Sexuality in the Tantric Sources

Around the 10th century, there was a reformation involving a shift away from earlier forms of practice which had involved cremation ground-based asceticism featuring the use of blood sacrifice and alcohol a means to feeding and satisfying a host of terrible Kula (clan) deities. In the 9th or 10th century, a paradigm shift of sorts occurred with a change in emphasis away from feeding those ravenous deities towards a type of erotico-mystical practice involving a female horde, collectively known as the Yoginis, led by the terrible male Siva-Bhairava, together with his consort, the Goddess (Aghoresvari, Uma, Candi, Sakti, etc.). The Kaula rites were grounded in the cults of the Yoginis, medieval heiress to the Matrkas (Mothers), Yaksinis (female Dryads), and Grahinis (female Seizers) of earlier traditions who, like them, were often represented as supernatural or preternatural hybrids between human, animal, bird, and plant worlds. These petulant female deities, located at a shifting threshold between the divine and the demonic, were by turns terrible and benign with regard to humans, who traditionally worshipped them with blood offerings and animal sacrifice. Once gratified by said oblations, the Yoginis would reveal themselves as ravishing young women and gratify their human devotees in return with supernatural powers (siddhis), most particularly the power of flight.

Induced possession by these Yoginis was the prime means to the ends of the Kaula, the “clan-generated” practices, also termed the “clan-practice” (kulacara), “clan religion” (kuladharma), or the “clan generated gnosis” (kulajnana). Kaula practitioners were primarily concerned with worldly powers (siddhis) and bodily immortality (jivanmukti) with the enjoyment (bhukti) of said powers and immortality taking precedence over any ideal of consciousness raising or disembodied liberation from cyclic rebirth (mukti), embraced by more conventional Tantric practitioners. These powers were gained by transacting with the Yoginis, who, in the Kaula context, were also identified with the female ritual consorts of the male practitioner. That is, the Yoginis of the Kaula Tantric tradition were at once regarded as flesh-and-blood women with whom male practitioners interacted, and the devouring semi-divine beings who were the object of their worship cults. In the secular literature, these Yoginis were often portrayed as witches or sorceresses, ambiguous, powerful, and dangerous figures that only a heroic male would dare approach, let alone attempt to conquer. It is for this reason that the fully initiated male practitioners of the Kaula termed themselves Champions or Virile Heroes (Viras); alternatively, they referred to themselves as Perfected Beings (Siddhas), by way of identifying themselves with another order of semi-divine beings, the male counterparts to the Yoginis of Epic and medieval Indian mythology.

Unlike the Kapalika before it, which openly transgressed in a public space of a town or its cremation grounds – and unlike the orthodox Tantrikas, most often household practitioners of relatively conventional, non-sexual Tantric liturgies, whose goal was liberation rather than supernatural enjoyments – members of the Kaula tended to carry their sexual rites on in relatively remote areas known only to its initiates.

On certain night of the lunar month and solar year, Kaula practitioners would assemble on cremation grounds, or at “clan mounds” or “seats” (pithas), “clan-mountains” (kula-parvatas) or “fields” (ksetras). These gatherings were called “mingling” (melakas, melanas, melapas), involving the union of male and female initiates, of Yoginis whose presence and interaction with their heroic (Vira) or perfected (Siddha) male counterparts was the sine qua non of Kaula practice.

At these gatherings the Yoginis would descend from the sky to meet their male consorts awaiting them on the ground. These Yogini’s flight was fueled by the man and animal flesh that was their diet; however, the Siddhas or Viras, by virtue of their own practice, were able to offer the Yoginis a more subtle and more powerful energy source. This was their semen (virya), the distilled essence of their own bodily constituents. The Yoginis, gratified by these offerings, would offer their form of grace to the Siddhas or Viras. Instead of devouring them, they would offer them a counter-presentation of their own sexual discharge, something these male partners would have been as needful as the Yoginis were of male semen. Why? According to the Kaula tradition, the Godhead externalized himself (or herself in the Krama) in the form of a cluster of 8 great goddesses, who in turn proliferated into the multiple circles of feminine energies (usually 64) that was the Yogini entourage. These semi-divine Yoginis and the human women who embodied them carried in their bodies the germ plasm of the Godhead, called the “clan nectar” (kulamrta), “clan fluid” (kuladravyam), “vulval essence” (yoni-tattva), the “command” (ajna), simply the “fluid (dravyam), or the “clan” (kula). While this divine essence naturally flowed through women, it was considered absent in males. Therefore, the sole means by which a male could access the flow of the supreme godhead at the elevated center of the mandala, the clan “flow-chart,” was through the Yoginis who formed or inhabited its outer circles.

Only through initiation by and continued interaction with the Yoginis could these male practitioners access the fluid essence and boundless energy of the godhead. It was therefore necessary that male practitioners be “inseminated” or more properly speaking “insanguinated,” with the sexual or menstrual discharge of the Yoginis – rendering the “mouth” of the Yogini their sole conduit to membership in the clan and all its prerequisites. Here, the “mouth” of the Yogini was her vulva, and “drinking female discharge” (rajapana), the prime means to fulfill the male needs. Therefore, the erotico-mystical practice, the “Tantric sex” practiced by the Kaula practitioners, mainly involved the drinking of these power substances that were sexual fluids, either through mutual oral congress or through a form of genital sex called vajroli mudra (urethral suction) by which the male partner used his penis as a straw to suck up the sexual discharge of the female partner. The ending of this encounter was the much coveted ability of flight, which was later to be internalized and reinterpreted along the means of experiencing God-Consciousness, but which more likely reflected the seeking of supernatural power among the Kaula.

David Gordon White makes the argument that “hard-core” etic perspective of Tantra, specifically the sexualized ritual of the Kaula, is the quintessential and defining feature of Tantra based on the fact that all other elements of Tantric practice – the ritual use of mandalas, mantras, and mudras; worship of terrible or benign divinities; fire offerings; induced possession; sorcery, and so on – may be found elsewhere, in traditions whose emic self-definitions are not necessarily Tantric. Additionally, all the elements of Tantric exegesis, that is Tantric “mysticism,” specifically the later non-dual synthesis of Abhinavagupta, was a second-order reflection or later re-interpretation that was not necessarily unique to Tantra, but that have in have in fact, brought Tantra back into a more conventional fold over time.  

Since its origins in the 6th-7th century, Tantra has essentially consisted of a body of techniques for the control of multiple, often female, beings, both for one’s own benefit and as tools to use against others. These may be reduced to three principal types: 1). Mantras, acoustic formulas that, when enunciated properly under the proper conditions, control said beings; 2). Techniques of possession, in which the same beings act through one’s own body; 3). The gratification of these beings through sacrificial offerings, with or without the transformative medium of vedic fire. In this last case, the supreme offering is none other than the bodily constituents of the practitioner himself. Here, human practitioners make the supreme sacrifice of their own person, moving the Tantric deity to reciprocate with untold powers and supernatural enjoyments. It is these three types of practice that have constituted the Tantric mainstream in the history of South Asian religions.

A distinction needs to be made here. What we are calling the Tantric mainstream in re here refers to the popular practices throughout South Asia, which is to be distinguished from the later, aestheticized High Tantric mysticism of the later Tantric exegetes, such as Abhinavagupta. Whereas the sexual content of  Kaula practice had the production of sacramentally transformative substances as its principal goal, later Tantric sexual practice came to be grounded in a theory of transformative aesthetics, in which the experience of orgasm effected a break-through from “contracted” self-consciousness to “expansive” god-consciousness, in which the entire universe came to be experienced as “Self.” The exegetic synthesis of these thinkers, arguably the greatest metaphysical writings of the entire medieval period in South Asia, have become the basis for the “soft core” practices of the great majority of High Tantric practitioners of the Indian subcontinent, but these practices do not constitute the Tantric mainstream so much as a Tantric orthopraxy who practices shades into those of orthopraxy brahmanic ritual. There are a few examples of Tantric sexuality as filtered through this High Tantra.

Vital and Sexual Fluids

We can ask what it is about sexual fluids that caused them to be seen as such powerful substances.

  1. Indian traditions have always viewed sexual fluids, and most particularly menstrual and uterine blood, as polluting, powerful, and dangerous substances
  2. Ancient cults or “earth mother goddesses” found throughout India portray her fertility as requiring counterprestations of vital fluid in the form of male seed, animal sacrifice, or some ritual substitute.
  3. Tantra originated among a subaltern stratum of the Indian population that, lacking the means to procure the ritual substances of orthodox worship rites, made use of readily available human sexual fluid in practice
  4. Women reputed as witches, sometimes called Yoginis,  consumed vital fluids in their covens, including both the  blood of child and adult victims, and the sexual fluids of their male partners
  5. Emergent understanding of the role played by sexual fluids, both female and male, in conception, gave rise to the concept of these as power substances and to the notion that a transfer of the same to the initiate was a requisite moment in Tantric initiations.
  6. Elite Tantric practitioners self-consciously subverted orthodox purity codes by manipulating sexual fluids as a means to effecting a powerful expansion of consciousness from the limited consciousness of the conformist brahmanical practitioners to an all-encompassing “god-consciousness” of the Tantric superman. In the Kaula traditions, all of these elements are combined into an elaborate system of human, animal, vegetable, and mineral homologies, often expressed in encoded form.

The Five M’s

Today, many scholars both within and without Hinduism insist that the sort of hard-core Tantra that White describes never existed and that Tantra has always been solely a technique of meditation. When scholars of this ilk encounter the blatantly sexual statements of the hard-core texts (and the Tantras do contain statements like: “The body of every living creature is made of semen and blood. The deities who are fond of sexual pleasure drink semen and blood”), they interpret them metaphorically, somewhat in the manner in which rationalizing Greeks interpreted their own myths as allegories.

An example of this tendency in Tantra is the case of the Five M-Words: matsya, mamsa, madya, mudra and maithuna. Their literal meaning may be approximated in English by Five F-Words: fish, flesh, fermented liquids (wine), frumentum (grain) and fornication. Fish, flesh, and wine were prohibited for high-caste Hindus, and there is little debate about either the connotation or the denotation of these terms, but the other two have proved problematic. White argues that mudra, whose primary meaning is “seal” (as in “seal ring”), has here the sense that it has in the yogic term vajroli mudra, “seal of the place of the male organ”, and therefore refers to “the technique of urethral suction by means of which the Tantric yogin, having ejaculated into his partner, draws his semen together with her sexual emission back into his penis” (the so-called fountain-pen effect). In this interpretation mudra signifies the practitioner’s consort’s vulva, and, by extension, the fluids from the vulva. The final element, maithuna, is usually translated as sexual intercourse, pairing, but White argues that it means more precisely “what is derived from sexual intercourse”, “the fluid product of sexual intercourse” or “sexual emission”.

The Five Ms were substitutes for an early pentad described in some Kaula texts, the so-called Five Jewels, which consisted of semen, urine, feces, menstrual blood, and phlegm and were also known as the Five Nectars (with marrow in place of phlegm). These pentads have a complex history. The Five Jewels were probably themselves already substitutes for the “five products of the cow” (panchagavya) which orthodox Hindus ingested to purify themselves of pollution: clarified butter, milk, and yogurt, plus bovine urine and feces. The Five Jewels or Nectars may have been a deliberate antinomian travesty of this orthodox ritual; one Tantric text explicitly parodied the “five products of the cow” by substituting for the bovine urine and feces the cow’s blood and flesh, an abomination (because it involved the killing of the cow) that deliberately subverted orthodox categories of purity. But the early Tantrics may simply have been too poor to procure the orthodox, bovine substances and therefore have “made use of readily available human sexual fluids” instead. (Similarly, White argues, the early Tantrics, not having access to the complex Sanskrit mantras that were the prerogative of Brahmins, derived their mantras of nonsense syllables from the inarticulate moans that the Goddess made during intercourse, the divine counterpart to the sounds that the Kamasutra attributes to human women.) The soft-core reinterpretation of the Five Ms did away with the bodily fluids entirely, introducing new ritual substitutes, glossing madya (wine) as a meditational nectar, mamsa (flesh) as the tongue of the practitioner, matsya (fish) as his breaths, mudra as inner knowledge (or, sometimes, as parched grain, kidney beans, or “any cereal believed to possess aphrodisiac properties”), and maithuna as “supreme essence”.

The Kula-yaga: Sexual Meditation

This is a wonderful example of the way sexuality has been aestheticized from its original Kaula interpretation to something more palatable and appropriate as Hindu Tantra evolved.  It is mentioned in many sources and detailed only in Abhinavagupta’s Tantrāloka, chapter 29. In this beautiful ritual, known as the Kula-yaga, the practitioner must be advanced (this is an advanced ritual with a 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 center and merge all energy into that center. Instead of having 5 different senses, you should have just one sense, the sense that you are a mass of blissful consciousness.

The goal of the Kula-yāga, is to become one mass of blissful consciousness. But Kula-yāga doesn`t mean sex, it means sexual meditation; the two practitioners and their divine essence all become one in the practice. So, Abhinavagupta says, and this is the interesting part, you must not practice this with somebody that you desire, because if you have desire you will objectify the act and you will objectify the person and if anything becomes objectified, he says, this will not work. Abhinava specifies clearly that one’s partner in the sexual ritual must be someone that you are not attracted to, lest the rite become a pretext for indulging ordinary sexual desire, which can hardly lead to liberation. Furthermore, if the practitioner was of high caste, the partner (duti) should be low-caste, so that the former will be challenged to overcome the cultural construct that differentiates caste and social status, since the rite requires you to perceive your partner as an incarnation of the Divine (for your benefit, not theirs).

In fact, he says that only the advanced practitioner could do this with his wife that 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. I should note that in Abhinava Gupta’s presentation of it, it has a purpose other than the transgressive challenge I have discussed, which is to take advantage of the intensity of sexual pleasure by using it as a means to merge all the sense-fields into one, thus becoming “a single mass of blissful awareness,” rather than a body-mind with five distinct senses. Indeed, Abhinava argues that for the advanced lust-free practitioner, the kula-yaga can be direct means to liberation.

The Brahmayamala Tantra

The Brahmayāmala Tantra is an earlier source, mentioned even in the early version of Skanda Purāna. So there is a practice, called “the observance of the razor’s edge.” This is a very different sexual practice. The ascetic yogi obtains a 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 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. 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 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.

 Sex in the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra

The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is a seminal text of the Trika School of Kashmir Saiva Tantra. It contains 108 verses for “simple” practices that one can meditate upon to realize oneself as God.  I have selected four verses from the text, which have a sexual connotation. Again, I should stress that the point of these meditations is not pleasure itself, but rather the delight and union with God through aesthetics and the senses.

46. The delight of orgasm is the delight of Brahman.

47. Meditate on the delight of sexual union.

80. Dwell on the reality, which exists between pain and pleasure.

92. Every sensation is an expression of pure consciousness.

The Karma Sutra and Tantra

Contrary to popular belief, the Kama Sutra has nothing to do with Tantra. It is part of an entirely different branch of literature known as the Kama Sastra, or science of pleasure. This can be contrasted to the Agama Sastras, which were the corpus of sacred Tantric texts and whose goal was completely at odds with the goal of the Kama Sastra. In the Kama Sutra, the overall goal is the maximization of sensual pleasure as a valid end unto itself. By definition it is not tantric because, in Tantra, the goal of pleasure (when it is present) is always subordinate to the goal of spiritual liberation or the attainment of supernatural powers. So not only does it belong to an entirely different class of literature, but its primary goal is not the primary goal of Tantra.


Whether or not one accepts White’s interpretation of maithuna and mudra, few would deny that the dominant trend in Tantric interpretation has long been, and remains, metaphorical or metaphysical. But how do we know that the original, supposedly hard-core schools were not also interpreting their texts metaphorically? The soft-core assumption that the texts speak only metaphorically implies that Tantric sex was never a ritual but always a myth, that (as has been argued in the case of cannibalism) it was something that some people thought other people were doing, when in fact no one was doing anything of the sort. This would mean that even the people who wrote the early Tantric texts merely imagined that they were doing what they said they were doing. After all, people have imagined that they have flown to heaven and walked among the gods, so why not imagine that you’re drinking your sister’s menstrual blood? White, however, argues that Tantric ritual texts tell us precisely what the practitioners did, that they mean what they say.

White supports his assertions philologically, with a painstakingly detailed study of statements drawn primarily from Sanskrit texts, heavily supplemented by literary, artistic, medical, political and architectural sources (and further documented by a full one hundred pages of critical apparatus). He also builds on the great burgeoning of Tantric studies in the past two decades, particularly in the work of Alexis Sanderson, Michel Strickmann, Sanjukta Gupta, Mark Dyczskowski and Hugh Urban.

Bracketing the historical development, one might simply argue that Tantra was for some people a ritual and for others merely a myth, or that it was for some people a sexual ritual and for others a meditational ritual. White’s historical argument implies that Tantra was a ritual that became, for the dominant culture, a kind of myth, that from the eleventh century Hindus who continued actually to perform the rituals (hard-core) described them in a code that made it appear that they were merely performing them symbolically (soft- core). The assumption that this transformation has taken place enables White to restore the text that the revisionists had eclipsed, to break the code and reconstruct the pre-transformed text, much as Freud – a constant presence in this book – worked backwards to reconstruct the meaning of the dream before it had been censored, to restore the dream that the censoring superego and the dream work had masked.

Hindu fundamentalists are right in saying that Tantra, as they know it, has nothing to do with sex, and White is equally right in maintaining that the Tantra he has excavated has everything to do with sex. The problem arises only when either of them becomes monolithic and insists that there is no Tantra but their Tantra, all others being heretics.


Laskman Joo. Vijnana Bhairava Tantra. Indica Books. India, 2007.

Shaman Hatley, The Brahmayamalatantra and early Saiva cult of yoginis. (January 1, 2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest.

Wallis, Christopher. Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. Anusara Press, The Woodlands, TX, 2012.

Wallis, Christopher. Interview: The Tantric Roots of Hatha Yoga. Retrieved from

White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yogini: Sex in its South-Asian Contexts. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL, 2003.

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