It was close to midnight and I was soaking in an oval-shaped pool filled with bubbling hot water fed by an underground thermal spring. Sitting beside me were Mary, a sinewy Vietnamese woman in her twenties, and her partner, a stocky American man who looked twice her age. He called himself Premananda, a moniker given to him by a Hindu priest in the holy city of Varanasi. We were perched at the edge of a sheer cliff from where we had a bird’s eye view of the pounding surf crashing against the big rocks below. The moonlight shimmered on the ripples fanning out from the waters’ edge.
The hot springs at Esalen, a “clothing optional” retreat centre, are a magnet for people who like to engage in conversations about the meaning of life while taking in the breathtaking vista. It is nestled on a flattened promontory overlooking the cerulean waters of the Pacific Ocean, situated on a spectacular stretch of the California coast called Big Sur.
In the pool, my friends were describing in florid terms a “sacred sexuality” workshop they organised to help people “rekindle the passion in their relationships and reach new heights of intimacy.” The couple had met in Bangkok at a retreat led by Mantak Chia, the author of the bestselling Taoist Secrets of Love: Cultivating Male Sexual Energy. They had also travelled together to California to learn under Tantric healers Charles Muir and Margot Anand. Anand had been a disciple of the maverick Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, later known as Osho, and has written numerous books inspired by the teachings of her guru, including the Art of Everyday Ecstasy and the Art of Sexual Magic.
As the night wore on, I could feel the combined effect of Napa Valley Chardonnay and hot vapours rising from the springs going to my head. We dried ourselves off and walked to my cottage. There we sat on the floor and held hands, gazing deeply into each other’s eyes. The American told me to synchronise my breathing with his girlfriend’s. They wanted to demonstrate a Tantric technique called the Venus Butterfly that would supposedly transform my entire body into an erogenous zone, causing the “waterfall effect”—an altered state of consciousness.
My companions were practitioners of what is known as Neotantra in new age lexicon, a bastardised form of the ancient spiritual practice of Tantra. New Age practitioners blend erotic manuals like the Kamasutra, techniques of massage, Ayurveda, yoga and Indian erotic art into a single fabricated tradition called Neotantra, which seeks to, among other things, enhance the lovemaking experience and help people achieve better orgasms.
The introduction of Neotantra in America can be attributed to Pierre Bernard, an occultist and philosopher who established the Tantrik Order of America in 1905. Known as “The Great Oom,” Bernard played a critical role in propagating the view that sex could be used as a tool to attain spiritually elevated states. The stereotype got cemented over the years through the teachings of Osho, Anand, Muir, and others.
The result is that the term “American Tantra” is now a registered trademark and is marketed as a panacea for sexually repressed westerners shaped by traditional Judeo-Christian upbringing. It is today an integral part of the burgeoning wellness industry.
Modern Tantric jargon is derived from a variety of classical Hindu and Buddhist sources. It is loaded with sexualised references to ritual worship of the divine feminine (yoni) and divine masculine (lingham), awakening Kundalini energy, activating chakras, and often mixes Jungian and Reichian psychology with yogic concepts.
Contemporary practitioners are criticised for misappropriating an indigenous tradition and exaggerating its sexual aspects for commercial gain. Popular Los Angeles-based Tantra teacher Layla Martin’s blogs leave nothing to the imagination: “5 techniques to orgasm quickly,” “3 ways to feel exquisite sensitivity inside your vagina,” and “Get BJ advice from 3 gay men” are just some of the headlines.
And it’s not just the West that is guilty. Indians are equally adept at commodifying their own traditions. In modern-day India, the term Tantra is often associated with sleazy massage parlours, tantriks promising miracle cures in the classifieds, sordid sex scandals and a popular television show about a house haunted by demonic spirits called Tantra.
Indian teachers and gurus frequently take their ideas of yoga and Tantra from the West and sell them back to earnest westerners seeking initiation into the mysteries of the East. Known as the “pizza effect,” this phenomenon refers to elements of a nation’s culture being popularised elsewhere and transformed into an unrecognisable version of the original, then re-imported back to the culture of origin to be marketed and consumed as the original.
“Tantra, it is true, involves rites of sexual intercourse and consumption of wine, but these must only be engaged in guarded esoteric contexts; in the hands of the uninitiated masses they would lead to moral ruin,” noted Indologist Hugh Urban in his essay Tantra, American Style. “The contemporary neo-tāntrika, however, takes the opposite position. Jettisoning all the old ritual trappings as outdated or irrelevant, the neo-tāntrika takes only the most expedient of these techniques, mixes them with contemporary psychology and self-help wisdom and adapts them to a consumer capitalist audience…What we see, in other words, is a clear shift in the imagining of Tantra—a shift from Tantra conceived as dangerous power and secrecy to Tantra conceived as healthy pleasure and liberated openness.”
An important Tantric text, the Kulārṇavatantra, warned of the dangers of unveiling Tantric secrets to neophytes:
What I tell you must be kept with great secrecy. This must not be given to just anyone. It must only be given to a devoted disciple. It will be death to any others. If liberation could be attained simply by having intercourse with a Śakti [female partner], then all living beings in the world would be liberated just by having intercourse with women.
So what is Tantra? The earliest mention of the term can be found in the Srauta Sutras, a pre-5th century BCE manual of ritual instructions for Vedic specialists. The opening verses of the Asvalayana Sutra used the term Tantra as “ritual framework” or “interweaving of rites.” Therefore, Tantra was nothing but ritual practice, and the early Tantras were simply instruction manuals with a minimum of the complex hermeneutics found in later commentaries.
Yoga and Tantra scholar David Gordon White offers a working definition of Tantra as “that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains the universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.”
Tantra, across traditions, was undergirded by the belief that manifest reality is ultimately beyond good and evil, and merely an expression of Shakti or divine energy. An awakened being realises this and uses his body, breath, visualisation, yantras (cosmic diagrams) and mantras (mystical phonemes) to transmute cognition and desire into a potent instrument to attain embodied liberation.
Most South Asian Tantric texts were composed in Kashmir and Nepal after the 8th century CE. But some texts go as far back as the 6th century CE and the oral tradition presumably goes back much further. Tantra proliferated in India and Tibet, spreading to South East Asia, East Asia, and Central Asia, in the process shaping many other traditions such Jainism, Sikhism, the Tibetan Bön tradition, Daoism and the Japanese Shintō tradition.
The Vamana Purana, a medieval Sanskrit text and one of the 18 major Puranas of Hinduism, tells the intriguing tale of Shiva’s father-in-law, the powerful ruler Daksha. Daksha held a big yajna, or sacrificial feast, for all the gods but deliberately did not invite Shiva as he was a Kapalin (skull-bearer) who engaged in forbidden practices. Unable to bear the insult, Shiva’s wife Sati went to the yajna and immolated herself in the sacrificial fire. The enraged Shiva invoked Bhadrakali who went on the rampage, decapitated Daksha and destroyed his kingdom.
The tale is an allegory for prevailing social attitudes towards early Shaivite sects like the Pasupatas, Kalamukhas and Kapalikas, which were considered as Veda-Bahya or existing outside of the Vedic praxis, and shunned by the priestly class for their antinomian practices.
Case in point, the Kashmiri Brahmin Jayanta Bhatta, a major proponent of the Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy in the 9th century CE, was concerned that such practices could endanger the social order by encouraging sexual relations across caste lines. He was particularly worried about an immoral Tantric cult called the Nilambharas (blue-clad), whose members had group sex in public places.
These practices were part of Vamacara or the left-handed path. Vamacarins flouted social and religious taboos, and embraced the use of alcohol, cannabis, hallucinogens, engaged in ritual sex, worshipped terrifying and violent deities, employed magic spells and incantations for spirit possession, and carried out their spiritual practice on the charnel ground or while sitting on a corpse.
The charnel ground is a metaphor for the paradigm-shifting ability of Tantric practice. Our darkest fears and deepest aversions, everything we hate, fear or despise, the dualities of sacred and profane, must be recognised as fundamentally empty of attributes and ultimately transcended.
Abhinavagupta was a Kashmiri polymath (950-1016) and author of the magisterial Tantraloka (Light on Tantra). Though he was largely known for elevating Saiva Tantra to a profoundly meditative and interiorised monistic philosophy, he did not deny its more earthy aspects. By his own testimony, Abhinavagupta attained spiritual liberation through Kaula practice under the tutelage of Guru Sambhu Natha. He received initiation through Sambhu Natha’s wife who doubled up as his dūtī, a conduit for transmission of psychosexual energy.
The duti or yogini is the female partner of the yogi and plays a vital role in his spiritual journey. In Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, she is known as Dakini, who initiates monks and was treated as equal or superior to her male counterpart, in contrast to the generally submissive role occupied by women of the era.
The Tantraloka, with its florid descriptions of exalted god-consciousness, seemed designed for the polite society of 11th century CE Kashmiri society, not very different from today’s assembly-line Hindus, for whom the ritual consumption of sexual fluids, power substances that were specific to the Kaulas, would be considered an abomination. The highly aestheticised world associated with Abhinavagupta has only a passing reference to Kaula practice. It was heavily weighted towards the more acceptable monistic Shaivism espoused by his forebears, Somananda and Utpaladeva.
“Kaula practitioners were primarily concerned with this-worldly powers (siddhis) and bodily immortality (jivanmukti), with the enjoyment (bhukti) of said powers and immortality taking precedence over any ideal of consciousness raising or disembodied liberation from cyclical rebirth (mukti), embraced by more conventional Tantric practitioners,” wrote White in Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts. “It was only by consuming the sexual fluids of the Yoginis that men could gain access to the supreme godhead and thereby obtain siddhis and transform themselves into gods.” One of the methods of absorbing the power substances involved a form of genital sex called vajroli mudra (urethral suction) by which the male partner was able, following ejaculation, to draw up into himself the sexual discharge of his female partner.
Many contemporary Hindus, especially those of Hindutva persuasion, insist that Tantra is an interiorised meditative practice, and that the sexually explicit content in the texts is only to be viewed metaphorically, not literally. The same people argue that the Shiva lingam is to be understood symbolically as the supreme godhead and that interpreting it as a phallus is the product of a perverted Western imagination. This view disregards the numerous medieval texts that described it graphically and unambiguously as the erect phallus of Shiva making love to his wife Parvati in a marathon session that lasted several yugas or aeons.
The image of the yoni-lingham can certainly be understood as the yogic conjoining of the male and female principles of the cosmos to generate unitive consciousness, comparable to the Chinese Yin-Yang. But on the physical plane, it must by necessity refer to the sex act, it being the very basis for life on earth.
Back at Esalen, the session was getting hot and heavy. The room was filled with incense fumes and the delicate strains of sitar music. We had stripped off our clothes and were down to our undergarments. Premananda instructed his partner to straddle me as I sat beneath her in the lotus posture—it was the classic Yab Yum position depicted in numerous Tantric artworks signifying the union of Shiva and Shakti. A lurid image of Abhinavagupta in ecstatic union with his consort flashed into my head.
The woman wrapped her legs tightly around my waist, making it difficult to breathe, leave alone meditate. I was sweating despite the chill in the air.
I broke out in peals of laughter. I laughed at myself, I laughed at the sheer absurdity of the moment, and more than anything I laughed at the lengths to which we go to find meaning in our lives. The laughter was liberating and cathartic. It had the desired effect. My companions rose, put their clothes on silently and walked out in a huff, leaving me alone at last.
I had mixed feelings about the encounter. American tantra may not have worked for me, but if it provided a meaningful and even liberating experience for some people, then who was I to judge them?
I looked out of the window at the crescent moon casting its pale reflection on the ocean. The moon in this form is also called the Shiva moon, symbolising the cyclical nature of time, named after the Hindu god who represents the eternal reality beyond time.
I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of crashing waves till I was enveloped by a vast silence. All thoughts fell away and I drifted into a dreamless sleep.