Interview with Dr Silvia Schwarz Linder

Interviews with affiliate advisors at Woolf.

Dr Silvia Schwarz Linder is currently a research associate at the Universität Leipzig. Since 2016, she is involved in the Śākta project at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.

1. Silvia, you obtained a PhD in South Asian Studies from the University of Vienna, and your main research interests lie in the development of tantric religious traditions in India. In a few words, what are tantric traditions and what makes their understanding so relevant to scholars today?

The Tantric phenomenon — according to the locution used by the French scholar André Padoux — may be considered as an aspect, a tendency which permeates Hinduism (but also Buddhism) since the early medieval period. Together with genuine Tantric traditions, characterized by specific doctrines and ritual practices, there are also Tantric elements that may be traced throughout mainstream Hinduism.

There are certain essential features that characterize a tradition as Tantric. Tantric traditions are initiatory and are generally open to men and women of all castes. The adept is introduced, upon initiation, to the cult of non-Vedic deities and to the use of non-Vedic mantras, and receives esoteric teachings that have been handed down through a lineage of spiritual teachers and are considered to have been originally revealed by a deity. A major characteristic of Tantric traditions is the great importance attributed to ritual, which has an essential, salvific function. Tantric rituals are very complex, involving specific yogic and meditative practices in which adepts display codified symbolic gestures (mudrās), and make use of particular diagrams (yantras) as supports for meditation, as well as of mantras, i.e. those formulas that represent the phonic form of a deity, and that are considered to be the most powerful manifestation of divine energy. These rituals aim at the identification of the adept with the deity, i.e. of the individual consciousness with the supreme, divine consciousness, an identification which leads to final liberation. In addition, Tantric rituals may grant extraordinary, magical powers, the enjoyment of which is not necessarily incompatible with the highest goal of liberation.

The textual sources of Tantric literature deal not only with ritual matters, but also with philosophical and theological teachings, which constitute the doctrinal background of Tantric soteriology. Among the chief tenets held by the different traditions are a conception of the godhead as polarized in its masculine and feminine aspects, and a notion of divine Energy that is present both in the cosmos and in the human being, and that can be handled by the adept who is well versed in the Tantric yogic-ritual practices. Another important component of Tantric speculations is constituted by the cosmogonies, which are based on the idea that the universe is the manifestation of the primeval Word, which is the sonorous form of divine Energy; this idea is elaborated in the doctrine of the phonematic emanation of the universe.

The richness and complexity of the Tantric phenomenon is such that further research in this field is essential for a better understanding of a variety of religious beliefs, ritual practices and philosophical and theological doctrines within the socio-religious and intellectual history of India since the medieval period. A vast quantity of textual sources still remains to be classified, critically edited and made available for further scholarly work. These sources will provide a wealth of material, opening new and challenging perspectives on our knowledge of Indian civilization.

2. You were trained in Austria and Italy, and now work as a research associate in Germany while being involved in a project on Śākta traditions at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. Could you comment on the importance of transnational and interdisciplinary collaboration?

Regarding the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, in a field like Indology, which deals with an ancient civilization in its manifold aspects — historical, sociological, linguistic, literary, religious, philosophical etc. — specialization is necessary and inevitable. However, it is both useful and fruitful to be acquainted with adjacent fields of research and if possible to exchange ideas with scholars working in these fields: it results in a better understanding of one’s own specific object of study and the establishment of a broader context within which to view it. As far as my own, personal experience is concerned, in dealing with anonymous textual sources belonging to a given religious tradition, the historical-philological method — which is essential for understanding and interpreting a text — may be enriched by taking advantage of the contributions of archaeologists and epigraphists, as well as of specialists in iconography and architecture, the outcomes of whose researches may help to establish the period of composition of the source in question and to situate it within its own textual tradition; moreover a knowledge of the coeval literary sources can provide information about socio-religious realities, beyond the normative picture that is offered by the text itself.

As for transnational collaboration, in our present well-connected world, where the English language plays the role once pertaining to Latin, as lingua franca in which scholars may immediately communicate with each other, collaboration is easier than in the past. Moreover, the common criteria adopted by each scientific community to evaluate the quality of scholarly work in each respective field, contribute to the establishment of a borderless community of peers. Those scholars who have the chance to study/work in different countries act as corrective to national standardization of scholarly activity, since their absorption of the characteristics of diverse cultural environments — the rigour of the German philological method for instance, or the literary-like style of some French authors, or Anglo-saxon clarity of argumentation — enriches their intellectual development with different approaches and styles.

3. You have lectured in the past at various universities. What is your view on tutorial teaching? How does this form of pedagogy help students to grapple with issues in your field of study?

It was not possible, in either Austria or Italy, to use the tutorial method in my teaching, since in both countries, most of the teaching consists of traditional frontal lectures. Students are not particularly encouraged to ask questions or to engage in spontaneous exchanges of ideas. They are often shy and passive and after attending classes, most of their study is solitary by nature.

However, while I was working on my PhD dissertation, I experienced a long and intense tutorial relationship with my Doktorvater, Prof. Gerhard Oberhammer. His maieutic method, by means of which I was continuously confronted with stimulating intellectual challenges, helped me to orientate myself progressively and with increasing scholarly accuracy in the text I was studying. Our discussions, during which we examined the text in ever greater depth, attempting also to find parallels in the related literature and comparing passages dealing with the same topics or expressing similar ideas, enabled me to realize the shortcomings of my initial comprehension of the text, so that, in revising and re-writing the discussed portions of my work, I was enabled to suggest more satisfactory working hypothesis and interpretations. This direct experience showed me how an exchange of ideas can be more inspiring and stimulating than extensive solitary readings, or than a written correspondence.

I think therefore that in the case of the humanities in general, and in my field of study in particular, where the interpretation of textual sources or the discussion of ideas constitute an essential part of scholarly work, the tutorial method, in which a teacher comes face-to-face with one, two, or three students, is an effective and fruitful pedagogical tool.

4. What are the greatest challenges now facing institutions of higher learning? How do you see the Woolf project addressing these challenges?

The Woolf project tackles in a thoughtful way certain important problems of today’s academic world, such as the waste of intellectual resources originated by unemployment and/or precarious temporary employments of researchers and scholars, and the increasing standardization of education provided by large-scale universities. The idea of combining the possibilities offered by modern technology with the ancient tradition of the maieutic relationship between teacher and pupil — a tradition upheld to this day in the unique tutorial system of Oxbridge — is perhaps the core innovation within the Woolf project.

Among the challenges facing this project, I would like to emphasize the issue of the relationships among students. I believe that in a borderless university like Woolf, whereas Skype may compensate for the logistical difficulties of organizing meetings in person between teachers and students, such technology can hardly be conducive to the establishment of true human relationships among students. Social networks, through which young people are always “connected” — yet not truly relating to each other — are bringing about an impoverishment of human relationships. A borderless university which puts forward new solutions for the problems of academic life should therefore propose adequate settings in which students may meet in person, at least from time to time. This might be provided, for instance, by residential seminars, or by intensive sets of lectures (as is done in Austrian and German universities with the system of the Blockvorlesungen), or by the instituting of summer schools.

For more details about Dr Silvia Schwarz Linder’s research, see here.

For more details on the Woolf project, check out our website. Stay tuned for interviews of other affiliate advisors!