The history of a spiritual movement that continually needs to remake itself – by Subhuti
As open as beautiful wives…
The connection between spirituality and love-making in India goes back thousands of years and was first mentioned in Rig Veda, which is considered to be one of the oldest religious texts in the world. For example, when encouraging spiritual seekers to be open to the divine, one verse in the Rig Veda states:
Having spaciousness, make yourself wide open
As exceedingly beautiful wives do their thighs
For their husbands in sexual intercourse.
Likewise, the ancient seers who wrote the Upanishads, another ancient Hindu text, included both male and female mystics and neither sex was obliged to be celibate. Spiritual gurus were free to indulge in sexual pleasure, or to voluntarily choose brahmacharya (sexual restraint). Some Hindu saints lived with their wives and families in their ashrams.
The idea of renouncing worldly pleasures as a way of speeding up the journey to enlightenment may have been practiced in India before Gautam Buddha, who lived about 2,500 years ago, but not on a large scale. It was Buddha and his contemporary fellow-mystic, Mahavira, who introduced it as an essential requirement, teaching their disciples to give up all possessions, including wives and mistresses. Sex was forbidden, but since many of Buddha’s early disciples were royal princes, who’d already enjoyed years of unrestricted sexual pleasure, it may not have been difficult for them to renounce it.
However, one Indian king asked Buddha if it was possible to meditate without giving up sex, so Buddha instructed him on how to bring more awareness to the sexual act. Perhaps this was the first historically-recorded Tantric instruction.
But we must be careful in using the word ‘Tantra’ here, because in the days of Gautam Buddha the term was commonly used in ways that had nothing to do with sex. Tantra meant ‘a method of expansion’ and included any technique or formula utilized for spiritual growth. A person involved in teaching spirituality or meditation was referred to as a ‘Tantrika’. For example, Gautam Buddha was known by his contemporaries as ‘a great Tantrika’ even though he was teaching renunciation and celibacy.
Asanga’s Guhyasamaja Tantra – the assembly of secrets
It was not until 800 years later that Tantra began to be used as a reference to a spiritual movement involving sexuality and that is how the name acquired its present meaning. The Tantra movement began around the fourth century CE as an act of rebellion against orthodox religious attitudes. Its founder was a philosopher called Asanga who was born in Peshawar, in North-West India.
Asanga became disillusioned with Hinduism, because of the intense secrecy with which spiritual methods were guarded by the Brahmin elite. He also rejected Buddhism because of the enormous amount of ritual and doctrine that had been added to the original teachings of Gautam Buddha.
Thousands of rules had been imposed on the individual seeker, governing every detail of daily behavior, and the main emphasis was to condemn ordinary human pleasures, especially sex, love and intimacy with the opposite sex. So, here we can see that Christianity wasn’t the first religion to condemn ‘the sins of the flesh’. It seems that early Christians copied a trend that had already begun in the East.
Asanga created his own doctrine, the famous Guhyasamaja Tantra, or ‘assembly of secrets’, which became the first important Tantric scripture. By the way, this is how Tantra got its name, because the teaching texts developed by its founders were referred to as ‘Tantras’.
Guhyasamaja Tantra demolished the whole ascetic approach to self-realization and swung to the other extreme. It asserted that any man trying to acquire siddhis – spiritual powers – needed the help of a female partner. It praised the virtues of sensory enjoyment, plus the well-being of body and mind, and also the realization of one’s own ‘Buddha nature’ through the union of female and male.
The text declares:
Do not suppress your feelings,
choose whatever you will,
and do whatever you desire,
for in this way you please the Goddess.
In another section, it asserts:
No one succeeds in attaining perfection
by employing difficult and vexing operations;
but perfection can be gained
by satisfying all one’s desires.
Asanga and other teachers of the new doctrine thought they could best acquire spiritual powers through combining ritual sexual intercourse with the use of pictorial mandalas and the chanting of mantras. Their invocations were directed towards female deities in the Buddhist pantheon, such as Taras – the consorts of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – believing that the feminine power could be used as a stepping stone to harness male supernatural powers.
In this way, the new Tantric sects believed they could compel the deities to bestow god-like powers upon their human devotees.
One Tantric mantra that became famous throughout the Buddhist world was Om Mani Padme Hum, translating as “Ah! The Jewel is indeed in the Lotus,” which began as a sexual reference to the male organ of a deity entering into the sex center of his female consort. Later, when this mantra was adopted by other Buddhist schools, it acquired a nonsexual meaning.
Hindu Tantric schools flourished side by side with their Buddhist counterparts. They differed only slightly in their approach, worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses rather than Buddhist deities, and instructing male Tantrikas to withhold their semen instead of ejaculating.
Seen from today’s perspective, the attitudes of some of these Tantric schools seem rather amusing. For example, Tantrikas were given permission to eat onions and garlic – forbidden by traditional monks on the grounds that they make the body feel sexual. To us, eating onions doesn’t seem like a big deal. But there were other forms of permissiveness, such as ritualized incest between brother and sister, mother and son, which continue to be taboo even today.
The sexual rituals described in Tantric texts are elaborate. For example, in one ceremony known as chakrapuja as many as 48 male and female Tantrikas gather together and take drugs – most commonly hashish. The priest begins the ceremony by having intercourse with a nude young girl, feasting and drinking follow, and then the ceremony moves into ritual love-making accompanied by reciting of mantras.
To me, as a modern-day meditator, the chief weakness of the early Tantric movement appears to be its assertion that “perfection can be gained by satisfying all one’s desires.” In my personal experience, this simply isn’t possible. The human mind is a desire-producing machine, so there never comes a point when all desires are satisfied. As Osho has pointed out, mind is a begging bowl with no bottom; the more you try to fill it, the more it asks for more.
What is possible, and what Asanga may have meant, is that the experience of fulfilling a certain desire can temporarily bring the desiring mind to a stop, giving a brief but powerful experience of fulfillment. Encouraged by this glimpse beyond mind, it then becomes interesting to meditate, turn inward, and look within your own being for a permanent state of silence, peace and well-being.
Spiritual powers and awareness to daily tasks
Another apparent flaw is the Tantric idea of acquiring spiritual powers by using sexual rituals to compel deities to give up their secrets. To the modern mind, this seems like pure magic or superstition. But so much depends on the accuracy of historical interpretation. If, for example, the desired ‘spiritual powers’ were really an attempt to slow down the mind, dissolve a separate sense of ‘I’ and experience inner silence, then Asanga’s approach becomes plausible, because – as any meditator knows – these kinds of experiences are available in deep sexual embrace.
A third weakness in Tantra is its vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. There is a fine line between a sexual ritual and a sexual orgy. While some Tantrikas were sincere and authentic, Tantric ceremonies were also performed by wealthy men who could afford to buy young women as a commodity in the marketplace and then use them for their pleasure in so-called spiritual practices.
On the positive side, Tantra made spiritual transformation much more accessible to ordinary people, breaking the monopoly of priests and powerful monasteries. There are tales of wandering mahasiddhas – realized beings – who devoted their time and energy to helping ordinary people meditate by bringing awareness to daily tasks. Even a simple laborer breaking rocks by the roadside is said to have realized his Buddha nature with help from a passing mahasiddha.
Nanak vs followers of Gorakhnath
As Tantra evolved through the centuries, it became a continual see-saw between sincere spirituality and cynical exploitation. At the time when Guru Nanak arrived on the scene, in the late fifteenth century, there was widespread corruption and abuse. Osho talks about this in The True Name, his commentaries on the sayings of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. Osho refers to a meeting between Nanak and the yogis of the Nath-Sampradaya sect, who were followers of Gorakhnath, an enlightened being who’d lived several centuries earlier.
In the name of Gorakhnath, these yogis were terrorizing ordinary people, threatening to curse them with bad luck if they did not give money to them. They were often accompanied by young women whom they obtained as virgins under the pretext of using them for spiritual rituals. Nanak was urging these yogis to drop their superficial lifestyle and return to a true search for inner peace:
Oh Yogi! Assume the posture of contentment and modesty,
Pick up the carrying bag of dignity and honour,
And apply the sacred ash of meditation.
Establish death as your bedroll and make a virgin of your body….
The difference between making a virgin of one’s own body and procuring a young virgin girl to use for sexual pleasure could not have been lost on these sadhus. Osho states that it was because of widespread sexual abuses that Tantra became disreputable in the eyes of the general public and its followers were persecuted and driven underground.
Osho also talked about the Neela Tantrikas, a controversial sect in which a man and a woman lived together naked under a single blue robe (‘neela’ means blue). They did everything together, in this fashion, never for a moment being apart. Unfortunately for them, an Indian king called Vikramaditya was so enraged by their lifestyle that he ordered his soldiers to slaughter all the Neela Tantrikas; not a single couple was to be left alive. About ten thousands couples were killed.
Naropa and Tilopa – a new rebellion
Like any spiritual path, Tantra was subject to misinterpretation, not only by wandering yogis and puritan-minded kings but also, perhaps more dangerously, by scholars and intellectuals. For example, around the eleventh century CE, there was a brilliant scholar called Naropa who was studying at the Buddhist University of Nalanda, located in what is now the State of Bihar. Naropa was one of four top scholars who were constantly arguing and debating to show off their knowledge.
One day, Naropa was sitting just outside the university, reading his texts, when a shadow fell on the book. He looked up and saw an ugly old woman.
“What are you studying?” she asked.
“I am studying Guhyasamaja Tantra,” Naropa replied.
“Can you read the words?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered and started to recite the text, whereupon the old woman became so happy that she started to dance.
“I also understand the meaning,” Naropa added.
Immediately, the old woman started crying.
Naropa was puzzled. “Why are you crying?” he asked.
She answered, “I’m sad because a great scholar like you is lying. Today in the whole world, there is nobody but my brother who understands the meaning of these words.”
That was how Naropa became interested in Tilopa, who was the brother of this old woman. Naropa’s search for Tilopa is a saga in itself, containing 24 teaching stories, but for me the real transmission happens when he finally meets Tilopa and begins to receive instructions from his new master.
These instructions are condensed and telegraphic, and are called the “six words of advice.” Later, each word was expanded, so I will include the full explanation:
1. Don’t recall. Let go of what has passed.
2. Don’t imagine. Let go of what may come.
3. Don’t think. Let go of what is happening now.
4. Don’t examine. Don’t try and figure anything out.
5. Don’t control. Don’t try and make anything happen.
6. Rest. Relax, right now, and rest.
What fascinates me about Naropa is that when he began his journey to find Tilopa he was reading Asanga’s original Tantric text, Guhyasamaja Tantra, which 700 years earlier had been a rebellious document. By this time, however, in the hands of scholars, it had been absorbed into Buddhist mainstream literature. A new rebellion was needed and this came in the form of Tilopa’s six words of advice, which were aimed at silencing Naropa’s scholarly mind, bringing him into a state of meditation.
Loose and natural
Osho has devoted a discourse series to Tilopa, titled Tantra: The Supreme Understanding. It was in this book that I read one of Tilopa’s sutras that has remained burned in my memory, ever since I first heard it, more than 30 years ago:
Without making an effort
But remaining loose and natural
One can break the yoke
Thus gaining liberation.
This, to me, is one of the most important contributions of the whole Tantra movement: the understanding that one does not need to adopt any extreme form of behaviour in order to awaken spiritually, neither asceticism nor indulgence. Remaining ‘loose and natural’ is the best way to explore one’s inner being.
Modern interest in Tantra started in western countries in the 1970s and has continued up to the present day. Unsurprisingly, the age-old mix of sincere practice and sexual exploitation has continued, with several Tantra teachers involved in scandals around the world.
One of the most dramatic was the tale of Machteld van der Brink, a very young Dutch woman who became a disciple of Swami Satyananda Saraswati, a respected Indian teacher of both Yoga and Tantra. Responding to her guru’s demand for total surrender, she became his sex slave and was for years subjected to all kinds of perverted acts before finally escaping from his clutches.
On the other hand, dedicated Tantra teachers like Margot Anand have created international schools that have helped thousands of people to make friends with their own bodies, explore their sensuality and heighten their orgasmic pleasure. Margot Anand’s classic Tantra manual, The Art of Sexual Ecstasy, first published in 1990, has become the Tantra movement’s all-time best-seller. I was happy to work with Margot as her co-writer on that project.
Predictably, though, modern-day Tantra has paid more attention to the sexual element than to the spirit of self-inquiry. The way I see it, there is nothing wrong with creating rituals for sexual enjoyment – as Tilopa says, “the problem is not enjoyment, the problem is attachment.” But without its inner flame of meditative awareness, Tantra is like a paper tiger. It lacks the teeth needed to bite through the superficial layers of modern-day life and give a taste of something profound.
Yes, Tantra can lead to better sex and heightened sensuality.
Yes, it can help people in love relationships by developing skills for enhancing intimacy.
Yes, it can create a dynamic group energy that will benefit all participants.
But the real challenge for those interested in Tantra today is to discover within the Tantric movement the true spirit of self-inquiry.
Anand Subhuti has been a disciple of Osho for 38 years. He first came to Pune in 1976 and has been a regular visitor to India ever since. In the 70s, he worked in the ashram’s Press Office and in 1981 joined the commune in Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, where he founded and edited The Rajneesh Times newspaper. Subhuti has written a book about his life with Osho, titled ‘My Dance with a Madman’, followed by the novel ‘The Last White Man’ and ‘The Pune Diaries’. All available on Amazon. www.anandsubhuti.com – more articles by this author on Osho News