A few days ago, someone on Couchsurfing asked what Tantra was. I decided to have a go at writing down what I understand it to be. I am not an expert on this, but I have studied Vedanta fairly closely, and I came to Tantra partly because of its connection to Vedanta (and partly, of course, because Neo-Tantra has a certain frisson of excitement in it).
The ancient practice of Tantra and the modern phenomenon of ‘Neo-Tantra’ or ‘Western Tantra’ are substantially different because they are embedded in different cultures, but there is common ground between them.
Ancient Tantra is a not single cohesive doctrine, but a diffuse family of sacred practices. The common theme was the use of ritual to channel and harness the living consciousness that pervades the universe and enters into our own bodies.
Neo-Tantra is embedded in the Western world-view, which is dominated by the scientific concept of a solid material world that obeys fixed laws of nature. In contrast, the ancient Tantra presupposes a world of magic reality. It leans heavily on the fundamental notion of Maya, which is found in the much older Vedas, was refined in the Upanishads, and stated most clearly in the Vedanta: the manifest world, which seems so real, is an illusion (‘Maya’) and reality is ultimately cosmic consciousness (‘Brahman’). While the Vedanta was founded by Adi Shankara in the 8th Century CE, the body of Tantric practices had already been established by the 7th Century CE. Tantra can be thought of as an embodied understanding of the universe as consciousness, while the Vedanta is an intellectual and meditative understanding of the same notion. You could say that Tantra is the territory and Vedanta is the map.
A core element of Tantra, which has been retained in Neo-Tantra, is the divinisation of the body. Unlike many religions that relegate the body to a shameful object, or even hate it (as indeed Shankara did), Tantra celebrates the body, honours it as sacred, and explicitly infuses it with the divine.
The concept of ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ is a bit different in Hinduism and Buddhism from the trivialised and patronising concept found in the West. For Hindu scholars and mystics, the gods and goddesses existed only as notional expressions of different facets of Brahman, which is the universally pervasive consciousness. In the West, this has been reduced to a ridiculous system of real beings, like comic-book superheroes. Shiva and Shakti for instance, were understood not as real beings but as personifications that help the human mind grasp the active and receptive dimensions of the universal consciousness. In Tantric rituals, the tantrika will achieve identification with Shiva or Shakti, or with other deities, and this involves divinising the body by bringing the deity into union with the body; or, more accurately, by bringing into full consciousness the qualities of the deity that are already present in the body. For, in the Hindu thinking the body is already divine but its divinity is obscured by our ignorance or ‘avidyā’.
This divinisation of the body is also found in Neo-Tantra, although it has lost its grounding because the West has lost the basic idea of the universal consciousness. As long as you believe that the material world is the primary reality, the Tantric notion of divinisation is going to be no more than an empty, symbolic gesture. This is how religions lose their power: the underpinning understanding is lost, but the outward ritual persists.
As sexuality is a fundamental force within the human body and mind, so inevitably the divinisation of the body involves the integration of the sacred with the sexual. In the original Tantra this was a natural conclusion, but in the sexually repressed West, with its long Christian tradition of despising the body and its sexuality, this is an explosive transgression. 'Sacred sex'? This is either very exciting or very horrific to the Western mindset, yet it was a natural and integral component of the original Tantra. And because of this frisson of excitement, the popular media get hooked on Tantra as being all about sex. Of course it’s not. In so far as it is ‘all about’ one thing, it is all about celebrating and harnessing the sacred spirit in the body, fully including sexuality. It is being conscious of the sacredness of all the senses, of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, the skin of the entire body and of course unashamedly the senses of the clitoris, the vagina, the penis, and the anus. Everything is included, from the tips of your toes to the crown of your head. The whole exciting nexus of sensation is perfused with the sacred spirit of Brahman, which you can harness and then incorporate into a more fully conscious, enlivened, and energised life. Every pulsing part of your body is celebrated fully and joyously as an integral part of the divine sensorium in the Tantric (and Neo-Tantric) praxis.
The (Neo-)Tantric path is often portrayed as soft and fluffy. In fact, it is a hard road, sometimes brutally so, that can lead through desolation on the journey toward a different kind of joy. In Tantric and Vedantic understanding, the personal ego-mind is an illusory construct that obscures from our view our true nature of our unity within Brahman. But we habitually invest a great deal in bolstering and defending the ego, resulting in fear and vulnerability. Tantric intimacy (which may be sexual) is transpersonal rather than personal. What it connects is not two ego-minds—which is what romantic love connects and brings with it the package of jealousy and 'ownership' of another person. Rather, what Tantric intimacy connects is the universal consciousness that is embodied in each person. And this is where it can get painful if you are still under the sway of avidyā, for seeing your lover in sexual intimacy with another person is a direct hit against your ego-based vulnerability, and you will fall prey to the agony and twisted thinking of jealousy. Through the discipline of Tantra, however, you will see sexual congress for what it is, a sacred manifestation of Brahman in physical intimacy with itself. Because of this huge shift in understanding of intimacy between human beings, from personal to transpersonal, Tantra lends itself to pansexuality and polyamory. (Which, when viewed through the simplifying lens of Western media, identifies it with debauchery and slack living.)
A group of techniques that has survived from Tantra to Neo-Tantra is visualisation. It has changed a bit in its passage to the West. In ancient Tantra, the visualisation was centred on the traditional depictions of deities: you would, for example, see yourself in a painting of Shakti or Shiva or some other deity such as Ganesh or Kali. Visualisation can also be done with mandalas, which are geometric symbolic forms representing the deities instead of figurative personifications. By shunning anthropomorphism, the mandala is a purer tool but harder to master. In Neo-Tantra, visualisation is much more free-form. Neo-Tantrikas are likely to visualise a certain colour, or a scene of a certain character associated with a ‘chakra’. (Thanks largely to Madam Blavatsky and the theosophists, the concept of a chakra has been reduced to a ridiculous cartoon version in the West. A chakra is essentially a locus of divine consciousness within the body-image. A Tantrika creates and dissolves chakras in her body at will, as they are constructs that serve a specific purpose in a ritual. But New-Agers are locked into the notion of seven fixed chakras aligned along the spine, spinning in some unexplained sense. Whoa!)
Yoga is really a branch of Tantra, although it has been assimilated into the West as a physical fitness discipline. There is a clue in the name, for ‘Yoga’ means ‘union’ in the sense of union with Brahman. Not, as people often assume, in the sense of working to achieve union with Brahman, but working to realise that we are already one with Brahman although avidyā obscures this fact from our view. Because Yoga has been Westernised into a keep-fit regime, the term ‘Tantric Yoga’ has evolved to describe Yoga that is more explicitly aimed at the divinisation of the body, and includes Kundalini Yoga, which manifests the goddess Kundalini along the spine. Curiously the closely related discipline of Mudra, another branch of Tantra, has not been assimilated into the West as Yoga has. A mudra is a specific gesture, normally of the hands, that channels the sacred consciousness. (You can do mudras while sitting at your desk in work, and the muggles won't even know that you're doing magick. But try doing the Asana of he Warrior in your office without being seen as a joker!)
Finally, a strand of ancient Tantric practice that Neo-Tantrikas baulk at is antinomianism, which means deliberately transgressing the rules of the social order in order to achieve liberation from human constraints. This is done to facilitate the transcendent realisation of union with Brahman. Tantrikas would live in a graveyard, smothered in ashes of human cremations, eating meat and drinking wine out of skulls. The Vedic religion of Hinduism prescribes many rigid rules for the conduct of one’s life, and the left-hand path of Tantra deliberately violates the rule book. In the West, something akin to this has arisen, but for somewhat different reasons. So-called 'Dark Tantra' incorporates BDSM (Bondage, Domination, and Sado-Masochism) which uses intense stimuli such as flagellation, fire, and piercing of the flesh, which the brain would normally interpret as pain, to bring the mind fully back into the body and lead it to an embodied state of ecstasy. Tantric BDSM (or ‘Sacred BDSM’ as it is called by those who eschew pretensions to ancient Tantra), shares techniques with what might be termed ‘lifestyle BDSM’. The latter evolved as a kind of transgressive sexuality, but the focus of Tantric BDSM is more on developing sacred conscious.
Authentic Tantra is unlikely to gain wide acceptance in the West, because it rests on a conception of reality that is at odds with the deeply held faith in materialism that is common currency in the West. Not just in the scientific community, but throughout parapsychology and the New Age movement, there is a universal and unquestioned belief that the basic reality in which we dwell is the material world. Parapsychologists and New Agers believe there is some weird extra element—‘psi’, or ‘chi’, or ‘psychic energy’ or whatever—that is layered on top of that material world. In fact, there is no such thing. What Tantra and Vedanta require is a tectonic shift of understanding, in which the entire physical universe is regarded as an illusory construct that arises out of consciousness, and that all those weird phenomena—the magick of Tantric ritual, the paranormal phenomena of telepathy, telecognition, and telekinesis, and the efficacy of spiritual healing—all these take place in the undergirding realm of consciousness, which physical science is incapable of even addressing.
The techniques and practices of Tantra can be useful and enjoyable while you remain in the avidyā of the physical world, but understanding the full power of Tantra requires an intellectual paradigm shift toward Advaita Vedanta. As I said above, Tantra is the territory, and Vedanta the map. You don’t need the map to traverse the territory: but you won't know where you are without it.