When we think about Tantra, we probably think about Sting having long-winded sex. (I know. Sorry).
This is because in the West, we tend to interpret the word Tantra to mean something esoteric involving sexual marathons, if we think about Tantra at all.
The reality is that we have little idea about what it means, what it is, or where it originates. Our Western misconceptions comes initially from mistranslations of sacred texts in colonial times, and more recently from a 1971 exhibition in London’s Hayward Gallery titled, which presented Tantra as primarily a sex thing.
“It’s not a cult of ecstasy,” Dr Imma Ramos tells me. “Nor is it a free love movement.” Dr Ramos is the curator of a major new exhibition at the British Museum,, which she describes as a “reappraisal” of the 1971 show.
The exhibition traces the roots of Tantric philosophy from the temples of medieval India — with a wealth of sacred artefacts on display — to its adoption by Western counterculture in the Sixties. And how it directly inspired the Rolling Stones’ red tongue logo.
So what is it, exactly? “Tantra is an Indian philosophy which affirms all aspects of the material world with divine feminine power,” says Dr Ramos. It differs from other spiritual philosophies in that it elevates the feminine from what Ramos terms “passive and docile” to something fierce and powerful. Within the Tantric worldview, she says, this divine feminine power — known as Shakti — pervades the material world and can be ritually channelled and internalised to reach a spiritually enlightened state. It radically challenges gender norms prevalent in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity.
The yoni — the vagina, which translates as ‘sacred place’ in Sanskrit — is venerated in Tantra, and menstrual blood regarded as sacred and powerful; sculptures depict goddesses squatting open legged, not unlike ancient Celtic sheelanagigs. It’s some way from patriarchal belief systems which consider menstruation ‘unclean’, and prefer passive representations of the feminine, such as the Virgin Mary.
Instead, Tantra has Kali — a fearsome Hindu goddess, who wears a necklace of severed human heads; she brandishes a machete, and sticks her tongue out, like a Maori doing the Haka.
Mick Jagger, who produced a 40 minute art film about Tantra in 1969, was so taken with Kali that he showed her image to artist John Pasche, who zoomed in on the protruding tongue, and came up with the iconic Stones logo for their 1971 Sticky Fingers album, embedding Kali imagery into 20th century Western culture. One of the contemporary paintings on display at the British Museum exhibition, Housewives with Steak Knives by artist Sutapa Biswas, shows Tantra’s ongoing impact on gender, with Kali depicted from a modern feminist perspective.
So what’s the sex connection? Tantric philosophy is all about this life, rather than the hereafter. Traditionally, major religions view this world is just a warm up act for the next one; Tantra, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘weave’ or ‘compose’, which first emerged in 6th century India, is all about the physical reality of now.
“It engages with aversion, disgust, fear and desire in order to transcend those states,” says Dr Ramos. “This is why erotic and macabre imagery feature prominently in Tantra.” This is where the misunderstanding arises. “The earliest translations [of Tantric teachings] into English is the 19th century colonial period were misinterpreted and misunderstood by colonial officials and missionaries,” she continues. “This went on to inform Western culture — which meant Tantra was attacked and vilified during the colonial period, and later embraced by Sixties counterculture.”
Sex portrayed in Tantra is symbolic of the coming together of wisdom and compassion inside the body — but to the untrained eye, it just looks like sex. Hence the colonial mistranslations. Equally, depictions of violence – machete-wielding goddesses like Kali or Chamunda standing astride dead bodies — represent dissolution of the ego, rather than actual murder.
“When you see images of Tantric deities with weapons, the swords are often symbols of wisdom, the corpses symbols of ego,” says Dr Ramos. Colonials, however, assumed it all to be about the erotic and the demonic — even in contemporary India, Tantric imagery can pop up in Hindi horror movies, a leftover from colonial times.
Leora Lightwoman, a current Tantric practitioner who runs workshops for singles and couples, is the author of. Her book explains how Tantra is a set of tools which can be used for greater understanding of the self, leading to greater connection with others. “It is not a variety of kinky sex,” she writes. “It does not involve candlelit orgies or wife-swapping parties. Tantric techniques, in and of themselves, will not transform you into a super-lover, unless you are willing to change from the inside out.” It is as much about solitary silent meditation as anything else; it is “the art and science of energy.” Chakras — the body’s seven centres of spiritual energy, known as chi in Chinese medicine – play a significant role.
It’s the radical nature of Tantra which has made it so compelling over the centuries. From its initial inception in India on the margins of medieval society to its eventual spread across Asia, it had become mainstream by the 9th and 10th centuries, adopted by Buddhism and Hinduism, so that today the Buddhism practiced in Tibet and Bhutan is Tantric Buddhism.
“It is linked to two significant anti-establishment movements,” says Dr Ramos. Firstly, the use of Kali’s image by 19th century Indian revolutionaries, who knew that their colonial rulers thought the goddess “demonic and lascivious”, and wished to harness their fears. Later, in the mid 20th century, Tantra was embraced by the Western anti-capitalist free-love fledgling environmental movement – in other words, the hippies. The hippies loved Tantra.
Because Tantra has always been about social inclusivity and spiritual freedom, it perfectly suited the psychedelic Sixties. As well as the Neo-Tantra movement spreading across South Asia around the same time, it offered the West, according to 20th century British philosopher Alan Watts, “a marvellous and welcome corrective to certain excesses of Western civilization.”
By the Seventies, Tantra equated with social and political as well as spiritual freedom, “an antidote to the stranglehold of consumerist values over Western society,” says Dr Ramos, and embraced by counterculture giants like Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary as well as jazz musicians John Coltrane and Don Cherry. It popped up in psychedelic posters from London to San Francisco, inspired contemporary art, and informed the radical politics of the day. This came from its radical origins in 6th century India of availability and accessibility to all, male and female, from outcasts to royalty. From its very inception, it bypassed traditional hierarchies.
“Tantric rituals emerged that directly broke all of the major taboos in Hinduism, in order to liberate the energy locked away in a rigid mindset,” writes Leora Lightwoman. “By breaking out of perceived limitations of behaviour, the mind was given a wider vantage point for viewing reality.” She adds how it is a myth that Tantra is just about sex: sex is “only one expression of a wide-ranging panoply of meditations, guided by a realistic and beautiful attitude to life and spiritual practice.”
“The emphasis in the West is still very focused on sex,” concludes Dr Ramos. “What’s often forgotten is that it is first and foremost a philosophy.”
- Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution, Sept 24 2020 – Jan 24 2021, British Museum