Tantra exhibition review: An enjoyable journey on the road to enlightenment – Evening Standard

Lets get one thing straight its not all about sex. Sting has a lot to answer for in the popular perception of anything Tantric, but thats rather reductive of this far-reaching, shape-shifting philosophy that has spread its influence across Asia, into both Hinduism and Buddhism, and fired up social movements from revolutions to counter-cultures. Having said that, sex does come up. Just so you know.

Through exquisite sculptures and paintings depicting the slightly terrifying pantheon of Tantric gods, ritual weapons and ceremonial objects, some made of human remains, this show takes us through Tantras key ideas and its rapid spread from India to cultures including those of Tibet and Japan.

A Tantra is a sort of instructional doctrine that emerged in sixth-century India some are displayed in this exhibition, neatly written on palm leaves in intervening centuries and relate mostly to the most effective ritual practices for achieving spiritual enlightenment. They take as fundamental the idea that the material world is infused with a divine feminine power, Shakti, of which all Tantric goddesses are manifestations, and of which all mortal women are embodiments and transmitters. So watch out.

Transgression is at Tantras heart not for its own sake but because it offers a powerful force for transformation, a shortcut to enlightenment. Early Tantric practitioners would dwell in cremation grounds, covering themselves with the ashes of the dead and drinking from human skulls in a ritual effort to rid themselves of such useless feelings as disgust, but thats at the extreme end of it. Tantras pervasiveness probably comes down to its radicalism. It challenged religious and social orthodoxies and oppression, exalted some very human behaviours and included the excluded, including women, whose bodies it revered.

New British Museum exhibition to show Tantra is about more than sex

You can see the appeal. Intoxication is presented as transformative; sexual union of the thunderbolt and lotus was a way of getting closer to the gods through imitation, which you can imagine a lot of people found pretty easy to get on board with. It certainly fired up artists of the Sixties and Seventies (this is a fun section of the show) the Rolling Stones tongue and lips logo is inspired by depictions of the ferocious Tantric goddess Kali.

It would require a great deal of study properly to get to grips with this nebulous and complex set of ideas and Im afraid I left this show a long way from enlightenment, but its an enjoyable journey.

From Thursday to January 24

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Tantra exhibition review: An enjoyable journey on the road to enlightenment - Evening Standard

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