Mention Tantra to most people, and they will invariably think of sex-magic. Only the other day I was chatting over the phone to a friend in America, and happened to mention that I was currently involved with a Tantric magic study group. My friend became very animated, and in tones of some envy said that he’d always wanted to find a group where people were willing to do Tantric magic with each other.
It was at this point that an alarm bell began to ring in my head. “Look,” I said, “I mean Tantric magic, not group sex.” “Oh,” my friend replied, “I wasn’t aware that there was anything more to Tantra than group sex.” Now this kind of reaction isn’t untypical, even among otherwise experienced occultists. Over the last few years, whenever I’ve mentioned my interest in Tantra, I’ve often watched people’s mental gears grinding away as they visualise contorted sexual postures and perhaps, unusual combinations. To think of Tantra only in terms of sexual rites is a gross oversimplification.
In fact, Tantrism is a complete magical system in itself, incorporating a wide variety of magical methods and metaphysics.
Many elements of Tantric magic have become absorbed into the general magical lore of the West. Such elements include concepts such as Kundalini, the Chakras, Karma, Yoga, etc. Concepts such as the Chakras have been widely taken up by new agers and spiritualists, many of whom would be horrified if told of the roots of these concepts in tantrism.
So why does Tantra have such a ‘dodgy’ reputation? In part, this is due to the efforts of the European chroniclers of Indian religious life. The AbbÃ?Â© Dubois for example, author of the seminal work on Hindu life, “Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies” (1807), wrote in much detail of the “abominable debaucheries” of ‘sakti worship’. The AbbÃ?Â©’s work contained the first detailed account of the orgiastic ritual that came to be known as ‘cakrapuja’ (circle-worship), and his book did much to fix the European notion that Hindus were depraved.
The AbbÃ?Â©’s descriptions of sakti worship was passed down from author to author, and still colours some modern notions of Tantra. Similarly, the Rev. William Ward, writing of famous tantric texts such as the Yoni Tantra, reverted to asterisks occasionally whilst describing “…things too abominable to enter the ears of man, and impossible to be revealed to a Christian public…” By the mid-Nineteenth Century, Tantra has acquired the glamour which surrounds it even today – of ‘forbidden rites’, ‘orgiastic ceremonies’, ‘ritual murder’ and ‘oriental mysteries’.
Of particular relevance to occultists is the influence of organisations such as the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The former, in particular, were instrumental in importing many Indian esoteric concepts into Western occultism, although these concepts were invariably mutilated in the process.
A good example of this ‘twisting’ of ideas, (which began with the Theosophists and continues even now) is that of the Chakras. Now most people who have done some reading of magical texts will have come across the Chakras, as they have become a fairly basic element of what is known as the Western Esoteric Tradition.
So much so in fact, that it is more or less taken for granted that the Chakras have some factual basis for existence. The original tantric texts which describe the varying systems of Chakras (some describe six, others, seven, nine, or even eleven) use a great deal of symbolic language and metaphor, much of which western authors have mistakenly taken literally.
Sir John Woodroffe, in his book The Serpent Power, gives an examÃ?Â¬ple of this when he presents a critique of C.W Leadbeater’s book The Inner Life. Leadbeater claims to have counted the number of petals of the Sahasrara Chakra and says that the number is not 1,000, as is often given in tantric texts, but exactly 960. Woodroffe points out that the Indian use of “thousand” is a metaphor for a great magnitude, and not a literal count.
Leadbeater has mistaken a metaphorical stateÃ?Â¬ment for a literal one, which makes nonsense of his assertion. Unfortunately, many Theosophical notions such as this are passed from book to book, without, as Pete Carroll once quipped “any intervening thought.”
It was largely the Theosophical Society who spread the notion that the so-called’Left-Hand Path’ of Tantrism was tantamount to ‘Black Magic’, due to the prevalence of sexual gnosis. For Theosophists, as much as their Christian brethren, there was no way that sensual enjoyment could be seen as ‘spiritual’ in any sense.
A third source of obsfucation has been the somewhat biased work of scholars, both European and Indian. According to some scholars, particularly those influenced by orthodox Hindu or Western ideas, Tantra was a degeneration from the rarefied atmosÃ?Â¬phere of Yoga, into witchcraft, alchemy, and astrology. This is erroneous.
There is an increasing body of evidence pointing to the emergence of Tantra from the rituals and concerns of the tribal peoples. A very early Tantric manuscript, the Kubjika Tantra, written in the sixth century, is concerned with the rituals of potters. From the prehisÃ?Â¬toric period, the pot has been the symbol of the Great Mother goddess. Some scholars believe that Tantra emerged from the blending of alchemy and agricultural magic.
Finally, the image of Tantrism has been coloured by the antagonism of modern India. Indian attitudes towards the sensual have shifted considerably, due to the influÃ?Â¬ence of first Islamic, then Anglo-Saxon prejudice. Professor Bharati, in his classic work The Tantric Tradition, remarks that ‘official Indian culture’, as formulated by Vivekananda, Gandhi and Radakrishnan, very much considered Tantrism to be very much beyond the pale. Alain DaniÃ?Â©lou, in the introduction to his translation of the Kama Sutra, notes that:
“Mahatma Gandhi, educated in England, sent squads of his disciples to smash the erotic representations on the temples. …Pandit Nehru was irritated by my having phoÃ?Â¬tographed and published the photographs of sculptures showing homosexual relations, dating from the eleventh century, when he claimed that such vices in India were due to Western influence.”
The Complete Kama Sutra, p10
Whilst researching for this article, I was lent a book called “Kali’s Child”, by Jeffrey J. Kripal – a biography of Ramakrishna, the 19th century mystic who was a major influence in the reformulation of ‘modern Hinduism’. Vivekananda, his most famous pupil was decidedly anti-tantric, describing it as the “filthy vamachara that is destroying this country”. Kripal reveals however, that Ramakrishna himself went through a period of tantric training, which his followers chose to ignore. Moreover, according to this author, Ramakrishna’s ecstatic visions and teachings sprung from an erotic source, which has also been conveniently glossed over:
“Sakti – in her image, gender, music and scriptures – has been made submissive and obedient. Bengalis are encouraged to be ashamed of her and her Tantras. Sakti is no longer on top of Siva.”
Kali’s Child, p27
To understand the beginnings of Tantra, it is necessary to understand something of Indian history. Orthodox Hinduism, the so-called Great or Brahmanic Tradition, has its roots in the Vedas, which encapsulate the religious ideas of the Aryans, who invaded India around 1200 BC, subduing the indigenous peoples (the Dravidians) with their Iron weapons. In the following centuries of pressure, much of that indigÃ?Â¬enous culture retreated – there was a retreat away from the cities and migration routes into the forests, mountains and villages.
The vast hinterlands of India allowed the survival of isolated centres of cultural life which retained elements of great antiquity. Gradually, a landscape emerged along the northern river valleys of cities, supported by a vast countryside divided into isolated village societies. Whilst the orthodox culture was dominated by the Vedic rituals of the Brahmins, there also existed a parallel vision, the Vrata tradition, operating through song, dance, art and magical incantations – a storehouse of both archaic wisdom and contemporary patterns.
Similar migrations occurred in the ninth & tenth centuries, when entire Buddhist communities took refuge from persecution in the remote countryside, and in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, when pressure from the Muslim Invasions forced vast numbers of scholars into southern India. It is in southern India that surviving Dravidian languages can be found.
It is widely believed that, although Tantra as we know it is largely a medieval pheÃ?Â¬nomena, that this ‘revival’ is a direct descendent of Palaeolithic Goddess worship, and that its magical and psycho-sexual practices evolved from a wide variety of cults and mystery schools. Dr. John Mumford, in “Ecstasy Through Tantra” (1988) goes so far as to assert that Tantrism was the “religion” of the Dravidians and, whilst this may be overstating the case somewhat, there are many scholars who look for the roots of Tantrism within the mists of Dravidian civilisation; it has been estimated that the cities of Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro (these are modern names) had existed for at least a 1000 years before the arrival of the Aryan invaders, and that the aboriginal Indus Valley civilisation dates back as far as 2500 BC.
One of the main problems I feel, that modern Europeans face when encountering Tantra is our own predisposition for expecting things to be clear-cut and easily broken down into bite-size pieces. For example, I have recently been doing some magical work with Siva, and during this, became interested in Siva’s primordial form Rudra (Howler). I struggled for a while to find a point where Rudra became Siva, but it’s almost impossible to draw such a clear distinction between the two.
Fortunately, (at least to my mind), Tantra resists this ‘diluting’ process due to it’s very nature. Being used to (and often, greatly attracted by) a multiplicity of ‘traditions’ all jostling for attention, occultists all too often make the mistake of seeing Tantra as a coherent tradition. It isn’t.
What is generally regarded as Tantra is an intricate interweaving of philosophy, magic, yoga’s, astrology, alchemy, medicine, folklore, etc. Tantric elements have freely mingled with the more orthodox Hinduism and Buddhism and some very exotic Tantric Sects have flourished at one time or another, some of which I’ll be looking into later in this series. Tantric elements have also been absorbed into more orthodox Hindu belief.
The somewhat amorphous nature of Tantra is neatly summed up by Sri Mahendranath Dadaji, former adiguru of the Natha Sampradaya, when he wrote: “a sannyasin has no rules to keep, only a way of life to live.” Of course, this is only his opinion on the matter. George Weston Briggs, in his book Goraknath & the Khanphata Yogis, lists the many rules and regulations of behaviour which were said to constrain this particular sect of tantrics.
He then goes on to relate the wide variation in degrees of adherence to same rules. Again, there is a wide variation in how individuals perform their practices, even within a particular sect or sub-sect. Enjoyment of the sensual pleasures of the world is a strong theme in some Tantras, yet the development of magical abilities through the practice of austerities remains a firm foundation of Indian esotericism.
Westerners tend to associate Indian spiritual practices with the wandering yogis or itinerant sadhus, but the so-called path of the householder – of the individual who seeks spiritual development whilst holding down a job or keeping a family is widely acknowledged as the most difficult path to tread. Some tantrics were scholars, establishing monastic retreats which beÃ?Â¬came storehouses of learning, whilst others were wandering bards or peasants.
When we attempt to focus on Tantra, it’s rather like trying to condense the vastness of history onto a few sheets of paper. Alain DaniÃ?Â©lou has made a strong case for the relationship between the mysteries of Shiva and Dionysus. Many modern scholars of Tantrism now think of it as a medieval revival of Palaeolithic fertility worship, the survival of the beliefs & practices of the Indus Valley civilisations, together with the influence of the village and tribal cultures which were excluded (by birth and caste) from Vedic worship. A strong theme in Tantrism is a rejection of the caste system, and the principle of Svecchacharya – a Sanskrit term which means to act according to one’s own will (i.e. independently).
According to Tantric Scholar Mike Magee, the Natha cult were responsible for fomenting the Indian Mutiny, which implies quite a different facet of tantrics than the unworldly, ascetic image which is common in the West. Although debate was a common means for different sects to oppose each other’s views, it was not unknown for some sects to resort to more warlike means to settle philosophical differences.
In closing for now, then, Tantra is a huge field for investigation where it’s all too easy to make quick judgements based on only a surface appreciation of it’s complexities. In the next instalment of this series I will look at some definitions of what tantric magiÃ?Â¬cal practice actually consists of and outline some of the key features.