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Perhaps nothing is more exotic, dramatic and sensational in India’s Yoga traditions than the practice of Tantra. No other approach to Yoga has gained such a fascination for the modern mind and its seeking of the bizarre, the entertaining and the enigmatic. Tantra appears to offer both spiritual and worldly success and prosperity and to a superlative degree. It covers not only internal yogic experiences of chakras, lokas and deities, but also has many important healing practices for body and mind. On top of this it adds special means of heightening sexual pleasure, making money, gaining success and defeating one’s enemies – as if it could be used for achieving all human desires. There is in Tantra something for everyone, especially those who may be put off by ascetic or renunciate approaches to the spiritual life such as seem to dominate most of the rest of the Yoga tradition.
Even in India, Tantrics are often portrayed as great magicians with special powers to overcome difficulties and fulfill our desires, using gems, mantras, yantras and pujas to get the Gods on our side and remove negative forces and bad karmas that get in the way of our happiness. Such Tantrics may use well-defined systems of knowledge, particularly Vedic astrology but also Yoga and Ayurveda and claim to be experts in them. But often their claim is more personal, relative to their own special powers or siddhis and connections with deities, gurus or even ghosts that can work for us in mysterious ways that circumvent any outer limitations we may be facing.
Some Tantric gurus are considered to be so powerful that their touch or glance alone can grant whatever wish we come to them hoping to gain. They offer us quick and miraculous means to accomplish what our own efforts, karma and destiny appear to deny us. Naturally, these gurus can charge a lot for such results or demand our personal loyalty and devotion in various ways. Many Indian politicians have routinely employed such Tantrics, hoping to use their powers to win elections and defeat their enemies. This magical Tantra makes for entertaining stories and good novels, giving it an additional glamour.
Even genuine gurus may be looked upon with such a vision as being able to grant our desires, though they may not project any magical Tantric image themselves, so much is the human wish for Divine intervention to make our lives better and conform more with what we would like them to be. Such efforts to use God, Goddess or guru for our personal aims, are clearly not deeply spiritual, but have their appeal to everyone, particularly as the world grows more competitive. This Tantric wish-fulfillment allure is very different than deeper Tantric teachings that require profound knowledge, grace and personal effort to reach realms of bliss beyond ego and desire. But they are easier to get people’s attention with.
In the West, by a Tantric teacher is usually meant largely one who teaches Tantric sex, a combination of a Tantric ritualistic yogic approach to sex along with the Kama Sutras and New Age psychology. Western Tantric Yoga teachers are generally teachers of sexual yogas and may be sex therapists as well. Their claim is to make the experience of sex not only more sacred but also more enjoyable.
Of course, it is in Tantra that we find the most detailed worship of the Goddess, which naturally brings up the image of sex, particularly in this media age. Traditional Tantra is associated with the Goddess or Shakti, the Shakta tradition, which is the main basis of its teaching, so the image of the Goddess dominates most of Tantra. Western Tantra is similarly part of a revival of the worship of the Goddess, which extends into pagan and indigenous traditions.
Yet Shakti is not simply about sex, which is but one aspect of cosmic energy particularly powerful in our embodied nature, but all forms of the cosmic powers. The forces of nature as lightning, sunlight and moonlight are also Shaktis, as are the powers of the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. The electromagnetic forces of the physical world and of the psyche are also forms of Shakti. Shakti worship is not worship of sex but understanding all these cosmic forces and their workings. Great Tantrics can work with all these Shaktis both of the external and internal worlds.
Other aspects of Tantra have come to the West as well, but not without distortions either. Kundalini and the chakras are a common New Age topic, though these are often portrayed quite differently than in classical Yoga. Chakras are not looked upon so much as centers of spiritual experience as in traditional Tantric Yoga as places of physical and emotional healing. Such chakra healing is common in many New Age approaches, including various forms of massage, body work, energy work and pranic healing. The chakras, which are originally energy centers in the subtle body, are often reduced to a physical formula. While this may have its health benefits, it does not unfold the deeper aspects of chakra energy in Yoga practice, which require intense sadhana, mantra, pranayama and meditation.
Western Tantric gurus have also taken up the approach of the ‘crazy gurus’ that were found in traditional Tantra as well. Such unorthodox figures act in ways that are unpredictable, contradictory or even immoral. Being such a Tantric can be a catch all for doing whatever one wants and acting in as unusual and idiosyncratic manner as possible. It can put the guru above any ethical standard of behavior, which is hard for those of us in the West, coming out of a culture of rajas and tamas, to achieve anyway.
This combination of New Age fantasies from the West and an innate Indian need for the magical Yogi has created much room for illusion and distortion, if not manipulation and deception. It also causes us to miss the fact that Tantra in the broader sense is a deep, profound, highly spiritual and very aesthetic way of understanding the conscious universe in which we live. Real Tantra often gets buried under these glittering allures and exaggerated claims.
Such a fascination with Tantra is nothing new in human cultures. Tantra is just another version of the same old attraction to magic, the occult and ritual that we find to some degree in all cultures and was very prominent in the ancient world everywhere. Ancient Vedic rituals, much like modern Tantric rituals, can similarly be employed for all the goals of human life from kama or enjoyment, to victory in battle, to moksha or liberation.
This effort to bend the cosmic powers to our human wishes is there even in monotheistic religions that may consider such pagan practices to be unholy. In western religions, prayer has been used in the same way to promote our worldly or social well-being, like the Christian evangelicals in America performing prayers and church services for the reelection of George W. Bush. The same use of prayer occurs in Islam.
Approaching God – whether in the formless sense, or in the form of various Gods and Goddesses, or saints and gurus – to gain our human desires is one of the first and most common ways for people to attempt. The undeveloped human ego will naturally first approach God with its own needs, rather than any real seeking of knowledge or devotion. Tantra provides one of the most elaborate ways of doing this and recognizes its value as a first step in getting people onto the spiritual path. Chanting mantras in order to increase our prosperity or find a good partner or any other such personal goal is part of that approach. There is nothing wrong with such practices, but they don’t represent the higher aspects of Tantra or Yoga.