08 February 2008

Reflections on Tantra from my experience in India

This blog is a reflection on my experience of a month long visit to India from which I have just returned, and the ways in which it has been an exploration of Tantric principles for me.

Non-duality

A central tenet of Tantra as a path of awareness is that all duality is illusion. Only when the dualities in our consciousness get integrated or dissolved can we see and experience reality for what it really is – without filters. I have found India a magnificent challenge in this regard. Here the sacred and the profane mingle with apparently no contradiction.
  • Even the poorest in India have a primary focus on spiritual practice. In places there are more stalls with offerings to deities than there are food stalls, and I got the distinct impression that spending is balanced that way too. In these stalls with offerings, there are lovely flower bouquets, conch shells that make the sound of the god Shiva when blown, colourful sweets for the gods, tiny plates with rice and bananas and other foods, prayer beads of all shapes and colours, incense, and large trays of colourful powders for giving and receiving blessings on the brow.
  • Holy cow (shit): In India, the cow is Nandi, the animal of the great god Shiva. Cows are therefore sacred. They are also the source of milk, a primary food for many, and dung, which is used as fuel. Cows are everywhere, in the middle of India’s busiest roads, in between food stalls, in homes. They live off piles of waste that you can find anywhere, even around the most sacred living temples of India like the Jagannath temple that I visited.
  • Light and dark: India has both dark and light deities. Examples of the dark are Chamunga, a skeleton goddess who takes sacrifice as offering, and Kali, who carries a garland of skulls around her neck.
  • Sensory dualities: The sensory contrasts in India are overwhelming. Take smell. Air pollution in India is so intense that even locals put on gas masks if they get on to the road. Add to this the smell of waste collecting everywhere. And then in contrast, the finest and most exquisite jasmine oil and the finest sandalwood incense drifting through the midst of all this… Taste is another one. India is a feast of flavours – spicy green coriander sauce, vegetables cooked in 1000 spices, fish humming with the robust energy of the sea. But one needs to taste very carefully, because the food can so easily be off, and India’s stomach bugs are fierce demons.
  • The sacred and the sexual: The temple stone carvings depict an Indian consciousness that sees no divide between the sacred and the sexual. There is a seamless flow from representations of gods and Buddhas in meditation to nymphs, couples, threesomes and five-somes (human and non-human) in an abundance of erotic poses. In Tantric temples, where thousands of people still workshop daily, the sacred center almost invariably contains a lingham (stone carving of a phallus) resting in a yoni (a container with water shaped to symbolize the vagina).

Revering the Feminine Divine

  • India has a long and beautiful history of revering the feminine. Shaktism, for instance, is a large movement in India that is focused on devotion to Shakti, the feminine principle (I like this of course).
  • Opinions vary of whether devotion to the feminine declined or grew over the centuries. In support of the latter idea, there are post-matriarchal temple images such as the 7 Matrikas and 64 Dakinis. The 7 Matrikas are 7 images of the Goddess as Mother. They are magnificent, and formed a central pillar of Tantric practice in some temples. The 64 Dakinis are an elaboration of the Matrikas, and they are depictions of the Feminine Divine in both her Light and Dark side. These images, also, are magnificent and awe inspiring.
  • The many female erotic figures on Tantric temple walls have fascinating mythological connections. They are sometimes defined as apsarases, nymphs who are regarded as minor divinities who evoke, tempt and enchant with their erotic postures and movements. They protect mortal beings, but they also tempt ascetics away from their solitary practice. They love playing in water and are associated with all things natural. Sometimes these female erotic figures are called devadasis; servants of god. The devadasis were never married to the gods; rather, they served as their female partners in the sensuous enjoyment of the gods. Devadasis are dancers per excellence. It is said that they were dancing in the temples before the gods even arrived.
  • People often talk of India as Mother India, and if you ever visit, you will experience why. She welcomes all people and takes care of you in the most peculiar way. And also in her – in India – there is a pervading sense of the cosmos as mother, as home to us all.

Being present in the now/ loving what is
  • India has given me excellent opportunity to practice being present in the moment, regardless of that that feels (or smells) like. India is a spiritual/meditative culture, but with very little concern for creating favourable environmental conditions. Inner silence in India happens in the presence of constant sound – loud conversations any time of the night or day, and no matter whether you stay in a luxury hotel or in a slum; wedding brass bands and fire crackers every day, the call of the Imam at 6 am, chanting over loud speakers from 7am, the blasting and roaring of bikes and rikshaws hooting and revving; trains blowing hauntingly echoing trumpets sounds; flushing toilets, loud spitting and gargling… it’s all there to meet you.

Serenity and neediness
  • India has both. Silent women draped in breathtaking colours carry the still presence of dedication to their households as a meditative practice. Sometimes, unexpectedly, I was met by soft hands that hold compassion and timeless presence. India’s infinite tolerance for whatever new force comes along adds to her serenity. India’s simplicity touched me with a delightful serenity too. In a country where so many millions around you are so obviously living on the bread line, I ate only when I was hungry, and became quite grateful for a metal bucket of hot water to wash with.
  • In contrast with its serenity, India is awash with the childlike neediness of people focused on the game of survival. This means staying on your toes all the time not do be done in with the price of anything, while being told long stories about the seller’s little children back home who depend on this sale. “Madam! Madam!” they call, and hands reach out pleadingly. Sometimes this was exasperating for me – lying on a bed in the middle of an Ayurvedic massage while the practitioner is trying to convince me to buy him a bicycle – and sometimes just plain funny – a priest getting almost aggressive with me when I refuse to come with him, until he explains the reason for his urgency (“Madam, madam – Pollock! Pollock!) India is as cricket mad as South Africa, and the players are revered much like gods.

The dance of spirit and body

India’s mythology and culture has a rich understanding of the dance between spirit and body. Dance in Indian traditional culture is an exploration of the divine. It is fascinating to see how Bollywood dancing has taken on this mechanism into an exploration of new ‘gods’ that we in the West are more familiar with (the idealized lover/fame/money being some of these gods).

There is deep reverence for Shakti as the kinetic (movement) force of existence, alongside the powerful stillness of Shiva, her partner. Shakti is awareness in the ever-changing moving form – which implies that meditation happens not only in silent sitting away from the world (the practice of Shiva) but in the continuing rolling of the wheel of life. In participating in the dance, while watching it with awareness.

I have found in India so many beautiful images of the dancing divine:
  • Lord Nataraj, the many-armed dancing Shiva standing gracefully on one leg, adorns many Tantric temples
  • The devadasi’s and their modern counterparts in Indian classical dance (particularly in Odissi dancing) follow an intense discipline in elaborate handwork, footwork, body sculpting, control over facial muscles that results in exquisite elaboration on the erotic figures on the temple walls.
  • The gotipua dancers of India are young dancing boys from villages dressed up as girls and performing dances similar to those of the devadasi, but outside the temple walls. Their dances are highly acrobatic and angular. I visited dance routs, an exciting dance company that is training these young boys, when they grow too old to be traditional gotipuas, to become magnificent male dancers in their own right
  • From the Muslim mystical tradition comes sufi whirling, which for me was one of the most ecstatic experiences of the whole journey.
  • Dance as celebration and devotion happens everywhere in India – in ashrams, through wedding bands on the streets, through the many, many religious festivals of India, through trance and house and any variation of Indo-European mix of music you may be looking for on the beaches of Goa.

The inner guru

  • India is a land of guru’s. In its ancient wisdom, India has known for many thousands of years that seekers need guidance along the way. In my journey in India this year, I met stated and unstated gurus and priests with profound wisdom and compassion, and many that are blatantly corrupt.
  • The latter I see as a gift, for it helps us to discard with the idea of the guru as somewhere celestial and beyond. It is said that the Buddha of our time would be Matreya, Buddha as the friend. A friend is someone who walks alongside you, helping you to access your own wisdom, and to follow your unique dharma.
  • I have such gratitude for my teacher Rahasya. He guides me with the lightest of touches and with ever-mirthful friendship. He helps me never to take life too seriously, and especially not him. He has developed a unique way of using modern iconography and experience to evoke authentically the wisdom of Tantra in each individual who arrives at the school.
  • And beyond that, the message is abundantly clear: the truth is not fully realized until I deeply accept that the guru is inside.
Tantric practice in India today

India is one of the main centers from which Tantra developed over the centuries. One aim of my journey there was to go experience for myself some of the history and current practice of Tantra in India. Here are some of my observations, filtered through my own experience and limited time in India.

The ancient mystical roots of Tantra in India as a path of totality have become obscured in adaptations and imitations of the initial intent. This had much to do with political happenings, as I shall further explain.
  1. In the 7th to 9th century, Tantra became popular practice with the masses, with the result that Hindu and Buddhist leaders began vying for ownership of the practices.
  2. Tantric temples and practices have traditionally been financially supported by the ruling king. When Muslim rulers took over, this support ended. The devadasi, temple priestesses and dancers that played a central role in Tantric temple practice, now had to seek patronage outside the temple to survive.
  3. On this followed British colonial rule. Because the devadasi now relied on patronage outside the temples, the British regarded the them as prostitutes and outlawed them in the early 20th century. This was the end of a function that had formally secured the continuity of Tantric practice in India. Some devadasi continued their practice underground, but the last of them are ending their years now.
  4. With Indian Independence, the Indian state reinvented the dances of the devadasi but now purely as a showcase of Indian culture. The result was Odissi dancing, a highly complex and beautiful dance form. For some artists and practitioners, the dance is still a spiritual practice of centering and devotion, but it has been cleaned of overtly sexual content. Many of the postures in Odissi dancing are based on the poses of the nymphs in erotic sculptures, but the game of seduction in the dance is always only to show devotion to the masculine divine (Krishna) the way that a wife (Radha – Krishna’s consort) is devoted to her husband.
  5. India has taken on British morality in its reinterpretation of Tantric traditions. Thus I find official guides in my tours of the Tantric temples telling me things such as that the erotic sculptures on the walls were ways in which the old masters wanted to warn people of the dangers of free sexuality. And that a woman touching herself is a depiction of feminine madness.
  6. It was fascinating to follow the process through which guides and priests interpreted the images on ancient Tantric temples. Apart from the influence of contemporary Indian morality (that sees all erotic images as “sexy” or just classifies them as “Karma Sutra” – whatever that means), the processes that guides follow to give meaning to what they see are as wide and diverse as the ocean. One guide that happened to be particularly useful told me, upon my inquiry, that he had received most of his understanding of the temples (of which he was the main priest) through books that an Italian academic had introduced him to!
  7. Sexual regulation in India is further impacting on modern India’s relationship with Tantra. The system of arrange marriages has left men in India with intense curiosity about all things sexual, and an almost na├»ve groping for opportunities. This makes it hard work to travel on your own as a woman in India.
  8. Tantra yoga is an interpretation of Tantra that is active today. This concerns disciplines of body and mind such as:
  • Yoga asanas or postures
  • Hand mudras or finger positions that create certain states of awareness
  • Yantras or geometric shapes that focus awareness
  • Mantras and chants using seed sounds and Sanskrit phrases to create a meditative state of mind.
  • All these practices can be very useful, and have been for me on my path. But if they become the path – if the disciplines become the aim – they become an obstacle.
9. Left hand path cults: From speaking to Indians, I gather that the current popular understanding of Tantra in India is that it is a cult practice aimed at manipulating power. There are cults that use magical rites involving the breaking of taboos and performing magical rites to develop ‘supernatural’ powers and to get land and patronage. This approach to Tantra has become known as the left hand path of Tantra – an approach focused on the ‘dark’ as much as the ‘light’. As with any field of power, Tantra lends itself to abuse and misinterpretation. Ironically, these cults are not that far from the truth. Moving through duality does require a willingness to bring awareness into the dark as much as into the light. However, if the aim becomes personal or tribal power and gain, that will be the limits of its potential for awareness.

10. Imitating the enlightened condition: Seekers in India have seen Tantric masters portray certain traits, such as that they do not get aroused (i.e. do not get an erection) when seeing anything erotic. Ignoring the fact that this response is a result of total integration (the master has fully lived his desires and his fears in this arena, and is thus completely neutral), the followers have devised complex rites of imitation. These include hanging a brick on the lingham (penis) to break the joints and to ensure that the lingham cannot get erect again. Such austerity practices continue today in the Shiva tradition. This may seem ludicrous for us as westerners, but watch closely for the many ways in which we do the same

10. Neo-Tantra: I visited the Ashram of Osho, one of the Tantra teachers of the last century. His interpretation of Tantra, influenced by a wide range of Western and Eastern traditions, is called Neo-Tantra. While he left his body more than a decade ago, his Ashram is now the largest of its kind in the world. It is expensive and highly regulated. Some of Osho’s techniques of awareness that pervade the daily active meditations are:
  • Celebration: Osho created the figure of Zorba the Buddha – the person who can be totally immersed in meditation while being totally immersed in the pleasure of life. In the centre of the Ashram is a beautiful swimming pool with lazy chairs, and dancing happens continuously in a most celebratory way on large marble platforms under trees.
  • Totality of experience: The active meditations are designed to get you totally in the moment. When you are fully immersed in experience, the mind stops, and meditation can begin. And example is whirling. I did an hour of whirling meditation at the Ashram – spinning around my own axis for that amount of time, surrendering to the bliss of it – I melted into all that is, and my heart blew wide open.
  • Surprise and shock: Osho uses Zen methods of unexpected shocks, such as the loud ringing of a gong in the middle of silence, to bring your mind instantly into the moment. Many Zen students have woken up just from being overwhelmed such shocks!
  • I did a workshop on the Book of Secrets, Osho’s interpretation of an ancient Tantric text that describes 112 key meditation practices. This was an exquisite experience, and deeply fulfilling for me. The basic content was the practice of various meditations with a partner. There can be few things more blissful than the state of meditation shared intimately with another, through breath, through touch, through presence in the senses.

Conclusions

I am most grateful to Mother India for the experiences she has taken me through – profound journeys physically, emotionally and spiritually. I have discovered more of the depth and range of experience that is possible for a human being. I have found new edges, sat in new fires, and had moments of ecstasy, rapture and boundless immersion into the moment.

India as a grandmother of the Tantra tradition offers symbols, wisdom and pathways like pearls that have washed up on the beach. But we have to string them ourselves – there is no existing necklace. This moment at the end of what in India is known as the Kali Yuga (age of darkness where materialism would get strong) asks of us to be the creators – the authentic creators – of our own pathways of awareness. And for those who are involved in Tantra like myself, it asks of me to trust my own impulse and insight, and to keep forging a new creation out of the old.

The inspiration of Tantra for me is clear: it is a path of totality, a fast path of awakening. It works so strongly because it is an immersion in what is, denying or suppressing nothing, neither fears nor desires – exploring them fully – contemplating and adoring them like the sculptors did with their erotic carvings on the temple walls. In so doing, we get intimately acquainted with the Leela, the play of illusion of this world – we get to see reality for what it is – to celebrate it – and to live the truth of who we are: one with the oceans of existence.

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