From the 6th to the 16th century AD, ritual manuals known as “Tantras” were being produced with detailed instructions on the use of mystical chants, magical charms, and sexual rites. The following passage comes from Brihad Nila Tantra:

“Have there a young and beautiful girl, adorned with various jewels. After combing her hair, give her tambula to chew and draw two Hrims on her breasts, Aim on or near her mouth, and draw two Klims on either side of her genitals. Drawing her towards you by her hair, caress her breasts and then unite. O pure smiling one. Recite the mantra 1,000 times, O sweet faced one. Dearest, one becomes accomplished by doing the rite for a week. Maheshani, recite the mantra not in the manner written of in books, but in her yoni. This brings mantra siddhi, there is no doubt of it. So, Devi, the secret thing giving all desires has been declared to you. One should not reveal it, one should never reveal it, Maheshani. O Naganandini, at the risk of your life, never reveal it. It is the giver of all siddhi. I cannot speak of the magnificence of this mantra. Had I ten thousand million mouths and ten thousand million tongues, I could still not speak of it, O Paramesvari.”

Translations of works such as these have led to two reactions. One, that ancient and medieval India was pagan, perverted and sick. Two, that in ancient and medieval India sex was sacred and a form of worship. The former is accompanied with feelings of puritanical chauvinism and righteous indignation, the latter with vicarious thrill and clandestine curiosity. The result: apologetic commentaries, defensive writings and a determined attempt by many a New Age guru to reclaim the lost heritage of Tantrik sex.

When the word sex is used, one takes for granted either the pleasure that accompanies it or the procreation that can follow it. But in Tantra, the aim of the sexual act does not seem to be either sensory gratification or fertility. Sex is just one of the many components of the elaborate rituals aimed at transforming the sadhaka, or initiate, into a siddha, an accomplished master who understands the workings of the world and possesses power to change it.

Like his contemporary counterparts, the “Tantrik-babas” who advertise their ‘powers’ in railway stations and bus stands, the siddha of yore solved problems: through a series of rituals he could make you prosperous and powerful, get rid of your enemies, give you a male child, make someone fall in love with you…In other words, he could change the world so that it suited you. He was a sorcerer-sage.

Tantrik rites have their roots in man’s primal needs to cope with the problem that is life. In India, seers and sages have prescribed many solutions. These include the intellectual approach or gyan based on meditation and contemplation, the emotional approach or bhakti based on passionate devotion and adoration, the social approach or karma based on detached performance and selfless service, and finally the mechanical approach or tantra based on the chanting of hymns, use of charms and the meticulous execution of rituals. These approaches evolved over 4000 years ago and more often than not compliment each other.

Around the 6th century AD, when the first Tantras appeared, India was getting impatient with the monastic ideologies of Buddism and Jainism, which a thousand years earlier had emerged as a powerful alternative to hollow Vedic ritualism. But Buddhist detachment and Jain austerity demanded too much discipline. More and more people turned to the solitary sorcerer-sages such as siddhas who for centuries had wandered the countryside displaying the power to channel cosmic forces at will.

Opinions are divided over whether the first siddha was an offshoot of the pastoral Vedic communities or a member of non-Vedic agricultural and tribal communities. Their rituals can be traced back to Vedic manuscript dated 800 BC. Whatever be the case, realizing the popularity of the way of the siddha, attempts were made to align these rituals with Brahmincal, Buddhist and Jain ideology and bring them to the mainstream. This lead to the writing of the “Tantras” which promised immediate fulfilment of one’s desires – be it spiritual or material.

The rituals rejected both the monastic way of thinking as well as the deeply ingrained caste system. They included blood sacrifice (mamsa), offerings of alcohol (madya) and sexual union (maithuna). A person of any caste could follow the rituals, provided he had been found suitable and initiated by a guru. The sex clearly broke all rules of civilized conduct – the sexual partner could not be one’s wife, a member of the lower castes was preferred.  Some scriptures even recommended incest. And there were a few that even suggested use of a dead body. Sex did not take place in the house. It took place either in a shrine or the crematorium, often under the supervision of the guru, after various rites of purification, consumption of hallucinogenic agents and invocation of fearsome deities visualized as violent and sexual beings.

That Tantra identifies women as Shakti or the source of power, has led to the widespread belief that Tantra was a woman’s religion. Tantra is full of powerful and autonomous and fearsome goddesses such as the Mahvidyas and Yoginis who are quite unlike their docile counterparts in mainstream religions. However, the texts and rituals are always prescribed for men, not women. The sadhaka and the siddha are always men. The woman who is part of the ritual is merely an instrument, an extremely critical instrument, to achieve the goal. Like semen, menstrual blood, was believed to have magical powers. However, unlike semen, menstrual blood was not under voluntary control, making women inferior beings. The sadhaka used copulation to use the power of the menstrual blood to help him ‘reverse’ the flow of his semen. This was the state of urdhva-retas or the upward movement of semen which led to the blooming of charkas – a series of psycho-physiological changes that led to the appearance of boon-bestowing deities and change in the levels of consciousness. In art, the state of urdhva-retas was depicted by the erect phallus of Shiva, the lord of Tantra.

Stripped of all magical and mystical vocabulary, Tantra seems to force every individual to acknowledge the reality of Nature that culture tries to suppress, repress, deny and reject through legal, ethical and moral systems. It forces us to confront the dark secrets we shove into our subconscious: that life is impersonal, life feeds on life, that society bridles natural impulses of sex and violence for the sake of order. Beneath the values, standards, prejudices and judgements, there is the world of infinite possibilities, and probabilities, a magical world – sexual or otherwise – that is accessible to anyone provided one is willing to risk the security and the comfort of the given.