Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love by Asra Q. Nomani
Far Eastern Economic Review
September 4, 2003
Tantra, "the yoga of divine love," was one of the hot new fads to come down the American metaphysical highway in the 1990s. When The Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Q. Nomani went on an assignment to investigate, her quest turned personal. Nomani is an Indian-born Muslim raised in West Virginia. Her article blossomed into a book about a long journey through India, Nepal, Pakistan and California and into her own conflicted soul.
"For a little over four years," she writes, "I confronted dualities, and they confronted me. Hinduism versus Islam. East versus West. Male energy versus female. I had to choose the values with which I wanted to live."
The dictionary definition of Tantra is straightforward. It is a centuries-old Indian spiritual tradition shared by Hinduism and Buddhism, which teaches "enlightened consciousness" and unification with deities. Tantric practice employs visualizations and ritual gestures and encompasses medicine and yoga. "Sacred sex" is just one part of Tantra, but perhaps the feature most Westerners associate with it.
Nomani discovers early on that some Indians consider the practice "a cult of black magic." She visits teachers and monks and consults texts. A physician tells her a story about a girl beaten by Tantrics to cure a mental illness. Nomani goes to a "spiritual doctor." She aspires to selflessness.
But sex, the titillating feature that first attracted her attention, is almost wholly absent in the Asia she visits; it's in California that she finds the most enthusiastic practitioners of sensual insight.
So much for the mystical East.
No matter, Tantra is also about love, the author says. And therein lies the attraction for the divorced, unlucky-in-love Nomani. Therein, too, lies an endurance test for the reader. More than once, Nomani refers to herself as a "Tantrika," or "a woman who isn't defined by anything, living compassionately, lovingly, blissfully and fearlessly with appropriate wrathfulness when necessary."
Nomani would have done better to tone down her endless navel-gazing and keep her journalist's eye trained more on others around her. While her observations on women's lives in India and Pakistan are unsparing -- particularly when it comes to out-of-wedlock sex and its penalties -- they don't absolve her work.
Tantrika resembles a supermarket self-help book, because its conclusion seems to boil down to this: Just be yourself. It doesn't take Tantra to tell you that.