Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the Godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.

David Gordon White, western scholar

For the ignorant person, this body is the source of endless suffering, but to the wise person, this body is the source of infinite delight.

— Yoga Vashishtha

‘Tantric’ sex and its like is largely a twentieth century American preoccupation.

Hugh Urban, western scholar

In this section of the class we will be exploring tantra, a controversial and widely misunderstood term that is used to describe a variety of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. What sets these traditions apart is their radical affirmation of the divinity of the world and the physical body, and the important role of the feminine divine power, or shakti.

Tantric teachings state that the sacred energies of the subtle body (kundalini, the nadis and cakras, etc.) can be accessed and controlled by the practitioner. Early tantric traditions focused on the cultivation of magical powers through the propitiation of terrifying feminine divinities. Through prolonged interaction with the Indian alchemical tradition, the focus of tantric practice shifted to the transmutation of the physical body. Tantric practices such as asana, mantra, recitation of sacred texts, visualization, mandalas and yantras were used to cultivate spiritual and worldly empowerment.

In some traditions (referred to as “left-handed”, as opposed to the less transgressive “right-handed” traditions), sexual rituals were used. Sexuality in this context is not the indulgence of sense pleasure, but rather the embodied enactment of perceived truth: the human body is inherently divine, and the universe arises out of the union of masculine and feminine divinity.

Ultimately tantric practices were internalized in a quest to transmute the awareness of the practitioner, so that s/he might directly perceive the inherent divinity of body and world. The Pratyabhijnahrdayam, one of the key texts of the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, illustrates this profound shift from transmutation of body to transmutation of awareness. In twenty terse verses, or sutras, the author Kshemaraja summarizes the teachings of this tradition. He begins by describing how the universe is manifested through the creative power of the goddess Citi, whose name means “supreme consciousness”. Through Her creative power, She manifests all of the multiple forms of the universe, which are all nothing other than the contraction of divinity itself. He then demonstrates the path that the embodied individual can take back to supreme awareness and freedom.

Required Assignments:

Read Kundalini” by Sally Kempton: A meditation and yoga philosophy teacher writes about the cosmic energy that tantric traditions believe lies within the human body.

Read Consciousness: The Creative Power of the Universe” by Swami Shantananda: A western swami who has made this tradition his life-long study and practice writes a commentary on the first verse of the Pratyabhijnahrdayam.

Practice: Try the exercise that Swami Shantananda gives on page 46. Find a time and place where you can be alone and quiet for at least 10-15 minutes, and follow the instructions that he gives. If possible, practice this at least 2-3 times. Journal about what you experience, and how you would answer the questions that he poses.

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