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Book review: Modern Tantra by Donald Michael Kraig

Donald Michael Kraig (1951-2014) was a highly acclaimed author and teacher – perhaps best known for his 1988 book Modern Magick: Twelve Lessons from the High Magickal Arts (published by Llewellyn Publications). His new book – published posthumously – is Modern Tantra: Living One of the World’s Oldest and Continuously Practiced Forms of Pagan Spirituality in the New Millennium (Llewellyn, 2015). It is available as a paperback, Kindle edition, and via Scribd subscription.

As alluded to in the book’s subtitle, the audience for this book is mainly Pagans and Western ceremonial magickians or occultists, generally with no background in Hinduism, looking to study Tantra. Given Kraig’s background in western ritual magic, it is perhaps understandable that Modern Tantra makes frequent references to Qabalah, Aleister Crowley, and western magick. Kraig’s aim is ambitious. He sets out to create an entire system full of rituals and exercises, goddesses, mantras, and yantras, festivals, altar tools, astrology, and more for the modern Pagan interested in Tantra.

Though Kraig takes pains to differentiate what his book is teaching as Tantra and so-called “Neo-Tantra” (a term generally used to denote Western “sacred sexuality”), the book is influenced by both traditional Tantra and Western “sacred sexuality” (as well as by the Western magickal tradition, generally). That said, Kraig’s book is an improvement over previous attempts on the subject from Western occultists, as there are actual elements of Hindu Tantra.

As far as Kraig’s credentials in Tantra are concerned, he was an initiate of AMOOKOS (The Arcane Magical Order of the Knights of the Shambhala), a British-based group of Western ceremonial magicians that has a focus on Tantra with a link to the Nath lineage of Shaivism. (It should be mentioned here that AMOOKOS founder Mike Magee runs the excellent online Tantrik resource Shiva Shakti Mandalam).

Modern TantraIn scope, Modern Tantra is fairly comprehensive. There is an introduction of various Hindu deities along with mantras used to worship them, as well as an introduction to the group of goddesses known as the Mahavidyas. There is an extensive section on the significance of the Sri Vidya tradition including the visualization of the Sri Yantra and the goddesses who reside within it. There are instructions for puja, a daily ritual, and introductions to various “tantric” ritual objects – such as bell, mala, yoga staff, ghee lamps, an image of a deity, incense, and a tiger skin (Kraig does say that, of course, tigers are now an endangered species). Later in the book, we are introduced to Tantric concepts of the body, nadis, chakras, kundalini, astrology, Tantric magick, even of healing and nutrition, all of it in mostly clear language. Kraig also has a talent for applying Indian concepts such as the kleshas in down-to-earth personal anecdotes.

These are all excellent for the beginner and it’s those people that need a little hand-holding when it comes to taking on such a complex system as Tantra, that I recommend this book. However, I make that recommendation with great reserve. Specifically because the book is full of some very questionable assertions and divergences.

The book opens with a very long (and frankly, quite eccentric) foreword by the late Llewellyn publisher Carl Llewellyn Weschcke that rehashes many of the classic New Age misconceptions about Tantra. The piece connects Tantra to psychic phenomena, out-of-body experiences/astral travel, shamanism, and all manner of questionable history. Bizarrely, Weschcke claims Tantra is not a religion itself but rather a “Complete Spiritual System of Personal Growth and Psychic Empowerment”. (Capitalization by Weschcke.)

Kraig himself states that “the ancient Pagan system of traditional Tantra is one of the
sources of ancient Judaism and the Kabalah” yet at the same time he separates Tantra from contemporary Hinduism by claiming that Tantra predates Hinduism. He also makes the (once popular in the 19th century but completely unsubstantiated) claim that the Druids come from India (and thus are somehow connected with Tantra). These strange, and strangely unnecessary, claims make it difficult to recommend this book strongly.

The author attempts to present this material as a “complete spiritual system” for a modern audience. This in and of itself is admirable, however, Kraig neglects to include (perhaps very intentionally) anything but a cursory history of Tantra in India. There’s no mention of its various lineages, lengthy history, major figures (for example, Abhinavagupta), or historical texts. While he does make the claim that readers shouldn’t accept his writing as being “written in stone” and claims that he is only presenting “one” approach to Tantra, he also does not provide much traditional material to give his readers some perspective in order to form their own opinions. Given the richness of the traditional material, I see this as a failed opportunity.

As to be expected with any book from Western occultists on Tantra, there is also a great deal of emphasis on sexuality. Although sex in some form has been a part of Tantra since ancient times,Tantra itself is not ‘about’ sex. After recently reading Christopher Wallis’ excellent book Tantra Illuminated (see this post for review) and its distinct lack of discussion of sex in a book on Tantra, reading Kraig’s book almost seems to be a regression to the days where Tantra was solely equated with sexuality.

For an example, many of Kraig’s group rituals begin with the invocation “I cast this circle with semen glow”. Additionally, nearly all of Kraig’s group rituals call for being “digambara” (i.e., ‘skyclad’ or naked). While Kraig adds the disclaimer that ritual nudity should not be coerced, he also says that if a person is unwilling to get naked for a ritual, it means that Tantra probably isn’t the path for them.

While I’m far from prudish, given the issues of harassment women tend to have in mostly heterosexual male occultist groups, this is a problematic approach to Tantra. Particularly as it seems to be a modern creation of Kraig’s. I’m not opposed to ritual sexuality or sacred sexuality. Given today’s open and frankly sexual society, using Tantra as a pretense to Western sex rituals seems outdated and unfair to the beauty of Tantra, which is a deep and compelling spiritual practice in and of itself without having to focus on sexuality to draw people in.

That’s not to say that Kraig’s book has no use. Hindu Tantra itself is very complex and can be confusing. It helps to have an entry point and Kraig’s book can be that. But there is a great deal of dross one must pick through to find the valuable material.

When the book sticks to traditional approaches, it can be a valuable resource for beginners looking for some sort of direction. However, when it spends a great deal of time on modern material (such as the group rituals, Weschcke’s oddball introduction, or the bafflingly long and involved myth that makes up Part One of the book), it often misses the mark.