For the past few months, I’ve wanted to explore another side of my sexuality, particularly tantric sex. An educationalist at heart, when I read a glowing review of Tantra, the latest exhibition at The British Museum, I felt it would be the perfect introduction to this ancient practice. So on a rainy Wednesday in October, my best friend and I donned our masks and headed to the capital from the coast.
Tantric philosophy emerged in India in AD 500, steeped in divine feminine power and rather than being independent of Hinduism and Buddhism, it has transformed both traditions. Tantra taught that the material world is real (rather than illusory) and to achieve enlightenment, this eternal power can be harnessed through the mind and body.
It is thought that the Tantric rituals began amongst close followers of the Hindu gods Shiva and Shakti. Shiva defies social and religious order and is believed to be the destroyer of the universe. His Tantric form is Bhairava; a murderous being who supposedly beheaded Brahma (the orthodox Hindu god) after he insulted Shiva. The superior physical strength of Bhairava represents the superiority of the Tantric way. Shakti is the all-consuming feminine energy of the universe and all Tantric goddesses are believed to take the form of Shakti. Like Shiva, Shakti defies the conventional order of things; disrupting the view of women as passive and submissive – rather, Shakti’s destructive power comes from her maternal strength and her sexual prowess. Until AD 500, traditional Hindu and Buddhist texts taught that the female body was a hinderance to enlightenment, yet Tantric philosophy turned this on its head, claiming that all mortal females naturally embody Shakti.
Mirroring this feminine power, women who practiced Tantric yoga could become Yogini goddesses whilst the men (even if holy or kings) could only placate the goddesses. Like most religious gods, these Yogini goddesses were ethereal and dark creatures. ‘Seductive yet dangerous’, these goddesses could shape-shift and were able to predict the future, protect land and win battles. Offerings to these goddesses were best given at night and included blood, alcohol, flesh or sexual fluids.
Tantric practices value the body as a means to channel sensuality, teaching that a fulfilling life includes pleasure and desire (kama; the god of desire goes by the same name and is thought to be Shiva’s alter ego). Both Tantric and Hindu beliefs establish that the universe was born from divine sexual union and Tantric texts maintain that to achieve enlightenment, desires should be acted upon and sexual acts should be performed with a partner. Unlike today’s male-centric, orgasm-focused porn, Tantric sexual practices monopolise on the journey as a means to achieve ‘transformational power’ by uniting divinity with the body’s sensuality. It’s through this spiritual and worldly power that those who engaged in Tantric sexual practices could be liberated.
When the British East India Company became a military force in the 1750s, Christian missionaries believed India to be a place of ‘black magic and sexual depravity’. It was the Tantric goddess Kali, widely worshipped in Bengal, who influenced this belief as she represented the inseparability of sex and death at the heart of human experience; often depicted in art as carrying decapitated heads with skull cups to collect the blood as nourishment. Not too long after British military rule, revolutionaries in Bengal rose up against colonial rule by reimagining Kali as an icon of resistance and independence.
From India’s independence in 1947, a modern style of Tantric art emerged, rooted in the past. One writer in particular, Ajit Mookerjee wanted to strip the associations of black magic and hedonism from Tantric practices. Over the 1960s and 70s, Tantra became known as a way of free-love and anti-capitalist and ideals yet a misunderstanding developed, that sex placed sex as means for pleasure rather than as a way of acquiring power and enlightenment.
Tantric practices and philosophy are still thriving around the world today. Where will this rebellious way of life take Tantra next?
And what will be the next step in my Tantric Journey?
Feature image: British Museum.