There will be a British Museum theme to most of the next few posts.
Tantra by Dr Imma Ramos is the book of the British Museum exhibition on Tantra. It had just opened in early 2020 when the pandemic hit and so I didn’t get to see the exhibition itself.
The book and exhibition tell the history of the development of Tantra as a reaction to and subversion of conservative and hierarchical Hinduism. It took the taboo or forbidden elements and turned them into ways to connect with the gods and absorb their power. There was a path that took the teachings and rituals literally and one which took them symbolically, using visualization rather than practice. Given that Tantra had a focus on power in the mundane world, it was enthusiastically adopted by rulers in the Indian sub-continent. Tantra spread east and was also absorbed by Buddhism, creating new Tantric paths with a Buddhist flavour. Using art and sculpture from the time, Dr Ramos shows how themes of conquering ego and ignorance are represented and unlocks the symbolism in the representation of Tantric gods and goddesses.
The book explores how Tantra was misunderstood and misrepresented by the British during the colonial period. Tantric sex means uniting the masculine and feminine energies in order to connect with divinity and is not about purely sexual pleasure, but the representation of this element of Tantra in sculpture and painting was interpreted salaciously by western minds. It was also considered pagan and demonic. The way Tantra was viewed and talked about in the West then evolved into the way it was adopted by the counter-cultural movements of the late 20th century, with an emphasis on sex rather than spirituality.
In India, Tantra became associated with the resistance to colonialism and became closely connected to Indian nationalism. Dr Ramos shows how Tantric deities were used to promote Indian-made goods and how the symbolism came to include the fight for independence.
This is an eye-opening book and it’s a real shame I missed the exhibition. I both learned and unlearned a lot.