The history of Tantra

Leora Lightwoman explains how Tantra evolved into its present day form

Tantra is not a religion, although Tantric symbology and practices have emerged throughout history in all religions and cultures. Representations of the sacred union of the masculine and feminine principles, and the non-duality of this “sacred inner marriage” can be found as far back as 2000 BC in the Indus Valley civilization and the Egyptian old kingdom. Tantric principles are inherent in mystical Judaism (Kabbalah), Christianity and Sufism. Chinese Taoism is another strand of Tantra.

Tantra most obviously emerged in India, between 300 and 400 CE, when the first Hindu and Buddhist Tantric texts were written down, as poetic metaphors pointing to oneness and Divine love. These first writings were purposely obscure so that only initiates could understand them. Before that time, Tantric teachings were closely guarded and transmitted orally from master to disciple only after long periods of preparation and purification.

Tantra reached its climax in the 11th and 12th centuries, when it was practiced widely and openly in India. Tantra refuted the prevalent notion that liberation could be attained only through rigorous asceticism and by renunciation of the world. Tantrikas (tantric yogis) believed that human suffering arises from the mistaken notion of separation. It advocated celebration of the sensual and through so doing transcendence of the physical.

Tantra has been and still is practiced in three main forms: the monastic tradition, the householder tradition and by wandering yogis. Whereas Hinduism had many rules and laws, including strict divisions of caste, Tantra was totally non-denominational and could be practiced by anyone, even within daily life.

Thus meditations on weaving, for example, could be practiced by weavers, as they contemplated the interwoven and undifferentiated nature of existence, whereas mediations on eating, drinking and lovemaking could be practiced by kings and queens.

With the invasion of India in the 13th century came widespread slaughter of Tantrics and destruction of their manuscripts. Tantra went underground, where it has predominantly remained since. Tantric Buddhism was notably preserved in the monasteries of Tibet. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, when monks and nuns were murdered and manuscripts destroyed, those who escaped have found ways to sensitively disseminate this knowledge more widely.

It is customary to divide Tantric paths into two sectors. Those where the individual practitioner works with his/her own sexual energy, mostly internally, are called “right-handed” paths or “white Tantra”. Then there are Tantric approaches that do involve direct sexual contact between love partners, and these are called “left-handed” Tantra or “red Tantra”. These terms, however, are themselves part of a more modern system of classification.

In the west, today, traditional Tantric practices can be found within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and via the Kundalini and Kriya yoga schools, all of which are right-handed paths. There is also the Taoist tradition, which has only slightly been modified, and this is a left-handed path. Daniel Odier was initiated by Lalita Devi in the Himalayas, in the lineage of Kasmimir Shaivism.

The main practices that he teaches are sitting meditation, the “tandava”, a form of very subtle free movement, where practitioners contact more and more refined states of the “divine tremoring” a resonance with the essence of life, and Kashmiri energy massage.

Traditionally, Tantric masters did not advertise themselves, and this is mostly still true today. Many exist, particularly in India, and I am sure in the west too, but you will not find too many Tantric masters via the internet!

Leora Lightwoman read psychology at Oxford University, then trained as a yoga teacher and bodyworker. She has been a Tantra practitioner since 1993. In 2001 she formed her own school, Diamond Light Tantra. This is a pragmatic and eclectic approach to sexual, emotional and spiritual healing.
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt