The spiritual practice of Tantra, this practical path of self-realization, has often been misunderstood and misrepresented. In ancient India, for example, Tantra was often practiced at night in secret by Vedic priests who were bound by dogma not to admit to its powerful transformative effects. In part because Tantra often was practiced in secret at night, it is often associated with black magic in India. In the West, however, we often equate Tantra with sex. But why?
According to noted yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein: In the West,Tantra has most commonly been reduced to “a mere discipline of ritualized or sacred sex. In the popular mind, Tantra has become the equivalent to sex. Nothing could be farther from the truth!”
People in the West sometimes flippantly equate the transcendental bliss achieved in Tantric samadhi (Oneness with Consciousness) with the physical pleasure of sex.
The reason for this misunderstanding has mainly arisen from a lopsided interpretation of the so-called Five M’s. “It is so called,” writes Feuerstein, “because the names of the five ‘ingredients’ or ‘substances’ (draya) in the ritual all start with the letter M: Madya (wine or liquor), Matsya (fish), Mamsa (meat), Mudra (parched grain) and Maithuna (sexual intercourse).
These Five Ms are also referred to as the ‘five principles’ (panca tattva).” Feuerstein decribes how the first four ingredients of these so-called ”left-handed path” practices of Tantra are “all thought to have an aphrodisiacal effect,” although “scholars have speculated a great deal” about the fourth ingredient.
“The final ritual ‘ingredient,’ Maithuna,” he writes, “epitomizes the entire Tantric program… The sexual union between male and female practitioner… the utterly blissful transcendental identity of Shiva and Shakti, God and Goddess.”
But that does not mean, as the mythmakers will want us to believe, that sex epitomizes the entire Tantric program!
In actuality, the spirit of Tantra implies that ordinary activities and enjoyments such as eating, playing, writing, and sex are seen as relative expressions of the Absolute. They are thus imbued with sacredness and spirituality.
In other words, eating large amounts of certain kinds of food or having excessive sexual activity will not automatically intensify one’s spiritual vision. Tantra sees nothing wrong with seeking pleasure as this indeed is the underlying reason for our quest for the ultimate spiritual pleasure, or ananda (bliss). But these mundane pleasures, according to Tantra, are not to be mistaken for the ultimate spiritual union with Brahma, which is the goal of yoga. Moreover, practiced in excess, sexual activity tend to turn us into compulsive slaves rather than liberated souls.
We humans desire and deserve endless pleasure, but pleasure derived solely from the senses, from material things, are limited. Why?
First, the source of pleasure, the physical world, is limited. You may only have so much money or so much sex, it’s not in endless, infinite supply. Thus these finite things cannot satisfy our infinite desires.
Secondly, the mind derives pleasure from objects as long as that object satisfies our karma (or samskaras), that is, our desires are based on unfulfilled fruits of our past actions. But once those past, unfulfilled needs have been fulfilled, we look for new enjoyments.
Thirdly, our sense organs, which enjoy sensual and physical pleasure are themselves limited. They will wear out, get old, used up. What used to feel or taste so good will, after a few dozen or a thousand repetitions, feel somewhat lackluster and boring.
We humans continually look for new stimuli, for new ways to get satisfaction (hence the advertising industry, right? But if you do your yoga right, sooner or later you will realize that nothing in this physical world can give us pleasure forever. The real spiritual pleasure, the real source of love and happiness comes from within, from the spirit world, not from the senses.
Thus the misconception in Western New Age circles that sexual Tantra represent some special pathway to sacred spirituality is contrary to the inner essence of this ancient and sublime practice. Because true, lasting pleasure comes, according to Tantra, not from physical objects and attachments, but from the inner heart of spirit, from the breath within the love-maker’s breath.
The left-handed path as described by Feuerstein above, was originally prescribed by Shiva as a path of moderation–not excess, as is often the case at expensive seminars promoting what Feuerstein calls Neo-Tantrism, and others humorously refer to as California Tantra. This latter from of Tantra is generally a mixture of sex positions from the Kama Sutra (which is not a Tantric text, by the way) mixed with breathing techniques and visualizations. In other words, a potpourri of methods having scant links to the path of Tantra.
The main idea behind the practice of the left-handed path is to practice spirituality (sadhana) while in the midst of enjoyments. It was both prescribed as a means of reducing one’s intake of wine and meat and, at the same time, to harbor Divine feelings while relishing their delights, and ultimately to rise above the transient nature of these earthly pleasures all together.
And for the more serious yogis, those who want more than material wealth and a great looking body, the Five M’s have a different, more subtle meaning. As Feuerstein writes: “In the right-hand schools [the Five M’s] are understood symbolically and are completely internalized.”
Here is a brief overview–based on ancient Tantric slokas (aphorisms)–of how to interpret the the Five Ms when they are internalized:
Madhya (wine)–to enjoy the sudha or somadhara, which, while in deep meditation, is a hormonal secretion from the pineal gland. A second meaning is that it refers to the spiritual aspirant’s ecstatic or intoxicated love of God.
Mamsa (meat)–one who has control over his or her speech, or one who surrenders all actions–good, bad, sinful, righteous, or wicked–to God, is said to be a practitioner of mamsa yoga.
Matsya (fish)–refers to the subtle science of pranayama (breathing exercises), and also to the feeling of deep compassion arising in a spiritual person’s heart.
Mudra (grain)–avoidance of bad company, as bad company leads to bondage and good company leads to liberation.
Maethuna (intercourse)–the purpose of maethuna yoga is to raise the Shakti (divine energy, also called kundalini ), located at the lowest vertebra of the spine, and unite it with Shiva in the spiritual energy center at the top of the head, near the pineal gland.
It is thus more exact to describe Tantra as a comprehensive spiritual science, which is what the word Tantra itself implies. The etymological meaning of Tantra is as follows: tan means to expand and tra means to liberate.
Thus Tantra is the spiritual science which liberates the spiritual practitioner or yogi from limitations, from the mind trapped in delusions, be they physical, mental or spiritual.
Tantra is thus a path, not about sexual indulgence, but a path which personify the very essence of yogic nondualism, of seeking the ultimate and infinite pleasure: oneness, or union with the Divine in everything we see and touch and love.
It is not surprising, then, that this path literally means the path of liberation!
According to Tantra, the omnipresent reality we call God, Spirit, or Brahma from which everything has been created and toward which everything longs to return, is always with us, is always only one breath away, one mantra away from our attention. So, if we pay attention, then anyone, says Tantra, with a human body and a human mind can transcend ordinary existence and realize life’s ultimate moment of pleasure–the cosmic effulgence of God, Spirit or Brahma. Realize it here and now. In this body, on this very earth. Not in heaven, not tomorrow, but Now!