Why Tantra Isn’t What you Think It Is

When discussing Tantra, many immediately think of tantric sex. But Tantra is so much more than that. Tantra is an ancient spiritual path that turns into a self-development system in which the human body is seen as a microcosm of the universe. In Tantra, there is no distinction between pure and impure and no difference between the self and the divine. Tantra shatters the cultural conditions of the mind and ego-led emotions such as hate and fear. Instead, it adopts a non-discriminating attitude that breaks taboos. Tantra is both a lived experience and science that people can use to bring out their inherent spiritual power.

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The History of Tantra

Tantric philosophy dates back to first-century India. The word is coined from the word tan which means to weave or compose. Originally, Tantra is an instructional text, often a dialogue between a goddess and a god. After the breakdown of two major dynasties, Guptas and Vakatakas, the popularity of Tantra rose, simultaneously with the rise of new kingdoms, across the land. At this time arts flourished and Tantra goddesses were depicted everywhere.

Tantric god Bhairava, was worshiped by early tantric practitioners called Tantrikas. They mimicked his anarchic appearance, to obtain his power. Many rulers worshiped Bhairava as well because they believed that this would strengthen their political positions. The practice accepts people of all social backgrounds. Since it challenged the caste system Tantra has become particularly appealing to women and marginalised groups. Among early followers was a poet called Karaikkal Ammaiyar, who left her role of obedient wife to become a Tantrikas. 

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Join our online talk Tantra: Art, Science & Sexual Rituals

Tantra Practice and Worldview

The Tantric worldview believes that all material reality is made by the feminine power of Shakti, which led to the sudden rise of goddesses worshiping in medieval India. Shakti epitomized the tension between maternal and catastrophic. But this isn’t the only goddess Indians worshiped. Yoginis goddesses, which could change shape and turn into women, tigers, or other animals, were also highly revered. Many Tantrikas wanted to obtain their powers to take control over others. Apart from immortality, these goddesses could protect from epidemics and enemies, and even help gain new territories. 

In Tantric philosophy, the human body is visualised as a microcosm of the universe. The whole body becomes an instrument through which the cosmic power reveals itself. Through biological and psychological processes our entire body becomes Yantra. Since everything that exists within one human body also exists in the universe, by studying the human body and by searching the truth within, we’ll be able to better understand the universe. 

Tantric Yoga

One of more popular tantric practices is tantric yoga also known as hatha yoga roughly translated to “yoga of force”. The practice employs complex poses and muscular contraction to manage breathing. While practicing the practitioners are visualising an individual source of Shakti, at the base of the spine. Around the spine, a network of energy is located known as chakras. Every chakra has a deity, and together they create the yogic body. The individual source of Shakti, a divine feminine power, surges like a current, filling chakras thus transforming the world through the body rather than transcending it. 

Page from Hatha yoga manuscript depicting the ‘yogic body’. India, early 19th century.
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Page from Hatha yoga manuscript depicting the ‘yogic body’. India, early 19th century via The British Museum

Tantric Sex

Tantric sex represents the merging of souls, as sex awakens a powerful source of energy that can be used for spiritual growth. In Tantra sex, awareness represents the most powerful aphrodisiacs. By being present and aware, the partners tune into their natural sexual vitality and awaken the wisdom of the body on an inner level. In Western traditions, Tantra is often reduced to ritualised sex alone, a misconception dating back to the 19th century. Tantric sex aims to use sexual energy to reach the altered state of conciseness.

Orgasm isn’t necessarily a goal of tantric sex. By controlling sexual energy a couple can go to a higher plane of awareness and spirituality. In Tantra, sex is sacred, and not something you should hide or be ashamed of. While many traditions, shy away from eye contact during sex, in tantric sex lovers gaze into each other eyes as it is believed that the eyes are gateways to the souls. Synchronisation of the breath, takes sex to another level, by combining life forces and enhancing the feeling of togetherness.

Tantra and Art

Tantra has influenced art in a multitude of ways. Ancient Tantra temples are full of sculptures representing goddesses and gods that Tantracis worship. Many Tantra temples featured circular and roofless designs, with numerous sculptures of goddesses and gods incorporated into the walls. After the independence of India and Pakistan, the artists rediscovered pre-colonial traditions which they mixed with modern art genres. For example, many made images reflecting on social inclusivity and spiritual freedom.

In the 1970s, a Neo-Tantra movement in art was launched, mixing Tantric symbols and visual language of global modernism, especially the practice of Abstract Expressionism. Even in today’s world Tantra continues to inspire. British-Bengali artist Sutapa Biswas’ art piece Housewives with Steak-knives, for instance, is inspired by the story of the above-mentioned Karaikkal Ammaiyar who dropped her housewife life to become a Tantra follower.

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Mahirwan Mamtani via Sotheby’s

Debunking the Misconceptions about Tantra 

If you want to learn more about Tantra, spanning beyond the Western theory of sin, make sure to visit our upcoming event. Tantra: Art, Science & Sexual Rituals an all-encompassing lecture about the history, meaning, and misconceptions about Tantra. During an hour-long talk our guest lecturer Aditi Kumar, an art historian, curator, and cultural practitioner, will demystify the philosophy of Tantra. Join us to explore the vitality and diversity of the ancient practice and gain a deeper understanding of the traditions. 

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