pāl in William Ward, ed., A Brief Memoir of Krishna Pāl, the First Hindoo in Bengal Who Broke the Chain of Caste by Embracing the Gospel (London: J. Offer, 1823).

Contemporary newspaper accounts include Sasṃvāda Prabhākara, 18 Caitra 1254 B.S. [1848]; Somaprakāśa, 20 Caitra 1270 B.S. [1864]. Contemporary literary accounts include Dāśarathī Rāy, “Kartābhajā,” in Dāśarathi Rāyer Pāñcālī, ed. H. P. Cakravartī (Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press, 1962); Nabīncandra Sen, “GhosṣpāsṘār Melā,” part 4 of “Āmār Jīban ,” in Nabīncandra Racanāvalī (Calcutta: Baṅgīya‐Sāhitya‐Parisṣat, 1974), v. 3; and the biographies of RāmaksṘsṣsṇa, such as Śrī ŚrīrāmaksṘsṣsṇa‐KathāmsṘta by Mahendranāth Gupta (Calcutta: KathāmsṘta Bhāban, 1987) and ŚrīśrīrāmaksṘsṣsṇa‐Lilāprasaṅga by Swami Saradānanda (Calcutta: Udbhodan Kāryālay, 1986). Missionary accounts include William Ward, Account of (p.221) the Writings, Religion and Manners of the Hindus (London: Black, Parbury and Allen, 1817–20); Church Missionary Register (June–Oct. 1839); James Long, Handbook of Bengal Missions (London: J. F. Shaw, 1848).

(13.) See chapter 2, section titled “The Janus‐Faced Self,” and chapter 4, section titled “The Poor Company—A Company of Madmen”; see also Ramakanta Chakrabarty, Vaisṣsṇavism in Bengal, 1486–1900 (Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bandhar, 1985), 379–85.

(14.) For example, the missionary William Ward and the Orientalist H. H. Wilson, who were among the first authors to write about “Tantrism”—not to mention the father of modern Tantric studies, Sir John Woodroffe, a judge on the High Court of Calcutta. See William Ward, A View of the History, Literature and Religion of the Hindoos, v. 2 (London: Kingsbury, Parbury and Allen, 1822); H. H. Wilson, Essays and Lectures on the Religions of the Hindus (New Delhi: Asian Publishing, 1976 [1858]); and the many works of John Woodroffe, such as Principles of Tantra: The Tantratattva of Śrīyukta Śiva Candra Vidyārsṇava Bhasṭsṭācārya Mahodaya (Madras: Ganesh, 1960).

(15.) Rāy, “Kartābhajā,” 665.

(16.) See, e.g., Saradānanda, ŚrīśrīrāmaksṘsṣsṇa‐Līlāprasaṅga, v. 2, 22–23.

(17.) Brooks, The Secret of the Three Cities, 55ff.

(18.) BG 35–40. According to one Kartābhajā song, “The worship of the Kartā is a delightful thing! It is the true worship. Its whereabouts are not in the injunctions of the Veda—all those are but the business of thievery” (cited in Advaita Dās, GhosṣpāsṘār Kartābhajā Sampradāya [Calcutta: Rām Dās, 1983], 47).

(19.) On Kusṇsḍalinī yoga, see Advaita Dās, Saṅgīta o Darśana (Calcutta: Cayanikā, 1992), 118–21.

(20.) The basic Kartābhajā belief is the identity of the chief guru or Kartā with God (KsṘsṣsṇa‐Caitanya); however, KsṘsṣsṇa himself is only the personal manifestation of the nondual absolute reality, Sahaja (BG 47–50); cf. Dās, Saṅgīta o Darśana, 118–20; Chakrabarty, Vaisṣsṇavism in Bengal, 371–75.

(21.) Like other Sahajiyās, the Kartābhajās believe in the identity of the name of KsṘsṣsṇa with the named, God himself and employ secret mantras as the most basic technique of initiation and sādhanā (see Satyaśiva Pāl, Ghosṣpārār Satīmā o Kartābhajā Dharma [Calcutta: Pustak Bipasṇi, 1990], 261–65).

(22.) “The Sahajiyā practice, like Tantric practice, is secret. It cannot be revealed to ordinary people. Those who follow this path cannot tell anyone anything about it.” Dās, Saṅgīta o Darśana, 119. “The essence of the Kartābhajās has remained hidden in secrecy, in the Sahaja language. Their external forms, their rituals and their religious practices, are only manifestations of this Sahaja path.” J. Cakravartī, “Kartābhajāner Rūpa o Svarūpa,” in Kartābhajā Dharmamata o Itihāsa, v. 2, xvi.

(23.) The secret communal meal shared by members of all castes is one of the most infamous features of the Kartābhajā tradition, and the one most frequently commented on by contemporary observersṣ Cf. Aksṣaykumār Datta, Bhāratavarsṣīya Upāsaka Sampradāya (Calcutta: Karusṇā Prakāśanī, 1394 B.S.), 223–25. At least some Kartābhajās advocate the use of Tantric sexual rituals, often in violation of caste restrictions. Cf. Dās, Śrī Satīmā Candrikā (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1986), 69–70.

(24.) For an account of the initiation rite, open to men and women of all castes and religions, see Datta, Bhāratavarsṣīya Upāsaka Sampradāya, 223n; Chakrabarty, Vaisṣsṇavism in Bengal, 365–67.

(25.) Padoux, Vāc, 40.

(26.) Dās, Saṅgīta o Darśana, 121.

(27.) De, Kartābhajā Dharmer ItivsṘtta, 12.

(28.) D. C. Sen, BsṘhat Baṅga: Suprācīn Kāl haite Plāsir Juddha Parjanta (Calcutta: De's Publishing, 1993), v. 2, 893. Other scholars who identify the Kartābhajās as Sahajiyās or Tāntrikas include De, Kartābhajā Dharmer ItivsṘtta, 7–10; Upendranāth Bhasṭsṭācārya, Bāṅglār Bāul o Bāul Gān (Calcutta: Orient Book Co., 1981), 69–70;Tushar Chatterjee, “Some Observations on Guru Cult and Minor Religious Sects of Bengal,” Society and Change (Jan.–March 1981): 207–11. As Bimalkumār Mukhopādhyāy concludes, “Among the sects spawned by the Sahajiyās, the Kartābhajas should be mentioned first and foremost. It is also the oldest” (“Pravartakakendrik Sahajiyā,” in Kartābhajā Dharmamata o Itihāsa, v. 2, 1).

(29.) For example, the recently deceased Kartā, Satyaśiva Pāl, bends over backwards to prove that they are not Tantric (Ghosṣpārār Satīmā, 259–62).

(30.) See Sumanta Banerjee, The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth‐Century Calcutta (Calcutta: Seagull, 1989), 69–71.

(31.) See Hugh Urban, “The Poor Company: Economics and Ecstasy in the Kartābhajā Sect of Colonial Bengal,” South Asia 19, no. 2 (1996), and Chakrabarty, Vaisṣsṇavism in Bengal, 375–78.

(32.) Cakravartī, “Kartābhajāner Rūpa o Svarūpa,” xxv.

(33.) “Calcutta's lower orders remained invisible to the bhadralok society. They found their way into newspaper columns only when they posed a threat to the economic and social comforts of the bhadralok.” Sumanta Banerjee, “The World of Ramjan Ostagar the Common Man of Old Calcutta,” in Calcutta the Living City, Vol. I, The Past, ed. S. Chaudhuri (Calcutta: Oxford, 1990), 80.

(34.) Chakrabarty, Vaisṣsṇavism in Bengal, 375–78. See Rabindranath Tagore, “The Bāul Singers of Bengal,” appendix to The Religion of Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961); Edward C. Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisṣsṇava Sahajiyā Cult of Bengal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).

(35.) When Rachel McDermott asked Sen's advice for her dissertation on Kamalākānta, he told her she should abandon it and study the Kartābhajās instead (personal communication, 1995).

The most important English scholarship includes Geoffrey A. Oddie, “Old Wine in New Bottles? Kartābhajā (Vaishnava) Converts to Christianity in Bengal, 1835–1845,” Indian Economic and Social History Review, 32 no. 3 (1995); Chakrabarty, Vaisṣsṇavism in Bengal, 346–84. Sumanta Banerjee, “From Aulchand to Satī Mā: The Institutionalization of the Syncretist Karta‐bhaja Sect in 19th century Bengal,” Calcutta Historical Journal 16, no. 2 (1994). The most important Bengali scholarship S. Mitra, ed., Kartābhajā Dharmamata o Itihāsa (2 vols.) (Calcutta: De Book Stores, 1976–77); De, Kartābhajā Dharmer ItivsṘtta; and Ratan Kumār Nandī, Kartābhajā Dharma o Sāhitya (Naihati: Asani Press, 1984).

(36.) Apurna Bhattacharya, Religious Movements of Bengal, 1800–1850 (Calcutta: Vidyasagar Pustak Mandir, 1981), 47; cf. Kripal, Kālī's Child, 223–25. “Why was there such intense opposition to and ridicule of the Kartābhajās? . . . The growing popular support of the Kartābhajās threatened and incited the orthodox Hindus.” Sudhīr Cakravartī, Gabhīr Nirjan Pathe (Calcutta: Ananda, 1989), 65.

(37.) Cf. Sudhīr Cakravartī, “Kartābhajāner Rūp o Svarūp,” xv; Tusṣār Casṭsṭopādhyāy, “Ghosṣpārār Melā, Kartābhajāo Lālan,” in Lālan Sāhitya o Darśana, ed. K. R. Hāq (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1976); for an account by a contemporary literary figure, see Sen, part 4 of “Ā mār Jīban,” 174–91.

(38.) Rameścandra Majumdār, ed., Bāṅglādeśer Itihāsa, 264–65, cited in De, Kartābhajā Dharmer ItivsṘtta, 79.

(39.) Sudhīr Cakravartī, Paścim Baṅger Melā o Mahotsava (Calcutta: Pustak Bipasị, 1996), 161. “Calcutta's bhadralok society was quick to condemn the Kartābhajās as a religion of itar people and prostitutes who were promiscuous in their habits and violated the norms of Hindu religion.” Banerjee, The Parlour, 69.

(40.) Nandī, Kartābhajā Dharma, 67. For accounts of the Ghoshpara Melā today, see Cakravartī, Paścim Baṅger Melā; and Māsṇik Sarkār, “Ghosṣpārār Melā,” in Kartābhajā Dharmamata o Itihāsa, v.2.

(41.) For the most intelligent discussions of comparison in the history of religions, see Jonathan Z. Smith, Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 240–64, and Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Fitz John Porter Poole, “Metaphors and Maps: Towards Comparison in the Anthropology of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 54, no. 3 (1986). As Smith puts it: “Comparison does not tells us how things ‘are’ . . . like models and metaphors, comparison tells us how things might be . . .‘redescribed’, in Max Black's term . . . comparison provides the means by which we ‘revision’ phenomena to solve our theoretical problems.” Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 52.

(42.) See Smith, Imagining Religion, introduction; Cristiano Grotanelli and Bruce Lincoln, “A Brief Note on (Future) Research in the History of Religions,” Center for Humanistic Studies Occasional Papers, no. 4 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1985). “Religions should be studied as . . . social and historical entities, within their proper cultural context. They must be studied not only as phenomena that change . . . but as expressions of broader tensions within social configurations and . . . as vehicles of conflict.”

(43.) Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8, no. 3 (1996), 225.

(44.) See Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981); Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1978). I also use the work of de Certeau to criticize Bourdieu's often static and reified model of the social order. See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

(45.) In a lucid discussion, Martha Kaplan identifies three primary strategies used to analyze situations of colonial rule. The first, as we see in Sahlins's work, emphasizes the lasting importance of indigenous categories of meaning and native agency. The second, as we see in Eric Wolf's work, sees colonial power as an overwhelming hegemonic force that has forever changed the world of the colonized. The third, represented by Michael Taussig's work, sees the colonial space as a jungle or chaotic space of terror, which is neither indigenous nor colonial but an epistemic murk (Neither Cargo nor Cult: Ritual Politics and the Colonial Imagination in Fiji [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995], 2–3). Kaplan's own approach, to which I would also subscribe, emphasizes both the creative agency of the colonized to make their own history and the dominant power of the colonial state to shape and constrain that history.

(46.) Jean and John Comaroff, eds., Modernity and Its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), xi‐ii; cf. Jean Comaroff, Body of Power, Spirit of Revolution: The Culture and History of a South African People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 131, 236–38; Marshall Sahlins, “Cosmologies of Capitalism: The Trans‐Pacific Sector of the World System,” Proceedings of the British Academy 74 (1988); Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).


I am also in basic sympathy with the members of the Subaltern Studies Collective; see R. Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies: Writing on South Asian History and Society, Vol. 1. (Delhi: Oxford, 1982); Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

(47.) The literature on postcolonial theory is obviously vast and rapidly growing; see, for starters, Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994); Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1961); Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1994); B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths, and H. Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post‐colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989), 33.

(48.) For good criticisms of postcolonial discourse, see Russell Jacoby, “Marginal Returns: The Trouble with Post‐Colonial Theory,” Lingua Franca (Sept.–Oct. 1995); Rosalind O'Hanlon, “Recovering the Subject: Subaltern Studies and Histories of Resistance in Colonial South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 22, no. 1 (1988): 189–224; Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of British India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992);Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York: Routledge, 1995). McClintock suggests that postcolonialism is “prematurely celebratory and obfuscatory” and is “haunted by 19th century ideals of linear progress”; it reifies a singular, monolithic non‐Western Other and in so doing masks subtle forms of neocolonialism (Imperial Leather, 13).

(49.) “Indians remained . . . active agents and not passive victims in the creation of colonial India. . . . There were many threads of continuity between precolonial India and the India of the East India Company.” Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 5. See David Washbrook, “Law, State and Agrarian Society in Colonial India,” Modern Asian Studies 15 (1981).

(50.) John Kelly, A Politics of Virtue: Hinduism, Sexuality and Countercolonial Discourse in Fiji (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), xiv. See Aiwa Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia (Albany: SUNY, 1987), 216–17. See also Talal Asad's criticism of the overemphasis on “agency” and the autonomous subject (Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993]).

(51.) The metaphor of the “bazaar of the world” (bhava‐bājār) and the “bazaar of love” (prema‐bājār) appear ubiquitously throughout the Bhāver Gīta; see BG 41–46; appendix II.1–56. For an excellent discussion of the use of the “market metaphor,” see Sudipta Sen, “Passages of Authority: Rulers, Traders and Marketplaces in Bengal and Banaras, 1700–1750,” Calcutta Historical Journal 17, no. 1 (1996).

(52.) A good deal of literature has been devoted to the definition of “secrecy” and its distinction from “privacy.” Here I am following the model suggested by Edward Shils, as modified by recent theorists such as Carol Warren, Barbara Laslett, and Stanton Tefft. According to Shils, privacy is characterized by the voluntary concealment of information or behaviors, whereas secrecy is characterized by the obligatory concealment of information, with a prohibition attended by sanctions. Shils, The Torment of Secrecy The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press 1956), 26–27. Warren and Laslett, on the other hand, distinguish privacy and secrecy not by the volition of their possessor but, rather, by their moral or legal content. Thus, privacy refers to information or behaviors that are morally and legally neutral (e.g., marital sex), whereas secrecy refers to those considered immoral or illegal by mainstream society. Then, within the realm of secrecy, Warren and Laslett further distinguish between (1) “private life secrecy”—or the concealment of behaviors that outsiders consider undesirable, immoral, or illegal (e.g., homo‐sexuality (p.225) or child abuse); and (2) “public life secrecy”—which concerns primarily political secrecy by governmental agents (e.g., the CIA or FBI) directed against political opponents (“Privacy and Secrecy: A Conceptual Comparison,” in Secrecy: A Cross‐Cultural Perspective, ed. S. Tefft [New York: Human Sciences Press, 1980], 25–28; see Tefft's “Introduction” to the same volume).

(53.) I am indebted to Tony Stewart, both through his written work and numerous personal conversations over the last several years, for his insights into the “double bind” or “Gordion Knot” of secrecy. See his as yet unpublished manuscript, “Sex, Secrecy and the Politics of Sahajiyā Scholarship Or: Caveats from a Faint‐hearted Student of Tantra (1990).

(54.) De, Kartābhajā Dharmer ItivsṘtta, 17

(55.) Casṭsṭopādhyāy, “GhosṣpāsṘār Melā,” 133. As Maulavi Abdul Wali apologetically explained in his famous early account of the Bāuls and Faqirs of Bengal, he was ultimately unable to penetrate into the esoteric practices of these very guarded men: “The Faqirs would in no case meet me, the tracts written by them were all composed in their mystic language. . . . I despaired of adding to my scanty knowledge as to their abominable habits.” “On Some Curious Tenets and Practices of Certain Class of Fakirs of Bengal,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay (November 30, 1898).

(56) I interviewed several dozen Kartābhajās from various parts of rural West Bengal and Bangladesh and had the opportunity to work closely with three higher‐level gurus in Calcutta. After much deliberation, however, I have decided, out of respect for the privacy of my informants, not to use the real names of any living Kartābhajās in this book. Although some readers might feel this goes against my larger principle of “upfrontness” in the study of esoteric traditions, I cannot in good conscience name my sources without their informed consent—especially when I am dealing with subject matter that could potentially be quite damaging to their reputations. Although it is by no means an ideal solution to the ethicalepistemic double bind, I will therefore use pseudonyms wherever it is necessary to refer to individuals by name.

(57.) George Marcus and Michael Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 7–10. For discussions of these problems in recent ethnography, see James Clifford and George Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); John and Jean Comaroff, Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990).

(58.) Clifford and Marcus, Writing Culture, 8.

(59.) For a good overview of the main approaches to secrecy—sociological, psychological, political, etc., see Bellman, The Language of Secrecy, ch. 1; Luhrmann, “The Magic of Secrecy”; Tefft, “Introduction,” in Secrecy. For the major sociological approaches see Simmel, “The Secret and the Secret Society,” 307–76; Phillip Bonacich, “Secrecy and Solidarity,” Sociometry 39 (1976): 200–208; Barbara Ponse, “Secrecy in the Lesbian World,” Urban Life 5 (1976): 313–38;Warren and Laslett, “Privacy and Secrecy,” in Secrecy.

For the perennialist view, see René Guénon, Aperçus sur l'initiation (Paris: Gallimard, 1946); Frithjof Schuon, Esoterism as Principle and as Way (Bloomington: World Wisdom Books, 1986).

(60.) Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, 331.

(61.) According to Norman MacKenzie, there are nine primary types: (1) patriotic; (2) racial; (3) political; (4) economic; (5) civic; (6) religious; (7) military; (8) scientific; and (9) judicial. Secret Societies (New York; Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1967). Mak Lou Fong uses (p.226) R. K. Merton's sociological model of the five modes of role adaptation: conformity, retreatism, ritualism, innovation, and rebellion. The Sociology of Secret Societies: Study of Chinese Secret Societies in Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia (New York: Oxford, 1981), 11–12. For other typologies, see C. W. Heckethorn, The Secret Societies of all Ages and Countries (New Hyde Park: University Books, 1965 [1875]).

(62.) Tony Stewart, “Sex, Secrecy and the Politics of Sahajiya Scholarship,” 41.

(63.) James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: 20th Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 67. On the problem of the “commodity economy” of anthropology, see George Stocking, The Ethnographer's Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 179–80.

(64.) Marcel Griaule, Les Sao Legendaires (Paris: Gallimard, 1943), 74 (emphasis added).

(65.) Marcel Griaule, Methode de l'ethnographie (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), 59.

(66.) Lamont Lindstrom, Knowledge and Power in a South Pacific Society (Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1990), 200.

(67.) Among the few authors to grapple with the ethical problem are Kripal in Kālī's Child and Sisella Bok, Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (New York: Pantheon, 1982); however, Bok's comments are largely limited to raising the major questions, offering very little in the way of concrete solutions. In the field of Tantric studies, Tony Stewart has tackled the problem in his essay, “Sex, Secrecy and the Politics of Sahajiyā Scholarship”; however, Stewart's conclusions are generally quite pessimistic about the prospects of a solution to the problem.

(68.) This is the approach adopted by most scholars of Jewish and Western esoteric traditions, such as Gershom Scholem, Antoine Faivre, H. Kippenberg, and G. Stroumsa, and so on. Cf. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Shocken, 1961), 21–25; Faivre, Modern Esoteric Spirituality; Kippenberg, “Introduction,” in Secrecy and Concealment.

(69.) See Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon, 39n; Padoux, Vāc; Sanjukta Gupta, Hindu Tantrism. (Londen: E. J. Brill 1979).

(70.) Among anthropologists, this is the approach adopted, for example, by Andrew Apter, Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). For a good example of this “insider's” approach” to the Voodoo tradition, see Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

(71.) Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

(72.) Brooks, The Secret of the Three Cities, 6–7.

(73.) Even in his most work on the Siddha Yoga tradition, Brooks never really engages these issues. See S. P. Sabharathnam, Douglas Renfrew Brooks, Constantina Rhodes Bailly, William K. Mahony, Paul E. Muller‐Ortega, Swami Durgananda, and Peggy Bendet , Meditation Revolution: A History and Theology of the Siddha Yoga Lineage (Agama Press, 1998).

(74.) Fredrik Barth, Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), 7.

(75.) Barth, Ritual and Knowledge, 6. A similar case occurred among the Telefolmin peoples of New Guinea, who were about to lose a cult center to the construction of copper mines. To preserve their sacred lore, they invited an anthropologist to come and study materials which had formerly been kept strictly secret (“Prompt Assistance for Telefolmin,” Cultural Survival 3 [Spring 1979]).

(76.) Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1967), 271–73.

(77.) “A theoretical shift had been required to analyze . . . the manifestations of power; it led me to examine . . . the open strategies and the rational techniques that articulate the exercise of powers.” Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2. The Use of Pleasure, 6.

(78.) Bruce Lincoln suggests a similar shift in his study of “authority.” Rather than a concrete entity, authority is best understood as a complex “effect” produced by a whole set of interdependent relations—the right speaker, the right context, the right time and place, the right props, and so on. Authority: Construction and Corrosion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

(79.) Bellman, The Language of Secrecy, 144.

(80.) Some scholars like Walter Burkert have suggested that the “secrets” of cults like the ancient Mysteries were really quite banale and meaningless; what was important was simply the fact that it was highly prized and could grant prestige (“Der Geheime Reiz des Verbogenen: Antike Mysterienkulte,” in Secrecy and Concealment, 79–100). However, as Andrew Apter points out, even though it is tempting to dismiss secrets as mere “vehicles of deliberate mystification” or “manufactured illusions,” this is ultimately inadequate for understanding the deeper power of secrecy: “The possibility that ritual vessels are semantically empty is intriguing but inaccurate. Cult members do divulge esoteric knowledge, circuitously, in fragments, under exceptional conditions . . . ritual symbols are neither aribitrary nor meaningless, but are indices of political power.” Black Critics and Kings, 86.

(81.) Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 178; see Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research of the Sociology of Education, ed. J. Richardson (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 252. “Symbolic capital is . . . economic or political capital that is disavowed, misrecognized and thereby recognized, hence legitimate, a credit . . . which in the long run guarantees economic profit.” Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 75.

(82.) Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” 252–55.

(83.) Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, 123. “The transformation of any kind of capital into symbolic capital, a legitimate possession . . . is the fundamental operation of social alchemy” (ibid, 129).

(84.) See Bourdieu, “The Economics of Linguistic Exchange,” Social Science Information, 16 (1977): 645–68, and Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 77.

(85.) Luhrmann, “The Magic of Secrecy,” 161, 137; cf. Bok, Secrets, 282: “Control over secrecy and concealment gives power.”

(86.) Lindstrom, Knowledge and Power in a South Pacific Society, 119, xii–xiii.

(87.) Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, 337. “The secret operates as an adorning possession. . . . This involves the contradiction that what recedes before the consciousness of others and is hidden is emphasized in their consciousness; that one appears noteworthy through what one conceals” (ibid.).

(88.) “The practices we describe as economic in the narrow sense (buying and selling commodities) are a sub‐category of practices pertaining to a specific field, the market. . . . But there are other sub‐categories of practice which pertain to other fields, the fields of literature, art, politics and religion; these fields are characterized by their own properties, forms of capital, profit, etc. . . . Bourdieu does not wish to reduce all social fields to the economy . . . he wishes to treat the economy in the narrow sense as one field among a (p.228) plurality of fields which are not reducible to one another.”Thompson, Introduction to Language and Symbolic Power, 15; cf. Peter Jenkins, Pierre Bourdieu (London: Routledge, 1990), 87.

(89.) Sen, “Passages of Authority”; and Conquest of Marketplaces: Exchange, Authority and Conflict in Early Colonial North India (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1994). On the Kartābhajā use of economic terminology, see Urban, “The Poor Company”; Chakrabarty, Vaisṣsṇavism in Bengal, 378–80.

(90.) Comaroff, Body of Power, 5. See de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 59, 60; Jenkins, Pierre Bourdieu, 97; Craig Calhoun, “Habitus, Field, Capital,” in Bourdieu Critical Perspectives, ed. C. Calhoun et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 69, 93–94. As John Fiske summarizes, “I find Bourdieu's work very productive, provided that we don't buy into . . . a rigid deterministic framework . . . his account is much too deterministic and doesn't allow enough for . . . social agents having to negotiate these multiple contradictions that . . . capitalism faces us with.” “Cultural Studies and the Culture of Everyday Life,” in Cultural Studies, ed. L. Grossberg et al. (London: Routledge, 1992), 166.

(91.) Recently, Bourdieu has briefly discussed the possibilities for symbolic resistance in the case of language use and linguistic exchange—for example, the use of “slang” and language which deliberately rejects legitimate, official linguistic forms (Language and Symbolic Power, 94–97).

(92.) As de Certeau argues, Bourdieu's concept of strategy remains oddly limited and restricted. For Bourdieu the strategies of a social agent are in most cases “unconscious” and not subject to intentional calculation; they are “the capacity for rule governed improvisation” which goes on beneath the surface of conscious agency. “The habitus is the source of these moves which are objectively organized as strategies without being the product of a genuine strategic intention.” Outline of a Theory of Practice, 7. Thus, de Certeau concludes, “there is no choice among several possibilities, and thus no strategic intention . . . there is only an assumed world as the repetition of the past. . . . Docta ignorantia, therefore, a cleverness that does not recognize itself as such.” The Practice of Everyday Life, 56.

(93.) “I call a strategy the calculus of force relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an environment. . . . Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on a strategic model. I call a tactic on the other hand a calculus which cannot count on . . . a spatial or institutional location. . . . The place of the tactic belongs to the other. A tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily. . . . The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them. . . . Many everyday practices (talking, reading, moving about, shopping) are tactical in character. And so are . . . many ways of operating: victories of the weak over the strong . . . clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, hunter's cunning, maneuvers. . . . The Greeks called these ways of operating (metis).” de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, xix.

(94.) de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, xi‐xii. For similar discussion of the tactics employed by ordinary “consumers,” see the works of the British Cultural studies school, e.g., Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (London: Routledge, 1961); Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, eds., Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post‐War Britain (London: Routledge, 1993); Paul Willis, Working Class Culture: Studies in History and Theory (London: Routledge, 1979); L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, P. Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1992).

(95.) Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies in Myth, Ritual and Classification (New York: Oxford, 1989), 5–7.

(96.) Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 101. “Two basic types of secret societies exist: (p.229) those that support the existing political leadership . . . and those that oppose the status quo. The first type . . . enables political leaders to deny outsiders access to the appropriate knowledge (inside secrets) that legitimizes their power . . . secret societies of the second type employ secrecy to protect their membership from punishment or deny their enemies knowledge of the . . . strategies (strategic secrets).”Tefft, “Introduction,” in Secrecy, 14.

(97.) Wade Davis, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 284. See also Urban, “Elitism and Esotericism.”

(98.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel, 365. As Abner Cohen has shown in his study of Masonry among the Creoles of Freetown, membership in a secret society helps to reinforce the “distinctiveness” of elite culture, while providing the aura of profundity and power which mystifies their elite status: “Membership is taken as a privilege and Masons are proud of it. . . . Masonry [is] a mechanism for the development of the ‘mystique’ which marks their distinctiveness.” The Politics of Elite Culture: Explorations in the Dramaturgy of Power in Modern African Society (Berkeley: University of California Press 1981). 124. See also Richard Schaefer, “The Ku Klux Klans' Successful Management of Secrecy,” in Secrecy, 163.

(99.) Ian Keen, Knowledge and Secrecy in an Aboriginal Religion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 254.

(100.) Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880–1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 30. A similar argument has recently been made by David Ownby and Mary Somers Heidhues in the case of Chinese secret societies: Secret Societies Reconsidered: Perspectives on the Social History of Modern South China and Southeast Asia (London: M. E. Sharpe, 1993), 5–10.

(101.) Douglas Brooks, Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of ŚrīvidyāŚākta Tantrism in South India (Albany: SUNY, 1992), 188. See also Sanderson, “Purity and Power.”

(102.) Brown, Mama Lola, 378–79. See also Tiryakian, “Toward the Sociology of Esoteric Culture;” E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: Prager, 1959); and Ponse, “Secrecy in the Lesbian World.”

(103.) On the role of secret societies in the Nationalist Movement, see Leonard Gordon, Bengal: The Nationalist Movement, 1876–1940 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974).

(104.) James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 45, 121.

(105.) Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 18, 12. “Every subordinate group creates . . . a hidden transcript that represents a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant. The powerful . . . also develop a hidden transcript representing the claims of their rule that cannot be openly avowed. . . . [T]he process of domination generates a hegemonic public conduct and a backstage discourse consisting of what cannot be spoken in the face of power” (xii).

(106.) On the topic of censorship, see Sue Curry Jansen, Censorship: the Knot that Binds Power and Knowledge (New York: Oxford 1988); Ilan Peleg, ed ., Patterns of Censorship around the World (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993). There is large body of literature on freedom of speech and censorship, though primarily in Western political thought; the classic works include J. B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought (London: Oxford, 1913); George Putnam, The Censorship of the Church of Rome and Its Influence upon the Production and Distribution of Literature (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1967 [1906]).

(107.) Jansen, Censorship, 14, cf. 67.

(108.) Jansen, Censorship, 184.

(109.) Scott, Domination, 138–39.

(110.) Jansen, Censorship, 81–82. See Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe: Free Press, 1952).

(111.) Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams,” in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. A. A. Brill (New York: Modern Library, 1938), 223.

(112.) See Nicholas Dirks, Colonialism's Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1994), 15; Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1990). As Torgovnick puts it, “Primitives are our untamed selves, our id forces—libidinous, irrational, violent, dangerous” (8). On the fear of the “wild man” or savage in South America, see Michael Taussig , Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

As Tefft comments, “In colonial situations secret societies often oppose the spread of foreign groups who compete with them. . . . Loyalty to the secret order insulates the membership and prevent them from making contact with foreigners who might undermine . . . traditional associations.”“Introduction,” in Secrecy, 55.

(113.) Valentine Chirol, Indian Unrest (London: Macmillan, 1910), 346. As Sir George MacMunn put it, “wherever political agitation assumes the most virulent character, there the Hindu revival assumes the most extravagant shapes.” The Underworld of India (London: MacMillan, 1933), 156.

(114.) Lindstrom, for example, has studied the peoples of the South Pacific Islands, where there is a high value placed on protected domains of cultural knowledge: when faced with Western domination and anthropological scrutiny, these mechanisms of secrecy and silence often become even more elaborate and more protective of their cultural secrets. “Protected by marginal silence, resistant local modes of information persevere. . . . Silencing as a procedural tactic endeavors to protect local relation of conversational domination.” Knowledge and Power, 196. For a good study of the changing shape of secret societies under colonial rule, see Wolfgang Kempf, “Ritual, Power and Colonial Domination: Male Initiation among the Ngaing of Papua New Guinea,” in Syncretism/Anti‐Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis, eds. C. Stewart and R. Shaw (London: Routledge, 1994), 110.

(115.) Sumit Sarkar, An Exploration of the Ramakrishna Vivekanada Tradition (Simla: Indian Institute of Cultural Studies, 1993), 45. On RāmaksṘsṣsṇa's ambivalence toward Tantra, see Kripal, Kālī's Child, passim.

(116.) Kripal, Kālī's Child, 24–25, 32. On the Mahānirvāsṇa Tantra, see Hugh Urban, “The Strategic Uses of an Esoteric Text: The Mahānirvāsṇa Tantra,” South Asia 18, no. 1 (1995), 55–82.

(117.) Stewart, “Sex, Secrecy and the Politics of Sahajiyā Scholarship,” 39.

(118.) The Bengali here is atisāri hay—literally, to suffer “morbid looseness of the bowels, diarrhoea, or dysentery.”