Elitism and Esotericism: Strategies of Secrecy and Power in South Indian Tantra and French Freemasonry

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Despite the proliferation of interest in the subjects of secrecy and esotericism throughout popular culture, media and entertainment, these phenomena have only recently begun to be treated seriously by historians of religions. In this essay, I suggest a new way of looking at esotericism by engaging in a comparative, cross-cultural analysis, and by looking in particular at its social and political implications. Specifically, I compare two traditions — the Srīvidyā school of Indian Tantra, and the Rectified Scottish Rite of French Freemasonry — juxtaposing and analogically relating them in order to shed new light on both. Contrary to many popular conceptions, I argue that esotericism is by no means primarily a “counter-cultural” or “subversive” phenomenon; rather, it is very often an elitist phenomenon, the province of highly educated, affluent and powerful intellectuals, who wish, not to undermine existing social structures, but rather subtly to reinforce them, or else to bend and reshape them according to their own interests. This essay examines three primary strategies employed by the Tantrics and Masons: 1) the creation of a new social space or private sphere, which promises “equality” and liberation for all classes, while at the same time constructing new and more rigid hierarchies; 2) a hermeneutical strategy, which appropriates the authority of traditional scriptures, while at the same time asserting the superiority of esoteric exegesis; 3) a ritual strategy, which creates a homology between the body of the initiate, the hierarchy of the cosmos and the hierarchy of the esoteric sect, inscribing the individual into the body of the order, and inscribing the order onto the human body.


International Review for the History of Religions



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