Sex & Yoga (Again!): A Broad, Distorted View of Yoga History.

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Feb 28, 2012
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Yub Yam: The Cosmic Embrace of Shiva and Shakti

One of our common perceptions of science is that it’s always telling the truth. But, while science is based on observational facts, these facts are interpreted by humans. And these humans sometimes distort or wrongly interpret those very facts.

It is a fact that Tantra, and thus yoga, has historically and accurately been linked to sexual rites and practices. But it is not correct, as science writer for The New York Times William J. Broad recently claimed in an article, that yoga “began as a sex cult.” That statement is as inflamed as Mr. Broad’s own yoga-induced back injury once was.

So, what’s the distorted science behind Mr. Broad’s sweepingly broad distortion of truth and thus of yogic history? His logic goes something like this: we know that Tantra has something to do with sex. We also know that all Tantric yogis have vaginas and penises. Therefore, all Tantric yoga was originally about sex and all yoga started out as a sex cult. That’s not science, Mr. Broad. Rather that’s a very broad distortion of science.

Here’s Mr. Broad’s actual quote:“Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.”  Take note, fellow yogis, you have unwittingly become part of an ancient sex cult! The New York Times said so; it must be true!

And here’s the part of the article which uses the wildly distorted logic to spread his half-truths:

“Hatha yoga—the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe—began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness. The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Candidates for worship included actresses and prostitutes, as well as the sisters of practitioners.”

In other words, the logic goes something like this: because-guns-kill-people-therefore-all-gun-owners-are-killers or  because-tantric-yogis-have-sex-therefore-yoga-started-as-a-sex-cult! Is that science, Mr. Pulitzer Prize winner? Nope. That is junk science. And in logic and rhetoric, we call this a fallacy. A myth. A misleading notion. An erroneous belief. Everything but science.

But since these historical falsehoods are written in The New York Times by an esteemed science writer and also the author of the new book Science of Yoga, these “facts” will be believed by millions and thus distorted forever more by its liberal and rational readers who, like most humans, are prone to distortions and sensationalism. Especially when “the facts” are in print. Indeed, that’s the power of “news that’s fit to print”, as the New York Times motto states.

William J. Broad proclaimed on Fresh Air with Terry Gross that he had spent five years researching yoga for his popular book. Perhaps he read all the wrong books? Perhaps he got so fascinated with that small percentage of Tantra that’s truly about sex that he got all bent out of intellectual shape? Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps he simply had an agenda, and he simply used his research to fit that agenda?

I am reminded of the time when Asra Nomani, journalist for The Wall Street Journal, interviewed me for about 2 hours on the phone about Tantra as if she really was interested in the subject. Obviously not making any notes, or choosing not to use them, she went ahead and wrote perhaps the most shallow book on Tantra ever written, a book entitled Tantrika: The Road of Divine Love.

Like Ms. Nomani, I think Mr. Broad also has been a shallow student of everything yogic and Tantric. Because, if he had indeed taken the time to do his research properly, and, even better, interviewed people who actually practice Tantra, then he would have learned something entirely different.

He would, for example, have learned—as in Buddhism, where yogis also (surprise) sometimes have sex—that Tantra is as vast a subject and a tradition as Buddhism, with an even longer history. Indeed, scholars and practitioners often speak of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra to describe two vast historical and cultural strands of Tantra as two giant trees covering a vast array of branches and schools.

Most importantly, Mr. Broad would have learned that neither of these traditions in Buddhism and Hinduism are considered cults of sex, neither by scholars nor by the broad majority of its practitioners. He would also have learned that Tantra is actually older than both Buddhism and Hinduism. Yes, the Pulitzer Prize winning science writer obviously missed this widely acknowledged part of yoga history.

In other words, just because it is widely accepted that the Buddhist guru Chogyam Trungpa had sex with some of his female followers, Buddhism is hardly a sex cult, is it Mr. Broad? And even more relevantly, just because there are known Tantric rites involving sex, the vast majority of Tantric practices, just like life itself, are not related to sexual practice.

Esteemed yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, whom Mr. Broad should have studied better, estimates that only about 5 percent of Tantra involved sexual practices. Moreover, Hatha Yoga, which Mr. Broad rightly claim was developed by Tantric yogis was not, however, primarily a sexual practice “involving poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts” as indicated in his New York Times article.

Ironically, the millions of readers of O: The Oprah Magazine have received a much more balanced view of Tantra than the readers of the New York Times. In a surprisingly well informed article a few years ago by Jaime Lee Ball, they learned the opposite of what Mr. Broad learned: that Tantra is a lot more than just sex. “Just like religion,” she wrote, “it’s been commercialized, and just like ads for toothpaste, it’s been overly sexualized, but there’s a great deal more to it than the physical.” Indeed.

As mentioned in George Feuerstein’s book, Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, it is widely acknowledged among pundits and yogis in India that there are two streams of Indian wisdom traditions, namely the Vedic and the Tantric. It is hotly debated which of these is oldest and if both are indigenous to India, but there is vast agreement that Tantra has contributed the most to what we today know as the practices of yoga. In other words, all practices related to meditation, yoga postures, breathing exercises, kundalini awakening, chakras, mantras, etc., are all considered Tantric.

In addition, Tantra is generally divided into three distinct branches, of which only one engaged in ritualized sexual practices. Why? Simply because sex is considered a natural part of life in Tantra (no big sensationalist surprise there!), and thus it did not require special techniques, but rather what was required was awareness—sacred awareness, which is what Tantra really is all about, the transformation of consciousness, the cultivation of spiritual awareness in everything we do, without suppressing or neglecting the body’s gifts and needs. That’s why some aptly call Tantra “the yoga of everything.”

The three main paths of Tantra, which Mr. Broad ostensibly neglected, are:

The Right-hand Path. Termed Dakshina Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this so-called Right-hand Path attempts to overcome ignorance and darkness and invoke the spiritual through the use of idols, devotional chanting and prayer to the Gods and Goddesses. It is imperative on this path of Bhakti Yoga to realize that the symbolic representations of the Divine are just gateways to the Spirit realm. This is the most commonly practiced form of Tantra in India.  

The Left-hand Path. Termed Vama Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this path is legendary for its highly advanced sexual practices and the explicit use of occult powers. Hence, it is also often considered a path of Avidya Tantra, or the kind of black magic that Tantra is often wrongly associated with in India. (Indeed, in India many wrongly think of Tantra as simply black magic while in the West people’s bias is to think of it in terms of sexual yoga) The main challenges on this path are the many temptations for misusing one’s physical and psychic desires and powers. (Beware yoga teachers and wanna-be-gurus!) But even on this path, sex is only a subsection of the many practices involved.

The Middle Path. Termed Madhya Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this so-called Middle Path is the most common school of Tantric yoga. It originated with Shaivism in ancient India and has been further advanced throughout the ages by various gurus and adepts. It is generally considered the most mindful and dependable path. This middle path toward realizing the spiritual effulgence of Brahma removes Avidyamaya’s veil of ignorance through an integrated and balanced set of physical, mental and spiritual practices. On this path many of the teachers were women, householders, and some were celibate monks. Some also refer to this as The Direct Path since it employs mantras and visualization techniques to focus the mind to go beyond the mind and into a state of pure, flowing meditation.

In addition to these three paths, there are broadly five different schools of Tantra. These are the Shakta, Vaisnava, Shaiva, Ganapatya and Saura Tantra schools—and from these schools flow a plethora of other schools, none of which had sexual cultism high on the agenda.  Moreover, when Jainism and Buddhism flourished in India, various branches of Buddhist and Jain Tantra, developed, which again sprouted many independent branches of Tantra.

Hence, Tantra is a rather vast universe of traditions, practices and schools of thought. But William J. Broad obviously missed or, perhaps, rather got lost in this vast universe we call Tantra or Yoga. I am not surprised. Too much sex on your mind can certainly lead people of influence, especially men, astray.

Still, it’s too bad that such a beautiful science as yoga has been gifted with such a shallow science writer to further his broadly distorted views. Worse, that he also is in such a powerful position to use a few “facts” to distort the truth for so many. Yet, it is wonderful to know that his opinions matters little to our own practices of Tantric yoga.

Indeed, the way I have come to learn yoga history, I would venture to proclaim that most yogis today, even those who practice only posture yoga, are at least in part practicing Tantra. And, thankfully, even Mr. Broad would have to agree with that.

In the rest of the article, Mr. Broad rehashes some of the sordid allegations of illicit sex by famous yoga teachers and self-proclaimed gurus—Muktananda, Swami Rama, Swami Satchidananda, Yogi Amrit Desai—all famous, charismatic and powerful men! And of those men, at least Yogi Amrit Desai admitted as much and has since seemingly turned over a new leaf and started teaching again. The three others have quietly passed on.

Even though Mr. Broad seem to think there is an important connection here, the problem with sex in yoga has actually very little to do with sex in Tantra. Illicit sex is a human problem. Illicit sex by people in power—be they politicians, teachers, corporate leaders, priests, or self-proclaimed gurus—is largely an emotionally-starved-male-in-power problem. That, and not Tantra, is broadly the real issue, Mr. Science.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta.


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.


66 Responses to “Sex & Yoga (Again!): A Broad, Distorted View of Yoga History.”

  1. Ramesh says:

    I am familiar with all these arguments, but they all become useless when considering that the Aryan started arriving in India long before the indus Valley started,as early as 5000 BCE. That's the whole point of the new genetic findings.
    I am traveling and don't have time to reply in detail. perhaps more later.

  2. Ramesh says:

    Thank you for this reference, Jacqui!

  3. Maybe True says:

    Muktunanda => Gurumayi => John Friend
    Emotionally starved men and women in power. This is the lineage. The research is easy.

  4. Ramesh says:

    Thank you so much for your comments, Kimstetz. I agree.

  5. ideniselustafter says:

    Thank you sooo much Ramesh, for this article. I was sickened to see the NYT article and intend to be vocal about it.. I'm glad I will have this article to reference.

  6. Pankaj Seth says:

    I'll look forward to detail. What you're saying above is not clear to me. If migrants arrived in dribs and drabs, and not a whole lot of them, how did they enculturate an area the size of france and germany combined? In fact, when they arrived in their small numbers (Prof. Kazanas talks about groups of 50 to a few hundred at a time), they found an already thriving, sophisticated civilization which covered an area far greater than the whole of mesopotamia, in which they settled in. The Vedic culture was not brought into India (greater India, meaning present day balochistan, pakistan, afghanistan at the very least, and extending down to the Vindhya mountains… a huge area) from Europe. There is no archeological evidence, nor texutal evidence for this. This is based upon the conjectured, manufactured 'proto-indo-european' language invented by the philologists. Historians who look at archeological, hydrological, meterological, astronomical data find no evidence, and in the case of genetics the evidence goes both ways… into and out of India.

    J. P. Mallory, one of the most senior scholars of the Aryan invasion theory, now admits that there are plenty of reasons to suspect the veracity of this theory. What's more, the whole notion of the 'Aryan race' has largely been discredited… the wiki article gives pretty good picture of that…

    "a study conducted by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in 2009 (in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT) analyzed half a million genetic markers across the genomes of 132 individuals from 25 ethnic groups from 13 states in India across multiple caste groups.[28] The study asserts, based on the impossibility of identifying any genetic indicators across caste lines, that castes in South Asia grew out of traditional tribal organizations during the formation of Indian society, and was not the product of any Aryan invasion and "subjugation" of Dravidian people.[29]"

  7. Ramesh says:

    Pankaj, this issue is very complex and colored by a lot of religious, racial, caste and political viewpoints. Thus you have various opinions and interpretations of for example the genetic data. The most unbiased genetic research i have found is that of Wells, Lynn Jorde, Bamshad, etc. The latter in a paper published after the paper you referred to above. The most compelling case debunking the aryan invasion is by Feuerstein, Frawley and Kak's In Search of the Cradle of Civilization. However, this book is heavily biased in terms of a Vedic origin of everything noble about India, Hinduism and also claims a Vedic origin of archaic yoga etc. These authors in their 17 point thesis are open to the possibility that the Aryans enetered India much earlier than 2000 BCE which is when most Western academics as well as Max Muller claim they entered. This is exactly the genetic claim of Wells et al. Dueing the time of entry before and around 5000 BCE, the world had a population of only 15 million, most of these in the Middle East and Asia. I otherwords, the population of india was not great, but I doubt that only a few hundred Aryans arrived a time, this is highly speculative, but even so, we may note that only a few hundred europeans conqured the mayan empire, so it is likely the aryans were fewer in number but were martially superior. Certainly they felt racially superior which over time resulted in the caste system etc. The term Arya, by the way, also refer to Iranians or Persians and it is from this area that many of the first Vedic peoples arrived in India.
    NOTE: Unlike the several meanings connected with ārya- in Old Indic, the Old Iranian term has solely an ethnic meaning.[20][21] That is in contrast to Indian usage, in which several secondary meanings evolved, the meaning of ar- as a self-identifier is preserved in Iranian usage, hence the words "Iran"/"Iranian" themselves. Iranian airya meant and means "Iranian", and Iranian anairya [13][15] meant and means "Un-Iranian".Arya may also be found as an ethnonym in newer Iranian languages, e.g., Alan/Persian Iran and Ossetian Ir/Iron[15]

    The name Iran, Iranian is itself equivalent to Aryan, where Iran means "land of the Aryans,"[6][13][13][15][21][22][23][24] and has been in use since Sassanid times[22][23]

    The Avesta clearly uses airya/airyan as an ethnic name (Vd. 1; Yt. 13.143-44, etc.), where it appears in expressions such as airyāfi; daiŋˊhāvō "Iranian lands, peoples", airyō.šayanəm "land inhabited by Iranians", and airyanəm vaējō vaŋhuyāfi; dāityayāfi; "Iranian stretch of the good Dāityā", the river Oxus, the modern Āmū Daryā.[21] Old Persian sources also use this term for Iranians. Old Persian which is a testament to the antiquity of the Persian language and which is related to most of the languages/dialects spoken in Iran including modern Persian, Kurdish, Gilaki and Baluchi makes it clear that Iranians referred to themselves as Arya.

    The term "Airya/Airyan" appears in the royal Old Persian inscriptions in three different contexts:

    As the name of the language of the Old Persian version of the inscription of Darius the Great in Behistun
    As the ethnic background of Darius in inscriptions at Naqsh-e-Rostam and Susa (Dna, Dse) and Xerxes in the inscription from Persepolis (Xph)
    As the definition of the God of Aryan people, Ahuramazda, in the Elamite version of the Behistun inscription.[13][15][21]

  8. Ramesh says:

    Here is a short summary of mine from my upcoming book….
    •1. Most Western and Indian academics hold the view that India was invaded by Vedic Aryan settlers around 1900 BCE. These Aryans worshiped the sun god Suria and brought with them their Rigvedic religion based on sacrifices and rituals offered to “placate and please the Gods, [and] to force them to fulfill wishes and demands.” (1) These patriarchial and martial Aryans soon conquered northern India and destroyed the great Indus Valley civilization, where yoga was already practiced by Tantric (Shaeva) ascetics. They massacred populations and reduced the surviving Dravidian shudras to slavery (dasyu) without regard for rank or learning. This conflict has been described in the famous epics Mahabharta and the Ramayana. Over time, India became a blended civilization—part Aryan Vedic, part Dravidian Shaeva, with a liberal admixture of Jain and Buddhist traditions—and this blended culture is what we today know as Hindu civilization.
    •2. Western yoga scholars, including Georg Feuerstein and David Frawley, as well as some Indian writers, especially within the Hindutva movement, subscribe to the theory that there was never an Aryan invasion around 1900 BCE and that Yoga comes solely from the Vedic tradition. I call this the One River Theory. Rather than being destroyed by nomadic warriors, the Indus Valley civilization, they claim, was destroyed and abandoned due to climatic changes. According to these writers, the Aryans are indigenous to India and represent everything that is noble about Indian culture. In their book In Search of the Cradle of Civilization, Feuerstein and Frawley outline 17 points for why the invasion never took place. In one of these points, however, they reflect on the possibility that the Aryan settlers arrived in India at a much earlier date.
    •3. This last option brings us to the theory presented in this book, that the history of Yoga represents a blend of the Tantric and Vedic traditions of India. I call this the Two River Theory. According to Puranic history as well as genetic science, the Vedic Aryans arrived in India at an early age, most likely as early as 7-5000 BCE. Therefore the blending of the Vedic and Tantric (Shaeva) cultures of India had already matured by the time the Indus Valley civilization was destroyed and depopulated around 2000 BCE. Not long after, around 1500 BCE, India produced the world’s first coherent philosophy and cosmology, namely sage Kapila’s Tantric-inspired Samkhya philosophy, which today is popularly known as the philosophy of Ayurveda, India’s ancient medical science. About 700 years after Kapila, some of the greatest spiritual literature the world has ever witnessed, namely the oral teachings in the epic Mahabharata, the Vedantic Upanishads, the spiritual teachings of the Gita, and the historical mythology of the Ramayana were written down for the first time. And around 200 BCE, sage Patanjali wrote his Yoga Sutras and codified the oral teachings of the Tantric yogis for the first time in the form of Asthanga, or Raja Yoga.
    While these three versions of Indian history may seem entirely at odds, there are important overlapping agreements, and the theories do in many ways compliment each other. The first theory has dated the Aryan invasion rather late (1900 BCE) and does not reflect the genetic research of Dr. Spencer Wells, who claims the invasion started much earlier—about 5000 BCE. As suggested as a possibility by Feuerstein and Frawley—proponents of theory number two—this migration started when the Rig Vedic Aryans arrived via the Russian steppes and the deserts of Iran more than 3000 years before the Indus Valley eventually was abandoned. Indeed, in Feuerstein’s new version of his book The Yoga Tradition, he suggests the Indo-European Aryans arrived in India as early as 6500 BCE. Looking for better pastures for their cattle, and for other riches, these skilled warrior nomads arrived in successive raids and migrations over a period of several millennia. They arrived in an already inhabited land, and its peoples—the Dravidians, Mongolians and Austrics—had already developed a sophisticated, urban culture, and the art and science of Tantric Yoga was already in practice among them. In other words, by the time the Induas Valley was finally abandoned around 1900 BCE, the indigenous Indians and the invading Aryans had already experienced 3000 years of conflict and gradual integration. Hence these two peoples, representing two different civilizations, cultures and outlooks—one vedic/priestly and one tantric/yogic—gradually formed what we today know as the Indian, or Hindu Civilization.

  9. Pankaj Seth says:

    Ramesh, your view is unsupported by the archeological evidence.

    1. We know the Saraswati and Dhristavati rivers dried up around 2500 BCE, and the inhabitants moved. There are thousands of abandoned settlements along the old river beds, and crucially they do not show any signs of warfare or being destroyed… rather they have been abandoned. Prof Mark Kenoyer, the chief scientist researching at Mohenjo-Daro and other sites gives a lecture on this at the U. of Chicago… here: ("Meluhha: the Indus Civilization and Its Contacts with Mesopotamia"}. Prof Kenoyer also details the trade links with Mesopotamia, including Sumer which go back to at least 5000 years.

    2. There is no record of any such invasion or wholesale destruction of culture mentioned in any Indic record, including both the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions. There is no mention of arriving from anywhere, unlike for example as Jews record in the Judaic/Biblical record. How is it that this monumental event took place, but left no trace in the memory/literature, and there is no archeological evidence of this supposed conflict… a conflict supposedly waged by a few on the many. No weapons of war, not even swords have been found in the Harappan sites, no burning or destroying of forts. You will need to account for this…

    As to the Avesta… this is an issue of comparing various Indo-European languages and seeing that in the Veda there is a deep preservation of terms, grammer which begin to be lost the further from India one goes. Close to India, in Iran there is much similarity, but already a loss of certain terminology. The further one goes into Europe, the greater this type of loss in language. It makes more sense that where one finds the deepest preservation of language, that is where the homeland is. The further one travels away, the more the language begins to lose certain structural aspects. This is well detailed in the lectures of Prof Kazanas I have linked to before. The Avestan connection is very interesting… perhaps we will have a chance to converse about that some other time…

  10. Pankaj Seth says:

    Ramesh, while there is not any textual evidence of any invasion/migration into India, there is textual evidence of a move out of India. Baudhayana, the author of the Sulvasutras and the Shrautasutras writes about a migration eastward towards the gangetic plains, and towards the northwest, towards Persia, Mid-East and Europe. The latter was mistranslated by Witzel at Harvard, who translated instead that there was no mention of a westward migration out of India. Now, Witzel has been found out, using the mistranslation 3 separate times in different sources, and he blames his editors. Note that Witzel is the chief proponent of the Aryan invasion theory, and how has been found to mistranslate, not once but three times, in a way that bolsters his pet theory and standing.

    Here is Prof Kazanas talking about this… see for yourself: this episode starts at where this video will open (at 18:53 min), and it continues at the beginning of the next video… in all, about 4 minutes to watch…
    then, (these are the end of part 3/5 and beginning of part 4/5 of the lecture entitled "The all inclusiveness of the Rg Veda, delivered at year at Madras ITT.

  11. Ramesh says:

    I think you misunderstood my points. I agree with you on point #1
    Indeed, that is my whole point, that there was integration for thousands of years before the rivers dried up etc….
    The invasion is recorded in the scriptures for those open to it… Lala Prasad Sing, N.n. Bhattacarya, Alain Danielou, Anandamurti, Thapar, and many others have written extensively about this

    The record of the migration is also in the genetic record, in, linguistics, etc, etc.
    We disagree, and that is fine, so let us move on….

  12. Ramesh says:

    Pankaji: Ancient peoples migrated in and out of India…. there is plenty of records of both…..
    At any rate, I don't have the time to go into this further, but I want to thank you for your interest and for your knowledge, even though we have a few major points of disagreements; let us move on and maybe pick this up in a later article.
    Om Shanti!

  13. Pankaj Seth says:

    Thanks for the conversation, Ramesh. It will be a pleasure to continue this and the Avesta discussion with you some other time… all the best. Om Shanti.

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