Tantra in Buddhist and Hindu traditions was a method to activate and utilize Kundalini energy (bio-energy) for the expressed purpose of spiritual advancement. The word is a composite of tapestry, web and enlightenment. While some have dubbed Tantra a religion, that is for convenience sake. Tantra in essence defies all the tenants of a religion, while maintaining a spiritual core. And while there are indeed rituals, the rituals are for reference.
The origins and philosophy of the Tantric lifestyle can be traced to Tantric elements in both Hinduism and Buddhism, and predate Taoist philosophy. Buddhist Tantra, and Taoism are outgrowths of the original form of Tantra which began in ancient India.
Today, Tantra has re-emerged in western culture as an alternative, self-help, sexual/spiritual phenomenon, and to some degree as been usurped, even if in name only, with aggressive, non-loving sexual perversion, from pornography to prostitution. It is sad, but it is what it is. This is not genuine Tantra. If this be any definition at all, Tantra taps into a wider dimension of consciousness, and embraces love. It is indeed a doorway to enlightenment.
The History of Sex in India
While the essence of Tantric concepts can be traced to many parts of the world including the Native American tribe of Cherokee, who practiced Quodoushka, as well as in Polynesia, and elsewhere, one history of ritual sex can be traced back to the Harrapan tribe of the Indus Valley (4000 BCE --2000 BCE). They were agrarians who worshipped the power of the feminine, which they associated with fertility and birth. Their deity was the goddess, idolized in the form of the yoni (vulva). The Harrapan's culture was altered by the war-like nomadic Aryans who replaced the existing female deities with their male gods--often represented by the phallic lingam symbol (penis). Female deities were then relegated more to being consorts to the male gods.
Sexual intercourse was seen as a way to combine the male and female energies, which were seen as originating from the Cosmos. The manifestation of this duality are the deities Shiva (male) and Shakti (female).
Hinduism accepted an open attitude towards sex as an art and spiritual practice. The most famous pieces of Indian literature on sex is the Kamasutra. This collection of explicit sexual writings, both spiritual and practical, covers most aspects of human courtship and sexual intercourse. It was put together in this form by the sage Vatsyayana from a 150 chapter manuscript that had itself been distilled from 300 chapters that had in turn come from a compilation of some 100,000 chapters of text. The Kamasutra is thought to have been written in its final form sometime between the third and fifth century CE .
Over time, in the history of the evolution of Hinduism, almost every sexual technique conceivable was practiced and venerated in one sect or another. Fellatio, cunnilingus, prostitution, masturbation (with an impressive array of aids), anal sex, bestiality and even necrophilia were discussed, tolerated or encouraged. Against this historic backdrop, it is not surprising that Tantrism, a sect that utilized sex as a means to spiritual evolvement, would flourish.
The Birth of Tantrism
Although its true origins are unknown, there is speculation that Tantrism, like many other philosophical movements before and after, was a response to the prevailing social and political environment. At the time, only Brahmans, the highest caste, were allowed to perform Tantric rites. Many of its practices were deliberately aimed at breaking the caste system, while others flouted convention in lesser ways by using drugs, magic, and sexual intercourse as part of religious ritual.
Tantrism can also be seen as a backlash against the ideal of an ascetic lifestyle. An equally convincing argument can be made that Tantrism was a natural philosophical-theological spin-off of a religion and culture that was steeped in sexual myth.
The ancient Tantric movement peaked between 700--1200 CE. Tantrism is so called because the practitioners adopted the teachings in the Tantra scriptures thought to have been written around 300 CE. Tantrism is considered by some as a part of the group of Hindu sect, the Shaktis, who venerate the feminine. This is in contrast to the Lingayatis who primarily worship male deities.
While there is little information as to the precise number of followers that Tantrism was able to attract, speculation is that its appeal was widespread throughout Indian society some three thousand years ago. Although it is thought that originally Tantrism drew its following from the middle and lower castes, it would eventually be the Brahmans that would practice the most elite form of the belief.
Later, Tantric aficionados carried their philosophy and lifestyle to China (around 1000 CE). In the 14th century, while the Mongols ruled China, yet another stream of Tantric "missionaries" from Tibet revitalized the movement in a variation that held little of the Taoist elements of the original. The literature indicates the continued practice of Tantrism in India and China but provides little detail on the number of practitioners and depth of their practice. Specific reference is made of a Tantric sect in Bengal as recently as 1980.
I should also point out, that while scripture did indeed abound, most who lived the lifestyle had little to do with doctrine or dogma. It was, and is, far from a belief system.
The basic statement of Tantrism was that if the world was a reflection of the cosmic order, then people should seek enlightenment through experiencing it. Rather than pursuing asceticism, which was seen as a repudiation of the tactile, Tantrikas believed that a higher spiritual awareness could be achieved through indulgent (but controlled) sensory experience. The thought was that, if the world was an expression of divinity, then all in it must be divine, worthy to be worshipped rather than renounced. It was an apparently hedonistic creed, and its appeal must have been immense.
What was common of all the other different systems of the Hindu religion was that they were all ways to achieve freedom from perpetual reincarnation. The different systems accomplished this in different ways but all, with the exception of Tantrism, shared a philosophy of rejection. Among these were Nyaya, which advocated logic and clarity of thought, and Yoga, as well as Vedanta whose practitioners raised their spirituality through meditation.
Tantrism turned all of this on its head. It offered its practitioners freedom in one lifetime, not through study or meditation (at least in the lower stages), but rather through indulgence, and experiencing all that religions denied.
Acquiring Female Energy
The way to accomplish union with the divine according to Tantrism, was to become one with the "World Soul" itself. Since Tantrism was a sect of the feminine it envisioned the "World Soul" as being encapsulated in the image of the goddess (Shakti). Another source depicts the most venerated Tantric deity as being a Shiva-like figure with both male and female parts. This manner of being was known as an ardhanari (hermaphroditism). In this situation Shakti is seen as the female component of Shiva and is often viewed as being in perpetual coupling with him. But even in this scenario, it is the female energy of the god that is coveted because it is this that will augment the male energy of the Tantric practitioner and hence enhance his spirituality.
Back in the mundane earthly world, there existed a microcosm of the cosmic order. The sought-after female energy could be found in earthly women. Although all men and women had both male and female energies in them, women naturally possessed more of the female force (this is what made them women). The way to appropriate some of this energy was through sexual intercourse. "The essence of Tantra is this union of male and female energy, a union that is both mental and physical. Due adoration cannot be paid to the mother goddess unless a man has sexual intercourse with a woman, as representing the Shakti, or female energy." The perceived necessity of acquiring this balance between male and female energies led some sects to require periodic sexual liaisons between monks and nuns.
This process was deemed so crucial to spiritual advancement that temples were built for this purpose. The most famous was built in 1565 CE in Guahati, Assam and dedicated to the goddess of love Kamakhya or simply Kama. As legend has it, it is on this site that a distraught Shiva dropped the genitals of a dismembered Shakti after her death, in fond remembrance of their long love-making sessions. The inner sanctum of the temple is a cleft that represents Shakti's yoni and is kept moist by a natural spring. "Kamakhya was worshipped not only by sexual intercourse, but also in human sacrifice. Under British rule the human sacrifice was replaced by sacrificial goats."
Rituals and Practices
As in other Hindu sects, Tantric worship for some became very codified ritual. In this instance it took the form of the repetition of mantras and supervised religious ceremony. The more devoted practitioners meditated often and participated in more intricate ceremonies. While Tantra abounds with coloration and ritual, at the same time it is totally unattached to all methods. To some this is paradoxical. Indeed Tantra cannot be experienced with the mind.
A mantra is a phrase or collection of syllables said deliberately and repeatedly, like a fugue in music. It can be voiced or silent. Mantrum is used as a form of meditation or brain entrainment. Their purpose is to concentrate and direct spiritual energy, by removing or quieting mind. The most commonly used and most popular Tantric mantra is "Om Mani Padme Aum" which literally translates to "the jewel is in the lotus" or is another way of saying "the lingam is in the yoni." While most mantras have a spiritual focus, any repetition of any sounds or words may be used. In some the events I conduct, I sometimes user repetition of CO-KA-CO-LA as a meditation Tantra is also playful.
Chakrapuja which translates to "circle worship," was the basic ceremony for most Tantric practitioners. A small group of people would gather in the presence of their guru. It was the duty of the guru to supervise the proceedings and to make sure that the evening did not stray from it's holy purpose and deteriorate into an orgy. The male members of the group are referred to as vira ("heroes"), the female, as Shakti ("potencies").
The evening started with a mind heightening soma (such as wine or hashish), after which the couples proceeded to the other "four of the five enjoyments." These were: meat, grain, fruit and sexual intercourse. It is hypothesized that all five represented mild breaking of taboos of orthodoxy while connecting to the earth. The evening culminated in sexual intercourse, and it is this aspect of their worship that was most developed and which also deserves further analysis. Here is my description of the Maithuna ritual as an example of preparation.
Coitus Reservatus and Coitus Obstructus
From the perspective of the male practitioners, sexual intercourse in these circumstances was very purposeful. There were strict guidelines to follow. The goal was to increase the concentration of female energy in the male body. This was accomplished through extreme discipline and by following a prescribed methodology.
Intercourse could only take place when the woman was sexually excited, after which, depending on the sect, the man would not ejaculate at all or would do so only after the woman had at least one, or preferably many orgasms. The reasoning derived from the Hindu belief that through intercourse, semen -- both male (bindu) and female (amrita), could be concentrated in the body. It was then preferable to redirect the semen through the body rather than outside it as this then appropriated the female energy to the benefit of the male practitioner.
The practice of coitus reservatus was referred to in Sanskrit as askanda and was represented in artwork of the time by images of a flaccid lingam known colloquially as "down penis" or nicha medhra. The famous statue of the Jain saint, Gomatesvara, is depicted with such a "pendulous" penis.
It would appear that the process was not one of mutual sharing but rather of one party gaining power at the expense of the other. Done improperly then, the ritual could have the opposite effect. Writings warn that the male stood the chance that the situation would be reversed and the woman would gain his energy and strength! Thus he who knew the secret of sexual intercourse turned the good deeds of woman to himself but he, who without knowing this, practices sexual intercourse, his good deeds woman turn into themselves.
The idea of "cultivating" sexual energy from the woman by deferring or avoiding ejaculation can be found in Taoism. Taoists believed that women had much larger sexual appetites and the capacity for multiple orgasms and hence had more sexual energy. It was assumed that a woman could experience innumerable orgasms without experiencing any physiological, psychological, or sexual harm - and still be 'enlightened', whereas a man "once he ejaculates falls into a deep sleep, totally drained of all of his strength." Therefore, a man should strive to bring a woman to many orgasms and delay his own because he would then benefit from her energy (her yin). The longer that a man could stay within the "jade chamber," and the more orgasms he could solicit from the woman, the more yin energy he could absorb.
Advice to the Male Practitioner
It is important to note that the motivation for prolonged intercourse and encouraging sexual pleasure and orgasm in women was a sly and selfish male desire to gain female yin. To attain this goal, men were instructed to learn how to delay their own orgasm for as long as possible. They were advised to use mental meditative powers, self discipline and manual intervention (coitus obstructus). To avoid "premature ejaculation" (by Tantric standards), Master Tung-hsuan, a Chinese physician in the seventh century, advised that at the last moment, "the man closes his eyes and concentrates his thoughts: he presses his tongue against the roof of his mouth, bends his back, and stretches his neck. He opens his nostril wide and squares his shoulders, closes his mouth, and sucks in his breath. Then he will not ejaculate and the semen will ascend inward on its own account."
As Tantrism spreads from India into China (700 CE), there is more evidence of advice to men on this matter. From the book, Important Matters of the Jade Chamber, we get an account of the technique for coitus obstructus. "When, during the sexual act, the man feels he is about to ejaculate, he should quickly and firmly, using the fore and middle fingers of the left hand, put pressure on the spot between scrotum and anus (called the "million dollar point"), simultaneously inhaling deeply and gnashing his teeth scores of times, without holding his breath. Then the semen will be activated but not yet emitted, it returns from the Jade Stalk and enters the brain."
Once proficient in the ways of reliably gaining female energy (without the process backfiring), the Tantric practitioner engaged in regular ritual intercourse as a way of getting constant infusions of female energy. The Tantric interpretation of events was very similar to that of the Taoists. During intercourse, preferably in one of the convoluted positions advocated, a complex interaction between the female energy and the male navel chakra resulted in the conversion of the vital but previously constrained male semen into a vital force (referred to as bindu) which then, "... whisked up through ... to the chakra at the top of the head, "the thousand-petalled lotus," which opened into the void, the eternal bliss of nothingness. Thus the true Tantric adept became one with the dual-sexed World Soul."
For the majority of practitioners, this union would seem to have been a fleeting thing. More advanced Tantric practitioners sought a more permanent blissful state by employing a more sophisticated strategy. Interestingly, the prescribed rituals were such that the (male) practitioner would eventually be free from dependence on women.
Advanced Tantric Practices
For the dedicated Tantric practitioner who wished to attain the promise of bliss in a single lifetime, the rituals were to become increasingly solitary. At first, the (male) practitioner moved up the hierarchy through an initiation ceremony that involved having ritual intercourse with specially trained women known as a dakinis. The man, now known as a sadhaka, embarked on a process of intense meditation which included "liturgies, the uttering of mantras, mental visions, yogic postures, and what one authority charmingly describes as 'manipulation of the conjoined male and female energies.'"
The goal in this last practice was to develop the male and female energies that were now part of the practitioners body by the process of what could be conceptualized as "intercourse with oneself." The same result that was achieved fleetingly through sexual intercourse with women, could now be reliably reproduced within the male body thus enabling him to reach union with the divine.
The mystique of Tantric practices has fascinated the world since the days of it's peak in India. As the practices and rituals became known by other cultures, Tantrism was claimed by the cultures that "discovered it." This appropriation was often in a "smorgasbord" fashion where bits and pieces were selectively claimed. The Chinese codified the practices into elaborate sexual manuals that could be consulted by the average citizen. Later in history, the coitus obstructus technique, was used by the Turks, Armenians, and the islanders of the Marquesas, and the North American native Cherokees.
Tantra today has little to do with these ancient text. It is continually updated by the various practitioners, teachers and performers. That is indeed the central point...Tantra is dynamic and alive, and subject to change at every moment. In my events, I usually say that Tantra invites you to "expect the unexpected," and to become one with the very experience. Hence Tantra is not about scholarly text, ritual and surely not dogma.
In the late 1970's, sex researchers, Masters and Johnson rediscovered that it was possible for men to be trained to experience the pleasure of orgasm (possibly several times) without ejaculation. When the western world "rediscovered" the same thing in very old eastern "Tantric" tradition, a renewed interest in the rituals and practices of Tantrism was sparked.
In studying history, religious or otherwise, it is important to be aware of three things (among others); The perspective an d filters of the writer, the reader's own cultural biases in trying to analyze the information presented, and the context of situation being studied. This must be considered in trying to understand Tantrism while conditioned, to one degree or another with a western point of view.
Much of the analysis of Tantrism has come from a "western" point of view which can be subtly (or overtly) tainted by the Judeo-Christian sex-negative and religious perspective. It is this perspective that leads to the interpretation of Tantrism as a "depraved" phenomena and conjures echoes of a Sodom and Gomorrah. Like any other philosophy or movement, Tantrism had its share of fanatics, but it was founded on well established practices, and served as a viable way for its practitioners to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
Regardless of the neutrality of the source, the western reader is also faced with a conceptual hurdle in studying Tantrism. There is something that will strike most as "intuitively" scandalous about "orgies" as worship. The impression that is left with most is that Tantrism was an excuse for an over-sexed society to practice its favorite form of recreation. This was precisely the response of the British during the years that they colonized India. Their cloistered Protestant Christian sensibilities were appalled by the "debauchery" around them. Indian scholars take pains to point out that Tantrism is a spiritual philosophy and not a sexual movement.
As one scholar points out, Hindu and Buddhist critics "have constantly suggested that the Tantrika uses religion as a mantle for sexual desire and debauchery; the Tantrikas have constantly answered that the complicated, elaborate, and exceedingly difficult procedure followed by them would not at all be necessary to gratify sexual desire, whose objects are much easier to obtain without any [such rigorous] trappings." In other words, if having sex was the goal, there were easier ways to do it. Again, you should recognize and respect Tantrism for what it was, a valid effort to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
What I have saved for last is this. Tantra, at its core, is a philosophy of love, and universal adoration. This state of love consciousness is thought my many to be achieved only through the process of surrender, or letting go of all attachments, and to fully experience the joy and bliss of existence. To smell the flowers, taste the wine, and enjoy beauty in al its myriad physical and spiritual forms.
Once you have assured yourself that, as much as possible, you are free of your ethnocentric blinders, you can then examine the records of history in the context of the time.
©1996 Swami Nostradamus Virato. All rights reserved
Swami Nostradamus Virato has been conducting Tantra events in America and Russia for over two decades.
Glossary, Nepal Institute
Bibliography, Nepal Institute
Bullough, Vern L. Sexual Variance in Society and History, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London, 1976)
Davis, Nigel. The Rampant God - Eros Throughout the World, (William Morrow and Co., Inc., New York, 1984)
Das, H. C. Tantricism: A Study of the Yogini Cult, (India Sterling Publishers)
Fisher, Mary Pat. Living Religions, Second Edition, (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1994)
Ide, Arthur Frederick. Sex Woman & Religion, (Monument Press, Dallas, TX 1984)
Rawson, PhilipTantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy
Sharma, Arvind. ed., Women in World Religions, (State University of New York Press, New York, 1987)
Sinha, Indira The Great Book of Tantra
Tannahill, Reay Sex in History, (Stein and Day, New York 1980)
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