Make a cursory web search for the term tantra and you will be confronted with thousands of results providing “tips on how to practise tantric sex”, paeans to “the art of tantric massage” and listicles on the choicest “tantric sex positions for you and your partner”. You might be forgiven for thinking you had strayed into an X-rated section of the internet.
Yet tantra is a spiritual philosophy that originated in the Indian subcontinent and dates back to at least the 8th century AD. Meaning “to weave” in Sanskrit, tantra has since found its way into everything from Hinduism and Buddhism to western pop culture. With a focus on worshipping previously non-canonical and non-caste-based Hindu goddesses such as Kali and Chinnamasta, the tantric belief sees the world as imbued with a divine feminine energy – “shakti” – that we must access if we are to transcend our own ego and reach an enlightened liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. To access this energy, certain tantric practitioners believe in performing sexual rites, as well as confronting their own revulsions by covering themselves in funereal ash, drinking blood and wearing aprons made of human bones.
Tantra’s ancient legacy and openness to interpretation have seen it become a source of fascination to westerners throughout history. In the 18th century, it was seen as a fearsome “black magic” by British colonialists and was subsequently harnessed for its anticolonial potential by Bengali revolutionaries, while 19th-century occultists such as Pierre Bernard fused its practice of yoga with its connection to sex to create a new form of American mysticism.
In the 20th century, this reached its apex as 1960s free love movements latched on to tantra’s bright visual identity and radical rejection of monogamous conservatism to make it the symbol of their burgeoning hippie lifestyles. Soon, John and Alice Coltrane were referencing tantric chants in their free jazz, the Beatles were staying in an Indian ashram, the Rolling Stones had fashioned a logo from the protruding tongue of Kali, and Aldous Huxley was likening his LSD experimentations to a state of transcendence. Tantra – and its misunderstood exoticisation – was everywhere.
“It’s not all about sex and rock’n’roll,” says Gavin Flood, professor of Hindu studies and comparative religion at Oxford University. “Tantra is about gaining liberation and power through meditation. It is about flaunting purity rules and using desire to remove desire, a thorn to extract a thorn. It is not the Kama Sutra, which posits pleasure as its end. Tantra instead uses desire as one of many tools.” Flood argues, in fact, that tantra goes way beyond sex when it comes to finding ways of awakening the body’s energy points, or chakras.
“The west has focused on the sexual dimension of tantra and it has become commercialised and domesticated,” he says. “Tantra is not shocking any more, since sex outside of marriage is the norm now. So we have forgotten how tantra is equally interested in confronting horror as well as pleasure.” He says tantric rites – the consumption of blood and animal urine, the public display of human remains such as skull cups – are a way of confronting the material realities of life in order to ultimately overcome them. “Tantra is about threatening traditions to transgress the orthodox,” he says, pointing out that there’s nothing particularly transgressive about taking a course in tantric massage.
Tantra is the subject of a new exhibition at the British Museum in London that curator Imma Ramos hopes will “challenge that stereotype and introduce visitors to the history of tantra and how it inspired masterpieces of visual culture. It was a revolutionary philosophy that placed women at the centre of worship, transcending class and caste boundaries to create a new way of experiencing the world. Even though there is a sense of tantra having been recently appropriated by the corporate wellness industry and sanitised, its rebellious spirit is ripe for reimagining when it comes to gender and politics. It still has an anti-establishment ethos.”
Boasting one of the largest collections of tantric objects in the world, the show features remarkably well-preserved miniature blocks of medieval texts and vast stone sculptures of the fearsome goddesses, as well as an exploration of tantra’s courtly legacy in the expressive paintings depicting gods dancing on their own corpses, headless deities perched on copulating couples, and red-tongued multi-limbed figures, commissioned by the likes of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
It’s about flaunting purity rules, using desire to remove desire, or a thorn to extract a thorn
The 18th-century anticolonial tantric imagery also provides a powerful juxtaposition to the fact that the majority of these pieces would have been acquired as a direct result of British rule in India. The final room on tantra’s 20th century legacies, meanwhile, shows how such post-independence artists as Rasool Santosh and Biren De combined abstract expressionism with a yearning for an authentic precolonial expression of Indian visual identity in tantric depictions of the body.
Housewives with Steak-Knives, painted by British Indian artist Sutapa Biswas in 1986, is a vast work that takes pride of place on the final wall of the show. It depicts Kali as a contemporary Indian woman in a feminist guise, wearing the heads of white authoritarian patriarchy in a garland around her neck and muscularly brandishing a threatening blade. It has become a symbol of tantra’s ability to subvert gender norms and racial stereotypes.
“When that work was made,” says Biswas, “it was a real affront to racists. It was even spat on when it was in situ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Mainly white men who are unfamiliar with the imagery are threatened by it, whereas lots of women see the character as fierce but a friend. Kali is a complex icon, creator and destroyer. I have always been drawn to tantric goddesses for this transgressive reason. At the time of making that work in the 80s, the portrayal of South Asian women in a British context was as these meek and voiceless chattels. So to frame us as Kali was to celebrate us too.”
Biswas believes her depiction of Kali as an anticolonial icon of “Mother India” makes it an especially apt work for such a setting. “It has been my dream for the painting to be in the British Museum – since, in order to engage with the painting, you have to engage with the history of British colonialism. She is truly a force to be reckoned with.”
Next to the armed housewife is And All the While the Benevolent Slept, a 2008 sculpture by Bharti Kher that depicts the self-decapitated goddess Chinnamasta in the bronze-cast guise of one of Kher’s own friends. She holds a dainty teacup in one hand and a wooden skull in another, as bent copper wires stream from her cut neck. The work is a visceral expression of both the goddess’s power and gender fluidity, confronting the British colonial legacy with the presence of the teacup, as well as taking ownership of her own life-cycle in the act of her decapitation.
“I have always been drawn to tantra as an expression of the forbidden,” Kher says. “It explores self-sacrifice and creation, an awakening of our powerful inner energies, the potential women rarely get to express. Tantra celebrates difference as the very thing that defines us as human beings. So it’s important to remember that.”
Seeing tantra as something sexual is like listening to a radio jingle to understand all of classical music
Given Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s current fuelling of Hindu nationalism, tantra’s inter-religious and inclusive ethos feels more relevant than ever. “Tantra has always had a countercultural, rebellious flavour that has tied it to different eras,” Rammos says. “The fact that it is so easily transmuted across boundaries and ideologies means that it will continue to survive – and hopefully be a way of better understanding ourselves and the world we live in.”
Tantra is clearly a persistent and alluring ancient philosophy. From medieval images, commissioned to bestow auspicious energy on wealthy patrons, to a goddess worship that went against the rigid caste system and masculine hierarchy of spiritual worship in Hinduism, tantra now finds itself diluted and distorted, a vision that encompasses massage, yoga, sexual practice and new age credo.
“Ultimately,” says Kher, “understanding tantra merely as something sexual is like listening to a radio jingle to understand all of classical music. This is a philosophy that has been around for millennia. It carries with it a powerful visual legacy that goes beyond anything else in the pantheon of western or Asian imagery. It is the fabric of life.”
• Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution is at the British Museum, London, 24 September-24 January.