As an experience, tantra is not confined to a singular definition and exists on a spectrum. Different variations, adaptations, interpretations and derivatives of the practice seem to emerge everywhere you look, but it is rooted in a long-standing tradition that seeks awakening through embodiment.
Neo-Tantra and The Western Wrapper
Answering the question ‘what is tantra?’ is a little like trying to answer ‘what is yoga?’ – with varying styles, motivations, historical contexts and philosophies existing in tandem. The art of tantra may mean different things to different groups of people.
The western assumption is that yoga is an exercise for stretching or stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system for wellbeing, and little more. In a similar way, a prevailing view is that tantric practices can be pursued as a vehicle to ‘enlightenment’, or at the very least – as a means of deepening experiences of presence, sensation, connection and relationship.
Some practices are associated with being emotional (energetic) / spiritual (existential) in nature, and encourage a shift from the cognitive to the embodied. Some people have traumatic, habitual, societal or other closures in their body that prevent them from experiencing presence and sensation. While others want to enhance the intimacy and connection that they have.
Such interpretations may have gained popularity as there is evidence to suggest that modern life is increasingly cerebral. Our mainstream education system centres around intellectual and material pursuits, with embodied wisdom, the art of relating, emotional or intimate education often confined to the superfluous.
The occultist and businessman Pierre Bernard is widely credited with introducing the philosophy and practices of tantra to the American people, at the same time creating the somewhat misleading impression of its connection predominantly to sex. This popular sexualisation may more acutely be encompassed by the western ‘neo-tantra’ movement – in which sex sells.
Georg Feuerstein was a German Indologist specialising in the philosophy and practice of yoga. According to Feuerstein, one of the main elements of the tantric literature is ritual. Rather than one coherent system, tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas. He interpreted that:
“the scope of topics discussed in the tantras is considerable. They deal with the creation and history of the world; the names and functions of a great variety of male and female deities and other higher beings; the types of ritual worship (especially of Goddesses); magic, sorcery, and divination; esoteric ‘physiology’ (the mapping of the subtle or psychic body); the awakening of the mysterious serpent power (kundalinî-shakti); techniques of bodily and mental purification; the nature of enlightenment; and not least, sacred sexuality.”
As with yoga he believed the texts and iconography to contain representations of the body in philosophy, ritual and art – linked to techniques, methods or technologies developed within the tantric traditions and intended to transform body and self (consciousness).
Tantric traditions have been studied mostly from textual and historical perspectives. Anthropological work on living tantric tradition is relatively scarce, and ethnography has rarely engaged with the study of tantra. This may be a result of the modern construction of tantrism as occult, esoteric and secret – a concern with the unseen and intangible. There is also reason to believe that western frameworks require new methodological avenues to overcome the ethical and epistemological problems in the study of these living traditions.
Embodied Eastern Esoterica
Tantra is associated with the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. In the Indian traditions the term means any systematic broadly applicable ‘text, theory, system, method, instrument, technique or practice’.
Tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions have also influenced other Eastern religious traditions such as Jainism, the Tibetan Bön tradition, Daoism, and the Japanese Shintō tradition, as well as exerting wider cultural and artistic manifestations.
The literal translation of the word from Sanskrit broadly means ‘loom, warp, weave’, which could by extension spin out into ‘system, doctrine or work’, as well as the interweaving of traditions and teachings as threads, especially with regards to colonial era inventions.
The 5th-century BCE scholar Pāṇini cryptically explains tantra through the example of ‘sva-tantra’ (Sanskrit: स्वतन्त्र), which he states means “independent” or a person who is his own “warp, cloth, weaver, promoter, karta (actor)”. He uses the same example of svatantra as a composite word of ‘sva’ (self) and tantra, then stating ‘svatantra’ means “one who is self-dependent, one who is his own master, the principal thing for whom is himself”.
André Padoux is professor emeritus in the research unit on Hinduism at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and the author of a number of books on tantra. He notes that there is no consensus among scholars as to which elements are characteristic for tantra, nor is there any text that contains all those elements.
This is an issue common to many industries – in which there is no common consensus on the terminology of a focus area, making the integration of perspectives and experiences more difficult. Because of the wide range of communities covered by the term, it is problematic to describe tantric practices definitively. However, there are sets of practices and elements which are shared by numerous tantric traditions, and thus a family resemblance relationship can be established among them.
According to Anthony Tribe, a scholar of Buddhist tantra, this practice shares the following features:
- Centrality of ritual, especially the worship of deities
- Centrality of mantras
- Visualisation of and identification with a deity
- Need for initiation, esotericism and secrecy
- Importance of a teacher (guru, acharya)
- Ritual use of mandalas (maṇḍala)
- Transgressive or antinomian acts
- Revaluation of the body
- Revaluation of the status and role of women
- Analogical thinking (including microcosmic or macrocosmic correlation)
- Revaluation of negative mental states
Tantric yoga is first and foremost an embodied practice, which is seen as having a divine esoteric structure. As noted by Padoux, tantric yoga makes use of a “mystic physiology” which includes various psychosomatic elements sometimes called the subtle body.
This imaginary inner structure includes chakras (wheels), nadis (channels), and energies (like Kundalini, Chandali, different pranas and vital winds). The tantric body is also held to be a microcosmic reflection of the universe, and is thus seen as containing gods and goddesses. According to Padoux, the “internalised image of the yogic body” is a fundamental element for nearly all meditative and tantric ritual practices.
The use of mantras is one of the most common and widespread elements of tantric practice. They are used in rituals as well as during various meditative and yogic practices. Mantra recitation (japa) is often practiced along with nyasa (‘depositing’ the mantra), mudras (‘seals’ i.e. hand gestures) and complex visualisations involving divine symbols, mandalas and deities. Nyasa involves touching various parts of the body while reciting mantra, which is thought to connect the deity with the yogis body and transform the body.
In the tantric traditions which do use sex as part of spiritual practice (such as the Kaulas and Tibetan Buddhism), sex and desire are often seen as a means of transcendence that is used to reach the Absolute. Thus, sex and desire are not seen as ends in themselves. Because these practices transgress orthodox Hindu ideas of ritual purity, they have often given tantra negative connotations in India, where it may be condemned by the orthodox. According to Padoux, even among the traditions which accept these practices, they are far from prominent and practiced only by a “few initiated and fully qualified adepts”.
According to Hugh Urban, a professor of religious studies at Ohio State Universities Department of Comparative Studies and author of Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religions, tantric practices are “the culmination of all Indian thought: the most radical form of spirituality and the archaic heart of aboriginal India”; Regarding it as the ideal religion for the modern era.