In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tantric Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Catalogues
  • Focused Studies
  • Tantric Hermeneutics

Buddhism Tantric Literature
David Gray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0158


The study of Buddhist tantric literature in the West is still in an early phase, as only a small minority of tantric literature, preserved in languages such as Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian, has been adequately edited and translated into Western languages. However, over the past few decades there has been steady growth in such works, as well as studies of the literature. This work has gradually shed light on the history and development of tantric Buddhist traditions. This entry focuses both on the published editions and translations of tantric Buddhist literature itself, as well as important studies that have contributed to our understanding of the historical and cultural contexts that gave rise to this literature. Since the category of “tantric literature” is somewhat vague, it is defined here as the literature composed within the tantric Buddhist traditions in South Asia from the mid-7th century onward, when “Esoteric” or “tantric” Buddhism emerged as a movement self-consciously distinct from earlier Buddhist traditions. This “literature” includes the tantras themselves, their commentaries, the various praxical works associated with them, as well as other forms of literature composed by advocates of these movements, such as the song literature. It also includes similar literature composed by advocates of the tantric Buddhist traditions later established in Tibet, Central Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. It does not include earlier forms of Buddhist literature that were considered canonical by tantric Buddhists, such as Mahayana sutras and śāstras.

General Overviews

There are a number of important studies that explore the development of tantric literature in India, and several that also explore their transmission to the East Asian, Southeast Asian, and Tibetan cultural contexts. Most of these studies address the development of tantric Buddhism in South Asia. Snellgrove 1987 is a now classic study that still provides a good overview of the basic teachings and history of tantric Buddhist traditions, while Wayman 1973 addresses interesting issues but without an overarching narrative focus. However, the more recent studies address controversial issues that will be of greater interest to specialists. Alexis Sanderson (most recently and extensively in Sanderson 2009) has argued that Buddhist tantric traditions were heavily dependent upon Hindu Saiva tantric traditions, while aspects of his thesis has been challenged by Davidson 2002. Another contentious issue is the role played by women in the development of Buddhist tantric traditions. Shaw 1994 has argued that this role was significant, a thesis that has also been challenged by Davidson 2002. The remaining three works address the transmission of tantric Buddhism out of South Asia. Davidson 2005 explores the transmission and translation of tantric literature to Tibet, while Abé 1999 shows how a distinctly Esoteric Buddhist discourse was established in Japan. Nihom 1994 makes an important contribution to the study of the transmission of tantric Buddhism to Southeast Asia, a subject on which very little work has been done.

  • Abé, Ryūichi. The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

    A groundbreaking study of Kūkai’s role in the development of a distinct Esoteric Buddhist discourse in Japan. It remains the best book on the subject of the development of tantric Buddhist literature in Japan.

  • Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

    Provides a comprehensive overview of the South Asian cultural context that gave rise to the tantric traditions. Addresses a wide range of tantric literature and is arguably the best overall introduction to the topic.

  • Davidson, Ronald M. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

    Examines the process by which tantric literature and associated practice traditions were transmitted to Tibet and translated into Tibetan. Provides a rich examination of this topic.

  • Nihom, Max. Studies in Indian and Indo-Indonesian Tantrism: The Kuñjarakarṇadharmakathana and the Yogatantra. Publications of the De Nobili Research Library 21. Vienna: Sammlung De Nobili, 1994.

    Remains one of the best introductions to the little-studied transmission of tantric literature to Southeast Asia.

  • Sanderson, Alexis. “The Śaiva Age: The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period.” In Genesis and Development of Tantrism. Edited by Shingo Einoo, 41–349. Tokyo: Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, 2009.

    Although contained in an anthology, and ostensibly about Saivism, this book-length article advanced the author’s thesis that Buddhist tantric traditions were extensively influenced by Saiva tantric traditions. The author makes this argument convincingly, with support from a wide array of textual quotations.

  • Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

    Advances the thesis that women played a significant role in the development of tantric Buddhist literature and praxis. The work has been subject to considerable criticism, especially in Davidson 2002, but it remains a flawed yet provocative study.

  • Snellgrove, David L. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. London: Serindia, 1987.

    Provides a solid introduction to tantric Buddhist traditions and includes an introductory section on early Buddhist teachings. Reprinted in 2002 (Boston: Shambhala).

  • Wayman, Alex. The Buddhist Tantras: Light on Indo-Tibetan Esotericism. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973.

    A collection of sixteen essays by the author that surveys a wide range of topics related to tantric literature and ritual. While technically an anthology, overall the work provides a useful but somewhat idiosyncratic introduction to the field. Reprinted in 1995 (London: Kegan Paul).

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