Today, Wendy Doniger writes in the May 21 TLS , “Tantra has become an Orientalist wet dream, a transgressive, weird, sexy, dangerous world. Many people refer to the Kamasutra , or even The Joy of Sex , as Tantric.” It was not always so. Doniger is reviewing David Gordon White’s Kiss of the Yogini , and White argues that originally Tantra was “a ritual in which bodily fluids ?Esexual or menstrual discharge ?Ewere swallowed as transformative ‘power substances.’”

Here is Doniger’s summary of the main features of the original Tantric program: “[White] tells us that Tantra originated sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries of the Common Era in central India, among a subaltern stratum of the Indian population who used intoxicating drinks and sacrificed animals to terrifying clan deities. In the ninth or eleventh centur this ritual developed into an erotic mystical practice, and the clan deities were replaced by a horde of ravishingly beautiful, terrifying and powerful female deities called Yoginis. The Yoginis continued to be worshiped with blood offerings and animals sacrifices but came to be propitiated also by exchanging sexual fluids with the male practitioners and by consuming those fluids (as well as other prohibited foods). In return, the Yoginis would grant the practitioners, at the very least, ‘a powerful expansion of . . . the limited consciousness of the conformist Brahmin practitioner’ and, at most, supernatural powers, including the power of flight.” During the eleventh century, a revised form of Tantra took over, one that suppressed the exchange and transforming qualities of fluids and stressed instead the expansion of consciousness, an effort to cultivate “a divine state of mind homologous to the bliss experienced in sexual orgasm.” The various sexual techniques promoted today as Tantric were originally rooted in this quest for heightened consciousness.

More on: Religions

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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