July 21, 2013 By davidjones
By DAVID CONWAY
“It’s all sex nowadays” my mother used to grumble after an evening in front of the television. Even her favourite nature programmes, she moaned, were increasingly obsessed with it. Much the same might be said about Tantra. Or, at least, about what currently passes for Tantra, something which to many people today means little more than sex with fancy trimmings.
No surprise then that among the first ‘tantrik’ sites to appear on Google is one that markets books on sexual techniques, as well as performance-enhancing potions like – currently on special offer – tiny pots of nipple sensitising cream. True, there’s a token reference to Tantra’s origins in India but it’s the “get your kit off” message that counts. My mother wouldn’t approve. And neither, frankly, do I.
What offends me is not so much the sexual free-for-all – each to his own as far as I’m concerned – but the attempt to glamorise, even sanctify it by calling it Tantra.
After all, Tantra is first and foremost a spiritual practice by which the self aspires to merge with the energies that sustain or, rather, constitute, the universe. It is a means of becoming one with the Whole, of escaping from the illusion of separateness that determines how we experience the phenomenal world around us. Sensitised nipples have precious little to do with it. (And anyway a dab of Vaseline does the job, if you’re curious.)
The word Tantra is Sanskrit for ‘weave’, a term used to indicate that a particular text has been composed according to an orderly pattern (samhita). Others prefer to believe it points to secret teachings ‘woven’ into the Vedas, the thread visible only when teased out by a scholarly commentator or qualified guru. This interpretation, though appealing, is undermined by evidence that before being taken up by Hinduism, Tantra was already a feature of Buddhist practice, later becoming associated with Mahayana Buddhism in particular. (There the feminine principle, sakti, has long been held in high esteem.) This might also explain its early adoption by the Vajrayana (Sk. “Diamond Vehicle”) sect of Tibet, one that borrowed heavily – again significant perhaps – from that country’s indigenous religion (Bön).
Yet the true origins of Tantra almost certainly pre-date all of these and are rooted in the ancient practice of Yoga, especially in what later became Hatha Yoga, so called because it is the path (Sk. marga) of effort and discipline, both essential if the body and its vital energies are to be brought under control. Appropriately enough, one of the early names given to Tantrik teaching – Agamas or ‘What has come from before’ – may be an acknowledgement of its great antiquity.
Not all Hindu teaching is sympathetic to Tantra, with many scholars, especially more recent ones, uneasy with its intentionally blunt language (Sandhya-bhasha) and overtly erotic symbolism. At times even its defenders sound apologetic, pleading that, for want of anything better, it is at least a convenient path to mystical experience in the current Dark Age (Kali-yuga),1 a period when our race is woefully lacking in spiritual refinement. (Held to have started 5,000 years ago or, as others maintain, following the death of Krishna in 3120 BCE, the Dark Age is scheduled to last for 430,000 years so there’s lots more of it ahead.)
With the advent of Kali-yuga we are said to have lost our ability to see beyond the illusory appearance of things (maya), something traditionally expressed as the loss of our Third Eye or Eye of Siva. This symbolic organ is depicted in art as a lotus blossom, the sun, a snake or a star and set in the middle of the forehead, though some occultists maintain, none more forcibly than Mme. Blavatsky, that the Third Eye was, literally, just that. Today, the pineal gland is claimed to be its only anatomical remnant.
Hinduism accommodates two kinds of Tantra, that of the right hand (Dakshinacara) and that of the left (Vamacara). The first, regarded as the more respectable, favours a metaphorical interpretation of the erotic language found in the texts, while the second, often dismissed as ‘black’ magic, adopts a more literal approach, treating what it finds as a practical guide to attaining enlightenment. Only the latter approach need concern us.
As was said earlier, Tantra is not about sex. Well, not just about sex. Its spiritual element – ‘psychical’ may be a better epithet – is at least as important as the physical. In any case the two are complementary. More than that, they are inter-dependent for only when acting together – physical act and spiritual intention – will they induce awareness of the unity subsisting between the conditional world and the absolute reality on which it depends.
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