Fifty Shades of Tantra

Tantra is a body of esoteric knowledge that emerged in the Kashmir of the 9th century and whose only purpose is to promote the direct experience of one’s divine nature. Unlike other belief systems originating in the Indian subcontinent, Tantra challenges the dismissal of the manifested world as an illusion. If you regard the physical world as a trap, you will want to avoid its lures by leading a monastic life: this is for example what Vedanta advocates, encouraging disciples to spurn everyday concerns. Tantrikas, instead, are proud householders: they are not afraid to live in the world, because the world with its challenges is their path to non-dual awareness. There is a place, on this path, for aesthetic, sensuous pleasures as a lesser goal in the life of the practitioner—one that is always subordinated and instrumental to the effort to achieve self-realization.

Now brace for the surprise: Classical Tantra never contemplated “great sex” as its purpose. The equation of tantra with sex originates from 19th century European ideology and its binary distinction between white “civilization” and a “barbarism” that included the rest of the world. Basically, while Europeans regarded themselves as “rational,” they attributed qualities like “superstition” and “unrestrained sexuality” to their colonial subjects. The implicit goal of this set of representations was to provide a moral justification for colonization: this is how the brutal exploitation of non-white people all over the world could be hailed by its perpetrators as the “white man’s burden.”

Writes historian Hugh Urban that, upon realizing that some Tantrikas practiced sexual rituals, British colonizers in 19th century India issued a moral condemnation of their subjects’ “primitive” mores. However, this repulsion was secretly laced with the envy for the alleged sexual freedom of the colonized—a freedom that repressed Victorian subjects felt they had lost to their own “civilization.” In this typical colonial worldview, the non-white Others were attributed all those qualities that Westerners had supposedly sacrificed to modernity; among these, sensuality was the most coveted one. It bears reiterating that these were all projections that, emerging from the colonizers’ own fantasies, had little to do with the colonized or their actual spiritual practices.

Fast forward to the 20th century, and you will find white, Anglo-Saxon Westerners practicing their own version of sacred sex. Known as Neotantra or Californian Tantra, this new discipline is a type of cultural appropriation that does not even gesture towards acknowledging the original Tantra. Instead of pursuing the realization of non-dual awareness, Western Tantra promises pleasure to those who are not satisfied with their sex lives. What Neotantra gurus have done is to reproduce a colonial worldview whereby Westerners indulge their own urges by appropriating and distorting what is, or has been, most sacred to a non-white people.

Did the original Tantra ever entail sexual rituals? Yes, it certainly did—though these practices are nothing like what prurient Neotantrikas like to imagine. For one, they were just one component of a much wider set of practices; since they were not necessary, most Tantrikas did not even bother with them. Most importantly, the goal of Tantrik ritual sex was never enjoyment. Unlike Western hedonists, Kashmiri Tantrikas sought out sexual partners to whom they did not feel attracted: in this context, intercourse was exclusively meant to awaken the practitioners’ kundalini.

Hence, if you want to add “great sex” to your karmic repertoire, by all means do so: it will be good for your mood. However, do not think even for a moment that sexual practices are either Tantrik or necessary for spiritual pursuits; in fact, they usually lead practitioners astray.

On the other hand, if you are really bent on using sexual energy to bring prana into your sushumna (the central channel in your spine), you are better off avoiding the distractions of Neotantra. You do not need elaborate eroticism, nor do you need a partner. At the most basic level, all you have to do is to cultivate your energy by refraining from sexual contact; also, keep practicing mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, and jalandhara bandha to propel the prana upward. Be persistent; once all the conditions are met, Shakti may bestow her grace upon you.

Find out more about the history of Tantra in Hugh Urban’s book Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion. If you want to learn about the actual Tantra, I recommend Christopher Wallis’ Tantra Illuminated or David Frawley’s Inner Tantric Yoga. Frawley’s book is quite accessible; Wallis’ book is one of the best on the topic, but it has a more academic approach–your pick!

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Image by Fares Nimri via Unsplash

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