Tantra and its Misconceptions- Reclaiming the Essence from the Illusions

Tantra and the Body                           
Tantra affirms the importance of the body as a temple for the Divine and grants it a sacred reality. It views our psycho-physical organism as a microcosm in which the individual soul can understand the workings of the entire universe. For this reason Tantra has been regarded as a body-affirmative form of spiritual tradition, as opposed to teachings which negate the body. However Tantra does not affirm ordinary bodily identity, but sees the body as a mystic symbol. Yoga and Vedanta, which have been criticized as being against the body or anti-life, do not condemn the body either; they only negate attachment to the body and the sense of bodily identity (the I-am-the-body idea). Yoga looks upon the body as a temple for the Divine and as a mirror of the universe. On the other hand, ordinary values that affirm the body as the means to ultimate happiness end up abusing the body in order to achieve pleasures that are never really fulfilling anyway.

The body is the best vehicle nature can provide to aid us in our spiritual growth and is a great symbol for the different levels and powers of the cosmos. However, the body is not our true Self. The body is subject to disease, decay and death and cannot possibly provide lasting happiness, which can never be found in anything transient. However marvelous a vehicle the body may be and however much we can learn from it, there is no more bodily fulfillment than there is fulfillment for our automobile, which like the body is an instrument of experience but not our true identity.

We should respect the body and care for it properly because it is our means of gaining experience and enlightenment. Without energy and sensitivity in the body we cannot go far on the spiritual path. There is a natural intelligence in the body that shows us how to use it in the right way. This intelligence, which is part of the cosmic mind, reveals itself when we no longer use the body to pursue personal desires but as an instrument of developing higher awareness. The truth is that we are inherently happy and free as conscious beings, even without a body. Supreme happiness lies in being who we really are, which is not mere flesh but pure awareness. Hence the idea that Tantra is body-affirmative can be misleading and should be understood only in the sense that Tantra regards the body as a sacred ground for the Divine Self to be realized.

Tantra and the Reality of the World
Along with the idea that Tantra is body-affirmative is the idea that Tantra is world-affirmative and Tantric philosophy grants a reality to the external world which is not found in other systems. According to this view there is an inherent opposition between Tantra and systems that negate the world (and the body) as unreal. Some Tantric teachings do give more reality to the world of manifestation than the Mayavadic or illusionist view of non-dualistic (Advaita) Vedanta, which states that the world is unreal and God is the only reality. Typical in this respect is Kashmir Shaivism. However, the Tantric systems which affirm the reality of the world affirm its reality as consciousness and are quite removed from modern materialistic conceptions.

Contrary to this view, we should note that the predominant form of Tantra in India today - the worship of the Goddess through the Sri Chakra - is generally presented from the perspective of non-dualistic Vedanta. Many great proponents of world-negating Vedanta have been Tantric masters. Most notable is Shankaracharya, the greatest of the Vedantic philosophers, who wrote many famous Tantric works on the worship of the Divine Mother (like Saundarya Lahiri).

The Shakta tradition itself (the tradition that worships the Goddess or Shakti) is generally Advaitic and Mayavadic and asserts that the world is unreal. The Devi Bhagavata Purana, one of the most important Tantric works on the worship of the Goddess, gives such a teaching. This is unlike the Srimad Bhagavatam of the Vaishnavis (worshippers of Vishnu), which follows a dualistic (dvaita) view of creation. As Vaishnava teachings grant reality to the outer world, we can see that this view has never been regarded as the sole property of Tantra.

Hence there is nothing in Tantra which is inherently opposed to world-negation approaches, nor is there anything in world-negation approaches that is inherently opposed to Tantra. There is not only a strong Tantric tradition of world affirmation; there is also a strong Tantric tradition of world negation. In the world-negation traditions the Goddess herself is worshipped as the Supreme Self or Absolute beyond all manifestation.

Tantra and Emotions
There is a trend today, particularly in psychological circles, to emphasize the value of expressing emotions or reliving powerful emotional experiences and traumas. This is to counter a cultural tendency to suppress emotions and to deny our feelings. Tantra looks upon emotions as tools for spiritual growth. Hence Tantra has been regarded as affirming the validity of emotions, as compared with traditional spiritual teachings which negate emotion.

However, traditional Tantra does not encourage mere emotional expression, which only causes greater attachment to emotions and through them into the outer world. Tantra regards emotions as trapped energy and seeks the release of that energy, in which the form of the emotion subsides like a wave into the sea of awareness. This process occurs when we recognize that emotions are various cosmic energies limited and broken up by patterns of attachment. Tantra uses forms of the Gods and Goddesses - like peaceful or wrathful deities - to help us contact the cosmic meaning of emotion, which is just a force of nature. Seeing the Divine energy, or play of consciousness, inherent in emotion, we discover emotion as a means of relating to the Divine within us. While Tantra does not deny emotion, it should not be associated with mere emotionalism but with the alchemy of transmuting human emotions into Divine energies through developing devotion. Tantra does not emphasize the personal expression of emotions but the understanding of emotion as a play of consciousness.

Nor do traditional or so-called ascetic yogic approaches simply suppress or deny emotion or any other force of nature, which cannot be a means of liberation for anyone. It is not emotion or any aspect of energy in itself that Yoga seeks to negate but the ego, which is the selfish appropriation, and therefore abuse, of the beneficent energies of life. Yoga does not encourage suppressing anything that is natural to us, but discovering our true nature in which we can naturally let go of all attachments and dependencies.

Tantra and the Use of Intoxicants
Those who use psychedelics or mind-altering drugs have claimed some affinity with Tantra, where the use of intoxicants sometimes occurs. Like the sexual practices, Tantric teachings regard the use of intoxicants as a preliminary step or as a metaphor - wine for example signifying the inner flow of bliss released by the practice of Yoga. The use of intoxicants is found in Tantra but is also not characteristic of it. There has been some use of marijuana (ganja) by Indian sadhus outside the Tantric tradition as well, but most teachers do not encourage this.

While psychedelic drugs take us out of ordinary consciousness and may help open our horizons in life, their ability to do so is limited and to use them repeatedly must have side-effects. There ways to do this which are safer, more beneficial and long-term ways to do this, as in the mantric and meditational practices of the primary yogic path.

Tantra and Crazy Gurus
Tantric gurus, particularly in this country, have a reputation for acting in an unconventional, dramatic or even contradictory manner, which sometimes includes entering into sexual relationships with disciples, or acting toward them in an abusive manner. Tantra, with its open view of things, is more tolerant of such exceptional behavior, and some Tantric teachings say that such methods can, under certain circumstances, be helpful in shocking a disciple into awakening.

Yet such unconventional behavior can be used as an excuse to cover an inability to control our desires, and can result in exploitation. We should note that many Tantric gurus have been figures of the most exemplary conduct, and unusual behavior is not a necessary prerequisite of Tantric teachers. This does not mean that a true teacher cannot act in an unconventional manner or that he must cater to the disciple's preconceptions, but that being a teacher should generally require a higher, not a lower standard of behavior than that of ordinary people. Being a spiritual teacher should not be a license to do what one wants but an example for others to follow. Hence crazy gurus or crazy wisdom is not the essence of Tantra, though it has a niche within Tantric history.

We should also note that many of those who have become famous in the West as Tantric or crazy gurus have not themselves come from any real traditional background, and many have been self-proclaimed gurus, without having had any real guru of their own.

Not surprisingly, Tantra does have a bad reputation in a number of spiritual circles. This is largely owing to the excesses of Tantra which can include unusual sexual practices, intoxicants, magical practices to inflict harm or take control of other people, and other methods considered to be impure. For this reason many teachers - including some who have been true Tantric teachers - have avoided using the name Tantra. They may prefer to emphasize Vedic, Yogic or Vedantic traditions that include Tantra but are not tarnished by its misconceptions. Swami Vivekananda himself - the first major figure to bring Yoga and Vedanta to the West a hundred years ago - was careful to avoid introducing Tantric concepts to Western audiences, though he was familiar with them from his own teacher Ramakrishna, who was a Tantric adept. This was not only to avoid offending the Victorian mind, but to avoid appealing to the sensate side of the modern mind, which was also in evidence in his time.

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