Professor of Religious Studies
J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religion
Area: South Asian Religions
Ph.D., The University of Chicago
Office: HSSB 3077
Office Hours: S15: T, 12:00-2:00PM; W, 11:00-12:00PM
Since being named the J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religion in 2011, I have begun to return to the focus of my PhD dissertation and first book, Myths of the Dog-Man (Chicago: 1991). While that project focused on the spread of the mytheme of a particular monstrous race across ancient and medieval Asia and Europe, my current interest concerns contacts and exchanges in matters of demonology. Historically, demons have traveled more lightly than gods, unbound as they are by exclusivist doctrinal and institutional strictures, and so it is that one finds the names of Buddhist demons in medieval Manichean spell texts, charms against Iranian demons in Lithuanian and Chinese sources, an amulet of an Indian demoness in an archeological site in Turkmenstan, and so on. Elsewhere, the yoginis and dakinis of South and East Asian Hinduism and Buddhism are found to be descended in part from the pairikas of Iranian religion and the striga of ancient Rome; the tenth-century BCE Homeric myth of Odysseus and Circe reappears, only slightly altered, in the Mahavamsa, a fifth-century CE chronicle of the island of Ceylon; and the nightmares of European lore find their homologues in the maras of South Asia and the Chinese “devil-kings” called mo-wang. Both the Silk Road and ancient and medieval maritime trade routes were information superhighways, and a portion of that information was demonological. It is easy to imagine soldiers, sailors, merchants, diviners, monks, and priests swapping amulets and spells at Silk Road halting points and ports. Demons and the techniques to control them were as much a commodity in the ancient and medieval world as germs, guns, and steel.
- The Yoga Sutra of Patañjali. A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2015). Virtually forgotten in India for hundreds of years and maligned when it was first discovered in the west, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali now enjoys the status of multicultural icon. David Gordon White tells the story of the rise, fall, and modern-day resurgence of an enigmatic text whose readers have included some of the most colorful culture brokers in history.
- Yoga in Practice (Princeton University Press, 2011).
- Sinister Yogis (University of Chicago Press, 2009). In this book, I rewrite the history of yoga by focusing on 2000 years of representations of the yogic actors known as yogis. Sinister Yogis is the final work (but chronologically the first work) in a trilogy on medieval Indic traditions whose goals were bodily immortality and supernatural powers.
- Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts (University of Chicago Press, 2003). It was ritual transactions in sexual fluids between human practitioners and superhuman female beings called Yoginis that gave Tantra its specificity in medieval South Asian religions.
- Tantra in Practice (Princeton University Press, 2000). I am the editor of this volume, as well as the author of its introductory essay, “Tantra in Practice: Mapping a Tradition.”
- The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (University of Chicago Press, 1996). Between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, the alchemical, hathayogic and erotico-mystical practices of religious sects and orders who called themselves Siddhas were mutually informing.
Selected Articles, Reviews & Entries
- “Dakinı, Yogini, Pairika, Strix: Adventures in Comparative Demonology,” Southeast Review of Asian Studies 35 (2013), pp. 7-31. Certain elements of South and East Asian yogini and dakini lore may have their origins in ancient Iran and Rome.
- “Netra Tantra, at the Crossroads of the Demonological Cosmopolis,” Journal of Hindu Studies 5:2 (July 2012): 145-71. Demonological practices recorded in a ninth-century Tantra from Kashmir, still observed in modern-day north India, are shown to have had their origins in ancient Iran.
- “Amulettes et lambeaux divines: « superstition », vraie « religion » et « science » pure à la lumière de la démonologie hindoue,” Purusartha 27 (Paris: Editions de l’EHESS, 2009), pp. 135-62. Certain South Asian demonological traditions have been more faithful to the ancient Vedic religion than those of so-called “mainstream” devotional bhakti.
- “Bhairava,” Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Leiden, 2009).
- “Yogini,” Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Leiden, 2009).
- “Digging Wells While Houses Burn? Writing Histories of Hinduism in a Time of Identity Politics,” History and Theory 45:4 (2006), pp. 104-31. This article is an expansion on my statement above, and a rejoinder to the anti-historical methods of the Hindu nationalists, the Subaltern School, and much of the History of Religions approach to South Asian religions.
- RS 12 Religious Approaches to Death
- RS 136 Creation Myths
- RS 160 Religious Traditions in India
- RS 161D Alchemy, Yoga, and Tantra: Three Paths to Power in Medieval South Asia
- RS 169 Hindu Devotional Traditions
- Alchemy (Freshman Seminar)
- RS 206: Seminar in South Asian Religious Studies (topics include Hindu Epics, Hindu Tantra, Worship Without Devotion: History of South Asian Polytheism)
- Readings in Sanskrit: Netra Tantra, Brhannaradiya Purana, Mahabharata, Rasarnavam, Harivamsa, etc.