According to what we think is the most reliable scholarly perspective, Tantra emerged as a distinct tradition in South Asia approximately 1,700 years ago, although its symbolism and philosophy partake of traditional beliefs that are far older and that are similar to a cosmology that existed in many other societies. In The Kiss of the Yogini, David Gordon White makes a compelling case that the earliest Tantric practitioners were focused on acquiring power through ritual, and specifically sexual ritual, and that this sets Tantra apart from other traditions. In White's account, as Tantra evolved over the next several hundred years, it became more "spiritual" in focus, absorbing and being absorbed by the dominant cultural-religious models of the region (specifically Hinduism and Buddhism). This evolution meant that "enlightenment" or "liberation," rather than the acquisition of personal power, became the focus.
The quest for power did not disappear completely. Later Tantric practitioners sought both bhukti (enjoyment) and mukti (liberation), and the prevailing belief in Tantra and other related traditions was that powers (siddhis) were a sign of spiritual accomplishment. At the same time, seeking power for its own sake was generally condemned and seen as a pathway to ruin. The powers that are described in some of the texts—omniscience, astral projection, and the ability to make oneself extremely large or small, among others—have a magical quality but are sometimes understood as relating to the entirely subjective experiences that can happen in the context of meditation.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, Tantric texts and ideas began to gain greater exposure in the West. Alice Bunker Stockham's book Karezza: The Ethics of Marriage, which advocated a kind of meditative, non-thrusting, non-orgasmic sex, was quite likely influenced by Tantric and Taoist ideas. Aleister Crowley and even more explicitly Pierre A. Bernard (known as Oom the Omnipotent) gained notoriety in part because they espoused a Tantric approach that encompassed sexuality. Unlike Crowley, who reveled in his bad reputation, Bernard eventually backed away from the sexual element and became both a very wealthy man and one of the most influential popularizers of Hatha Yoga in the United States.
It is well documented that Hatha Yoga as practiced in the modern world is a hybrid that merges ancient traditions, practices, and beliefs with British military calisthenics. Similarly, modern Tantra in both India and the West is hardly a pure reflection of what it was in the medieval era or earlier. In the early part of the twentieth century, Sir John Woodroffe (an English judge and Tantric initiate) and a group of Indian advocates of independence fought, in the face of intense bigotry, to valorize and reclaim Indian philosophy in general and Tantra in particular. Woodroffe wrote several books on Tantric thought and, with the help of his collaborators, translated a number of texts. Woodroffe and his circle sought to downplay the sexual aspects of Tantra, which is not surprising. In the early twentieth century, scandalous accounts of ritual sex had been in circulation for a hundred years, something that Woodroffe and his collaborators were trying to counteract.
This negative attitude about sex was not new and was not solely the result of British colonization and Victorian morality; later but still pre-colonial Indian commentary on Tantric texts often treats references to sex as metaphorical. For example, a passage from the Vijnanabhairava Tantra reads: "At the time of sexual intercourse with a woman, absorption into her is brought about by excitement, and the delight that ensues at orgasm betokens the delight of Brahman. This delight is in reality that of one's own self." An eighteenth century Indian commentator suggested, with what strikes us as somewhat tortured reasoning, that this statement is intended symbolically and that the delight of orgasm is but a poor substitute for the "delight of Brahman."1 (Brahman is not an easy word to define; it refers to the supreme godhead in Hinduism, but the concept of Brahman should not be confused with the anthropomorphic gods of monotheism or polytheism. It is far more esoteric, encompassing a kind of cosmic, blissful consciousness.)
In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, western interest in Tantra skyrocketed, inspired in part by lectures our teacher Dr. Jonn Mumford (Swami Anandakapila Saraswati) gave at Llewellyn's Gnosticon conferences in the mid-1970s. Our first book, The Essence of Tantric Sexuality, was based on these lectures. Dr. Mumford was initiated by Paramahamsa Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga and a noted traditional Tantric practitioner, so the Gnosticon teachings are rooted in the tradition, even as they are informed by a knowledge of both western occultism and modern science. The leading popularizer of Tantra in the West, however, was Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or Osho, an Indian academic with no traditional background or training but a deep knowledge of Tantric literature, other spiritual traditions, and a familiarity with the human potential movement psychotherapeutic modalities that became popular in the 1960s.
Thus, like Hatha Yoga, modern Tantra is a hybrid. While this is true in the West, it is also the case in India, even though the traces of the ancient tradition are still visible there, and Tantra inspires fear and is associated with village magic in the minds of many. Others in twenty-first century India associate Tantra with Osho and sex, just as many westerners do.
Modern westerners (and most modern Indians, for that matter) cannot possibly inhabit the mental world of a contemporary Tantric Saddhu (holy man), let alone that of the eleventh or sixth century practitioner. We certainly do not claim to be capable of doing so, even though we have been initiated into a traditional and ancient lineage. This fact presents multiple challenges, ones that we strive to meet in all of our work: how can we draw on the wisdom of the tradition and connect with its power in a way that is true to its essence but is also relevant to contemporary western readers and students? How can we write about Tantric sexuality while making it clear that sex is only one aspect of the Tantric tradition, arguably a small one, without lapsing into sex negativity, an attitude that is prevalent in both modern America and modern India? How can we share this knowledge in a way that is at once accessible, cognizant of modern scientific data, and respectful of the tradition and the culture in which it evolved?
We were drawn to Tantra because of its sexual aspects, and in this regard, we suspect we are typical of most twenty-first century people of whatever cultural or national background. As we see it, the passage from the Vijnanabhairava suggests that sex is one realm in which people can have access to states that, at a minimum, approximate divine delight. These states also afford the opportunity to know oneself more fully, to be more fully oneself, and simultaneously to lose oneself completely. Great Sex Made Simple is based on this understanding.
Books on sex, including books on "Tantric Sex," often focus on developing skill sets, essentially working from the outside in. Although Great Sex Made Simple is a tip book, and it includes some great tricks and techniques, the heart of the book and the heart of our teaching can be found in the first eight chapters. We believe that working from the inside out, developing a Tantric attitude toward sex, is the key. From this perspective, it doesn't matter what you or how you do it. How you think and how you approach whatever you're doing are of far more consequence.
We discuss eight basic principles that are central to our approach:
- Honor your partner
- Cultivate body awareness, especially of your pelvic floor
- Learn to recognize and feel energy
- Think of partnered sexual activity as collaboration
- Take your time
- Build arousal and prolong it
- Develop the capacity to be present
- Shed your inhibitions
These principles are simple, although applying them can be considerably more complex. We've provided specific, practical techniques for incorporating them into your lovemaking. We are not dogmatic, and we are not suggesting that you should eliminate anything that you already enjoy for the sake of some "Tantric" ideal. Taking your time, for example, doesn't mean that every lovemaking session has to be prolonged, just that you should develop the capacity to slow down when you choose to.
Our objective in writing Great Sex Made Simple was to provide readers with an array of tools for expanding their sexuality, sense of connection, and capacity for pleasure (it's no coincidence that Dr. Mumford translates the word Tantra as "tool for expansion.") We hope you can use these tools skillfully. With a little practice, you may well have an experience that betokens the delight of Brahman.
1Jaideva Singh, trans., The Yoga of Delight, Wonder, and Astonishment: A Translation of the Vijnana-bhairava. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), pp. 66-67.