Asian Art Newspaper explores the philosophy of Tantra, on show at the British Museum in Tantra Enlightenment to Revolution
In Tantra, philosophy, ritual, symbolism and iconography are very closely connected. Tantric art is a means to spiritual development and realisation. It comprises tranquil renderings of abstract forms like the universe, Yantras (mystical diagrams) on one hand – and violent, emotional iconographic images portraying the terrifying aspects of Prakriti on the other.
The Tantric method affected every major Indian religion during the early medieval period (circa 500 to 1200); the Hindu sects of Shaivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and also Buddhism and Jainism developed a well-documented body of Tantric practices and doctrines, and Islam in India was also influenced by Tantra.
Tantric ideas and practices spread from India to Tibet, Nepal, China, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Tibetan Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism show the strongest Tantric influence, as do the postural Yoga movement and most forms of Western ‘New Age’ spirituality. The Tantra exhibition at the British Museum explores Tantra’s early medieval transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism, along with its links to the Indian fight for independence and the rise of 1960s counterculture in the West.
Tantra is Part of a Broader Philosophy
Dr Imma Ramos, curator of the exhibition explained: ‘that Tantra should be understood as part of a broader philosophy of transgression. The exhibition explores Tantra’s early medieval transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism, along with its links to the Indian fight for independence and the rise of 1960s counterculture in the West’. Over 100 objects are on show, including masterpieces of sculpture, painting, prints and ritual objects.
Tantric Buddhism is an extremely complex system of thought with multiple sects and sub-sects, each with a different ideology. The three major schools under Buddhism are Hinayana (also identified with Theravada), Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The theological constructs also differ from country to country, for example, Tantric Buddhism in India varies from Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, Japan, or China.
Earliest Surviving Tantra in the World
Tantra is a philosophy rooted in sacred instructional texts called Tantras. They take their name from the Sanskrit word tan, meaning ‘to weave’ or ‘compose’, and are often written in the form of a conversation between a god and goddess. The exhibition features four examples of some of the earliest surviving Tantra texts in the world, on loan from Cambridge University Library. Made in Nepal from around the 12th century, these texts outline a variety of rituals for invoking one of the many all-powerful Tantric deities, including through visualisations (imaginatively identifying with a deity) and yoga. Tantra texts often also described rituals that transgressed existing social and religious boundaries, such as sexual rites and engagement with intoxicants and the traditionally taboo. Such rituals affirmed all aspects of existence as sacred, including the body and the sensual, in order to achieve liberation and generate power.
Tantra and Divine Feminine Engergy: Kali, Durga, and Chakrasamvara
Centring on the power of divine feminine energy, Tantra also inspired the dramatic rise of goddess worship in medieval India and continues to influence contemporary feminist thought and artistic practice today, as can be seen in Sutapa Biswas’ paintings, Housewives With Steak Knives, which is also on show. The exhibition explores Tantra’s radical challenge to gender norms. The Tantric worldview sees all material reality as animated by shakti – unlimited, divine feminine power. This inspired the dramatic rise of goddess worship in India and confronted traditional gender roles. Several representations of the goddesses Kali, Durga and Chakrasamvara are also included in the exhibition. The female principle is central to Tantric practice as it places the divine feminine on a seemingly higher place than the male aspect, with a vast body of Tantric texts dedicated to female deities.
The exhibition closes with a focus on Tantra in the 20th century, showing Tantra’s modern re-imaginings in Asia as well as the West. In the 1960s and 1970s, Tantric ideas and imagery inspired global counter-cultural movements, and had an important impact on the period’s radical politics. As Tantra has adapted and changed over the centuries, it has managed to retain its influence and relevance to the modern world.
Read our related article on Tantra from May 2020 https://asianartnewspaper.com/tantra/
Tantra Enlightenment to Revolution, until 24 January 2021 at The British Museum, London, www.britishmuseum.org
A catalogue is available.