Tantra transformed South Asia's major religions, and today elements of it can still be found across Asia's diverse cultures.
However, it remains largely misunderstood in the West, where it is usually equated with sex.
Demystifying Tantric sex
Tantra is a Hindu and Buddhist philosophy which affirms all aspects of the material world as infused with divine feminine power. It is rooted in sacred instructional texts, composed from around the sixth century onwards, called the Tantras. Many describe rituals that transgress social and religious conventions within mainstream Hinduism and Buddhism.
Some Tantras describe sexual rites for achieving enlightenment. These can be understood both literally and symbolically. If taken literally, a couple assumes the role of deities in sexual union, the woman often being the focus of worship. When interpreted symbolically, a practitioner visualises this union within their own body, the deities symbolising qualities such as wisdom and compassion. The Tantra pictured here, composed in ancient Sanskrit, recommends the union of the 'thunderbolt' and 'lotus', which can be understood as the phallus and vulva.
The Tantras were first translated into English in the 19th century, when India was under British rule, and were reductively misinterpreted by many Christian missionaries, Orientalist scholars and colonial officials. Such distortions went on to inform current misunderstandings of Tantra in the West as an orgiastic 'cult of ecstasy'.
The role of sex
Erotic imagery not only plays an important role in Tantra, but also in mainstream Hinduism. According to Hindu belief, the creation of the universe is believed to be a product of divine sexual union, and the goals of a fulfilling and righteous life are not only duty (dharma), prosperity (artha) and liberation (moksha), but also desire (kama).
During the medieval period in India, erotic carvings of couples (mithuna) were considered to bring good fortune and protection. The sculpture below would have once been positioned on the wall of a Hindu temple. Two lovers caress each other, their lips about to touch. There is nothing particularly Tantric about this sculpture. An architectural manual written in about AD 900 includes the following instruction: 'kama is the root of the universe … erotic sculpture panels should be mounted [in temples] in order to delight the general public.'
An image of a courtly looking couple painted in the 17th century is one of a series illustrating sexual positions. Such images were influenced by ancient texts dedicated to kama, such as the Kama Sutra, written by Vatsyayana around the AD 200s. According to this text, sexual pleasure for those living at court should be a cultivated 'art'. Contrary to Western misperceptions, Tantra had little to do with the science of pleasure outlined in the Kama Sutra, which was composed before the rise of Tantra and was guided by Hindu beliefs.
Tantra introduced a different idea. Rather than seeking pleasure as an end in itself, Tantra taught practitioners to harness the body and sensuality in order to unite with divinity and attain transformational power. Tantric sexual rites were also distinguished by their transgressive nature, engaging with the taboo rather than repressing it.
On the left of the temple frieze sculpture below a man engages in oral sex with a woman. It probably represents the Tantric ritual of yoni puja (veneration of the vulva). According to orthodox Hindu codes of conduct, this was transgressive because it threatened reproductive sex and social stability. While female sexual fluids were also traditionally regarded as polluting, Tantric practitioners aimed to access the repressed power of the forbidden, transforming it into divine matter.
In Tantric texts, women are described as embodiments of Shakti (divine feminine power), and this power could be ritually accessed through their sexual fluids. To venerate the yoni (vulva) was to venerate the source of creation itself. When they engaged in sexual rites, practitioners imagined themselves as divine incarnations of Shakti and the Hindu god Shiva.
While Tantric sexual rites could be carried out literally, by a couple assuming the roles of Shiva and Shakti, they could also be imagined as an internal union of deities using visualisation exercises. The goal of Tantric yoga is to awaken an individual's inner source of Shakti, located at the base of the spine and visualised as the serpent goddess Kundalini. Around her is a network of energy centres (chakras), each of which contains a deity. Through breath control and complex postures, Kundalini rises up the body. In this painting a yogi experiences bliss as Kundalini (represented as a white coil at the base of the spine) prepares to move upwards through the chakras. As she comes into contact with each deity within, she infuses them with power, enabling the yogi to reach higher spiritual planes. At the crown of the head resides Shiva, embodying pure consciousness (represented here by a multi-petalled lotus). They unite, enacting a sexual rite within the yogi's own body. Their union triggers an awakened, liberated state and is believed to grant access to various powers, from long life to invulnerability.
The rise of Tantra led to a new school of Tantric Buddhism known as Vajrayana or the Path of the Thunderbolt, which had spread across Asia by the eighth century, with a particularly strong hold in Tibet. According to Vajrayana teachings, the qualities of wisdom (prajna) and compassion (karuna) must be cultivated on the path to enlightenment. Tantric texts and images represent these qualities as a goddess (wisdom) and a god (compassion) in sexual union.
In Tibet this is known as yab-yum, meaning 'father-mother'. Devata (Deity) yoga is a Vajrayana practice that involves visualising and fully internalising these deities in union within the body, with the aim of embodying their supreme qualities. This practice inspired the creation of yab-yum images, which are used to support meditation.
The Tibetan thangka below shows two deities embracing, Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini. Their red-rimmed, wild eyes and laughing, fanged mouths suggest their immense power. The role of such wrathful imagery highlights the Tantric belief that only the most ferocious deities can abolish the obstacles to enlightenment. They are deities to be adored as well as emulated.
The image evokes the interplay of feminine (wisdom) and masculine (compassion) principles that must be internalised. Both deities hold up weapons with which they destroy misplaced pride, attachment, anger, ignorance and worldly desire. Yab-yum images such as this were commissioned to aid visualisations during Devata yoga. The practitioner internalises the deities and recognises in themselves both the female and male principles, merging the two within their own body. Emptied of ego, the practitioner achieves self-deification.
The Hevajra Tantra dates to the late AD 800s and describes the benefits of engaging in sexual rites in order to elevate and transcend desire itself. On the folio below are the words: 'by passion the world is bound; by passion too it is released.' Sexual rites should not be 'taught for the sake of enjoyment, but for the examination of one's own thought, whether the mind is steady or wavering.' Even celibate monks and nuns could engage with this method by internalising deities in union through visualisation.
Sex and death
During the 19th century, Bengal in eastern India was an early Tantric centre as well as the nucleus of British rule. Tantra informed the way many Christian missionaries and colonial officials imagined India, as a subcontinent apparently corrupted by sexual depravity. Their misconceptions were embodied by seemingly demonic Tantric goddesses such as Chinnamasta, pictured in the print below. Here she clutches her own severed head, which drinks one of the three streams of blood spurting from her neck. The other two streams nourish her attendants. A revolutionary Bengali text described Chinnamasta's radical potential as a symbol of the Motherland, decapitated by the British but preserving her vitality by drinking her own blood, representing an ideal of heroic fearlessness and self-sacrifice.
The image communicates the inseparability and interdependence of sex, life and death at the heart of human experience. She stands upon the copulating deities of love and desire (the god Kama and goddess Rati), as if to suggest that she transcends desire while also being fundamentally supported by it. Rati is shown on top of Kama, signalling the superiority of the female principle within Tantra.
Once attacked by colonial officials as perverse, since the 1960s Tantra as a tradition has been celebrated as the 'art of sexual ecstasy' in the West. Although Tantric visual culture features a proliferation of erotic images and many Tantric texts include descriptions of sexual rites, these make up only a small proportion of the content. While kama ('desire') was a principal goal of life according to mainstream Hinduism, one of the central aims of Tantric sex was to unite with divinity, rather than to seek pleasure for its own sake. Tantra validates the body and the sensual as a means of achieving liberation and generating power.
Sexual rites could be imagined as an internal union of deities, or carried out literally by a couple assuming the roles of deities. This exhibition seeks to provide the interpretive tools for understanding how these tensions between literal and symbolic registers co-exist and are part of what make Tantra unique.
Find out more about Tantra: enlightenment to revolution by checking out Imma's blog 'What is Tantra?'
Supported by the Bagri Foundation
Buy the beautifully illustrated book accompanying the exhibition, featuring masterpieces of sculpture, painting, prints and ritual objects.