Tantric Art

Asian Art Newspaper discovers the history of Tantra and Tantric art, which is closely linked to Buddhism, learning about its role as a philosophy and its global impact through the centuries.

The radical philosophy that transformed the religious, cultural and political landscape of India and beyond will be explored in a landmark new exhibition of Tantric art at the British Museum that charts the rise and spread of Tantra, a set of beliefs and rituals that first emerged in India around AD 500. The exhibition will explore Tantric art and Tantra’s transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism, along with its links to the Indian fight for independence and the rise of 1960s counter-culture in the West and its connected philosophy, which originated in medieval India.

The power of divine feminine energy in Tantric Art

Concentrating on the power of divine feminine energy, Tantra inspired the dramatic rise of goddess worship in medieval India and continues to influence contemporary feminist thought and artistic practice. The Sanskrit word tantra derives from the verbal root tan, meaning ‘to weave’, or ‘compose’, and refers to a type of instructional text, often written as a dialogue between a god and a goddess. From its inception to the present day, Tantra has challenged political and sexual norms around the world. Elements of Tantric philosophy can be found across Asia’s diverse cultures, but it remains largely unknown – or misrepresented – in the West. This exhibition features important objects from India, Nepal, Tibet, Japan, as well as the UK, from the 7th century to the present day to explore this complex esoteric traditions.

It is the first major exhibition organised in the UK that focuses on the history of Tantra and its global impact, as well as the first time the British Museum – which houses one of the biggest and most comprehensive collections of Tantric material in the world – will explore this subject through an exhibition. Over 100 objects will be on show, including masterpieces of sculpture, painting, prints and ritual objects, with around one third on loan to the museum from important collections from the UK and internationally.

Tantra’s influence across Asia’s religions

Tantra’s impact is evident across Asia’s diverse cultural and religious traditions, but it remains largely unknown – or misrepresented – in the West. Little is known beyond its association to sex and yoga. This exhibition of Tantric art will demonstrate that from its inception, Tantra has challenged political, sexual and gender norms around the world, and that it has always been linked to successive waves of revolutionary thought.

Tantra is a philosophy rooted in sacred instructional texts, Tantras, which are often written in the form of a conversation between a god and goddess. On show will be four examples of some of the earliest surviving Tantras in the world, on loan from Cambridge University Library in the UK. Made in Nepal 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. Tantras 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. One example in the exhibition of Tantric art describes the benefits of actively engaging in sexual activity with a partner in order to ultimately transcend desire itself: ‘By passion the world is bound; by passion too it is released’.

Ritual Practices Seen Through Tantric Art

The majority of the Tantras and Tantra-related texts focus on the most effective ritual practices (sadhanas) for achieving spiritual enlightenment alongside worldly and supernatural powers. These rituals, which guide the practitioner in sacralising the body, are considered highly dangerous if carried out incorrectly and therefore require initiation and guidance from a Tantric teacher, or guru. Tantra did not constitute an independent religion but was rather a movement that infiltrated and transformed South Asia’s mainstream religious traditions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. Part of the success of Tantra lay in its ritual transgression of the orthodox codes of conduct prescribed by these dominant traditions.

Tantra presented an alternative dharma (‘path of action’, or ‘duty’) to the prevalent Hindu one at the time. Hinduism itself is made up of a vast range of different beliefs, practices and scriptures. Many of its traditions emerged out of the divinely revealed Vedas (literally ‘knowledge’; a body of texts composed circa 1,500–500 BC) and its later sacred Vedic texts including the Puranas (‘old’, or ‘ancient’, composed from around AD 300). The Vedas include liturgical hymns and guidance for Brahmins (priests) on how to deliver them ritually, including through fire offerings to gods (homa). Only Brahmins had the authority to use the Vedas in rituals, hence the oft-used scholarly term ‘Brahmanical’ to describe orthodox Hinduism.

The Puranas were dedicated to the devotional worship and mythologising of deities, especially the gods Vishnu (preserver of the universe), Shiva (destroyer of the universe) and Shakti, also referred to as Mahadevi, or Great Goddess (the universe’s all-pervasive force). The rise of Tantra coincided with the rise of three major traditions within Hinduism, each revering one of these deities as the supreme manifestation of the divine: Vaishnavism (centring on Vishnu); Shaivism (centring on Shiva); and Shaktism (centring on Shakti). Tantric teachings first arose among nonconformist devotees of Shiva and Shakti.

Thunderbold vehicle in Buddhism

By the 7th century, Buddhism had drawn on and creatively adapted Tantric ideas. This Tantric tradition, known as the Vajrayana (‘Thunderbolt Vehicle’) in Buddhist circles, retained the core philosophical teachings of Gautama Buddha and the Mahayana path, but promised infinitely more powerful, practical methods for attaining the same goal – that of enlightenment. While the Hindu Tantras were understood as the original teachings of Shiva and Shakti and were often framed as dialogues between the deities, the Buddhist Tantras had their own equivalent divine narrators.

Tantra quickly spread across the subcontinent and became a mainstream, pan-Indian movement by about the 9th–10th centuries, transforming and ‘Tantricising’ Hinduism and Buddhism. Tantric forms of Buddhism would go on to spread across South, Southeast, East and Central Asia via travelling pilgrims, monks, teachers and merchants.

The exhibition of Tantric art will particularly explore 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. Goddesses and female Tantric practitioners will be featured prominently in the exhibition, ranging from a 9th-century sandstone temple relief from Madhya Pradesh depicting the ferocious goddess Chamunda dancing on a corpse, to an 18th-century courtly painting showing female gurus offering Tantric initiation. These depictions transcended conventional images of womanhood as passive and docile.

A number of contemporary works of Tantric art by female artists will also be on display, highlighting the ongoing relevance of Tantra’s impact on gender. These works harness Tantric goddesses through the bodies of real women, including Sutapa Biswas’ mixed media work Housewives with Steak-Knives (1985), which evokes the Tantric goddess Kali in a modern feminist form.

On a more recent note, Tantra also became a tool of revolution during the fight for India’s independence in the late 19th century. Indian revolutionaries in Bengal harnessed Tantra for its insurgent potential during colonial rule, reimagining goddesses such as Kali as symbols of an independent India rising up against the British. Visitors will see dramatic sculptures and artworks of Kali wearing garlands of decapitated heads, which successfully exploited British fears of the goddess as a bloodthirsty ‘demon mother’.

The Worship of Kali and Tantric Art

Kali has been worshipped by devotional movements and tantric sects variously as the Divine Mother, Mother of the Universe, Adi Shakti, as well as in many other forms over the centuries. She is also seen as the divine protector and the one who bestows moksha (‘liberation’). In the exhibition the true meaning behind her symbolism, tied to both destructive power and maternal strength, will be decoded through Tantric art.

The final section of the exhibition will focus on the 20th century, and Tantra’s modern re-imaginings in Asia and 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. In Britain and the US, Tantra has been interpreted as a movement that could inspire anti-capitalist, ecological and ‘free love’ ideals. The Tantra-inspired psychedelic posters that plastered the streets of London and San Francisco during this time will be on show, as well as paintings, photographs and sculptures illustrating Tantra’s enduring influence in art and popular culture to the present day.

More information on Tantric art can be found in two blogs posted on the museum’s website, where you can explore the ideas brought up by the exhibition until the physical exhibition can open later in the year. One blog is concerned with the conservation of a religious painting to be shown in the exhibition. In summer 2019, a Tibetan thangka arrived at the museum’s Hirayama Studio (for East Asian paintings). It was in poor condition, with light-damaged silk borders and flaking paint, so it needed to be treated by conservators before it could be displayed safely in the upcoming exhibition, you can read this in full on the link.

British Museum blogs

A second blog looks at the meaning of tantra, presented by exhibition curator Imma Ramos, where she explains how this radical South Asian philosophy has been opening up new ways of seeing the world for 1,500 years.

In 2016, the British Museum loaned objects to the Wellcome Collection’s Tibet’s Secret Temple: Body, Mind and Mediation in Tantric Buddhism

For further information, The British Museum’s collection database records items under the ‘Tibet’ heading (objects from Nepal, Ladakh and related Himalayan areas are also frequently located on this database as also are many Sino-Tibetan sculptures). These items consist of paintings (mostly thangkas, but also prints and a few contemporary paintings), sculptures, ritual equipment, textiles (including costume), masks, musical instruments, vessels, weapons, jewellery, woodwork and photographs. The collection continues to be added to, through fieldwork in the Himalayan regions of the subcontinent, through gift and through purchase.

The British Museum Tibetan Collection

There is an emphasis in the acquisition date for much of the collection around the years 1890-1950. This is the period when the British in India were in close contact with the Himalayan zone and with Tibet proper – both through the exercise of arms and of trade. Early names associated with the collections include Sir Alexander Cunningham (founder of the Archaeological Survey of India) and L A Waddell. The great 19th-century polymathic collector within the British Museum, Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks acquired and donated many Tibetan objects to the collections up to his death in 1897. The years immediately following the Younghusband Expedition in 1903/04 resulted in large numbers of Tibet-related artefacts entering the national collections. Following this, the official British presence at Lhasa and Gyantse, as well as at Gangtok in Sikkim, ensured that interesting Tibetan objects reached the national collections (often following the retirement of the officers involved). Well-known names of this category include Bell, Sherring and Richardson. There is no published catalogue of the entire collection but highlights are visible on the museum’s website, search Tibet under the Collections tab.

• A catalogue accompanies the exhibition, Tantra Enlightenment to Revolution by Imma Ramos, to be published on 30 June 2020, ISBN 978-0500480625, £35 • This British Museum exhibition that was scheduled to open in late April has been postponed until the museum can safely reopen again to the public. However, the exhibition can still be explored online.