Friday, October 31, 2014

The Origins and Meaning of "Tantra"

I want to move some posts from other spots over to this blog, so I thought this one on the origin and the various meanings of the word "tantra" would be a good place to start.

The word "tantra" means (at least) four different things:

Tantra (1) – A tradition of supernatural ritual magic found within many branches of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and to a lesser extent Daoism.  Also known as Tantrism.

Tantra (2) – A ritual, formula, or procedure described in a text or esoteric teaching, especially in Hinduism and in Vajrayāna (Tibetan Buddhism).

Tantra (3) – A written text describing a tantra (2) and recognized as authentic by one or more sects of one of the Asian religions.  Most date from the 5th through 10th centuries CE when religious turmoil and increased literacy led to a great upsurge in interest in learning and recording the secrets of ancient magic.

Tantra (4) – Tantric sex, the common Western term for a set of sexual practices that are allegedly derived from sexual rituals that originated roughly 2500-5000 years ago in the Indus Valley region of India.  Also known as neotantra, modern tantra, urban tantra, and sacred sex.

The root meaning of the term "tantra" in this context is a "ritual" or "formula" or even "spell." Tantras were recipes or procedures for achieving specific spiritual, magical, or physical results.  Often they contained instructions for combining certain designs (yantras), certain sounds (mantras), and certain postures and gestures (mudras) for gaining magical or spiritual benefits.  

In terms of Western magic, the yantra is like the pentagram or other mystic diagram, chalked with elaborate inscriptions.  The mantra is like the chanted spell.  And the mudra is like the intricate flourish of the wizard's fingers or wand.  All have to be combined perfectly.

The biggest difference is that in most Western magical traditions a spell would be cast once, and would either work or fail, whereas in Eastern tantric traditions, it was thought that a particular combination might need to be repeated many times, gaining slight additional power and efficacy with each repetition.

It also may help Westerners to think about the difference between a prayer and a spell.  If you pray for rain, it is thought of as a kind of petition.  It asks God to send rain, but does not force Him to do so in any way.  On the other hand, a spell or power ritual, like a Rain Dance, is an attempt to compel spiritual powers or nature itself to provide rain.

Sometimes prayer edges into a middle ground, where people try to bargain with God (or the spirits, or chance itself), offering future good behavior or sacrifices as bribes if a prayer is granted.  But it's still a free-form exercise, not a detailed ritual with the power to compel, because it still assumes the final decision is completely with whatever god or other being the person is petitioning.

These two fundamental approaches divide many religions.  Is the focus of religion primarily worship and supplication?  Or is it a spiritual technology for harnessing supernatural powers and getting specific results?  Every religion has strains of both, but tantric forms of religion strongly emphasize the latter.

The Origin of Tantric Practice

Hinduism is an ancient syncretic religion, a hybrid of many, many different, often primitive, regional and clan-based folk religions, with infusions and overlays from numerous conquerors.  Many of the indigenous religions were rural, local, nature- and fertility-oriented, and relatively feminized.  Many of the conquerors followed heroic, martial, universalist, and masculinized religions.  To oversimplify a complex and turbulent process, the former persisted among the poor and the mountainous people, while the latter tended to win out among the ruling classes and the people in the broad river valleys.  However, there was extensive intermixing and appropriation in both directions.

The result has been a very broad religious tradition with two enduring themes.  The "official" version is the Vedic tradition, based on the great sagas, like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and the Vedas, like the Rigveda.  These are generally thought to date from around 1500-400 BCE, or 2400-4000 years ago.

But, at least to begin with, the dominance of the Vedic religion applied mainly to upper-caste and educated people.  Many of the conquered tribes in the countryside continued to follow a very different tradition based largely on magic, ritual, and appeasement or manipulation of supernatural beings.

In these traditions, the distinction between a demon, a spirit, and a god was meaningless.  All powerful supernatural beings were capricious and amoral, capable of great savagery or of granting great gifts and powers.  What mattered was knowing the right ritual for pleasing, propitiating, or compelling these supernatural beings, to get them to grant power or at least not do harm.

By modern Western standards, these Kaula (from kula, "clan") practices seem less like religions than magical cults or covens.  They were not about worshipping and giving thanks to benevolent gods, nor did they focus on defining high standards of morality or ethical conduct.  They were instead largely a kind of supernatural technology.  If you know the right ritual and if you do it just the right way, you can... hex your enemies, achieve worldly wealth and power, cure the sick, raise the dead, and achieve immortality.  Or, more modestly, you may be able to ward off disease, misfortune, and malicious demons and perhaps find husbands for your unmarried daughters.

It's an old story.  The people in power practice a high-minded religion that preaches lawful conduct and that just happens to help them justify and maintain their wealth and power. And those who are out of power fight back with magic and witchcraft, which hold out the promise of power from an alternative source, the supernatural realm, if they can just learn how to tap it.  But sometimes the rich also hire sorcerers and try to use magic to enhance their powers (or at least frighten their enemies) and sometimes the poor adopt the religion of the rich, especially if official sponsorship makes it seem more powerful than mere hedge magic.

Every religion contains elements of repetitive ritual and magical behavior - think of rosaries and prayer beads, processions of saints' relics, mass prayers for victory or rain, throwing pebbles at a wall on Hajj, and sticking written prayers in a holy wall or nailing them to a doorway.  And every system of magic has some elements of religion, if only because they derive power from manipulating the supernatural and thus need to have a theory of how supernatural forces work.  But, for the most part, these two approaches to the supernatural are inevitably in conflict.

The conflict within Hinduism and within other South Asian religions has been a constant battle between tantric ritual practices, with their focus on magical power and immediate gain, and the more orthodox religions, which are more philosophical, worshipful, and literary.  Radical tantric practices through the ages have frequently had intentionally shocking, transgressive elements, like eating meat and having sex in cemeteries or on corpses, that are intended to frighten the impressionable and outrage the orthodox.  As a result, orthodox Hindus have made repeated attempts to stamp out or civilize the tantric elements, and to this day are embarrassed by them and attempt to write them out of the historical record.  

It may help a Westerner to think of it in terms of the Christian war on magic and witchcraft. How different would Christianity be if that war had been fought to a draw and today's "Christians" included hundreds of millions of people who were much closer to Wicca or Voodoo than the gospels?  The fusion of Christian and African elements in Vodou gives an interesting insight into what this would be like.  In some ways, Hinduism today resembles what Christianity might be if half of all Christians were Vodouists!

The divide in Buddhism is just as wide. The original Buddhism of the Pāli Canon is nearly devoid of tantric elements. Theravāda (SE Asian Buddhism) rejects the "tantras (3)" and has a relatively low level of ritual. But Vajrayāna (Tantric or Tibetan Buddhism) is in many ways the triumph of ritualism over worship. The basic approach in Vajrayāna is to get the right formula and repeat it perfectly, over and over, many hundreds or thousands of times.

It's the ritual that matters in Vajrayāna, so even a so-called "prayer wheel" - a mechanical yantra - is considered effective.  If the wind, a young monk cranking a handle, or even an electric motor causes the prayer wheel to spin, it repeats the "prayer" (or enacts the ritual, or casts the spell) endlessly, and each repetition "counts" as much as if a monk had done the same thing.  (Of course, only simple spells can be cast in this way.  It still takes an expert to enact a really potent ritual, or else high lamas would become unnecessary.)

Tantra (4) - The Tantra of Sex

What does all this have to do with sex?  Two things.  First, modern tantric sex is "a tantra," a specific ritual for achieving effects that still seem "magical" and "spiritual" in nature to many people.  And second, it does have at least a plausible connection to the ancient tantric rites of the pre-Vedic and Vedic Indus Valley cultures.

The Kaula practices of old had a core inner practice of sex magic aimed at propitiating the Yoginis, savage female spirits who demanded semen.  The right rituals, carried out at special times in places of power by the local wizards and clan leaders, would not merely stave off the anger of the Yoginis, but could win great magical powers from them if the Yoginis (inhabiting human female form for the occasion) were sufficiently pleased.

So we begin with the core idea of women in a trance state acting as vessels for supernatural spirits and being given exceptional amounts of sexual pleasure before receiving an "offering" of semen.

At some point - no one knows who, where, or when - someone discovered that slowing down and greatly extending the sex act in certain ways could produce intoxicating euphoria, exceptionally strong orgasms, altered states of consciousness, and profound transcendental experiences.

Like blood and death, sex has always been seen as a potent source of magical power, and here was a form of sex magic that reliably produced seemingly magical supernatural results!  It's no wonder that it has been the subject of sometimes bitter religious controversy ever since.

These techniques were guarded by secrecy, and were only supposed to be taught from one person to another, never written down, so there is no way to know if they have changed over time.  But experimentation with modern tantric sexual techniques tells us that there are definite limits to how far the basic ritual can be altered and still get the distinctive signature effects.

So it's reasonable to assume that the original rituals were like the modern ones at least in terms of the basic elements we now know.  (They might, of course, have had many additional elements that have since been lost and that are waiting for us to rediscover them!)


For an authoritative history of tantric traditions and a highly critical analysis of the alleged connection between modern tantric sex and the ancient Kaula rites, see Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts, by David Gordon White.

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