What is Tantra?

dragonflySynergy Explorers

What is the difference between Tantra and everything else related to sacred sexuality / sexuality consciousness / Sex Magick / etc? There is a strong tendency to put them all in the same basket labelled “Tantra”.

The term Tantra (and here I will not speak of Tantric Buddhism, which is a whole different subject) often refers to sacred texts (“Tantras”). These appeared mainly between the 6th and 16th centuries. Interestingly, the majority of them are not (or are scarcely) about sexuality. The authors most frequently mentioned in the texts of the time are Vasugupta, Somananda, Uptaladeva, Abhinavagupta and Kshemaraja.

If you believed you knew everything about Tantra before reading this article, I ask you, did you know these authors? None of these authors describe how to have a better sexual experience.

When sexuality is mentioned, it is in the context of sublimating sexual energy (without orgasm or ejaculation) for spiritual purposes (more soteriological than in the interest of power). For example, contrary to what many would imagine, the word ‘massage’ is not part of any Tantric text.

Pre-Tantric texts

Some of the most important texts on sacred sexuality are not even among the traditional Tantras. The Tirumantiram, for example, appeared in the 5th century (date debated), and thus before the Tantras themselves. It describes certain sexual practices already foreshadowing the sacred writings that followed:

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Retention of semen flow by controlling respiration

This is the meaning of this union;

When in the sexual act, the sperm would flow

The yogi does not let it;

But holds it back

And reaches within;

And a Master then he becomes.

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Effects of retention of semen flow

He becomes master of all Jnana

He becomes master of all pleasure

He becomes master of himself

And he becomes master of the five senses.

This is Pariyanga Yoga

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Pariyanga Yoga is the yogic wisdom that holds the sperm

Those who perfect wisdom

And embrace the woman in the beauty of wisdom

Shall know no sorrow,

Although he is with a woman;

The liquid silver will not be spent

And does not flow into the woman’s vagina.

[By the way, the practices for women are similar and described in several other sacred texts.]

Isn’t it strange that we hear so little about this “Pariyanga Yoga?” Instead, we hear only about Tantra.

The Tantras

The point is that there are many more texts on the subject of sacred sexuality outside of the classical Tantras than among them! This lore would (according to these texts) have prodigious benefits as much for the couple as for physical, psychological and spiritual health.

The Tantras describe a complete philosophy and not so much a sexual practice (although there are short, clear statements about sexuality here and there). Yet, of all the philosophies, that of the Tantras is, in my opinion, one of the most appropriate to associate with the practices of sacred sex.

A need for secrecy

I suspect that the low presence of sex references in the Tantras may be due to voluntary secrecy. It is quite possible that classical Tantra (in its practical form) included many advanced sexual practices, and that these practices were transmitted only by word of mouth.

The brief passages dealing with sex in the Tantras are particularly well aligned with the most beautiful sacred sexuality practices of virtually all other traditions. Thus, the classical Tantras furnish a perfect ideology for the practice of sacred sexuality even though the most direct instructions about sex may be absent from the texts by design.

Why would these passages have been omitted from the texts? Several reasons are possible:

  1. The sexual practice itself can bring about rapid and intense psychological and physiological changes. Not all of them would be positive if the practice were not done well. Mental preparation and personal instruction would be vital.
  2. The concepts might not be easily understood if one had not learned the reasons for their importance. To receive them too quickly could make those concepts appear strange and illogical or even off-putting.
  3. At various points in history, to say publicly that sex could lead to a form of spiritual salvation would have evoked very strong negative reactions from the public and possibly even from the authorities.

Silence on the details in the historical treatises would therefore be understandable.

“Tantra” as shorthand

To claim that one teaches Tantra or that one knows it, and yet thinks that it is only about sex (or better orgasms, or a more fulfilled couple’s life, or any other promise of neotantra) without knowing the works of the authors mentioned above, or without understanding the points made here, is like claiming to be driving a car while pulling a wheelbarrow.

Finally, I would like to add that even if I would prefer everyone to distinguish Tantra from sacred sexuality, it is probably a losing battle. More and more people seem to confound the two. I myself often use “Tantra/tantrism” as shorthand for sacred sex. Otherwise, I risk not making myself understood !!! :p

Stephane Richer
Founder and lecturer
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