Understanding Tantra

The salad was actually quite good, I had to admit. Dipika’s halwa, of course, was wonderful. The stir-fry/ramen noodle combination served alongside a wedge of overcooked rice left a little to be desired. But the company was second to none. Our spiritual sangha for the night gathered at a potluck at the top of Swargashram in Rishikesh. After I finished judging everything in sight, questions regarding the fundamental nature of The Universe were answered.

Someone jokingly protested as Grant offered around, for our enjoyment, a seemingly non-yogic substance “that’s so bad” was the comment. “It’s Tantric, don’t worry” I responded with a chuckle. Hans asked with a look of intent in his eyes “Why do you say it’s Tantra?” He and his partner had recently finished a 3-day intensive full of Tantra Philosophy and I gathered it left them full of more questions than they had beforehand.

There are only a few topics in present society quite so misunderstood and yet so enticing as Tantra. In India it’s assumed to be a sort of black-magic, something that gives you paranormal powers to curse and heal. In the West, it seems impossible to get past the ingrained idea that Tantra means sex. Both of these points of view have their truth, but ultimately fail to do any justice in their attempts to explain this spiritual practice.

If it wasn’t for the work of one Advocate in the Calcutta High Court during the era of British Raj, Sir John Woodroffe, aka Arthur Avalon, Tantra might never have come to enjoy the status of household name that it does today. In the late 20th Century, while stationed in Bengal, Sir Woodruff became aware of and subsequently initiated in Tantra Yoga. His academic personality made him the perfect candidate to translate previously unknown texts into English and write several scholarly treatises about the esoteric philosophy.

“Tantra is a very simple idea …” I started to speak, noticing the attention I was commanding and the feeling of importance that went along with it “… everything in The Universe has within it, the essence of God. Everything is Divine.  Good and evil, right and wrong, those are just labels that our human minds invent in order to relate to the world we cannot understand.” By this time all the ears were tuned to my words. “Such absolutes don’t exist in Reality. An action, by itself, cannot be good or bad.”

When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959 a host of monks and adepts fled to India. They came down from the peak of The World, with their tradition of Tibetan Tantra, Vajrayana Buddhism, firmly fixed in their minds. In an effort to preserve the teachings of this once incredibly closed society, foreigners have been openly welcomed into the once secret practices and initiations. The Tantric path has become more available to mankind. And in this sense, perhaps all of us who are now able to reap the benefits of this knowledge should thank the Chinese.

“Some actions are performed with open eyes, with authenticity, while being completely present in a moment” I continued.  “These are genuine and Godly, they bring the light of awareness to the World.  Other actions are done out of habit, are done begrudgingly out of a sense of obligation, are completely unconscious and they make the World a more obscure place.” I pontificated.  This is not a matter of morality, doing things because they are right or wrong, it’s a simple truth of our possible sources of engagement with Creation.

Tantra is based on an inherently non-dualistic philosophy. The idea that you or I as individuals have a separate existence from others, is a fallacy, an illusion.  In reality we are all interconnected in ways that are beyond our imagination.  Not just people, but literally everything that has been manifested, that exists in our reality, stems from the same root source.  It is only our minds that draw lines that divide, that discriminate.

The Tantric ideal of liberation, of enlightenment is quite different than that of Classical Yoga in the Patanjali sense. There is no ultimate stage of disappearing from reality, of escape. An enlightened being continues to be in the world, but is not of the world. Samsara equals nirvana. The world doesn’t change, but your relationship with the world evolves as you bring more awareness into your being.

“We just mostly learned about rituals” offered Hans within apparent disappointment.  And ritualism is indeed an important aspect of Tantra, as a tantrika will attempt to harness the power of the Divine which pervades the Manifested World through ceremonial acts.  This is why Tantra is often interpreted as a form of magic.  But as the manner of these rituals differ wildly among varying traditions, I would suggest that it isn’t a fundamental aspect of Tantra, but rather a matter of practice.

“Be careful when selecting a teacher” I advised.  As Tantra avoids the condemnation of desires and denies the existence of Absolute Morality, it is ripe for abuse.  The theory is simple but the practice is like walking the edge of razor.  And unfortunately it does attract practitioners who see it’s flexibility as a way to indulge in the extremes of their own desires.  Religions are safer forms of spiritual practice.  But as many religious traditions have failed to adapt to our current times, they have ceased to be options for some seekers.

Tantra grew up alongside, intermingled with and in some regards was a reaction to the extremes of another school of Indian thought, Advaita Vedanta. They are both non-dualistic, beyond good and evil. And they both see this Manifested Universe as less than the whole story. Something else exists, something Non-Manifested, something Absolute. And they both provide a path to get there, through the elevation of consciousness. The only difference perhaps, is the attitude they take. Tantra sees this earthly existence as a manifestation of The Divine Shakti, a Goddess to be worshipped, where nothing is evil or wrong. In Advaita Vedanta, this world is maya, an illusion to be overcome, usually through austerities and renunciation. The practice differs greatly but at the highest levels, they are indistinguishable.

“You seem to know a lot about Tantra, do you teach it somewhere?” Hans asked . But by that time I had gotten my ego under control. “I just know the theories, I’m still learning how to put it into practice in daily life.” Eventually Dipika and I will share what we have learned, once we feel solid in our own practice. And until then we share our thoughts and ideas on the subject through this medium.

We left our new friends with the name of a few teachers and resources which might be of further help.  These books have been invaluable on our path, and are a source of much knowledge. But if you choose to take up this belief system and make it the foundation for your spiritual practice, take it upon yourself to transform this book knowledge into practical wisdom by living it in your own daily life.

Tantra: The Supreme Understanding Tantra: Path of Ecstasy The Serpent Power



(7) Comments

  • Siva
    10 Apr 2011

    Very nice balanced view on Tantra!

    • Kashif
      11 Apr 2011

      As always, my biases reflect my own opinions, and not those of any particular creed or ideology. Glad you enjoyed the post Siva.

  • Chimes
    18 Apr 2011

    Another good enlightened tantric spiritual teacher is Barry Long http://www.barrylong.org :)

  • Chimes
    18 Apr 2011

    heres a bit of a write up with a small summary from 1 of his books – http://www.reuniting.info/wisdom/sources/barry_long_making_love :)

    • Kashif
      20 Apr 2011

      I’m not familiar with him myself, but I did enjoy the write-up, thanks for passing on the link.

  • Manisha Shahane
    30 Oct 2011

    Enjoyed the blog post here at this link… and also the one by Barry Long referenced in this string. Thank you for sharing your journey and your understanding in this present moment. We can act consciously only to the extent that we are fully aware of our understanding and limitations at any given point.