This study explores the basis of ritual sexual beliefs and practices such as Tantra. Within the past few years, increasing numbers of Americans have become interested in the subject of Tantra, drawn to this ancient spiritual practice primarily by the promise of enhanced sexual pleasure. Despite the increased interest, however, human sexuality professionals and researchers are concerned that the popular media and many consumers are missing the fundamental truths about Tantra, assuming that this complex system of spiritual-sexual philosophies and meditational practices is merely about improved sexual techniques. In fact, although Western scholars and other observers have long been intrigued by the apparent dangers and promises of Tantra, the deeper spiritual underpinnings of tantric beliefs and practices remain poorly understood in the West.
Although it is widely depicted as an excuse to indulge in sexual games, or as a route to more skillful sexual practice, serious practitioners regard Tantra as a path to enlightenment. Indeed, some teachers and practitioners of Tantra maintain that its experiences are elevated by periods of celibacy during which individuals refrain from genital contact and engage exclusively in nonsexual relationships . Tantra derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “weaving” and can refer to a body of sacred literature and/or to the actual performance of spiritual exercises . With ancient origins in South Asian Hinduism and East Asian Buddhism, tantric traditions are also heavily influenced by Taoism and encompass features of Muslim and Jewish mysticism (including Sufism and Quabbalism), and possible elements of a Native American tradition known as Quodoushka.
However, although it borrows certain elements from various religions—which involve the “organized expression of spirituality in creeds, dogmas, liturgies and so on”—Tantra is more correctly characterized as a personalized spiritual enterprise that emphasizes the need to experience life from the inside out. Indeed, Christian missionaries and scholars from the West have often been horrified by and stridently opposed to Tantra, regarding it as the embodiment of the extravagance and decadence that corrupt Hinduism and other “licentious” polytheistic traditions . As such, during the nineteenth century, British colonialists tried to eradicate Tantra from India, viewing it a perilous challenge to their own efforts at theological, social, and cultural domination.