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On Yoga, Tantra & Distortion of Ancient Indian Traditions..

2 March 2012 562 views 7 Comments

At least some of you must have read an extraordinary piece in the New York Times earlier this week provocatively titled, Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here. In that piece, William Broad made a number of assertions – some misleading, some just plain wrong including the remarkable assertion that “(Yoga) began as a sex cult“(sic)!  Thankfully, rebuttals were quick and fast in coming..Most of them highlighted Mr Broad’s false premise and his apparent ignorance about the origins of Yoga, its spiritual aspects as well as the tradition of Tantra. Below, excerpts from three of the best rebuttals that I have read (so far) on this matter. I have not come across any rebuttal from the established scholars of Hinduism and Yoga yet but hopefully we will see something in the weeks to come. Please note that emphasis has been added in these excerpts. Read on..

*** Excerpts from “Sex & Yoga (Again!): A Broad, Distorted View of Yoga History by Ramesh Bjonneson ***

…It is a fact that Tantra, and thus yoga, has historically and accurately been linked to sexual rites and practices. But it is not correct, as science writer for The New York Times William J. Broad recently claimed in an article, that yoga “began as a sex cult.

..So, what’s the distorted science behind Mr. Broad’s sweepingly broad distortion of truth and thus of yogic history? His logic goes something like this: we know that Tantra has something to do with sex. We also know that all Tantric yogis have vaginas and penises. Therefore, all Tantric yoga was originally about sex and all yoga started out as a sex cult. That’s not science, Mr. Broad. Rather that’s avery broad distortion of science.

…And here’s the part of the article which uses the wildly distorted logic to spread his half-truths:

Hatha yoga—the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe—began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devoteessought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness. The rites of Tantric cults, while oftensteeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Candidates for worship included actresses and prostitutes, as well as the sisters of practitioners.

In other words, the logic goes something like this: because-guns-kill-people-therefore-all-gun-owners-are-killers or  because-tantric-yogis-have-sex-therefore-yoga-started-as-a-sex-cult! Is that science, Mr. Pulitzer Prize winner? Nope. That is junk science. And in logic and rhetoric, we call this a fallacy. A myth. A misleading notion. An erroneous belief. Everything but science.

But since these historical falsehoods are written in The New York Times by an esteemed science writer and also the author of the new book “Science of Yoga”, these “facts” will be believed by millions and thus distorted forever more by its liberal and rational readers who, like most humans, are prone to distortions and sensationalism. Especially when “the facts” are in print. Indeed, that’s the power of “news that’s fit to print”, as the New York Times motto states.

William J. Broad proclaimed on Fresh Air with Terry Gross that he had spent five years researching yoga for his popular book. Perhaps heread all the wrong books? Perhaps he got so fascinated with that small percentage of Tantra that’s truly about sex that he got all bent out of intellectual shape? Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps he simply had an agenda, and he simply used his research to fit that agenda?

…I think Mr. Broad also has been a shallow student of everything yogic and Tantric. Because, if he had indeed taken thetime to do his research properly, and, even better, interviewed people who actually practice Tantra, then he would have learned something entirely different. He would, for example, have learned—as in Buddhism, where yogis also (surprise) sometimes have sex—that Tantra is as vast a subject and a tradition as Buddhism, with an even longer history. Indeed, scholars and practitioners often speak of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra todescribe two vast historical and cultural strands of Tantra as two giant trees covering a vast array of branches and schools.

Most importantly, Mr. Broad would have learned that neither of these traditions in Buddhism and Hinduism are considered cults of sex, neither by scholars nor by the broad majority of its practitioners. He would also have learned that Tantra is actually older than both Buddhism and Hinduism. Yes, the Pulitzer Prize winning science writer obviously missed this widely acknowledged part of yoga history.

In other words, just because it is widely accepted that the Buddhist guru Chogyam Trungpa had sex with some of his female followers,Buddhism is hardly a sex cult, is it Mr. Broad? And even more relevantly, just because there are known Tantric rites involving sex, the vast majority of Tantric practices, just like life itself, are not related to sexual practice.  Esteemed yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, whom Mr. Broad should have studied better, estimates that only about 5 percent of Tantra involved sexual practices. Moreover, Hatha Yoga, which Mr. Broad rightly claim was developed by Tantric yogis was not, however, primarily a sexual practice “involving poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts” as indicated in his New York Times article.

…As mentioned in George Feuerstein’s book, Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, it is widely acknowledged among pundits and yogis in India that there are two streams of Indian wisdom traditions, namely the Vedic and the Tantric. It is hotly debated which of these is oldest and if both are indigenous to India, but there is vast agreement that Tantra has contributed the most to what we today know as the practices ofyoga. In other words, all practices related to meditation, yoga postures, breathing exercises, kundalini awakening, chakras, mantras, etc., are all considered Tantric.

In addition, Tantra is generally divided into three distinct branches, of which only one engaged in ritualized sexual practices. Why? Simply because sex is considered a natural part of life in Tantra (no big sensationalist surprise there!), and thus it did not require special techniques, but rather what was required was awareness—sacred awareness, which is what Tantra really is all about, the transformation of consciousness, the cultivation of spiritual awareness in everything we do, without suppressing or neglecting the body’s gifts and needs. That’s why some aptly call Tantra “the yoga of everything.”

.. Tantra is a rather vast universe of traditions, practices and schools of thought. But William J. Broad obviously missed or, perhaps,rather got lost in this vast universe we call Tantra or Yoga. I am not surprised. Too much sex on your mind can certainly lead people ofinfluence, especially men, astray.

…In the rest of the article, Mr. Broad rehashes some of the sordid allegations of illicit sex by famous yoga teachers and self-proclaimed gurus..Even though Mr. Broad seem to think there is an important connection here, the problem with sex in yoga has actually very little to dowith sex in Tantra. Illicit sex is a human problem. Illicit sex by people in power—be they politicians, teachers, corporate leaders, priests, or self-proclaimed gurus—is largely an emotionally-starved-male-in-power problem. That, and not Tantra, is broadly the real issue, Mr.Science.

*** End of Excerpts ***

Do read the article in full..and don’t miss the comments section. Next, some excerpts from an informal rebuttal exposing the factual errors (in blue font, italics)in Broad’s piece (again, emphasis added)…

*** Christopher Wallis on Factual Errors” in NY Times Article – Excerpts ***

1.) “Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult…” Hardly. Mr. Broad is simply displaying his ignorance here. In fact, yoga as we know it began as an internalized ritual practice of activating sacred powers in the body through mantra, mudrā, and visualization, as has been shown by Christopher Tompkins and others. There was no sexual component (though that later development in some streams of the tradition, it was never central to the practice)

2.) “Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. Not quite. Hatha-yoga never was a branch of Tantra; it was a discipline that drew on inspiration from the Tantrik scriptures. It is true that there were some sexual practices in mainstream Hatha-yoga (e.g. vajrolī mudrā) which were NOT found in any tantras.

‎3.) “In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness.No, devotees sought to realization that those aspects (Shiva and Shakti, i.e. spaciousness and energy) were always already fused, in fact expressions of each other. Insight into this truth does give rise to ānanda (bliss) as a by-product, but ānanda was/is not the goal — insight or true seeing is the goal.

‎4.) “The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex.This statement is highly misleading because it implies that sexual practice was part of the Tantrik mainstream. It was not. Sexual practice (couple and group) was an infrequently performed rite of relatively fringe Tantrik groups, and in those rites, sexual pleasure was NEVER described as the goal. Intensified awareness was the goal, and the rite is said to be forbidden to those performing it out of physical lust.

5.) “One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse.I can think of two texts which might be construed in this way, but unless Mr. Broad can read Sanskrit, I doubt he consulted them. Because he did not consult the original source (he cites NO sources in this piece), he is obviously unaware that in the Brahma-yāmala, the practice in question is aimed not at “enjoying” intercourse, but rather indefinitely postponing orgasm in order to gain supernatural powers. In the other text (Tantrāloka 29), the purpose of the practice is the cultivation of meditative awareness, not physical pleasure. (I’m just telling you how the tradition represents itself.)

6.) “[Hatha yoga] used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts — including intercourse — to hasten rapturous bliss.Bliss was not the goal of hatha-yoga either. Freedom and release from suffering (moksha) was explicitly stated as the goal. Intercourse, when performed as a hatha-yoga practice, did NOT involve orgasm, which is obviously pleasurable, so…

7.) “In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality.” Incorrect! My god, doesn’t anyone do RESEARCH anymore? They did develop bad reputations for two different reasons: Tantra become associated with rites of black magic in the popular imagination, and Hatha-yoga was given a bad name by India’s British rulers because of the prevalence of Hatha-yogis who were warriors who resisted the British (see Mark Singleton’s work for this). Of course, there were occasionally charges in premodern India that some people used the Tantrik teachings as an excuse to get drunk and fornicate, because of course that did happen, cause that kind of thing will always happen (I discuss this in my book, Tantra Illuminated). But the fact that the teachings were sometimes misused in that way doesn’t change the fact that that was not the original intent of the teachings! Does the misuse of Jesus’ teaching to justify things he didn’t condone make him a fraud? Hardly.

8.) “Early in the 20th century, the founders of modern yoga worked hard to remove the Tantric stain. They devised a sanitized discipline that played down the old eroticism for a new emphasis on health and fitness.” Well, this part is true.

9.) The Goraksha-śataka, a source text on hatha-yoga, says that one is only successful in practice if he is moderate and restrained in eating and sexual behavior, and totally dedicated to his yoga. (verse 54) This is a SOURCE text. Doesn’t sound like a “sex cult” to me.

*** End of Excerpts ***

The third excerpt – from an article by Jason Birch, goes deeper into the history of Tantra (once again, emphasis has been added)..Read on..

*** Excerpts: “Getting the History Right – Yoga in the New York Times” by Jason Birch ***

Williams Broad’s recent article…contains historical inaccuracies which undermine his argument and integrity.  He claims that Haṭhayoga “began as a sex cult”.  This bizarre statement is based on his mistaken belief that the sexual practices of Tantra were adopted by Haṭhayoga, and these practices included the postures and breathing exercises which have become central to modern yoga.

…Much of the terminology in the early Haṭha texts derived from Tantra, but two great innovations had occurred.  Firstly, Haṭhayoga had discarded the complex metaphysics, doctrine and ritual system of Tantra.  This included any transgressive practices of consuming meat, alcohol and ritualized sex.  And secondly, the focus of Haṭhayoga was almost entirely on the practice of yoga rather than other methods of liberation…

…Broad’s comments imply that sex was central to Tantra’s ritual practice.  This is not true.  Ritualized sex was not practiced by all Tantric sects and, when it was practiced, it was but one component in a complex ritual system, which was built on the use of mantras, visualisation, mandalas, mudrās, contemplation, worshiping a deity, making offerings into a fire, etc.  The rich diversity of this religion is lost in Broad’s comments and I would encourage anyone who is curious about Tantra to read Alexis Sanderson’s articles, which include the textual, epigraphical and archaeological evidence behind his statements.   

The only sexual practice described in some of the above-mentioned Haṭha texts is Vajrolīmudrā, in which the male Yogin absorbs, via his urethra, a mixture of his semen and a female yoga practitioner’s sexual fluids.  The aim of this practice was not “rapturous bliss” but the retention of sexual fluids, which was believed to bring about greater strength, a longer life, a pleasant smell to the body and freedom from disease.  These benefits could also be achieved through chastity and other mudrās, so Vajrolīmudrā was not central to Haṭhayoga and half of the aforementioned texts omit it.

Far from describing the practices of a sex cult, Haṭhayoga texts generally advise male yogins not to associate with women. After all, Haṭhayoga was usually practiced alone in an isolated place… Contrary to Broad’s claim, I know of not one instance in a Haṭha text where a posture or breathing exercise is said to bring about sexual arousal.

The underlying flaw in Broad’s argument is that he presents no evidence, scientific or historical, that Haṭhayoga practices cause sexual arousal.…ne must wonder why Broad has attempted to link yoga techniques with sex scandals in the way that he has.  Some journalists do think that controversy benefits all and to this end are willing to ignore or cherry-pick the evidence and throw out the truth.

*** End of Excerpts ***

To round off, two final (brief) extracts…The first one is from Does Yoga Really Drive People Wild with Desire? by Maia Szalavitz:

…the fact that yoga gurus from Woodstock’s Swami Satchidananda onward are frequently caught with their pants down probably says less about the practice than it does about men, women and power. While yoga might improve your libido, fortunately it’s not likely to make you uncontrollably driven to cheat. And when considering connections between behaviors like sexual impropriety and yoga — or associations between drugs and certain side effects or other reported outcomes — it’s important to remember that correlation isn’t necessarily cause.

The second one from Sandip Roy, “Yoga’s dirty secret: It’s all about Tantric sex, baby“:

When it comes to yoga, as the Hindu American Foundation, tirelessly repeats the crux of the problem is the way the West has reduced yoga, the spiritual practice, into yoga, the sequence of physical asanas. Mark Morford, a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a yoga teacher reminds us, “Yoga is a physical, spiritual, energetic, wildly interconnected practice that can transform every aspect of your world… Oh, and by the way? It also makes your genitals tingle nicely, too. Bonus, really.”

Anyway just as yoga is about more than your bhujangasana, Tantra is about more than your perfect orgasm. All those Tantric sex workshops are based in as much wishful thinking as all the hair growth clinics and penis enlargement ads. Morford writes: “I’ve been studying Shaiva Tantra myself for years now, most recently with one of the finest scholars in the business and we have yet to have a single wild orgy or virgin sacrifice. I know! Total rip-off!”

Hopefully this helps set the record straight…Please do share widely…and do add any other links that you may have come across..Comments and thoughts welcome, as always…

Related Post: Take Back Yoga. Also read: Super Brain Yoga – I want to trademark this! and High-Tech Pranayama

Somewhat Related: On Puritanism, Sex Addicts and Temples

7 Comments »

  • 1. MAHADEVA S SARMA said:

    There is always someone who is out to show, something that is catching the attention of many, in poor light. This article by William Broad is one such. The rebuttals to Broad’s misrepresentations given by many other right thinking individuals speak for themselves. That gives one a satisfaction that there are people who really get down to the depth of a subject, do sufficient research and do not conclude in a hurry. In many words the rebuttals have said all that could be said.
    Consulting the original Sanskrit texts and understanding their content is essential to draw the right conclusions, which apparently William Broad hasn’t done. may be it is cheap sensationalism.

  • 2. CC said:

    Excellent post! Thanks very much Shantanu! I’ll be sharing this with all my friends and family.

  • 3. aru said:

    Not only have practitioners and teachers in the West have reduced Hath Yoga derivations to a sequence of physical postures with single minded emphasis on bodily organs, toning and strength, Hath Yoga and derivations seem to have come to be as the end all and be all of Yoga as a philosophy and concept. It is true that what one cannot put one’s mind around from a pre-fixed frame of reference, does not or ceases to exist, and since main-stream India has been bent on for sometime in looking at itself, and home grown heritage largely from western frames of reference, Indians are at a loss as well.

  • 4. Kishan said:

    The literal meaning of the word yoga is connecting with the God or higher consciousness.Sex can hardly be the means to God.The western writers seem to be obsessed with sex and they want to see sex everywhere, even in matters of spirituality.Many times they want to convince themselves that the western civilization is superior to the world’s most ancient civilization.

  • 5. S said:

    This looks like a classic psy-war operation.

    Remember 2005 news of JAIL INMATES getting PROVOKED by YOGA.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4743741.stm

    Yoga classes ‘provoke’ prisoners

    High-security Ringerike jail near Oslo offered the classes to eight inmates on a trial basis earlier this year.

    Prison warden Sigbjoern Hagen said some of the inmates became more irritable and agitated and had trouble sleeping.

    He said the prison did not have the resources to treat emotions unleashed by the deep breathing exercises. ”

    don’t we all know who are the ‘opponents of Yoga’??

  • 6. B Shantanu said:

    Wow! Thanks for sharing the link, S.

  • 7. Arjun said:

    Here’s another link:

    http://www.speakingtree.in/spiritual-articles/faith-and-rituals/yoga-sex-and-dhoka

    “What is going on in the West is that they are simply looking to rationalise things. The West is good at taking a piece of eastern philosophy — typically Hindu, sometimes Buddhist as well — totally out of context, turning it into something that works very well for their framework and then using that to justify how they want to live.
    …When you talk to them about Indian spirituality, it only takes a few sentences before the subject turns to tantra and the Kamasutra.
    …Tantra is the mother of Hatha Yoga. However, whatever is not convenient, Hatha Yoga has left it out. Hatha Yoga is the purified version of tantra. Today, the word ‘yoga’ is used with everything. You can sell anything with the yoga tag…”

    http://www.speakingtree.in/spiritual-articles/faith-and-rituals/yoga-sex-and-dhoka

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