Reading Women on the Indian Tibetan Literary Landscape

March 2021

A wide and historically interconnected movement in medieval to early-modern Indian, Himalayan, and Tibetan religion elevated sexually-inflected artistic and literary practices, and seemingly the women participants therein. These were women who acted at the margins of hetero-normative society, living as courtesans, dancers, goddesses, tantric consorts, and religious masters and visionaries. The literature connected to them has long proved troubling for modern academic analysis, with much of the latter dismissive of, or challenged by, these figures, their voices, their aesthetic predispositions, and their sexual styles. Feministically inclined researchers in the field today are still left with the question of how might we understand the women in these texts, without either undue criticism or romanticization? What might a sophisticated and responsibly enhanced literary appreciation of texts from these movements look like? And how might that contribute to our larger capacity to imagine the full range of gender, human subjectivities, and artistic possibility?

This seminar will explore new ways to read. We, all scholars of the primary languages of these texts, will read together four key and demonstrably connected texts in Indian and Tibetan literature, spanning the last millennium. Our discussion will be informed by long-standing issues in feminist literary criticism, but it will also be open and exploratory for new ideas, based on the evolving sensibilities of our participants. The seminar is meant to heighten the participants’ reading practices, to enhance our respective works of scholarship going forward, and to contribute to the study of women and of gender roles writ large.