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Jottings: on defining tantra

“Not knowing that the truth is situated within one’s Self, the deluded is confused by looking for it in treatises. One whose judgement is so poor is like the shepherd who sees his goat in a well when it is actually already within the flock.”
Kulanarva Tantra, 1.96

“the Tantras are generally mere manuals of mysticism, magic, and superstition of the worst and most silly kind.”
Monier Monier-Williams

Sometimes, when I do public lectures on tantra, or just natter on to people in the pub or round a campfire, I’m asked to give a “definition” of tantra. This is something that I’m generally reluctant to do, as tantra is such a wide-ranging field, that it’s well-nigh to sum it up in a one-size-fits-all definition. So for this post, I’m going to explore some of the ways that contemporary scholars have attempted to get to grips with the problem of defining tantra. I’d argue that it’s useful to acquaint oneself with these issues, particularly, if, one is drawing on contemporary scholarship on tantra for inspiration and guidance.

Following a lecture on tantra at Treadwells Bookshop back in 2004 I made the following observations:

“…attempting to define Tantra is rather like attempting to come up with a simple definition of modern paganism or Wicca – as ‘entities’, both are highly diverse, heterodox collections of practices, concepts, ‘traditions’ – continually mutating and shifting categories of discourse, and extremely difficult for outsiders to appreciate. It’s a similar situation with Tantra, I feel, except that given the complexities of history, culture, and the all-pervasive imaginary (i.e. the way tantra has been represented as being essentially concerned with sex and transgression) – it’s even harder. I’ve occasionally likened trying to grasp Tantra like grabbing at a piece of soap in the bath – as soon as you think you’ve got it, it slips out of your grasp.”

I think a great deal depends on whether you take a definition to indicate a kind of summing-up – the “essence” of something, or a more provisional statement that is going to be, of necessity, incomplete, but nonetheless may highlight a feature that you want to (momentarily) focus on.

André Padoux, in his essay What do we mean by Tantrism? ( in Harper, Brown, 2002) acknowledges these difficulties:

The beginnings of the Hindu Tantric Tradition are all the more difficult to find in that Tantrism is a protean phenomenon, or so complex and elusive that it is practically impossible to define it, or at least, to agree on its definition.Is not this difficulty due to the fact that we see and try to define an entity that does not really exist as such? Even if we do not go that far, even if we do not endorse H.V. Guenther’s remark that Tantrism is, to a large extent, “a category of discourse in the West,” and not, strictly speaking, an Indian one. As a category, Tantrism is not – or at any rate was not until our days – an entity in the minds of those inside. It is a category in the minds of observers from outside. To use the fashionable jargon of today: it is an etic, not an emic, entity.”

Contemporary scholars generally agree that the idea of tantra as a singular monolithic category with a distinct existence apart from other forms of Indian religosity – is, to a large extent, a modern construction, emerging out of the collision (or “ping-pong” as Hugh Urban calls it) between European scholars and India in the Imperial period (elements of which I have been examining in my recent series of “lecture notes”). “Tantra” has, over time, slipped from being understood as an empirically distinct fact, to more of a loose term of convenience.

Hugh Urban (2003) argues that the most useful way to approach Tantra is not as a coherent, unified tradition – a singular monolithic empirical category – but as “a fluid and shifting collection of particular texts, practices, and traditions, woven and rewoven with a variety of other traditions … also with a host of other non-Sanskritic and vernacular texts and traditions. … Tantra extends like a network of overlapping, often tangled and contradicting threads that stretch throughout the dense fabric of Indian history.”

This reflects the polythetic approach to understanding tantra, which I’ve occasionally referred to in previous posts, so let’s take a closer look at what this entails.

Douglas Renfrew Brooks (1990), drawing on the work of Jonathan Z. Smith, proposes that a:

“useful and accurate method for understanding the class of tantric phenomena is to view the concept as a polythetic classification in which a “large (but unspecified) number of properties or characteristics are possessed by a ‘large number’ of class members” (Smith 1982, 4). The method is akin to looking for a set of family resemblances by which one identifies a given member. Thus, a Tantric phenomenon may retain certain necessary criteria for admission to the class but no longer possess sufficient criteria. In other words, Tantric phenomena need not possess all the defining characteristics of the taxon “Tantric,” and there is no a priori justification for deciding that any single characteristic is the most definitive.”(p53)

Brooks goes onto say that the polythetic approach allows for the classification of various practitioners who disassociate themselves from the term “Tantric” due to its associations with “moral lassitude or “black magic” (such as Samayacarins, or “conservative” Kaula & Sri Vidya Adepts) as Tantric in orientation. As to what characteristics make up the taxonomic category of Tantra, according to Brooks, “is the scholar’s decision.”

Brooks himself gives ten characteristics of Tantra sadhana (1990, pp56-72) which Hugh Urban (2003) has summarised as follows:

  • Tantric texts/ traditions are extra-vedic – which is to say that the are not part of the conventional canon of Hindu scriptures.
  • They involve special forms of yoga – particularly kundalini yoga.
  • They are at once theistic and nondual
  • They contain elaborate speculations on the nature of sound and the use of mantras
  • They stress the use of yantras or mandalas
  • They place particular stress on the importance of the guru
  • They employ particular stress on a bipolar god & goddess
  • They are secret
  • They prescribe the use of conventionally prohibited substances
  • They require special forms of initiation in which caste and gender are not primary qualifications
  • This polythetic approach has proved to be popular amongst contemporary scholars. Ronald Barrett, for example, in Aghor Medicine (reviewed here) notes the ambivalent relationship between contemporary Aghori practitioners and Tantra’s popular connotations in India, writes of the need “to acknowledge areas of intersection between certain features of Aghor and those that contribute to operational definitions of Tantra in South Asian religious studies” but argues that these features need to be understood within “the relationships and events of their surrounding ethnographic contexts.” (p12) Donald Lopez (1998) also suggests that the usefulness of the polythetic approach is that “tantra, instead of being reduced to some essence, would constitute the intersection of certain of larger number of family resemblances” (p86).

    For Hugh Urban (2003), this polythetic approach presents a difficult question – basically – how many, and which of the “family resemblances” is required before one can usefully judge a given phenomena as “Tantric”? Brooks’ ten characteristics are oriented towards his discussion of Sri Vidya but may not easily map onto to other traditions. So the polythetic approach tends to generate multiple definitions, which are themselves context-specific – depending on a a particular scholar’s interests. Gavin Flood, for example, in his book The Tantric Body proposes that:

    “The specificity of the tantric traditions lies in the ways in which they form a subjectivity, the ways in which the subject of first-person predictates, the ‘I’, becomes an index of tradition, and the way the body becomes entextualised. Patterns of text are mapped on to the body in ways particular to Tantrism and in response to other ways of mapping text onto the body, especially vedic ones.”

    So this “definition” points to something specific in tantra (but not necessarily limited to tantra) that Flood wants to direct the reader’s attention to.

    David Gordon White.In his introduction to Tantra in Practice White offers a “working definition” of Tantra (although he points out that this definition should be modified according to particular contexts):

    “Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.”

    This definition is somewhat broad in its scope – and White, who is famously scathing of what he sees as the westernised “colonization and commodification” of tantra (see his Kiss of the Yogini) is clearly restricting tantra to its “Asian” origins.

    In Kiss of the Yogini White argues forcefully that:

    “The “hard-core” Tantric, or, more properly speaking, Kaula practices are, I would maintain, that which give Tantra its specificity, that which distinguish its rituals from rituals which are not Tantric. Generally speaking, these are ritual acts addressed to a multiplicity of goddesses, which often involve human sexuality and sexual interactions between male practitioners and their female counterparts. It is in this context that the two most salient elements of Tantra, eros and thanatos, emerge. The decapitated and dismembered bodies that litter the myriad tableaux of Tantric expressions exemplify the practitioner who heroically gives up that which is most precious to him, and which is restored to him by the Tantric deity.”(p17)

    He does qualify this by stating that his is endeavour an etic project, and that this “hard-core “Tantric sex,” such does not constitute and has not ever, as far as can be determined, constituted the mainstream of Kaula or Tantric practice in South Asia.” However, this distinction between a “hard core” sexualised ritual practice (which he maintains does not have any relation to pleasure, bliss or ecstacy) and the “soft core” approaches (the “Tantric mainstream”), is not without its problems. In reinforcing his argument, White asserts that “later Tantric sexual practices came to be grounded in a theory of transformative aesthetics … in which the entire universe came to be experienced as Self.” and that these “Exegetical or scholastic Tantric works …. constitute a secondary development, a hermeneutical transformation of an earlier body of practice into a mystical metaphysics, which often systematically distorts the meaning of the original practice itself.”

    As I noted in this post, “It’s easy to come away with the impression that the “real” tantra, is the early, Yogini-oriented Kaula practice, and that anything later, such as the Trika or SriVidya streams, can effectively, be ignored or dismissed.” I think White’s definition here is unnecessarily reductive – potentially setting up this hard-core Kaula as an authentic, originary tradition, from which later forms are a mere distortion. For some critical commentary on White’s thesis, see Geoffrey Samuel’s The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge UP, 2008); Peter Lawrence’s The Teachings of the Odd-Eyed One (SUNY, 2008) and Shaman Hartley’s The Brahma-yamalatantra and Early Saiva Cult of Yoginis (doctoral thesis, University of Pennsylvia, 2007).

    Hugh Urban (2003) makes an important point about attempts to define tantra:

    “our imagining of religion and our definition of major categories such as Judaism, Hinduism, and so on, are always conditioned by our own particular interests, our theoretical positions and our political agendas. Thus, the specific family resemblances we choose to identify as Tantric will always be tied to our own particular historical positions, normative biases, and political commitments. And for that very reason, we must always remain “relentlessly self-conscious” and self-critical in our imaginings of these academic categories, ever attentive to ways in which we ourselves are bound up in relations of power.” (p272)

    Urban is obviously addressing scholars here, but I do feel that this point is worth bearing in mind for those of us attempting to hybridise a tantric practice. For me this point recalls a question which came up in an online interview I gave last year in respect to the difficulties of approaching tantra from a “western” perspective – that I freely acknowledge that any interpetation of a text or practice I make is going to be partial and incomplete – and of course, biased in favour of my own commitments – both theological, ethical, and indeed, arising from my own practice. So too, I follow Urban in recognising the importance of self-criticism and reflexivity in my approach – not only towards my own perspectives, but also the partiality of the scholarly work I am so frequently reading.

    I recall, many years ago, my guru Vishvanath saying that, in his estimation, it would take me at least a decade to even begin making any headway with tantra practice, and that cultivation of a “beginner’s mind” would be more useful than assuming, at any point, that I had grasped the “essence” of tantra. I often feel that I haven’t moved very far from that position – or rather, it’s one I keep returning to.

    Ronald Barrett Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India ((University of California Press, 2008)
    Douglas Renfrew Brooks, The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Sakta Tantrism (University of Chicago Press, 1990)
    Gavin Flood The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion (IB Tauris, 2005)
    Katherine Anne Harper, Robert L. Brown, (eds) The Roots of Tantra (SUNY, 2002)
    Donald Lopez Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra (Princeton University Press, 1998)
    Hugh B. Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2003)
    David Gordon White (ed) Tantra in Practice (Motilal Banarsidass, 2001)
    David Gordon White Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in Its South Asian Contexts (University of Chicago Press, 2003)
    Monier Monier-Williams Hinduism (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1885)


    1. Mike Magee
      Posted August 3rd 2012 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      The Kiss of the Yogini is actually the most stupid book I have ever read – has he ever met a Vetala 🙂

    2. Rebecca 'Bear' Brown
      Posted August 4th 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      Good to see the interview we did over at Pagan Friends Webzine getting linked to; thanks again for doing it.

      A very interesting blog post; I should really make more of an effort to pop in hear and have a read more often…

    3. Martin Jelfs
      Posted August 15th 2012 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

      As tantra isn’t a thing it can never be captured in a definition. We have to keep a critique of Western neo-tantra with its confusion of pleasure and bliss and its attempt to turn tantra into a therapy; as has happened with yoga in the West.
      However, Western therapy; particularly some of the transpersonal ones and Jung can help shape tantra in the West as can some of the body therapies.
      I think medieval alchemy is a strong part of Western tantra and the base metal into gold is the ego into the Soul