On the Origins and Early Development of Tantra: Buddhist Ritual Manuals from Dunhuang
South and Southeast Asian Studies
A century ago, a cache of ancient manuscripts was discovered in a cave near Dunhuang on the old Silk Road. Among the documents were a several hundred tantric texts in Tibetan, almost all ritual manuals. The Dunhuang manuscripts have already revolutionized our understanding of Asian religious history, yet the tantric manuscripts in particular have yet to be fully mined. The advent of the tantras in seventh and eighth-century India marked a watershed for ritual technologies across much of Asia, yet this important repository of ancient texts has yet to be mined. Ritual manuals of the sort found in Dunhuang were crucial to the evolution of the tantras. Evanescent, often locally produced, and ever open to revision, they were the literary crucible in which the tantras were forged. A President’s Faculty Research Fellowship will allow me to complete a book on what the Dunhuang manuscripts can tell us about the origins and early development of Tantra in India. More broadly, the study will contribute to ongoing conversations within the field of Religious Studies on esoteric ritual practice and the complex relations between local and canonical texts.