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(see also: Kundalini, Sex Magick, Yoga)

Article by David Claiborne
(C) Copyright 2000  All rights reserved

Tantra (Sanskrit, "woven together" or "web") is a tradition with roots in the pre-Hindu religions of Shaktiism and Shaivism.  These religions each had a central ceremony, called a puja, honouring the yoni (Shaktiism, goddess worship) and linga (Shaivism, god worship).  The earliest forms of tantra can be seen in 20,000 year old markings on cave walls that resemble the symbols still used in tantra yoga today.

Tantra became established as a religion in India around 800 CE when the sacred erotic temples were built.  Early tantric beliefs were based on observations that life itself was the result of Love.  When the people rebelled against the upper caste priesthood that controlled religious worship, the doorway to a Golden Age of Tantra was opened.  The central theme of this new spirituality that swept across India was direct spiritual experience through ecstatic sexual practice, meditation and the use of sacraments.

The primary tantric texts, the Hindu Tantras, were written after the Puranas, in the medieval period, and are usually set in the form of a dialogue between the god Shiva and his consort Parvati, in which he explains to her the philosophy and myths underlying the tantric ritual. This ritual involves reversals of normal Hindu social practices and reversals of normal physiological processes (for instance, the drawing up of the semen out of the woman and into the body of the man). It also reverses the orthodox Hindu "five products of the cow," or panchagavya (milk, butter, curds, urine, and feces) used for purification; in Tantra, these become the "five m's":  maithuna ("intercourse"), matsya ("fish"), mansa ("flesh"), mudra ("parched grain"), and mada ("wine").  Tantra was a bastion of ecstatic spirituality in a landscape of asceticism.

Soon, tantra evolved into a diverse tradition of various schools, with the sexual aspect always remaining an integral theme.  Mystical experiences and altered states of consciousness were central to many of these schools.  Best known to Westerners are the several strands of tantra yoga in which worship takes the form of a sexual ritual featuring slow, non-orgasmic intercourse with the intent of achieving an experience of the divine.  The act of ritual lovemaking was understood as participation in the cosmic process.  Another major school of Hindu tantra yoga is primarily meditational.  Very similar to hatha yoga (body posture) and bhakti yoga (devotion), this form of tantra focusses mainly on visualization of deity, concentrating on yantras (glyphs), chanting mantras and the practice of tapas (austerity).

Some Indian tantra yoga teachers recommend practices that may include meditation but also by which subtle streams of energy are can be raised in the body by means of conscious posture and breath control.  These tantric adepts were taught, by a guru, to raise their psychosexual energy, the curled serpent power (Kundalini) that lies at the base of the spine, through the chakras, until it reaches the highest chakra at the top of the skull, resulting in an experience of the union of the god and the goddess within oneself. This process, sadhana, begins with a systematic visualization of the deity, limb by limb, who materializes by yantras and mantras.

Additionally, tantric thought spread across the Asian continent and was absorbed to varying degrees in other Oriental religions.  Contemporary Tibetan Buddhism contains a strand of tantra which appears to have derived from the ancient Tibetan religion of Bon.  Like Hindu Tantra, Tibetan Buddhist tantra ranges from the purely meditational to the sexually active.  Another great Asian philosophy/religion, Taoism, also has its own varying tantric schools.  The most prevalent of these is Taoist tantric alchemy, which places some emphasis on the search for longevity or immortality through rigorous meditation and channelling of the psychosexual power of kundalini yoga. Sexual fluids were the fabled "elixirs of life."

This broad field of tantric sex ritualism is often labelled into two so-called paths of practice:  The "right hand path" is one in which the ritual is meditational, or a monogamous rite.  The "left hand path" is one in which multiple couples may engage in ritual sex at the same time, sometimes following the lead of a pair of teachers. This latter path is the one that has earned tantra the reputation of being orgiastic or evil among the ignorant and those prejudiced against sexuality.

Today, much of the wisdom of the East has been brought into the West and blended with the Western esoteric traditions.  Most Westerners are familiar with "neo-tantra", or the primarily Western and modern forms of the tantric tradition.  Neo-tantra has absorbed much from other sexual esoteric traditions, such as Native American Quadoshka, Gnosticism, Wicca, Qabalah and others.  Therefore much of what is commonly referred to as tantra in the West has no roots whatsoever the the Hindu tantric tradition, although there are many similarities.

In the 19th century many neo-tantric traditions began cropping up in the West.  Although they are often not descended from Hindu tantra, the author feels justified in calling them neo-tantra.  Some neo-tantric forms, like karezza, do have Hindu roots.  In the 1960s and 1970s in Europe and North America many people broke from traditional thinking, and Eastern mysticism and sexual freedom became increasingly popular.  Meshing of traditions in these areas, along with a continued growth of interest in sex and mysticism has created a neo-tantric tradition of "tantric sex", in which the sexualility is quite apparent.  This neo-tantric sex is often more concerned with exotic sexual techniques and better sex than religious experience.   Whereas Western neo-tantra places much emphasis on sexuality in its practices, some modern tantra gurus insist that tantra yoga is not a sexual practice, purely a meditational and spiritual one.

Sexuality is indeed a powerful reservoir of energy, which can be tapped through various methods of mental and physical exercise.  The truth of this is evidenced in the many similar forms of sexual mysticism which have developed the world over.  Just like the basic meditative value of breathing in specific manners, the energies harnessed in sexual mysticism are biological and very real, and so have been observed and practiced as an art virtually everywhere.  As society's sexual taboos continue to crumble and science and mysticism teach us more about our selves, tantra and related traditions will undoubtedly serve as the pathway to experience of divinity for many seekers.

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