India is a vast country and certainly one of the oldest civilisations of this planet. Each part of India has its own history and much of it is lost in the fog caused by external and internal power struggles through the centuries and millennia. This is the reason why – whatever a person postulates – one certainly will find someone who will claim the opposite.
However – concerning Tantra there is a certain view on the history of Indian and especially Hindu spirituality which one can maintain without contradicting the mainstream beliefs by using the same to explain certain phenomena which still occur nowadays and have done so for a very long time. I’m speaking of the age-old dispute between the more or less “official” Brahmanic theology and the Tantric doctrine(s). To understand the full impact of what I am talking about we have to make an attempt to explain the theological foundation of the core of the Hindu religion: The cast system and its roots in the idea of reincarnation branching out into the doctrins of Karma and Dharma.
The Brahmin’s Catch
The Brahmanic explanation for the existence of a cast system was always that through reincarnation and the processing as well as the dissolving of Karma the soul will ascend through the different casts and finally find illumination and liberation as a realized Brahmin. The means by which this is achieved is basically just one single thing: purification. Once the soul is completely purified of the different karmas it will attain its natural state which is illumination. It will become free of the Samsara just by “not-committing” acts which would produce new Karma. Seen like that the path toward realisation of the Self (Jivatman) is the natural evolution which every (human) being has to walk at the end of the day. The religious Brahmin therefore sees himself as the highest possible material emanation of this path. The next step would be the transcended soul which has come home into the Atman, never to be reborn again.
To attain this goal there is the law of Dharma. Dharma is basically a set of collective rules which guide the souls through the several incarnations in order to achieve liberation in the end. These rules off course vary according to the different environments (i.e. the casts) in which the soul is incarnated. Let me give an example: The spiritual Brahmin’s sole exercise is to avoid contamination by contact with impure objects or persons. The more complete this avoidance is, the faster his development will progress. But the Brahmin is incorporated inside society! So he depends on other people getting in touch with impurities! The Dharma of the Brahmin is “maintaining purity”. Therefore the Dharma of the members of other (lower) casts is the contact with these very same impurities. If there is per example a war. For the Brahmin it would be an act of impurity to be a soldier and kill the enemy. Therefore there was a warrior cast whose Dharma it was to confront the enemy in war. Naturally the act of killing is an impure thing also for the warrior. But since he protects the Brahmin not only from the enemy himself but also from the impure act of slaughtering other human beings the warrior can reach a state in which he can be reborn as a Brahmin and ascend toward liberation. All of this has to do with the right way to be a warrior of course. The Bhagadvad Gita explains this in great detail.
The main point in the whole doctrine is that the soul has to go through many stages in order to achieve a Karmic purity which enables her to leave the wheel of birth and death behind and re-enter the divine unity.
At least that is what the Brahmin says …
Shortcuts to Liberation
If you look at it closely Hinduism is quite a rigid religion … even though it is a syncretism of many local cults … and therefore very tolerant in its core and origin. To keep all those peoples of different regions and of the most diverse social backgrounds and environments in line one needed a safety valve. And here the Yogas, the Sadhus, the Swamis and the Babas of the manifold of Sampradayas come into the picture. These cults offered shortcuts out of Samsara and gave the Daliths and the lower casts a certain hope: “I have a choice … either I live another 10.000 lifes or I join a special teaching and do the work of 100 incarnations in only one lifetime. There is a way out!” Like that the responsibility stayed with the individual. Off course individual thinking is not the main strength of the Hindu not nowadays nor in former times … but it was a valid option to leave the flock and find a more direct path towards liberation. These spiritual schools all honoured the Brahmin’s doctrine. They just used it in a different way. Therefore Brahmins usually don’t speak against Yoga or Sampradaya (as long as it is within the orthodox boundaries of Hinduism). Naturally there is a price tag attached: If one wants to take a shortcut one has to renounce the world, one’s family and most comforts of society. On top of that everything depends on the willingness how much austerities and penance one is willing to take upon oneself. The more you suffer the faster one can develop towards enlightenment and detachement from the world. This is off course a bad advertisement for a spiritual path outside the cast system since it means that the worst conditions are still better than the bitterness of the spiritual path … without family, without children and without personal love on top of poverty and Tapasia!
Not many people are willing to do this. Therefore these alternatives never endangered the Brahmin’s rule.
At a certain point all of this was questioned and a big deal of insecurity entered Hinduism with the rise of a cult known as Tantra. If we speak about Tantra we must not think of it as a homogeneous construct. As Hinduism itself it has many mintages. Even elaborate studies and encyclopaedias until now did not succeed to encompass its wholeness. But there are two characteristics which let tantra appear as a more or less revolutionary philosophy in the light of the Brahmin train of thought.
Householders: At a certain point the more intelligent and spiritually interested Hindus who were not endowed with a birth in a higher cast started to ask themselves whether it was really necessary to live outside society in order to strife for enlightenment. Was this really the only option for a path which is faster than endless cicles of living and dying? What if there was another way to deal with Karma than the one described by the Brahmins? What if one could actually accelerate the spiritual growth of the individual by certain methods and techniques as well as through a good look on the specific Karma of the individual? Not all purifications are necessary for everybody since not all have the same Karma! On the other hand some people might need much more of a certain “remedy” than others since they may have accumulated Karma in very restricted areas! Thinking like that one could assume that the specific Karma of a person is actually this persons very own path to salvation! The Karma shows the way to liberation since it has to be resolved. and since the Karmas of different people can be very different … The paths to liberation also must diverge! Why then should a person walk with the flock for another 1.000 lives if Nirvana may be at the end of this life as long as one concentrates on burning or fulfilling the Karma at hand! And secondly: If the Karma of two individuals can be so different that their spiritual paths are also very different as a result … mustn’t there be also a huge difference in the Dharma those people should live by?! For one person one thing could be impure … but for the other person it could be a sacrament! It all depends on the personal Karma. This means that Dharma also must be personal! Off course there are certain basic rules. Like that murder per example never will be a pure act. But collecting garbage is not an impure act for everybody. This can be seen especially in our present time! Collecting garbage is the most purifying thing anybody could do right now! This thinking brought forth the idea of the “householder”. That means that everybody who has a job and a family, man or woman, no matter in which cast one is born into can incorporate a spiritual path inside a “normal” family and professional life. Approached in the right way the individual Karma of a person can be the exact map for this individual (and only for this individual!) toward enlightenment and liberation.
One rises, whereby one falls: The Brahmanic doctrine has a very specific set of rules, of “DOs” and “DON’Ts”. There are many things which have to be observed in order to not only live a pure life but even a purifying one. This starts with the forbiddance to eat meat and fish. It restricts the interaction between menstruating women and men. It determines the circumstances in which sexual intercourse may take place. It prohibits the use of alcohol and drugs. Etc.
The Tantric mothers and fathers asked themselves why those things were so dangerous for the Brahmin. And they came to a very enlightened conclusion: All those things are dangerous for the purification of the Brahmin because they contain a huge (!) amount of energy which is directed into a non-beneficial direction. But what if this energy could be utilized so it would further the development of the individual? Like a sailor who is sailing against (!) the wind one could sail the ocean of energy actively instead of only entering the sea when the winds are favourable.
A good principle to explain this is the concept of Brahmacharya. Sexuality is in the Brahmin’s philosophy something which pulls us down into the denseness of existence. It is basically determined by the instincts and is part of our animal nature. Therefore it has to be restricted to a point that it only serves procreational purposes. The Yogis and Swamis and all others who try to reach a spiritual shortcut use celibacy as one of their main tools. That means that they ban sexuality completely out of their lifes since they not only deem it impure but also fear the loss of energy which comes with it. The Tantric looks at it more closely. He says: “What exactly is it which makes us lose energy in the sexual act? It cannot be the act itself because we all depend on it. No, it must even be divine since it brings forth new life! But if we use those enormous life giving energies just for pleasure … then off course we deplete ourselves of tremendous amounts of energy!” Therefore the Tantrics concluded that it is not intercourse itself but the ejaculation, the menstruation and the ovulation which empty our energy reserves. Tantra teaches us as one of the very first steps how to control those things. If per example a man can control his ejaculation he will obtain amounts of sexual energy … so huge that his sexuality starts to function as a power plant! It will not drain him of energy … on the contrary: It will increase his enery to unknown peaks!
The Tantrics know that it is not the act itself but the attitude toward it and the way how it is performed which makes a thing beneficial or not.
Does this mean that the Brahmin is wrong? No, not at all! The Brahmin’s path is valid. It only takes a very long time. Simultaneously off course it can be looked at as legitimized racism in the ethical light of modern times. Also I did not speak about the role of Brahmin women who only can reach a certain (lower) state of realization at the sides of their husbands – through Bhakti.
The “shortcut-methods” give a chance to all social layers. They function in a very democratic way. But … they also are mostly patriarchal in their attitudes. One finds women only rarely amongst them.
The tantric path is completely beyond cast and gender as labels of supremacy. Many of the old masters were women. Actually a woman would make a much better Guru than a man in the Tantric sense. Tantra finds its methods always at the outskirts or even outside society. That’s where the energy lies – cast away and hidden.
Times have changed very much since the old Hindu scriptures were written – the Vedic as well as the Tantric ones. We live in Kali Yuga. According to Hinduism Kali Yuga is the age of Tantra. The Brahmin’s doctrine is obsolete … so to say. But what does a Brahmin think who was striving consciously toward a higher level of existence for ages and now is at the verge of realization? Now, in Kali Yuga, when all is crumbling, even his own path? He must be devastated. Basically any fool can reach liberation now! And it doesn’t matter anymore what cast one comes from, whether one is male or female, Eastern or Western … one just has to do it. On top of that the amount of divine grace is abundant. I do not envy the Brahmin. I have compassion for him. It is not the Brahmins time. This is the Tantrics time.
Off course the Tantric also has to change. He was looking for energy in the folds and seems of the Brahmanic system. Now this system is disappearing. The Tantric may even live in the West among Christians and Atheists! He has to look for energy in different ways. The (western) societies a more permissive than ever. So the Tantric might be a vegetarian or a vegan, he might not do drugs nor drink alkohol, he will look for an ethical and moral platform to practice free love, he will become an environmentalist, a feminist, a non-consumer, a freedom fighter … and of course – more than ever – he will be a SHE.
Johannes Ganesh Bönig Berlin, in May 2017
Proofread and audio spoken by Lipika