Museum  September 28, 2020  Chandra Noyes

Exploring Tantra at the British Museum

Created: Mon, 09/28/2020 - 09:09
Author: chandra

Though in the west it is largely associated with yoga and sex, the practice and philosophy of Tantra is much more than that. Now the British Museum is delving into the rich, centuries-long traditions of Tantra, and how it has influenced cultures around the world and up to the present day.

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© British Library Board
image of a figure squatting with body parts labeled

Page from Hatha yoga manuscript depicting the ‘yogic body’. India, early 19th century.

First emerging in India around 500 AD, the radical philosophy lead to major changes in religion, politics, and culture in India.

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© The Trustees of the British Museum
drawing depicting three bodies, one headless, with necklaces

Chinnamasta, Lalashiu Gobin Lal, Kolkata, late 1800s.

The British Museum has one of the most extensive collections of Tantric art in the world, and this exhibition, which features over a hundred works, includes objects from India, Nepal, Tibet, Japan and the UK, from the seventh century AD to the present.

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© The Trustees of the British Museum
bronze statue of Chakrasamvara, a six armed figured

Chakrasamvara, Eastern India, 1100s.

According to curator Dr. Imma Ramos, “This major exhibition will capture the rebellious spirit of Tantra, with its potential to disrupt prevailing social, cultural and political establishments. Tantra is usually equated with sex in the West, but it should

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© The Trustees of the British Museum
statue of the goddess kali, a blue figure with six arms, standing over the body of Krishnanagar

Kali striding over Shiva, probably Krishnanagar, Bengal, 1890s.

Tantra, which in sanskrit translate to ‘loom’ or to weave, in its sacred texts emphasizes the individual’s relationship with the gods, and that spiritual beliefs and practice are a divine conversation.

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© The Trustees of the British Museum
the goddess kali, a blue figure with six arms, walking behind a man in an orange robe

Ramprasad Sen and the goddess Kali, signed P. Chakraborty, Bengal, India, 20th century.

Through Tantric rituals, meditations, and visualizations, one could connect fully with the gods. These rituals, some of which included sexual practices and taking psychedelics, flaunted cultural taboos.

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© The Trustees of the British Museum
stone carving statue of figures dancing

Chamunda dancing on a corpse, Madhya Pradesh, Central India, 800s.

Tantra was also trangressive in its emphasis on free will, the fact that each individual and their actions could be divine, and that one could achieve enlightenment and liberation on their own.

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© Nicholas V Douglas / The Estate of Nicholas V Douglas
film still showing a shirtless man with long hair holding a skull

Still from Tantra: Indian Rites of Ecstasy, 1968, directed by Nik Douglas, co-produced by Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser (Ajit Mookerjee: consultant).

In the radical social revolutions of the 1960s, Tantra was a major influence. Free love, psychedelia, and a self-propelled spirituality were all elements of the counterculture that overlapped with or were inspired by Tantric practice and philosophy.

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© The Trustees of the British Museum
A woman visiting two Nath yoginis

A woman visiting two Nath yoginis, North India, Mughal, about 1750.

Female goddess are particularly revered in Tantra, and this shift in philosophy opened up important spiritual roles that women were previously barred from.

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© The Trustees of the British Museum
print depicting the goddess kali

Print depicting the goddess Kali, Calcutta Art Studio, Kolkata (Bengal, India), about 1885–95.

The goddess Kali is especially revered. A fierce warrior, she represents both death and rebirth.

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© Sutapa Biswas. All rights reserved, DACS 2019
painting of a southeast asian woman in a red patterned shirt with four arms holding a knife in one

Sutapa Biswas, Housewives with Steak-Knives, 1985. Oil, acrylics, pencil, collage, white tape on paper on canvas.

Because of its focus on divine female energy and the worship of goddesses, Tantra has remained influential to modern day feminists and artists addressing feminist issues.

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© Bharti Kher. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zürich
statue of headless man squatting and holding a skull

Bharti Kher, And all the while the benevolent slept, 2008.

More than a millennia after it's emergence, Tantra remains an influential philosophy that is present in the works of leading contemporary artists and thinkers like Bharti Kher.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is the former Managing Editor for Art & Object.