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Tantra’s Metahistory II: The religion question

Is Tantra a religion? Sometimes asking what would appear to be a relatively simple question can open a wholly unexpected can of worms. Over the last decade or so, whenever I’ve lectured on subjects related to Tantra, I’ve categorised it as a form of “religion”. This has been somewhat contentious, leading to some interesting discussions and a few heated arguments. Again, it relates to how Tantra is popularly represented in contemporary occult & new texts, as opposed to academic treatments of the subject. Generally, contemporary academic works tend to treat Tantra as an instance of “South Asian Religiosity”, whilst occult & new age texts – particularly those promoting forms of “Western Tantra” emphatically stress that Tantra isn’t “religion”.

Firstly, let’s look at some of the ways tantra is portrayed in occult & new age books. It’s common to find, for example, that Tantra is represented as an overwhelmingly individual practice – an as “elite” magical practice reserved for the few (see Evola’s The Yoga of Power); or as a readily-accessible spiritual practice open to anyone:

If it were, I wouldn’t be doing it. You do not have to join any group, take any vow, or say any special words to practice Tantra. You do not have to swear allegience to anyone, and nothing bad will happen if you do it “wrong” or differently from other people who practice it. (Interestingly enough, the word religion derives from Latin words meaning “a healing of the wounds of seperation” or “a making whole”. So if that’s what you’re looking for from a religion, then yes, you could certainly find that in Tantra.)
Tantra is a spiritual practice. In an effective spiritual practice, the spirituality comes to you. You open yourself up to it – you don’t have to chase after it. Or, as I like to think of it, the spirituality does you; you don’t have to do it.”
Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-first Century by Barbara Carrellas, Annie Sprinkle, p9

Generally, there is an emphasis on Tantra as a “set of techniques” or a “sacred science” which is open to individuals to varying degrees. The figure of the Tantrika is often portrayed (particularly in occult texts) as a kind of Nietzchian superhero, engaging in “transgressive” practices which serves to take him or her beyond the limits of conventional society. There is however, very little attention (if any) given to Tantra as a social practice – the Tantrika as belonging to a particular group, that group’s relationship to the wider culture, and the relationship between tantrics and the state (Tantrics and king-making, for example, or instances where Tantra became a “state religion”).

When I discuss Tantra as a religion – its these social/cultural aspects of it that I’m attempting to foreground.

So what’s the objection to viewing Tantra as a form of religion? Religion is often associated with adherence to a “tradition” or “external authorities” and dogmatic beliefs. This view of religion is opposed to the view that only an individual can decide for themselves what is “true” or meaningful – a perspective which is sometimes referred to by theorists as “self-spirituality”. This is not how many people would like to think of Tantra – it’s often conceptualised as something which is distinct and seperate to Indian “religions” such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Jainism. A further contributing factor of course, is the view that religions uniformly see sex as “bad” – and the supposed “tantric” view of “sacred sex” implies that Tantra cannot be a “religion.” Some occultists also tend to distinguish between “left-hand path” and “right-hand path” approaches to Tantra. See here for example, where the emphasis on individualism, avoidance of dogma, and relativism make it virtually indistinguishable from other forms of self-spirituality. If this page didn’t have the label of “Left-hand path” at the top of it, all the values being asserted here would fit quite comfortably into any new age self-help book.

In a way, occult/new age presentations of Tantra “defend themselves” by not looking too closely at Tantra as a situated historical, cultural practice. Indeed, some authors assert that this is not only unneccesary, but would actually be counter-productive, for example:

Thus, do not expect a series of foreign words (some might call it ‘hindu babble’) strung together as an answer to a question. To us, such approaches are nothing more than the refusal to answer the question by making the simple complex — for the benefit of the writer’s ego. It would be ridiculous for us to answer questions by employing esoteric Eastern concepts. If we did, this book would be of little use for the Western practitioner.
We do not pretend to be experts in the phraseology, language, culture, etc. of the Eastern path. What we are expert in is the utilization of their techniques to accomplish the desired ends.
In many instances we will deliberately use Western methods and symbols as they are easier for the Western collective unconscious to assimilate and integrate.” Christopher Hyatt, Tantra without Tears

Hyatt’s view seems to be that it is only the “techniques” that are important – the culture and language (“hindu babble” !) certainly isn’t of any relevance. Similarly, the rationale given as to why Tantra isn’t a religion given by Barbara Carrellas & Annie Sprinkle implies that their view of Tantra is quite distinct from that practiced in South Asia, which often did entail joining a particular group, taking vows, and there are, quite frequently dire warnings in Tantric textual sources concerning the consequences of incorrect practice.

Some earlier reflections on this subject

There is also a wider issue here – the appropriateness of attempting to understand Indian theistic practices using the term “religion” (although that’s a question I’ve never encountered coming up in the context of occult discussions). A number of academics, such as Fritz Staal, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Jonathan Z Smith, have argued that the category of “religion” (emerging out of eighteenth-nineteenth century scholarship) is deeply embedded in western cultural discourse but has very little utility outside of it. See also Richard King, in Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and the Mystic East for a comprehensive analysis of how the category of “religion” has been applied to Indian traditions. Gerald Larson however, argues for a reconceptualisation of “religion” so that it does not depend on any particular cultural or historical framework. He points out, in an analysis of Yoga, that:

“…seperations that generate fundamental or crucial category distinctions in modern thought are not at all fundamental or crucial in South Asian thought, even though they may be recognised in some sense … there are some fundamental principles operating in South Asian religio-philosophical contexts that appear to be unique in the South Asian environment and that could prove useful by way of reconceptualizing our notions of “religion” and “philosophy”.Gerald Larson, Is South Asian Yoga Philosophy, Religion, Both or Neither?

I suspect that this is a debate that will rumble on and on.


  1. Danny Lowe
    Posted February 2nd 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Just a very quick comment before working – but Douglas Renfrew Brookes stuff on Shri Vidya might be worth revisiting here, as they are an almost sociological account of this particular set of traditions. I’ve had these books for years (and never look at them!), probably the first Indological stuff I bought – may have to dust them off tonight!

    • Phil Hine
      Posted February 2nd 2010 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      Brooks very clearly locates Sri Vidya as a particular form of Tantric Religion – but then, he is a professor of religious studies.