By DAVID CONWAY
“It’s all sex nowadays” my mother used to grumble after an evening in front of the television. Even her favourite nature programmes, she moaned, were increasingly obsessed with it. Much the same might be said about Tantra. Or, at least, about what currently passes for Tantra, something which to many people today means little more than sex with fancy trimmings.
No surprise then that among the first ‘tantrik’ sites to appear on Google is one that markets books on sexual techniques, as well as performance-enhancing potions like – currently on special offer – tiny pots of nipple sensitising cream. True, there’s a token reference to Tantra’s origins in India but it’s the “get your kit off” message that counts. My mother wouldn’t approve. And neither, frankly, do I.
What offends me is not so much the sexual free-for-all – each to his own as far as I’m concerned – but the attempt to glamorise, even sanctify it by calling it Tantra.
After all, Tantra is first and foremost a spiritual practice by which the self aspires to merge with the energies that sustain or, rather, constitute, the universe. It is a means of becoming one with the Whole, of escaping from the illusion of separateness that determines how we experience the phenomenal world around us. Sensitised nipples have precious little to do with it. (And anyway a dab of Vaseline does the job, if you’re curious.)
The word Tantra is Sanskrit for ‘weave’, a term used to indicate that a particular text has been composed according to an orderly pattern (samhita). Others prefer to believe it points to secret teachings ‘woven’ into the Vedas, the thread visible only when teased out by a scholarly commentator or qualified guru. This interpretation, though appealing, is undermined by evidence that before being taken up by Hinduism, Tantra was already a feature of Buddhist practice, later becoming associated with Mahayana Buddhism in particular. (There the feminine principle, sakti, has long been held in high esteem.) This might also explain its early adoption by the Vajrayana (Sk. “Diamond Vehicle”) sect of Tibet, one that borrowed heavily – again significant perhaps – from that country’s indigenous religion (Bön).
Yet the true origins of Tantra almost certainly pre-date all of these and are rooted in the ancient practice of Yoga, especially in what later became Hatha Yoga, so called because it is the path (Sk. marga) of effort and discipline, both essential if the body and its vital energies are to be brought under control. Appropriately enough, one of the early names given to Tantrik teaching – Agamas or ‘What has come from before’ – may be an acknowledgement of its great antiquity.
Not all Hindu teaching is sympathetic to Tantra, with many scholars, especially more recent ones, uneasy with its intentionally blunt language (Sandhya-bhasha) and overtly erotic symbolism. At times even its defenders sound apologetic, pleading that, for want of anything better, it is at least a convenient path to mystical experience in the current Dark Age (Kali-yuga),1 a period when our race is woefully lacking in spiritual refinement. (Held to have started 5,000 years ago or, as others maintain, following the death of Krishna in 3120 BCE, the Dark Age is scheduled to last for 430,000 years so there’s lots more of it ahead.)
With the advent of Kali-yuga we are said to have lost our ability to see beyond the illusory appearance of things (maya), something traditionally expressed as the loss of our Third Eye or Eye of Siva. This symbolic organ is depicted in art as a lotus blossom, the sun, a snake or a star and set in the middle of the forehead, though some occultists maintain, none more forcibly than Mme. Blavatsky, that the Third Eye was, literally, just that. Today, the pineal gland is claimed to be its only anatomical remnant.
Hinduism accommodates two kinds of Tantra, that of the right hand (Dakshinacara) and that of the left (Vamacara). The first, regarded as the more respectable, favours a metaphorical interpretation of the erotic language found in the texts, while the second, often dismissed as ‘black’ magic, adopts a more literal approach, treating what it finds as a practical guide to attaining enlightenment. Only the latter approach need concern us.
As was said earlier, Tantra is not about sex. Well, not just about sex. Its spiritual element – ‘psychical’ may be a better epithet – is at least as important as the physical. In any case the two are complementary. More than that, they are inter-dependent for only when acting together – physical act and spiritual intention – will they induce awareness of the unity subsisting between the conditional world and the absolute reality on which it depends.
Nowhere is this togetherness more sublimely realised – here comes the sex – than in the act of coition, that synergic conjunction (Paramsiva or the union of Siva and Sakti) of two individuals or, better still, two creative polarities.
As for the erotic techniques described in tantrik literature or even in the teach-yourself manuals peddled on the internet, their purpose is to facilitate this beatific outcome by means of, inter alia, breathing exercises, tactile stimulation and, most famous of all, delayed orgasm or, on occasion, the disciplined retention of semen.
Above all, however, recourse is had to the goddess Sakti herself, the initiatory and dynamic expression of divine power. (The name itself means nothing less.) As the “Princess who sleeps at Brahman’s gate” the goddess is dormant inside each of us under the guise of Kundalini, the Serpent Power coiled three and a half times around the Muladhara chakra at the base of the spine.
Aroused from its slumber, Kundalini can be persuaded to ascend the spinal column – or, more correctly, spiral through the citrini nadi of its subtle equivalent (Sushumna) – like a jet of blue flame, shedding sparks in its wake, red on one side, yellow on the other.2
Passing rapidly through the next five chakras, it brings each of them into harmonious and tuneful life – the first syllable of Kundalini (the word itself denotes a coil of rope) means ‘sound’ – until at last its cosmic fire ignites Sahasrara, a supernumerary chakra and the noblest of them all, immediately transforming that glorious, thousand-petalled lotus into the marriage bed of Siva and Sakti. It is their divine coupling, mirrored in our own, that facilitates our release (moksha) into the ineffable bliss of absolute being.
A similar bliss is accessible through magical practices, particularly those with an overtly sexual component. For that reason the latter are often referred to as Tantra, proof again of how the word has become synonymous with sex. And true enough, the methods of sexual arousal available to the magician are often similar to – because copied from – those of the tantrika. (They have, after all, proved their worth over time.) Even so it may be misleading, no matter how convenient, to describe sexual magic as tantrik because there is one important, indeed fundamental, difference between the two.
To grasp it we need to remind ourselves that for Vedic scholars, phenomena and form enjoy no real existence (avastu). Our awareness of them is merely the accidental reaction of our senses to a reality, itself imperceptible, which is nothing less than the creative self-projection of Brahman.3
Over time this emphasis on the “otherness” of what is truly real (and, as such, a manifestation of God’s inviolable Oneness) led to the view that the phenomenal world, product of our faulty perception, could not be other than inferior to what lay beyond it. After all, was it not the imperfect, because conditional, aspect of what is immutable and absolute? And so the notion grew that the world of matter was somehow debased and, as such, unworthy of being cherished or respected on its own terms.
Such a notion is not confined to Hinduism. Closer to home we come across it in much Christian thinking, both orthodox and (to a far greater extent) heretical, while the neo-Platonists – to whom Western magic owes much – were, like the Manicheans, particularly infected by it. The celebrated Plotinus summed up their views by dismissing matter as “the primary evil.”
We have always to remember, therefore, that while Tantra indulges the body and the senses, it does so with the aim of transcending both. Because of that, all the tantalising foreplay and eventual orgasm, however incidentally enjoyable, are simply means to an end, devoid of any ultimate value themselves. A way of escape from the snares of conditionality, they facilitate a brief triumph of mind over matter.
For the magician by contrast, matter is inherently sacred. Far from being a route to the Absolute it is the route by which the Absolute becomes real and present – even palpable – to us. For that reason the aim of Magic is to exploit the sacramental nature of matter, treating it (in the language of St. Augustine, as modified by St. Thomas Aquinas) as the outward and visible sign of an inward, divine and efficacious grace.
From this it follows that for the magician the sexual act is no longer the means to an end but correctly understood, the end itself. Through it, with it, in it, a higher, unconditioned reality manifests itself in terms appropriate to our environment. Tantra, by contrast, requires us to ‘liberate’ ourselves from that environment before the same reality is met. At the risk of labouring the point: for Tantra it is through matter that we strive to touch the Absolute; for Magic it is through matter that the Absolute touches us. Matter is the Absolute in posse.4
It should be emphasised that sexual activity is not an indispensable constituent of magical practice. (Like Tantra, Magic is not, definitely not, ‘all sex’!) Readers who feel ill at ease with it or, as must happen to us all, no longer up to it, need on no account despair! But those who have at some time or other been privileged to participate in this type of work will be aware of its tremendous efficacity.
My own first experience, following hints so discreet it took months to work them out, occurred when I was fifteen and introduced me – too soon, I sometimes think – to matters which (if my memory serves me well) are deemed in some sections of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O) to belong to the arcana of the VIII and IX. Ten years later in a crowded warehouse deep within the meat-packing district of Manhattan (now gentrified beyond recognition) I watched dumbstruck as a veritable phantasmagoria of mighty beings were lent form and substance by the tremendous power inherent in what Verlaine called “ce divin phosphore.”5 Indeed, I have only to recall that occasion to be made giddy by the memory of it and, more importantly, to have again at my disposal (for such was the purpose of the undertaking) the ‘phosphoric’ energy simultaneously generated in the theurgic fervour of that night.
But of course there’s no need to cross the Atlantic for such experiences. Members of the gentlest, least pretentious Wiccan group will have experienced something of the kind – and of comparable worth – each time the Goddess deigns to bless them with her presence in the quiet of the night.
On all such occasions the aim is not to gratify the senses – however gratified they are in the process – but to permit the physical to make explicit the spirituality implicit within it. This requires of us an immense act of will, something that again distinguishes Magic from Tantra. There, you may remember, the participant’s will, like the rest of his individuality, is dissolved in a supra-mundane reality where all differentiation has ceased. The magician, on the other hand, applies his will – and such should be his highest ambition – to effect changes that help advance the evolution of the world.5 His is above all an act of love. Of love freely exercised in accordance with his true will, a concomitant of that divine will which sustains the dynamic reality, perceptible and imperceptible, of which we are at once the part and the whole: verum est…. quod superius est sicut quod inferius et quod inferius est sicut quod superius, ad perpetrando miracula rei unius.
Unlike Tantra, which uses the ‘below’ to embrace the ‘above’, Magic, sexual or otherwise, enables the magician, loyal to the Thrice Great Hermes, to embrace the ‘above’ in the ‘below’.
And by so doing, he sanctifies the world.
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1. According to the Puranas there are four successive ages within each maha-yuga of 4,320,000 years. Kali-yuga is the fourth and darkest of the current Maha-yuga, its predecessors (Krita or Satya, Treta, and Dvapara) each marking a progressive decline in the moral, spiritual and physical condition of mankind. Another Puranic tradition speaks of time divisions known as kalpas, divisible into fourteen manvantaras each consisting of 71 maha-yugas, though the duration does seem to vary. Each manvantara is governed by a different Manu, our present one (the “post-Atlantean” as some occultists call it) being in the custody of Vaivasvata (Sk. “Child of the Sun”) whose responsibilities include the ethno-cultural progress of mankind. (Manu – Sk. “Man” – is another term for the Purusha or Paradigmatic Man, comparable to the Hebrew Adam Kadmon.)
2. Usually the red flames occur on the left side (ida) in men, the right (pingala) in women but variations occur as, for instance, when the sexual activity is other than heterosexual. Solitary activity by either sex may produce a brilliant mix of red and yellow flames on both sides, often suprasensibly ‘visible’ to observers. Alas, some esotericists condemn masturbation in terms worthy of those stern Victorian moralists who claimed it led to blindness and insanity. There are also lurid warnings from certain Jewish authorities that onanism (and nocturnal emissions) are induced by Lilith, the first Eve, who then uses the spilled seed to manufacture bodies for the demons in her charge. No less devilish are the incubi and succubi – I always forget which of them does what – who feature prominently in accounts of the witch trials.
3. The creative impulse (Brahman) is other than the “divine Nothingness (ahava), which alone is God. Referred to in the Upanishads as Neti, neti (‘not this, not that’), the featureless nature (nirguna) of God was cleverly expressed by Crowley as God=0. None of which should be taken to mean that God is the negation of everything (in itself impossible since it presupposes a positive ground), but, rather, that God is the absence of ‘something’. And in this case the ‘something’ is ‘existence’ as opposed to ‘non-existence’. Yet by denying existence to God, neither Crowley nor Hindu thinkers call in question the fact that God is. For them existence is secondary, the product of God’s self-awareness, manifesting itself – the Vedas speak of an effulgence of cosmic light (hiranyagarbha) – in the dualistic world of “becoming” (Crowley’s 0=2), of which we are part. (The Kabbalah, of course, teaches much the same, as did the Neo-Platonists, albeit in a typically complicated manner.)
4. In the impending New Age this same principle – that matter is the vehicle of spirit – will be of particular significance to those who encounter the Lord of the Aeon himself, end product of the equation already quoted (note 3): 0=2=1. Outwardly human, inwardly – or in the Thomistic sense, ‘substantially’ – divine, His person will become a valid object of devotion. For out of this Divine Child, as the liturgy of the A.O.M (II) proclaims, there gushes forth the solar light that vivifies creation, microcosmic equivalent of that greater light, more incandescent than a million suns, that is His true, unmanifested self. Especially inimical to the New Aeon are the secret forces currently responsible for the growth in fundamentalist religion and, paradoxically, novel and belligerent forms of scientific dogmatism.
5. The location in Washington Street with animal carcasses stacked on the pavement and in surrounding buildings – there was a pervasive odour of fat and stale blood – may not have been accidental. For as Dion Fortune observed in her book, Sane Occultism, “…blood being a vital fluid, contains a large proportion of ectoplasm, or etheric substance. When shed, this ectoplasm rapidly separates from the congealing blood and thus becomes available for materialisations.” Several psychic researchers, notably the less-than-reliable Harry Price, have observed that physical phenomena are more prevalent during seances conducted when the (female) medium is menstruating. (It may be for this purpose that the use of blood is recommended in certain magical operations.) Luckily, for those who, like me, are of a squeamish disposition, the power of creative visualisation, known in Yoga as Kriyasakti, works just as well.
DAVID CONWAY is co-founder of the English language quarterly Ein Gwlad and the author of a number of books on the occult as well as The Magic of Herbs. His book Magic: An Occult Primer enjoyed enormous critical and popular success when it first appeared. In 2002 his book Secret Wisdom: The Occult Universe Revealed was released by Vega/Chrysalis Books.
The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 110 (September-October 2008).
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