As I get deeper into studying tantric philosophy I have taken the time to pause and reflect on how that philosophy originated and grew and who were the people offering and practicing the teachings. The tantric teachings I have received and offer are completely chaste. Put “tantra” into your favorite search engine, though, and you will see that people tend to think it is about intimate physical connection (my first euphemism). What is tantra? Is it one or the other? Is it something one can have without the other?
To help me think through and contemplate the issue, I read David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body. I followed this with Lilian Silburn’s Kundalinia–Energy of the Depths.” What seems fairly evident–if you want the details, I invite you to read the books yourself (and also on sri vidya, Douglas Renfrew Brooks’ The Secret of the Three Cities)–is that despite the inclusion of those not twice born and women in the rituals, the community of tantrikas was no less sexist than more traditional society. The role of women in the secret rituals, as I have read it described, is one that would be wholly unacceptable to me in terms of equality, gender neutrality, and respect for women as human beings and not as archtypes and means to an end for male practitioners.
I did not get into the depths of knowing the historical details before I had been strongly drawn to the metaphysics of Kashmir Shaivism, which has been an integral part of my yoga studies. As I think about how a feminist, pacifist can find the universal teachings while still acknowledging the historical and social context in other texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, it seemed given tantra’s rap in today’s society, I should see what my answer is for the tantric teachings as well. In thinking about the issue, I contemplated how I see the teachings in and out of the historical context (as you can see from the link to Swami Lakshmanjoo, the philosophical teachings are presented today without a hint the secret rituals).
I also asked the following, among other questions: How important is it for the student to take the teacher for the whole of the teachings and his or her human strengths and weaknesses? Is it ok to just really believe in one aspect of the teachings? Can we pick and choose what to learn and still be faithful to the lineage? Can we love and respect someone fully even if we disagree with his or her way or life and/or way of participating in society? Is extraordinary grace and genius enough to make what might otherwise trouble or even appall us seem irrelevant? Is it easier to come to terms with this issue for those teachers from different time periods or cultures and thus for whom our own choices or “modern thinking” might not have been available?
I think that the Wikipedia entry for Abhinavagupta, which mentions that the community would have engaged in secret (my spam-avoidance euphemism) ritual, but avers that “[w]e can only speculate about whether he was physically chaste, and either answer to this question is not very meaningful in the context of his life and teachings” gets it half right. It seems to me that it would be meaningful when looking at his life, but not of import in the modern receipt of the teachings. I think, for me, the very resonance of the philosophy and the practices with which I am familiar are not less meaningful for the historical concomitance of the hidden practices.