Tantra, that sex thing that people talk about, Indian isn’t it? And Sting, and 1960s flower power. And decapitations, death, skulls, covering yourself in human ashes.

Wait, what?

An exhibition about Tantra is bound to arouse a few sniggers, but unsurprisingly for a museum, this is a rather more intellectual investigation into the heart of this often misunderstood philosophy.

It’s also one with a very dark chapter in British imperialism.

Emerging around 500AD, Tantra in various guises has been linked to waves of revolutionary thought from early influences on Hinduism and Buddhism, to the Indian fight for independence through the 1960s flower power era.

While most will be familiar with the sexy bit, what’s far less well known is the blood and guts, even though they are intimately linked together. Life and death in one.

Like many religions, Tantra promised not just heavenly goods, but earthly benefits to devotees, which was useful when engaged in war with each other. Not surprising either as one of the founding myths of Tantra was that the Hindu god Shiva beheaded Brahma and was forced to wander across cremation grounds carrying Brahma’s skull as an alms bowl.

Cremated humans and the skulls crop up a lot in the religion you thought was just about sex and weird leg positions in yoga.

The exhibition opens with an image of Shiva as Bhairava, naked with bulbous eyes and fangs, while a dog accompanies him feeding on decaying flesh. Elsewhere there’s the skeletal leader bursting from a forehead holding a snake, dagger and skull while her hair is held in place with a skull encrusted headband.

This is the religion you thought was about sex.

In the era of the British Empire, things took a turn for the worse. As many devotees were also high up in the rebellions against British rule in India, the British promoted a policy of deliberate misinformation.

The British claimed that many of the bandits and thugs roaming the countryside were lead by the god Kali, and they rebranded Kali is a much more malevolent figure. Not helped admittedly by images of Kali standing bloodsoaked over Shiva, but that was misunderstood by Christians who saw demons where the locals saw simply a closer understanding of life and death.

In a largely male-dominated society, Tantra also gave women not just equal rights, but full-on flipped the order around. Women were in charge, and this is where the sex comes in.

At last, the audience cries out!

But curb your enthusiasm, for this is a museum, and they focus on the history of Tantra — and while there are undoubtedly some scenes in drawings, if smut is what you’re after, you’re leaving educated but disappointed.

The best exhibitions are the ones that take that thing you think you know a bit about, and totally change your mind.

No more can that be true than in the revival of Tantra in the 1960s counterculture movement, where people got very excited about sex and weird leg positions, sometimes doing both at the same time. But also where people glossed over the decapitations and declined to cover their bodies with the ashes of cremated relatives. Which is a bit of a pity if you like the shock value of youth rebelling against the old people.

In the counter-culture, it also spawned probably one of the most misunderstood logos of all time – the famous Rolling Stone’s red tongue logo. While a bit of a play on Mick Jagger’s famous lips, it’s actually a depiction of Kali’s tongue.

Tantra was also for a while political. While Governor of California, Ronald Reagan attempted to ban a book of Tantric poetry, The Love Book by Lenore Kandel on the grounds that it was pornographic. The book is on display, with the cover teasingly only slightly opened up.

There’s a lot on display, from ancient statues to texts and when the exhibition gets to modern times, modern art.

It’s, however, less an exhibition to look at old things than to spend much more time reading the description cards, for they offer true enlightenment.

The exhibition, Tantra enlightenment to revolution is open at the British Museum until 24th Jan 2021 – entry needs to be booked in advance and tickets cost £15.

Annual membership for £64 includes free entry to the exhibition.


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