"If you remain aware you will come to know
that sex is not just sex.
Sex is the outermost layer,
deep inside is the love,
and even deeper is prayer,
and deepest is God himself.
Sex can become a cosmic experience.
Then it is Tantra."
                        - Osho -

Tantra in the West

As European scholars began to take a significant interest in Indian culture at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, Christian missionaries also found out about the tantric practices. They shocked their Western audiences with sensational reports of sexual tantric exercises, portraying them as the shady occult perversions of primitive, underdeveloped groups and even more academically minded researchers in the West picked up on these characterisations as "black magic". The perception of tantric practices was distorted further as Sir Richard Francis Burton translated the "Kama Sutra" into English, an ancient court textbook that was used as a guide to sexual and marital affairs. As a consequence, the Western public came to see tantra as being synonymous with the guidance in the Kama Sutra - particularly with its detailed descriptions of various physical positions for sexual intercourse.

Tantra's bad reputation changed somewhat at the beginning of the 20th century thanks to the efforts of the British Orientalist Sir John Woodroffe ("Arthur Avalon"). He performed tantric practices himself and in his writings he described tantra as a purer, honourable tradition. His descriptions correspond to the scholarly, symbolistic interpretation of tantric teachings. So tantra became a rational, ethical school that arose from the analysis of the vedic scriptures, which were also regarded in the West as works of an advanced civilisation. Sir John Woodroffe's portrayal of tantra is a reflection of the reformed interpretation of tantra which Indian scholars themselves developed in response to accusations from Christian Westerners and also from other Indians, who regarded tantra as a decadent, corrupted version of vedic teachings.

This new view of tantra attracted the attention of people beyond the world of Indologists, including researchers and authors with esoteric or religious inclinations such as Agehananda Bharati, Mircea Eliade, Julius Evola, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Nonetheless, despite Woodroffe's best intentions, it was mainly the connection between sexuality and spirituality that fascinated the West. Tantra increasingly became seen as an "ecstasy cult" with a positive attitude towards the physical body and everything worldly; in other words, very different to Christianity, which was seen as body-negative and creating inevitable feelings of guilt in association with lust and Eros.

This is how the term "tantra" came to be a synonym for ritual eroticism, spiritually oriented sexual practices, or sacred sexuality. Tantric books and teachers then took further inspiration from a huge range of different trends and milieus. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, the Sanskrit scholar and hypnotist Dr. Pierre Bernard founded scandal-ridden tantric clinics, communes and the Tantrik Order - initially in California and then in other parts of the USA. Teachings on offer in these economically very successful centres included ritual sexual intercourse and exercises designed to increase lust and sexual stamina. Among those who learnt techniques from Indian tantrics, Pierre Bernard was the first to combine them with Western methods and with the idea that sexual desire is a powerful energy that pervades the whole universe and has to be liberated. Occult lodges (Aleister Crowley, Ordo Templi Orienti) also took up these types of practices, seeing them as a new path of spiritual self-development and combining them with a wide range of different magical exercises. Then, as the sixties saw a wave of personal development courses, workshops and books embracing new therapy techniques from the field of humanistic psychology, this also influenced Western tantra teachers and authors. They took theoretical elements from Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis, including the interpretations of sexual fixations and blockages, following this up with the later adoption of exercises from bioenergetics and other bodywork schools. And the ideal of sexual liberation was also a major influence, paralleling the changes in sexual values in Western society in general.

The Heir to an Old Tradition? Or Something Completely New?

Even though Western tantra today has little in common with previous tantric teachings in India, it would be naive to claim that it is the West's own creation. After all, for the last 100 years (and especially since the seventies) practices and exercises from a variety of Indian tantric and yogic schools have been steadily adopted, albeit in an unsystematic, free-for-all manner. And this was not at all a one-way process. There were remarkable 're-imports' of Western tantra into Indian culture and back again - led, for example, by the Indian gurus Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh ("Osho") and Swami Muktananda.

Today, tantra in the West can mainly be characterised as follows. Tantra encompasses training, practices and teachings related to the subject of sexuality, which:

  1. remove sexual inhibitions and blockages a person feels to be burdensome; 

  2. enable subtle, refined physical and sensual experiences; 

  3. evoke concealed energetic processes in the body which increase and enrich the person's sexual desire;

  4. and enable people to overcome egocentrism with feelings of merger with something greater than the individual self.

Although different tantra schools and vendors in the West have different priorities, in one form or another they all include ritual worship of the body and sensual desire. The difference to India can be summarised with the observation that the Indian tantric traditions are characterised by a sexualisation of rituals, whereas the new traditions in the West ritualise sex. This is, however, not the only difference. The traditional guru-disciple relationship also no longer exists as the main way of imparting knowledge; instead, this is done by means of books and commercial training offers (workshops and courses). This often leads to circles of students who only come together temporarily, with no compulsory long-term commitment. And a further difference lies in the lack of binding regulations concerning how to live one's life in general.

In the eighties this milieu, often designated by social scientists as "neo-tantra", gave rise to a family of new types of massage, which initiated their own "culture and science of touch". Ritual body worship practices and massage techniques to influence energetic processes in the body were combined to form a choreographed sequence of touch lasting several hours:
a ritual art of touch - the Tantra Massage

Authors and Copyright:
Stefanie Imann and JL for ANANDA - The Art of Touch in July 2009
All rights reserved by the authors. Commercial reproduction or use only possible when expressly permitted by the authors.

David Gordon White: "Kiss of the Yogini: 'Tantric Sex' in its South Asian Contexts"; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
David Gordon White (ed): "Tantra in Practice", Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000
Hugh B. Urban: Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (University of California Press, 2003)
Michel Strickmann: "Mantras et mandarins. Le Bouddhisme tantrique en Chine"; Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
David Gellner: "Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest. Newar Buddhism and its Hierarchy of Ritual"; Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992.

Hugh B. Urban: "Unleashing the Beast - Aleister Crowley, Tantra and Sex Magic in Late Victorian England"
Hugh B. Urban: "The Omnipotent OOM -Tantra and Its Impact on Modern Western Esotericism"

International Journal of Tantric Studies, Asiatica Association ONLUS, Milano Italy