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Demystifying Tantra Part V: Magic, Sex, Distortions, and Divinity

Demystifying Tantra V: Magic, Sex, Distortions and Divinity

Earlier we have discussed the classification of tantric texts to help us make sense of the huge diversity of traditions. We have covered the Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava Tantric literature and discussed in-depth, the Śākta tantras – the Kālīkula tantras and the tantras of the Śrīkula tradition. This was followed by an exploration of the kaula tantras, the mantra śāstras (the science of mantras), and ritual handbooks known as nibandhas.

We have come to appreciate the pervasive influence of Tantra in India as well as south-east Asian cultures. The traditions are diverse, but in terms of metaphysical philosophy, most tantric works are non-dualist and aim at achieving experiential Oneness with the Divine Consciousness.

In this final article of the series, we will deal with the tantras of magic and for the attainment of supernatural faculties, and conclude the classification exercise. We will then discuss bhavas, ācāras, pañca makāra, and the various distortions that have plagued tantra for over two centuries now and the reason behind such distortions.

Tantras for Attaining Extraordinary Powers

There is a special class of tantric texts whose sole purpose is the acquisition of extraordinary or supernatural powers, known as siddhi or shakti. Some of these texts are very popular, especially in towns and villages, and one may come across small booklets in regional languages, which deal with special “magical” tantric mantras.

The mantras could be for controlling an enemy, for winning a contract, for getting a job, for solving a pending legal case, or for ridding one’s house of an ‘evil’ force. Majority Indians derive their notion of Tantra Śāstra from such books. [1] These so-called “magical tantras” have been victims of massive stereotyping and denigration.

Before making any conclusions, we should understand what these “magical tantras” talk about and in what context. Noted Indologist Teun Goudriaan is quite clear in this regard and says:

“The word ‘magic’ is heavily loaded with pseudo-mysticism and often used quite out of place…. It is understood as the performance of certain ritual acts – and the belief in the efficacy of such acts – with a view to making use of certain natural laws of cause and effect, which are supposed to exist, in order to enforce some result(s) in the mundane sphere desired by the performer or his instructor.” [2]

In other words, there is a rational basis behind these seemingly irrational acts. The origin of many of these practices can be traced back directly to the Atharva Veda, and the Atharvanic priests were well-known for their so-called supernatural abilities.

Pheṭkāriṇītantra is a very important work in this category dedicated to Pheṭkāriṇī, a manifestation of Ugrakālī.[3] It has been referred to by Raghunath Tarkavāgiśa in his āgamatattvavilāsa, by Kṛṣṇānanda Āgamvāgiśa in Tantrasāra, Toḍalatantra, Śāktanandatārāṃgiṇī, and many other texts.

Pheṭkāriṇītantra contains mantras and methods for performing superhuman feats, and the details of expected results are also provided. The controversial ṣaṭ-karmas are explained in detail with practical illustrations.

Chapter four deals with the kukkuṭamantra, chapter five talks about the worship of Ucchiṣṭhācaṇḍālinī, the eighth chapter in thirty-two verses deals with the worship of Gṛdhrakarṇā, the vulture-eared Bhadrakālī, and the eleventh paṭala describes the worship of Tārā.

Some of the non-traditional rites covered in the Pheṭkāriṇītantra are the worship on cremation grounds using animal flesh or cat’s hair and causing dry leaves to be blown away by the wind in order that the enemy too gets driven away.

If one wants to learn how to counteract a poison or prevent unfavorable negative forces from affecting oneself, or how to fly through the air with gravity-defying shoes, one should read the śalyatantra or the Kakṣapūṭatantra.

The Kakṣapūṭatantra also talks about how to delay the moment of death and how to render oneself invisible.[4]

Other important works are Picchilātantra, Dattātreyatantra, āścaryayogamālā, Uḍḍāmara tantra, Uḍḍiśatantra and the Sābaratantras.

Bhavas and Acharas

Over the course of this series, it is obvious that the tantras are vast, and often appear to be self-contradictory. However, this apparent contradiction arises because we have been colonized into viewing Tantra normatively like Europeans and Americans, which is simply not the Hindu way of looking at things.

The tantras are vast because they are for meant for everybody, and not all tantras are suitable for each person. Depending on a person’s personality and temperament, the guru would select a small subset of tantric practices and assign them to a specific sādhaka.

While tantric literature may be huge, an aspirant is only concerned with what is relevant to him. What is suitable for someone in Kerala may not be (and in fact is not) relevant for someone in Assam.

Similarly, what is suitable for a king, may not be suitable for a gold artisan. What is suitable for an expert, is not suitable for an amateur. This is opposite of the Abrahamic worldview, where a single text and same practices are forced upon all its followers, whether they like it or not, whether they accept it or not, and whether it is suitable for them or not.

In the tantric world-view, aspirants are classified based on the bhava and Acharas.

The Three Bhavas

Pashubhava – A person with Pashubhava is one who experiences one or more of the six ripus: lust, anger, greed, intoxication, attachment, and gluttony and consequently feels the emotions of shame, hatred, and fear.

Even if he or she feels only one of the above emotions, he is still classified as Pashubhava. Majority (say 99%) of human beings are of the pashubhava type.

Vīrabhava – A Vīrabhava Sādhaka has a high degree of Rajas. Swami Samarpanananda describe the vīra sādhaka as someone having the “inner strength to ‘play with fire’ and to burn their worldly bonds with it.

Established in complete self-control, they do not forget themselves even in the most trying and tempting circumstances.”[5]

In the words of Govinda Gopal Mukherjee, a vīra sādhaka is one who “does not abhor prakṛti, but maintains a constant contact with it in order to dominate over it until it is finally conquered, absorbed or assimilated.” [6] Less than 1 in 1,000 people perhaps belong to this specific spiritual personality type.

Divyabhava – According to Mahānirvāṇa Tantra, the aspirants of divyabhava nature are the epitome of all good qualities and saint-like in their disposition:

“The Divya is all but a Deva, ever pure of heart, and to whom all opposites are alike, free from attachment to worldly things, the same to all creatures and forgiving.”

Eminent personalities like Gautama Buddha, Adi Shankaracharya, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Sri Aurobindo, are examples of those who have divyabhava.

They are the personification of sattva-guna and were men who had achieved mastery over their senses and emotions. Great masters like them are rare and appear once after many generations..

The Seven Acharas

The Tantras have specified seven distinct disciplinary paths for different grades of practitioners [7]:

  • Vedācāra, involving “adherence to the traditional injunctions of varna and ashrama”
  • Vaiṣṇavācāra, related to “Puranic practices”
  • śaivācāra, based on “disciplines prescribed by the various Smritis”
  • Dakṣiṇācāra, focuses more on traditional practices like asceticism and meditation
  • Vāmācāra
  • Siddhāntācāra based on advanced sādhanā and yoga
  • Kaulācāra is “for aspirants in divyabhava, divine mood”

Vāmācāra or the left-handed path, and its various practices and customs, are a source of great confusion to the uninformed. This is a specific type of sādhanā intended for a very small group of people, the Vīra sādhakas who have, through their extensive prior sādhanā, already moved up the ladder of spiritual evolution and are in complete control of their senses and beyond the influence of lower emotions.

However, with the permission and under the guidance of a competent guru, such practitioners could make use of certain “unconventional” ingredients and steps, which are not available to other categories of upāsakas. Swami Samarpanananda very rightly says:

The general ignorance about the true nature of tantric practice and abuse by irresponsible practitioners of Vāmācāra, the ‘left-hand’ path, made the whole science of tantra suspect.

The rituals of this path are based on the principle of the ‘return current’, which seeks to reverse the process that creates bonds for the animal being… Vāmācāra emphasizes that a person makes progress in spiritual life not by falsely shunning that which makes one fall, but by seizing upon it and sublimating it so as to make it a means of liberation. [8]

Vāmācāra methods have limited validity and built-in safeguards to prevent abuse. First, they are applicable exclusively to the Vīrabhava sādhakas. Second, only if the Guru feels that the initiative requires to engage in those practices to demonstrate his mastery over his senses, only then are the specialized Vāmācāra practices prescribed.

Vāmācāra is a legitimate path but is neither compulsory nor a representative of all Tantrik practices. Tarkapanchanana Devanatha Thakura, the 14th-century author of the very important mantra digest Mantra Kaumudi belonged to a long line of Vedic scholars proficient in Mimamsa and Nyaya, and well-versed in all branches of Tantra.

Their entire family for many generations over centuries practiced the non-Vama tantric rites. Devanatha clearly mentions that during his entire intense Tantric sādhanā, he never felt the necessity of “animal sacrifices or rituals of the Vama school”. He very clearly and in no uncertain terms, lays down the rules for Mantra Siddhi as follows:

A Sādhaka should lead the quiet life of a Brahmachari. He should refrain from speaking ill of others…he should take Havishya (milk-preparations) only once in 24 hours. [9]

Demonstrating the differences between the external and internal forms of Tantric sādhanā, Ramanath Jha says[10]:

Tantra is practiced in two forms of sacrifices – internal and external. The external rituals are meant to help and develop the internal forces for the realization of the Brahma of the Veda and the Shakti of the Tantra. In the early stage, the rituals differ, but as the Sādhaka proceeds onward, Yoga and Tantra gradually merge into one.

This distinction must be kept in mind as we discuss the topic of the Pañca makāra.

Pañca makāra

Pañca makāra refers to five tattvas (principles) whose name begins with “M”. These are matsya (“fish”), māmsa (“meat”), mudrā (“cereal”), madya (“wine”) and maithuna (“sexual union”).

Their use is technically permitted during sādhanā under some very special circumstances for Vīra sādhakas as briefly described above. The Kularṇava Tantra is very categorical that the usage of the Pañca makāra does not mean “license”, but rather implies restraint:

If siddhi were to be obtained by drinking wine, then all wicked drunkards would attain it; if meat-eating alone could lead to religious merit then all meat-eaters in the world would be partaking of merit; if sexual intercourse, O Great Goddess, could result in moksha, then all beings would be liberated by virtue of this act! [11]

McDermot while talking about Tantra in Bengal highlights a very crucial point regarding the different meanings of Pañca makāra for different classes of aspirants[12]:

“The Sanskrit Tantras important to the region… list several central elements… and the notorious “five M” ritual, in which wine, fish, meat, a type of intoxicating grain, and sexual intercourse (these are the makaras, all of whose Sanskrit and Bengali names begin with M) are used in controlled ritual circumstances – either literally (the hero’s way), through comestible alternatives (the bestial way), or by enjoying mental substitutes (the divine way).”

These so-called five ‘M’s are at the root of various misconceptions regarding Tantra Śāstra. As per Atal Behari Ghosh[13], “It is a favorite pastime of some uninformed minds to indulge in invectives against the Tantra for the use in the worship of the Five tattvas (principles) … The object of using these five tattvas in worship is that by the repeated practice of the ritualistic observances one acquires a nature whereby everything one does in ordinary life becomes an act of worship.”

There are a lot of caveats associated with the use of Pañca makāra’s[14]:

  1. First, with respect to the five M’s, what one has to offer to the Supreme is the tattva (essence) and not the actual article itself, except under certain specific conditions.
  2. Second, the use of pañca makāra is mostly restricted to specific Śākta-oriented Tantra sādhanā practices, especially in the greater Bengal region
  3. Moreover, these five articles have different meanings for different types of sādhakas, and in the actual physical sense of the term, they are applicable only to vīra sādhakas.

Swami Samarpanananda says: “The actual drinking of wine and ritual sexual union are prescribed only for the vīra aspirants. The teachers of such practitioners carefully point out that the joy and stimulation arising from these are to be utilized for the uplift of the mind from the physical plane”. [15]

For people of pashubhava, actual use of these substances is strictly forbidden. For sādhakas of divyabhava, it is in any case not applicable.

Even among vīra sādhakas, actual use of these articles is not compulsory. Only if the Guru feels that the sādhaka has to demonstrate his resolve to move to the next level, only under such extenuating circumstances should one resort to actual intake of meat, fish, wine, and performing sexual intercourse. Swami Satyaswarupananda very categorically states:

This ritual, however, is prescribed only for a very select group of adepts, who have been certified by their gurus as capable of placing themselves under tempting circumstances, while simultaneously maintaining recollectedness of the Divine. Only this makes the apparently antinomian ritual a spiritual act. [16]

Pañca makāra in its physical aspect (meat, alcohol and sex) is therefore applicable to very small minuscule of Tantra Sādhakas. What is bizarre is that this practice, which is performed by such minuscule number of sādhakas, has been generalized and portrayed as a mainstream practice.

So successful has been the distortion that even Wendy Doniger, who spearheaded the sexual and materialistic school of Indology[17], admits that the vilification of Tantra and its forced association with sex is an extreme case of abuse:

Perhaps the greatest distortions occur in the takeover of Tantra, which has become an Orientalist wet dream. The belief that the Tantras are in any way hedonistic or even pornographic, though a belief shared by many Hindus as well as by some Euro-Americans, is not justified…Some have excoriated others who have “cobbled together the pathetic hybrid of New Age ‘Tantric sex,’” who “blend together Indian erotics, erotic art, techniques of massage, Ayurveda, and yoga into a single invented tradition,” creating a “funhouse mirror world of modern-day Tantra” that is to Indian Tantra what finger-painting is to art. [18]

Portrayal of Tantra in the West and Contemporary India

The parallels between the portrayal of Yoga and Tantra in the West in the last 100 years is truly striking. Both Yoga and Tantra have similar aims of brahma vidya, or to achieve oneness with the underlying Universal Principle.

Both traditions follow overlapping as well as complementary techniques to achieve such an aim, as they have different intended audiences in mind.

However, the fate suffered by both Yoga and Tantra in the hands of western Indology and western nations is truly appalling, and an instructive study of the “digestion” as proposed by noted public intellectual Rajiv Malhotra – digestion being the widespread dismantling, rearrangement and assimilation, of a superior, but less powerful culture by a predatory and dominant culture. [19]

The denigration of Tantra started during the British era as a result of collusion of two unlikely bed-fellows, the colonial administrators and the Christian Missionaries, whose objectives coincided, when it came to Tantra Śāstra. While the administrators wanted to dominate and subjugate the Hindu subjects, the Missionaries wanted to convert Hindus to Christianity by discrediting Hinduism and painting it in a bad light.

Tantra being the all-pervasive form of Hinduism as practiced then and even today, became the victim of a “sensationalist productions of Christian missionaries and colonial administrators, who portrayed Tantra as little more than a congeries of sexual perversions and abominations.”[20]

In fact, under British rule in India, tantra Śāstra was punishable by law as missionaries and administrators continued to portray Tantric practices “as particularly abominable excrescences of South Asian superstition. Their descriptions often included shocking images of wholesale orgy in which every taboo was broken and all human propriety perverted.” [21]

The rise of the fledgling field of Indology was trying to make sense of the full terrain of Indian religious cultures in order to understand Hindus and thereby rule them, and this was in turn resulting in the production of what is today known as atrocity literature.

The introductions of the printing press and improved systems of travel and communication, enabled this “atrocity literature” on Tantra to spread rapidly both within and outside India. [22]

Later the action moved across the Atlantic Ocean to the USA, where Tantra then became the prime focus of Indologists and later of South Asian specialists. Similar to Yoga, Tantra has over the last 50-60 years been systematically “digested” into American culture by:

  • deconstructing and dismantling Tantra into its individual components
  • harvesting and mining the tradition to extract everything useful (in this case kundalini yoga, the system of chakras and advanced meditation techniques)
  • appropriating these techniques as their own (as part of Western cognitive sciences)
  • sidelining and removing other important components of Tantra like the underlying focus on self-purification, monism and Self-Realization
  • willfully misrepresenting marginal practices of minority groups in the Tantra landscape as the norm and then generalizing across all sects and all aspirants,
  • repackaging tantra as a ritualized sex of exotic eastern origin, popularizing it in US and thereby justifying their own latent sexual perversions
  • And finally, re-exporting it to other countries including its country of origin India as “Tantric Sex” and “Lingam Massage”.

It should be noted that the “Tantric Sex” industry is a huge industry with plenty of money riding on it, and these industrialists and capitalists, see no reason why the truth ever has to be known, – after all it is business. White very aptly summarizes the situation saying:

“Then there are the Western dilettantes, the self-proclaimed Tantric entrepreneurs, who have hitched their elephant-wagons to the New Age star to peddle a dubious product called Tantric Sex, which they (and their clientele) assume to be all there ever was to Tantra…The third…is that of the for-profit purveyors of Tantric Sex, who have no compunctions about appropriating a misguided nineteenth-century polemic to peddle their shoddy wares.” [23]

This process of sustained attacks and continued denigration coupled with civilizational digestion has converted tantra Śāstra from a lofty sophisticated spiritual knowledge system to a perverted and violence-laden Americanized sex-cult.


The inherent diversity of the tantric tradition has caused immense problems for western Indologists from very early on. As discussed earlier in the context of monism versus monotheism, most of the western Indologists came from typical Christian (or atheistic[24]) backgrounds and the categories of religious studies that they employed were firmly rooted in their civilizational identity.

These Indologists were a product of a history-centric prophetic tradition and sciences like “race science” and “anthropology” of the others. “Othering”, when combined with the normative approach inherent in western reductionism, rendered them ill-equipped to comprehend the epistemological basis of tantras.

Being a product of a world-view where experiential oneness was considered a grave transgression and a blasphemy punishable by death[25], these early Indologists were in no position to appreciate and sympathize with the different kinds of practices associated with achieving experiential Oneness, whether it was the pūjā of the average initiate or the fearsome and erotic practices of the advanced heroic initiate. Hence the marginal practices got over-emphasized to the exclusion of the majority practices.

In terms of underlying logic, many so-called “magical rites” in tantra texts, are no different from what artificial intelligence experts or data analytics experts are taught in the subject known as Artificial Neural Network”(ANN) in modern computer science.[26] An ANN is like a black-box, where you give a number of inputs, and it throws out an output. You don’t know exactly what is happening inside the black box, and do not even try to do so.

Yet despite being “unscientific” ANN has been successfully applied in character recognition, image compression, stock market prediction, medicine, electronic nose, security and loan application.[27]

For example, very recently Google launched an Artificial Intelligence program called Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT), which can translate between any language pair without training – however “even the researchers aren’t 100 percent sure of how it works, because deep learning networks are notoriously difficult to understand.”[28]

The long and short of all this is, that just because we do not understand something yet, does not necessarily make it unscientific.

As a practicing Hindu from a traditional background, who has travelled to and seen different parts of India, and witnessed first-hand the bhakti of the devotee, the tapasya of the ascetic and the shraddha of the householder, I feel utter bewilderment and consternation, when I read such gross misrepresentations and denigration of our heritage, often disguised as scholarly work.

Consequently what the actual Hindu practitioners, ranging from the devoted simple household worshipper to the yogic Tantric adept, consider to be tantra, is not considered tantra in both Western and Indian academic parlance, and they are instead, presented with a perverted and grotesque Americanized definition of Tantra!

Tantras are vast. Tantras are for everybody. Tantras are an integral part of Hinduism and our daily lives. As long as there is Hinduism, there will be new tantras.

Tantras are the only religio-spiritual system in the world, which believes in the philosophy “to each his own” unlike brutal dictatorial regimes like the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths.

The sooner we realize that tantra is non-different from modern day Hinduism, the better it would be for us, for humanity and for ensuring world peace.


  1. This is reinforced by sensational local television reports of “Kissing Babas”, and through the usual Bollywood movie stereotypes of a fraudulent lecherous “tantric baba”.
  2. (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, p. 112)
  3. (Gangadharan, 1994)
  4. (Goudriaan & Gupta, 1981, pp. 117-118)
  5. (Swami Samarpanananda, 2010, p. 272)
  6. (Mukherjee, 2010, p. 49)
  7. (Swami Samarpanananda, 2010, p. 272)
  8. (Swami Samarpanananda, 2010, p. 272)
  9. (Jha, 1960, p. iv.)
  10. (Jha, 1960, p. iii)
  11. (Swami Satyaswarupananda, 2010, p. 268)
  12. (White, 2000, p. 167)
  13. (Ghosh, 2010, p. 77)
  14. (Ghosh, 2010, pp. 77-79)
  15. (Swami Samarpanananda, 2010, p. 272)
  16. (Swami Satyaswarupananda, 2010, p. 268)
  17. Her erotic psychosexual interpretations of Hinduism have since been comprehensively discredited.
  18. (Doniger, 2015)
  19. (Malhotra, 2011)
  20. (Doniger, 2015)
  21. (White, 2000, p. 4)
  22. (White, 2000, p. 270)
  23. (White, 2000, p. 5)
  24. We have discussed this earlier. Atheism is merely a rejection of Abrahamic monotheism, and hence in terms of their core world-view, both theists and atheists share similar cultural norms. Being an atheist does not mean that one would be more open to monism – even atheists struggle to comprehend monism and its experiential practices.
  25. In Christian theology a person can grow closer to Jesus but he can never become One with Jesus
  26. Neural networks, with their remarkable ability to derive meaning from complicated or imprecise data, can be used to extract patterns and detect trends that are too complex to be noticed by either humans or other computer techniques. A trained neural network can be thought of as an “expert” in the category of information it has been given to analyse. This expert can then be used to provide projections given new situations of interest and answer “what if” questions.


  1. Doniger, W. (2015, Dec). How America took Tantra from India and distorted it. Retrieved from Scroll:
  2. Ghosh, A. B. (2010). The Spirit and Culture of the Tantras. In Swami Lokeswarannanda, Studies on the Tantras (pp. 68-82). Kolkata: Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture.
  3. Goudriaan, T., & Gupta, S. (1981). Hindu Tantric and Sakta Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  4. Jha, R. (1960). Mantrakaumudi of Devanatha Thakkura. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning.
  5. Malhotra, R. (2011, May). The Importance Of Debating Religious Differences. Retrieved from Rajiv Malhotra:
  6. Mukherjee, G. G. (2010). The Spiritual Heritage of India : The Tantras. In S. Lokeswarananda, Studies on the Tantras (pp. 46-67). Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture.
  7. Swami Samarpanananda. (2010). The Tantras: An Overview. Prabuddha Bharata, 269-275.
  8. Swami Satyaswarupananda. (2010). Editorial. Prabuddha Bharata, 267-268.
  9. White, D. G. (2000). Tantra in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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This Series was first published on India Facts.

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