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First study of Tantric snakebite medicine in South Asia from lost Sanskrit palm-leaf manuscripts discovered in Nepal.

Goal

To prepare the publisher-ready manuscript of the book Tantric Medicine: Mantras, Antivenom, and Possession in South Asian Traditions.

Garuḍa woodcarving from Bhutan
Garuḍa woodcarving from Bhutan

Summary

Snakebite accounts for at least 20,000 annual deaths in India, and many more in surrounding countries, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of permanent injuries and amputations that venom wreaks on South Asian peoples.  Studies of traditional medicine have tended to ignore snakebite, and particularly the whole domain of Tantric medicine. Tantra is popularly and erroneously associated with transgressive rituals, which in fact are only found in a few marginal sects.  This book will respectfully and rigorously explore the most prolific class of medical texts for treating poison—the Gāruḍa Tantras, a genre that was deemed lost until I discovered numerous ancient titles surviving in Sanskrit manuscripts written on fragile palm-leaves.  The book brings this rich tradition to life with an accessible introduction and contextualization within Sanskrit learning and other Indian medical traditions.  It includes an accurate, yet readable translation of ten chapters of the most significant Tantric medical text to be recovered, the Kriyākālagūṇottara.

Anti-snake diagram reconstructed from palm-leaf manuscript
Anti-snake diagram reconstructed from palm-leaf manuscript

More Details about Contents

Part I

  • Chapter 1 will introduce the topic of Tantric medicine and snakebite in India.  In reworking this from the dissertation, I will focus on creating a captivating narrative with personal stories of snakebite in modern India and Nepal.  I will downplay the review of previous scholarship, translate all Sanskrit terms, and minimize the use of footnotes. 
  • Chapter 2 will require the most revision.  It is currently a 70-page catalog of the Sanskrit and Middle Indic literature from the earliest Vedic texts down to 20th century compositions.  Instead of listing each text that I read and its significance, I will shape the chapter into a 30-page summary of the development of the Gāruḍa Tantras and reserve discussion of later medieval and modern evidence for Chapter 6.
  • Chapter 3, on the major mantra systems used to counter poison, will be expanded to include more details about the Nīlakaṇṭha system which prescribes minute amounts of poison as medicine much like homeopathy.
  • Chapter 4 on snakebite goddesses will be expanded to include sections on modern snakebite goddesses. 
  • Chapter 5 on the bird-deity Garuḍa will undergo light revisions for style of presentation.
  • Chapter 6, currently a brief summary of directions for future research, will be expanded to include a critical discussion of the place of traditional medicine in India today.  This will help to situate my work in dialogue in Anthropology, Public Health, and the modern history of biomedicine.

Part II

  • Includes a critical edition of ten chapters of the Kriyākālaguṇottara, the most important text to have been recovered from archives in Nepal.  The dissertation included nine chapters only.

Why is this book important?

Knowledge: Our knowledge of traditional medicine from South Asia is very limited, and my book will be the first to accurately describe this major branch of Tantric medicine. It repositions our understanding of the Hindu bird-deity Garuḍa who is usually known only for his role as the carrier of the great god Viṣṇu.  I show that Garuḍa was conceived as an independent deity since the Ṛg Veda (c.1500 BC), and that his popularity reached a peak in these medical Tantras that feature him as the ultimate enemy of snakes and poison.

Diversity: Respect for a diversity of cultures, religions, and medical systems is essential for our survival as a species.  The best way to generate that respect is by supporting activities that seek to build bridges between cultures. The study of Hinduism also suffers from too heavy a focus on male deities, when in fact female Goddesses are the most popular forms of the divine in Hinduism.  I contribute to shifting this focus by including a chapter on several important snakebite Goddesses featured in these newly discovered manuscripts.

Justice: India's great intellectual traditions easily rival those of any classical civilization, yet tens of thousands of Sanskrit texts are at risk of being lost forever because of mold, pests, and apathy.  The manuscripts are a true intellectual treasure, and by supporting my work you affirm the value of their preservation. This book is also about telling the truth about Tantra, perhaps the most misunderstood religious tradition in India.

Manasā, a goddess worshipped to cure snakebite
Manasā, a goddess worshipped to cure snakebite

Why Kickstarter?

The vast majority of the work of this book has already been completed in the form of my doctoral dissertation Gāruḍa Medicine: A History of Snakebite and Religious Healing in South Asia (UC Berkeley, 2012).  The Kickstarter project will help me to move beyond the catch-22 of needing a book to land a tenure-track job, but needing the income of a steady job to have the time to devote to research.  I have taught full-time in Maryland for the past year, before which I taught at Brown University.  I was able to fund most of the research by teaching, loans, and fellowships from the Department of Education and the German DAAD.  But a dissertation is not a book, and the Kickstarter funding will allow me to devote myself fully to revising and rewriting my work into a more broadly appealing book format.

Budget and Timeline

The bulk of the $5,000 will go directly my full-time work of revising the book manuscript.  I estimate that it will be complete within two months, that is to say by early August 2013.  At that point I will work up a formal proposal with which to approach an academic publisher.  The book will be sent out for peer-review and I will negotiate a contract.  This process usually takes between six months and one year from submission of the manuscript.

Any excess money beyond the $5,000 will be put toward a subvention for including images and photographs in the book.  The more money available for the subvention, the more images I will include in the final book.

Hand empowered by Garuda mantra (reconstructed from manuscript)
Hand empowered by Garuda mantra (reconstructed from manuscript)

More about my Background and Qualifications

I have a Ph.D. in South Asian studies from the University of California, Berkeley.  I have studied Sanskrit for ten years under numerous teachers in Berkeley, Providence, Hamburg, Oxford, and Kathmandu: Dr. Robert Goldman, Dr. Sally Sutherland Goldman, Dr. Alexander von Rospatt, Dr. Somadeva Vasudeva, Dr. Jim Fitzgerald, Dr. Harunaga Isaacson, Prof. Alexis Sanderson, and others.  During my time in Germany, I completed a second MA thesis under Dr. Isaacson and was rigorously trained in Sanskrit philology and codicology, disciplines that have prepared me well for the challenges of manuscript work.  I consider my teaching experience a qualification as well, because it has taught me to pose complicated ideas to a broader audience. In addition to the dissertation, I have written seven articles and several more digital publications.  Some of these are linked at my research blog: http://garudam.info.

A Snake-charmer (Sanpera) in the Skinner Album of the British Library, AD 1825 (Add.27255, fol.323).
A Snake-charmer (Sanpera) in the Skinner Album of the British Library, AD 1825 (Add.27255, fol.323).

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

There is very little risk that the project will not be successful. Once the book manuscript is complete, I will send it with a book proposal to an academic press. If the first publisher does not accept it, I will take it to another publisher. The dissertation forming the basis of the book is a quality piece of work that has already been awarded the PhD and has been favorably reviewed by Dr. Dagmar Wujastyk online at http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/2081.

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