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How does violence relate to belief?

This post is the transcript of an electronic interview between D. S. Farrer and Iain Sinclair. Farrer is the special issue editor for Social Analysis Volume 58, Issue 1, and Sinclair is the author of the article War Magic and Just War in Indian Tantric Buddhism appearing in that issue. Below, Sinclair answers a series of questions related to his article in Social Analysis.

This is the third in a series of interviews with contributors to this volume. Read D. S. Farrer’s interview here, and Jean-Marc De Grave’s interview here.




What drew you to the study of War Magic & Warrior Religion?

In South and Southeast Asia esoterica is everywhere, whether in the mantras of the neighbourhood healer or in the meditations of a spiritual leader. So it’s hard not to notice, at least from the perspective of an outsider culture where such things have long been shunned. What’s interesting is that mantras and magic are often part of complex, learned worldviews that developed over a long time and still have currency. Only a few decades ago the tantric Buddhist clergies of Japan and Tibet were busy deploying war magical techniques against invaders. My aim was to look at the common wellspring of these techniques, in the classical past of India, which has been overlooked in spite of its pervasiveness. Many images of gods and goddesses of warfare are still in place in South Asia over a millennium after the original cults disappeared.




Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the article?

There is a cliché that a Buddhist practitioner’s primary aim is enlightenment. However, in the tantric sources examined in the article, people on the fast track to awakening remain quite concerned with worldly affairs. The more enlightened they become, the greater their capacity to affect someone else’s business, like the outcome of a battle. The figure of the yogi who intervenes in wars turns out to be surprisingly widespread.




What aspect of researching and writing did you find most challenging?

Most rewarding?

It’s hard to make confident statements about a corpus of writings that has not been transmitted in good shape or in full. Apart from the practical problems of finding relevant sources and establishing the text, the topic comes with inherent problems of interpretation. The transmitters of tradition are teaching secret techniques, and the mastery of inner and outer experience. It’s often hard to tell whether they are talking about subjective or objective effects. Through researching the paper, it became clear that this ambiguity is a deliberate discursive choice, conveying a perspective of transcendence.




To what extent do you think the article will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

The question of how violence relates to belief is more pressing now than it has been for many decades. And I would think that the debate surrounding it has a long way to run, given that the most powerful stakeholders are so deeply entrenched in their positions, and can afford to maintain them without engaging further. To advance the discussion it helps to remember that this question has been contemplated by people in other places and times. I think the papers as a collection show well that the issues manifest across a very diverse range of societies, though also with similarities in the way they are expressed.




Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

The topic of war magic might be regarded as an uncomfortable choice for investigation. But if the view is taken that magic should not be investigated because it is irrational or ineffectual, that excludes lot of other human activity. Societies can’t be understood in depth if some of their parts are never examined, or not examined with sufficient diligence. In my corner of the field, the relationship between state-sponsored violence and Buddhist teaching has so far been confined to a narrowly defined ‘canon’, or to area-specific studies. As a result, we are still a long way from getting a sufficiently general understanding. The broadening of the inquiry to include battle cults can go some way to illuminating the bigger picture, if we are willing to expand preconceptions of what constitutes Buddhism.


Mārīcī, Buddhist goddess of warfare and evasion

Illustration 1: Mārīcī, Buddhist goddess of warfare and evasion. Photograph by John Huntington, Huntington Archive Scan 5143, used with permission


If you weren’t an anthropologist or historian, what would you have done instead?

Some other kind of writing.




What’s a talent or hobby you have that your colleagues would be surprised to learn about?

I’m an avid tea drinker.




What inspired your love of the subject of War Magic?

The exoticism of war magic can be alluring, on one level, but its role in the fall of empires, and in the lives of people who believed firmly in cause and effect, is a compelling subject. Some examples are mentioned in D. S. Farrer’s introduction.





Here in Australia, being part of the Asia-Pacific, there are plenty of opportunities to see the wider culture of martial arts and religions in the media, certainly ever since I can remember.




What inspired you to research and write?

Some of the received knowledge on cultural history isn’t very satisfying. An idea that now gets a great deal of airtime, even in the specialist literature, is that all religions are the same and have the same attitude towards violence. This defies common sense (many of these ‘same’ religions come into conflict with each other) and invites serious critique. I’m driven to find explanations that make better sense, like most researchers.




What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?

The fact that a group of people may share religious affiliation but not necessarily religious belief, or a sense of how to act on that belief, certainly needs more attention.