Can We Understand Tantra?
Contemporary American culture associates Tantra with sexuality, and indeed there does exist a “Tantric Sexual Marga” or path.
The problem, in examining an approach to a system of explicit and implicit religious ritual sexuality, is resolving current Anglo-Saxon attitudes. These attitudes tend to oscillate between puritanical outright condemnation and prurient, salacious interest in sexual Tantra.
Extreme polar views block the rational and aesthetic appreciation of Tantra and its potential for enhancement of sexual experience and relationship bonding through the divinization of psychosexual familiarity.
What is Tantra?
Tantra is a powerful substream of Hindu teachings, outside both orthodox Hinduism and the six classical schools of Indian philosophy, but non-the-less, deeply embedded in the matrix of Hinduism.
By the end of the 19th century Western scholars were quite aware of Tantra. Consider the following definition:
“Warp-loom, essential part, main point, model, type, system, framework, principal action keeping up a family, propagation, doctrine, rule, theory, class of works teaching magical and mystical formularies mostly in the form of dialogues between Shiva and Shakti.
Tantra treats five subjects: 1-creation; 2-destruction (of worlds); 3-worship of Goddesses; 4-attainment of all objects; 5-the four modes of union with the supreme by meditation.
Strings of the heart: Any tubular vessel of the body, a girl with peculiar qualities.” – Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Sir M Monier Williams, Oxford Press 1899.
Not bad for nearly a hundred years ago. You probably believe no one, outside India, attempted to practice or integrate Tantra? In 1906 the “Tantrik Order In America” was publishing the “International Journal Tantrik Order”, Vira Sadhana, American Edition, Supply Depots, Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans; Tantrik Press, New York. This is a lush 200 page journal, with a cover in rich red, gold and black, full of translations of Tantric texts and articles eulogizing love.
Currently there is no major dictionary which does not contain the word Tantra, and often Tantric, or Tantrism. For a succinct explanation let us sample the “Random House Dictionary of the English Language” 1987:
“Regarding the world as the creative dance or play of the divine mother and regarding enlightenment as the realization of the essential oneness of one’s self, and of the visible world, with Shiva-Shakti.”
What is the Goal of Tantra?
Tantric practices seek illumination through the unification of quintessential polarities inherent in the world and one’s self.
These opposites are symbolically subsumed as Shiva and Shakti or consciousness and energy, personified as male and female.
Shiva represents universal consciousness diffused throughout the galaxies, while Shakti, divine mother, is the power swinging in a celestial dance, between energy and matter, giving birth to all creation, both TANgible and TRANscendent.
Two paths are available in Tantric philosophy. The first path is called Dakshina Marga or the “right-hand path” which means the individual practices meditations designed to unite Shiva and Shakti forces within his own body and without recourse to a partner.
The second path is “Vama Marga” or the “left-hand” way, and it is this way that is sometimes termed “sacred sex” or sexual Tantra. The couple, with their “coupling” worship each other as incarnations, or murtis (forms), of Shiva and Shakti, and the Shakti is the dominant psychic energy that, with worship, can lift them beyond mundane connecting to an ultra-dimensional realm of ego-loss.
Tantra is the yoga of lingam and yoni, shiva and shakti, wand and cup, spine and skull, wafer and wine, candle and bell.
In India they have a saying; “Shiva without Shakti is a corpse” and indeed Shakti, or Kali, is often depicted dancing upon Shiva’s supine, inert body. This aphorism emphasizes that Shakti is pre-eminent; the bestower of life, her body a literal manifestation of the physical boundaries of a temple and to enter her is to perform the “mass” in the interior “sanctum sanctorium” depths of her being.
Indian numerology utilizes the equivalent of “temura” (anagrams), as in the Hebrew kabala, to demonstrate Shakti’s power. Shiva’s unique quality comes from the “i” vowel and when Shakti “repossesses her “i” the inherent “a” in Shiva’s “H” consonant emerges making “shava” which in Sanskrit means “Corpse”.
SHIVA – I + A = SHAVA = “corpse”
What is Special About Tantra?
To understand what is so special about Tantra we have to consider Hinduism, the soil in which Tantra flowered. A foreign culture, such as Hindu, may seem too exotic; consequently our tendency may be to dismiss the possibility that we can learn anything relevant to a Western capitalist society. Hinduism represents a pan-cultural phenomenon that conjoins the deepest roots of Hermetic, Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy. Thousands of years ago the Hindus formulated concepts that are cognate with contemporary quantum physics. Indian philosophy is a current, living, active stream of teaching at a time that our civilization no longer values such studies.
Consider the following two statements:
“NOTHING MATTERS” versus “EVERYTHING MATTERS”
Both statements are true – depending on the context.
Our Western attitude, at a superficial level, favors “nothing matters” – except the pursuit of wealth and power; consumerism has become almost the sole object and goal of life. Our way of living reinforced by relentless media bombardment, moulds us as voracious, bipedal eaters of “goods and chattels”. We all are also “sellers”, of either goods or services, so we can maintain our role as “customers”.
This is a generalization and, in moderation, capitalism is not necessarily such a bad thing; the problem is we have become so extreme in the pursuit of materialism.
In Hinduism, the achievement of physical security (Artha) is but one of four responsibilities, or “Chatars” enjoined upon each Hindu; the other three are Dharma, Kama and Moksha. These are respectively; duty to ancestors, parents, children and society (Dharma); the pursuit of emotional satisfaction (Kama); contemplative meditation leading to self-realisation (Moksha).
At first consideration you may think these four aims are not very special; indeed, if you considered America a primarily Christian society, you may believe that this is just what Western Christian countries are about. The difficulty is, as we have “modernized”, we are using the pursuit of physical security (Artha) as a tool for achieving the other three aims – and this just doesn’t work!
Poverty is evident in India but not impoverishment of the being – nor is to be poor in India synonymous with destitution and decadence. The Pujas, (rituals of Hinduism) sustain each individual’s dignity and ensure a meaningful existence within the whole – good “old fashioned values” that we have lost in a sea of technology and economic obsession. Do not misunderstand me as implying India does not have problems – they certainly have, but they are all fixable. Perhaps our problems are not fixable!
We could, at this point, remind ourselves of the implications of Carl Sagan’s statement; “matter is mostly NOTHING” ie. empty space between sub-atomic particles which engage in a process of accretion to form matter and eventually disengage to do it all over again, “life after life”!.
When we understand “matter is mostly nothing” we can begin to approach the attitude characteristic of the Indus Valley civilization. Indian philosophy teaches that manifestation is Maya, or illusion; a beguiling cosmic dance which has the potential to delude us and enmesh the beholder.
Restating this from the perspective of quantum physics; someone said “there are no nouns” i.e. a person, place or thing lacks substantial reality and is but a twinkling atomic dance possessing only the facade of solidarity. That makes us all “nobody”.
At this point you may this is suggesting relinquishing all aspects of materialism as an antidote for the psychological and spiritual malaise decomposing the fabric of Anglo-Saxon heritage. Not at all, Tantra is known as the way of the hero (Vira) who neither rejects nor fears any aspect of life. In Tantra we seek freedom (Moksha) through living and experiencing life and not through escape.
You may also feel this is an exaggeration of the current social disintegration. Well, consider the following international statistics: Australia (population roughly 18 million) has the highest rate of youth suicide in the industrialized world. (Australia does not even make the “big seven” industrial powers)
America (population 280 million plus) has the highest rate of homicide in the industrialized world. We are talking the foremost member of the ‘Big Seven’ when we mention USA).
This is not an accusation about countries, it is a comment about social pressures that emerge from our way of life – we have not got the “Answer”!
India (population approaching 1 billion) has, along with Japan, the lowest rate of homicide, suicide and crimes of violence of any democratic and/or industrialized country – in spite of the horror stories you read about India and several very nasty on-going civil wars. The miracle of India is not how bad things are – rather how well the country runs!
Don’t believe it? Check out the U.N. and international statistics.
Discovering what is special about Tantra involves a 180 degrees turn-about in perspective.
We started this question of what is special about Tantra by juxtaposing two statements; “nothing matters” versus “everything matters”. In Hinduism, and therefore Tantra, everything matters.
The cultural constitutive system of Indian society is based solidly upon the axiom that there is a reason for everything (seen or unseen) and everything is for a reason (karma).
All activity has distinct beginnings (oblations) and endings (celebrations) producing a deep sense of wholeness, completeness and integration.
Even more important than the priest is the Jyotishi (astrologer). These pundits of Jyotish (literally “lords of light”), both male and female, are consulted for everything; births, marriages, medical prognosis, journeys, business enterprises, political decisions, purchase of homes, career, building projects and propitious times for religious ceremonies and puja.
The result is a collective community imbued with a sense of meaning, purpose, and connectiveness that extends, from the organic ebb and flow of the earth’s rhythms to the constellations.
In no other country is there this atonement with nature so strongly. Not for the Hindu is the Western “existential angst”; and all because “everything matters” is the dominant proclivity, while “nothing matters” is a special by-product of enlightenment, freeing, the individual from the delusion of apparent physicality.
What is so special about Tantra? In answer, and extract the essence is:
Money is a MEANS and not an END; a SHROUD has no POCKETS!
Reducing everything to a commercial enterprise ensures dehumanization and guarantees a destructive cultural ethos, in which “nothing matters”.
Western society has not only lost perspective through wallowing in a commercial swamp but something else has happened to us – at least in the English-speaking world.
As we topple into the 21st century we are losing the sense of ‘awe-fullness’ (full of awe) and wonderfulness (full of wonder) when we interact as men and women. Will men be reduced to redundant draft horses, and women merely dull, asexual breeding animals? Is this what humans really want and it was not always so!
“The nakedness of woman is the creation of God.” – William Blake 1757-1827 A.D.
And who holds the alchemical power balance to remedy this situation?
“The operation, as the ancients say, is in truth convenient for women” – Basil Valentine ca. 1500 A.D.
Look at the dichotomy inherent in the two statements; ‘Nothing matters’ versus ‘Every thing matters’. This is the essence of understanding the full implications of Tantra as a vitalistic philosophy.
Love can be defined as profound interest. When you understand that love is profound interest, it spontaneously and naturally follows that ‘everything matters’. This is precisely what awareness of Tantric aesthetics can contribute to Westerners; the restoration of sexual sanctification into relationships, and a re-accepting of ‘love’ as a profound religious state, that reaches beyond mere biochemical anomalies and hormonal fluxes.
What is special about Tantra is the new horizons that can be opened, virtual windows of opportunity, when we realize everything matters in a relationship.