The body is of central importance to the Hindu and Buddhist Tantra traditions because it is thought to contain the entire universe within it. The body recapitulates the cosmos, with the highest level of Shiva or the Goddess located at, or above, the crown of the head and the level of the earth located at the feet.
The practices of the Tantras are designed to achieve liberation (moksha) but also to achieve magical powers and worldly success (siddhi). In the traditional worldview of ancient and medieval India, supernatural powers afforded through yogic practice were a standard list of eight that included powers of levitation and increase or decrease of size. The other kind of worldly success through ritual was the destruction of one’s enemies and the power of attraction; to attract a desired person through a kind of ‘love magic’. An early text (possibly 7th century) describes visualization techniques for ‘hooking’ the desired person and drawing her/him into oneself. Other powers gained through mantra repetition were protection from possession by demonic forces. As such, the Tantras became popular texts among medieval kings who desired an increase of power and the destruction of enemies.
There are a number of general features of the Tantras. Firstly, the Tantras required initiation during which the disciple would be given a mantra to repeat by the master or guru. Secondly, they required daily ritual during which the body was symbolically destroyed in the imagination and a divine body created through mantras, for in Tantra only a god can worship a god, so the practitioner becomes symbolically divine for the purposes of ritual. In this way, the body is given the highest importance as the vehicle for liberation.
"The Tantras became popular texts among medieval kings who desired an increase of power and the destruction of enemies. "
Now liberation looks, and looked, different for different Tantric traditions.
The Tantras were composed during the early medieval period, mostly 7th to 10th century, although part of the very earliest Tantra goes back to the 5th century CE. They are presented as a dialogue between a supreme God, usually Shiva, and the Goddess, called Shiva’s power or Shakti, and they teach that liberation or enlightenment can be achieved through a process of ritual and meditation on particular sounds and verses from the texts, called mantras.
The mainstream tradition Shaiva Siddhanta – still extant in South India - followed the dualist Tantras. They maintained an ontological distinction between God, Self, and World. Other groups, such as the Kashmir Shaiva, followed the non-dualist Tantras that maintained an ontological identity between these concepts.
So, in the dualist Shaiva Siddhanta, the practitioner is ensured liberation at death with the grace of Shiva. In the non-dualist Kashmir Shaiva, the practitioner aspires to liberation during this life as an expanded, ecstatic awareness.
It’s with some of the extreme practices of the latter that Tantra has become famous in the West. These practices, originating in ascetics living in cremation grounds, were antinomian and involved ritual sex outside of caste restrictions, along with the consumption of revolting substances (such as the waste products of the body) in order to overcome aversion and to see pleasure and disgust as equal.
"The practitioner aspires to liberation during this life as an expanded, ecstatic awareness."
On this logic, if there is only one divine reality, then there is nothing that is impure. Some of the Tantric texts entirely focus on the Goddess and these Shakta Tantras tend to advocate more extreme practices. Tantric sex comes out of these antinomian rites, intended to flaunt the ancient Vedic purity rules. It maintains that practitioners achieve enlightenment by transcending inhibition, which then leads to the spontaneous expansion of consciousness.
Over the last hundred years Tantric yoga has come into the West as a way of achieving enlightenment or improving one’s love life. Pleasure was not the original purpose or function of sexual ritual in Tantra – indeed, there was a large literature on sexual pleasure the most famous of which is the Kama Sutra – but rather the purpose was liberation and power and also the appeasement of tantric goddesses, the Yoginis, through offerings of blood, alcohol and sexual substances. At the ‘yogic’ end of the spectrum, the aim of tantric yoga and tantric ritual is the destruction of desire through desire (as a thorn is removed by a thorn) and at a more popular end, the aim was controlled possession by tantric goddesses to gain the kind of superhuman powers referred to above. The Tantras share the Indic worldview in which desire is a force that keeps living beings in a state of suffering in the cycle of reincarnation. But the force of desire can be used to destroy desire and transcend the cycle of rebirth. We might say then, that ritualized sex in Tantra seems to have arisen in the context of transcending inhibition, particularly Brahmanical purity rules that the Tantrikas regarded as preventing the total freedom of liberation, and later (by the tenth/eleventh century) came to be a secret, aesthetic ritual in which the practitioner and his partner reflected Shiva and Shakti. But the aim is nevertheless the transcendence of world and suffering.
In the West ‘tantric sex’ has become something distinct from its origins, inevitably so because of the very different nature of the societies in which these practices occur. On the one hand, medieval Indian society was hierarchal with strict purity rules for Brahmins, while on the other Western societies are more egalitarian in which a strong notion of ritual impurity is absent. The force of transgressive tantric ritual was partly due to the strictness of the society it reacted against. In the West, tantric practices have been transplanted into very different social situations with different goals. While we should be hesitant about labelling western appropriations as deluded, we nevertheless do need to appreciate the different contexts and purposes of tantric practice; the tantric practice of the West is not that of the tradition’s origins in medieval India.
Tantra comes from the Sanskrit verbal root tan, which means ‘to stretch.’ It refers to the stretching of a loom or the warp threads of a loom. By extension it comes to mean a general conceptual framework as well as a text written on birch bark or palm leaf pages strung together. The vast bodies of texts known as tantra designate what was believed to be a new revelation, superseding the Vedic texts. Thus, we can speak of followers of the Veda – the former volume of Hindu religious texts - the Vaidikas, and followers of the Tantras, the Tantrikas. The followers of the Veda were the Brahmins, the highest caste, who followed (and still follow) Vedic ritual purity rules, keen to maintain the social status quo. The Tantrikas followed the teachings of the Tantras, some of which radically advocated going against Vedic ritual purity in order to gain an enlightenment that transcended the old rules. But not all Tantrikas were rebels. Beyond its complicated history linked to Hinduism, tantrism was also adopted by Buddhism, and particularly Tibetan Buddhism.
"Tantric sex maintains that practitioners achieve enlightenment by transcending inhibition."
The original religion of the Veda, composed as early as 1200 BCE, were more social in purpose, focusing on sacrifice and the maintenance of caste. Later texts, the Upanishads - the earliest being around 800 BCE – were more metaphysical, emphasizing the knowledge of an absolute reality - Brahman - in order to escape from the never-ending cycle of reincarnation. But later texts still such as the Bhagavad Gita stressed devotion (bhakti) to a transcendent God.
The Tantric groups of texts taught liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and suffering, and shared a common set of rituals. For the Shaiva Siddhanta the goal of life was to become like Shiva, to become equal to him but without becoming identical with him, whereas non-Siddhanta Shaivism taught that the goal of life was to recognise one’s identity with Shiva who was regarded as pure consciousness.
In spite of this major philosophical distinction, there is much that the Tantras share, particularly a view that the universe is a graded hierarchy of levels or worlds, with the lower worlds being more solidified emanations of subtle ones. Thus, the world we live in has emanated from a higher plane and all worlds are ultimately transformations of a single substance. For the dualist Shaiva Siddhanta, this substance, known as bindu, is distinct from Shiva and acted upon by his power or Shakti. In contrast, for non-dualist non-Siddhanta Shaivism bindu is an emanation of Shiva himself. This process is often conceptualized as the emanation of sound or the Goddess Vac.
So, the body is the focus of liberation for tantric traditions and the means through which spiritual freedom can be accomplished. The fact that the West has focused on the Tantric tradition embracing the body, perhaps tells us more about Westerners than (the far more complex) Tantra.