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From its inception to the present day, Tantra has challenged religious, cultural and political norms around the world.
A philosophy that emerged in India around the 6th century, Tantra has been linked to successive waves of revolutionary thought, from its early transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism, to the Indian fight for independence and the rise of 1960s counterculture.
The birth of Tantra
Tantra as a philosophy and set of practices develops in India, taking its name from sacred instructional texts that describe rituals for invoking all-powerful deities. Tantra begins on the margins of society, among devotees of the Hindu god Shiva, destroyer of the universe, and Shakti, the universe's all-pervasive force. By the 700s the Tantras are being studied in Hindu and Buddhist monasteries across India.
The rise of Tantra in India
Tantra takes hold in South Asia during a period of political turbulence with the breakdown of the Gupta and Vakataka dynasties and the rise of many new kingdoms whose rulers were drawn to Tantra's promise of worldly as well as spiritual power. They commissioned magnificent temples enshrining Tantric deities, particularly from AD 900. The philosophy inspires a range of new deities and triggers the dramatic rise of goddess worship.Collection online
The spread of Tantra across Asia
Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana (Path of the Thunderbolt), flourishes in monasteries in Eastern India, before travelling across Asia via pilgrimage, trade and diplomatic networks. Tantric masters transmit teachings from India to Tibet from about AD 700, and between the 1000s and 1300s several Vajrayana schools of thought develop there. In the early AD 800s, a Japanese monk named Kukai brings Tantric teachings from China to Japan and establishes the Shingon (mantra or 'true word') tradition.Collection online
Tantra and India's royal courts
The allure of Tantra remains tantalising to rulers at India’s courts between 1500 and 1800. These include the Hindu Rajput rulers of the north-west, the Muslim rulers of independent sultanates to the south and, from 1526, the Mughal rulers of an empire that dominates India for the next 200 years. One form of Tantric practice that becomes popular is Hatha yoga (yoga of force), which harnesses the body as a sacred instrument.
Tantra and revolution in colonial India
British rule develops across India following the decisive Battle of Plassey in 1757. Until 1911, the British capital is at Calcutta in Bengal (now Kolkata), a centre of devotion to the Tantric goddess Kali. Misinterpretations of Tantra reinforce British stereotypes of India as corrupted by black magic and sexual depravity, while Bengali revolutionaries play on these anxieties and reimagine Kali and other Tantric goddesses as figureheads of anti-colonial resistance.
Tantra and global counterculture
In the 1960s and 70s, global countercultural movements draw on Tantric ideas and imagery. South Asian artists associated with the Neo-Tantra movement adopt Tantric symbols and adapt them to speak to the visual language of global modernism. In Europe and the USA, interpretations of Tantra influence the period's radical politics – inspiring anti-capitalist, ecological and free love ideals.
As a worldview, philosophy and set of practices, Tantra is as alive as ever, and there are many Tantric sites that are actively worshipped. In the contemporary art world, female artists have harnessed Tantric goddesses through the bodies of real women, evoking them through a feminist lens.