‘The Context of Tantra’
Paper presented by
Rev. Dr. John Dupuche
MCD University of Divinity, Australian Catholic University Catholic Interfaith Committee (chair) firstname.lastname@example.org
Interfaith Conference on Classical Tantra in the World’s Religions
14-15 November, 2105
Janssen Spirituality Centre,
22 Woodvale Road Boronia Vic, 3155
Why have this conference, the first of its kind in Australia, and perhaps anywhere?
The term ‘tantra’ carries such connotations, which are well known, that it can hardly be mentioned in public. Yet, Rev. Prof. Frank Clooney sj from Harvard, who was in Melbourne in July / August 2015 presented a paper entitled ‘The Via Pulchritudinis as a Two-Way Path’ in which he discusses the Saundarya Lahari, (‘Flood of Beauty’) a fully tantric text on the goddess. There is a developing interest in a field that was once unmentionable.
The embarrassment comes from the fact that according to Hugh Urban
“… instead of the ideal of unity, order, or harmony, the late-capitalist aesthetic is one of physical intensity, shock value, immediate gratification, and ecstatic experience”1
Georg Feuerstein calls it “California Tantra,” which, he says, is
“based on a profound misunderstanding of the Tantric path. Their main error is to confuse Tantric bliss … with ordinary orgasmic pleasure.”2
1 Hugh B. Urban. Tantra. Sex, Secrecy Politics and Power in the Study of Religions, Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. p. 255. This presentation is significantly indebted to this work.
2 Urban, Tantra, p. 205.
For many Americans tantra is essentially spiritual sex, the art of prolonging and intensifying the sexual act.
Nevertheless many attach great store to the celebration of the body and sexual pleasure – the ‘cult of ecstasy’ – in contrast to the inhibitions of previous generations. Tantra is seen by many to be the highest form of religion for the West, perfect for late capitalism.
This Westernization of tantra has been an impoverishment. This conference wishes to restore its fullness to the term.
The flyer to conference speaks about the bliss that arises from the union of opposites. What is the connection of bliss with blessedness, ecstasy, joy, consciousness, truth, and presence? The various religious traditions of this conference will try to explore what this is. If happiness is the right of every human being, as the US Constitution claims, what is it? How does it differ from mere comfort and contentment, and the American dream of the quarter acre block, the house, wife, a job, a car and two children? The idea of happiness in no small measure determines the laws and policies of any human endeavour. How do we imagine our future? Is the woman a mere tool?
The flyer speaks of opposites. If tantra can be defined as the union of opposites, what are these opposites? How extreme are they, how disconcerting, how bewildering? What are the greatest opposites, what is their closest union?
What are transcendence and immanence, emptiness and plenitude, male and female, light and darkness, beauty and horror, good and evil, strength and weakness, purity and impurity, human and divine, life and death? How are they experienced and not just understood? Do we want to experience them anyway? Do we really want to enter the tantric world? Would we rather just remain comfortably in our corner with our cakes and a cuppa?
If these opposites unite, how do they? How do the various paradoxes relate to each other? How can good and evil be reconciled? How can there be beauty in horror? The gulf between human and divine, can it be bridged? There is great peace in reconciling opposites. This peace is at the heart of tantra.
Paradox is at the center of tantra, for now the mind ceases to function in any meaningful way, for it can no longer organize and categorise. The person soars above divisive concepts and reaches an altogether different state of mind. What is this state? What is the mind beyond mind? What is that knowledge beyond all understanding? This conference seeks to explore that place of wonder also.
From paradox there comes an experience of energy and freedom. The person is freed from the constraints of concepts, and having reached the state beyond mind experiences energy and soars high. An energy, which is uncontrollable, spontaneous, and indefinable, is experienced.
The contrast of male and female has its important place in these series of contrasting elements? How dominant should it be? Has it become excessively dominant?
One reaction has been to dismiss tantra as gross error or immature fantasy. Another is to acknowledge a profound change in mentality, one might almost say a sea change in attitudes to body, intimacy and cosmos. What contribution can the various religions make to this shift in consciousness? That is the question put to this conference and to which all are invited to contribute their response.
There is a certain value in tracing the history of the term ‘tantra’ which is the key term of this conference. This opening address will present three stages of tantra: the meaning of tantra in the earlier periods of Indian history; the attitudes to tantra under the British Raj, and the modern development of what some call ‘Californian tantra’.
PART I the earlier periods of Indian history
Modern practitioners of tantra seek confirmation of their approach by referring to ancient and venerable traditions that arose in the Indian sub-continent. It is relevant therefore to look briefly at this period.
When the European orientalists first discovered tantra they were horrified. It was considered to be the most degenerate and corrupt form of Hinduism. Tantra was something “too abominable to enter the ears of man and impossible to reveal to a Christian public,” or simply “an array of magic rites drawn from the most ignorant and stupid classes.”3
The word ‘tantra’
The word ‘tantra’ consists of two parts, ‘tan’ and ‘tra’. The root TAN means ‘to weave or to stretch’. It is the basis of a key word in the cosmogonic hymn in the Rig Veda (RV 1:0.90) which describes the Primal Man, the purusha, being spread [atanvataJ out to form the universe just a thread is spun and woven into fabric. TRA is a simple suffix, which almost always defines the means of doing something. For example, from the root NAY (to lead) is developed the form netra ‘the means of leading’, therefore, the ‘eye’. Man-tra is ‘that which leads the mind’ (manas), therefore a ‘word for recitation’.
The meaning of the term tantra grows to include almost anything, from ‘an army, a row, a number or series” (BP IO.54.I5), to a magical device or a diagram, to “a drug or chief remedy.'”4
The word ‘tantrika’
3 Urban, Tantra, 2.
4 Urban, Tantra, 26.
The word tantrika is used in opposition to vaidika. Kulluka Bhatta’s commentary on The Laws of Manu, states, “revelation [sruti] is twofold, vaidika and tantrika.”5 But no further meaning is given to the word. The term tantrika seems to refer to whatever does not pertain to the Vedic texts. The implication is that the tantric texts have their own authority.
‘Tantra’ meaning ‘text’
The earliest reference to a text called a tantra is found in Banabhatta’s classic fantasy tale, Kadambari (7th cent. CE), which makes fun of a comical old sadhu who worships the fearsome goddess Candikā and, although he has taken the vow of celibacy, uses potions and powders to excite the old female ascetics. The old sadhu has a collection of texts called ‘tantra’, but no indication is given of what these might be.
The first concrete evidence is found only in the 9th century, in Cambodia, in the form of an inscription, which states that the royal cult of King Jayavarman II was based on the doctrine of four tantras, the Sirascbeda, Nayottara, Sammohana, and Vīṇāśikha Tantras, of which only the last survives.6
‘Tantra’ as a concept
Later texts of the Śaiva and Śākta schools do start to give a hint as to the meaning. The Kamika Agama states:
“It is called ‘tantra’ because it promulgates great knowledge concerning truth and mantra, and because it saves”. (tanoti vipulān arthāṃs tattvamantrasamāśritān/trāṇnaṃca kurute yasmāt tantram ityabhidhīyate).7
But there is no tantric tradition as such. One belongs to a tradition such as Śaiva or Śākta or Vaishnava etc.
Abhinavagupta c. 1000 CE in his great work, The Light on the Tantras (Tantrāloka), surveys the various texts called ‘tantras’ and declares that his system, the Trika, contains the essence of all the others but he gives no definition of tantra. Nevertheless he contrasts ‘tantric practice’ (tantraprakriyā) and ‘Kula practice’ (kulaprakriyā) which is considered to be the higher path. For him the term ‘tantra’ refers to the more conservative monistic Śaiva tradition, while Kula is used for the more radical and transgressive tradition.
Thus, André Padoux, the noted French scholar, concludes surprisingly that a path that is “more exoteric [is] … less ‘tantric'”8
In short, tantra cannot be defined, despite the attempts of Goudriaan and Gupta and Padoux. There is no monothetic definition of tantra, but rather a “polythetic
5 Urban, Tantra, 27.
6 Urban, Tantra, 29.
7 Urban, Tantra, 32.
8 Urban, Tantra, 35.
classification,”9 in which a large number of characteristics are possessed by a large number of class members.
PART II the attitudes to tantra under the British Raj
The category of Hinduism is a fabrication of the Western mind, which did not appreciate the diversity of Indian religious belief and practice. Similarly the word ‘tantrism’ is largely an invention of 19th century scholars who tried to classify the unclassifiable.10
In keeping with the process of Orientalizing described by Edward W. Said, the West imputed to tantrism its own darkest desires. What the West did not dare to admit in its own self it projected into the Orient. In this way it could openly reject what it secretly wanted. Orientalism catered for the prudery of the Victorian mentality, which far from being detached from sexuality was totally obsessed by it.
Sir Monier Monier-Williams was the first to coin the word ‘tantrism’ as a class, which he identifies with Shaktism, the worship of the goddess. In his mind, the classic beauty of the Vedas had become the licentiousness of the tantras. He states bluntly: “In tantrism or saktism Hinduism arrived at its last and worst stage of medieval development.”11
Wild fantasies spread round England about the licentiousness of India, sometimes in the form of novels. In 1870 Sir Richard Burton, one of the first translators of the Kama Sutra, published a novel with the lurid title Vikram and the Vampire or Tales of Hindu Devilry which was loosely based on a collection of Indian folk tales. His rendition involves a hunchback who abandons the requirements of orthodox Hinduism and engages in obscene rituals with women, wine and corpses. The hunchback hopes to conquer the senses by indulging them to the full.
As a result tantra and the ars erotica of the Kama Sutra would be become virtually synonymous in the Western mind. In the febrile Victorian imagination they were intimately associated.
Ironically many Hindu reformers in the 19th cent CE took on this idea of a corrupt Hinduism. For example, Vivekananda regrets the crippling effects of tantra on the purity of the Vedas, but locates its origin not in India but in the lands of Central Asia, and the licentiousness of the Buddhists of Tibet. His Advaita Vedanta was presented as the summit of all religions, Christianity included.
9 Urban, Tantra, 6, a term used by Jonathan Z. Smith.
10 Urban, Tantra, 2.
11 Urban, Tantra, 46.
The scene shifts again, and the violence of the goddess Kālī, whom many tantrics worshipped especially in the area of India around Kolkata, was invoked by the radical nationalists in their fight against the demonic British.
For others like Aurobindo (1872-1960), the goddess Kālī was reimagined in different terms, not as the terrible power of an awakening nationalist consciousness but as the pure embodiment of a land of culture and art and true religion. She was Mā Kālī, Mother Kālī.
In short, ‘tantra’ during the British Raj was protean in its constantly changing forms.
PART III modern developments
Pierre Bernard (1875-1955) went to India to learn the secrets of tantra, as described in the novels of the Victorian era, and returned to the USA to found the first Tantric Order in 1906. He was one of the first to reinterpret tantra as concerned above all with the pleasure of sex. In sexual love,
“he saw the greatest hope for the regeneration of the world, the key to personal fulfillment as well as social transformation and the basis of a non-repressive civilization.”12
More reputable authors saw value in tantra thus conceived. Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943), for example, saw it as an antidote to the life-denying, cerebral emphasis of the West. Tantra for him was the true redemptive force, allowing the human being to become divine, and establish harmony between body, sex and the cosmos. Like Heinrich Zimmer, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) held that tantra provided the solution to the problems of the West.
Ironically these views were reappropriated by Hindus themselves, such as Osho- Rajneesh, and Swami Muktananda. Rajneesh enjoyed huge success for a while, promising total freedom and instant divinization along with unbridled sexual enjoyment. He said,
“Ecstasy is your very nature. You are truth. You are love. You are freedom …. You are already there …. If you can stop all doing for a single moment the energy converges and explodes …. Then you become a god.”13
Muktananda followed in the same line, drawing naive young women into esoteric ritual practices.
New Age made much use of these developments. They identified humanity and divinity, sensuality and spiritualty, this-worldly enjoyment and heavenly bliss. Neo-tantra becomes the one of the religions of the Age of Aquarius and was seen as radically opposed to Christianity.
12 Urban, Tantra, 217.
13 Urban, Tantra, 241.
The word ‘tantra’ has a Sanskrit origin, and the modern usage of the term has derived above all from Hindu and Buddhist sources originating in South Asia. Why then this conference, which brings together religious traditions that derive from West Asia and East Asia as well? Are we going to make one big stew, mixing and gathering as the fancy takes us? Clearly not! Although the word ‘tantra’ derives from South Asia, its questions are universal. Paradox and bliss, the union of opposites, the place of sexuality and relationship, the issue of pure and impure, the nature of human destiny: these are matters that all religions consider. Tantra is in fact not essentially Hindu or Buddhist. It is found in different terms in all religions. Yet, the various traditions are challenged as they come in contact with each other on this complex topic. Is the challenge unsettling; is it helpful? The presenters themselves may feel this challenge. Religions can no longer ignore each other. They can no longer ignore the tantric elements that are found in themselves, though perhaps not so explicitly. Here are treasures waiting to be discovered. This conference is not engaged in ‘comparative religion’. The work of comparing religions has its place, but this conference is taking another tack. It is asking in what ways does another tradition bring light to bear on the hidden elements of one’s one tradition. This approach is called ‘comparative theology’, and is defined simply as
“… acts of faith seeking understanding which are rooted in a particular faith tradition but which, from that foundation, venture into learning from one or more other faith traditions.”14
This conference invites participants to be open to new ideas and also to bring their critical faculties to bear. We are not naïve. We are not going to abandon our own traditions in order to form some sort of super-tantra, but to perceive more clearly the truth of our own tradition by contemplating that of another. It is a question of light shedding light upon light. It is hoped that in this way we will help fulfill the hopes of the modern world.
The variety of religious traditions is itself a paradox, and their union will take place not on a mental level but on the spiritual level, the level beyond mind, in the spirit from which all derives. This conference by its very nature is tantric in the truest sense.
14 Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology; Deep Learning Across Religious Borders. Chichester UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 10.