Tantra in India - its Origin and Development

Here in the West, the word “tantra” has been given a confusing variety of different meanings in recent years. A huge range of word associations come into play depending on who is using the word and whom they are talking to. One reason for this is a real and noticeable change in meaning which the term underwent during the previous century: in Europe and the USA the term “tantra” now covers something bearing little resemblance to either current or historical usage of the term in its land of origin - India. Another reason is the diversity of heterogeneous phenomena which the term is used to cover in South-East Asia itself.

Many scholars have tried to define tantra; but every one of their descriptions is insufficient. (...) The definitions of tantra given by Sanskrit scholars resemble the descriptions of an elephant given by blind men

Benyotosh Bhattacharyya

Tantra and Kama Sutra

With regard to India, “tantra” refers to a large family of widely differing practices, texts, epistemological traditions and cults, whose earliest roots can be traced back to the seventh century CE. This “family of cults” had a much more widespread and more significant formative influence on the development of religious culture in South-East Asia than initially accepted by scholars, both in the West and within the reformed Hinduism community of the 19th and 20th centuries. As late as 1800, large parts of the Indian population were members of tantric cults - including people associated with the reformed Hinduism popular amongst the educated classes.

In this sense, tantra is something completely different to the Kama Sutra teachings about love and it is not the same as yoga, ayurveda or massage. Nevertheless, it is not possible to find a single common label to describe Indian tantra. On the one hand it has close connections to a vast abundance of local and regional gods associated with forests, rivers, mountains, trees and deceased ancestors. Sacrificial offerings formed a significant part of the human interaction with these gods - often goddesses - whose hunger needed to be assuaged. On the other hand, there was a tremendous variety of approaches to be found in the schools and directions which developed in India, Nepal, Tibet and China. Some had a cult-like, practical approach, others focussed on living ethically, formulating theoretical and speculative interpretations of life, or evoking magical and occult effects.  Their aims were as varied as their approaches: being able to fly, instrumentalising demons for their own purposes, self-perfection, knowledge of the cosmos, the achievement of divine states of consciousness, or mystical experiences.  And they made use of a diversity of practices for this: meditative chants, assuming particular physical postures, hand gestures, images, breathing exercises, visualisations, cleansing practices, dietary guidelines and religious and social regulations.

Tantra and Sex

Even during the early period of tantric development, some lineages or cults were performing sexual acts. One aspect that played a vital role here was the production and exchange of bodily fluids, such as menstruation blood, vaginal excretions and semen. These rituals were known as “kaula”. During discrete ceremonies that took place out of public view, male kaula-practitioners would unite with goddesses or female demons that had a particular significance for their family. These were personified by sorceresses or priestesses (yoginī). Other religious traditions in India made sacrifices of blood or human or animal flesh to assuage their gods’ hunger, but these types of cults sacrificed something different: the male semen. In return, the yogini gave the male practitioner very worldly rewards, such as the ability to fly or physical immortality - this was imparted by taking in the female bodily liquids. During the early Middle Ages there were members of the higher nobility taking part in these rituals, and they built special temples for this purpose. These practices formed the historical nucleus of the tantric cult family, according to some scholars.

However, parts of the population and some religious milieus were very shocked by these rites and as early as in the Middle Ages, the rites and their magical aims were subjected to a reform: they were aestheticised, expanded and reshaped. The aim of the tantric exercises was now to use orgasm to expand the practitioner’s contracted self-consciousness into a divine consciousness, enabling them to experience the whole universe as ‘self’. Sexual acts were now partly or completely symbolised and sublimated into ascetic forms of meditation. Many tantra schools that still exist today are based on these reformed teachings.

Versions of tantra which employ sexual acts often do so in the form of a conscious breach of vedic purity provisions - pañca-makāra: consuming matsya [or mīna] (fish), māmsa (meat), madya (wine), mudrā (dried grains) and the consumation of maithuna (sexual intercourse); each of these 5 ‘M’s can be carried out literally or symbolically. Nonetheless, it would be false to see these practices as some sort of revolutionary counterculture or protest against the Indian establishment. On the contrary, seen as a whole they form part of a very conservative practice which actually confirms the existing order by suspending it only temporarily - during the rituals. This also applies to other regions where tantric practices included such breaches of social laws.

Tantra diversity and common thread

The different and diverse tantric traditions exchanged ideas and practices with each other and with local cultures in other countries: there are a variety of forms of Hindu and Buddhist tantra, and tantra has different characteristics in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Burma, Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Japan and Mongolia. Altogether they form a somewhat impenetrable tapestry of widely differing traditions.
But neither the magical or aestheticised forms of sexual tantra nor the more widespread non-sexual schools had their focus on the goal which today in the West is often quoted as being the goal of tantra: achieving a special, refined state of lust, bliss or ecstasy. If it is indeed possible to find a common interest among all the tantric schools, it is “power”: control of energies, powers or forces that pervade our universe, bodies or social order. In order to achieve this power, some tantric traditions sexualise rituals and ritual relationships.
In addition to this, there are two further areas of common interest. Firstly, all tantric schools consider their practices to be part of a particular, traditional “tantric” lifestyle. This becomes crucial when the practitioners want to achieve the abovementioned goals of self-perfection, insight into the cosmic order, and mystical experiences. Secondly, there is a distinctive, special, traditional teacher-disciple relationship that characterises how the practices and teachings are learnt. In brief, this includes many years of guidance by a guru authorised by an uninterrupted lineage of tradition and training.

Authors and Copyright:

Stefanie Imann and Julio Lambing for ANANDA - The Art of Touch in July 2009
All rights reserved by the authors. Commercial reproduction or use only possible when expressly permitted by the authors.


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