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Sunday 9 September 2012

A Brief History of Tantric Sex

My interest in Tantric sex is purely theoretical. Like all my other theories, my theory of Tantric sex is ingenious and almost certainly wrong. One point that is emphasized by all modern writers on the subject is that Tantra stems from an ancient tradition. Up to a point, I’m sure that’s right. The word Tantra was certainly in use on the Indian subcontinent 2000 years ago, and encompassed a good deal of what would nowadays be called sacred sexuality. And the religious use of sexual imagery and rituals—not necessarily under the name of Tantra—was around for at least a thousand years before that. But in functional terms, I don’t think it had anything in common with present-day Tantra at all.

My theory is that Tantra underwent two massive reinventions: the first about 2000 years ago and the second within the last 50 years. If you go back to prehistoric times, I think people had a very confused idea of how the natural world worked. Their lives were dominated by things like droughts, disease and crop failures, and they desperately wanted to be able control these things but had no idea how to go about it. The most powerful thing that was within their control was sex—an act that seemed to create new life out of nothing. So they reasoned, illogically by modern standards, that performing the right kind of sexual rituals could have other “magical” effects as well. Prior to the Axial Age of circa 500 BC, when most modern religions have their origin, religious rituals—including sexual ones—were misguided attempts to control the natural world rather than having any kind of spiritual dimension (New Agers will disagree vehemently with this... but as I said, it’s just my theory and probably wrong).

The big change that started around 500BC, when the more mystical aspects of the Hindu-Buddhist, Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions have their roots, was the shift of religion away from superstitious ritual towards soteriology. Now “soteriology” is one of my favourite words, even though I don’t really know what it means. I use it to mean the idea that there are higher states of existence than those of everyday life, which can be attained through appropriate religious practices. If you sat down with a blank piece of paper, and tried to think up a list of “appropriate religious practices” to attain a higher state of existence, then all-night drug-fuelled sex orgies, or the visualization of animal-headed, multi-limbed deities copulating with each other, probably wouldn’t immediately spring to mind. But people had a long tradition of doing these things, albeit for completely different reasons, so (presumably because they enjoyed them) they decided to keep the sexual elements and redefine their function in soteriological terms. I suspect this happened in all the traditions—Judaeo-Christian, Graeco-Roman and Hindu-Buddhist—but it’s only in the last (and then only in a small minority of practitioners) that’s it’s survived to the present day.

The object shown on the left can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It isn’t exactly clear what’s going on, but it’s obviously sexual (and quite possibly illegal). According to the caption: “For Buddhist Tantric practitioners, the ass-headed protective deity Kharamukha Samvara is an embodiment of the enlightened state. The sexual imagery is a metaphor for enlightenment, with the male representing compassion and the female wisdom.” If you look closely, the “embodiment of the enlightened state” is wearing a necklace of human skulls, and trampling on two small human-like figures (cf. my earlier post on Tantric Buddhism). I think the imagery is far easier to understand if it originated in some ancient pagan magical superstition, and was later glossed over with a Buddhist “soteriological” interpretation.

I first encountered the idea of Tantric sex in 1980, when I was looking for a book on yoga (but I bought the book on Tantric sex anyway). In those days, it still had a strongly spiritual dimension, and interest was limited to the “hippie” mystical fringe. But since then the subject has snowballed to the extent that it is now a mainstream industry that everyone has heard of. But in today’s world, you can’t be mainstream and talk about spirituality – it’s a contradiction in terms. There’s a limit to the number of punters who are desperate to attain a higher level of spiritual awareness... and they tend to lead alternative lifestyles with limited disposable income for high-end workshops and one-on-one counselling sessions. On the other hand, there is a never-ending supply of well-to-do, middle-aged couples who want to liven up their sex lives. So modern Tantric practitioners tend to say things like “Tantra had its origins way back in the past when people believed in Gods and Goddesses, but many people nowadays are uncomfortable with such ideas so we can safely dispense with them.”

I’m not criticizing neo-Tantra per se – it’s probably more socially useful, less ludicrous and certainly no more cynical than the traditional form of Tantra. But why do people have to call it Tantra? Sacred Sex without the Sacred is just Sex!

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