The Secret about Tantra and Sex.

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Jul 24, 2011
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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!


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


32 Responses to “The Secret about Tantra and Sex.”

  1. Ramesh says:

    Comments from Facebook:

    Scaughdt Iam fantastic article, Vina! Thanks for helping dispel some of the myths surrounding the nature of "Sacred Sex" …

    Vina Von Bliss i agree Scaughdt – a highly resonant articulation of the truth behind the purist tantric path for me. divine gratitude and appreciation to Ramesh Bjonnes for writing it 🙂 blissful blessings to you both! ♥

  2. Kari Balakrishnan says:

    Ramesh <3

  3. Sky Dancer says:

    Fantastic article… thank you.

  4. tanya lee markul says:

    Well done! Thank you so much for this!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
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  5. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  6. […] energy which lies dormant at the base of the spine. The book was a poor translation of an early Tantric text, but it woke me up, at least for a […]

  7. william price says:

    Thank you, Ramesh. Well done. May I share a poem:

    RE-EVOLUTION by Ciranjiva Roy

    The journey that never was made
    Amid hopes and perils the trail was laid
    Through adventures that never took place.

    Mission lost in passions transient
    Seeking pleasures always in pain
    Desire-moments fettered time thru' space

    Path blazed by desires in flame
    Journey awakes to its joyous game
    Guided in darkness, now in light
    Motion becomes its own delight

    The end is ever in the source inscribed
    Around the circle never described
    Time and space and Motion sublime
    Rhythm of Stillness signs the hymn

    All is yet an intense Reality
    A moment in Conscious luminosity.

    om tat sat

  8. Thaddeus1 says:

    "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."

    Thank you for the above. I am always so grateful when another puts into words the essence of yoga in a better, more eloquent and thoughtful way than I am capable.

  9. yogiclarebear says:


    I am very new to studying Tantra, and am reading Saraswati's Kundalini Tantra right now. I appreciate your articles on the subject! Thanks,


  10. Ramesh says:

    Thank you, Skydancer!

  11. Ramesh says:

    Thank you for posting, Tanya!

  12. Ramesh says:

    William, thank you so much for sharing this wonderful and very tantric poem!

  13. Ramesh says:

    Thaddeus, I am humbled and thankful for your appreciation…

  14. Ramesh says:

    Clare, I love Satyananda's work. Enjoy!

  15. Ramesh says:

    Vina, your name sounds like bliss and both your words are music to my ears!

  16. Ramesh says:

    kari, I am sure you intended a few more words, but silence is also golden!

  17. your name sounds like bliss and both your words are music to my ears!

  18. tanya lee markul says:

    A pleasure!

  19. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  20. Ramesh says:

    Thank you, Tanya! Tusen takk!

  21. yogijulian says:

    beautiful article, as always…

    not sure about your use of the word "science" in relation to a mythic narrative about uniting shiva and shakti and attaining to pleasure which transcends the limitations of the material world, delivering one to the spirit world or the omnipresent reality of god.

    i think often in our expressions of various metaphysical perspectives there is a temptation to use language that implies facticity. this is perhaps misleading and glossing over of several key steps of faith based belief along the way. spirit world, god, being able to transcend the material world, limitless pleasure etc are all quite bold concepts that are being proposed without evidence, right? so why not refer to them as mythic symbols that have some experiential reference point, but are not literal or empirical truths?

    when we use the word "science" to describe a pre-scientific system of ritual practices embedded in a mythic metaphysics i think we are being intellectually dishonest.

    there may be ways we can illustrate the objectively verifiable actual science about what certain practices do and how those correlate with subjective reports and personal experience – this is exciting! but without that in place i cringe a little at the use of the word.

    also would love to see more detail about the multiple meanings of the 5 M's, or the symbolic significance of the types of food/sensual pleasure and the assigned meanings… because as it stands, there are still disconnects: for example, with grain referring to avoiding bad company. why? what is the relationship. as it stands we could substitute apples for grain and still have as much connection to avoiding bad company… any thoughts/leads?

  22. Ramesh says:

    Yogijulian, thanks so much for your thoughtful and thoughtprovoking comments. I use the word science in a broad sense here, much the way we refer to yoga as practice, or knowledge, but mainly because tantra is empirical practice, not a belief system. religion to me is belief, yoga and tantra is practice, science, art, alchemy. I experience the results of my tantra, I do not need to believe.
    I also use it in the same sense as Wilber does–in a broad sense, and I could go into much detail about this as he does in for example his book The Marriage Of Sense and Soul, but time does not permit.. Yoga is subjective science, the data is collected from internal evidence, which is different from belief, which is religion. My teacher used the term intuitional science about Tantra. I like that concept and i do not think it dishonest.
    Philosophy is different, and I agree, Shiva and Shakti are philosophical concepts that to me represent energy (shakti) and consciousness in both tangible and experiential ways. But, you are right, they are metaphors, words, and i do use them as such. So, yes, that may not have been clear in the article…that I think of the practice as science, not the philosophy…

    The five Ms reflect the multiple meanings of tantric rituals and sanskrit words and there is not always a direct correlate between the multiple meanings, that's just the way it is…

  23. yogijulian says:

    yes i am very familiar with wilber and his three wings of science: hypothesis, injunction (or experiment) and data…

    it gets a little tricky when we talk about subjective data, because then we have to ask how we verify/evaluate such claims, right? i mean how do we differentiate the claims of someone in the grips of manic psychosis, or who is just making shit up, from those of someone experiencing legitimate spiritual breakthroughs?

    wilber says we use an intersubjective committee style of evaluation and that this is what traditional healthy hierarchies are for in spiritual systems.

    of course we don't have much of this around any more and so what happens (as you know and decry) in the new age zeitgeist is that anything goes and if i say whatever i want about supernatural experiences, pseudoscience rationalizations and my mish mash of metaphysical assertions, no-one can make any evaluation of their truth, coherence etc because spirituality is beyond evidence, reason etc… what a mess!

    nonetheless the major flaw with the idea of subjective science (and wilber's work – most of which i have read, is run through with this mistake) is that it allows interior subjective experience to leak over into making objective claims about the universe. (ironically this is where wilber gets i think a bit confused about the correct application of his otherwise brilliant four quadrant model… )

    this was all well and good in pre-scientific times before we knew very much about the universe, but it just cannot be done in today's world without engaging in some pretty severe compartmentalizations and embracing of unreasonable beliefs in spite of evidence that makes them highly improbable if not impossible….

    i also have a quibble about the very common use of the word "philosophy" when talking about mythic constructs. shiva, shakti, omnipresent effulgent god consciousness etc are not to my mind philosophical concepts, but mythic beliefs on the same level as jesus, yahweh, heaven and hell etc…

    once we correctly identify interior experience as metaphorical, archetypal, intuitive, emotionally meaningful etc and VALUE that in and of itself, there is no need to try and literalize what happens inside my head in meditation or what cascades through my body during yoga (or indeed ecstatic dance or sex) as somehow having an empirical basis outside of neurochemistry or somehow indicating anything at all about the cosmos beyond my body and mortal existence.

    how we negotiate a tantra-influenced spirituality in the contemporary world i think requires wrestling with these questions and distinctions.

    i hear you on the meaning of the 5 m's – but what is difficult to understand is that these words appear to be the names of perhaps taboo substances that are being intentionally indulged in by the tantric practitioner….. for them to mean completely different things than their actual names denote appears to be a disavowing of these indulgences – any thoughts?

  24. Ramesh says:

    Yogijulian, I have compared notes with dozens of tantric yogis using similar techniques and the experiences are not new age or psycho… my own experiences are easily reproduced as well. But for people with improper techniques or little experience it does become messy…

    There is a lot of myth making in tantric texts but the essence of tantra as outlined by some teachers is very logical and philosophical, so again I would have to disagree.

    Also, Shiva s not a mythic God to me, but the essence of non-dualism, the essence of Spirit, the breath within my breath, the inner I…the Self, so not mythology but inner reality revealed…

  25. Jiivadhara says:

    The eternal embrace is always right here. Nothing needs to forced or made to happen per se. We can or cannot organize our practices (retreats, for instance). But since nothing is outside this embrace and hence separate, it is wondrous to see that we do not need anything to allow tantric energies to come through us. We do not need a partner, for instnace. What we need to do is to keep our cosmic ideation flowing with devotion and perhaps some training in how to do just that. We are not doing tantra. It is happening on its own – Imagine the freedom. Our practice is tantra and so is our acting in benevolence for the good of all.

  26. […] The Secret about Tantra and Sex. […]

  27. […] exactly what we want. Usually, there are multiple ways for others to profit from our journey from longing to fulfillment. An entire consumer culture has been built on squashing even the faintest hint of longing with an […]

  28. I appreciate you for sharing these details,which I learned a lot,and also know a lot of understanding.

  29. […] fact, tantric sex is not really sex at all. It involves intensive activity associated with advanced yoga and […]

  30. […] who are familiar with Anusara know that the basic underpinning of its philosophy is Tantra. In simple terms, Tantra is the complete immersion of the body-mind into the experience of the […]

  31. Daniel says:

    Great piece, I knew that sex was sacred and am going to learn more about the tantra.