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NSC Lecture on Tantrism and State Formation in Southeast Asia

NALANDA-SRIWIJAYA CENTRE
Lecture: Tantrism and State Formation in Southeast Asia

Monday, 14 August 2017 – Dr Andrea Acri, Associate Fellow at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre (NSC) and Maître de conférences at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Paris), discussed the important socio-religious phenomenon of tantrism and state-formation processes in premodern Southeast Asia in an NSC lecture entitled “Tantrism and State Formation in Southeast Asia”. Covering a period from the 6th to 15th century and beyond with examples from medieval maṇḍala polities in Sumatra, Java, and Cambodia, the lecture explored the indissoluble links between State and Tantric ideologies and ritual systems.

Dr Andrea Acri giving his lecture on Tantrism and State Formation in Southeast Asia (Source: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)

Borrowing from historian Oliver Wolters’s ‘man of prowess’ theory, Dr Acri articulated a paradigm that can help to analyse state formation and statecraft in premodern Southeast Asia. Tantrism was located within such a paradigm where the political and religious elements, as well as the supernatural domain and the personal charisma of rulers, were interrelated and mutually reinforcing. Pointing out the overlap of political and religious/ritual terminologies such as maṇḍala, mantrin and cakravartin, he illustrated how this paradigm was shaped by political and religious competition and mutual influence, bringing to attention the Sanskritic continuum that enabled the hybridisation between premodern states and Indic cultures, religions, and rituals across South- and Southeast Asia.

Without excluding the social and economic dimensions, Dr Acri explained that resorting to magical practices to fulfil aims of realpolitik is, in fact, a cliché in many Śaiva and Bauddha Tantras, and even in Brahmanical Sanskrit normative texts. To demonstrate this, he raised the example of the overlap of royal-focused tantric ideologies and rituals and expansionist states from the 12th century onwards, such as in the case of Singhasari and Yuan China. Interestingly, even as Southeast Asia is populated by modern postcolonial states today, remnants of tantric magic within politics can still be found.


Participants at the lecture (Source: Mark Heng)

The lecture drew an attendance of about 50 people, including many participants from this year’s NSC Archaeological Field School.

Report by Nicholas Chan