What is offered under the name ‘Tantra’ is so diverse: you’ll find anything within the range of cuddling workshops, Tantric yoga, Tantric massages and conscious sex courses. It is difficult to see the forest for the trees. So what is Tantra really?
In this article I try to give an overview of the history and characteristics of Tantra, at least as far as I can see it at the moment. Because I am also constantly evolving and learning more and more about this wonderful spiritual path.
As it is said: ‘Ask ten Tantrika’s what Tantra is, and you’ll get eleven answers.’
So here’s my Tantra 101. Questions and comments are always welcome!
1. Where does Tantra come from?
It appears that Tantra originated 5,000 years ago (or probably longer) in Kashmir; a remote province in the north of India. It was one of the many belief structures that make up ‘Hinduism’: a Western coined catchphrase for the thousands of religions once practiced in the vast, fertile valley of the Indus River.
Tantra seems to be strongly influenced by Shaktism: a spiritual tradition in which the feminine, the Goddess, was worshiped.
Tantra spread quickly. That was because it was specifically intended for … everyone. You have to imagine: at that time only the priests or monks were supposed to be in contact with the divine. These men devoted their lives to meditation and private practice; in monasteries, temples or caves.
Everyone could practice Tantra; even women and people from a low caste. Tantrika’s usually had and have a family, a job and a social life. The exercises were designed so that you could do them in between daily activities.
Tantra does not want to leave life, but to be in the middle of it!
And it worked for people. It quickly spread and affected many other spiritual paths as well. The most important of these is Buddhism: our Dalai Lama is a Tantrayana Buddhist.
Tantra has gone through a number of periods of great popularity. It is said that thousands of Tantric teachers once traveled around Asia, teaching as a love couple to anyone who would receive it.
Around the year 1100, there was even an enormous Tantric kingdom in Asia, stretching all across Northern Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar. The famous Angkor Wat temples were built by a Tantric king. If only I knew when I visited them!
However, not all rulers are happy with enlightened, self-thinking subjects. Unfortunately, therefore, there are many stories of how Tantric practitioners and teachers were brutally pursued and murdered.
That is why Tantra has also gone underground for long periods. Practitioners gathered in secret, deep in the dense forests where the neat citizens would not come. Today, the word ‘Tantra’ in India is still associated with black magic and witchcraft.
By the way, you could say that Tantra has become very much above ground again in the last ten years. But in a completely different place: in Northern Europe, the Netherlands and Sweden as it’s new center.
2. How did Tantra end up in the West?
There are two reasons why Tantra became known in the west. A small number of Western scholars studied Sanskrit in the 1970s – an extraordinary language that still is reflected in some Dutch words. These scientists were impressed by the great wisdom they found in the ancient texts they studied, some stemming from ancient Tantric traditions.
Some of these scholars were very fortunate to meet and study with the last of the classical Tantric masters of Kashmir. Christopher D. Wallis was one such person, and he describes this path beautifully in his book ‘Tantra Illuminated’.
But the greatest bringer of Tantra in the west was Osho – previously known as Baghwan. His grandmother was a Tantrika and he had been apprenticed to her. Osho was a brilliant and enlightened teacher in many ways. He had a very good sense of what we Westerners need in order to be more in contact with our bodies. Unfortunately, he was also quite a weirdo, as you can see in the equally entertaining and terrifying Netflix series ‘Wild Wild Country’.
Tantra asks to open you, but you can only do that if you feel safe. When you know that you will be respected when you express your boundaries, your desires or your truth. Though Osho’s coming to the West brought us many good things, safety was not among them.
Creating a safe space; a robust group field with room for all colors: that is what my teacher Carla – founder of the Centrum voor Tantra, added to the world of Tantra. I am very grateful to teach in her tradition.
3. What characterizes Tantra?
In super short this is the vision of Tantra: ‘Our whole existence is an expression of the divine. Everything – including ourselves – is part of an infinite consciousness, an infinite goodness that wants to get to know itself through life on earth.’
The reason we often don’t experience ourselves in this way is because our vision has been clouded by the veils of our ego.
The practice of Tantra is aimed at melting this ego armor. Not by breaking trough it – as it is also part of the divine – but by gradually understanding more about it’s roots within our history. When this melting happens, we experience this in our body. We feel more connected with ourselves, with other people and the world. We increasingly see reality for what it is: divine.
Other important ideas within Tantra:
> Everything life gives us is the research area of Tantra. Not just our ability to love or be aware. Also death, sexuality and intense emotions we all have like hatred or grief: the last (but certainly not minor) taboos of our time. Tantra approaches everything we experience in life, everything, with friendly interest.
> The practitioner’s experience is central: not the Tantric writings or dogmas. Tantrikas are not believers, but researchers. We use all kinds of methods and exercises for the investigation of our own truth.
> Traditionally, Tantrikas practice their spiritual path in life itself. Tantrikas did not meditate for the rest of their lives on top of a mountain. Instead they married, had children, hobbies and exercised a profession. A famous Tantric teacher couple from the Middle Ages traveled around with a business as arrow makers.
> In most religions or spiritual movements, you as a practitioner will mainly focus on increasing your awareness and your presence. And yes: Tantra does that too. In addition, it focuses on increasing our vital life energy. The body, its senses, its feelings and sensations: in Tantra the physical world is not an ‘illusion’. It is something to fully experience and enjoy in all it’s colours.
> Tantra counts all creation to the domain of the divine. This includes everything that is constantly changing (the physical forms in this universe, our body, our thoughts, feelings and sensations) and also the eternal, unchanging ground of consciousness.
5. Are modern and classic Tantra alike?
Probably only partially. The way Tantra was practiced in the Indian jungle for thousands of years is probably partially quite different from how we practice it now. Although more and more translations of ancient Tantra scriptures are becoming available, the exercises were traditionally not written down. Its transmission took place only in direct contact between teacher and student; which is still an indispensable part of Tantra.
Our interests and needs are also probably very different from those of the Indian of the time. Modern Westerners see reality much more from an analytical mind than the people of that time, who undoubtedly lived more in harmony with nature. What we now call ‘Tantra’ works – at least in my eyes – wonderfully for the people of today.
See, Tantric exercises simply have a great intensity. I have seen with my own eyes how people sometimes went too fast in dissolving their fixed ego structure – which is not there for nothing. With too little awareness, you can become psychotic through the practice of Tantra. And you really don’t want that! In India they say: ‘bad luck, try again next life’. In the West we value individual lives differently.
Fortunately, in our time and on this continent, we have access to a fantastic knowledge of human psychology. We have knowledge about safe and insecure attachment, knowledge about the great powers of our ego and our superego, about our narcissistic injuries… In my view, exactly that knowledge provides the security we need to open up in a way that is constructive. An opening that results in a real, lasting connection: with ourselves, with others and with our beautiful planet.
If you are ever going to do a Tantra course somewhere, it is very important to first distinguish whether the supervisors have enough of this knowledge and experience so that you can open up safely.
Experience Tantra yourself?
Got interested? You and your loved one are most welcome for an Avond vol Aandacht ‘Evening full of Attention’ with me: a three-hour introduction to Tantra under my private guidance. You book your session yourself via my online agenda.
Would you like to gift this session to your partner? Send me an email with your address and I will send you a nice card to ‘wrap’ your gift.
I wish you all the best on this rich, spiritual path (which, as you know now, is not a cuddling workshop, conscious sex course or massage!)