You’ve probably seen this word before somewhere. Tell me what word you expect to see come right after it.
Odds are pretty good you’re thinking of sex. Tantric sex is this word’s most common collocation in English. The second-most-common is Tantric yoga.
So now tell me what you know about Tantric – or about Tantra, which is what Tantric is an adjectival form of. What images do you have? Perhaps teal polyarticulated deities intricately entwined – or some concupiscent sadhu and his tan trick – performing a kind of contortionist coitus, with nimbi concentric around their entangled genitalia? Some wild Kama Sutra thing involving incense, curtains, beads, chanting? A climax that lasts an uncertain eternity?
Well. Those sorts of antics are not exactly the point. Images of throes of passion notwithstanding, Tantra is not a plural of Tantrum. It’s the Sanskrit word for “loom” (as in weaving) and by extension for “system” or “doctrine”.
Tantra is an approach that is found in several religions that have arisen from the Indian subcontinental area, most notably Hinduism and Buddhism. And the approach does not aim at ultimate physical fulfillment; rather, the physical energies are used as the means of their own transcendence. It is like a martial (or marital?) art, wherein one does not simply push force against force but rather uses the opposing force to one’s own ends.
Let me quote from Harold Coward, one of my professors at the University of Calgary (from his book Jung and Eastern Thought):
In contrast to the approach of the Sankhya-Yoga system of Patañjali, in which the aim is to circumvent and crush the passions within, the Tantric hero (víra) goes directly through the sphere of the passions to the spiritual goal. This is accomplished not by indulging in the passions, as one might be led to think, but rather by shifting attention from the object of passion to the inner energy of passion – without trying either to prolong or suppress the energy. Rather than being puritanically avoided, the passions themselves are used as the very means (sádhana) by which self-realization may be achieved. . . . The Tantric hero triumphs by way of the passions themselves, riding them the way a cowboy rides a wild bronco to obedience.
I recall one class in which Dr. Coward recalled with relish breaking the news to a colleague who had a statuette of a Tantric sexual position. “You know, it’s not about the sex…”
Of course Tantra has to do with much more, and other, than sex; indeed, for the most part, actual sexual activity is not even part of the practice – it is more a metaphor for divine mystical union. Tantra is a spiritual and ritual practice. But the racier mystical connotations of the word are entangled in its English usage patterns, and the related concept of kundalini – also generally poorly understood but rather wild-sounding – adds to it. And the mixture of crispness and liquidity and warm nasal /n/ of the word, with its various echoes and overtones – explored above – can certainly play into that.
But the point is to get beyond the word: use it, enjoy it, taste it, feel it, read it, but let its curling type be the trebuchet that launches you beyond.