Embarking to understand the principles of tantra


The past is vomited out by the present.

Time in Tantra

All things past are only what can be accounted for by each of us, all of our mouths together. Therefore, we cannot know the origin of anything but ourselves. We cannot see the origin, because we are the origin, we are, I am, and that is all that is. So from where we are in the present, we look out over what has come through us, inspecting our own scat in an attempt to gauge where we are now, and where we will go next.

To look into this mouth is difficult and requires preparation, concentration, and meditation. There are symbolic representations of this mouth, and you can stare at these diagrams to help your mind achieve the state of awareness of creation at each new instant. (See Shri yantra.)

The interlocking triangles represent energy sub-dividing into smaller units. The lotus petals unfold as the world does.

This mouth is also symbolically evident in the yoni (vulva) of a woman, and requires a continuous "infusion of the seed of the male" (pg 14).

So to look at the past, to look at the monster of time and space, to look at creation, is to look at a woman.

Which comes first, the egg or the sperm

Yet, Rawson's interpretation claims that the seed, although practically invisible and represented by a mere dot, "generates the yoni." Not unlike, I suppose, Eve emerging from Adam's rib. The divine figure Mahakala is the male Great Time, and Kali is the "female personification of Time" (pg 15). Together, they form the Supreme Truth.

Still, it is the feminine which is the most approachable and the "most direct approach to the intuition of truth," and so it is the vulva in its many forms that is painted and worshipped, or a goddess image who holds the divine vulva.

Of course, we don't want to get carried away with all this transcendent love. Kali, the goddess of creation and time and space, is also the keeper of the keys to death, destruction and pain. She is often painted black with her tongue hanging out, her teeth dripping blood.

When tantra descends from plan view (aerial view) into an anthropomorphic view, we encounter energies called Shiva (the male) who projects into existence Shakti (the female) in the first act of creation; perfect sexual union. See the Original Unity meant to simultaneoulsy represent the feminine egg and the masculine penis as one.  What is great about the sculpture from this period is how happy the couples appear in sexual intercourse. 

Shiva 'knows' separation first, while Shakti remains in 'bliss', unaware of the separation. Now this gets tricky to follow, but the male created the female for the very purpose of what's about to happen. That is, the male ("the principle of self and complete identity" pg 18) desires to exist, and must have an entity to recognize his existence. Therefore, the female.

Let's explain.

When a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?

Objects are psychosomatic - we only see things because we are there to see them. "A rainbow only appears when sunrays, atmospheric processes and the optical activity of an observer come together in a certain relationship in space and time." (pg 15) All objects, no matter how solid they may seem, are likewise a function of the trifecta that requires our existence for its own. Rocks, plants, people, whatever.

So the female (Shakti) enables the male (Shiva) to exist by virtue of recognizing him as distinct from herself.

They separate, but they still have a sexual attraction. This serves to remind them "that they belong to each other." (pg 18)

Once separated, Shakti begins to dance. Her movements convince Shiva that he is not one, but many (ahem, 'Behind every great man, is a great woman' takes on new meaning, eh? 'Behind a plethora of great men, stands one bewildering woman' apparently.) He not only sees himself, but sees himself as male and female. He is able to incorporate the female through her mesmerizing dance. ('Pool boys! Stop with the lazing about and start dancing for me!)

Tantrik enlightenment, then, is for (a man?) to recognize that all the separate and distinct parts of his life are in fact one and the same energy, and always have been, and always will be.

Rawson goes on to say that "Indian tradition has always visualized the human body as growing like a plant from the 'ground' of the Beyond, the Supreme Brahman, the Truth" (pg 20). Tantra already taught us that each person only sees the past as a function of their own life and perspective. So to imagine the other, divine starting place, the Beyond, as male, makes sense considering it has almost always universally been men writing our religious and political documents and cultural manifestos.

Rawson gives no introduction to himself or his scholarship in this book, but he definitely writes from the male perspective to a male audience (see for instance, the use of the word "we" on page 18 to mean the male 'self', and "Tantrika" on page 15 to mean "him").

Carrying on.

The path to enlightenment

So the subtle body, as proclaimed in yoga classes the country over - this is the pattern of veins and channels that extend out and down from the crown of our head. Perhaps counter-intuitively, our root as a human being is our head. We grow out from there into our body. We get our energy and lifeforce from the Beyond through our skulls.

The sexual union where we feel as one with our lover (this has all been hetero-centric, I'm not sure what happens when same sex couples meet as one) is the climax, the consummation of the symbolic Beginning.

This image, a couple "yogically seated in sexual intercourse" is the "universal symbol for spiritual fulfillment" in Tibet (pg 21).  In addition to images, there are also symbolic sounds. Mantras are syllables from Sanskrit that are extensions of the subtle body energies.

And then there is Tantrik yoga, which is essentially Hatha yoga + sex.

So screw repression, asceticism and suppression. It is through our spiritual engagement as sexual beings that takes us to the mouth of Creation.

You're pretty good at sex, for a girl

As I said before, the language in Rawson's book is pretty male-centric and exclusionary.

One cannot, of course, be worshipping a mere object: it is the meaning one is welcoming [...]. In the course of a long ritual a Tantrika may set up and worship with offerings a whole succession of different but related images, one of which may even be a live girl (pg 22).

Glossing over the grammatical issue of equating a live "girl" with an image, I just want to point out here that this also grammatically begs the question of whether or not a Tantrika can be a female.

If you were to re-read that sentence and imagine that the Tantrika is a woman, then what? Do female Tantrikas also lie with women for sexual union in a spiritual practice? Is the word "girl" accurate? How likely is it that a Tantrika who believes that, "Man and woman must continually fulfil [sic] and complete each other," would refer to his lover as "a live girl"?

This could just be representative of a book published in the seventies by a male author. It could be representative of a book published in the seventies. It could be representative of a book published. It could be representative.

Tantric slumming

Rawsom himself does address power dynamics and seems to have an interest in appealing to both sexes. 

He reminds his audience that women were often the 'teacher' in a sexual partnership, and that many respected "famous male saints" initially achieved enlightenment through "low caste" promiscuous temple dancers who forced the saints to sever conventional social bonds, defile themselves, and cast aside any notions of being "good and respectable" (pg 24).

So at least until the 19th century, being Tantrik was being radical, outcast, revolutionary, and rebellious.

The most powerful sexual rite of re-integration requires intercourse with the female partner when she is menstruating, and her 'red' sexual energy is at its peak. Best of all is for this rite to be carried out in a cremation ground among the corpses and flaming pyres (pg 24).

Hmmm. I think even today that would be considered at least radical and outcast.

The chakrapuja rite is described as a night of forbidden delights: "meat, alcohol, fish, a certain grain, and sexual intercourse" with "several different partners, one's own, or one chosen at random."  The image plate included with this shows a man partaking of these five delights, so perhaps women can reach enlightenment, but they do not seem to be Tantrikas by tradition.

The goddess within

Coiled at the base of the spine is the Kundalini, "who is each man's own Goddess-world-projecting function" (pg 27). She has her mouth around an inner lingam (penis), and is coiled around it sleeping. The inner lingam sits over the anus. When Kundalini is wakened by sexual postures and pressures, she straightens, tail piercing the bottom of the spine/anus, and ascending up through the chakras. (Again, do women have Kundalini? Do they have inner lingam?)

The Divine Vulva is pretty spectacular, and it's not everyday you see such a blatant celebration of the vulva, let alone "worship" of it. Vulvas were looked at and adored by Tantrikas, as were natural symbols like the coco-de-mer.  On the other hand, the vulva itself can create images, such as the "yogini with serpentine energy manifesting from her vulva."

The positive feminine is also seen in characters like "Dakini, the female who gives wisdom through initiation."

I'm coming

What follows is a pretty fantastic description of a great orgasm: "near the summit, the female energy encounters the male seed of Being, uniting with it sexually [...]. From this union a supernatural nectar flows down to flood the body, while the whole man or woman becomes identified with the source of self and world which lies beyond the crown of the head" (pg 27). When it comes to orgasm, there's a divide in traditions. One side says yes, the male should ejaculate into the yoni as a divine offering. The other says, no, hold it inside and sublimate it internally.

The goal is to have your Kundalini ascend as often as possible, perhaps even staying there in the summit of undifferentiated energy.

There are some differences between the Hindu and Buddhist tantra philosophies, which I will leave for another article. In the meantime, may "the experience of cosmic ecstasy [bless] those who favour the way of positive love, or whose interest inclines them to art and music" (pg 25).


Tantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy, by Philip Rawson, C 1973

I bought this book among several on a trip to SouthEast Asia in 2010. I don't know what ranking this book holds among tantra scholars, but it is one readily available in a country of tantra origin. Published in Singapore, it concentrates itself on Indian historical analysis.

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