By Amit Roy
“WHY is Tantra so often equated with sex? And where does this stereotype come from?”
This was the first question posed by someone called Julia Thompson when the British Museum launched a “landmark” exhibition Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution, aimed at “demystifying” the ancient Indian practice.
Imma Ramos, curator of the exhibition which has brought together more than 100 objects from India, Nepal, Tibet, Japan and the UK from the seventh century to the present, called it “a great question”.
Pointing out “the Tantras were translated into English during the 19th century colonial period”, Ramos replied: “Their contents were often misunderstood, and this went on to form current misunderstandings of Tantra in the west. And tantric imagery of an erotic nature was often misunderstood as well. So the philosophical underpinnings of the texts and of the imagery were misinterpreted.”
Then the swinging 60s came along in Britain, continued Ramos: “By the 1960s and 1970s, you have a very different reading of this material. Tantra becomes associated with the free love movement. It’s seen as reflecting a liberal approach to sex.”
At the exhibition’s launch, the British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, acknowledged: “Tantra has been the subject of great fascination. However, it has often been misunderstood, particularly the way it has been interpreted as a hedonistic guide to sex.”
The lead sponsor of the exhibition is the Bagri Foundation, whose trustee, Alka Bagri, said: “The exhibition will be an opportunity for visitors to see and understand its founding philosophy and get an insight beyond eroticism as understood in the west, and its association with fear in the east. The foundation believes that traditional ideas of Tantra are wholly relevant to a contemporary world.”
A leading Tantra scholar, Prof Madhu Khanna, Tagore National Fellow at the National Museum, New Delhi, revealed: “Britain played a major role in disseminating Tantra art in the 60s. It was the epicentre of the Tantra movement. In the 70s, the Hayward Gallery in London opened its doors to the collection of Tantra art from India.
“Can Tantra be a revolutionary tool for enlightenment? I think so. The perennial wisdom of Tantra is perfectly in sync with contemporary aspirations. That all forms of life on planet are bound by symbiotic inter-relationships may well serve as an inspiring source for an ecologically conscious spirituality.”
It was left to Ramos to explain the complex ideas behind Tantra.
“Originating in sixth-century India, Tantra has been linked to successive waves of revolutionary thought, from its early medieval transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism to the Indian fight for independence and the rise of 1960s counterculture in the West,” she said.
“Tantra is rooted in sacred instructional texts called Tantras. They take their name from the Sanskrit word tan, meaning to weave or compose, and often written as a dialogue between a god and goddess.
“The Tantra has taught active engagement with spiritual obstacles, such as desire, aversion and fear, in order to ultimately transcend them. Tantric imagery is therefore unique in its inclusion of erotic and macabre symbolism.”
She explained how Tantra came to be associated with shakti or female empowerment. “Power is absolutely central to Tantra. It presented a new world view, animated by shakti – divine feminine power.”
Ramos went on: “New tantric goddesses were introduced into the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons. What made them specifically tantric was their intertwining of destructive and maternal power, which challenges traditional models of womanhood as passive.”
She referred to a temple sculpture representing the Tantric goddess Chamunda. One from the 11th century “shows her dancing ecstatically after her rampage against demons on the cosmic battlefield. She’s a skeletal vision to behold, with a skull-like face and glaring eyes; her nakedness is ornamented with a garland of heads. She carries a sword of wisdom, with which she destroys not only demons, but also obstacles to enlightenment, such as devotees’ ego, their attachment to a false sense of self.”
Ramos also talked about the yogini: “The word yogini not only refers to the goddesses, but also to female practitioners of Tantra or yoga. Many tantric texts describe women as superior gurus or teachers in that embodiment of shakti.”
She dealt with Tantra’s association with sex: “One of the themes the exhibition explores is the role of sex and divine union in Tantra in order to confront some of the more prevalent stereotypes. In tantric texts, gendered symbolism is often used to articulate the two qualities to be cultivated on the path towards enlightenment – wisdom and compassion. These are visualised as a goddess representing wisdom and a god representing compassion in sexual union. The goal is to internalise their qualities by visualising the deities uniting in the body through meditation.
“The role of human remains in Tantra is still misunderstood in the West. This goes back to the 19th century colonial period when British officials encountered these instruments and associated them with black magic.”
One part of the exhibition “explores the role of Tantra during British rule in India, and how tantric goddesses were harnessed for their insurgent potential during the fight for Indian independence”.
One figure of the tantric goddess Kali from the late 19th century was made in Bengal, an early centre of Tantra as well as the nucleus of British rule.
“A garland of severed heads hangs from her neck, corpses from her ears and hands from her girdle. Her mouth is smeared with blood and she sticks out her tongue as though thirsting for more. On the surface, she appears fierce, but she’s approached as a mother figure. The heads represent the ego which Kali helps her devotees to transcend. She is shown standing on her husband, the god Shiva. According to tantric belief, existence results from the union between shakti as creative force, embodied here by Kali, and Shiva as pure consciousness.
“The image of Kali striding over Shiva symbolises the superiority of the female principle within Tantra. Kali was completely misunderstood by Christian missionaries and colonial officials who saw her as demonic.”
A popular prints made by the Ravi Varma press “was reproduced in a Christian missionary text as a reflection of India’s so-called depravity. Indian revolutionaries in Bengal harnessed Kali’s radical potential, playing on British anxiety and paranoia. They reimagined her and other tantric goddesses as figureheads of resistance, and symbols of an independent India rising up against the British.”
Ramos spoke of how Tantra came to the west. “In Britain and the US, Tantra had an important impact on the period’s radical politics, where it was interpreted as a movement that could inspire anti-capitalist, ecological and free love ideals. In the west Tantra was reimagined as a cult of ecstasy that could challenge stifled attitudes to sexuality.
“A 1960s psychedelic poster by London-based designers drew on tantric images of deities in union in order to communicate this idea. Mick Jagger had a logo designed for the Rolling Stones inspired by Kali. It was chosen to convey the band’s rebellious anti-establishment spirit.”
Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution is on at the British Museum until January 24, 2021