The transmission of Tantra: an interview with Hareesh (part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part Two. Artwork by Alex Grey.

I: Going back to our previous talk about the chakra systems and nāḍīs. In the Tibetan Tantra channel system, the main three nāḍīs are not crossing but parallel, whereas in Indian systems we can find pictures showing crossed channels, pictures which are quite late, dating to 18th-19th centuries. What do you think about this? Do you think that perhaps the Tibetans preserved an earlier and more correct system?

H: No, both descriptions are found in ancient sources, but the sources that give the most thought to the question describe the channels as alternating (i.e., crossing). This is discussed in a very early source in a lot of detail, so the description that I find most convincing is that the chakras, the energy centres are located where many nāḍīs converge -- so the nāḍīs cross back and forth and the point where they cross is the chakra. So, a chakra is formed by the intersection of many nāḍīs. But for example the pingalā nāḍī is definitely dominant on the right side and idā on the left side. Even though they are intercrossed sometimes they are visualised like as parallel, because the energy of pingalā is so much stronger on the right, and the energy of idā on the left. So, actually I don’t think there is much of a contradiction here.  

I: I studied a little bit of Tibetan practices and always nāḍīs were visualised as straight lines- pingalā was of red colour, idā - moonlight and sushumnā nāḍī was blue like a flame of a burning gas.

H: And that is the same in Shaiva practice, probably they got this tradition from the Shaivas. Abhinavagupta describes this in detail. The inhale comes in through idā nadi and that is the ‘lunar inhale.’ The exhale is the solar; central channel can be white-gold light, blue fire or it can also be orange fire, because the idea is that red and white merge and that makes orange. So, when Sun and Moon merge it becomes Fire. We see this in a technique where you visualise the crescent moon above your head, you inhale down and the moon grows as it comes down and become a full moon in the heart and then it sets and you visualise the sun rising in the heart, like the morning sun rising, exhale the sun up, dissolve it [into infinite space], again visualise the moon, bring it down etc. So, the internal kumbhaka (full moon setting and sun rising; you are supposed to fuse those two energies in kumbhaka) and fire surges up the central channel. This is all in Abhinavagupta.

I: This all sound very similar to Tibetan Tantric tradition.

H: Yes. The more this information is known - such as found in my book! - the Tibetans are going to read my book I hope and say something like - this is almost the same as what we do! And they will realise that these two traditions were side by side, sister and brother, almost no conflict actually.

I: Now, let us talk a little bit about the sexual practices. As you have already mentioned before, in the Western mind the term Tantra is associated with some kind of exotic sex, which is a wrong and oversimplified understanding and yet it still exists. There are numerous advertisements of various exotic Tantric workshops, all connected with sex somehow. So, let us bring light to this matter and explain what part of Tantric tradition is connected with sexual practices? Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā mentions vajroli mudrā, but it is very difficult to understand however the role of this mudrā and many misinterpretations arose. Even in India no one knows exactly and yoga teachers try to avoid this subject, because sex has always been a closed and suppressed matter since the Muslim invasions and this knowledge seems to have been lost over time.

H: Let’s clarify this with reference to three areas: neo-tantric sexual practices, original Tantra and Haṭhayoga. So, what is taught under the name "tantric sex" today, these techniques cannot be found in the original sources and they come from Westerners, hearing about Tantra, making some things up, reading some Taoist material, and they have been doing this for a long time now.  The first person who wanted to teach something like tantric sex was probably Pierre Bernard and Aleister Crowley around a hundred years ago. It seems that Crowley knew about the work of Arthur Avalon, so he heard about “tantric sex” but he had no access to the original sources and made something up and passed it on. So, today we have teachers of so called “tantric sex” and they teach something they have got from their teachers, from their teachers etc. They think it is original lineage, but it in fact started only a hundred years ago. Scholars call this neo-tantra. What is the difference between neo-tantric and original Tantric sexual practices? There is a big difference, because in the original scriptures there are no sexual techniques given at all, meaning there is no description of techniques for how to make sex more enjoyable, last longer, orgasm more intensely, nothing like that, nothing in common with the Kama Sūtra at all. This fact shows how confused modern people are. They think that Kama Sūtra is related to Tantra, which shows immediately that they have no idea what they are talking about. So, we don’t find sexual techniques in the original Tantra, but what we do find is the idea of sexual meditation. It is mentioned in many sources and detailed only in Tantrāloka chapter 29 (amongst the Shaiva sources). And there this beautiful ritual is described, the practitioner must be advanced, this is an advanced ritual with sexual intercourse, but no information is given about how to have sexual intercourse, this is just what you meditate on, you meditate on this [sexual] centre and merge all energy into that centre, instead of having 5 different senses, you should have just one [holistic] sense, the sense that you are a mass of blissful consciousness. The goal of the Kula-yāga, which is the name of the sexual practice, is to become one mass of blissful consciousness. But Kula-yāga doesn’t mean sex per se, it means sexual meditation. The two practitioners and their divine essence all become one in the practice. Some [rare] people instinctively know how to do this, but most people must practice it. So, Abhinavagupta says, and this is the interesting part, you must not practice this with somebody that you desire or lust for, because if you have any desire you will objectify the act, you will objectify the person and if anything becomes objectified, he says, this will not work. See how different this is from neo-tantra. In fact, he says that the default consort is not one’s wife or partner; only the most advanced practitioner could do this with his wife, the woman he is attracted to, because you have to know how to completely drop that kind of physical desire, because the purpose is full awareness and liberation, not pleasure.

In the Haṭhayoga system we have something else going on. Haṭhayoga was interested in preserving and sublimating the sexual energy, which is a different thing. Abhinavagupta doesn’t talk about holding in the semen, in fact you must ejaculate in his practice, because the mingled sexual fluids are then offered to the Deity as the most sacred offering possible, fluid of man and woman together are offered to the Linga as the highest possible offering. But Hatha-yogīs were interested in siddhis that came from retaining all the sexual energy and fluids, so they are interested in raising the bindu, here defined a subtle sexual substance, to the crown of the head. For example, vajroli mudrā and so on are not found in Tantric sources, only in Haṭhayoga sources, and in early Haṭhayoga sources this is the primary concern, how to pull the sexual energy and fluid upwards.

I: Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā  mentions that for the successful performance of vajroli mudrā a yogī should be with a desired woman and have plenty of milk.

H: Here is the difference, because the Kula-yāga, that Abhinavagupta talks about, is a sexual meditation for liberation and in a Haṭhayoga source this usually is for siddhis -- there is also a source for that in Tantra, which I didn`t mention. Almost nobody knows about this source. This is Brahmayāmala-tantra, where the practice is described, which is a very early tantra.

I: I know only Rudrayāmala-tantra.

H: Brahmayāmala-tantra is a way earlier source, mentioned even in the early version of Skanda Purāna. So there is a practice, called "the observance of the razor’s edge." [It is described in a new article by Shaman Hatley.] This is a very different kind of sexual practice.  The ascetic yogī obtains a young woman to help him with this practice by bribing her with as much jewelry he can afford and so she agrees to do this practice with him. He must do this particular mantra and copulate with her, but not ejaculate and if he does ejaculate he has to start all over again and do many mantras to make up for that. This is called “difficult even for gods to practice”, but the goal is siddhi (magical power). It is a kind of a practice, where the woman is not an equal practitioner, whereas in Abhinavagupta`s Kula-yāga the woman is theoretically an equal practitioner, both people are going for liberation, whereas here there is an ascetic using a woman like an instrument, with her permission of course. And throughout the Brahmayāmala the goal is usually siddhi. So this is a very interesting thing, in the Tantric context ascetic yogīs, living like sadhus, were usually going for siddhi, and householder yogīs were usually going for liberation. Very clear division in that sense. So, then in Haṭhayoga we get a strange combination of these goals, you want siddhi but also you want liberation and things get more mixed up, I would say. But in terms of real sexual sādhana getting transmitted, I think this only happened in oral transmission, because it didn’t get transmitted in the texts [at least not the Shaiva ones], and I have never seen an example of sexual sādhana that is authentic to the tradition except for one, which is given by Dharmabodhi of Ādi-yoga [in Loei, Thailand]. With permission of his guru he recorded a CD, were he gives a sexual sādhana, which may go back to the original tradition. Dharmabodhi says that he searched all over India for the real sexual sādhana and finally found a couple of people to initiate him. This nine-hour CD starts as a lecture and then gets practical towards the end. So he describes a very interesting technique, where two practitioners are becoming one, so if they know how to do it right they can become a single energy body and generate a single sushumnā nāḍī between them. So, they are like one being with a sushumnā nāḍī between them, where the woman becomes the idā nāḍī, and the man the pingalā nāḍī. He claims that he has done it so powerfully that they could both see and feel the sushumnā nāḍī appear between them. And again, it has nothing to do with pleasure, it may be pleasurable but that is a side effect. I don’t know any other modern source for authentic sexual sādhana in the tantric tradition. Of course, there are some in [the Buddhist and] Taoist tradition, but that’s different.

I: Let us pass on to the last question about Indian tradition in India and in the West. As I see it, and I have spent a lot of time in India, modern Indians are not so much interested in spirituality, even Hindu worship is gradually becoming less and less important for them. They are more interested in developing the material aspect of their lives, whereas the opposite trend can be seen in the West. Westerners, who have obtained sufficient level of material comfort, they start to feel urge for spiritual knowledge. It seems to me, that spirituality is gradually shifting from India to the West. I have recently read an article, I don’t know whether it is true or not, that nowadays there are more Buddhist monasteries in the US than in Nepal and India. What is your opinion about the future of a spiritual tradition?

H: First of all I would say that we are in the era of globalised culture and thank God for that, because otherwise these spiritual teachings would have been lost, because modern India doesn’t have much interest in them. The reasons for this is extremely complex, but partly is because Indian culture underwent a kind of reset, a reboot with the Muslim conquest and then British conquest; there was such a contraction of Indian religion, meaning that so much knowledge and wisdom was forgotten and lost that the religion became a simplified version of itself, centred on the temple culture and people going to temple, essentially not for spirituality but for good luck. This is a big cultural problem, because the nature of the Indian tradition is that it asserts that the religion is eternal, Sanātana Dharma -- this phrase is misleading, because it implies that our dharma, our religion has been unchanging throughout time, but in fact it has changed enormously. But if you believe it’s unchanging then you do not go back and look for the knowledge that has been lost! And what we see in modern India is that those people who are interested in religion, they know a little bit about it and think that they know everything. Which is, as Abhinavagupta says, the worst form of ignorance. If you know a little bit, but think that it’s pretty much all that there is to know, you are not open to more, you don’t go looking for more. We have an Indian government which is not funding research into India’s past in a substantial way, which was more glorious in the sense that in the old days [pre-muslim conquest], huge amounts of funding were going to pay people to meditate, you know, and to research the inner world. That’s why we have thousands of scriptures, but very few people in modern India are reading them and there is very little interest in them [of course, a small number of people are reading them, but as a percentage of the population it’s negligible]. At the same time, as you said, the interest has been growing in the West ever since Vivekānanda came in 1893. America and Western Europe are most economically successful countries, which is important, because people have made enough money to enjoy the comforts of life and find that they are still not very happy. So, it’s not a coincidence, because India, except for a few people, does not have all the modern comforts and so they want them. The West already has them, so they want spirituality, because they have already discovered experientially that they are not really fulfilled by money and comforts. This is a common idea that money can’t buy happiness, everybody ‘knows’ it but it’s very different to experience it for yourself. And that’s what we are talking about -- you have to have an actual experience. If we look at who is sponsoring this huge growth of Buddhism in the West, it's wealthy educated individuals, who discovered that all their education and wealth didn`t really fulfill them, but when they started doing Buddhist meditation they had a much more rich and beautiful experience of life.

I: And why do you think Buddhism is more popular in the West? I read an article by David Frawley in which he says that many western yoga teachers prefer meditation techniques according to the Buddhist teachings rather than traditional Indian ones. What is your opinion on this?

H: Just as a preface I don’t want to say Buddhism versus India, because Buddhism is Indian in its origin, even Tibetan Buddhism is Indian in its origins. But why modern people turn to Buddhism and especially Tibetan Buddhism? One, is that Buddhism is a religion that seeks converts; Indian traditions that we lump together as Hinduism don’t seek converts and often don’t even welcome converts. So, that’s one important reason. Another important reason is this issue I keep alluding to about the historical shift that happened with lack of state support for the Indian religions. There was that state support for Buddhism in Tibet all the way up until the Chinese conquest of Tibet [in 1956]. What that means is that you have a lot more highly educated practice teachers, you have lineages of scholar-practitioners, so when Westerners who are educated want a practice that is intellectually convincing and sophisticated as well, there are many Buddhist lineages that are intellectually very well-thought-out compared to the Indian lineages. Of course, many practice lineages survived in India under the Muslims and British, but with a greatly reduced and simplified intellectual component. It doesn’t matter for some people and it does for the others, that’s why people like myself are trying to bring back the rich intellectual component to the non-Buddhist yogas, so that they become an attractive option for people. When there are more books like this one that I’ve written that presents this Śaiva Tantric view in a very intellectually sophisticated way -- which is not made up by the way, because this is how it was presented originally, originally it was just as intellectually coherent as the Buddhist view. They were equals in debate, Shaivism and Buddhism, and in fact we see that many times the Shaivas won. We are just bringing that back, so that it becomes a more respectable option, because what you see in India today is just yoga teachers with a very superficial and vague understanding of philosophy and it’s just not very convincing to educated Westerners. Like there is just some pretty language about “we all one with God,” but ultimately you want more than that, you want a better and deeper understanding.

I: And also many Indian yoga teachers are merely trying to create commercial cults.

H: Yes, it’s a huge problem that opportunistic Indian gurus have tainted things for Westerners in many ways. So, we have a lot of work to do to kind of undo that damage, which will slowly happen, I think.

I: Going back to the question about the future of Indian tradition. We have already discussed that in modern India it is oversimplified, but here in the West there is the danger that it will be oversimplified for the commercial purposes. What is your opinion on that?

H: It’s a big problem, because not only is it simplified, it is distorted, because what sells is feeling good. So, you get the “feel-good” kind of yoga, because yoga is the business and that’s what it sells. So, that’s why a few teachers, and hopefully more in the future, are saying that “it’s fine if you feel good and find some teachers that make you feel good about yourself, but ultimately if you want to avoid the pitfalls and actualise your potential in this path you will need the deeper teachings.”  So some people like myself are signaling to Americans that the superficial version of things is not going to take you all the way, you must be in a deep relationship with the teacher in which you receive the deeper teachings that can take you all the way. And if only 1% of the people want that then that’s fine. It’s just that what there was in ancient times and what there should be now is a graduated curriculum. So, in ancient times they said here is the teaching for the masses, like the mythology was for the masses, stories of the gods and stuff, and Abhinavagupta even says that’s for children and simple-minded people -- little stories of the gods with the moral at the end -- fine, but everyone should know that there is another level that they can be initiated into. In Shaivism in ancient times there were 4 levels -- uninitiated and then three levels of initiation. Everyone knew that if they wanted to go deeper, that was available to them, but now we have the problem that people don’t even know what an initiated practice really looks like and they don’t know what is necessary to achieve their goals. So, as we start developing yoga in the West-- it’s absolutely fine to have the commercialised superficial version as long as the deeper version is also available to those who really want it, and that is not determined by how much money they offer but by the dedication of their being. For this to happen and work we must have more teachers that really know what they are talking about, that reserve the higher practices and teachings for their serious students and who only give these higher teachings to somebody who has a really dedicated spirit, someone who can value it, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. I don’t know if the West will be able to develop yoga in this way, but that’s what I’m working for.