Questions and Answers
** Tantra, Women and Sexuality **




How a female aspirant is supposed to approach Tantric Shaktism when virtually all of the extant scriptures appear to have been written by and for male sadhaks.?"

Devi Bhakta :
It's an excellent discussion point, and I'm posting it here because many of you are far more qualified than I to address her concern - and I hope you will choose to share your wisdom. For now, I'll try to get the conversation rolling with an excerpt from the essay, "'Sa Ham - I am She': Woman As Goddess," by Rita DasGupta Sherma, 2000 Sheffield Academic Press:

"To be sure, Tantra distinguishes itself from other religious sects by its maverick attitudes towards the forbidden, including sexuality. ... However, sacramental sex, although important for certain tantric schools, generally represents a very small part of the overall sadhana [spiritual practice] of the aspirant. [Rather,] it is the mastery of yogic disciplines (such as pranayama, various asana, mudras, [... and] intense meditation on the inherently pure nature of all phenomena, due to the omnipresence of Shakti) that form the basis of sadhana and allow for the transmutation and divinization of the entire spectrum of embodied experience, including sexuality.

"An exclusive focus on the sexual elements of tantric sadhana can tend to obscure the foundational philosophical premise of Tantra; [that is,] the assumption of the radical immanence of the divine, most dynamically manifest in our human embodiment, and least concealed in the feminine form. The belief in the omnipresence of the divine feminine on the physical as well as the spiritual plane has the effect of reversing the anti-embodiment bias so prevalent in the philosophies of transcendence.

"Tantric philosophy is based on a valorization of the feminine principle as mutable, morphogenic and material - and it envisions woman as the most natural expression of this feminine principle. But the divine feminine in Tantra is not limited to the maternal or nurturing aspects of the Goddess as demure wife of a celestial Lord. Tantra embraces the fierce, majestic, willful, and autonomous aspects of the Goddess and, by corollary, allows women access to nuanced and multifaceted divine feminine models. ...

"In Tantra, purification does not consist of elaborate ablutions, pilgrimage to purifying sites, and extreme measures for cleansing the 'impure' body. Rather, it consists of the experiential realization of the inherently pure, divine nature of the body and, indeed, all things. Thus the purification referred to in tantric texts involves a multi-layered visualization process whereby the aspirant envisions the presence of the divine Mother in every part of the body/mind complex (bhuta-suddhi). Since women are Shakti incarnate, their self-identification with the inner Shakti is considered easier and more natural."

Regarding the apparent lack of female-authored Tantric texts, Sherma notes that many of these women would have been from the lower castes and likely illiterate, particularly in a non-vernacular language like Sanskrit. However, the fact that accomplished women aspirants were common in the Tantric sects is clearly evidenced in the male-authored texts, which "contain numerous references to the initiation of women into lineages, female religious preceptors [and gurus] and women as embodiments of the Goddess." Also, many oral Tantric sources such as "folklore, devotional songs, and poetry" appear more likely to be woman-authored and provide "glimpses of women's relationship with the Goddess" in these cults.

Sherma continues, "Indeed, it was far more likely that lower-caste women would be involved in a non-orthodox sect because they would be under far fewer social restrictions and were likely to be economically independent through a trade. In any case, whatever the background of the sadhika [a woman initiated into tantric Shaktism], the honor that was due her did not change.... each [was] seen as an aspect of the Mother Herself."


Mary Ann
Thank you, Devi Bhakta, for posting something from the book Is the Goddess a Feminist? I have been reading that book, and wanted to post some things from it, also, to hear others' thoughts about the material. For example, from the same essay you have excerpted comes the following:

"While the emergence of the Shaiva bhakti movement allowed women a certain degree of spiritual self-agency, the Shakta tradition (devotionalism directed towards Shakti) developed into a male-dominated sphere. It is only in Shakta-tantra that the Goddess-woman indentification is stressed, and women's right to self-determination is affirmed. As Payne noted, Shaktism and Tantrism form 'two intersecting but not coinciding circles' (Payne 1979:72).

Can you (or others) comment on this in terms of modern day Shakta practice?

Devi Bhakta
I think the starting point is to realize that Shaktism is not a monolithic religion; it is as diverse as Her devotees. But we could isolate perhaps three main strands -- not as formal cults per se, just simply as a shorthand that may help you to orient yourself:

1. Brahmanical Shaktism:
This would include the more strictly Vedic approaches to the Goddess, usually involving priestly intervention and ritual on behalf of the devotee. Here the focus is on transcendent aspects of the Divine, with Shakti seen more as a vehicle by which one attains an Ultimate deity (usually male, i.e. Vishu/Krishna/Rama; or Shiva, etc.); *or* as an Ultimate deity Herself who transcends Her gender in Her highest form (a la, the Devi Bhagavata Purana). So a Shakta taking this approach would see absolutely no logical or necessary connection between honoring the Divine Feminine and respecting human women. Many passages in the Devi Bhagavata, for example, are frankly misogynist in their disdain for human women, even as the scripture as a whole declares Devi to be the Supreme Divine -- that is most likely the meaning of the quote you cite, that "Shakta developed into a male-dominated sphere." 2. Devotional Shaktism:
As you probably know, the Bhakti (devotional) forms of Hinduism, including Shaktism, are less dependent upon priestly intervention and temple ritual. Instead, the devotee works upon her or his inner self, cultivating an intensely emotional relationship with her or his chosen form of the Divine (ishtadevata, ishtadevi). Ramakrishna is probably the best-known advocate for developing a bhakti relationship with Devi. Many if not most Shaktas who choose a bhakti approach will love Devi in one of two devotional relationships (bhavas): either as a Child to be indulged and doted upon, or as a Mother to be honored and respected. In both cases, sexuality is implicitly ruled out -- the idea being that no emotionally healthy person would ever harbor sexual feelings toward one's daughter or toward one's own Mother; thus the devotee is guarded against spiritual devotion degenerating into mere sexual arousal. (By interesting contrast, it is considered a very high bhava for a female or male devotee to approach a Male deity as lover).

3. Tantric Shaktism.
Here, Divine Immanence is the axis of worship rather than Divine Transcendence. The Devi Mahatmyam -- an intensely Tantric scripture, although Brahmanical and Devotional Shaktas reverence it as well, on different levels -- states, vis a vis human women: "O Devi! All types of knowledge and all women in the world are thy diverse manifestations." (The excerpt I cited above at Message #5290 offers more detail about Tantra's radical association of human women with the Goddess.) Although human women and men are both said to be of Her substance, Her divine essence is considered "least concealed" in women -- and particularly in women who have experientially realized themselves as Her manifestations. Therefore, Self-realization through Shaktism is said to be less of a task for women than for men: "Since women are Shakti incarnate, their self-identification with the inner Shakti is considered easier and more natural." Initiation into a Tantric form of Shaktism (say, Srividya) is said to be eight times more auspicious if one's guru is a woman. While it is recognized that women of an asuric and tamasic nature are best avoided, any woman initiated into Tantric Shaktism is considered, without reservation, to be respected as Devi Herself.

Now, I know that some members will challenge the categories I've set out here. And so I wish to stress that I offer them only for convenience and as a tool for understanding. There are Tantric Shaktas who reverence the Devi Bhagavata Purana; there are Bhaktas (including Ramakrishna himself) who do not shy away from the lover's bhava, and there are Bhaktas who grow enraged at the merest suggestion that Devi be approached in any relationship except Mother. Likewise, there are non-Shaktas who honor the Goddess and recite the Devi Mahatmyam during Navratri ... and on and on.

My point is that it's impossible to categorically state that "Shaktism is male-dominated" or that "Shaktism is feminist." At best, one might be able to say "That particular approach to Shaktism is male-dominated" or "That particular Shakta is a feminist." The individual devotee cannot help but bring their individual attitudes to the table when approaching any religion, Shaktism included. The best we can hope for is that, with steadfast and constant practice, She will reveal Herself to us in the forms and manners that we need and can understand at whatever our particular stage of spiritual development may be.

Mary Ann
I have questions re two interesting points you have made, Devi Bhakta:
1) (By interesting contrast, it is considered a very high bhava for a female or male devotee to approach a Male deity as lover).
Is there a provision (in ANY Shakta or tantric text that you have EVER come across) for a female devotee approaching a Female deity as lover?
Can you tell me where can I read more about the male devotee approach to Male deity as lover?
2) While it is recognized that women of an asuric and tamasic nature are best avoided, any woman initiated into Tantric Shaktism is considered, without reservation, to be respected as Devi Herself.
Who would be proclaiming that a woman or women are of an "asuric" or "tamasic" nature? Is that just an individual thing, or something that gets to the level of "excommunication" ?

Devi Bhakta

Here are couple of quick answers to your queries; atthe outset, let me stress that these replies representmy opinion only. I invite any corrections or divergentviews:
1. "By interesting contrast, it is considered a veryhigh bhava for a female or male devotee to approach a Male deity as lover." Is there a provision (in ANY Shakta or tantric text that you have EVER come across)for a female devotee approaching a Female deity as lover?
I do not know of any specific such text, but if theShakta Tantras apply equally to women and men (andthere is nothing I know of that says they do not) thiswould be perfectly acceptable. After all, a initiated female sadhika may perform all the same worship techniques prescribed for a male sadhaka -- be it worship of the Sri Chakra, worship of a human shakti, yoni puja, etc. The big difference is that the sadhika may also *be* the shakti at the center of such worship, which the male aspirant, of course, may not.

2. Can you tell me where can I read more about the male devotee approach to Male deity as lover?
The main example that comes to mind is male devotees of Krishna imagining themselves as the gopikas (cowherd girls) who are his lovers. Sometimes this will involve male devotees dressing in female clothing and imagining themselves as Krishna's lover during devotions or on special religious occasions. But I am not well-versed in Vaishnavism, so don't take it from me. The ISKCON site notes, "A sakhi-bekhi is a person -- often a male, but sometimes females take part --who dresses up like a gopi and imagines himself/herself as being enjoyed by Krishna." Here's that link; but look around and you'll find more. There's been a lot written on this subject:
http://www.iskcon.org/main/twohk/philo/roots/apasam/lilimit.htm
3. "Women of an asuric and tamasic nature are best avoided" ... Who would be proclaiming that a woman or women are of an "asuric" or "tamasic" nature? Is that just an individual thing, or something that gets tothe level of "excommunication" ?

There is no proclamation or excommunication - no universal judgment that "this one is bad" and "thisone is good". We simply do the best one can according to our own development, level of discernment, and gut instinct. Compare the idea of the ishtadevi/ishtadevata -- the personal deity; the form of the Supreme Divine that opens my heart and allows me to make serious spiritual progress may very well leave another person cold, and vice versa.

Likewise, a woman whom I choose to avoid as tamasic or asuric (say, because of her negative effect on me, my work, my sadhana, my friends or loved ones) may very well be someone else's mother, daughter, sister, spouse, lover, valued friend, confidante, etc. We are all a mix of sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic qualities-- otherwise we wouldn't be human. So I cannot define that other person as "asuric" except as to their immediate effect upon me, my sadhana, my work, my peace of mind, my friends ... my little world. If their effect is negative, then I do what I can to avoid 'em, simple as that. No hard feelings, no ill wishes, no anger -- I simply stay away.

What are the relationship between Tantra and alternative (gay, lesbian) forms of sexuality.

Devi Bhakta
As I am heterosexual by preference, I might not have been the ideal person to ask. So I wanted to post my reaction in case any other members can shed additional light on this topic. To summarize, my answer was basically that a devotee's sexual orientation -- heterosexual or otherwise -- simply does not matter. I began my explanation with a caveat about avoiding the temptation to monkey around with the received doctrine of the Tantras to make them fit one's social, sexual and political views:

"My only advice would be to heed the words of Picasso, who once said something to the effect, "I consider myself free to smash the conventions of Western art only because I have thoroughly mastered the conventions of Western art." Because Picasso could paint a portrait as realistic as a Rembrandt; he didn't choose to distort and cube human bodies in his later work because didn't know how to paint properly, but because he'd "been there, done that" with traditional Western art, and now felt compelled to go somewhere new. The problem today -- in both Indian and the West -- is that many people don't want to invest the kind of time and effort to learn the real thing, which is not especially easy, accessible, or 'sexy.' Instead, the term "Tantra" is being used to sell a lot of easy, sex-centered, made-for-Western-consumption, New Age schemes and belief systems."

My correspondent, as it turns out, was offended by this statement, and snapped back, "It almost sounds like you are saying a person (me?) should be a great heterosexual first, before trying to change the rules!"

I responded that this response totally missed my point: "I think we are talking about two different things. Your statement only makes sense if Tantra = Sexual Relations, which it does not. Tantra = Life, of which sexual relations are an essential and important part, but nonetheless only a small portion relative to the entire human experience.

"My point applies to myself as well as you or any other person who was not born into the tradition. Because Tantra *is* a tradition, one that has evolved organically over millennia. My feeling is that Tantra is a seamless web, and that it is both counterproductive and potentially dangerous to pick and choose, accept and reject various pieces of that web before gaining a fairly comprehensive vision of the whole. It's like pulling threads out of a fine Persian carpet; you never know when a tug here or a snip there will ruin the balance and beauty of the whole thing.

The term Tantra is tossed around very freely nowadays, and generously dropped into any number of New Age paperbacks and weekend retreats. Which is fine -- but we must recognize it for what it is, a New Agehodgepodge that has been completely stripped of its original meaning and context. If such concoctions make people feel better, great; it they lead to a greater degree of self-acceptance and psychic health, all the better! But they are simply not "real" Tantra, and they will not yield the results of the ancient tradition in context. If you disagree with this statement, that is fine; it is simply my opinion and experience. I may be completely wrong. But if you disagree with me now, at least you will be disagreeing with what I actually mean instead of what you are arbitrarily putting into my mouth.

Let me clarify this also, as to my own understanding of Tantra, for what it's worth -- and again, you are free to consider me all wet, or misguided or flat-out wrong. But in my opinion, Tantra is simply not concerned with the devotee's sexual preference. Yes, its iconographical imagery is nominally "heterosexual" for the most part,but to stop the analysis there is to miss the real point. Because sex is not what these icons are about -- sex is a metaphor and jumping off point for what these icons are about.

For example, by the time a male devotee worships the Yoni, he is past seeing it as a primarily human sexual organ or object; he sees only a living symbol of Devi. It is not a "sexual" thing in the sense of desiring the Yoni as he might in a non-ritual context. In fact, if the Yoni *does* seem sexual or provoke an ordinary sexual response (erection, ejaculation, etc.), then this is a sure sign that the initiate is not ready for the ceremony. And in fact the ritual is designed to avoid such reactions; a true Tantric ritual involving genital worship is not a "sexy" occasion at all. It is very mechanical, technical, slow, drawn out -- and previewed, followed, and punctuated by any number of completely non-sexual rituals.

By the way, women initiates at such a ceremony will also worship the Yoni, which denotes neither a sexual preference for women nor an absence of such preference. It simply indicates that they are Shaktas.Like mthe nmale devotees, they too are worshiping the higher function of the Yoni -- as the Creative Principle of the Universe. There are ceremonies in which Devi is represented by a young girl (Kumari) or an old woman, or a group of either. They will invariably be fully clothed. The woman's age, whether she has ever been or will ever be a mother, whether she is sexually attracted to women or men, means nothing really. It is simply her Femininity that channels the Devi. And in this understanding any women thus worshiped will not take the worship personally, but consider themselves as simply mediums who are channelling the Devi manifest in them, as only female humans can. If a "sexual" penetration is involved in a Tantric ritual (which is extremely rare in real Tantra), it is simply because the male chosen for this function is a stand-in for the Male principle (Purusha) or Shiva, in juxtaposition to the woman's Female principle (Prakriti) or Shakti. Perhaps the male is gay; perhaps the woman is lesbian -- who cares? It simply *does not matter* in Tantra, from the ritual perspective.

Prainbow
I am reminded of a book I flipped through recently at a local coffee shop. There are seminars, trips to the Amazon jungle where seminar participants may, in the course of their study (weeks I think) they may take some herbs which have a psychoactive property. This is used by the natives for an ecstatic religious experience. However, the most potent of these may not be taken by the participants of any seminar, indeed this experience of the tribal members will not be shared with anyone who does not stay with them and learn their ways for a period of about 3 years.

It would be easy to obtain this herb, I'm sure. But getting the herb and getting the legitimate experience are two different things, and this is clearly understood by the tribe. This potent herb must be matched with a lengthy and strong commitment for it to bring about the true experience.

Thus I see Tantra. Anyone can have sex. And it is a powerful aspect of our human experience. For it to be a true spiritual experience, it seems it must be matched with a strong commitment to learning to fully absorb the complexities that make Tantra the thing it really is. Context is everything

Sankara Menon
I fully and absolutly agree with Devi Bhakta It is also pertinent to state that just anybody cannot indulge in the sexual side of tantra. For one he/she has to be an initiate. And after being initiated, they have to undergo certain period of practices before they can even be "considered" for initiation into the sexual side. Once you enter that areana, you have no choice on the sexual partner. For example in Bhairavi Chakra sadhana, which is described in Saundaryalahari Sloka 11 tarting with chathurbi srikantaiH" involves 4 couples and Devi. devi is not involved in anything. She is just an observer sitting silent and immutable watching over the events. She selects the partners and you cannot protest. if you protest you are ineligible. So all this bally hoo about "Tantric Sex" (as stated in the west) is a lot of nonsense. Your sexual preferences are irrelevant. In this context it is also pertinent to mention that even masturbation can be used in Tantric sadhana. I again reiterate there is as much sex in tantra as in an "ordinary" person's life. But to indulge in sex in ordinary life also you have to pass a certain age to be "capable" of sex. Similarly one has to become "capable" of having "tantric sex" before he/she can even contemplate "tantric sex". I out "tantric sex" within " marks because it is not sex as known in ordinary life at all.



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