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Tantra is a highly contested and paradoxical subject. Even very knowledgeable people struggle to define and explain it. In this dala, we will consider several definitions of Tantra. Examining apparent contradictions can lead to a deeper understanding of the word and its nuances, one that goes beyond the intellectual. Developing the capacity to live with, indeed to embrace, ambiguity and paradox is an important skill-in Tantric practice and in life.
As you work through dala 2, read the reflection on the opposite page every day. Then practice tratak on a candle flame for three to five minutes (see page 22 to refresh your memory). Do not try to understand or interpret the text. Instead, let yourself absorb the passage on multiple levels and give your intellect a rest. Record your experiences and observations in your spiritual journal. Do this daily for a minimum of seven days.
People often ask us, “What is Tantra?” There is no simple answer. Scholars debate its origins, characteristics, and antiquity, and providing a clear, straightforward definition is a challenge. Let's begin by looking at four very different attempts to do so.
According to author N. N. Bhattacharyya, Tantra is a
. . . general term for any system serving as the guiding principle of work. In the religious sense, Tantra first came to mean “the scripture by which knowledge is spread” . . . Tantra came to mean the essentials of every religious system and subsequently, special doctrines and rituals found only in certain forms of various religious systems.1
André Van Lysbeth wrote:
Depending on the context, Tantra means a shuttle (in weaving), the warp (of a fabric), continuity, succession, descendence, a continuous process, the carrying out of a ceremony, a system, a theory, a doctrine, a scientific opus, or a section of a book. Tantra is also a mystical or magical doctrine or any piece of work based on such a doctrine.2
Dr. Jonn Mumford (Swami Anandakapila Saraswati) has described it this way:
Tantra is the way of the Hero (Vira) who neither rejects nor fears any aspect of life. The Tantrist seeks freedom (Moksha) through life (sensation, sentient, sensual) and not through escape (abstinence, abstaining, absence), using the body as an instrument of evolution. In the words of a Tantric proverb, “He who would rise must first thrust himself up with the aid of the earth.”3
Popular Neo-Tantric teachers and authors Charles and Caroline Muir state that:
The word Tantra refers specifically to a series of esoteric Hindu books that describe certain sexual rituals, disciplines and meditations. These ancient Indian books, over 2,000 years old, were written in the form of a dialogue between the Hindu god Shiva, who is “the penetrating power of focused energy,” and his consort, Shakti, who represents the female creative force and is sometimes called “the Power of Tantra.”4
These four descriptions make it clear that no single definition will suffice. Indeed, the word's meaning is so elusive that historian David Gordon White has argued, “The various waves of 'Tantric revival' have only further clouded the picture, everything becomes Tantra because nothing is Tantra. In the late 20th century, New Age Tantra has rushed in to fill the vacuum.”5 The Muirs' definition, which is the most specific, is unfortunately the least accurate on a number of counts, and such inaccuracies are in part the source of White's disdain for “New Age Tantra.”6 The definitions provided by N. N. Bhattacharyya, André Van Lysbeth, and Dr. Mumford are more helpful but still may leave the novice befuddled.
The dominant popular myth that Tantra is little or nothing more than sexual Yoga originated in nineteenth-century accounts of what were then considered “licentious” Indian rituals. According to the Abbé DuBois, a French Jesuit chronicler of Indian customs during the early 1800s:
Amongst the most abominable rites practised in India is one which is only too well known, it is called sakti-puja; sakti meaning strength or power. Sometimes it is the wife of Siva to whom this sacrifice is offered; sometimes they pretend that it is in honour of some invisible power. The ceremony takes place at night with more or less secrecy. The least disgusting of these orgies are those where they confine themselves to eating and drinking everything that the custom of the country forbids, and where men and women, huddled together in indiscriminate confusion openly and shamelessly violate the commonest laws of decency and modesty.
The shocked Abbé went on to claim that when the participants in these rituals, which often included opium and other drugs, were “completely intoxicated, men and women no longer keep apart, but pass the rest of the night together, giving themselves up to the grossest immorality without any risk of disagreeable consequences.”7 This emphasis on Tantra's sexual aspects has persisted into the modern era, albeit in celebratory rather than scandalized terms. It has been perpetuated by books such as Omar Garrison's Tantra: The Yoga of Sex, Margo Anand's The Art of Sexual Ecstasy and the Muirs' Tantra: The Art of Conscious Loving. Popular magazines have added to this myth, suggesting that Tantra “promises longer sexual staying power for men and more sustained and frequent orgasms for women.”8
When we ask people to define Tantra, many of them give voice to the popular stereotypes, and answer that it is something celebrities do, that it is about better sex and marathon lovemaking sessions. Others suggest that it is a way of bringing spirituality into sex, although from our perspective, the spiritual element is always present in consensual sex. The challenge lies in becoming aware of this fact. Some think Tantra is merely an extended hand-job conducted in a candlelit room with New Age music in the background, as a good friend of ours once joked, or that it is something flaky and grotesque, as depicted in Sex and the City's notorious “Tantra” episode.
As Westerners and products of our culture, we cannot avoid the influence of this popular mythology, but in our practice and study we strive for a deeper and, we hope, more authentic understanding. Let us consider, then, what the word Tantra means and what it does not mean, beginning with a brief historical overview. Remember, however, that the history of Indian civilization and the history of Tantra are still the subjects of scholarly debate, so this basic introduction is by no means definitive.
The Muirs' reference to a body of religious literature originating in India is accurate, although the first such texts that can be dated with any confidence were written in the sixth century CE, and some were written as recently as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notably two of the most influential Tantric scriptures, the Gheranda Samhita and the Shatchakra Nirupana (translated as The Serpent Power). The latter is perhaps the most authoritative and widely used treatise on the chakras.9
Like much religious literature, the written Tantras probably represent-to a significant extent-formalized compendia of material drawn from a more ancient oral tradition. The Tantric scriptures contain instructions for a vast array of spiritual and magical practices, and information about esoteric anatomy, alchemy, and other arcane subjects. Some also describe sexual rituals, and some are indeed dialogues between Shiva and Shakti in one of her manifestations.
Tantra thrived on the Indian subcontinent (in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain forms) until the Islamic conquests that began in the late twelfth century. It reached what was perhaps its greatest level of refinement in tenth- and eleventh-century Kashmir, particularly in the writings of Abhinavagupta, a renowned Tantric guru and author of several significant Tantric texts. David Gordon White, however, has suggested that Abhinavagupta's classic writings were an attempt to bring occult and extreme practices, specifically the use and consumption of sexual fluids as offerings to ravenous feminine deities, into the Hindu mainstream by redefining them in more “spiritual” terms.
As White sees it, the texts generally deemed to be classics of traditional Tantra actually represent a medieval “Neo-Tantric” reinterpretation of a tradition that had been outside the religious mainstream. White correctly emphasizes the magical, almost shamanic, dimension of Tantra, an element that many scholars have downplayed in an effort to make the tradition more “respectable.” In any event, the Islamic invasions had a devastating impact on Indian Tantra, and much Tantric literature was lost as a result. The Himalayan region, including Nepal and Tibet, along with Tamil Nadu in South India, escaped most of the impact of the Islamic conquests and preserved a strong Tantric tradition into the modern era. Tantra also survived in Bengal. In other parts of India, Tantra persisted, sometimes underground.
Indian Tantra had a revival of sorts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the context of the Indian nationalist response to British colonialism. Ironically, a leading figure in this renaissance was Sir John Woodroffe (1865-1936), also known as Arthur Avalon, an Indian-born British judge who sat on the High Court of Calcutta. To some degree, the Tantric revival as promoted by Avalon and others imbued Tantra with the Anglo-Saxon culture's ambivalence toward sexuality, since Indian adherents and their British supporters wished to advance the idea that Indian civilization deserved respect. Indeed, one of Woodroffe's most important books was titled Is India Civilized? Essays on Indian Culture. For this reason, and perhaps because of his own reticence, Woodroffe's writings and translations of Tantric texts downplayed the sexual elements of Tantric ritual.10
We discuss the recent history of Tantra and its evolution in the United States in The Essence of Tantric Sexuality. For the purposes of this book, suffice it to say that Tantra emerged as a popular Western phenomenon in the 1970s, along with many other Eastern spiritual traditions, and other alternative religious approaches that can be loosely labeled “New Age.”
If Avalon and other early twentieth-century advocates deemphasized sex, most “New Age” Tantrists have taken the opposite approach. We have even heard Tantra defined as “sacred sexuality,” a woefully incomplete definition. In many instances, New Age practitioners blend aspects of Hindu Tantra, Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, Taoism, and Western psychotherapy-among other things-inventing something with virtually no relationship to the original tradition. It is not surprising, then, that we see many prospective students who think that Tantra and Tantric sex are synonymous, that Tantric sex is synonymous with male multiple orgasms and female ejaculation, with some “emotional clearing work” thrown in for good measure, and that intercourse must last for hours.
How unfortunate that this rich and complex tradition has been reduced to such a banal stereotype! Nevertheless, many people, including us, were drawn to Tantra because of its sexual aspects, and we believe that consciously exploring sexuality is a rich and meaningful path, leading to a way of being in the world that may be more truly described as Tantric. Thus, we hope to strike a balance between the rigorous view of scholars such as White, who dismiss “New Age” Tantrism with scorn, and the superficial approach of the popularizers who preach the gospel of Tantric sex yet know little or nothing of Tantra's history and, moreover, have not been initiated into a traditional lineage.
By now you probably realize that Tantra is a confusing and even paradoxical subject. With that in mind, we offer the following thoughts in the hope that they will both confuse you further and offer some new ways of thinking about the meaning of the word. Swami Anandakapila has often told us that “confusion precedes fusion.” In other words, you gain understanding only through a process of shedding certainty and preconceived ideas. It is in this state of doubt or confusion where the greatest potential for insight lies.
·Tantra is an ancient tradition that recognizes sexual energy as a source of personal and spiritual empowerment. This sets it apart from most Western traditions and helps explain why most Westerners have reduced it to its sexual elements alone.
·Tantra is the magic of transforming your consciousness and thereby transforming your entire being. Your body is the most powerful tool for bringing about this transformation.
·Tantra is a spiritual science. Tantric techniques have been tested and have proven effective for many centuries. If you practice diligently, you will experience results.
·Tantra can be quite simple. Everyone has had Tantric experiences, but it is not always so easy to notice them.
·Tantra can be embraced in whole or in part. A few simple practices can often produce profound and lasting results.
·Tantra is goalless, unless exploring and expanding consciousness can be called a goal. Goal orientation is one of the biggest obstacles faced by the aspiring Tantrika. Abandoning specific goals and focusing on what you are doing in the moment, with as much awareness as you can muster, are the keys to effective practice.
·Tantra is a way of life. The Tantric approach to exploring your own consciousness is an ever-evolving process of discovery that emerges from daily practice.
·Tantra can provide you with the means to deepen your sense of connection to self, to your partner, to all that is.
·Tantra is a technology of mind and body that will lead you to know yourself deeply.
·Tantra is for people of “heroic” temperament who are already mentally healthy. Ideally, an aspiring Tantrika has done extensive work on the self. Traditionally, this might mean years of Yogic study and practice. For Westerners, psychotherapy may be the best preparation, since it provides tools for the self-exploration that is central to Tantra.11
·Tantra is a practical way to loosen the bonds of unconscious, habitual behavior and thereby start to live more freely and fully.
·Tantra is the discipline of becoming yourself completely. In the end, there is nothing at all to do.
·Tantra is pragmatic and non-moralistic. You can utilize whatever tools are at hand for the purpose of expanding consciousness.
One way to define Tantra is to say it is the science of self-exploration.
Tantra is not-
·Tantra is not sacred sexuality, although it may include sexual practices among many uses of the body as a tool for spiritual development.
·Tantra is not a set of techniques for better sex. Increased pleasure, deeper intimacy, and new lovemaking skills are often the by-products of the practices, and many people are drawn to Tantra out of an interest in developing these abilities. Such goals are valid, but it is unlikely that they will be attained until they are discarded.
·Tantra is not psychotherapy, although many practices may have psychological benefits. Some modern teachers use 1960s-era emotional release techniques, which are of questionable efficacy and are potentially dangerous. They have nothing to do with traditional Tantra.
·Tantra is not an easy fix for personal or relationship problems. Partnered practice can deepen intimacy, but it can also magnify existing tensions. Similarly, solo practice-particularly meditation-may ease some personal problems, but not always. If the psychological or interpersonal issues are serious, they should be addressed with a trained therapist.
·Tantra is not for the faint-hearted, the ungrounded, or the emotionally fragile. We all have these qualities in some respects at some times, but if you feel you are not fearless enough to practice Tantra, there are many other approaches that may serve you better. Whatever path you choose, it is best to make the choice with as much self-awareness as possible.
·Tantra is not a healing modality, although practicing can significantly benefit both physical and emotional health.
·Tantra is not a religion in the conventional Western sense; however, it has helped shape both Tibetan Buddhism and many branches of Hinduism. Tantric ideas can be found in most of the world's religions.
·Tantra is not magic in the popular sense-mere trickery or spellcasting -but many Tantric texts include recipes and instructions for creating amulets, casting spells, and obtaining magical powers. In addition, the effects of practicing can be quite magical in an entirely different way.
·Tantra is not easy. You can't learn it by reading a book or attending a weekend workshop. It requires sustained experience. (In French, the word expérience means experiment, and that definition applies as well.)
·Tantra is not a set of physical practices, Yogic exercises, or sexual gymnastics. Physical practices are merely tools for conditioning the body and changing the consciousness. In Tantra, everything one does in daily life can function as a tool.
·Tantra is not a form of sexual Olympics, even though Tantric sexual practices can transform sexuality into a divine-Olympian-experience.
·Tantra is not a massage technique, genital or otherwise. Unfortunately, “Tantric massage” has become a euphemism for erotic massage in many circles. Any form of massage can be given and received Tantrically- with awareness, a sense of sacredness, and as a means to cultivate and direct energy-but calling something Tantric does not make it so.
·Tantra is not polyamory, polyfidelity, open marriage, or about having multiple partners. There is no moral judgment here. A person can be Tantric regardless of love-style or relationship style-celibate, single, monogamous, or polyamorous.
·Tantra is not for thrill-seekers. It requries patience, self-discipline, and regular practice of non-sexual solo exercises. It may not offer immediate gratification, so it is likely to disappoint anyone looking for a new kind of kick. We do not discourage anyone from seeking new and intense forms of sexual pleasure. People who honestly and consciously engage in sexual adventuring can often possess greater integrity and deeper self-awareness than people who go to great lengths to make sex “sacred” to justify engaging in it. In our view, consensual sex is intrinsically sacred.
·Tantra is not an “art,” a term that implies it is a skill set or something that you can learn to “do.” Since it is a holistic approach to living, it is more all-encompassing than any art form.
·Tantra is not sacred prostitution. Indian society, like many other ancient cultures, had a tradition of temple prostitution, but this tradition was at best peripherally related to Tantra. While we respect the contemporary movement to reclaim the spiritual role of the prostitute, it is not accurate to call prostitution, however sacred, Tantra.
·Tantra does not have a central doctrine. The written texts are primarily practical manuals, and no one text or group of texts can be considered authoritative.
·Tantra is not an easy answer. In fact, practicing is likely to inspire more questions.
Tantra is everything we have said it is not, and more. Truth can only be touched by embracing the paradoxical.
EXERCISE 1. What Is Tantra?
Open your spiritual journal and record any thoughts and ideas, no matter how random, that you had while reading the passages “Tantra Is” and “Tantra Is Not.”
A Message from Swami Umeshanand and Devi Veenanand
We first met our beloved guru, Dr. Jonn Mumford (Swami Anandakapila Saraswati) at a McDonald's on West Fifty-seventh Street in New York City. He was on an American book tour, sadly perhaps his last. He is now retired from public teaching, except for a yearly guest lecture series at Ananda Ashram in Tamil Nadu, South India.
We went to that first meeting unsure what to expect, but the man we encountered was jovial, energetic, and vibrant, despite his years, and intensely curious about us. At the same time, nothing about Swamiji's outward appearance suggested that he is a Tantric master. He is a small, heavyset man with a high voice and an unprepossessing appearance, and that day he was dressed in business attire. Nothing visual set him apart from any other customer in that McDonald's.
We suspect that most Western spiritual seekers would not have given him a second look, as none of the trappings were there, and yet it was clear to us from the moment we met him that he was exactly what we were looking for in a teacher. He has remarkable powers-physical, intellectual, and spiritual. Those familiar with the Lakota tradition would likely recognize him as a heyoka or contrary, and he is a constant source of surprises. Our experiences with him have encompassed both the extraordinary and the most mundane, sometimes simultaneously, but had we been unable to embrace his paradoxical nature in that very first moment, the opportunity would have slipped by. We would not be who we are today, and this book would not be in your hands. Swamiji is a living embodiment of the Path of Paradox. But aren't we all?
Consider the following questions. Record your thoughts in your spiritual journal:
1.How would you define Tantra?
2.Describe a Tantric experience you have had.
3.What is it about Tantra that attracts you?
4.Are you comfortable with paradox and ambiguity? How does it make you feel to entertain conflicting ideas or a feeling of uncertainty?
5.Describe something paradoxical about yourself.
6.What do you hope to gain from reading this book?
1 N. N. Bhattacharyya, Tantrabidhana: A Tantric Lexicon (Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2002), 160.
2 André Van Lysbeth, Tantra: The Cult of the Feminine (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1995), 3.
3 Jonn Mumford, Ecstasy Through Tantra (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1988), 33.
4 Charles and Caroline Muir, Tantra: The Art of Conscious Loving (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1989), ix.
5 David Gordon White, Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in Its South Asian Contexts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 257.
6 Swami Umeshanand's first teacher training with was Charles Muir, and while our approach to Tantra has taken us in a different direction, the Muirs have given many couples powerful tools for enhancing their relationships.
7 Abbé J. A. Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, trans. Henry K. Beauchamp (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 3rd ed. 1906), 286, 287.
8 White, Kiss of the Yogini, xiv.
9 It could be argued that these texts, the Gheranda Samhita in particular, are Yogic rather than Tantric, but there is no bright line that separates Yoga from Tantra. Both texts were, at the very least, heavily influenced by the Tantric tradition.
10 Even so, Woodroffe may have participated in sexual rituals. See Kathleen Taylor, Sir John Woodroffe, Tantra and Bengal: 'An Indian Soul in a European Body?' (Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon Press, 2001), 109-111.
11 “In the West, we have a particular type of Yoga . . . called psychotherapy; it is one of the most valuable heritages that Western civilization has produced,” wrote Dr. Jonn Mumford, noting that psychotherapy is essential for those seriously interested in Yoga. The same applies for Tantra, but the Tantric and psychotherapeutic approaches are radically different, and actually blending them is probably unwise. Dr. Jonn Mumford, A Chakra & Kundalini Workbook: Psycho-Spiritual Techniques for Health, Rejuvenation, Psychic Powers and Spiritual Realization. (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1997), 154.