Tantra (a Sanskrit word which means "woven together") is a term loosely applied to several divergent and even contradictory schools of Hindu yoga in which the sexual union of male and female is worshipped either in principle or in human practice. It has also come to be applied to sex-based religious practices developed in other religions, including Bon, Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, Christianty, Judaism, and Transcendentalism.
Pre-Hindu tantra: Shaktiism and Shaivism
Although tantra yoga texts themselves are only dated to the medieval period in India, it is thought by some that the earliest strand of tantra yoga, derived from the Dravidian, pre-Hindu religion of Shaktiism (worship of the goddess in her numerous forms), focuses on yoni puja, a ceremony honouring the vulva -- either of a statue or a living woman. Depending upon the school of study, this puja may involve making offerings of food and liquids while chanting prayers or it may involve the deliberate sexual arousal of a woman who is believed to embody or personify the deity. A related thread of tantra yoga that derives from Shaivism (the worship of the god Siva, which predates the syncretistic religion now known as Hinduism) has at its center linga puja, a ceremony honouring the penis, often in the form of a natural upright stone. Similar objects of worship have been found among the archaeological remains of many neolithic people around the world, leading some theorists to speculate that "sex worship" in some form or another is humanity's oldest relgiion.
Contemplative yoga as an influence on tantra
One major strand of Hindu tantra yoga centers on meditation. Allied to non-sexual meditative schools of yoga, such as hatha yoga (the yoga of body posture) and bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion), this contemplative school of teaching advocates a fairly non-sexual approach to worship, in which visualization of a deity, chanting of a mantra, concentrating on iconographic symbols called yantras, and the practice of tapas (austerites) are the foremost activities. A highly attenuated form of yoni puja is sometimes encountered in this school, with the practitioner meditating on a yantra -- often a downward-pointing triangle -- that symbolizes the vulva of the goddess.
Kundalini yoga as an influence on tantra
Some Indian tantra yoga teachers recommend practices that may include meditation but also share elements with kundalini yoga, in which subtle streams of energy are thought to be "raised" in the body by means of conscious posture and strenuous breath control. Most teachers in this school of tantra advocate the retention of semen as a prerequisite for spiritual advancement, although they differ on how much sexual arousal it is good to provoke while retaining semen -- and few have anything at all to say about a possible female counterpart to semen retention as a spiritual path.
Hindu "right hand" and "left hand" path tantra yoga
Best known to Westerners are the several strands of tantra yoga in which worship services take the form of a sexual ritual featuring slow, non-orgasmic intercourse as a prelude to an experience of the divine. This broad category of tantric sex ritualism, which derives from the pre-Hindu religions of Shaktiism and Shaivism, has in turn produced two schools of practice: The "right hand path" is one in which the ritual is more or less seen as meditational, or a monogamous rite, or may be allied to the yoni puja of Shaktiism; while the "left hand path" is one in which dozens -- or hundreds -- of couples may engage in the ritual sex act at the same time, sometimes following the lead of a pair of teachers. This latter path is the one that has earned tantra yoga the reputation of being orgiastic and even "satanic" among thse who are ignorant of its history or prejudiced against sexuality.
Tibetan Buddhism and pre-Buddhist Bon forms of tantra
A modified verion of pre-Hindu tantrism can be found in contemporary Tibetan Buddhism, where it seems to be a blend of pre-Buddhist goddess worship mingled with influences from the ancient Tibetan animist religion known as Bon. Like Hindu tantra, Tibetan Buddhist tantra encompasses schools of practice that range from the meditational to the sexually active.
Taoist "tantric" alchemy
That other great Asian religion, Taoism, has its own tantric schools, each with a different view of the role of sexual activity in the life of the aspirant. One strand of Taoist tantra is called sexual alchemy, or, more popularly tantric alchemy. Like Western alchemy, Taoist sexual alchemy places a certain amount of emphasis on the search for immortality or at least long life. Presumeably influenced by the male-centered, kundalini-derived forms of Hindu tantra, Taoist tantric alchemy involves breath and muscle control and emhasizes the retention of sperm as proof of spiritual attainment. Other Taoist tantra teachers, working out of a paradigm that seems to be derived from Shaktiism, claim that Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, was in fact advocating a form of yoni puja or worship of the vulva when he wrote about "the valley spirit."
Judeo-Christian "tantric sex": karezza et al
Going still farther afield, the term "tantra" or "tantric sex" is frequently -- for the sake of convenience -- applied in error to Western religious or spiritual practices in which slow, mindful sexual union (or masturbation) creates a path to the experience of spiritual ecstasy. Some of these Western practices arose during the 19th century, apparently by spontaneous discovery, and have no specific relationship to tantra yoga at all -- although one American popularizer of Western sacred sex (Alice Bunker Stockham) is known to have travelled to India to study Hindu tantra yoga. Each "discoverer" gave his or her system a unique name -- the Reverend John Humphrey Noyes preached the doctrine of "Male Continence"; A. E. Newton wrote of "The Better Way;" Alice Stockham pioneered "Karezza"; Paschal Beverly Randolph advocated "Eulis!...or the Anseiratic Mysteries"; Thomas Lake Harris practiced a form of breath-eroticism as well as non-corporeal sexual union with beings from other dimensions; George Washington Savory described "Hell Upon Earth Made Heaven" through the religio-mystical practice of "Passive Coition" and "Bosom Love;" Stockham's student John William Lloyd coined the term "Magnetation;" and Stockham herself published George N. Miller's novel, "Strike of a Sex," in which he described the fictional but karezza-like "Zugassent's Discovery." While these Western spiritual practices share certain common sexual techniques with traditional Hindu tantra yoga, most of them fit conveniently into Christian, Jewish, or Transcendentalist conceptual frameworks, obviating the need for the practioner to adopt a culturally "foreign" religion.
Neo-Tantra in America and Europe
Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s the so-called "sexual revolution" in cultural mores, along with increased interest in Eastern religions, led to the widespread popularization of spiriutal-sexual techniques derived from Indian tantra yoga under the slightly misleading name "tantric sex." From that time to the present, gurus and teachers both Eastern and Western have promoted a variety of belief-systems that incorporate to a greater or lesser degree the religious and cultural assumptions and practices of Indian tantra yoga in pursuit of a range of goals as disparate as what one detractor calls "better sex" and actual "moksha" or liberation (e.g. liberation from reincarnation, if reincarnation is included in one's cosmological paradigm). One of the characteristics that sets neo-tantra teachers apart from tantra yoga gurus is that in neo-tantra the emphasis on sexuality is usually quite obvious; in tantra yoga, the opposite is often the case, with some modern gurus insisting that tantra yoga is not sexual at all or that it teaches nothing about sex per se and that the entirety of the practice is concerned with the chanting of mantras, visualization of yantras, practicing of tapas, and the like.
Sex ritualism: a biological appraoch to the sacred
The sexual rites found in tantra yoga, Taoist sexual alchemy, karezza, neo-tantra et al form the basis for orthodox religious worship services and are also at the core of the personal spiritual paths of countless individuals. This has been true for millennia and continues to be the case to this day, despite the persecution of sexuality in most modern civilizations. In my opinion, the reason that such strikingly similar sexual rituals have arisen spontaneously in different eras and places -- and the reason they so easily cross socio-cultural boundaries -- is that sex worship itself is rooted in the neurological hard-wiring of the human body; because it is something which, when practiced correctly, allows the participants to experience what seems to be -- what IS, for all intents and purposes -- the presence of deity in the person of the sex partner.
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