The Heart of Tantra
Tantra is rooted in a quest for justice as much as spirituality and sexuality.
Illustrations by Tina Lassiter
When I was a young student of religions, my first Sanskrit teacher, Nandini, with her ever-mirthful air of serenity, lured her entire class headlong into the tangled jungle of that daunting but beautiful tongue. She allayed our fears with her laughing eyes and the tale of a yogi of yore who, wishing to master Sanskrit, prayed so ardently to Saraswati, goddess of learning, that she entered the yogi’s mouth, granting him—in a luminous vision—complete knowledge of the language. Thus emboldened, we felt we could tackle anything. However soft and charming Nandini seemed in every regard, we soon discovered she would adamantly refuse to accept papers on one topic: tantra.
That taboo sparked my curiosity, beginning a quest over decades to discover the heart of tantra. As I attempt now to paint in broad strokes how tantra probably came about and the many forms it has taken since, I imagine Nandini’s eyes . . . and how to keep them smiling. And so I ask you to let go of anything you may know and instead to imagine tantra as a goddess: so obscure has been her past, so scandalous her methods, so veiled in secret whisperings her teachings, so misinterpreted her ways, and so vilified her lovers that her nature and beauty remain as mysterious and seductive as the moon.
But at the heart of this shadowy confusion—and one reason a Hindu woman might have been hesitant to open the subject to exploration by a Western male—is that tantra is rooted in a quest for justice as much as spirituality and sexuality. The various forms of tantra provided a voice that spoke to the repressed energies and emotions of the women, not only in ancient India’s cultural wars but also to those of our own sphere and era, when women, the feminine, and the Earth are attempting to rise above centuries of subjugation.
Patriarchy and Its Discontents
Many of those in the West who have fawningly embraced Indian spirituality awaken some fine morning to the realization that religion is partly an expression of social structure, and that they may have unwittingly -swallowed—hook, line, and sinker—some values and assumptions of a staunchly authoritative patriarchy. In Orthodox Hinduism, for example, the underdogs have long been the fairer sex. The Orthodox scriptures consider a woman to be worth one-half a man; they deem women unfit to gain enlightenment and so must be ruled absolutely by their husbands. The ideal age for a wife is, in one scripture, five years; widows were long considered unclean, were not allowed to remarry, and had to shave their heads, wear white, and reside in widows’ homes. Males of the priestly Brahman class granted themselves the privilege, in their law books, of having sex with women of any class, which would supposedly confer upon these women an unequaled blessing.
As well as gender inequality, traditional Indian culture rigorously separated sex from the ascetic spiritual quest of enlightenment. In fact, the great-grandfather of yoga, Patanjali, lists celibacy as fundamental to the ancient discipline.
Thus, in India emerged a culture of unrepressed extremes: a young raja might gather his five favorite wives about him and make love to all simultaneously, using toes, fingers, and penis, but meanwhile, deep in a forest, a strict yogi might sit in the center of five blazing fires, driving his five senses inwards, his semen drawn up like a flame of rainbow arching high over coal-dark monsoon clouds. Such a yogi is said to have urdhvaretas, or “upward-flowing semen.” The semen is never discharged but is thought to be “drawn upwards,” nourishing the nervous and hormone systems. The powers and pleasures derived from such celibacy are thought to be enormous. So powerful does a yogi become through meditation that even the gods become so jealous that they invariably send down heavenly nymphs to distract and seduce the yogi, so that he will lose his power. There are thousands of myths in India that tell variations of this story, bespeaking an immense cultural conflict between the values of spiritual life and those of sexual enjoyment.
The various forms of tantra, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly pro-woman. They even declare yogic practice a waste of time in a home where women are not revered. Not only did the schools of tantra appreciate women, but they also honored sex. They spoke not only of the enlightenment of men but also of illumined women—and not only of the enlightenment of the mind but also of the body.
Tantra also offered a reconciliation of the two extremes: first, the generous and sensuous indulgence in erotic energy; and second, the niggardly hoarding of semen and the accumulation of spiritual power.
Of Gods and Goddesses
The mythic figure most fully embodying and transcending erotic and ascetic dualism is the god Shiva. Portrayed as an ascetic yogi, in meditation he is as immovable as a mountain. He sits amid Himalayan peaks, his body smeared with the ashes of burned corpses. His semen flows forever upwards in a pillar of fiery light, extending through the entire universe. Matted dreadlocks crown his head, containing so much transmuted sexual energy that the twisting, blue waves of the Ganges River fall in cascades from them. Like Thor with his thunderbolt, Shiva’s third eye shoots flames generated by the ripe heat of his asceticism. Yet Shiva is the sexual libertine par excellence. He marries a goddess called Shakti, her swelling breasts smeared with ashes from her eternal embrace with him. Although the couple lose themselves in eternal erotic play, he never emits semen.
Shakti is also worshiped in India. Whereas Shiva represents the infinite field of pure consciousness, Shakti is the creative field of feminine energy within every particle of existence. Shiva is inert, and Shakti is his power. She straddles Shiva in passionate abandon, moving in blissful wave vibrations that are the forms of creation.
Innies vs. Outies
This eternal union of Shiva and Shakti provides a model for tantric practitioners. And—to greatly oversimplify—there are basically two sects of Indian tantra, which I will dub the Innies (concerned more with consciousness) and the Outies (concerned more with ceremonies and flesh).
The Innies developed chaste methods of realizing the union of Shiva and Shakti within. Their goal is to unfold the infinite, eternal bliss of pure awareness. Innies meditate using mystical sounds (mantras) and visualizing mystical diagrams (yantras) that form the very body of the goddess, in order to realize transcendence. So fulfilling is their inner union of Shiva and Shakti that these adepts often disdain overt sex.
The Outies, also pursuing pure consciousness, can be found engaged in various rituals, such as making offerings to statues of the conjoined lingam (phallus) and yoni (vagina). Some worship lingams of sand on the seashore, fashioned the way a child might construct a sand castle. A dead tree stump; the base of an old, broken pillar; or a pillar of ice may equally serve as an object of worship, lavished with offerings of incense, flowers, rice, light, butter, and milk.
A Ritual of Rebellion
Outies also engage in tantric ritual sex, which can raise energy to its most exalted state. Both partners must be well rested and must have mastered yoga, breathing, and meditation practices. They perform the ritual in solitude and at an auspicious time, preferably on a full moon. They bathe. The female is anointed with fragrant oils. The couple sits cross-legged, one facing the other, surrounded by flowers, burning incense, a ghee lamp, and dishes of wine, meat, fish, and parched grain. Each of these edibles, as well as the ritual sex itself, is forbidden in Orthodox Hinduism, so that enjoying them is an act of rebellion against the dominant culture.
While intoning the name of the goddess, the male partner touches each part of his partner’s body, ritually transforming her into the goddess. He touches her toes, legs, thighs, vulva, navel, heart, breasts, lips, and forehead. Next, he worships her vagina with incantations and offerings of flowers and sandalwood paste. He visualizes the goddess Shakti and the god Shiva in sexual union, surrounded by a nimbus of light. He makes an offering of flowers to them, then worships his penis with flowers and incantations, while breathing rhythmically. The woman holds her hands above his head, commanding him to immerse himself in her fully. They embrace, each sitting in the lotus posture—the woman atop the man’s lap with her legs around his waist. They remain motionless, allowing their energies to rise as they fall deeper and deeper into a limitless ocean of peace. In this embrace, conventional sexual stimulation and genital orgasm are transcended, and the energy that would otherwise be discharged permeates the entire subtle physiology.
The prerequisite, then, if the ritual is not going to bore both partners to death, is an intimate acquaintance with the pure awareness and the subtle physiology through meditation. Couples unfamiliar with meditation will either feel nothing or will get carried away with their habit of creating rising excitation, enter into sexual motions, and experience conventional orgasm. With deep inner awareness, however, sexual meditation leads to an ecstatic state beyond conventional, cathartic orgasm. Such couples learn to live with each other in a radiant state. They learn to appreciate intense experience throughout the body and to function in everyday life with these coursing through their open, energized bodies.
Both modes of tantra, the Innie and the Outie, can awaken increasingly subtle and powerful energy fields within the body. These are experienced as a luminous body, a radiant nudity shining within their nudity, much as the electromagnetic fields of the sun and Earth dwell within the physical bodies of those planets. This luminous body has numerous channels through which rivers of energy course continually. The most important of these, the sushumna, or “rich in happiness” channel, runs like a gleaming thread from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. Along this channel await seven energy-transforming centers commonly represented in tantric art as lotuses. In the lowest lotus, at the base of the spine, resides the coiled female energy, kundalini, beautiful as a chain of lightning. Divinely quiescent, she is coiled thrice around herself and slumbers, holding her tail in her mouth. Awakening, she rises, passing through each lotus, which lifts its drooping head and blooms as she awakens increasingly powerful energy fields. Unfolding on this lotus path, one’s energies transcend conventional sexual relations.
Tantra Moves West
Innie and Outie forms of tantra also evolved in the West. During the latter decades of the last century, women’s awareness and critiques of patriarchal culture culminated in increased equality for women and in broad advances in feminist thought, as well as in practical social, political, and economic achievements for many women. One of the realms that women began to explore after centuries of religious and societal repression was their bodies—leading to various anatomical Innie-isms and Outie-isms: Freud’s proclamations of the superiority of vaginal orgasms were tossed aside in favor of odes to the clitoral truth, only to be supplanted by an entire genre of G-spot literature, which then morphed into sexologists’ assertions that all of these sensual zones form one vast interconnected web of nerves, thus making hard-and-fast distinctions between them superfluous.
At the same time that Western men and women were probing these sensual labyrinths, traditional religious churchgoing gave way to alternative approaches to spirituality. Thus, many Westerners found themselves at a cultural crossroads similar to the one that, long ago, had given rise to Indian tantra. They wanted direct spiritual experience, free of patriarchy, priestly proclamations, and the social hierarchies of organized systems.
To meet sensual and spiritual needs not fulfilled by the dominant Western culture, many tantric workshops sprang up. Like their ancient Indian counterparts, they can be very roughly divided into Outie and Innie.
Outie workshops are basically about relationships, especially sexual relationships, and could even be called sex therapy in exotic trappings. They attract such seekers as goddess feminists, yogis and yoginis, priests and priestesses of inscrutable cults, people who describe themselves as recovering Catholics, ecstatics of every persuasion, hucksters, hedonists, couples wishing to deepen their relationships, and singles of every stripe and feather who wish to connect with someone, with Spirit, or with any of the above. They come to meet together but mostly to explore, to pray, to play with one another, and to learn to let experience float through them while probing the horizons of the possible. These predominantly Outie workshops create a sacred space for loving—with colors, fragrances, sounds, textures, and tastes to delight all the senses.
At the sexual extremes are what I call “gringo tantra” workshops that focus on Outie orgasm. An Outie orgasm is a conventional ejaculative orgasm, with which most couples may think they are already familiar. Many couples, however, may discover that in gringo tantra, as in any kind of sex therapy, their conventional love lives can be vastly improved. Recently such workshops have emphasized anatomy, communication, and goal-oriented G-spot stimulation to “achieve” female ejaculation. This requires that the males develop a kind of black belt prowess in manual stimulation of the vagina. For couples who engage in these Outie kinds of orgasms, stimulation is king, making the quiescent, breath-abated connections with pure awareness that are enjoyed by Innie couples as relevant as an ashtray on a motorcycle.
As in Indian tantra, couples drawn to Innie workshops will already be enjoying, through meditation, a profound connection with pure awareness. Such couples—and there are thousands in the West—have the ability to relax into a state of deep union through non-goal-oriented, heartfelt connection to Spirit. Their intimacy is not based so much on stimulation, which is largely irrelevant for them. Their bodies become musical instruments resonating to the vibrations of their embrace and to that of the cosmos. These instruments must have no dead spots to dampen the vibrations. Body blocks or tensions occlude the clarity of the vessel. Enlightened bodies are vibrant vessels, open and resonant.
Some Western neo-tantrics are so profoundly Innie that they tend toward transcending sex altogether, being more interested in mystical phonemes (mantras)—which form the resonant, luminous body of the goddess—than in human flesh. For instance, the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, a dialog between Shiva and Shakti, has long enjoyed a large following in the West and offers teachings in applied linguistics, Indian style, and revealing how to locate the fruit of all knowledge and relationship that resides within even one phoneme. Famously translated by Paul Reps and later glossed by Osho, the scripture is now more accessible than ever in Lorin Roche’s lovely renderings (bhairavatantra.com); for instance, the following sutra on the spiritual appreciation of any vowel:
Think of any vowel, they are all delicious.
Savor that sound with reverence,
attend to where it comes from within you,
and where it goes to when it fades away.
Discover what gradualness is.
Learn to relish each minute variation.
As you feel the full range of sound, layer upon layer,
the power of sound
will teach you the power of being.
So, what is the heart of tantra? In the end—which is, perhaps, our beginnings—distinctions between man and woman, god and goddess, Innie and Outie, flesh and phoneme vanish: the coherent brain-wave patterns of the babbling infant breast-feeding while tenderly cradled by and in full-body, skin-to-skin contact with the mother are the same as those of yogis and yoginis in samadhi while meditating deeply on a mantra. In fact, infants spend much of their first few months of life not only in full-body union with Mommy but babbling such sounds as “aaaaaaaaaaah,” while closing and opening their mouths. If you experiment with this yourself, you will discover that doing so produces the sound of “aum,” spontaneously. Infants next explore vowel-consonant combinations, with consonants such as the labial “m” predominating, producing, for instance, “ma” and “mama.” And when mother responds, infants learn to equate “ma” and “mama” with deep longings for the presence of the maternal form—in the same way that, for thousands of years, tantric yogis and yoginis intoning their mantras have yearned for, envisioned, and merged in radiant union with the Mother Goddess.
For those wishing to improve their love lives and general health, one of the most important techniques is aswini mudra. The Sanskrit word aswini means horse, and this technique involves contracting the anal sphincters the same way a horse does. To perform the mudra, sit comfortably, with awareness on breathing. After a few minutes, begin contracting your anal sphincter muscle several times, without straining. Gradually, over time, you can build up to more contractions. This technique is powerful and best learned by those in good health, under the direction of a certified yoga instructor. Those with anal or genital problems should consult with a physician before taking up the practice. Some meditators will know that aswini mudra happens spontaneously as the energy moves through the body during meditation.
A variation for women involves contracting the vaginal muscles and, for men, contracting the urinary muscles at the same time that one is performing aswini mudra. This technique is also used by Taoists, who call it the deer method, and the Tahitians, who call it ‘amo ‘amo, or the “wink-wink” of the vagina. (More recently it has been called “Kegel exercises” after Dr. Arnold Kegel, whose work popularized it in the West.) Regular practice of this exercise can prevent prolapse of the uterus, help tone the pelvic floor muscles, strengthen the prostate, and help transmute sexual energy into spiritual energy, stimulating the glandular and energy centers in the body. As you practice, you may feel an inner glow that spreads from your lower spine into your heart and head. Over time, the exercise builds up mental power and inner tranquility. It can correct many sexual problems, including premature ejaculation, wet dreams, impotence, vaginal insensitivity, and so on.
We can share with others only what we are living, spontaneously, within our hearts. For this reason, in tantra we make a practice of surrendering to unbounded awareness by exploring increasingly more refined, more subtle, and more powerful textures of any one of the five senses. Because the most subtle of the senses is hearing (followed by touching), meditation on a mantra has long been an essential tantric practice, whether we enjoy it in and of itself or as preparation for ritual embracing.
Millions in the United States have long enjoyed practices such as transcendental meditation and others that use mantras. This daily practice of meditation locates unbounded awareness, removes stress, and cultures the nervous system so that one’s activities are spontaneously more deeply infused with the qualities of unbounded awareness. Millions of others may not meditate daily but may find themselves in spiritual gatherings where the sonic body of the goddess is invoked through gentle group chanting, especially of the mantra om.
Those who have sung in a choir will know something of the merging that takes place, except that instead of singing words with meanings and with beginnings and endings, when group-chanting “om” with eyes closed, we begin vibrating together with others in an uninterrupted sonic body of resonance.
These waves remain, resonating, vibrating, wave upon wave, continuing within the space of the heart, even when the group has fallen into vibrant silence.
If the group is a couple, once they have fallen into the space of the heart, they can more fruitfully enter into a tantric embrace.
If the chanter is an individual, he or she, having entered the silence within the heart, may naturally, in that stillness, appreciate a painting, a song, or a line of verse. After all, one Sanskrit term for poet is vipra, related to our word vibration. The goddess Saraswati will have entered the poet’s mouth.
James N. Powell lives in Santa Barbara, California, and holds master’s degrees in tribal religion and English literature. His latest book is Slow Love: A Polynesian Pillow Book. Its website is polynesianlove.com.