Tantra at the British Museum

Image Credit: The Mahāsiddha Saraha (part) – British Museum

A short review of the exhibition ‘Tantra: enlightenment to revolution’ which is currently on at the British Museum.

This is the first major exhibition of Tantra since the ground-breaking 1971 Tantra Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, and so it may be instructive to begin with a brief description of that one.  The Hayward Gallery exhibition was organized by Philip Rawson, curator of the Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art at the University of Durham, and Ajit Mookerjee, director of the Crafts Museum, New Delhi, now both sadly deceased.

To a large extent, the presentation was based on items from the vast collection of Ajit Mookerjee, and was an opportunity for those two gifted individuals to share their own personal artistic insight into and scholarly understanding of Tantra in a classical Indian context.  As Philip Rawson explained –

“Tantra is a special manifestation of Indian feeling, art and religion … There can be no quick and easy definitions … However, there is one thread which can guide us through the labyrinth … the idea that Tantra is a cult of ecstasy, focused on a vision of cosmic sexuality.  Life-style, ritual, magic, myth, philosophy and a complex of signs and emotive symbols converge upon that vision.”

[Tantra, Arts Council of Great Britain, p.5]

Turning now to the ongoing British Museum exhibition, it is largely based on their own collection and a few loan items from other Western collections on Tantra, and seems to be organized without any very significant input from India.  Nonetheless, it is very evocative and enlightening for the viewer, providing wide-ranging coverage and an impactful experience.

Rather than a main focus on Tantra as a set of distinctive sexual practices, it seems to contextualize these practices within a wider framework of ritually transgressive and religiously unorthodox activities, concerning diet, lifestyle etc. and how Tantra evolved across time and place.

In terms of arrangement, the exhibition takes us through course of time, from 5th-6th century sculptures of Bhairava, a Tantric form of Śiva and the Nayanars of the 6th-8th centuries, through the engagement of Tantrikas with Sufis and with Moghul rulers, up to the twentieth century, when Kali was associated with Mother India during the Independence movement, and the reception of Tantra into the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s in Britain and America.  The exhibition subtitle, Enlightenment to Revolution, seems to reference this theme.

Such a presentation nicely conduces to an integrated understanding of reasoned change within a larger framework of continuity, and in fact contrasts with a lot of Western scholarship, which often paints a somewhat disjointed picture of Indian history.  It also encourages us to contemplate what the future of Tantra may be as a basis for trends in society, in the arts, and in spiritual practice.

Within this chronological sequence, it also highlights the geographic spread and influence of Tantric Buddhism across almost the whole of Asia, with a particular focus on Tibetan Buddhism.  Particularly interesting is the description of how Tantric deities were assimilated into Vajrayāna Buddhism, such as the transformation of Bhairava into the Dharmapāla Mahākāla.  Tantric Yoga and the role of Yoginīs are also given prominence.

Although the exhibition draws a very strong dichotomy between Tantra and orthodox Vedic Hinduism, it could also be interesting to investigate the thematic connections between Tantric concepts and themes and those stemming from the Vedic tradition, especially as many Tantric practitioners were themselves of orthodox Hindu Brahmin background.  For example, in the picture above, we see the Mahasiddha Saraha holding an arrow, about which the curator helpfully explains –

“At the centre of this thangka is Saraha (known as the ‘Arrow Shooter’) … He holds an arrow, a reference to his guru (known as the ‘Arrow-Making Yogini’) who, according to versions of his hagiography, was a female arrow-smith. He first met her I a market where she was making and selling arrows.  Attracted to her single-minded concentration as she aimed one, he approached to ask what she was doing.  She replied: ‘The Buddha can be known through symbols and actions, not through words and books’, which led Saraha to interpret the arrow as a symbol of ‘non-duality’ that must be fired ‘into the heart of dualistic grasping’.”

[Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution; p.121]

In fact, we find a very similar metaphor in Vedic texts such as the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad as follows –

Grasping the Upaniṣadic bow, a great weapon,
Nocking the arrow sharpened through worship,
Drawing with a mind focused on that [Brahman],
Know that immutable [Brahman] as the target.

To explain, the ‘Om’ is the bow, the self is the arrow, and Brahman is its target.
It is to be struck through attentiveness; the archer will be absorbed into that [Brahman].

[Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, second muṇḍaka, second section, verses 3-4; my own translation]

The final section of the exhibition, ‘Reimagining Tantra in the 20th Century’, presents the surprisingly strong and wide-ranging influence of Tantra on modern artists and other creative people in Asia and in the West.  Particularly interesting is the significance of Tantra as of interest to those who were searching for some kind of alternative to modern life.    As the curator notes –

“Many were inspired by Tantra’s engagement with social inclusivity and spiritual freedom.  In Britain and the United States, Tantra had an impact on the period’s radical politics, and was interpreted as a movement that could inspire anti-capitalist, ecological and free love ideals.  Yoga and meditation were promoted in these contexts as transformative practices that could inspire minds to challenge the status quo, while Tantrikas captured the popular imagination in the West as countercultural role models.”

[Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution; p.216]

Indeed, it is interesting to think about how the 1971 exhibition might have emerged out of the context of the late 1960s and the search for alternatives, and also to think about what the significance of the current British Museum exhibition may be within the larger social and cultural context of our contemporary times.

The exhibition will certainly be of great interest to anyone interested in India.  The exhibition catalogue also provides a surprising wealth of detailed information and discussion about each item on display, from which I am now learning and drawing a lot of inspiration.  As the curator writes there –

“Wherever it took hold across Asia, Tantra was able to adapt to its political and cultural contexts and to respond to different belief systems … it is hoped that readers have also been stimulated and challenged to question their own ideas about the nature of the divine.”

[Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution; pp.274-275]

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