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Lecture notes: Omar Garrison – I

Back in 2012 I started a series of posts entitled “Lecture Notes” which related – in various ways – to the lecture I did at Treadwells Bookshop that year examining the widespread view that tantra is fundamentally, about sex. More specifically, I wanted to present the idea that this identification is the end-product of particular historical processes and cultural ping-ponging, and chose to do so by looking at three different textual representations of tantra & sexuality – the writing of William Ward at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Richard Burton’s translation of the Kamasutra at the other end of the nineteenth century, and finally Omar Garrison’s Tantra: the yoga of sex which was published in 1964. (there were also two posts on Edward Sellon which was an initial dive into the fuzzy boundaries between anthropology and pornography). But I never actually got around to writing up some of my thoughts on Omar Garrison until now, having become sidetracked into looking into early sexological writing on the subject of “sacred sex” (Marie Stopes and Havelock Ellis) and some futher work on the Kamasutra.

Lately I’ve noticed a tendency – particularly amongst scholars who are critical of neotantra – to basically lay the blame for “tantric sex” squarely on the shoulders of Pierre “Omnipotent Oom” Bernard and Alesiter Crowley – David Gordon White for example, in his recent biography of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (review here) dismisses both parties as “fraudulent self-proclaimed practitioners of Tantric Yoga”. Personally, I tend to think that – although Oom and Crowley may have played a part in the representational process which has resulted in contemporary teachers of tantra having degrees in sexology rather than Sanskrit – there were other actors as well who perhaps deserve some examination.

So to Omar Garrison’s Tantra: the Yoga of Sex.

Psychedelic Orientalism
In the 1960s, tantra was enthusiastically embraced by exponents of the counter-culture. India was frequently portrayed as a place of spiritual freedom and awakening, and untouched by western materialism. India become a popular site for identity work and self-development, and part of the allure was that India was seen as the home of a natural, spontaneous sexuality quite different from the repressive morality of America or Britain. Well before the advent of popular gurus such as Rajneesh or Swami Muktananda, there was a rising interest in tantra. A letter written by Aldous Huxley to Timothy Leary in 1962 for example, has Huxley linking tantra to psychoanalysis and gestalt therapy, suggesting that tantra as “enlightenment achieved, essentially, through constant awareness” is probably the most suitable context for imbibing LSD and mushrooms. Huxley’s novel Island (1962) has quasi-tantric undercurrents, – it concerns a utopian community which uses a hallucinogenic mushroom called ‘moksha’ which grants mystical insights, and a contemplative sexual practice termed ‘maithuna’.

Tantra: the Yoga of Sex (TYS) was first published by Julian Press in 1964 (the same year that saw publication of Timothy Leary & Richard Alpert’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead).

I haven’t been able to find much in the way of biography for author Omar Garrison. He was, throughout the 1950s-60s, religion and science editor for the Los Angeles Mirror and author of 14 books, including a biography of Howard Hughes, an “expose” of the secret world of interpol, and of course, Tantra: the Yoga of Sex. After writing a couple of books which were generally favourable to Scientology, Garrison was made Hubbard’s “official” biographer for a time, but no book ever emerged. Some sources say that Garrison was a war correspondent, and that he had a Ph.D from a London university. He married Virginia Herrick, an American B-movie actress, and died in 1997. He also has a small degree of infamy amongst occultists due to his 1952 Los Angeles Mirror story about the death of Jack Parsons, entitled Sex Madness Cult of Slain Scientist Revealed.

TYS sets the tone for much subsequent writing about tantra and sacred sex; it promises, at the outset to reveal hitherto little-known secrets. According to Garrison, tantra provides each seeker with a manual for embarking on the adventure of “self-exploration and self-conquest”. Garrison also stresses that the contents of the book differ from previous, generalised published accounts of tantra, as the exercises and rituals here have been adapted by a Bengali Guru ” a successful man of the world and an adherent of Tantra Shastra. He also stresses that tantra is a “secret doctrine” and is intelligible only to those who possess the correct “keys” but that this does not prevent Americans from practicing Tantra: Garrison quotes the un-named Guru:

“Shastra has also made it perfectly clear that the fruits of attainment in previous births are not lost. No matter at what place on earth the Jiva (soul) takes another body, all that he needs to know for his sadhana will, in one way or another, be disclosed to him. This knowledge may come from a dream, a book, a sudden intuition. In the Kularnava Tantra we are even told that Supreme Shiva himself takes human form and secretly wanders about the world in order to assist shishyas (aspirants).”

TYS is perhaps more cautious than later western writing insofar as Garrison does acknowledge the importance of having a teacher or guru – TYS is presented as taking the reader as far as it is safe to go before seeking out a teacher.

The foreword, by one William S. Krogar, MD, stresses that tantra is “scientific” and that “these ancients had a view and an understanding of man which, when added to our Western practical approach and development, can add to our stature, increase our ability to perceive and give us a higher purpose and meaning for living.” Krogar, although he acknowledges the work of Freud and modern medicine’s efforts in improving the “more natural and dignified appreciation of the sex function” – laments a modern tendency to view sex “as though it were something that takes place mechanically on purely a rational plane.

TYS’s philosophy of tantra is begins with familiar ideas such as that the universe is permeated by a single energy or power; that the cosmic macrocosm is mirrored by the human microcosm, that science has tried to reduce sex to biology, and all religions have tried to control sexuality. Garrison places great stress on the “union of opposites” and gives a lengthy account of polarity where the female is equated with magnetism, and the male, electricity. This “bio-electrical duality” is the central idea behind all forms of tantra, says Garrison, and points out that this polarity is the common ground between Western and Eastern forms of magic:

“Rituals may differ between school and school, between East and West, but the common ground and basic constant for all must be reintegration of the two poles of being. In our darkening age of Kali, there is no other way.”

Polarity is also extended to the flow of breath, and Garrison reveals that the flow of breath through left or right nostrils will, if conception occurrs, determine the sex – and sexuality of the child. If the man breathes through the right nostril and the woman the left, the child will be male. If the woman breathes through the right nostril and the man, left nostril, the child will be female, and if both parents have synchronised their breaths, the child will have a predisposition towards homosexuality.

“Weird Practices of the Brothers of the Left Hand”
Perhaps the oddest part of TYS is the short section headed: “Weird Practices of the Brothers of the Left Hand” which is worth quoting in its entirety:

“In many parts of Tibet, Tantrik magicians, so-called “brothers of the left-hand,” have evolved powerful and frightening ways of using the energy derived from sexual union – not always to good ends.

One order of Tibetan nuns is known to keep spies among the general populace for the purpose of locating and enspelling sexually vigorous young men. These victims are then taken to remote convents where they are held in thrall and used as a source of psychic galvanism for various occult practices.

If we are to believe the account of an English writer, women are similarly spirited away by the Dugpas – a sect of Red Cap lamas – for the same purposes.

Another and even more dangerous kind of vampirism is secretly practiced in some parts of India. A young and healthy person of the opposite sex is chosen for this technique. Knowing that sublimated sexual energy is stored in the spinal fluid in a form known as ojas, the Tantrik of the left-hand inserts a hollow needle into the donor’s spinal column between the vertebrae and near the base, withdrawing a small amount of fluid.

Then, in a similar operation, he takes from his own spinal column a smaller amount of the fluid. The two are mixed together and re-injected into his own spine. It must be strongly emphasized that this procedure is extremely dangerous and should never be undertaken by the layman. It and other practices mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs, are cited merely to indicate to the reader the wide scope of Tantrism. At one end of the spectrum, we have the loftiest motives and noblest ideals. At the other, we find negative sensuality, vampirism and magic.”

The “English writer” is a reference to Elisabeth Sharpe’s 1936 novel Secrets of the Kaula Circle which features a lurid account of Chakra Puja in which each participant has to drink 42 bottles of wine (see this post for some related discussion).

What’s particularly curious here is that earlier in the text, we are told that “the present work is in no sense a complete exposition of Tantrism. Rather it is concerned with that portion of it known as Vamachara.”

TSY also has sections dealing with dreams, reincarnation, the five senses, the subtle body, the secret meaning of colour and colour’s effects on sexuality, and inevitably, chakras. There is an account of tantric miracles and a discussion of “psycho-mental energies” during which Garrison discusses Tibetan Tulpas from the account of Alexandra David-Neel.

TYS can be seen as a kind of template for later tantric-sex manuals, making explicit links between ancient Indian wisdom and contemporary science; stressing the necessary modification and updating of the practice to a western audience whilst at the same time promising to reveal timeless secrets. There’s also the inevitable tension between ancient wisdom and individualism.

In the next post in this series (which hopefully won’t get put on the back burner for four years!) I’ll take a closer look at the structuring themes in TYS.

Omar Garrison Tantra: The Yoga of Sex (Causeway Books, 1964)
Richard King Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’ (Routledge, 1999)
Jeffrey J. Kripal Remembering Ourselves: On Some Countercultural Echoes of Contemporary Tantric Studies in, István Keul (ed) Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond (Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2012)
Jeffrey J. Kripal The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Gita Mehta Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East (Simon and Schuster, 1979)
Martin P. Starr, The Unknown God: W.T. Smith and the Thelemites (Teitan Press, 2003)
Hugh Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (University of California Press, 2003)