Historical-Cultural Bibliography of Tantra: Introductory Essay


Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

George Santayana

History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.

Kurt Vonnegut

Tantra Without Context

I created this bibliography in early 2004, to begin to understand Tantra in a broader historical-cultural context. I was introduced to Tantric practice through attending workshops with Margo Anand and Charles and Caroline Muir, the best-known teachers of Tantra in the United States. I found the training in these workshops to be personally and professionally useful, and I have incorporated some of the philosophy and practices of Tantra into my sex therapy practice.

I am troubled, however, by the hype and entrepreneurism surrounding Tantra. Last year, the musician Sting was interviewed on afternoon television as he described long sessions of Tantric lovemaking with his wife. Author David Ramsdale demonstrated a “sexual energy orgasm” live on a cable channel.

A cursory Internet search finds many tantric workshops and trainings offered, mostly on the East and West coasts, as well as Hawaii. “Dakinis” and “goddesses” advertise sexual services in most major U.S. cities.

Hugh B. Urban, an academic historian of religion, has written a persuasive article (“The Cult of Ecstasy, Tantrism, the New Age, and the Spiritual Logic of Late Capitalism,” History of Religions, 2000, 40, 268-304) suggesting that Tantra is an ideal “religion” for our age where ecstasy has become commoditized and individualism and instant gratification are prized.

The Diversity of Tantra

The process of assembling this bibliography revealed a bewildering array of literature available on Tantra, much of which is inconsistent and contradictory. Tantra is variously described as the royal road to sexual ecstasy (David Ramsdale, Sexual Energy Ecstasy); the fast path to enlightenment (Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism); a method of deepening intimacy in a couple relationship (Margo Anand, The Art of Sexual Ecstasy); an esoteric religion (Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet); a metaphysical and magical practice (Hyatt and Duquette, Sex Magic, Tantra, and Tarot); a form of meditation (Osho, The Book of Secrets: The Science of Meditation); an element of mystical practice used for multiple public/private purposes, often to enhance the power of the guru (Jeffrey Kripal, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna); and much more.

This bibliography thus represents a reconnoitering of the Tantric terrain. It may be viewed as an initial sorting, into large categories, of the extant material on Tantra. Within each category, particularly the two large divisions of Hindu Tantra and Tantric Buddhism, there is tremendous variability. Much of this diversity can be understood by looking at the historical unfolding of Tantric practice and philosophy over time, within the particular social and cultural contexts in which it existed. Two recent books provide useful overviews of this historical development, and the different cultural purposes which Tantra has served.

Historical Development of Tantra

David Gordon White described the historical development of Hindu Tantrism from its earliest discernible origins before the first millennium of the current era down to the present day in his book Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts (2003). White disapproves of the New Age embrace of Tantra and insists that Tantra be used to describe a religion congruent with its roots in Asian culture. He points out that Tantra was not primarily focused on sex, but rather on providing rituals and practices for villagers to manage the terrifying natural forces which surrounded them (weather, natural catastrophes, disease). A number of these early Tantric rituals did involve mystical-erotic sexual practices.

Hugh Urban’s book, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (2003), takes a more politicized view of the historical development of Tantra, In it he traces the ways in which Tantra and Tantric practices were used and interpreted by different groups in different eras for different purposes. The early roots of Tantra in the first millennium of the current era, predating the first written sources, may reflect efforts by marginalized people of the lower castes in India to subvert the organized religions of their day.

By the medieval period (early second millennium A.D.), Tantra had been co-opted by ruling elites, who built elaborate temples and subsidized priests and scholars who produced the documents called Tantras. In the Colonial period, Tantric philosophy was turned to ideological purposes, providing encouragement and a vision of a powerful, Indian-ruled subcontinent to the underground Bengali movements attempting to overthrow British rule. By Victorian times native Brahmin reinterpreters of Tantra were finding ways to spiritualize the sometimes troubling sexual teachings of the early texts (much as the Christian Church has found metaphorical meaning in the Song of Solomon, noted for its erotic passages).

For Urban, the current New Age embrace of Tantra and the admixture of different cultural traditions (Native American, Sufi, Taoist, Humanistic Psychology, etc.) to produce new iterations of Tantra is just the most recent step in a centuries-long process of cultural interpretation and reinterpretation, and the diffusion and intermixing of cultural beliefs and practices. He finds it no accident that the sexual elements of ancient Tantric practice are seized upon and given central importance at this particular historical-cultural nexus in the personally alienated, sexually obsessed West.

Cultural Dispersion of Tantra

The collection of ritual practices now known as Tantra apparently grew out of folk rituals which formed the substrate of early Hinduism (Katherine Harper, The Roots of Tantra, 2002). These practices long predated the written manuscripts, the earliest of which were not composed until the medieval period. Yet this body of cultural wisdom, ritual practice and beliefs about the nature of man in the universe was widely dispersed through the ancient world.

The cultural influence of Tantric thought and practice, centered in the Indus River valley and the foothills of the Himalayas, stretched as far west as ancient Greece. Plato’s teachings made reference to Tantric beliefs about the clarifying power of moving sexual fluids through secret channels in the body, giving rise to “seminal thoughts” – and also finding concrete representation in the caduceus, the symbol of Western medicine, two serpents entwined around a central shaft. Tantric influence spread as far east as Japan: Kobo Daishi, the monk who brought Buddhism to Japan in 806 A.D., received Tantric training and initiation in China.

A Contextualized Approach to Understanding Tantra

Understanding historical context is crucial to making informed choices. It provides a useful reminder of the reality of cultural relativity and the mutability of institutions and cultural practices. It is a common tactic to speak of revealing secrets – particularly potent language for the sexually repressed West. We are hungry for secret knowledge.

Many present-day Tantric teachers preface their workshop brochures or books with subtitles like “ancient secrets revealed” – actually an old strategy which has served well the Masons, the Mormons, the Rosicrucians and many other cults and religious groups. This strategy serves entrepreunial and coercive purposes, seeking to empower the teacher in the mind of the student, endowing him or her with ancient knowledge which has been kept secret.

Jeffrey Kripal in his book Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (1995) speaks of the power of invoking “the secret” in gaining disciples in his provocative study of Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali mystic. It is psychologically compelling to hear a secret hinted at, particularly when the teacher possesses charisma and charm. Is a secret which is talked about a secret, or a device?

Many scholars have observed the contrast between “secret” Tantric teachings, and how openly the secrets are talked about. Urban, for one, maintains that it is a myth that little is known in the West about Tantra. Rather, he says, Tantra is one of the most studied and written-about of all ancient ritual systems.

Tantra and Tantric practices continue to evolve. Old cultural and ritual elements are reformulated and repackaged to serve new contexts. I invite you to use this bibliography as an aid to your exploration of Tantra.